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Chapter 4: Black Magic

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#1 Vortigern


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Posted 07 December 2010 - 04:43 PM

Romaine threw himself aside as chunks of masonry burst forth, crashing to the ground and obliterating the cobbles beneath their tumbling mass. All about him screams surged, panic ran rife and terror claimed as many victims as whatever wrath it was that now laid waste to Rockhill, the cliff-side port town on the west coast of Anvar. Looking around, he saw that some poor unfortunate had been ill-fated enough to be standing in the path of the lump of wall he had evaded and now lay dead and destroyed beneath it. He unfastened his Watcher’s cloak, knowing that the heavy crimson material would just slow him down in this endeavour, letting it slide from his shoulders with some regret. He scrambled through the streets, between close-packed thatched houses now blazing violently, the flames casting their light to the heavens. There are two sides to every coin, he thought as he made his way towards the flames. The town may be burning, but I’m in my element here.

Drawing upon all the training he could recall from his days at the academy in Valenti, Romaine let his mind accept the fire, wrapping his consciousness around it, making it a part of himself. The fire raged through him, the essence pure and indescribably desirable. Every sexual experience, every feeling of love or joy or bliss, paled in comparison to the feeling of being surrounded by the element he loved so much. Watchers were taught from the very beginning that to surrender oneself to the flame was to lose oneself, but that to accept the fire as a part of life and being was to use its strength and voracity. He did his best to draw the flames back from the rooftops, to limit the damage, but they were already raging beyond his range, limited as he was in spite of the raw elemental confluence building all around him.

With his senses heightened as much as the magic made possible, nay, inevitable, Romaine was able to see the missiles that came hurtling into the town, travelling at impossible speeds. No catapult or ballista that Romaine had ever seen could do damage like this or make a noise like that. The sound of it echoed across the town, deep as thunder and wild as a lion’s challenge. He focused on the projectiles; iron balls, full of fire throughout their existence. He could feel the history of the missile in the seconds as it flew through the air. Born from a fire mountain, spewed out of the earth to crystallise as the naked ore to be smelted into pure iron, and now launched from iron tubes by the force of some explosion. Born of fire, sent by fire, raining fire down wherever they fell. They were like music to his soul, if only he could convince himself to ignore the destruction they caused. No such luck.

The conflagration was growing with every passing moment; Romaine could feel the fire rising, welling up like incandescent rage in a wild beast. The sensation reminded him of a time when he had seen a wild boar cornered with her young, and had fought to the very last breath, goring two incautious hunters and breaking the leg of a third with its death throes. That same ferocity, that pure righteous anger, was what fuelled this fire, and it chilled Romaine to the bone.

Borne up on the heat of the fire, Romaine’s magic lifted him above the town, and he saw the origin of the iron missiles. Deep-hulled wooden sailing ships lay at anchor in the bay, turned side-on to the town, emitting puffs of smoke with every clap of thunder they sent to wreck the port. Where did they come from? he wondered. What in the name of the gods are their weapons? There’s no magic in this, just fire, iron and blood. He dimly recalled a lecture given once by a philosopher who had argued that elemental magic was simply one form, that life and death existing at all were a form of magic, that the minds of so many sentient creatures in the same world was a miracle which doubtless proved the existence of a greater magic than any humans, elves, dwarves or even Furya could claim. But that, now – a spear of lightning blasted down among the houses, sending screaming townsfolk flying – now that is magic. And that just confused him all the more. Who were these strange invaders with weapons that flew in the face of their magic?

Now was not the time for puzzles. Romaine raised his hands, lifting the fire from the roofs of the houses and sending the flames instead to beset the ships. They made it barely halfway there before being snuffed out as though they had never existed. The disappearance of the fire was like a slap in the face to Romaine, so deeply involved with the magic was he. A second time he tried but that too was to no avail. Romaine realised he had no choice but to flee; he let the magic carry him gently back to the ground, but some streets away from where the fires burned brightest. Mage he might be, but invincible he was most certainly not. He joined the panicked throng rushing for the city gates. The heaving mass barely moved, despite everybody’s best efforts, and the screams of those crushed by falling mortar, scorched by burning thatch and simply annihilated by the invaders’ weapons rent the air. Romaine caught sight of a bright steel breastplate; one of the town watch, caught up in the terror just as everyone else was. Nobody could blame him. After all, the militia was in place to deal with thieves and rogues and the occasional bandits that came sniffing around the merchant caravans near the town. A bombardment from the sea by an unknown foe was hardly what they signed up for.

The gates were, as usual, wide open, and the slowly moving horde of terrified humans eventually made its way towards freedom. Romaine would have lifted himself back out of the throng, but he could not do so while being sure of not setting someone alight with the heat of the air currents he would manipulate, and in quarters this close, the fire would spread like… Well, like fire. Instead he was forced to watch and wait with everyone else as the view beyond the gates changed from one of freedom to one of even greater torment: armoured men moved into sight, moving in cadenced unison and cutting down any who thought themselves fortunate enough to have escaped the ruin of their town. Then the screams redoubled in intensity, and it took Romaine a moment to see why, but there it was. Amongst the armoured men, he could see creatures like nothing he had ever encountered, not even those artificially-created melds that, last he’d heard, were all heading for the Maughold.

He struggled to get a clear look at them, but all he could manage were snatched glimpses as heads swayed in and out of his line of sight. They moved in a manner unlike any he had seen before, with a strange ambling gait which briefly reminded him of the squat-legged swamp creatures of the north coast of Nyasa, those strange reptiles with their mighty jaws. But those walked on four legs, this enemy walked on two, and wore armour. What new terror this was Romaine had little idea.

Then he saw why his apparently absurd reminiscence had occurred to him. The armoured creatures wore their armour only in patches – a breastplate here, a helmet there – but what kept them safe was no armour but their own skin. These were reptiles like those swamp monsters, and they lashed out with their teeth and tails and with the weapons they wielded with such brutal ferocity as to send unfortunate human viscera streaming forth like the rivers of blood that legend told had run across Arsencia during the Fall.

To hell with this, Romaine decided, mustering the thermal currents of the air beneath his feet and lifting himself off the ground. The townsfolk beside him gasped as the heat singed their clothes and skin, or perhaps in surprise at the sight of a mage amongst them. Romaine lifted himself just far enough to land on the rooftops overlooking the panicked street. From here he could see that the reptilian soldiers had pushed through the gates and were driving the multitude back before them, stepping over anyone foolhardy enough to try and stop them, not to mention the unlucky few who had been set alight by his magic. Sorry about that, he thought.

