"He has WHAT?” exclaimed one man at the bar, swiveling in his chair to better hear the news.
"That’s not possible, they’re extinct!” said another, standing suddenly and spilling his ale onto his trousers. He cursed and yelled to the barmaid for a towel, hastily wiping it off, but his eyes and ears riveted to the news bearer.
"I am just telling you what I saw. I have seen many mattekars, but nothing that big. It was the size of a house!” The man said, thankfully accepting the ale from the bartender, which he quaffed like he hadn’t drank in days.
A crowd began to swell around the bar. Those inside had come from all areas and the deck and those outside were crammed at the doorway, trying to get a good ear to the news.
"He is coming to the outpost west of town if you don’t believe me. In fact, he should be there by now.”
The speed at which the bar cleared was astonishing to those who stayed behind, namely Wilomine the bartender and the barmaid. Flinrala Ryndmad, a Forester for the Dereth Exploration Society, walked slowly to the front of the bar, a smug look on her face. She shook her head.
"It’s amazing how much these people thirst for news or in this case, false rumors.” She put her elbows on the bar and folded her fingers under her chin and glanced at Wilomine.
"You think this is just a wild story? What makes you so sure?” Wilomine stopped cleaning her tankards and glanced at her, a look of playful disdain on her face.
"I have explored every inch of those mountains, as have countless others. They would have been spotted long before this. Dereth is only so big you know.”
The Forester continued, "These people need to believe in something, something they can flock to and rally around. Holtburg has been as dead as Aerefalle’s Keep lately. No one frequents this town for trading anymore. Our prices are competitive, our atmosphere is excellent…” She paused and broke into a smile.
"The drink is good…” She winked. Wilomine smiled and blushed.
"But what is missing is the sense of adventure. The far-flung towns and outposts have it, but we have lacked it for years. It is taking it’s toll.”
"So…maybe this will infuse some life into this town, even if it’s a rumor, people will use this town as a base to hunt up north for the beasts." The Bartender replied heartily. "We could do good business…which reminds me, half these bastards took off without paying! Ugh!”
"You remember when the rivers ran red with the coming of the Hopeslayer?” Flinrala asked with eyebrows raised, knowing this was not a good subject with her friend, as the event took from her the only person she ever cared about, her Betrothed.
"Aye…I remember.” Wilomine replied, a blank stare on her face as if deep in memory. She blinked rapidly and attacked the unwashed tankards and dishes lustily.
"Well…that was not a rumor, sad to say, and people flocked to the town to witness it. That lasted for about a week. Then, people just faded away and kinda took it for granted. Strange…considering that whole crisis could well have been the end of everything.”
Flinrala suddenly jumped off her seat and grabbed her bow, filling a small mug with ale from the keg and downing it quickly.
"Ok…I’m off to debunk this news. I’ll be back with word one way or another soon.”
"Alright…” Wilomine replied, anxious to find out for herself, but not wanting to close the bar with so much work to be done.
"Oh…and Flinrala…” She piped up, catching her before she got to the door. "Make an announcement when you get there to have those sorry arses come back and pay for what they ordered, would you?”
The Forester smiled and winked. "Sure thing! I’ll be back soon.”
The outpost west of Holtburg had never seen anything like this.
Over one hundred people had rushed to confirm the tall tale of a Hoary Mattekar being found in the Espers. The noise of chattering and yelling was worse than a battle and Wantorth, the outpost’s shopkeeper, found himself drowning in the sea of madness.
"Please people! Have patience!” Wantorth shouted above the clamor. "He is cleaning up the hide at this moment, then he will show you! Please back away and quit trying to look in my windows!”
"So it’s true then!?” screamed one man from the back. The crowd quieted a bit at this question and many heads turned from trying to peer through the shudders, to the shopkeeper.
"See for yourself!” Wantorth shouted with a huge grin, knowing his business in the next few hours would cover the next three months. "Zovrio! Show them!”
"Daddy…why do we come to Holtburg so much when it’s so far away?” Yoshiko asked as she skipped alongside her Father, struggling to keep up with his long strides. "Why don’t we just shop in Khayyaban?”
"The trees Sweetheart.” Karnak replied, glancing down at his pride and joy and smiling. "It’s the trees.”
"The trees here are dumb. They are too tall and I can’t climb them.” Her nose crinkled at the thought. "Besides the trees Dad, what does Holtburg have that Khayyaban doesn’t?”
Karnak picked her up and gave her a light hug and she screamed in pain.
"Ow! Dad that hurts! I have a sunburn, remember!?”
Karnak softened, "I know sweety.” He smiled and winked at her.
"Oh…” she replied painfully. "Good point.”
As they approached the mysterious Menhir rings, they were almost run over by a large throng of people heading west down the road.
"Wow…that looked like a race.” Yoshiko said matter-of-factly. "Where are they going?”
"The outpost I believe.” Karnak replied, his eyes following the road west, trying to discern a motive for the rush. "Let’s go see.”
"Ok! Maybe it’s a fight! I’ll race ya!” She took off and started sprinting down the hill.
"Yoshi…be careful! You are losing arrows! Watch what you’re doing!”
"C’mon Dad! Slowpoke!” She giggled as she stopped to pick up her arrows.
"Oh my god!” Yoshiko exclaimed, staring at the gigantic hide of the mattekar. She had always heard stories of them and had even seen some of the rare robes, but she had no idea they were this big.
"Oh…and what god would that be?” Karnak inquired in reprimanding tones as he finally caught up to her.
"Ummm…I dunno.” She said sheepishly.
"Well, then don’t say that. Your mother would take your bow away from you for a month if she heard you say that.”
Karnak looked at the hide. It had to be a Hoary. The size, the color, and the sheen of the fur was a dead giveaway.
Some tried to push past Karnak for a better look and a few tried to touch it, only to have their hands slapped briskly by the unfortunate beast’s slayer, Zovrio. The inevitable questions came.
"Where did you find it?”
"Was it in a pack?”
"What did you use to bring it down?”
"How much to get you to part with that hide?”
Zovrio put his hands up in amusement. "It is not for sale my friends.” he said with a smile, lovingly stroking the fur. "As for where I found it, well…I found it where I used to hunt for them before, in the Espers.”
Zovrio looked to Wantorth, who was smiling from ear to ear as the crowd fell silent. It was similar to the silence before the storm.
At once, the crowd erupted with demands for arrows and fletching supplies, healing kits, and travel rations. The mob resembled an ant hill after being stepped on carelessly. Wantorth was beaming, trying to keep up with the orders and Zovrio quickly took down his prized possession.
Karnak pushed his way through the crowd, ignoring the stares of awe and loathing he got from everyone as he brushed by them. Through the back of the throng at last, he reached for Yoshiko’s hand, only to grasp air. He turned around quickly, wondering if she had been caught in the crowd, but couldn’t locate her. He called to her, but realized it was futile with the noise. A few traders parted at his approach and he spotted her on the side of the trading post, face-to-face with a boy three to four cycles her senior.
"Take it back!” She growled, clenching her fists, shaking with rage. "You take that back or I’ll ram your teeth down your throat!!” "Awww…ain’t she cute guys?” The boy said, chuckling as he pushed her away. The other boys, now numbering four, gathered to watch the sport. They laughed heartily until they saw her father approach. Their eyes went wide with fright and one boy bolted.
"Yoshi, let’s go…it’s not worth it.” Karnak laid a hand on her shoulder to guide her away. He could feel her quivering in fury.
"Yeah ‘Yoshi’…” the boy mocked, "go with your traitor dad back to that *poop*hole you came from.”
Karnak whirled around, having already escorted his daughter away and stood almost nose to nose with the boy’s father, who Karnak heard coming like a herd of aurochs. The rotund man, startled by this turn of events, nevertheless stood his ground in the presence of his son.
"You heard him…traitor” the man said through clenched teeth. "Leave before I embarrass you in front of your daughter.” His son smiled mockingly and held his hand up to his forehead, making a gesture the Dereth youth knew as "failure”.
Karnak stepped away slowly, grabbing Yoshiko’s hand. "You already have Sir. Do it again and I will embarrass YOU in front of your son. Good day.”
He walked in even steps, almost dragging Yoshi away. After a few hundred yards, his grip relaxed and his stride increased. Yoshiko stopped suddenly.
"Oh no!…I left my bow and arrows!” She looked to her father pleading, bouncing with anxiety. "Can I go get them? Mom will kill me if I leave them!”
