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Chapter 3: Homecoming

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#101 Vortigern


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Posted 14 July 2010 - 12:11 PM

Winter Vayu strode into the hospital building his captains had commandeered for their headquarters. Instantly two guards seized hold of him, drawing their swords, and the captains present jumped to their feet. Of course. New body.

“I am Cold Wind,” he announced. “Unhand me.” With a tiny surge of magic he made both of the guards who had grabbed him let go with surprised cries of pain as his armour shocked them from head to toe.

“You think we would not recognise our own commander?” demanded one of the captains contemptuously.

“That’s exactly what I think, Daham,” Vayu replied. “I was forced to take a new body after combat with Cadavok.” He noted the recognition of the name on a few faces. “Happily I have one of my most trusted and able servants dealing with him.” I hope. Varin has proven unreliable before. “If you require further proof, perhaps this will suffice.” He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing loudly around the suddenly silent chamber and the captain Daham fell to his knees, hands to his temples as he writhed in pain. Vayu concentrated on pouring the memories into Daham’s head, showing him the path by which he had come to claim this new body. Forcing memories into a new head was always painful, and Vayu made no effort to lessen the agony. It would serve as a lesson to the others never to question him. After perhaps ten seconds Vayu snapped his fingers again and the flood of recollection ceased. Daham rose unsteadily to his knees, then fell before Vayu, prostrating himself in obeisance and obedience as he recognised his lord. After a moment the other captains too dropped to one knee, acknowledging him as commander, if not begging his forgiveness as Daham did.

“My lord,” began one, rising to his feet. Tobruk was his name, Vayu dimly recalled. He inclined his head, indicating that the man should continue. “The melds have abandoned the fight in order to feed. Our mercenaries are depleted and unable to breach the third wall. We have lost hundreds of our own men within the city as well, and Captain-General Evard’s regiment never even made it to the gates. We’re not sure what happened there.”

“Thank you, Tobruk,” replied Vayu, thinking deeply. After a few moments he came to a conclusion. “Sound the retreat. We’ll fall back from the third wall for the moment, and let the melds feed. Once they’ve dealt with all the fresh meat lying around they’ll be all the more ready to fight again. This battle will not be done in one day.” Tobruk nodded, thumping a gauntleted hand to his breastplate in salute before turning and leaving the room. “Jacsin, Serilce, orchestrate a head count once we have everyone back. I want to know how many we lost and I want estimates of the enemy as well.” They followed Tobruk’s example and went about their task. Vayu looked down at Daham, still prostrate on the ground. “Get up, man,” he ordered, an impatient edge to his voice. “Liaise with the intelligence-gatherers, and find out what in the seven hells happened to my Trivante horsemen.” Gabbling a profuse apology mixed in with assurances of competence, Daham stumbled from the room, almost forgetting to salute on his way out. Vayu turned to the last of the captains, the oldest man there, a grizzled white-haired soldier called Busquez.

“What would you have me do, my lord?” enquired the aged Paladin.

“Find every mage of any note in our ranks and bring them to me,” he ordered. “Combat may be over, but magic never sleeps.” Busquez nodded at the wisdom his commander imparted.

“May I say, sir, for such a young man you have an excellent understanding of warfare, and of magic.”

“I am not so young as I seem, Captain-General,” replied Vayu, running a hand through his hair. Wiry and shorter than I’m used to. Bad teeth, too. Still, it beats lying splattered on the cobbles or ripped apart by that undead bastard. Busquez nodded again, ice-blue eyes glinting sharply as he regarded his superior.

“You know, my lord, I have travelled widely in service of the Palatinate.”

“Is that so?” Vayu answered, wondering what point the man might be making.

“I learned something of the languages spoken around Arsencia when I was younger. Fenrine, for one, one of the Nyasi trading languages for another, and several tongues spoken in the eastern world. In one of these the word for ‘wind’ is ‘vayu’.” Vayu paused, regarding the man carefully. “Now, I was certain Winter Vayu had died some time ago, but it would seem I, like so many others, was incorrect in that certainty.” For a moment there was silence, then Vayu chuckled.

“You have a keen mind, Busquez,” he said. “Out of any of the Paladins here, I feared it would be you to come to this conclusion.”

“Then I am right?” asked the white-haired man.

“You are, in most respects. However, I was indeed killed just more than a year since. But I found a way to return.”

“And in a new, younger body, no less,” Busquez mused. “Might I ask how, my lord Vayu?”

“I doubt you would understand,” Vayu countered, really seeking to evade the question. Though the Paladins were in thrall to his will, such a revelation as that he was returned to life to slaughter the world might well shake them free of such restraints. “That kind of magic is complicated and extremely technical process. And even at the end, I was not sure it would work until I awoke once more.” He paid more attention to Busquez now, looking carefully at his stance and posture. One leg was somewhat cocked, suggesting an old break that had not been set correctly. “Though I would be happy to see to that leg of yours,” he added. If he knows who I am, best to keep him very firmly on my side.

“You can do that?” wondered the older man, bemused. Vayu smiled, and emerald green light twisted forth from his fingers, ensnaring Busquez’s leg and coiling tight around it. Vayu saw Busquez freeze as the breath leapt from his body at the pain of the necessary breaking of the bone, but he quashed the sensation for the old man. The process took perhaps a minute, but when Vayu’s magic withdrew, he was pleased to see the leg standing straighter. Busquez took a couple of tentative steps on it. “Now that is quite something,” he muttered, more to himself than to Vayu.

“You’re very welcome. And now in return, I ask that you carry out the order I gave you.” Busquez saluted firmly. “Oh, and one more thing,” Vayu added. “Please don’t use my real name, or tell anyone. There are enough who doubted me before, and the last thing we need during a siege is dissent in the ranks.”

“Sir.” Busquez saluted again in acquiescence, almost skipping from the room on his freshly repaired leg.

It feels nice to do some good with my magic for once
, Vayu thought.

“I’d stifle that urge,” said a voice from behind him. He turned around to face the man in black, unsurprised. He had long since given up any hint of that feeling with regards to the strange man. “You’re still here only at my master’s sufferance.”

“I am aware of that,” he replied icily.

“Your job does not involve taking a night off, Winter,” the man in black carried on, unabashed.

“I was not intending to take the night off,” he retorted waspishly. “This would go a great deal smoother if you were to lend your power to our cause.” The man in black laughed.

“If you cannot achieve this simple end without recourse to my assistance, I see no reason to keep you alive.”

“Then stay out of my way and stop wasting my time.” Vayu stared right into the man’s eyes, the windows to his soul being equally as black as the clothes he wore, perhaps even more so. What are you? he wondered, careful to keep the thought constrained so as not to elicit a response from the strange man. The man in black shrugged.

“By all means. Just get it done, Winter.” He blinked lazily and then vanished.