His senses tingled strangely, a sensation he recognised as coming from the warding spells he habitually wore. He threw up his hands, shielding himself just in time to deflect a bolt of lightning, the electric power careering aside into the houses across the street from him, showering the throng beneath with debris. They’re targeting me, he realised belatedly. Now seems a good time to make my escape. He ran to the far side of his roof, putting together a spell as he went, something his training master had referred to as the ‘Bridge of Air’. Romaine stepped out from the roof with abandon, setting firm foot down on the invisible surface he had conjured. In this style he made his way from street to street until he reached the town wall, from where he saw a sight to gladden the most grief-stricken of hearts: a small army of horsemen, human and deathknelve, furiously riding down to face the unknown foe.

* * * * * * * * *

Tom set his sights on the human foes, those who seemed to be in charge. The lizard-like creatures were terrifying, certainly, but they were simply foot soldiers. This was a battle to be won by cutting the head off the snake. Around him his royal bodyguards rode hard, swords drawn and cutting down all those that would harm their king. But as they closed in on the strangely-coloured humans, the lizardmen came rushing in to defend their masters. Tom found himself thrown from his horse by a heavy shoulder-charge from an armoured monster and pushed his feet from the stirrups as his mount fell. He drew his swords the moment he landed, Soulfyre gleaming along the blades. The lizardman facing him roared, spittle flying at Tom’s face, the force of the sound whipping his hair back.

“That’s unpleasant,” he muttered, moving easily into the drill. With his left hand he directed the monster’s attention, lashing out at its knees, while leaping up and around to drive his sword into its neck from behind. At least, that was the plan. As he pushed off the ground the lizardman’s tail whipped around, catching him full in the belly and throwing him several feet back. The only consolation was that his diverting blow to the knee had caused the beast to stumble to the ground. As he looked up, Tom saw the creature’s throat slashed by a female deathknelf.

“Your majesty,” she called, spinning lightly out of reach of a lizardman’s club before darting back in to lance her swords through its chest. “You must let us protect you!”

“I can protect myself,” he shouted back, proving the truth of his words with a flurry of fast attacks against another of the creatures. It parried several with the small shield buckled to its arm and the heavy club in its opposing hand, but more got through than not, the lizardman eventually falling to the ground, black blood oozing from a plethora of small wounds. What in Feruilen’s name are these things? Tom wondered.

* * * * * * * * *

Carigawn’s men were taking a hammering and no mistake. Lacking the speed and dexterity of their deathknelven counterparts, they were proving easy meat for the scaly monsters that beset them, and with their horses scattered in terror or bleeding out underfoot, their preferred means of combat was gone. The Duke had got in a blow with his lance before his mount had been taken out from beneath him, but he had been one of the few to do so.

To his left he saw one of his men go down, his throat torn out by the vicious, curving teeth of one of the lizard-like creatures. Warm, wet blood sprayed across him as it spurted from the wound. What did we ride into? Carigawn asked himself, but found himself unable to provide an answer. He raised a desperate parry against the lizardman, blood still dripping from its mouth as it came at him. His sword bit into the beast’s flesh, carving out a chunk of its arm. It roared in pain and Carigawn took the opportunity to thrust his sword into the roof of its mouth towards where he fervently hoped a brain would be. At last, a piece of luck, he thought as the creature twitched and then fell to the ground. His positive attitude instantly faded as the falling lizardman’s mouth closed around his sword, snapping the iron in two as though it were nothing more than a stick.

“Carigawn!” He turned and caught sight of a deathknelf, screaming at him. He recognised the deathknelf as one of the king’s personal bodyguards. “We need to retreat!” Carigawn nodded, looking to find his bugler. Instead he found a headless body caked in mud and blood, but fortunately the horn was still intact on the leather bandolier around the corpse’s midriff. He picked it up and blew one long blast. Hopefully the deathknelve would understand the signal and join the retreat. As an afterthought Carigawn drew the sword from his dead bugler’s waist. The poor man hadn’t even had the chance to defend himself before these brutal new enemies took his life.

Sairacusans and deathknelve began to pull themselves free of the fighting, retreating the way they had come, through the grassland that fell away toward the beach, back up to higher ground. At first the lizardmen chased them, but after a moment they fell back, returning their attention to the town, understanding that this enemy had been well and truly routed.

Atop the wall, Romaine’s heart sank once more.
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#2 Vortigern


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Posted 20 January 2011 - 02:37 PM

“Who were they?” wondered Illyriel. Tom merely shook his head. “How can there just be an army come out of nowhere?”

“They didn’t come from nowhere,” Carigawn amended. “They came from the sea.”

“Which suggests there is something to be found beyond the Great Ocean,” Vassingar mused. The impromptu council paused for thought at the suggestion.

“Laoces the Seafarer sent men across the sea,” said Zhar thoughtfully, having taken a while out from rebuilding the lower city to join the council. “There were reports of a volcanic island about six weeks out, but from what I’ve read that wouldn’t be big enough or have the raw materials for this kind of escapade.”

“So there’s something else even further out?” Theria asked him.

“It would certainly seem that way,” Zhar continued, brow furrowed in curiosity. Then he grinned madly. “How exciting is this? We should go find it!”

“Have you never gone off exploring the world, Zhar?” enquired Illyriel.

“Of course, but I didn’t know there was more world across the big pond. I sort of just assumed this was it.”

“More importantly,” Vassingar broke in, “our lands have been invaded by an army that was capable of easily seeing off half a mark of Sairacusans and the same number of deathknelve.”

“Technically it’s Anvar’s lands,” Essika pointed out. “But if what Tom and Carigawn have told us is right, it won’t be long before this army is everyone’s problem. We need a solution.”

“We don’t have the forces left for another major war,” said Vassingar. “The Sons of Man have less than three hundred soldiers left to them, we can barely afford to pay the mercenaries what we already owe them, not over the top of rebuilding our home.” There was another pause for thought.

“Tom, what you can tell us about those lizard people?” Essika asked. Zhar looked up suddenly.

“What’s this about lizard people?”

“There were lizard people in their army,” said Tom, straightforwardly. He still didn’t really feel like discussing the matter at length. Too many of his friends had been killed in that skirmish. Carigawn took over for him.

“They walked on two legs, had long, thick tails, were covered in scales, and they had very dangerous claws and teeth, but they were still carrying weapons, most of them.” The Sairacusan looked round as Zhar gently swore under his breath, then started muttering to himself. “Anything to add, mage?”

“It can’t be, can it? Yes. What else could it be? We can find them again. Always wondered where that was,” he murmured, apparently entirely unaware that everyone could hear him. “Good news, chaps,” he announced, upping the volume. “I know who we’re up against. Turns out I have been there after all.”