"Yes…but hurry. I will be at the scriveners buying scrolls. Meet me there.”
"Thanks Dad!” she said as she raced back to the outpost.
Karnak stared at her intently, smiled and shook his head, then turned to walk up the hill.
The crowd had mobbed Wantorth with orders and had left the area where Yoshiko thought she had left her bow. It was not there. A few yards away stood the four boys, the broken bow laying in a heap of ruined arrows behind them. Her jaw dropped and she took a step back, stunned. She had crafted and strung the bow herself, the quality drawing many praises from accomplished archers…even from Enak himself. To say she had been proud of it would be an understatement.
"Awww…is the little Traitor’s daughter gonna cry?” said the lead boy.
Her hands began to quiver in fury. She clenched them and closed her eyes, fighting the tears.
"Oooo…she looks mad!” said another boy, picking up what remained of her bow and dangling it in front of her.
"Good…maybe she wants to fight. Let’s see what you got bi…”
The taunt died in his throat, her foot slamming square into his windpipe, dropping him immediately into a gagging seizure, his hands clutching his neck in a desperate attempt to breathe. The three other boys stepped back, stunned by her speed, but quickly took a fighting stance and charged. Yoshiko dropped backwards in a rolling motion, a maneuver she picked up watching her mother spar with Gormik and Koraz. She used her legs to flip one boy over her body, depositing him with an awkward thud behind her. The two other boys however, tackled her and began to hold her down, each taking an arm and a leg and using their weight to pin her. She struggled briefly, then relaxed when she realized what they were trying to do. The first boy finally rose, coughing and gagging and stood over her, a look of undisguised hatred and loathing on his face.
"You bitch! Yer gonna pay for that!”
"Kick her back Harald…right in the face!”
"He spat on her face, the long string of phlegm dropping from his mouth onto her cheek. She flinched, but just barely.
"Good idea…” he said in even tones, a smile dawning on his reddened face. He walked backwards a few steps, getting a running start. He ran toward her and leaped, drawing in his foot to smash her face as he descended. He never got the chance.
Feeling one boy’s grip on her leg relax, she brought it up suddenly and caught him in the groin, his momentum carrying him on her foot over her head. He landed on his knees, and slowly crumpled to the ground, gagging from pain once again. She used this new momentum to swivel her hips around and catch the boy still holding her arm and leg square in the face with her foot, his nose cracking and blood exploding from the break. The other boy quickly sprang to his feet and started to back away, but Yoshiko, again shifting her weight and pivoting on her hips, swept his legs out from under him, completing her maneuver by regaining her feet. The boy hit the ground before he could brace himself with his arms, the air in his lungs leaving in one great gust. She kicked him lustily in the ribs, watching him redouble in pain. As she turned to check on the other two boys to see if they had any fight left in them, she saw their fathers…and hers.
They looked unsure as to what to do next, their hands on their swords, ready to draw against what they considered to be evil incarnate. Karnak calmly stepped forward, distancing himself from his daughter.
"Before you draw your weapons”, Karnak said in smooth tones, crossing his arms, "I would weigh the possibility of them being used against you.”
The four men stopped, their hands flexing on their hilts in nervous anticipation.
"My daughter just gave your boys a lesson they will not soon forget. Draw your weapons against me, and your lesson will be permanent.”
Karnak turned and began to walk away, his senses tuned to their reaction. He did not want Yoshiko to see him fight…ever. Once he was sure they had thought better of drawing their weapons, he reached for Yoshiko’s hand, who was bounding after him, staring in bewilderment. After long moments, the questions he knew were coming finally arrived.
"Dad…why didn’t you fight them?” she said in a befuddled voice. "You could have taken them easy I think.”
"It wasn’t worth the time Yoshi. You’ll learn that some fights aren’t worth fighting. I could have killed them all before they drew another breath…but for what purpose? Because they called me a name? I have endured worse…believe me.”
She bowed her head as she thought about this, her legs still desperately trying to keep up.
"Why do they call you a traitor?” she said, her voice quavering with fear and dread. She had asked her mother, Gormik, Koraz and Ebon the same thing. They all had the same answer…
"Ask your father.”
"I…have not always been able to do the right thing in the past” he said gently, stopping and kneeling before her, taking her hands into his.
"I did some things that I may never be able to fully tell you about, and these things hurt many people, including Koraz, Gormik…and your mother.”
He stopped at this, the feel of her hands in his and her innocent gaze bearing down on him causing him to lose his voice. He cleared his throat and fought back the tears.
"The King was not pleased with me for the longest time and I still don’t believe he has forgiven me for what I did.”
His daughter blinked at him, not knowing what to make of this revelation. She slowly drew her hands away from him.
"Did you kill people?” she ventured, a slight quiver entering her voice. Her eyes withered in pain.
"Yes…many, many people. Some of them were my friends.”
"Did you hurt Mommy?” she began to sob as she said it.
"Yes…I did…” He began to cry also, the sight of her sobbing was too much to bear. "That is a pain that I will carry with me always sweetheart.”
He wiped away the tears and noticed she was staring at him in awe. She had never seen him cry before.
Karnak smiled, his tear-stained cheeks shining in the afternoon sun. He drew her close and kissed her forehead and cheek and hugged her mightily. She returned it and sobbed again, not from anguish, but from understanding.
"I love you Daddy” she said finally "I hope someday you will tell me the whole story.”
"Someday…” Karnak replied, lifting her up and placing her on his shoulders. "But right now, tell me how you dropped those boys so quickly. Did you lead with your left like I showed you?”
Yoshiko giggled. "Better…I led with my left foot…right into his throat!”
"Foot!? Bah!…who taught you to kick? Kicking is for…”
"Oh…well…very good then.”
Yoshi giggled again. "I thought you might say that!”
"Oh you did, did you?” Karnak taunted as he lifted her from his shoulders and tickled her mercilessly, resuming his walk down the road that led to Glenden Wood.
The town of Glenden Wood had fared much better than Holtburg in recent months, the lure of adventure and wealth via the nearby Direlands portal attracting many who sought the far reaches of the wilds, away from the throngs of Fort Tethana and Ayan. The prices were slightly higher than Holtburg, but Glenden Wood made up for it with personality and sheer beauty, nestled in a small valley with towering trees. For Aiko, it was the trees that always brought her back. "Do you have any idea when they are due back?” Aiko said in exasperated tones.
"He should be here any minute.” Koraz replied, quaffing another ale. "He better be anyway, we have a hunting trip scheduled. He has put this off for three weeks, he’s not getting out of it this time.”
"He is ignoring my mind touches. I swear, that man sometimes…”
"Oh?…and what about that man?…Hmm?” Karnak said laughingly, hoisting Yoshiko up on a stool.
Aiko jumped a bit and turned, caught off-guard by his voice. "It’s about time Dear!” She gave him a warm hug and a soft kiss, holding onto him for long moments. "You had me a little worried when you didn’t answer me…I hate when you do that!”
She poked him in the stomach and nibbled his ear, smiling as he tightened his grip on her. She knew anything having to do with his ears drove him wild.
"How long have you been standing there?” she said, kissing him softly on his neck and chest.
"Long enough to know you are beautiful when you’re mad.” Karnak whispered back, running his hand through her hair and down her back.
"Oooo…teasing me…that’s good. You are in for it tonight!” She giggled and kissed him powerfully on the lips, tilting him over to rest against the bar.
"Sheesh…get a room you two!” Koraz smirked, nudging Yoshiko to follow his lead.
"Yeah…really!” Yoshi said, giggling, her laughter so close to her mother’s that the two voices could be mistaken for one another.
At this, the couple parted, smiling, a look of love on their faces that forced tears of joy into the young girl’s eyes.
Aiko looked at her and smiled, kissing her cheek. "What’s wrong Sweetheart?” she said, her expressions softening, "And where is your bow?”
Yoshi sat bolt upright and began to figit uncomfortably. "Ummm…well…that’s a long story Mom. Can I tell you on the way home?”
"Oh no…” Aiko rolled her eyes, but smiled nonetheless. "Who did you beat up?”
"I didn’t…I mean…well…they started it!” Yoshi stammered and cast her eyes down as she slid off the stool.
"I’m sure they did…let’s go. You can tell me about it later.” She bent over and kissed her forehead and then turned to her husband. "I will see YOU later!” She winked and led Yoshi out the door.