* * * * * * * * *

Having seen Byron safely to the inn that was serving as a relief hospital, Tom and Illyriel headed back to the wall; Rindar had opted to stay by his friend’s side until such time as Byron was healed. Illyriel had left him singing softly at the young human’s bedside as the apothecary tended to him.

They were both surprised to be met with a steady flow of soldiers down from the walls, some guarding prisoners, mercenary and Paladin alike.

“What’s going on here?” Illyriel demanded, pulling aside one of the Sons of Man, now in dented, scratched armour and lacking his cloak.

“The enemy have fallen back for the night, sir,” he explained, recognising Illyriel. “These prisoners are those who were already on the wall when the signal came. Most of them just surrendered straight away.”

“I take it you’ve mounted a watch with sufficient relief to last the night?” asked Tom.

“Captain Tuoman and Harald the Varyag are commanding the watch for tonight, sir. They volunteered,” he added. Illyriel thanked the man and let him go. He and Tom carried on up the wall, where they were pleased to find the Captain and the mercenary in full swing. Looking down the wall as far as was unobstructed by the curve of the city and the high buildings, Illyriel saw braziers lit and men standing at ease or sat cleaning their weapons and armour, but vigilant nonetheless.

“Joad!” shouted the Varyag, catching sight of them. The giant man sauntered over to them, his massive legs carrying him at a pace roughly equivalent to a rapid stride for normal folks. “We could do with a few of your keen-sighted archers up here to join the watch,” he said without preamble. Tom nodded.

“I’ll speak to the priestess,” he said.

“See if you can get them here by the time the moon reaches its peak. That’s when we’re changing the guard. Maximilian said he’d relieve us, and if your deathknelve can take over for the Sons, they’ll all be much obliged, I’m sure.”

“How many men did you lose today, Harald?” asked Illyriel softly. The giant northman sighed heavily, and suddenly looked a great deal more weary than he had mere moments ago.

“Nearly half my complement,” he said. “Including my brother. He took down one of those devilish beasts but it got him too.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Tom, carefully but brusquely. He knew it had been the right tone to take when Harald looked up again, all hint of sadness gone from his face.

“The heavens will still turn long after we’re all dead and gone, my lord King,” he replied. “We will give my brother and all who fell today the full rites of passage when this battle is done. Now I suggest you see to your own before the sun sets.”

“I’ll stay here,” Illyriel declared. “An extra pair of eyes can’t hurt.” Harald inclined his head in acquiescence. “We’ll no doubt see you bright and early tomorrow morning, Tom.”

“Try not to wear yourself out.” Tom turned away and descended the stairs back to the city. He wove through the crowd of soldiers all seeking somewhere to rest and made his way to where the deathknelve had claimed as their barracks. Nearly a thousand of his kin had come today, including those who had ambushed the Paladins outside the north gate with such ruthless efficiency. As he entered the building the four guardsmen at the door all sprang to attention, swords held vertical before their faces, before dropping to one knee and bowing their heads in respect to their king, uncrowned though he may be. Tom strode past them with regal ignorance, heading for the sound of the largest chamber, where he knew food would be doled out to keep the soldiers fit and able. He flung the doors wide open before him, and they swung around the crash against the stone walls. Every face in the room lifted to see what was afoot. Tom hesitated at the threshold, almost taken aback by the sight of a thousand silent faces watching him. Fortunately, the priestess of Feruilen saved the day.

“Rise for your king!” she ordered, her voice strident and clear across the hall. As one the deathknelven army got to their feet, standing tall and proud as they accepted their monarch. Sensing what was required of him, Tom let the soulfyre flow through him, channelling it into the shape of his crown. A cheer went up, slowly gaining in volume as others took up the cry, until a deafening roar filled the hall. Tom smiled widely and strode up the centre, acknowledging some glances and claps on the back. He made his way to the priestess’s table, and leapt atop it, kicking aside a wooden plate to amused cheers from the soldiers.

“My people!” he began, doing his best to silence the cheers so that he could make himself heard. “My people, my family, my friends. The kingdom of Envael is in your debt. In our debt!” More cheering. “But the battle is far from over just yet. The Paladins have fallen back, but they will come again. And when they do, they will face a solid and implacable wall of deathknelven warriors!” He paused, allowing the raucous shouts to subside again. “Many of you will know that Carai Deathbringer is among the enemy, with many of those loyal to him.” Mutters and hisses passed around the tables at that name, and Tom noticed a few spit at the mention. “I will not ask you to bring me the usurper alive. All I ask is that you show mercy to any of our kind who fall in battle, regardless of allegiance. If we are to rebuild our nation, we cannot afford to slaughter our own kind.”

“The Usurper would show you no mercy,” called a faceless voice from along one of the tables.

“Then we shall prove that we are better than him,” Tom replied. “If he survives he will be brought to Shadowfang Keep and will receive justice for his crimes, as do all deathknelve.” Tom saw that many were not keen on the idea, but that equally many were nodding in agreement. A king’s duty is to deliver justice, no matter the recipient, Tom thought. Let’s hope they can accept that. “We will be born again, my people!” he shouted, returning to the happier subject. “Shadowfang Keep will be rebuilt with the debt that Envael owes us, and the deathknelve will rise again!” As he raised his voice, so the blue flames flickering around his head rose, crackling up to cast the whole chamber in a moment of bluish light. “Now eat, drink, rest, and make yourselves the best soldiers in the Maughold!” he ordered, to the heartiest cheer yet. Tom hopped down from the table, sitting beside the high priestess.

“That was quite a speech, my king,” she said, smiling slyly.

“I’m glad you liked it,” said Tom. “Although later I’ll have to drag some of them out to keep watch on the walls. We’re to relieve the Sons of Man when the moon reaches its peak,” he informed her.

“I shall command the watch myself,” she replied, bowing her head. “But for now, see to yourself, Rethalar. Get a good night’s sleep and take the field again in daylight. Make sure you are well rested.” She paused, and looked him straight in the eye. “It would not do for our king to be cut down in battle, especially not at a time of such hope as this.”
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#102 Vortigern


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Posted 26 November 2010 - 04:41 PM

The next morning found no new casualties, as Vayu had postponed the assault for the moment. He had spent his night overlooking the Maughold from high above, avoiding Zhar and doing what he could to reinforce the morale of his troops. The undead mage had once sniffed him out, but Vayu had immediately fled to his body (his new, uncomfortable body) and evaded him.

As the sun rose Vayu sat back, fatigue lining his face. He examined himself, still unsure of what surprises this new body had in store for him. Perhaps it was just tiredness distorting his vision, but his skin almost seemed blurred in the dim light. He frowned.

A knock sounded at his door, and Vayu hurriedly cast an illusion around his face. It would not do for the men to see him weak and tired and vulnerable. He called for the visitor to enter, and in strode Busquez, still jubilant at the healed leg Vayu had given him the day before. And why would he not be? It’s a mighty gift.

