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.