“Care to fill us in?” Illyriel pressed him after a moment’s silence in which it became apparent that Zhar was expecting them to thank him, or at least show some eagerness to hear what he had to say.

“If I must,” Zhar sighed, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. “The lizard people are called Ssadjin, and their owners are called… Wait, it’ll come to me…” Zhar paused, looking inward for the answer. Nobody said anything as he considered the question. “Embaru! Maybe? Something like that? Anyway, their home is sort of jungle-ish, and they have some pretty impressive temples. It’s also sort of grassland-y? It changes.” The council looked decidedly unimpressed with Zhar’s information.

“Could you be a little more vague?” Illyriel asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“I could,” Zhar replied, narrowing his eyes. “Look, you wanted all the available information, right? I had some. I’m leaving.” With that Zhar got up and left the room. The others all exchanged glances, and Theria and Illyriel could not help but grin at Zhar’s behaviour.

“Anyway,” said Vassingar, getting the meeting back on track. “Where are we going to find the resources to fight this new enemy?”

“We will fight at your side,” Tom declared, voice low and harsh. For all that he had spent most of his life around death, the after-effects of this latest battle were hitting him hard.

“As will we,” agreed Carigawn. “We have already lost friends and family to these invaders, and we will not let their deaths go unavenged.”

“Much as I appreciate your support, our three nations alone will likely not be a match for this enemy.” Vassingar brushed a hand through his thinning hair. “We need other allies.” The council fell silent once more as they considered their options. It was Essika that eventually said what they were all thinking.

“Then where do we look?”

* * * * * * * * *

Romaine looked out from his tower, surveying the scene. There had been no escape from Rockhill after the deathknelven army and their human support had been vanquished, the surrounding fields having been utterly covered in soldiers. Romaine had hidden himself away in the clock tower, the masterpiece of what had been a very prosperous town. The dwarven-made cogs and clockwork whirred on regardless around Romaine’s head. Up here you can almost believe nothing’s happened.

Down below the clock tower, the town was grim. The invaders, flanked by their reptilian slaves, marched the locals through the streets in chains, taking them out of the town and into the huge camps being set up in the fields. What they were doing out there Romaine could not see from where he hid, but he doubted it was anything good. Briefly a thought crossed his mind, a thought he was unable to force away; what do those lizardmen eat? What if that’s why they’ve come seeking new lands to conquer? It really was a possibility too grim for Romaine to contemplate. Besides, the thoughts that really required his attention now were those pertaining to his escape from Rockhill. All the more important if that is what they’re here for.

He turned away from the sight; there was no need for him to witness the grotesque tragedy that had befallen this unfortunate town, and besides, he had lived here long enough to know his way around the town almost with his eyes closed. Rockhill was no fishing village, but neither was it Valenti. What worried him most was not the potential route, but that he would have to undertake whatever plan he put together without the aid of magic; those foreign sorcerers had proven adept at discerning his exact location within moments of his wielding magic before, and he had little doubt they would do so again. This plan had to be all about stealth. What about stealth magic?

* * * * * * * * *

Night had fallen over Rockhill and Romaine had put together a plan. Granted, it was a plan that would require some on-the-go creative problem-solving and magical improvisation, but it was better than no plan at all. Anyway, Romaine was confident of the theory behind it; he had but to hope that theory and practice were not too far removed in this case. He made his nervous way through the dark and down the staircase of the clock tower. He paused at the door, the last bastion between himself and an unknown enemy that would kill him as soon as look at him. Hands trembling in anticipation, he emerged into the gloom.

So far so good, he thought. The alley was completely empty, but it was a good bet the larger streets would have patrols of some kind. Time for action, then. By the gods, I hope I’m right about this. Romaine drew in the darkness around him, shrouding himself in shadow, hiding his magic as best he could. The theory was that this would keep him safe from magical detection and hide him from plain sight. If anyone examined his locale closely they might see the magical equivalent of heat distortion, but it would take some serious misfortune for that to lead to his capture. Not for the first time, Romaine wished he were powerful enough to travel through the shadowgates, like the truly great wizards were said to do.

Hidden away in his cloak of darkness, Romaine made his careful way out of the alley and on to the street ahead. As if through a veil he could dimly perceive an armed patrol at the end of street, but they seemed almost relaxed in demeanour. Presumably they did not expect to encounter anyone in a town they had already done their best to empty.

And now for phase two. Romaine ran lightly down the street, trying not to make any noise; he wasn’t sure if the shroud would cover sound as well as sight. It was only a short while until he reached the town wall. He entered the gatehouse unnoticed, slipping past a doorway through which he could hear the sounds of incumbents. Atop the gatehouse, Romaine surveyed the scene before him. The invaders’ camp lay sprawled across the landscape, covering the gentle, rolling fields of Anvar. This was the part where the theory really had to hold up, or he would be in a great deal of trouble.

Taking a deep breath, Romaine relaxed his mind as he had been taught so many times. His consciousness reached out, seeking the magic of the myriad small fires scattered across the vast camp. He focused himself on one, picking at random, pushing himself into the flames, centring his being within that location, away from his body. The flames grew as his presence made itself felt, and through the eyes of the fire he saw the soldiers around it leap back in surprise. The soldiers around me. I am the fire. I am here. They can’t track my magic down if it’s coming from somewhere I’m not.

Then came the moment of truth. He reared up among the flames, simultaneously drawing in every single other fire from the camp. The furious majesty of his element roared loud in his psyche, drowning out every other concern as it grew. He launched himself skywards, bathing the whole camp in an unearthly orange glow. Panicked shouts reached Romaine in his human ears, his body stood motionless and inert on the wall as his soul carried out its mischief. He launched part of himself, part of the fire, at what he guessed might be the command tents, dead centre in the camp and ornate where the others were practical. His assumption was proven correct when the bolt of fire dissipated into nothing half a second before reaching the roof of the tent. He tried again, with the same result.

The next shot went as far from the command tents as possible, blasting a crater into the ground among the rank and file. The next salvo aimed for the lizardmen warriors, camped far off to one side, almost in the shadow of the town wall. Screeches of inhuman pain reached Romaine on the wall, and he almost felt sorry for them before he remembered the carnage they had wrought on the innocent townsfolk of Rockhill.

He left his magic working, sending the fire hither and yon almost of its own volition, returning his soul to his body and leaping into action for phase three of the great escape. Still clad in the shroud of magic, Romaine hurried along the wall to the next gatehouse, just in case, where he made his way down and out into the fields. Chaos still reigned among the invaders, but their magi were quickly re-establishing order. Romaine did not have much time.