“My lord,” began the general, bowing slightly. “The men are ready to begin the next attack. The melds have not yet finished feeding, but hopefully the sounds of battle will draw them into the fray regardless.”

“Unlikely,” mused Vayu. “They are like animals in many regards, and having eaten this well will probably want to sit around for a few days until they get hungry again. I’ll see what I can do to prod them in the right direction, though.”

“We may not even need them,” counselled Busquez thoughtfully. “The deathknelven mercenaries are eager for blood, and the least among them can kill almost any human warrior.”

“Tell the deathknelve to focus on their own kind.”

“I don’t think I need to bother.” Vayu shrugged.

“Do we have any estimates as to how many we lost yesterday?” he enquired.

“Somewhere around two thousand of our own, including Evard’s column.” Vayu grimaced at the mention. A thousand soldiers dead at deathknelven hands with nothing useful to show for it. In spite of the tactical calamity, he had to respect the skill with which the ambush had been enacted. The deathknelve were the most dangerous foe his men faced here, no question of that. “About four hundred of the melds, we think, though they’re difficult to count, and almost our entire complement of Variags.” Vayu raised an eyebrow. “They headed straight for where their old king Harald stood and the whole thing went downhill fast. I don’t know how they could even tell which ones were their enemies in the middle of all that.”

“What about the pikemen and the Drow?” Vayu asked, covering those who Busquez had not yet.

“The Drow refused to enter combat yesterday, so they’re all fine.” Busquez’s face twisted in contempt at the thought of the night elves, whether through long-held hatred of their kind or freshly-reinforced scorn at their ways Vayu could not tell. “The Valentines didn’t lost many either, on account of how they’re really only of any use in open combat.”

“I was expecting Vassingar to have pulled in a few hundred Sairacusan horsemen,” admitted Vayu. “The pikemen would have been invaluable then. Still, extra bodies never hurt.” Busquez nodded. “Make the Drow fight today or I’ll see to them myself.” Busquez saluted, fist to chest, and left the room. Vayu let the illusion fall away with relief. He needed sleep. He looked down at his hands and his eyes froze. Now he was sure he was not imagining things. His skin really was beginning to blur. “Curious,” he murmured.

* * * * * * * * *

Atop the wall, Tom smiled widely as he saw the tiny disfigured shape of Shava coming towards him. He knelt down to speak to her at her level, though naturally he was still some way above it.

“How are you feeling today, my friend?” he asked, with genuine concern in his voice.

“Much better, thank you,” she replied in her squeaky little voice. “As are the rest of my people. We will be back on the walls today to give what assistance we can.”

“And it will be much appreciated,” replied Tom, silencing a few sniggers from deathknelven soldiers on watch. “Your abilities give us an edge we sorely need in these dire times,” he added, loudly enough for all his men nearby to have heard.

“The next assault will begin soon,” she advised. “Most of the rest of your men are on their way up here, as are the Sons of Man and the Janizars. Maximilian and Harald are taking the morning off,” she added with a crooked smile. Tom had seen her talking to Harald the previous day, the massive difference in size almost comical. Harald had swung her up atop his broad, muscular shoulder in order to be able to hear a word she said, and there had been no ‘almost’ about the comedy there.

The rampart quickly filled with soldiers of all kinds bearing weapons of just as wide a variety, including a human wielding what Tom was sure was just a floorboard with a nail through it. The braziers were quickly damped out; it wouldn’t help to have burning embers scattered around where people were trying to walk.

Bugles echoed across the early morning air. Tom leapt up atop the low crenellations of the wall for a better view. As the morning mist faded up and away Tom saw the Paladins striding forth, white cloaks resplendent in the yellow dawn glow, carrying ladders and wheeling a couple of towers swathed in wet leather; even if the braziers were still lit those towers would never catch fire. Tom raised a hand and five hundred bows rose up in imitation. He dropped his arm and the air became thick with arrows, hurtling towards their targets. Most clattered off armour, but plenty found flesh. The cries of the wounded spread out across the city, but the Uncrowned King remained impassive. Worse was to come.

* * * * * * * * *

Some way down the line Illyriel had done much the same as Tom when he saw the Paladins advance. The Sons of Man at his back had done themselves proud the day before, and now they stood once more to do the same. But what was most surprising of all was that they now looked to Illyriel to command them. Their general had fallen already, but instead of seeking easy advancement, the captains and lieutenants had simply sought out the most able, and found an elf of some four centuries’ experience.

The Paladins came swarming up their ladders, though Illyriel and his men succeeded in pushing several of them away from the wall and back down to splinter on the cobblestones. The first of the siege towers crashed open against the battlements and white-cloaked warriors poured forth, steel meeting steel as Illyriel’s red-cloaked defenders refused to give an inch.

Illyriel ripped his twin blades through a Paladin’s skull, spraying cranial viscera in all directions, before ducking in to meet a burly Whitecloak wielding a heavy mace and running him through with no trouble whatsoever. He spun away to meet another sword, directing it down against the stone walkway and simply headbutting the Paladin, knocking him back and to the ground. Illyriel’s view was obstructed then by another assailant, but when he glanced back he saw his previous opponent had not risen to his feet again.

The hurly-burly of battle abruptly stopped as a series of mighty roars echoed across the rooftops. Melds, Illyriel thought in irritation. They had been bad enough yesterday, but on top of only half a night’s sleep and the accompanying battle-weariness they would be a real handful today. He hurriedly but calmly dispatched his current opponent with a swift kick to the knees and a stab to the throat and leapt up to find his footing on the crenellations. The melds came bounding forward at breakneck speed, hurtling headlong into the massed Paladins awaiting their chance to climb the ladders. Illyriel frowned. That was unexpected. He saw one meld ripping apart one of the siege towers with unhinged ferocity. What the hell is going on? he wondered. A moment later the melds reared up in unison, before slumping to the ground with equal synchronicity.

* * * * * * * * *

“Oops,” said Winter Vayu, surveying the mess the melds had made of his men from his airborne vantage point. Perhaps pure blind terror was not the best idea.
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#103 Vortigern


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Posted 26 November 2010 - 04:47 PM

Hidden in the shadowlands, Zhar watched unnoticed through the veil as Winter Vayu carried out his plans. In this realm he could see the damage Vayu’s magic was doing to his new body; literally tearing it apart from the inside. He had watched Vayu inspecting his hands, noticing the blurring and disguising it by means of more magic, which would only hasten his demise.

It’s hardly surprising, said one of him. He’s never been willing to go as far as we did. Foolissssssssh. Quiet down, you, he ordered himself. The hissy voice had been talking a lot recently and it was really starting to grate on the rest of the Zhars’ collective nerves. Of course, here in the shadowlands, they were all distinct beings, crowded together rather uncomfortably in Vayu’s war-room. One of him was sat cross-legged in the middle of a table, having been unable to find standing room.