Karnak smiled, knowing what the inference entailed. He cleared his throat as he glanced at Koraz. "Are you ready for that trip?” he said, as he downed an ale lustily.
"Yes…finally!” Koraz retorted, paying the barmaid and sliding off the stool. "I was beginning to think you were avoiding me.”
"No…been busy, but I miss hunting. I think we need to head up to the Espers.”
"Why the Espers?” Koraz replied in a light tone. "I thought we were headed for the Obsidian Plains?”
"We were…but something came up in Holtburg that I think we should take a look at.”
"Really?” Koraz turned as they exited the tavern, Karnak right behind him. The morning sun was starting to show over the hills, melting the chill from the air. "I heard a rumor that someone arrived at the outpost there outside of town with a mattekar hide big enough to cover a house. Any truth to that?”
"Yes, I saw it myself” Karnak replied as they walked toward the mage shop, which was bustling with activity. "I was thinking that, if we could get lucky, I could get Aiko that robe she has always wanted. I’ve been thinking about it all the way home.”
"Hmmm…” Koraz mused aloud. "Well, if our luck fails on them, we could always hunt banderlings.”
"That’s the spirit!” Karnak said as he slapped his young vassal on the back heartily. "Lets stock up and get going, we have quite a bit of running to do today.”
The Esper range, although not as lengthy as the southern Linvak Range, had always been considered the best place to hunt mattekars. A cave full of them was discovered near Mt. Esper long ago and now, according to the accounts, Hoary Mattekars, the largest of the three-legged creatures, populated the forests on the high, snowy plateaus. Their fur protected against the worst cold and lightning imaginable, making them highly prized among mages. Their style and sheen however, coupled with the fact that wearing one meant you had defeated the most dangerous animal in the Northern lands, made them priceless. Aiko had never mentioned that she wanted a mattekar robe, but Karnak could see it in her eyes when they passed a mage wearing one. He wasn’t about to miss out on a chance to surprise her.
After a half-day’s trek from Holtburg, they stopped near a bluff covered with large, snow-covered firs to rest. The air was thinning as they climbed in altitude. Normally, the thin air wouldn’t have bothered Karnak, but the amount of supplies he carried for this possibly week-long quest left him out of breath. Koraz, overburdened himself, was glad for the respite. He dropped a few extra packs and began to look for dry wood for a fire.
Karnak stretched his back and yawned, stifling a shiver. The months in Khayyaban had taken their toll. The cold seemed to bite more than he remembered and he absently cursed himself for staying in that abyssal valley for so long. Aiko visited Glenden Wood as often as she could, and he knew that she missed the trees.
"Not much longer…” he whispered, "we’ll move soon enough.”
Koraz plodded through the snow, carrying a loose bundle of sticks and logs he seemed on the verge of dropping. He was not accustomed to the cold either, and his face glowed red from the frost.
"This was all I could find, but it should be enough. I’ll dig a…”
Koraz stopped, seeing the look on his patron’s face. Karnak stood quickly and drew his fire axe, looking directly at Koraz, or perhaps through him.
"What!?…” was all he time to say.
"MOVE!!” Karnak bellowed, but it was too late. Koraz felt something akin to a battering ram bludgeon him from behind and the world spun. He knew instantly his back was broken and he was too disoriented to tell what had hit him and where he was going. He had the sensation of falling and was dimly aware that the bluff they were camping on made for a lethal fall. He closed his eyes, choking on the mixture of cold air and his own blood. He seemed to be falling in slow-motion.
Karnak rolled to one side and closed his eyes in concentration. Magical energies flowed from his body as he located his falling comrade, healing him of his injury as he fell. He followed with a spell of bludgeon protection a split second before Koraz hit a snow bank, breaking his left arm, leg, and hip.
He swung his axe in front of him to ward off the huge mattekar he knew was a few feet away. He could feel it’s breath and the low rumble of it’s growl. It was clearly annoyed and was protecting it’s territory. Karnak slowly got to his feet, his fire axe keeping the beast at bay, but just barely, the behemoth lunging and snapping it’s jaws ferociously. Karnak realized this beast was little challenge when he was fully combat ready, but he had no spells of protection cast, no spells that would augment his strength and fighting ability, no spells to enhance the power of his weapon, and most importantly, no shield. One ability he did have gave him the upper hand, and he hated himself for it.
He swung his axe in light, defensive strokes, trying to gain room to manuever around the trees. The beast was fast and would not give him the room he needed, it’s massive frame moving fluidly between the trees to cut him off. Karnak slipped a lunge that would have impaled him and brought his axe about in a blur, the blade hissing as it scorched the air. The mattekar howled in pain and rage and stepped back, huge head shaking out the ignited fur. Karnak took the respite to quickly cast an enchantment on his axe; Infected Caress. He then ran, darting among the trees, hoping the beast would chase him. It took the bait, judging by the sound of cracking branches and the snapping of saplings as the behemoth lumbered after him. Ahead, about thirty feet, were two giant pines, the spacing between the two giving Karnak an just enough for a man to pass through. He raced to the narrow path, as fast as two feet of snow would allow, and dove through the opening. He then heard the beast howl in pain, not from being caught between the trees, but from something else.
As he got to his feet, he could make out two figures firing arrows at the mattekar, their white armor making them almost invisible in the snow. The arrows were angering the beast, but little else. When it charged them, they scattered and began to tag it with arrows on both sides. The huge beast turned its back at each new stab of pain, but couldn’t focus on one attacker. Karnak concentrated and cast a spell of fire vulnerability on the monster. Each flaming arrow then sunk deep into its flesh, disappearing into the beast completely. It fell a few seconds after, making a crumpling and splashing noise in the snow. The noise went from bellowing and snorting chaos to pure silence instantly.
Karnak wiped the snow away from his furs and began to walk over to the archers to congratulate them on their kill. The two looked at him with an expression that Karnak found familiar, but his memory couldn’t place it.
"Good fight gentlemen…and good timing.” Karnak said as he offered is hand in friendship. They did not return the gesture and he wondered if he had somehow offended them.
"Were you after this one? It attacked us as we were setting up camp.”
"We were…” said one in even tones, removing his helmet.
Karnak noticed the other archer still had an arrow nocked and realized the two must be guarding against a possible thief. They stared at him intently and began to circle him very slowly, their facial expressions absolutely devoid of emotion.
He could feel the hair stand on the back of his neck. Something was wrong. These two were not what they seemed. Their movements and the sheer lack of emotion they displayed reminded him of…something.
He heard the creak of mahogany, a sound he should never have heard had they meant to kill him. He swung his axe so quickly, he nearly lost his feet. The fiery axe cleaved the bow in twain, taking the hunter’s forearm with it as it seared the air. The man’s face never changed. No wincing, no tell-tale contorting, and certainly no scream of pain. He simply drew a simi and lunged after the disbelieving axeman. The thrust was not clumsy, yet displayed a clear lack of skill. The thrust was easily parried and Karnak brought the heft of his axe around in a blur. The blade cleaved through the man at the armpits as easily as it had cleaved the air. The rest of the man crumpled where it stood as Karnak turned to his other assailant, who had done nothing while his comrade had died.
The man stood staring, as if studying him. His bow hung at his side and no arrow had been drawn.
"You are not Isparian?” The man said in even, lifeless tones.
"I am not.” Karnak said warily, keeping his axe at the ready. "You are not under Asheron’s protection are you? Your fallen comrade had no aura in life or death, and neither do you. Who are you?”
"It matters little. In the end, we will all be the same.” He drew his bow swiftly, but his intentions were plain and Karnak saw it coming. Using the haft of his axe as a staff, he swatted the bow out of his assailant’s hands, shuffled to his left while spinning, and brought the axe around in a looping arc. The blade sliced through the man’s legs and dropped him instantly, the snow melting in places where the fresh, almost steaming blood splashed.
No cries of pain. No curses. No change to the emotionless face.
The man lay there bleeding in spurts, but did nothing except stare at his slayer.
Exasperated, the axeman knelt beside the broken man and began again.
"Who are you?”
"My name does not matter, nor does my motive for ending your life. It has already begun.”
"What has already begun? Your death?” Karnak retorted, his anger rising to the surface. "If you have sworn yourself to the Dark One, then you are wrong. This is only the beginning. Savor this pain while you can, for it only gets worse.”
The man was dead before he had finished his sentence.