He sprinted through the camp; at this stage, any sound he made would make no difference, being hidden as it was in the midst of the furore. He headed straight for the horse posts, where some hundreds of horses stood tethered, nostrils flaring, whickering in fear. With a brief surge of magic ripped from the artificial aurora above, he set the posts ablaze and, with the precision of a surgeon, set a little trickle of fire to slice through the rope binding one of the horses nearest to him, the one that looked most likely to carry him far away from here without complaint. But he wasn’t done here yet.

Phase four of the grand plan involved breaking out as many of the prisoners as possible. A chance of freedom had to be better than whatever unpleasantries their captors had in mind, even if it meant that some died in the attempt. In his brief flyover of the camp, he had made sure to note where the prison tents lay, and it was to them now that he charged his stolen horse. Drawing in what little remained of the fire in the sky, Romaine dragged it down into the prison tents, filling them with hot air and wrenching them from the ground, burning them up into nothing in the atmosphere.

All traces of stealth forgotten, Romaine charged headlong into the lizardmen guards around the prisoners, lances of fire launching from his fingertips and blasting the creatures off their feet. Concentrating hard, Romaine poured his energy into the iron chains that bound the Rockhill folk, delving into their past, seeking out the memory of their molten existence in times gone by, pushing it to the fore as the alchemists of the Valentine academies had shown him. Slowly the metal began to liquefy, melting away from the ankles of the prisoners. Some of the more enterprising among them kicked their way out quickly, instantly running for freedom.

His job done here, Romaine wheeled his horse about and gave it two hefty kicks to spur it on towards the open fields beyond the camp. Freedom beckoned, for however long it would last.
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#3 Vortigern


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Posted 30 May 2011 - 01:14 PM

In the throes of incandescent, uncontrollable rage, he hurled the table across the room, the heavy oak shattering into splinters against the stone. With a cry of fury he released a bolt of white light from his hand to disintegrate the fragments that survived.


The Man In Black froze, hand still outstretched.


“Master,” he breathed, shock and fear evident on his face. “Vayu was weak and foolish. I can finish this.”


“Cadavok still lives!”


“No! There is so much still left to do! I know your plans, Master, I can enact them, I can make this world what it is meant to be!”

DO NOT PRESUME TO KNOW THE WILL OF YOUR GOD. The Man in Black hesitated, suddenly uncertain as he sensed the burgeoning wrath of his overlord. He tried a different approach.

“With your blessing, Master, I can carry on your grand plan. Vayu’s death need not bring your hopes to a premature end.”

VAYU’S DEATH WAS AN END IN ITSELF. The Man in Black’s mouth opened, then shut, lost for words. The implications of the Eternal’s revelation were clear to him. If Vayu’s death was an end in itself, then everything he believed was falsehood, lies fed to him by a manipulative master who dared not show himself in person on the face of the earth.

“You told me we would create a new heaven here,” he said, voice low and quiet.


“You only brought Vayu back so that he could die.”


“You used me.”


“I never lied to you.”


“No,” said the Man in Black. His fingers wrought a complex sign in the air before him, and suddenly all was silence once more. “You made me believe,” he whispered. “You created me to want this, to destroy the world so that we can rebuild it. You made me believe it so much I will succeed even without you, Master.” His earlier fury was gone now, replaced by a cold certainty of what his future held. “I will bring the Fall to this world again, and I will rule in the chaos that follows.” He smiled grimly. “But first I will destroy Zhar Cadavok.”

* * * * * * * * *

Tom rode at the head of the column, his mind shrouded in dark thoughts. More than anything he felt tired. Tired of all the fighting, tired of running, tired of losing friends, tired of being needed. Beside him rode one of his captains, a Daggerweave called Vorinen, short and stocky by deathknelven standards, especially so among Daggerweaves, but still taller than a majority of humans. Vorinen’s stripes tended to the brown more than the livid regal purple of Tom’s, but the king was not one to judge a book by its cover. Vorinen was immensely intelligent, and gifted with an insight that few among the deathknelven warrior creed ever thought to value. He watched as Tom rubbed heavy fingers against his eyes in the gathering dark.

“The humans might prefer not to ride through the night, sir,” Vorinen offered, tactfully failing to mention the obvious weariness in the aging lines of his lord’s face. Tom saw through the ploy and smiled.

“So might we all, Captain,” he replied. “But I fear time is not on our side.”

“Certainly fatigue would not be an advantage, sir, but nor will it serve us well to arrive with the lethargy attendant to a week’s solid ride,” Vorinen told him, with no uncertain implication in his tone. Tom understood well his motive: Vorinen had been sent to him by the priestess, doubtless tasked with ensuring that Tom remained alive and well throughout this campaign, however long it might ultimately draw on. The captain was a smart character, for all that his speech patterns hadn’t changed in the last five hundred years. Tom sighed.

“I feel like I’ve got the weight of the world on my shoulders, Captain,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like it’s too much, even for me.” Vorinen gently guided his horse closer to Tom’s and spoke in low tones.

“Heavy indeed lies the crown, my liege,” spake Vorinen. (Tom couldn’t help being drawn in to Vorinen’s unusual throwback to a bygone age. It was actually something of a relief, in a strange way.) “The burden of responsibility is not one I envy, but one for which you have my undying respect and admiration. But you must recall, sir, that you are not alone in this endeavour. We are beside you.”

“But you’re not above me, Captain,” Tom pointed out. “I will bear the guilt if my people come to harm. I don’t know if I can do that.” He almost laughed then, but even the grim, hollow chuckle he had perfected through years of living close to death felt too light-hearted for this occasion. “I would say I’m only human, but I don’t even have that excuse.”

“I have heard it said that humanity is a state of mind rather than lineage,” said Vorinen, his tone moving to the philosophical. “If so, mayhap to be human is simply to dwell among mortals, away from the gods.” Tom sighed. He didn’t have the energy for philosophising right now. Vorinen of course noticed and dropped the matter. They rode on in silence for the rest of the night.

* * * * * * * * *

Romaine breathed easily for the first time since Rockhill as Tyburn’s northern shore came into view. He had ridden north-east as hard as he could, switching horses three times from the journey’s beginning to its end. His plan now was to push on through The Meres and spread the word of the invaders, as if there was any chance they hadn’t already heard, and then head south through western Trivandor and back to Valenti. It was a good plan, as far as it went, albeit somewhat lacking in fine detail.