I wonder what’ll happen when he breaks that body, Zhar wondered. His soul will exhaust itself in moments and dissipate, he replied. He doesn’t have a soul, idiot, he berated himself. Your face doesn’t have a soul, he shot back. Thirty-something Zhars all stopped what they were doing to look at that one. Sorry.

It’s a good question, though, thought original Zhar, bringing them all back on point. We never stuck around long enough to completely destroy a body like that. Should be interesting. If he desssssstroysssss himself, hissssss blood will be gonesssssssss.

Zhar-Classic arched an eyebrow at the hissy Zhar. Seriously, why do you talk like that? You know what, I don’t care. This is an intellectual discussion, so you’re not invited.

One of the background Zhars suddenly started cackling wildly and dancing around. In unison the others rolled their eyes. The really insane Zhars were wont to do anything at a moment’s notice with no explanation. This at least was harmless.

Enough of this. Let’s go find him in the real world and slit his stolen throat before he breaks it himself.

CHESTNUTS! shouted the oddball in the corner. Zhars assumed that meant he agreed.

* * * * * * * * *

Byron had woken from his anaesthetised slumber and insisted Rindar get back to the wall, so that was where the elf now stood, in amongst the Janizars on the east flank. He found their company pleasing, the easy camaraderie with which they helped each other out and watched each other’s backs. A few choice comments at the expense of one of their men had seen Rindar instantly accepted into their number, and now he fought back to back with a dark-skinned moustachioed chap called Emre. The Janizar was an able swordsman and always had an eye on his partner, which Rindar found reassuring. The Drow they faced were fast, but Rindar was faster, having kept his sword-arm trained and his wits sharp these past months.

Perhaps ten yards away from them one of the Drow flung his weapon aside, flames shooting up his arms as he prepared to deal with the enemy at a remove. Rindar shouted to Emre, who nodded and turned, then the pair sprinted for the purple-skinned foe, swords stretched out. Rindar had seen Drow work this magic in battle before, and it took a few seconds for the flames to be of any use rather than simply aesthetic. The Drow raised his arms, flaming hands outstretched, but Emre got there first, swiping down and nearly severing one of the Drow’s hands. It screamed and the flames vanished instantly. Rindar finished the job, sliding his sword through the Drow’s robes and into his heart.

Emre swung round to be at Rindar’s back once more, and the battle continued.

* * * * * * * * *

Tom stood firm in the centre of the line as the Paladins fell back to be replaced by his true enemies. His line of deathknelven warriors raised a hearty cheer as the Usurper’s soldiers flooded the streets below. They swarmed up the ladders in seconds, far faster than the humans had been able to, leaping straight onto the wall with swords drawn. The first few found themselves dispatched with alacrity, but as more and more arrived the battle began in earnest.

Tom’s Soulfyre flared up, almost outside his control, the blue flames coating his blades. The enemy pushed straight for him, some not even bothering to fight those they passed. The first to reach Tom stuttered to a halt with his throat slashed, and the second found himself disembowelled and pinioned to the stones with his own sword. Tom caught his sword as it came down from his quick throw, tucking into a roll under a swing from the next challenger. He leapt up to face someone else, launching his Soulfyre in a burning blast behind him to engulf the last.

Despite the close quarters combat, the deathknelve on both sides were finding the room to employ some truly exquisite swordsmanship, including one pair leaping along the crenellations, locked in a fierce duel which was resolved when Tom’s man landed an unexpected roundhouse kick to the other’s midriff, knocking him from the wall.

Tom ducked under a blow, lunging out with his swords.

“Do you mind?” said Zhar. “Seems like every time we meet, I end up getting stabbed.” Tom felt he should have been surprised, but at this point nothing Zhar could do would come as a shock.

“What do you want?” Tom asked, withdrawing his swords from Zhar’s torso. An opportunistic deathknelf hurled himself at Tom, only to be rebuffed by whatever invisible barrier the mage had erected around them. He hit the floor with a very surprised look on his face. Zhar cocked his head to one side, and the deathknelf’s face exploded. Zhar nodded, satisfied.

“I wondered if you wanted in on killing Vayu.”

“I thought you wanted him for yourself?”

“Alright, I wondered if you’d mind watching my back while I kill Vayu. How’s that?”

“At least that sounds honest,” Tom agreed. “Let me finish up here and I’ll bring a century of my best to keep his guards distracted. It’s about time we made sure that bastard was really dead.” Zhar looked around.

“Are you going to be long?”

* * * * * * * * *

The battle was not going as planned. The melds had torn Winter Vayu’s men to shreds before he had managed to knock them all unconscious, and he was certain his body was giving up on him. His skin was definitely blurry now, and he had noticed a couple of patches of greenish-purplish magic swirling around through cracks in his surface. Something was most definitely amiss.

“Sir!” shouted Captain-General Tobruk, panic evident on his face. “We have to fall back! Our deathknelve have been routed and the Drow are looking likely to do the same.” Vayu cursed.

“Our Paladins still outnumber what they have left.”

“But they have all the advantages,” insisted Tobruk. “We can’t afford to just send wave after wave of men up the ladders, not after what happened with the melds.” Vayu considered the information, but he was finding it hard to marshal his thoughts at the moment. There was an irritating buzzing in his ears, but he couldn’t tell where it was coming from.

“We mustn’t give the enemy time to regroup,” he said. “Send the men back in.” Tobruk hesitated. “Go!” shouted Vayu, clutching his head. The buzzing intensified as he raised his voice. The general, caught between a rock and a hard place, fell back to what he knew best: following orders. He turned smartly and walked from the room at a quick march. Vayu scratched at his head furiously trying to stop the noise, to no avail. He hit his head against the wall with the same goal in mind, over and over again. He let out a wordless scream of rage, magic welling up inside him and pouring forth from his fingers to obliterate the wall. He flung himself through the hole, landing heavily on the cobbles a storey below.

“You don’t look so good, Winter,” said a voice. Vayu looked up. Before him stood the only enemy he had never killed. Or at least, the only one he could remember right now. No. There’s another, he said to himself as he caught sight of Tom Joad, the Uncrowned King of the Deathknelve, standing at the head of a phalanx of deathknelven warriors, who fanned out as he watched to face off against the Paladins standing guard nearby. Some good they were, he thought bitterly.

“At least I’m still alive,” he mumbled.

“Not for long,” replied Zhar with a smile.
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#104 Vortigern


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Posted 26 November 2010 - 04:53 PM

Vayu slowly got to his feet. Zhar chuckled as he assessed the extent of the damage to Vayu’s stolen body. Not long now, he thought.

“And here I thought you were going to be my greatest challenge,” said Zhar, sighing and shaking his head. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” he continued, picking at a fingernail.