The ground was splattered with gore and Karnak washed his axe in the snow. He quickly buried the two mysterious hunters in a shallow grave made of snow, knowing the local scavengers would just dig them up anyway.
"Koraz…how are you?” he said in his mental ‘voice’.
"I am hurtin’, but hangin’ in there”, Koraz replied in mental tones that reflected pain. He hadn’t meant to display it openly to his Patron, but a shattered left side could make anyone shiver in pain, mental voice or no mental voice.
"Drink a few of those elixirs we bought and I’ll be down shortly”, Karnak said through the ether matter-of-factly. His gaze remained on the huge stark white carcass in front of him.
"Did you kill it?” Koraz ventured, the pain in his mental voice soothed by the healing elixirs.
"That’s a story in itself I’m afraid. I’m coming down. I’ll tell you on the way home.” Karnak said absently, his eyes now straying to the snow-covered mounds that were all that was left of the enigmatic hunters.
The warrior slung his axe over his shoulder and unsheathed his hunting knife, surveying the dead mattekar before him.
"Looks like Aiko finally gets her robe” he mused to himself, smiling at the thought of the look on her face when he surprised her. He quickly went to work on the hide, humming a forgotten song unconsciously that, unbeknownst to him, was one of the few things he could recall from his Father. Finishing, he folded the hide as best he could, the massive carpet of fur still unwieldy even in his large hands.
"We need to make a quick run to Neydisa to get this hide worked into a robe, then we can go home.” Karnak started to walk down the mountain the same way they had come up, remembering a ravine that would lead down to where Koraz was laying. The lad would need more healing before they started, toward Neydisa, and even then would be stiff and slow for a few days.
"We have time”, he thought to himself. He smiled again. His life was finally where he wanted it; slow, steady, and full of love.
"We have all the time in the world.”
Black End; Part II
Mattekar hunting wasn’t usually this tough, or so Gormik thought as he dragged himself through the outskirts of Holtburg.
When roaming the forests of the Espers, he often crossed paths with many of them, and would kill one on occasion, as he liked the taste of their meat over an open fire. His hunting armor was adorned with the stark white fur of the animals, which helped him to blend with the icy environment. He sold the horns to bowyers, fletchers, and alchemists alike; the bowyers using them to make the newer composite style of bow, and the alchemists grinding them to powder for potions and elixirs. He had sold many furs as armored coats when they were in fashion many years ago, taking advantage of the outrageous prices people were offering for them. Now, finally, he had a chance to hunt the biggest mattekar of the species, one that hadn’t been seen in years and was thought extinct by anyone who cared to comment on the subject.
"A whole week of hunting, and not one TRACE of a Hoary.” He exclaimed under his breath. Under any other circumstance, this would have made him a skeptic that the animal even existed. But he had seen them on display in the Holtburg outposts. He heard stories of large herds of them in the Espers and the mountains of the Linvak Range. He KNEW they were out there, which made the whole week even more depressing.
He approached the western outpost of the town and started to think of food and drink. It wasn’t the best here, but the outpost told him he was close to the tavern, and their ale always brightened his spirits. The thought of sitting down to a tankard and a rack of lamb started his stomach to scheming and he quickened his pace. He was just in time for dinner. Perhaps some gossip on the recent hunting trips of the locals would give him a renewed sense of hope.
"Maybe I should try the Linvaks?” He mused silently, his strides bringing him ever closer to the tavern.
The archaic Menhir rings slowly came into view as he made his way up the hill. That it is when noticed it. The town, usually bustling this time of day as everyone prepared their meals and finished their work for the day, was quiet.
"Odd..." he wondered. "Maybe something is going on in the tavern. I could use a bit of a distraction."
The tavern was lit, but was absent of sound, which was unheard of at this time of evening. As he approached, he began to walk silently, his rogue nature taking over. Something was amiss, and it alerted all of his honed instincts. As he came around the back side of the inn, he ducked under a window, but stole a glance inside. Many people crowding the tables and most of the bar, Wilomine tending the bar as usual, everything seemed as it always was. Everything that is, but the noise.
No one was talking.
"Hmm..." he muttered to himself as he grabbed for the door. "Bad news probably." Gormik stopped at the door just before opening it, then resolved to ask questions over a mug of ale. His thirst, and hunger was starting to get the best of him.
All heads turned as Gormik opened the large wooden door, creaking on its frame, and strolled inside. He paused briefly, taken aback at all the attention, then calmly made a beeline to the bar. The crowd turned as he passed, and Gormik immediately conquered a strong urge to run. Unnerved, he took a stool and asked for his favorite.
"Wilomine, long time, no see, Ma'am", he quipped, putting on his best smile, which would usually set young women to giggling, including Wilomine on many an occasion. Wilomine acknowledged his presence with a mere nod, slowly turning to face him.
"How may I serve you Gormik?" she inquired with as much emotion as a corpse.
"Huh? What kind of talk is that? It's me, Gormik! You act like your mother just died."
"She didn't...did she?" He felt ridiculously small and wanted to hide.
"My mother is in good health." She said in even tones. "Your health is another matter Gormik. You should take better care of your shell."
"My shell? I wouldn't call this chisled piece of bronze a shell!" He smiled as he retorted, but he felt like pulling a dagger, just to slice through the oppressive air that permeated the room.
"What's wrong with my health?...and what happened to your accent?" He started to slide off the stool, making the decision to leave and ask questions in the morning, when the door opened again. As before, all heads in the room turned to survey the new guest. The man was dressed in ragged mattekar furs and chainmail, a large spiked mace hanging at his side. He strode powerfully toward the bar, and the crowd reacted exactly as it has before as dozens of eyes tracked his progress in unison. The man was well-built and had the look of a seasoned warrior, but Gormik sensed something else.
This man stank of fear, which made him different from everyone else in the room. That is, except Gormik.
"Bartender, water please." He glanced over to Gormik, who could not hide his by now overwhelming anxiety and curiosity as to what the hell was going on. The two stared at each other for uncounted seconds before the deadlock was broken by a tankard of water. The man cut Gormik off before he could begin.
"How long have you been sitting here?" he whispered, barely audible to Gormik's ears. The blasting silence made the whisper seem like a war trumpet.
"Long enough to know something is wrong, and that you are...different." Gormik whispered back, his voice half-catching in his throat. He just realized that he hadn't touched his ale. He reached for it and noticed his hand shaking. "Gormik, you coward, relax" he told himself.
"Name's Brohagn" he whispered, glancing around the room. "I arrived yesterday from Rithwic. The town hasn't been like this until today. Everyone has changed..." He looked around the room again. His paranoia was beginning to rub off on Gormik, whose gaze darted to and fro to survey the tavern, but he still strained to listen.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but no one is drinking anything here but water. When is the last time you have seen that in a tavern anywhere on Dereth?"
Gormik turned his head slowly. No ale, beer, mead, wine, or anything else but water graced the tables. All eyes were staring at him. Straight into his soul. He stared back and couldn't break his gaze. Their heads, their eyeballs, all their bodies, all swayed in exact unison. He had never seen anything like it. It was almost beautiful in its harmony, if it wasn't so repulsive and horrifying to something buried deep within him.
"I have been laying low today and just watching people. Everyone has changed within the last few hours. It's like some news I'm not privy to, and its unnerving."
"That's the feeling I got too" Gormik said in as low a voice as he could muster. He reached for his ale and took a long drink, thankful for the wetness in his throat.
It was water.
"I watched you approach the tavern and could tell you weren't part of this." Brohagn began again, his gaze shifting like a pickpocket in a crowded market square.
"If you saw me come in here, then why did you ask me how long I have been sitting here?"
"I wanted to gauge your reaction, and you proved me right." Brohagn downed his water and began to add something else when he again noticed the entire tavern staring at the both of them. They even blinked in unison.
"Let's...get out of here" Gormik said under his breath, his hands sweating like they did before a battle. The hair stood on the back of his neck and his survival instincts told him to kill the first man who stood in his way.
"Aye...but keep a cool head until we get out the door!" Brohagn rasped, his hand clenching reflexively.
The entire tavern stood in unision, the exactness of their movement bringing waves of nausea rolling through Gormik's innards. He felt like vomiting, and had to swallow hard. They blocked the door and their hands went to their weapons.
"What is wrong with you people?!" Gormik stammered, not quite understanding why he was so shaken. "If this is some kind of joke on me, I no longer find it funny."
Wilomine chimed in from behind the bar in even tones. "An inquiry Gormik: Have you encountered one of the large Mattekars or met someone who has?"