The port towns of the region were busier than ever. Romaine was certainly not the only one to have made it out of Rockhill and the surrounding countryside before the invaders gained too solid a footing around it, and the majority of those in flight had come north, looking to cross the channels into The Meres, which were packed with ferries taking families in search of a new home. The Trevelyan realm, here on the border, would be the first to succumb if the invaders made it this far, but equally it now had plenty of manpower with which to defend itself. Romaine noted with interest, though, that a great many of the boats making their way from mainland to island were not flying the Trevelyan flag, the white horse half-submerged amid blue waves, but showed instead the colours of Trecothic, Dreiman, Trebellic, Drevilan and a few others that Romaine did not recognise. Romaine guessed the Pontifex had issued an edict insisting that all craft come to the assistance of those in need. His assumption was proven correct by the captain of a mid-sized trawler, nets rolled up and stored beside the spindly cranes that leant out over the water and flying Trecothic colours, the white serpent coiled around the black sun-cross. Romaine was sharing passage over the sea with three families and a small merchant caravan, all earnestly plying him for news of the invaders and of Rockhill.

“Last I saw it, Rockhill was half-burned and half-empty, with those that could not escape set in chains, and all the fields around filled with these warmongers,” he told his enraptured audience.

“Is it true they have dragons?” asked one of the merchants. Romaine shook his head.

“If they do I didn’t see any.” The merchant still looked dubious. “Besides, dragons cause huge disturbances on the magical planes, so I would have felt them if there were any to feel.” He gently nudged his Watcher’s pendant to remind them he was a man of no small means, which seemed to mollify the merchant somewhat. “But they do have something else,” he carried on. “Some kind of half-man, half-lizard creatures that they treat as slaves.” Hushed silence fell over the passengers of the boat as they tried to imagine it. “They subdue these beasts with magic and send them into battle. Pray you never meet one,” he added fervently.

“Are they coming this way?” asked a small boy, clutching tight to his father’s sleeve.

“Not at the moment,” Romaine reassured him. “Their first priority will be to settle themselves around Rockhill and fortify their position, then I imagine Anharad will be their first target. Besides,” he told them, forcing himself to smile as he did so, “invading The Meres would be a logistical impossibility. There are so many islands to hold out on that a conventional war would be unfeasible, and then their numbers wouldn’t count for much. You’ll be fine and safe up here.”

“And now we’ve got plenty of manpower thanks to the Pontifex agreeing to take you all in,” said the captain. “And insisting that everybody come and help out with the whole affair,” he grumbled. Clearly he was not happy about ferrying duties cutting into his fishing time. Romaine smiled. Perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad up here.

* * * * * * * * *

Five thousand deathknelve made for an awe-inspiring sight. Armour gleaming, swords drawn and raised, the assembled forces of the king of dubious morality made Carigawn shiver as they chanted their battle-hymn, invoking their gods to grant them victory. Carigawn wondered if his time might not be better spent leading his four full marks of horsemen in prayer as well, despite his people’s lack of faith beyond the physical. He was sure the old gods of the mythical plains people that had come before would listen if he prayed hard enough. Assuming they existed, that was.

Carigawn shook his head to rid himself of these unnecessary thoughts. He wanted to say something to his captains, but they already knew as much as he could tell them: go for the lizardmen’s faces, try to bring them down before they bring you down. These Embaru are still human, they can still be killed by the judicious application of a lance to the ribs or an axe to the neck. Verbosity was not a trait particularly well-regarded among Sairacusans.

Somewhere nearby Maximilian, the mercenary general, had gathered his Landsknecht pikemen together, or at least what remained of them after the Maughold, still comfortably around two thousand men. All told, this army numbered close to twelve thousand men and deathknelve. Carigawn only hoped that would be enough to outmatch the Embaru.

All too soon, morning came, bringing with it the day of battle. The scouts had reported that the Embaru were encamped less than five miles distant, with estimates putting their numbers somewhere between three and five thousand. Carigawn was disappointed in a way: this battle should be relatively easily won, but the bulk of the enemy was elsewhere, and as to their whereabouts he had no idea. He would almost rather have faced an army twice the size of his own if only to be certain of their location and strength. As it was he could put no guess to the full size of their forces, which worried him.

The ride to the chosen battlefield was taken at a slow pace so as not to tire out the footsoldiers further. Slowly the massive army manoeuvred itself into position, with the Embaru appearing at the opposite end of the field midway through the lengthy process. Some two thousand deathknelve had themselves hidden away in the woods to the south, ready to burst forth and pepper the enemy with arrows before charging into the fray as necessary, while a mark of Carigawn’s finest lancers headed around to harry the enemy from the north.

The final few minutes of the manoeuvring were conducted at a hurried pace as a large contingent of lizardmen began lumbering forward, charging towards the midst of the pikemen, backed up by a regiment of deathknelven swordsmen. Carigawn watched, interested to see the lizardmen in battle from an objective location rather than while trying to avoid their fearsome teeth and talons. The lizardmen broke into a sprint when they came within about fifty yards of the pikemen, and the first rank smashed through the spear wall with their tails, spinning around and about to shatter the wooden shafts like ice under a hammer. The unfortunate pikemen, now almost defenceless, began to panic and run, but fortunately for them the deathknelve at their backs threw themselves into combat, relentlessly attacking the reptilian monsters and cutting them down with repeated slashes and slices. Carigawn could not help but marvel at the exquisite swordsmanship on display from his allies.

Carigawn had his bugler signal the mark that stood opposite them on the south side of the fields as another regiment of lizardmen detached itself from the main Embaru army and began cantering after their kith. When the lizardmen were maybe two thirds of the way to combat, Carigawn had his bugler sound the charge and kicked his horse into a gallop, lance raised and screaming like a madman as he bore down on the enemy. He figured by this point he owed them a few deaths, and he very much intended to make good on that debt. The lizardmen howled in fury and pain as they found themselves caught between two marks of Sairacusan lancers charging at full pelt. Within no more than five minutes, none of the enemy survived and many, more than Carigawn had expected, of his men remained seated atop their horses. Further down the field the deathknelve had triumphed over the first array of lizardmen, driving the few survivors out into the woods, where they would no doubt be cut down by the hidden soldiers therein. Carigawn felt himself cheering up as he felt the cloud of pessimism lifting from the battlefield. The superior numbers of his army had put paid to the superior strength of the lizardmen with little trouble, and now most of what remained for the Embaru was simply human, and there were few humans indeed who could stand against a Sairacusan charge. Fewer still would come off best against a single deathknelf, let alone an army. In Carigawn’s mind it had become simply a matter of time before reality reflected that conclusion, and the next hour proved him right.

Tom Joad joined Carigawn in his tent as they rejoined the caravan that had followed them from the Maughold that evening.

“We lost no more than about six hundred,” Tom informed him. “Too many dead that shouldn’t be, and yet not a bad return for, what, five thousand of the enemy?”