“How do you live with it?” murmured Vayu, unable to raise his voice. “How do you live with the pain?”

“We all have our ways. I prefer to bathe in the blood of the innocent.” He raised a hand, lifting Vayu from the ground and binding his arms to his sides. “Much as I appreciate a good war, this one’s over now, Vayu,” he carried on, raising his voice to accommodate the increasing distance between them. “Frankly, it should never have begun. You never did explain how exactly you managed to rise from the dead. Quite a neat trick. I don’t suppose you’d mind sharing?”

“Sure,” said Vayu. “The Eternal brought me back to end the world.” Zhar laughed.

“Come on, Winter, you can do better than that.”

“I’m not joking,” he said. Zhar noticed something shift in Vayu then, almost as though he had figured out how to exist all over again. And perhaps he has. Maybe he’s figured out how to fix that body. Impossible, he told himself. We’d have found a way if it could be done. Zhar shrugged.

“Well, it looks like the Eternal backed the wrong horse,” Zhar announced, conjuring bright green flames at his fingertips. His first shot hit Vayu square in the chest, but the binding spell held him firm. He launched his fire again, but this time the spell dissipated before it reached Vayu. “Interesting,” muttered Zhar. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a god of blood and death at your feet as well, do you?” Vayu said nothing, busy writhing against his invisible bonds. “Don’t be an idiot, you know you can’t break out of that,” said Zhar irritably. I was really looking forward to this, he grumbled to himself.

Then the binding spell broke. Eh? What just happened? Imposssssiblessssss! That’s not good. Oh, bollocks, said Zhars all at once. And then IT’S A GIRL! Zhar paused, introspecting for the raving loony responsible for that little gem.

Vayu landed easily, standing tall and straight. His body’s still not holding together, Zhar noted.

“You have caused me so much trouble,” boomed Vayu in a voice that was not his own. “Zhar Cadavok, you are a blight upon this earth and I will see you destroyed.” Zhar thought fast, all of him. His thirty-something personalities quickly agreed on the best course of action: hide.

“Can you see me now?” he shouted, and disappeared into the shadowlands. Hey fellers, he thought as his alter-egos materialised. In the background he noticed one of him giggling quietly and rocking an imaginary baby. That answers that question. He’s nuts, that guy. Why do we hang out with him? We don’t have a choice, moron. Who are you calling moron, idiot? Who are you calling idiot, dickhead? Guys? Seriously, time and a place for these things. The Zhars involved had the decency to at least look a little shamefaced. Sorry.

I don’t suppose you geniuses have noticed that Vayu’s here as well? Zhar pointed out. Ooooh, they said in perfect harmony as they finally noticed the swirling vortex of colour and emotion and raw power that was Winter Vayu in this realm. Pretty, added one of Zhar.

I SEE YOU, ZHAR, echoed Vayu’s new voice, reverberating around the shimmering dimension. I recognise that voice¸ said Zhar, a touch of apprehension in his thoughts. It seems he wasn’t lying about the Eternal. We are so boned.

It was at times like this, moments of intense stress, that Zhar’s personality became most fractured. Several more Zhars began to pop up around the back of the cluster, all throwing their opinions into the mix. The Vayu-Eternal launched a bolt of pure energy at the Zhars, catching one of him full in the face. That Zhar disappeared with a scream of agony.

“Shields up!” shouted Zhar, not bothering to keep his thoughts to himself any more. If he truly was facing the Eternal made flesh, it was more than capable of reading his thoughts when they were so readily on display anyway.

YOU CANNOT PROTECT YOURSELF FROM ME, rumbled Vayu, launching another blast at the Zhars, that this time impacted on the shield and bounced away. Dimly Zhar saw it demolish an entire house on the other side of the veil. He vaguely wondered what this must look like to the mortals nearby.

Another blast shook Zhar’s shields, forcing him backwards with the impact. We can’t hold out for long against this, he told himself. I know. We’ll think of something. We always do. A trailing tendril of energy snatched itself away from the mass and hurled itself against Zhar’s shields, dissipating harmlessly but rendering the shields that bit weaker. Did you see that? asked Zhar. When that bit came off, it didn’t grow back. I saw, he confirmed. He’s throwing his essence at us. Like Furya magic. We will survivesssssss! Zhar groaned. He had rather been hoping the Zhar Vayu had disintegrated had been the hissy one.

Blast after blast hit Zhar’s shields, breaking through in a couple of places and costing him a few more personalities. Meh. Plenty to spare. Hey! We’re right here, you know. The Vayu-Eternal was growing slightly smaller with each shot, proving Zhar’s theory. It didn’t seem to have noticed. We need his essence, said Zhar. Without it we’ll never get back to the mortal realm, and I for one think this place is pretty dull. I’m inclined to agree, Zhar agreed. We need a distraction.

I’m distracting! shouted the crazy baby-rocking Zhar, bounding forward and past the shields.

“Excuse me?” Mad Zhar said, poking at the underside of the great floating energy-ball with an imaginary stick. “Would you mind killing the hissy Zhar next? He’s been driving me insane for years.” The seething mass of swirling light rotated to look down. Now, ordered Zhar, and each Zhar raised his identical kriss, the blade with which he had kept himself alive all these long centuries. They chanted the words, not of any spell they had used before, or even heard of, but of their own composition. With a blinding flash of black light, the shadowlands were hidden from Zhar’s gaze. When his sight returned a moment later his enemy was gone and his kriss glowed blood red, pulsing like a heart.

Let’s get out of here.

* * * * * * * * *

The Paladins had scattered as soon as they saw their leader melting into a bizarre mess of colours and patterns, and Tom had been tempted to do the same. Nonetheless he had held firm and his soldiers had stood resolutely at his side, even when parts of the city around them had started being destroyed by whatever otherworldly battle Zhar and Vayu were engaged in. It had almost looked like Vayu had burst out of his skin, Tom reflected. He had no idea what to make of it.

Zhar reappeared, stumbling as he landed on the cobbles, but righting himself easily.

“I won!” he shouted, waving his kriss at Tom. “Bastard’s dead at last!” Tom walked unhurriedly over to where Zhar had re-emerged.

“What just happened?” he asked in a low voice. He had no wish for his soldiers to know what they had just witnessed.

“When Vayu took a new body he didn’t give it time to acclimatise to the strength of magic he used,” Zhar explained. “Normally your strength grows and your body gains a kind of resilience to it, but Vayu overlooked that. He basically exploded himself.”

“So he’s definitely gone this time?” Tom demanded. He wasn’t ready to take any chances on this.

“What’s left of him is trapped in here,” said Zhar, tapping the kriss. “Believe me, there’s no coming back from this.” Tom’s smile slowly grew, and he turned to face his men, arrayed before him.