The abruptness of her voice in the tension-filled room shattered what little hold he had on his nerves. He whirled around as he replied, "Is this what this is about? If it must be known, I..."
He was staring down a heavy crossbow.
"Is it greed?" he thought to himself. He had never known Wilomine to be the greedy type, as she often allowed patrons to rack up hefty bar tabs before paying. It didn't seem in her nature. He almost smiled as he realized he was now relaxed. His instincts were taking over and it gave him relief.
"Perhaps you and your comrade would like a room for the night?" Wilomine said without taking her aim away from Gormik's face.
That took the cake. "Why?" Gormik replied, his anger rising finally as it mixed with his fear, "So you can slit our throats in our sleep?" Gormik hand went to a dagger in his belt, then froze. It is amazing what instincts can do for you in life-or-death situations. Gormik probably shouldn't have heard the crossbow creak slightly as the bolt was released. He also probably shouldn't have been able to react as quick as he did. The bolt fired, but Gormik was already sliding to his right and drawing his dagger. The bolt still managed to snip off half his ear on the way to embedding itself in the wall. He never felt it, as the rush of the next few minutes drowned the pain.
Brohagn drew his mace and bellowed "YOU WANT A FIGHT!? YOU GOT IT!!" and jumped into the dozen or so patrons. Two quick sweeps of his mace and two were down, their skulls smashed, the contortion of their faces looking almost like a smile.
"Run laddie!" the big warrior yelled over his shoulder, swinging in defensive strokes as more came through the tavern entrance to join the fray. "Run to Rithwic and warn everyone! Hurry!"
Gormik leaped for the balcony overlooking the bar and caught it, deftly swinging himself up into a fighting position. Wilomine fired another bolt, but missed narrowly, Gormik's speed throwing off her aim. He started for the balcony door and stopped and turned. He hated leaving someone in a lurch on his account. He started back and peered over the balcony. Brohagn had dropped a few more, but the numbers were piling on, and disappeared in a tangle of flailing limbs, his screaming and cursing fading away. More poured into the disheveled tavern and eyed Gormik.
"Silent", he mused as he bolted for the door and over the balcony, running at full speed toward the Rithwic portal. "They aren't talking to each other."
Gormik easily outpaced the tavern patrons, his speed well known within Lord Creed's kingdom. He had once made the trip from Holtburg to Crater Village in one non-stop run. As he passed the Scriveners to the south of town, he noticed that the mob behind him was still giving chase.
"Stubborn bastards", he muttered, slightly out of breath. He could keep this up for over an hour, but he didn't plan on them pursuing that long.
He then eyed the portal and stopped so suddenly his left ankle gave way and he plowed into the ground face-first.
The entire portal was ringed by torch-carrying town members. They numbered over thirty, with more coming from the West.
Grimacing in pain, he suddenly realized his speed advantage was now gone. He quickly got to his feet and hobbled east toward the river, running toward Rithwic over a half-mile away. The river was swollen with run-off from the Espers and would give him the best chance of reaching Rithwic.
"I'll never make it like this", he thought aloud, limping away from the approaching crowd. He drew an elixir from his belt and downed it quickly, the effects easing the pain from his ankle, but stiffening it at the same time. He also became aware of the pain on the side of his head from Wilomine's close shave.
Running easier now, he paced himself to stay ahead of the mob, just out of easy bow range. If they wanted to drop him with arrows, it would take a sheer miracle...or Enak...or both.
"I wonder if Lord Creed knows...". His thoughts raced. The portal to Rithwic was being guarded. How did the King NOT know? "I wonder if Karnak knows...". He concentrated briefly to reach out to his Patron's mind, finding that particular glowing needle in a haystack full of needles. The warmth that came with the mental release while being consciously aware flowed over him like honey. He basked in it, briefly, then was sent crashing to the ground once again, his head exploding as if encasing pure magma.
"I'm hit." he thought, reeling from the pain, both physical and psychic. "It's over...I'm sorry Brohagn." He struggled to maintain a grasp on consciousness and realized he was not injured, but something else...was wrong.
His mental self recoiled from the telepathic feedback and snapped to attention. The ether was tainted, poisoned somehow. He had never felt anything like that since arriving from Ispar years ago. Honey swarming with angry bees. But the bees were on the inside, stinging his thoughts and...his memory?
He once again scraped himself off the ground and sprinted for the river, the mob only fifty yards behind him now. They were still mute, the only noise coming from the branches and twigs snapping beneath their feet, and the quiet whisper of the torches many of them carried. He dove into the Prosper head-first and stayed underwater for over a minute, letting the river carry him South and hide his location from the crowd. He inwardly thanked the long-lost Isparian gods that he was wearing his light leather/furs hunting armor and not anything that would drag him to the bottom. He felt safe, as safe as anyone with a whole town after them could get. He began to calculate how long it would take the river to carry him to Rithwic. He came to the conclusion that he did not have that much time.
The fires that usually graced the kitchens and mantles of the Rithwic homes, and of King Ishamael Creed's castle, were absent. They were replaced, with a hefty interest, by torches wielded by the soldiers of Lord Creed's army. The portals to Holtburg, Lytlethorpe, and Shoushi were guarded by archers and mages. The roads patrolled by men-at-arms at regular intervals. Whatever had befallen Holtburg was now pressing the Northern Kingdom into military action.
Gormik was right. Lord Creed knew...
...and he would be too late.
BlackEnd, Part III: Shattered Alliances
"Any word yet from the Southern kingdoms?”, Ishamael Creed muttered absently as he scanned the surrounding countryside from his fortress.
"Nothing yet Milord.” Enak quickly replied. "Our messengers have not reported back yet. No word from the lugians in Tukal either.”
"They are scared, just like everyone else I suppose” Lord Creed said with a heavy sigh. He was tired and his body begged for sleep. He hadn’t really slept in over a week. With the events that had transpired all over Dereth in the past eight days, sleep simply was not an option.
The ‘plague’, if that was indeed what it was, had spread so quickly that it caught most towns and villages absolutely flat-footed. Sickness, aside from a cold and sometimes a nasty case of the flu, didn’t exist on Dereth since The Call decades ago. The Isparians had dreadful tales of a horrible plague that spread through their entire planet centuries before their arrival in Dereth. Their civilization was shaken to the core. Empires crumbles, religions shattered, and ancient cultures abandoned. One in ten survived. Their name for the plague reflected its nature, as it caused the afflicted to wither away to nothing, old, young, and vigorous alike. The victim was often unrecognizable to their loved ones, their features twisted in pain and deformed to almost zombie-like visages.
Lord Creed whispered it, as if uttering the name would make it real again. Although not Isparian, the King had read the history books, and had heard many stories from his Loremaster, Maingray. Plague frightened him. There was often no defense against it. It bred paranoia and could shatter armies from within. How do you fight an enemy that you can’t see, hear, or touch?
The plague had already taken its toll on his kingdom. Arwic, Holtburg and Cragstone had succumbed at a frightening speed and Lord Creed had lost contact with Eastham and Glenden Wood early in the morning. His forces were a fraction of what they could be, as many were on leave to their homes. The Army had mustered only two hundred able bodies to defend Rithwic. If any other kingdom had grand designs on his lands, now would be the time to strike. He knew the other rulers had their own problems however, as the plague spread faster than could be tracked, thanks to the portals linking the towns.
What puzzled him to no end though, was ethereal communication. Each Derethian’s mind was connected, forming a web. You could find a singular mind in the vast web if you knew the psychic signature of that particular mind. It made for instantaneous communication across vast distances. The fog of war literally dissipated on the battlefield, as the commander knew instantly what was happening in all areas at all times. The Derethians had come to rely on this privilege, and it WAS a privilege. Asheron’s magic tied their souls to the lifestones. The byproduct of this, perhaps unintended, was heightened mental awareness and a pseudo-telepathy.
Since the plague reared it horrible head, most, if not all, ethereal communication had been disconnected. The process, normally as trivial as breathing, became painful and often caused seizures. Now, mental communication was impossible, a psychic static permeating the ether, drowning out anything intelligible.