“We lost more or less the same number, as did Maximilian,” Carigawn replied. “I don’t think the Landsknecht will be joining us for our next foray.” Tom looked at him slightly askance; Carigawn had not seemed himself since the skirmish outside Rockhill. The Sairacusan duke knew that all too well. He had not felt right, had not understood simple things, had forgotten things. Maybe something had just snapped in him after seeing a man’s head crushed to nothing by the jaws of an iron-clad nightmare creature from beyond the great ocean, and who could blame him for that? Carigawn chuckled to himself vaguely, and again noticed Tom’s glance.

“Do you ever wonder if you’re suited to this life, Tom?” he asked. The deathknelf did not respond immediately, so Carigawn carried on. “I often wonder what kind of man I could have been without the responsibilities of leadership weighing down on me. I should have liked to be a farmer, I think. Have myself some cattle and a few pigs and sheep and chickens and whatnot.”

“Heavy lies the crown,” Tom told him, and Carigawn laughed outright.

“Then we two must have grown some mighty muscles in our necks by now,” he said, and promptly lay down to sleep. Tom left in silence, doubtless musing on the deteriorating mental health of his ally. At least he’s gone, Carigawn said to himself. Maybe there are a few advantages to going mad. Maybe I’ll actually understand that wizard.
I hope I am a good enough writer that some day dwarves kill me and drink my blood for wisdom.

#4 Vortigern


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Posted 15 June 2011 - 07:04 PM

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if I stuck around up here, Romaine mused as he stood at the prow of the trader ship upon which he had bargained for passage across the Meres. They definitely have a healthy respect for magic in this part of the world. In Valenti, on the other hand, the Watchers were largely perceived as just another bunch of scholarly time-wasters who spent their days getting mixed up in other people’s problems. Which honestly isn’t far off the mark, Romaine added to himself. At least for most of us. There were a few good men among the Watchers, certainly, but these days the order had declined too far into debate and discussion rather than action and experience.

“How are our younger members supposed to learn to wield their element properly if they never leave the damned library?” Romaine had argued, and he had got a respectable muttering of agreement in the crowd behind him when he said it. Of course, those days were long past now, the days when Romaine was actually willing to put up with the rubbish the senior members insisted on for every meeting. Ceremony was hugely important to them for some reason that Romaine would never understand. His introspection was cut short by the arrival of the merchant at his side, himself a mage, though that was a secret he had kept until they reached open water between the islands.

“What’s on your mind, Watcher?” he asked.

“The idiots who claim authority over me,” Romaine answered, and was immediately struck by how arrogant that sounded. “The senior members of my order, that is. They’re a bunch of old fools who have barely left their bedchambers in the past ten years.”

“I know the type,” said the merchant, nodding his accord. “That’s why I left the Guild. I said to myself one day, Dev, these old fellers are fine sailors, sure, but they haven’t a godsdamned clue how to whip up a good wind or have a word with the sealife.” Romaine looked around sharply at him.

“You were a member of the Sailor’s Guild?” Dev merely inclined his head by way of answer. “I thought they didn’t use magic?”

“They don’t talk about it much. I guess that’s part of the problem, really. You know, every ship that comes up out of Khurnay has a mage on board. Wind Singers, they’re called. Their only job is to make sure the weather doesn’t turn bad, or if it does to get them the hell out of there.” Dev cackled happily at some memory. “Learned more on board one of theirs in six months than in six years with the Guild.” Romaine made some kind of interested grunt, until suddenly a thought struck him.

“Did you just say something about having a word with the sealife?”

“Oh, yeah, they’ve got plenty to say, you know.”

“What, the fish?”

“No, not the fish. There’s plenty more down there than just fish, believe you me.” Romaine’s brow furrowed in curiosity. “Sorry, Watcher,” said Dev with a hearty chuckle, “but that’s one secret of the Sailor’s Guild that I won’t be spilling any time soon.”

“Are you talking about your gods?” Romaine asked slowly, carefully selecting his words to try and draw Dev out. The irascible little trader just shook his head once, back and forth, not by way of answer but to show that no answer would be forthcoming. Romaine decided to carry on trying anyway. “All that I know about the sea gods is their names, really. Tiamat and Apsu, is that right? And isn’t Tiamat supposed to be kind of insane or something?” Dev chuckled.

“That’s brave, Watcher, calling the king of the ocean insane while you’re sailing around his territory. Do they not teach you common sense in Valenti?”

“Is that not right?” Romaine enquired politely, face open and sincere as best he could manage.

“Tiamat’s not insane. He’s simply a creature of the ocean. Have you ever been out on the open sea in bad weather, Watcher? It’s chaotic. Worse than chaotic. Anything could happen at any time, anything could change, it could all calm down or just plain stop in little more than the blink of an eye.” Dev had become serious now, the mischievous twinkle gone from his face, replaced by a reverence that Romaine had only ever seen before on the faces of religious zealots. “We make offerings to Tiamat because then he grants us safe passage, and we do not speak ill of him, especially not where he could hear us.” This last was aimed directly at Romaine, and left him feeling slightly uncomfortable. “Apsu is the river god, Tiamat’s brother, ruler over fresh water. The two of them were born in the crucible of the old world, long before the Fall, and the power they hold is greater than any that exists in we mere mortals.” This drew Romaine’s curiosity once more, and he pressed the merchant for details. “I have seen some things, Watcher, that defy reason and expectation, so don’t even bother asking me to try and explain them to you.”

“That’s fine,” Romaine told him, in earnest. “I’ve seen some pretty unbelievable things too. What interests me most here is what you said about your two gods having lived since before the Fall. How is that possible?” Dev’s earthy chuckle returned then.

“That’s an easy one, Watcher. Gods don’t follow the same rules as us. Besides, what do we know about the Fall?”

“Not much,” said Romaine. He was on familiar ground here: he had always found the subject of the Fall to be particularly interesting. “Men, elves and dwarves survived in separate communities for some time before they found each other again. The other races hadn’t been born by that stage.”

“Yeah, that’s all fascinating. What do you know about the events of the Fall itself?” Dev demanded, getting Romaine back on his own track.

“Even less, actually. The world was bathed in fire and ice, and it was mostly, perhaps entirely, caused by the folly of people.” Dev looked unimpressed.