“Vala’ai!” he bellowed, and the roar was taken up by all there. “Vala’ai!” The goddess of the blood moon, goddess of victory and of war, had surely looked kindly upon them today.
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#105 Vortigern


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Posted 04 December 2010 - 08:13 PM

Tobruk had not bothered passing on Cold Wind’s orders. It was clear to him that the young commander had snapped under the pressure. He had sounded the retreat, falling back to behind the first wall with his Paladins, but his Paladins alone. The deathknelve had surrendered after some intense combat, only a handful of them escaping and immediately fleeing the citadel. Tobruk had noted with some contempt that the pretender to their crown, Carai Deathbringer, was among those leaving in disarray. The Drow in the Palatinate’s employ had simply disappeared. Tobruk suspected they had removed themselves to the Croft, the partially-underground slums which played host to so many of their kind. One way or another, all he had now were his loyal, trustworthy Whitecloaks, but they were falling back. His complement boasted no more than two hundred from the two legions with which he had begun this siege.

Tobruk heard his name being shouted, dimly, largely unaware of his surroundings. A haggard old face appeared before him, and vaguely he recalled that it belonged to Busquez, Cold Wind’s closest advisor. Tobruk shook his head, not understanding what it was that Busquez desired of him.

“What are we doing?” he murmured, pushing past the old man and following on with the retreat. As they fled the city they were joined by others of their creed, no longer resplendent in their muddied, bloodied armour, many without their signature cloaks and some even without their swords.

Before him Tobruk could see the colossal gates of the Maughold, crafted by the greatest dwarven smiths of the age, of any age, standing open and inviting. The tide of Paladins rushed through the portal to freedom, spurred on by the cries of those at the rear, being picked off by archers. The great grey road led the way down from the mountains, away from the fortress of their destruction, away from the death and damage done here, surrounded by the open fields that were so common in Envael. The Paladins streamed out through the gates, running down the highway and off into the fields, anywhere that would take them clear of the city.

“Let justice be done, though the world perish,” Tobruk said, quoting the motto of his fallen order as he beheld the next terror. Most of the fleeing Paladins had not even noticed, but before them rode a full mark of Sairacusan horsemen, the cavalry that Tobruk’s dead master had expected to be within the fortress. They’re late, Tobruk thought with delirious amusement. His mind went blank as the horsemen charged, lances levelled. His final thought was how strange it was that his final thought was with regards to the timekeeping skills of the enemy.

* * * * * * * * *

Tyrendos and those men with him had shed their white cloaks and gold breastplates, and many had also forsaken their swords as a sign of their rapidly growing faith in their new leader: Astariel, the Lady of the Light.

“The Paladins have fled, old friend,” she told Tyrendos. “Our former order is disgraced and fallen, without even the decency to take with them their allies.” She gestured down from the wall on which they stood, her sweeping arm covering several dozen melds, some of which were still feeding but most of which had opted to sleep off their excesses. “Attend, if you would,” she continued, moving away and down the steep stone stairs which led to the gatehouse. Once they reached the ground she sent one of Tyr’s men to open the gates and led them out into the midst of the great beasts. Several of the melds looked up, curious more than angered at the intrusion.

“What would you have us do?” Tyrendos enquired.

“Show them your good will,” she replied simply, raising her hands above her head, palms open but eyes closed. As before, the melds rose up at her mental signal and came to stand around her. As before, they let out screams of such pain and anguish as to leave the mind of any listener weeping for their distress when Astariel reminded them what they had once been, what they could strive to be once more, and as before she impressed on them the need for justification of actions. Tyrendos stepped forward, petting a golden-maned lion-meld which looked up at him with such joy at the simple action that he could not help but grin in return. The meld knelt before Tyrendos, its face at the same level as his, and it opened its mouth.

“I Barosh,” it said, and Tyr’s jaw dropped. Astariel, at his side, laughed delightedly.

“You remember!” she said, stepping across and embracing the creature. It purred happily, docile as a housecat.

“Barosh,” the meld repeated.

“They can talk?” Tyrendos could barely get the words out, he was so stunned.

“So it would seem,” Astariel replied, releasing Barosh the lion-meld and returning to her place at the head of the human envoy. “I always knew they were intelligent creatures.”

* * * * * * * * *

Illyriel could not hide his relief that the war was done. He leapt atop the crenellations, eyes following the Paladins as they fled the scene of their crime. Behind him he heard a unified clanking of armour, and slowly turned to see. Somewhat over three hundred Sons of Man stood to attention before him.

“My lord Illyriel,” said one, stepping forward and dropping to one knee. “Our command is yours to assume.”

“Er,” said Illyriel. “What?”

* * * * * * * * *

Essika swung his axe in a full arc, bringing it round and again to cut down the fleeing Paladins. Nearby Theria loosed arrow after arrow, bringing down more of their Whitecloak foe. They had come upon the Sairacusans on the main road north to the Maughold. They had not stayed long in Elmharrow after Theria’s elven magic had delivered them safely there; the elders had, as predicted, not been best pleased to discover a human in their midst. They had forgiven the intrusion, given the circumstances, but advised against ever pushing their luck a second time.

“You’d hate it there anyway,” Theria had said. “No action, no excitement, it’s all just tradition this and communing that, it’s why I left in the first place.”

The Paladins scattered quickly, some escaping into the mountains, but a great many lay dead on the ground, broken and run down by the fresh, battle-ready Sairacusans. Theria and Essika headed straight for the city, largely ignoring the enemy that still stood.

Glad you could make it, said a voice in Theria’s head which she recognised as belonging to Shava. That’s a new ability, Theria thought. Shava had never been able to speak to anyone who did not share her gift. I’ve been practicing, Shava replied. We’re at the palace. I’ll tell the guards to expect you.

Theria and Essika rode through the empty streets – empty but for the dead – toward the inner city, higher and higher up the mountainside. As they rode into the palace grounds the guards saluted; Essika gave a mock salute in return, bashing his still-bloody axe against his helmet with a resounding clang.

“Didn’t that hurt?” Theria muttered to him.

“A little,” he admitted. “But it was worth it.”

“Why?” He simply shrugged.

“Theria!” came a shout. She turned and saw before her Illyriel.

“’Riel!” she cried delightedly, leaping down from her horse to embrace him fervently.

“You’ll never guess what just happened to me,” he said excitedly. “I’m the new general of the Sons of Man! No, I’ve no idea how either,” he added before she could interrupt. “I was fighting with them during the siege and it just sort of happened this way. I’m not even a Man, I know,” he carried on, but then stopped and took a step back, looking happily at her. “It’s wonderful to see you again,” he said. “I’m glad you made it through alright.”

“You’ve got Essika to thank for that,” she informed him. The big human made an over-elaborate bow in Illyriel’s direction, which the elf mimicked in good spirit.