The effects of the plague had confounded every healer and sage since its arrival. Even Maingray, widely regarded across Dereth as the greatest Loremaster in the land, was baffled. There was no mention of a sickness of this kind anywhere in any book. The afflicted lost their personality, and became driven by some unknown desire. They often turned on family members and killed them, showing no remorse or emotion during or after the slaying. What was worse, if the afflicted were killed, they did not resurrect. The plague seemed to sever Asheron’s enchantment, making death permanent to the victims. It had become common in the past week for families to be torn apart by the plague, being killed by the afflicted, or killing them to save their own lives. Most never made it out of the towns without being killed or infected.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the sickness, aside from the loss of personality and moral standards of the afflicted and the consequent shattering of the communication network, was the fact that the infection process, if it indeed was an infection, was entirely unnoticeable. The victims transformed silently, without physical symptoms. There were no sneezing or coughing fits, or fevers or sores that accompanied traditional pandemics. Only a loss of identity and scruples. This fact is what frightened Ishamael Creed the most. The idea that your most trusted friends, your loved ones, your soulmate, could betray you at any moment. It gave his fortress an atmosphere of fear smeared with a dark distrust. Everyone was suspect, and no one spoke unless given orders. Even the orders were sometimes questioned. Indeed, some questioned their Majesty’s decisions at times, with their eyes, if not their mouths.
He could not blame them.
"MiLord, we have caught an intruder that claims to be a messenger from Lord Ziran” Lord Tobias announced, slightly out of breath. Usually well-kept and a hawk for detail, the Captain of the Royal Guard looked almost Dericostian in appearance, the color of his skin taking the shade of the undead. Lord Creed noticed he wasn’t the only one plagued by a lack of sleep.
"Did you inspect him thoroughly?” Lord Creed asked, failing to mask his anxiety.
"Yes… hard to say if he is infected though.”
"True” the King nodded absently. "Keep him outside the walls. I will speak to him out there.”
Lord Creed hurried to the gate and stopped, spying the messenger some twenty yards beyond. The courier looked half-dead and was gasping for air, his hands on his knees and head bowed. The shuffling of feet on the ramparts and the nocking of dozens of arrows caused the herald to lift his head, and meet Lord Creed’s eyes.
"Are you King Ishamael Creed, Lord of Rithwic?” the messenger asked between gulps of air.
"I am.” Lord Creed replied, nodding gravely. "Keep your distance and tell me why you are here.”
"My message is from Lord Ziran and is for your ears only Your Majesty.” The herald gasped, bringing himself to his full height.
"These are desperate times. What is written can be heard by all. The time for secrecy and pretense is long past. Speak quickly.” He felt as though he would explode if this man didn’t hurry it up.
"Very well. Lord Ziran wishes an emergency summit meeting at Sanctuary in the Veseyen Isles immediately after receiving this message. He has secured the cathedral and assures you it is totally safe. Your reply Sir?”
"Open the gates!” the King shouted. "I want to see this message for myself!”
The messenger, knowing the tension and mistrust the plague had brought to the world, laid the letter on the ground and stepped away. A young man by the look of him, he showed no sign of the plague, his sunken features coming from his incredible run from the edges of Lord Ziran’s kingdom. No one trusted the portal system anymore, the infected mobs snaring anyone foolish enough to utilize them.
Lord Creed approached slowly, not wanted to get too close. "How close is too close?” he pondered. There was little anyone knew about the plague. What little knowledge there was had bred a healthy fear, and that was perhaps just as well.
"Is it safe to touch the note?” he asked himself, but realized there was too much at stake to cower in the shadows. The plague spread fear like wildfire, but even more terrifying to Creed was the thought of his people losing faith in his ability to lead. For many, it was their last hope.
Creed grasped the letter and read it slowly, taking in every word and the way it was written. He had corresponded with his royal counterpart dozens of times and knew that Ziran liked to write his own letters. His flair with a quill was magnificent and he obviously took pride in it. He stated once at a summit with Creed at Linvak Tukal that you could trace a man’s history and future ambitions by the way he wrote a letter. Ishamael Creed scoffed at the idea, but it did ring true in Ziran’s case. His letters radiated authority, which is probably why he wrote them.
This letter, however, was different.
It was the Sho king’s handwriting, but the style was much different. It was rushed, or forced, if such a thing was possible. Obviously, Ziran’s kingdom was under the same pressure from the plague as Creed’s was and the man was most likely as sleep-deprived as everyone else. But something else spoke to him from between the words.
"He is afraid…” whispered Creed to the wind.
Such a thing was hard to believe. Lord Ziran was considered by many to be the greatest swordsman ever born. He had personally held off an entire battalion of Tumeroks in the Battle of Kara ten years ago, waving off his Royal Guard to better enjoy himself in the fray. Yet, he , like Creed himself, was a warrior. A warrior can not defeat a foe he cannot see.
"A weakness we share, eh old friend?” Creed muttered to himself.
"Your Majesty?” the herald replied, still slightly out of breath and fidgeting uncomfortably in the presence of a foreign king.
Lord Creed glanced up from the letter. "How was Lord Ziran faring against the spread of the plague?”
"He had kept it from spreading into the southern towns, but…”
"Yes?” Creed prodded, nodding slightly for the messenger to continue.
"He was…not able to keep it out of Hebian-To. Most refugees poured in seeking help. The plague followed them like a hungry dog.”
"How did you manage to get here?” Creed asked. He wanted answers and he wanted to choke them out of this little runt.
"I am the fastest runner in Hebian” the herald stated matter-of-factly. "I was chosen for no other reason. Well…that and I don’t have the plague.”
"I can see that.” Lord Creed replied with a smile. "We will leave for Sanctuary in thirty minutes. I will collect my advisors and meet him there with haste.”
"Forgive me your Majesty” the young man said, withering from an expected rebuke, "but His Majesty Lord Ziran requested that you come alone. He trusts no one else under these circumstances.”
"I see…” Lord Creed said as his gaze bored into the young man’s eyes. "Thirty minutes.”
"That would be unwise Mi’lord” Maingray said with hesitation, watching the King of Rithwic strap on armor never before crafted on this world. The Traitor, a name that stuck to Karnak like olthoi resin despite his devoted service under General Cerebus in Khayyaban, had forged the plate mail especially for Lord Creed. The runes and enchantments laid on the metal augmented Creed’s already incredible strength and increased Creed’s natural resistance to magic a hundredfold. Karnak had been proud of it and had given it to Lord Creed as a gift with the words "You gave me my life back. May this armor one day return the favor.”
Creed loved the armor and often claimed it was lighter and more comfortable than leather. In the years since he received it, he had resisted every spell thrown at him. Even, Maingray noted and smiled at the memory, those from his wife, Queen Raven, a very powerful mage in her own right.
"I know.” Ishamael Creed replied in even tones. "That is why you are coming with me, old friend. Enak too. We have no idea what has happened. Going there alone would be foolish.”
The King stood quickly as he finished strapping the last greave. "Get Enak. We have to hurry.”
Rithwic’s King, with long, confident strides, approached the outer courtyard of his castle, Maingray and Enak close behind. The rest of Creed’s assembled force closed in around them as they passed. From the corners of his vision, Lord Creed could see the mouthed whispers and unheard prayers of his men. Most of them had lost everything. Everything except faith in their Liege to lead them through the darkest of times. Creed had never been defeated since his arrival in Dereth so long ago. He didn’t expect to break tradition now.
He stopped and turned to the crowd. The hope stained on their faces was almost too much to bear. He waved his arms slowly, and the crowd took the hint and backed away. Creed lifted the orb in his hand and scanned the crowd, taking in every set of pleading eyes. Enak and Maingray readied their orbs behind him, prepared to release the magic that would instantly take them to the one place on Dereth that was considered holy ground; the Sanctuary in the Veseyen Islands. Creed’s voice reverberated off the courtyard’s walls, commanding obedience and bringing tears to many of the eyes of those present. Just to hear his voice convinced many that everything would be just fine.
"We leave for Sanctuary.” Creed said, his eyes scanning the crowd slowly and methodically. "I will speak with King Ziran of Hebian-To about that which threatens us all. Circumstance and mistrust have divided our kingdoms in the past, but the time for grudges is gone. My goal is to forge a continent-wide alliance, a shield of people with common loves, desires, and determination to defend everything we love in this world. Through this alliance, we shall crush this cowardly evil and the source that spawns it. So swears your King!”
The crowd literally choked as it fought back tears and erupted into desperate cheers. It was exactly what they needed to hear and Creed knew it. He now hoped he had the power to make it reality.
"May Asheron protect us!” Creed shouted as the three, in unison, recited the words and began to vanish in a swirl of purple light.