“I’m sure that goes down great in Valenti, but honestly that’s rubbish,” Dev informed him with a wry smile. “The world burned, yes, and then drowned, but there’s a lot more to it than that. In Khurnay they still worship the old gods, and they know the truth. Merodach, the sun god, set the world alight to punish the unbelievers, and Tiamat doused the flames to save the faithful. And when the end times come for this world, they will fight again, and for all our sakes I hope Tiamat wins.” The terrible religious fervour had returned to Dev’s eyes. Romaine found it quite unnerving, to be sat in open water discussing the end of the world with a zealot who clearly believed every word he said. “The Enuma Elis know all this as well. That’s what they do, with their ritual sacrifice and their orgies. It’s all to appease their goddess, the mother of Merodach and Tiamat and Apsu, so she will keep them in check. When she dies the world will die with her.” With that Dev turned away, walking stiffly down the deck to the tiller, and he said not another word until they made landfall in north-west Trivandor some hours later, leaving Romaine to ponder all that he had learned.

* * * * * * * * *

In the lower reaches of the Maughold Zhar was having plenty of fun, slicing and dicing lumps of solid masonry into new shapes with the power of his mind. He had attracted quite a crowd, including plenty of young children who apparently had nothing better to do and spent their wasted hours ooh-ing and ah-ing as bright, iridescent flashes hewed through the stone and luminous winds carried them high and far away to take their places in the new town. Thaos sat nearby in his supervisory role, sent down by Theria to make sure Zhar wasn’t still planning on making everything look like his face, doing some slicing of his own: Illyriel had had his men bring down a barrelful of apples for the workers to enjoy, so naturally Thaos had assumed control of rationing. So far he had rationed himself about eight.

“Can I have one?” asked a reedy little voice from somewhere around Thaos’ waist. He looked down to see one of the children had wandered across from their vantage point. Thaos shrugged and tossed him a piece of fruit. The boy caught it gratefully and bit in with almost savage pleasure. “Why aren’t you working?” enquired the boy.

“Why aren’t you?” Thaos shot back.

“Because I’m six years old. What’s your excuse?” Thaos’ jaw dropped before he broke out laughing.

“A child after my own heart,” he said. “I, my boy, am not working because I am a marquess, and marquesses do not work.”

“What’s a marquess?”

“Like a king, but different.”

“If it’s different then it’s not like a king,” the boy pointed out.

“Yes it is. It’s not very different. I have lots of money and power and kingly stuff.”

“Where’s your palace, then?”

“Alaborn,” Thaos told him. This was a disguise he had used before, so the name came readily to his lips. He had checked thoroughly beforehand to make sure there was no such place as Alaborn, but if anyone asked it was in western Trivandor, near the mountains.

“Where’s that?” anyone asked.

“Western Trivandor, near the mountains,” said Thaos, grinning slightly to himself.

“Where’s that?” the boy asked again.

“If I tell you, you still won’t know where it is, so why should I bother trying to explain?” The boy shrugged.

“What are you doing here, then?”

“Same as you: watching him,” Thaos told the boy, pointing to Zhar. “I need to make sure that he doesn’t go rebuilding the city into a giant model of his face or something.”

“I’ve moved on now,” Zhar shouted to them above the gentle rumble and clatter of bits of rock being thrown around by magic. “Now I’m going to make a giant working replica of Theria’s lady bits.” Thaos’ easy smile froze and slowly morphed into a slightly sick grin.

“Excuse me one moment,” he said to the boy. He tried to stride over to Zhar but the uneven footing of the rubble-strewn ground made that difficult, so he settled for a kind of scurrying, hopping motion. “Now when you say ‘working replica’…” he murmured as soon as he was close enough.

“I mean working if you happen to be a colossal stone man. Wouldn’t be much good for you or me,” Zhar assured him. Thaos considered this.

“I don’t think that’s better,” he told Zhar. “I know this might sound crazy to you, but do you think you could just build houses and stuff?”

“Of course I could,” Zhar replied. “But where’s the fun in that? Besides, how often am I going to get the chance to do this?”

“I feel like we’ve had this conversation before,” said Thaos. It was true, they had. Several times now, whenever Zhar got a new idea in his head for what to do with the rebuilding. “So how about we skip to the end. Theria will give you a right old slap if you carry on with this one, so unless that’s actually your plan…?” He tailed off for a moment, watching Zhar’s face for a reaction. None came, so Thaos assumed that wasn’t the plan after all. “Then she’s just going to be furious with you. And you know you don’t want that.”

“But this is a loving tribute to her!” Zhar exclaimed. “Why would she not like this?” Zhar’s eyes crossed momentarily, a sign Thaos had come to recognise as Zhar holding some kind of internal dialogue. Thaos briefly wondered who would win. He tried to read Zhar’s lips as the mage argued with himself under his breath, but could only make out little scraps and snatches. “Well, I guess so,” Zhar said out loud, apparently to himself. “Maybe if we took a sketch first? What? How is that worse? Oh, fine then.” Thaos could only assume that some of Zhar’s many personalities were managing to keep their opinions within the mage’s damaged mind, which would explain why Thaos felt like he was only hearing half the conversation.

“Well?” Thaos enquired after a lull in the monologue. Zhar sighed heavily.

“Fine,” he said. “We’ll stick to the boring stuff for now.”

“That’s all I ask, old boy,” said Thaos, clapping him on the shoulder and making his way back to his comfortable spot by the apple barrel, which he now noticed was being raided by all the various children. He shrugged. It was a pretty big barrel.

“Where did you come from?” Zhar blurted out all of a sudden. Thaos turned around and his blood ran cold, though he didn’t know why. Before Zhar stood a man dressed all in black. A man with death in his eyes.

* * * * * * * * *

“Zhar Cadavok,” said the Man in Black.

“I’m not Zhar,” said Zhar. “Yes I am. Shut up, you idiot. No, you shut up. I’ll shut your mother up! My mother’s been dead for two thousand years.” At this point Zhar tried to punch himself in the face and block himself at the same time, and ended up making what would, under any other circumstances, be a completely inexplicable hand movement. I think this guy has a problem with us. Really? With genius like that it’s a wonder we haven’t taken over the world. Hey, I’m just trying to help. Well how about you help yourself to my foot in your arse. We have the same arse, you moron. And the same foot, guys, interjected a third personality that had been quietly watching from the sidelines until this point. I don’t know how you expect to kick yourself up your own arse, Zhar, but it sounds unpleasant for us all, so how about don’t? Zhar paused to reflect on this. Seems reasonable, I suppose. Hey, that guy’s looking at us funny. “What guy?” said Zhar aloud. “Oh, him. Right, I remember. Why is he looking at us like that?” I don’t know, maybe we should ask him? Oh right, ask the evil insane looking man why he’s looking at us like he’s evil and insane? You want to go slap some demons around while you’re at it? “Demons are rubbish, I’ve killed loads of them.” The Man in Black just looked plain confused now. Hey, he doesn’t look so murdery now. It’s working! This was a plan? “What was a plan?” Your face definitely wasn’t a plan. Can someone please shut him up? How would we do that? (Thoughtful silence.) Drink hisssss blood. “Oh, not you again.” Hey, he’s got that look back again. What look? “The look like he expects us to pay attention to him when he’s trying to be threatening.” Oh. Should we pay attention? “No, I don’t think so. I find most problems go away if you just ignore them for long enough.”