“You know, Zhar’s going to be happy you’re back. And we’re all going to be happy about that,” Illyriel said, words just falling out of him in an unstoppable torrent. “He finally killed Winter Vayu, you know. Got him all locked up in that knife of his, says that should keep him fed for months.” Illyriel frowned at the thought. “You know, I think he eats souls. Why are we friends with him?”

“Because he’s funny?” Theria suggested. “Can we go and meet the others now?” she asked Illyriel while he paused to take a breath. “I haven’t seen any of you in so long. We must have a great deal to catch up on.”

“Of course, of course,” Illyriel acquiesced, leading them through the doors of the palace with a nod to the guards who saluted crisply in return.

“Talks a lot, doesn’t he,” Essika murmured out of the corner of his mouth.

“Only when he’s excited,” Theria said, smiling happily.

“Did he say he was general of the Sons of Man?” Essika asked, his heavy brow furrowing in confusion.

“I think so, yes,” she replied. “We really do have a lot to catch up on.”
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#106 Vortigern


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Posted 05 December 2010 - 06:18 PM

Over the next two weeks the Maughold was slowly repaired, though the process was made a great deal quicker by the addition of over two hundred melds working at Astariel’s behest and by Zhar’s magic, the undead wizard finally having agreed to do something for someone else.

“I said I’d tell Theria he was being evil again if he didn’t help,” Tom explained to Illyriel. The elf chuckled.

“She does have a way of making herself mean something to you, doesn’t she?” Tom rolled his eyes.

“That’s not the half of it, my friend,” he replied.

“I still can’t believe you’re really the king now,” Illyriel said.

“It’s not official yet. We need to rebuild Shadowfang Keep before I can be crowned, but I know what you mean. It’s a little unnerving, actually,” he confided. “I was good at being the renegade monarch, with an enemy to swear vengeance on, but I’ve got no idea how to be a political figure.”

“That’s what I’m for,” declared the priestess, arriving as silently as ever behind them. Elf and deathknelf rose to meet her, both offering her a kiss on the cheek as greeting. “Speaking of which, you should be discussing the intricacies of our alliance with Envael. Why aren’t you?” Tom blushed slightly, his stripes turning a few shades darker.

“I figure it’s best left to the professionals,” he said diplomatically. “Such as yourself.”

“Vassingar will be offended to have to deal with assistants instead of the king himself,” she chided him. “I beg your pardon, Illyriel, but His Majesty is coming with me.” Illyriel laughed.

“Far be it from me to keep a king from his duty,” he said, hands raised in submission.

“I’ll see you later, then,” Tom muttered as the priestess almost dragged him away. Still chuckling quietly, Illyriel turned his attention to the mug of lunchtime ale in his hand and swiftly poured the remainder of Tom’s into his own. He allowed his thoughts to wander, but they were brought back down to earth a moment later as a woman’s voice broke his reverie.

“That was the king of the deathknelve, wasn’t it?” said the voice. Illyriel turned to see the speaker and found, to his pleasure, that it was a buxom young human girl, red hair signifying her Gotti ancestry. “Are you a friend of his?”

“We’ve travelled side by side for years, the king and I,” he replied with a lascivious smile. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve saved his royal arse.” The girl tittered and Illyriel grinned to himself. Life is good.

* * * * * * * * *

Tom rolled into the King’s council chamber in a jaunty gate, smiling happily to himself. Envaelu beer was, in his royal opinion, undoubtedly the best in the world; he’d have to see what he could do about ensuring a steady stream from here to Shadowfang Keep once it was rebuilt. It sat so pleasantly in his stomach that he could not help but be in a good mood. He flicked an easy salute to Essika and Theria, sat around the table on Vassingar’s side. It turned out Theria’s once and future lover was a long-standing acquaintance and employee of the Kingdom of Envael and was known to the King personally; with the deaths of so many commanders during the siege, Essika had accepted a temporary position assisting in rebuilding the army.

“Tom,” Vassingar greeted him amiably enough. “My lady,” he offered the priestess a small bow which she replicated in return. “Come, come, we have much to discuss.” He ushered them into the smaller back room behind the main chamber. As soon as they were sat down Vassingar continued. “Reports have come in that many of the Paladins who escaped the fields have regrouped some way to the north and are heading towards Anvar, presumably seeking asylum there.”

“They’ll be lucky,” Tom commented. “I know the Umbar are largely a broken order as well, but there are more than enough of them to cause the Paladins some serious problems.”

“They seem to be avoiding the main centres of Umbar activity,” Vassingar explained. “From what we can piece together, they seem to be heading towards Rockhill.”

“And from there, anywhere,” Tom finished for him. Rockhill was the largest ocean port in Anvar by some margin and daily sent ships off all around Arsencia. “We’d be well advised not to let them take ship.”

“I agree. I suggest we-” He was cut off by a knock at the door and the subsequent entrance of Duke Carigawn, the leader of the Sairacusan horsemen. The southerners had agreed to remain in the Maughold for the time being to assist in the rebuilding, perhaps feeling a little guilty over arriving late to the battle. Without preamble, Carigawn spoke up.

“I hear you’ve found the last remnants of the Paladins.” Vassingar nodded. “I can easily dispatch a half-mark of my men to harry them as far as your influence will guarantee us safe passage.”

“I would appreciate that, my friend,” Vassingar said, clapping Carigawn on the shoulder.

“I’d be happy to lead the foray,” Tom pitched in. The priestess gave him a sharp look. “God knows I’m getting itchy feet sitting around here.” Vassingar raised an eyebrow in silent query, so Tom carried on. “Allow me to lead your men north and I will demonstrate the strength of our alliance, two armies working as one to end the war once and for all. This way there will be no doubt that our friendship will last beyond the immediate threat.” Vassingar thought for a moment, then let out a hearty laugh.

“So you get to make a political move and scratch your soldiering itch, is that it?” he enquired, in good humour. “So be it. Carigawn, any objections?”

“None at all,” agreed the Sairacusan. “I have the utmost respect for the martial prowess of the deathknelve, and I am sure my men will gain greatly from joining them on this expedition.”

“We should set out as soon as possible,” Tom stated firmly. “We can’t afford to let the Paladins get anywhere near civilisation. The more innocent blood we can keep from being shed, the better.”

“Agreed,” said Vassingar. “I shall let you be about your preparations, then.”

“I daresay this means I shall be remaining here as liaison between our two peoples in your absence, my lord?” asked the priestess, an icy undertone to her voice.

“If you would be so kind, my dear.” Tom offered her a bright grin. “My lords.” Tom bowed to duke and king as he and his high priestess took their leave.

“Next time you wish to be political,” she informed him, “be so kind as to warn me.”

* * * * * * * * *

Thaos watched idly as Zhar went to work. The conman could not help but wonder what would have been possible with a mage of Zhar’s ability back in his days of swindling and thievery. He could have taken walls apart and put them back together with nobody any the wiser, Thaos thought. Or just appeared me inside wherever I wanted to be. Or made me invisible. Or… Thaos’s active and imaginative mind boggled at the possibilities.