As his surroundings began to materialize around him, Creed focused his mind on the task at hand. No doubt Lord Ziran would be edgy and not appreciate the presence of Enak and Maingray, as his letter said to come alone. He wouldn’t be surprised if Ziran had brought a couple of advisors as well. There was safety in numbers, no matter how powerful you were in arms.
The warm, moist air of the tropical island was soothing and seemed to absorb the echoes of the hollow entryway. He could still hear the birds in the background, as well as the famous waterfalls, the largest in Dereth. As he scanned the area, it seemed that the plague had not found its way to this paradise and just as well. What also became apparent was that Lord Ziran was not present. Creed made a motion for Enak to scout the immediate area, but the legendary archer was already doing so. The years of camaraderie and battle together had made them so attuned to each other’s thoughts that telepathy was no longer necessary.
Creed folded his hands behind his back and waited. He was tense beyond belief, but any physical sign of such might be considered weakness by Ziran. He wanted to deal with the Hebian king on equal terms.
Enak glided down the stairs, making no sound, his frame flowing as if one with each step. No arrow was at the ready, but with the speed in which he could draw and fire, it was not needed. He turned toward the water to the north of the cathedral not thirty yards from where his king stood. He stopped suddenly and Lord Creed, watching from the entryway’s platform, flinched in anticipation. Ishamael knew what he was doing. He had found something and stopped to listen to the air. At the base of the nearest palm tree were footprints and according to Enak’s quick nod, fresh footprints at that.
Lord Ziran should have been here, waiting for his arrival. Could he be late?
Enak turned to the footprints again and froze.
The archer’s upper body seemed to arch backward in a blur, barely avoiding two arrows that embedded themselves in the tree with a meaty thump. Creed, on instinct, drew two katars and spun to warn Maingray to be on his guard. His spin was augmented by an arrow into his shoulder. His shoulder erupted in pain, the force of the arrow adding to the spin he had initiated. He cursed himself for being slow, but the turning to warn Maingray had actually saved his life. Had he not spun at that moment, the arrow would be in his neck. He nevertheless lost his balance and fell to one knee. He now faced his friend, advisor and Loremaster. Maingray’s eyes were wide open in death, the bridge of his nose housing an arrow embedded to the fletching, the tip piercing the back of his head and knocking his helmet aside.
"Ambush…” Creed whispered, as if trying to convince himself of the obvious.
He could hear Enak’s bow, as it sounded like nothing else, and his shouts.
"ISHAMAEL, GET UP AND RECALL! NOW!!”
The King of Rithwic sprang to his feet, only to have his left leg thrust out in front of him by a well-placed arrow. Pain like fire was injected into his veins. But it was pain endured countless times and he ignored it. He scrambled to his feet again and reached into a pouch for his orb. He grasped air. The pouch had been severed at the thread that bound it to his girdle. Such as shot was incredible luck, or just plain incredible. He scrambled for the edge of the platform as he realized his orb was not in plain sight. Maingray had his orb still clutched in his hand, but the hail of arrows made a mad dash to his body a suicidal wager.
"Ishamael!” Enak screamed as he ran to help his king to his feet. Creed has slid off the platform and landed as close to a combat stance as his left leg would allow.
"Recall! Take my orb! Get back to Rithwic and prepare for what needs to be done!”
"Enak, I’m not leaving you here!”
Enak shoved his orb into Creed’s hands. "DO IT!!”
Using the platform’s marble wall as cover, Creed began to recite the words of recall that would take him back to his fortress. Enak whirled and shot two arrows at once into a nearby tree. Two archers fell a second later, their mouths agape with the black fletching of Enak’s arrows. Both wore the standards of Hebian-To. The treachery could not be denied now.
"Don’t worry about me, my friend” Enak shouted as he ran for the waterfall. The last thing Creed saw before disappearing into the purple haze of magic was Enak leaping over the waterfall’s edge.
Creed almost pitied anyone who pursued him. Almost.
Maingray dead. He would resurrect inside the fortress fortunately. Creed had given the command that everyone attune to the lifestone inside the castle to perpetuate the defense. Only Maingray had objected, pointing to the fall of Ayan Baquar to the Traitor’s hordes years ago as evidence that such a defense could lead to disaster.
As Creed materialized, he realized with a dread horror that history was repeating itself.
Before he could breathe his first breath of dusty, smoke-filled Rithwic air, he watched his keep, the center of his fortress, implode and wither as if dragged down from under by Bael Zharon himself. Above him flew boulders of fire that exploded on impact, incinerating two hapless defenders shouting orders, which he immediately knew were his close friends and advisors, Skeela and Bretigan.
"H-How…” he whispered.
He couldn’t finish the question, instinct giving him a violent shove into action. He raced to the wall across the courtyard, recognizing the rank of the man who barked orders, soot, dust, and ash blotting everything else into a muted grey. His shoulder and leg burned with every move and he stopped to yank out the arrows and cast a few healing spells. Tobias could feel the magic and turned to face his King. His face contorted into what looked to be a teary smile, relieved that his Lord was alive. Ishamael looked at him close and blinked hard. The young Captain of the Royal Guard’s face was so badly burned that tears were probably impossible. His helmet was fused to his scalp. Yet the man still held his sword and kept an air of absolute defiance. Creed rushed up the rampart and instinctively ducked as another incendiary arced over the wall, smashing into the courtyard below.
Creed mustered every ounce of strength he had to remain calm.
"What happened?” he asked, clenching his teeth.
"They attacked at the exact moment you left” Captain Tobias said in a wavering tone. "They have…what did Bretigan call them…”
"Trebuchets” Lord Creed said absently. He hadn’t seen one since his arrival on Dereth. The use of lifestones had changed people’s lives, and the way they waged war.
"It’s Lord Ziran, my King…” Tobias said in a shiver, the shock of his burns taking over his body.
"I know, son…I know.” Creed laid a firm hand on the Captain’s shoulder to ease him to the floor of the catwalk. He looked up to survey his predicament.
Lord Ziran’s banners flew in the distance and countless soldiers swayed in ranks, looking like a sea of steel grey grass. They were not advancing, letting the trebuchets, over a dozen he could see, do their deadly work.
"What is he waiting for?” Creed whispered to himself. His question was met by a rumbling in the ground, the deep baritone of the noise reverberating off the crumbling walls and shattered keep. In fact, it seemed to come from the keep itself. The stones began to sink and collapse further into the center of the mound, the remains of the keep seeming to shrink before his eyes. There was a rhythmic scratching blended perfectly with the thrumming noise of the ground and Creed instantly knew what was happening. He spun to look at the remaining defenders, who looked on the verge of panic, but stood their ground and gazed at their King longingly to provide an answer.
"Winterhawk! Come here!” Creed bellowed, his voice audible even over the symphony of destruction around them.
The swordsman bolted to his Lord’s call and almost bowled him over in his eagerness to serve. He plate armor was dented and scalded in places, his face a sooty nightmare.
"Milord!?” He shouted, the rumbling drowning out the last syllable.
Creed punched him as hard as he could in the stomach. The man doubled over, then collapsed in pain. Creed knew it hurt, as the man never saw it coming. The anguish on his face told Ishamael enough.
"Good…I can trust you!” Creed shouted to the man, who glanced at him in fear and shock. "Listen to me carefully!”
After he gave instructions, Creed pinned a brooch with the Royal Seal on the soldier’s tabard. He then turned to the rest of the defenders, who were captivated by what was transpiring in front of them, despite the shaking and explosions.
"This man…” he waved an arm at Winterhawk, now clenching his teeth to fight the pain and look as commanding as he could "…will lead you to safety! Follow his orders as you would mine! His word is Law until you see me again! Go…now!”
There was a collective look of absolute disbelief.
Winterhawk now barked orders as if he had been in charge all along. The defenders doggedly hurried after them, their eyes meeting Creed’s in turn. The look was of despair.
Creed slowly turned to the sinking keep and drew his katars, clenching them reflexively. The stones then fell inward and from the new hole poured something Creed could never have imagined, an insanity that could very well mean the death of every person in Dereth, plague or no plague.
It made no sense to him, but nothing did anymore.
"Buy them time to escape…” He whispered as they poured into the courtyard, spotting him immediately.
With a battle cry lost in the chaos of rumbling and screeching, Ishamael Creed, King of Rithwic charged the chorozite olthoi constructs and disappeared into their seething ranks. He was alone to face death. No friends, no army. No one to watch him die…
And he preferred it that way.