“I will not leave this place before you lie dead, Zhar Cadavok,” said the Man in Black. At least he knows our name. It’s the personal touches that really sell it. Zhars chorused in agreement. One of him hissed in impotent fury. That one did that a lot.

“Alright, who are you and why do you want me dead?” We probably killed his father or something. That’s usually what these questing types care about.

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I am darkness and light, I am fate, I am destiny.”

“You are pretentious,” Zhar added for him, making sure to mimic the tone as best he could. “You are irritating, you are kind of in the way of what I was doing. So would you mind moving a bit to the left? I’m trying to get some work done here.” That’s going to really annoy him. I’m well aware of that. Who does this guy think he is? The Man in Black tried not to lose his composure, but ultimately failed.

“I am the bloody human manifestation of the Eternal, alright?” he shouted. Ohhhh, Zhars chorused. That explains the whole ‘Alpha and Omega’ thing. What would the Eternal want with us? He already said he wants to kill us. What an ass. What did we ever do to him? Probably some horseshit about universal harmony or something. Yeah, that’s probably it.

“Are we upsetting the cosmic balance?” Zhar enquired politely. The Man in Black was thrown off track once again.

“The… what?” he managed. “No, that’s got nothing to do with this.”

“Then why are you trying to kill us?” asked Zhar. That’s right, get straight to the point.

“I suppose I just really don’t like you,” admitted the Man in Black. “I think that’s a good enough reason.”

“Yes, I can see why you wouldn’t like us. We’re not exactly the most personable people.” It’s the many-minds-in-one-body thing, tends to scare people. It’s a bloody miracle we ever managed to have a family. That was before our mind got all fractured and weird. Was it? That must have been a while ago. Zzzzzzzzhar hasssss no need of familyssssssss. “Oh, shut up!” Zhar was honestly getting more than a little sick of the hissy voice. Can we just get to the epic fight scene now? I’m getting bored of all this exposition. “Yes, so am I,” Zhar agreed. “Let’s do this.” He shot a bolt of brilliant red light at the Man in Black, so fiery that its passage was burned indelibly on the retinas of Thaos and all the small children still stood by watching, and simultaneously hurled two chunks of masonry the size of small houses to crash against each other where the Man in Black stood. The attack caught Zhar’s opponent off guard, but he was still able to put his shields in place before the stone crushed him flat, albeit not before the energy blast smashed him full in the chest.

The Man in Black emerged from the rubble, sending a small avalanche of broken pebbles down the sides of the boulders Zhar had thrown.

“Is that the best you can do, Cadavok?” crowed the Man in Black.

“No,” said Zhar. “I’m actually quite insulted that you might think that.” The Man in Black raised his hands and two streams of pure black energy poured forth. No, that’s not black energy. That’s void energy. That's interesting. The light seemed almost to be sucked into the streams, creating a terrifying penumbra all around the two sinuous paths of darkness. Zhar’s shields absorbed the attack with little difficulty, but as they did so he felt the unbelievable power behind it. Wow. Just wow. Do you think this guy really is the earthly manifestation of the Eternal? I guess he might be, with power like that. We’d know if a regular human had grown into that, we’d have sensed him years ago. This is bad, isn’t it?

The void energy continued to flood out of the Man in Black’s hands, and Zhar’s shields continued to absorb it, but they were weakening. There was only so much they could take. Shadowlands? Zhar asked. Shadowlands, Zhars agreed. With a little pop, Zhar’s body disappeared from the physical realm, and forty-one Zhars appeared behind the veil. Forty-one? Who are the new guys? Who cares, it’s not like they’ll be around for long at this rate. Avast! Yeah! Wait, what? Zhar looked around to see his personalities. He was curious, to say the least.

“Oh yes, I remember you,” he said as he saw the pirate. “Kraeven the Cruel. Those were the days. And who the bloody hell are you supposed to be?” he asked another one, dressed in a strange grey affair, with a buttoned jacket, plain grey trews, a stiff-collared shirt and some kind of colourful necktie of which Zhar vaguely approved, and what could only be considered a sensible haircut, of which Zhar most certainly did not approve. I’m not entirely sure, replied the grey Zhar. This sort of just… happened.

“A good effort, Zhar,” said the Man in Black as he too appeared in the shadowlands. “Zhars,” he amended. “That explains a lot.” He briefly surveyed the many Zhars before continuing. “But now it is time to die, for all of you.”

“I don’t think so, badman,” Zhar told him, stepping forward. “I’m the one you want.” What’s he doing? How should I know? I’m not inside his head as long as we’re here. Good point, well made. Thanks. Isn’t it nice when we can all get along? Who said that? That was pretty gay, whoever said that. (Silence again.) “I suppose if my escape route was blocked off, we might as well just get this over with. You and I both know I’m not strong enough to defeat you.”

“Yes, that much is certain,” agreed the Man in Black. “If you’re just surrendering, then, would you mind standing still while I crush you?”

“Does it have to be crushing?” Zhar asked. “Can’t you just blast me apart? Wouldn’t that be easier?” The Man in Black thought about it for a moment.

“Yes. Yes it would. Very well, Zhar Cadavok, prepare to meet your doom.” With a crack that shattered the stillness of the shadowlands Zhar disintegrated in a bloody spray, body annihilated. The other forty Zhars stood stunned for a moment, before one of them suddenly spoke.

“We’re free!”

A second later all forty had vanished, fled to the furthest corners of the earth. The Man in Black stood still for a moment, then abruptly realised what had happened. Zhar Cadavok had played one final trick, and had sent forty versions of himself out into the world to live the life they chose. A mere mortal had deceived a god.

The Man in Black let out a terrible screech of impotent rage.

* * * * * * * * *

Thaos had sent the children away to safety, but he felt it was his responsibility to see what had happened, who had emerged victorious. Since the moment Zhar vanished, Thaos had felt like things were going badly, but even so he was caught by surprise when the Man in Black reappeared, looking none the worse for wear. He had half-expected that Zhar would simply go on forever. No, the Man in Black was not quite none the worse. He was breathing heavily, and his eyes burned with anger.

“You!” he cried, pointing to Thaos, who found himself unable to move. “You find every last person Zhar Cadavok called friend, and you tell them I am coming for them!” With that he disappeared. Thaos might not have been the sharpest sword in the armoury, but he knew trouble when it froze him to the spot and threatened to murder him.

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

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