“How long have you been practicing all this magic?” he asked, swinging himself down into the quarry pit where Zhar stood.

“Far longer than I care to remember,” the mage replied. He had been in a good mood ever since the battle with Vayu and had no qualms about letting it show. His only grumble in recent days had been that the rebuilding would use all the power he had gained by killing their enemy. “You know, I haven’t seen you helping out once.”

“Building’s not really my style,” Thaos offered. “Anyway, I came to ask you something. Our man Tom and a whole host of horsemen are setting out to round up the last of the Paladins. His majesty wanted to know if you were interested in coming along.” Zhar chuckled at the honorific. ‘His majesty’ had become something of a pejorative among those who had travelled with Tom Joad.

“Sitting on a horse chasing after a bunch of talentless apes? No thank you,” Zhar replied. “I’ll stick around here for a while until I’m done redesigning the Maughold.”

“Redesigning?” wondered Thaos. “I thought you were just rebuilding?”

“Rebuild, redesign, it’s all the same really. They’d better appreciate my efforts when I’m done, though,” said the mage, with no hint of jest.

“What’s it going to look like?”

“I was thinking I’d have the whole thing show my face from the road, but Theria cottoned on to that one.” Thaos laughed. Theria had been keeping a close eye on Zhar ever since he ‘offered’ to help. As she had noted, Zhar was more used to being on the demolition side of masonry. “I’ve toned it down a bit, but it’ll still be spectacular.”

“Whatever you say, old boy.” Thaos shrugged his way out of the discussion, and Zhar was happy to let him do so. Doubtless he had no wish to reveal the details of his grand architectural schematics. “I’ll tell Tom you’re not coming, then.”

“You do that.” Zhar went back to his work, beams of fire bursting from his fingertips to hew massive blocks of stone from the rubble.

* * * * * * * * *

Three days into the ride north, the scouts returned reporting much the same thing.

“The Paladins are about ten miles ahead of us and almost entirely on foot,” said the leader of the human scouts.

“I’d say they number about six hundred,” countered the leader of the deathknelven scouts, not to be outdone.

“Closer to seven hundred, I reckon.”

“They’re poorly organised and look fairly well worn down. I would guess most will simply surrender rather than attempt to escape.”

“They do have a clear leader, though, an old chap on a horse right in the middle. He seems to be all that’s keeping them going.”

“You can stop with the competition,” Tom ordered them. The two scouts subsided. “We will gladly accept their surrender if they are so inclined. I have no wish to see unnecessary bloodshed.” Carigawn, a constant feature at Tom’s side along this ride, spoke his agreement.

“Signal an increase in pace,” Carigawn ordered. “We want to reach them before nightfall, and before they reach Rockhill.” Tom nodded. In the little retinue behind them the Sairacusan bugler put his lips to the horn and blew three short blasts. Tom drew his sword, Soulfyre flickering along the blade, making it seem taller than it was. He pointed it forward and kicked his horse into a canter. At this pace they would catch up with the Paladins within two hours.

* * * * * * * * *

Busquez pushed his starving horse onwards. They were within half a night’s march of their goal and a commandeered ship to take them wherever they wanted. Busquez was thinking Trivandor might be nice. Lots of empty space and towns where people are still respectful of our order. On the way here they had attempted to take refuge in roadside towns but had found the gates barred against them. News of their defeat and disgrace had spread quickly.

“Oh, Light,” he sighed as the inevitable happened. In the distance behind them his aging eyes could see the dust rising around hundreds of cavalrymen, and he was not yet dehydrated enough to delude himself that they were anything other than hostile. “Push on!” he shouted, as panicked murmurs began to spread all around him. We’ll never make it.

Within minutes the horsemen were bearing down upon them. Busquez drew his sword in desperation. One last act of loyalty to the man who gave me everything. A group of Sairacusans were headed his way, led by a deathknelf. The deathknelven king, Busquez realised. He kicked his mount forward, charging at his aggressors. This is for Lord Vayu, he thought as he levelled his sword at the deathknelf’s head.

As they came together Busquez lashed out, swinging his sword around at decapitation height, but the deathknelf scum ducked under the blow, leaning sideways in his saddle and attacking with his own weapon. Busquez felt a sharp pain in his side as the half-breed monster’s blade pierced him. A second blow came from the other side and he fell from his horse, one foot hanging in the stirrup as the beast panicked and fled, dragging his dying body along the ground.

* * * * * * * * *

“It’s all over,” said Carigawn, capably steering his horse alongside Tom’s. “Those who surrendered will be escorted back to the Maughold to face trial.”

“How many of them survived?” Tom asked.

“Nearly three hundred. We didn’t lose anyone.”

“Nor us. A successful foray, I would say.” Carigawn nodded. “You know, we might as well set up camp for the night before we head back,” Tom added, looking around at the gathering dark. “No harm in staying here for a rest before we get back on the road.”

A few minutes later, orders given, Tom and Carigawn made their way around the impromptu camp, inspecting this and that, making conversation, keeping the peace, overseeing duty rosters, all the various responsibilities of leading a campaign into the field.

“Your majesty.” One of the scouts interrupted a brief conversation between Tom and one of his soldiers. Tom could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “There’s something you ought to see.” Exchanging a puzzled look with Carigawn, Tom followed the scout out of the camp and up a short rise, overlooking a long slope down to the beach. Along the coast Tom could quite clearly see the bulk of the Rockhill town wall, and equally clearly the flames licking up above the buildings.

“What’s going on?” he demanded.

“Tom,” said Carigawn quietly, looking out at the sea. “Tell me you’ve ever seen a ship like that before.” Tom followed the Sairacusan’s gaze across the water and saw craft unlike any in his experience, and he informed the horseman so. “What should we do? We can’t just let a town burn.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Tom wondered. “They’re being bombarded from the sea. By magic, looks like.” Arcs of fire flashed across the sky to explode in the town, lending weight to Tom’s suspicions. A rumble of voices behind them made all three turn around. Atop the crest of the hill there now stood perhaps a quarter of the entire company, watching the carnage.

“We have to help,” Carigawn insisted.

“What about the Paladins?”

“Let them go. They’re no threat to anyone any more.”

“What about facing trial?”

“I think this takes precedence, Tom. We can at least help get people out of there.” Carigawn wheeled his horse about and galloped back up the slope and into the camp. Shouts of “to arms!” echoed through the dusk and Tom cursed. A moment later he followed suit, rounding up his deathknelve. The professionalism of the soldiers was evident as they prepared for action in a matter of moments. They quickly began the descent to the town, taking the long route around to the gates on the side that was not yet burning to the ground.

“What are we facing here, your majesty?” asked Vieran, one of Tom’s bodyguards. Tom let out a heavy breath.

“Something new.”
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

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