BlackEnd, Part Four: The Fall of Khayyaban
"Start running as soon as you feel the ground” Karnak muttered, his voice wavering in the myriad tones of portal space. He clenched his axe reflexively, expecting action as soon as he could see.
"We are headed into town?” Koraz ventured, his breath coming in rapid succession. He could feel the sweat on his face from the running, or could he? Most said you felt nothing in portal space, yet his sense of touch was alive. He thought he could feel the itch of his breastplate, the familiar feel of the sword in his hands, the greasiness of his hair inside his helmet. It made him want to vomit, but he swallowed hard and shook his head.
"Just battle nerves” he mused.
"Nerves?” he whispered to himself. "I have never been nervous like this before.” The tunnel of portal space began to recede and he thought he could smell smoke.
"You just killed someone you used to know. It’s normal.” Karnak said in a whisper. Koraz flinched, not realizing he had said it aloud.
"Be ready…and follow my lead” Karnak said calmly, his voice leaving portal space, the air smoothing the deep tone.
The two warriors materialized outside of Khayyaban, a free city protected by King Ishamael Creed’s Winterguard Army. Led by Cerebus, the Winterguard was charged with keeping Khayyaban an open city for trading. All three major kingdoms recognized the town as a free city and accepted the Winterguard’s role as protectors. Thousands used the city as a way point between the three kingdoms, the town’s portals connecting it to Lin to the east and Al-Jalima to the north. From Al-Jalima, it was a short hop to Arwic via the portal residing in that town. Karnak made his home here, being Cerebus’s Lieutenant for years now. He disliked the heat of the desert and had built a cottage to the north in the woods near Stonehold to escape the stifling weather. Aiko had thanked him for that and spent much of her time there. She was on her way when he left on his hunting trip.
"Did she make it?” he thought, hushing his mental voice as if not wanting to hear it.
Smoke. It mixed with the dust that was always present in the air and was tossed by the afternoon breeze in playful gusts. He could hear screams and the unmistakable sound of metal-clad feet.
"Here they come” he said in a low growl. "We run to them, don’t fight them unless they start swinging first.”
"Right” Koraz said under his breath, his hands clenching his sword and shield in unison.
It had been the same in Arwic, Tou Tou, and Lin. They were attacked on sight mercilessly by dozens of townspeople, many of them fighting with their bare hands. They attacked silently, no shouting, or battle cries, no screaming when wounded and no cries for mercy. They fought almost mechanically, their attacks too predictable. There was no style or improvisation. Consequently, they died quick. Arwic was the toughest, as Karnak and Koraz fought defensively, being absolutely stunned by the whole affair. Tou Tou and Lin came easier, as they killed quick to keep moving, their ultimate goal being the portal to Khayyaban. They had hoped Khayyaban would be different, to finally ask a familiar face why the world had gone mad.
They were wrong.
The crash of boots cleaved the smoke, sending it swirling to each side of the twenty that ran toward them. They ran in lock-step, almost a quick march. Each bore a shield with the Winterguard insignia and each drew their weapon simultaneously, the sound dulled by the thick air. A dozen more came from Karnak’s right, their footsteps muted in the dirt and sand. A few stopped short, readying crossbows. It was a crossfire and planned or not, it would be deadly.
"Run…on my word” Karnak said quickly, glancing at Koraz to ensure he was paying attention. "Do not look back. Run to Stonehold. Cerebus would have retreated there. Don’t stop for anything or anyone.”
Koraz looked at him in bewilderment. "Stonehold? Do you know how far that…”
"On my word…” Karnak said breathlessly.
"Alright…tell me when.”
Karnak charged the archers, shield up. He hadn’t time for enchantments, so getting hit would hurt a ton. What he was about to do wouldn’t require enchantments, but he didn’t want Koraz to see it.
Koraz bolted to the north. He crashed into a soldier coming over the hill, the two somersaulting into the sand. Koraz got to his feet just in time to parry a blow from a spear and without thinking plunged his sword deep into his attacker. The blade split the heart, killing him instantly. The soldier dropped to his knees and rolled to his back, eyes wide in death. Koraz started to run when he saw his face.
He shook his head angrily. The face would haunt him forever.
Karnak disarmed two archers and parried while backpedaling, trying to keep the thirty or so attackers in front of him. When he saw Koraz disappear from sight, he stopped and spread his arms wide. His lips wove words unknown by all but a few on Dereth. An ebon halo of magic shot from his body, slamming into his assailants, a pure darkness that seemed to swallow the light of day completely, if only for a second. The wave of blackness passed through the infected soldiers as if ethereal. Karnak planted his feet and swung his axe in wide arcs. The blade cut through shields, armor, flesh, and bone as effortless as it would have the smoke-filled air. The soldiers fell like wheat, instantly dead, their demise silent save for the sickening splash of gore as Karnak completed the maneuver. He then bolted toward town, knowing deep down what waited for him there. But he wanted to see for himself. He wanted to silence the nagging fear that gnawed within him, fraying his thoughts.
She had to have escaped. She must have…and she took Yoshiko with her.
The buildings blazed and gave the hot afternoon a boost that it didn’t need. He could hear screams, but couldn’t tell the direction. The building in front of him, the armory, was a raging inferno, but the sound seemed to come from there. Karnak cleared the building on the left side, his feet on the edge of the road when he heard it; the familiar sound of an arrow in flight. It hit the grass some ten feet behind him and he realized it has just missed his head. It had come from the top of the hill, where the mage shop and bowyer were located. He instinctively ducked toward the building, but the heat of the flaming walls kept him away. He then bolted up the road to the west, knowing the road would take him up the back side of the hill. He would be in the open, but it was the only way. He heard the arrow zip past him, knowing the archer wasn’t leading him properly, at least not yet. A few more feet would allow him to clear the side of the hill, forcing the archer to relocate to hit him. He glanced up to see if he could spy the sniper, wondering if he was peering over the ledge or if he was on the roof of the mage building.
He saw the arrow almost too late. He twisted his chest away from the missile, trying to get his shield up in a vain attempt to block it. The arrow crunched into his right shoulder, causing him to drop his axe. The pain never came, but the blood did. Karnak knew the arrow had hit an artery and he would be dead in a couple of minutes. He was bound to the Holtburg lifestone. He hadn’t bothered to change it. If he died now, he would have to start over. He had seen how lifestones were guarded by these murderous people and didn’t feel like testing them. He quickly rolled over and brought his shield up to his body. He yanked the arrow from his shoulder, causing the bleeding to accelerate. He heard another arrow released and he braced for impact. The shield threw it aside and it bounced harmlessly away. He smiled as he whispered the words of a Heal spell. The wound closed from the inside out and Karnak reclaimed his axe, rolling his shoulder to fight the stiffness. He hated the Magic. But how many times would it save him?
He saw his attacker for the first time and stopped. He knew him and knew him well. In full view now, he dropped his axe and shield and walked forward, focusing on the bow. Chen Kobe fired again, aiming for the head, but Karnak was only sixty feet from him now and caught the arrow easily. The Magic had many uses, there was no doubting that. Chen never drew another arrow, Karnak’s fist breaking his jaw. His head hit the wall with a sickening thud and the bow slid from his hands. Chen got to his feet silently, his breath coming in light rasps. Karnak hit him again and he collapsed. Karnak rolled him over and raised his fist again. He stopped then, realizing something was wrong. Something was different. Chen looked different.
He heard the soft groan of his name over his shoulder. He turned and Chen started to move. He absently grabbed his neck and with both hands twisted hard. Chen’s neck popped in quick spurts and the life drained from his face. He then realized what was different. Chen had no aura. No aura meant no enchantment from Asheron, binding his spirit to a lifestone.
No enchantment meant he had killed Chen. Permanently.
It started to sink in when he heard his name again. He could hear the metal-clad feet below.
"Do they know when one of their own dies?” he thought absently. He startled himself with the question…and didn’t really want an answer.
"Karn…” the voice quavered, thick with blood.
Karnak again glanced over his shoulder. Alias, Chen Kobe’s wife, lay in a pool of her own blood, her husband’s arrows riddling her chest and abdomen. Lacerations covered her arms and face, bloody handprints adorned her torn leather armor. She gasped as blood gurgled from the shafts of the arrows in her chest.
"Alias…” Karnak started, amazed she was alive. He choked back his tears. She was the gentlest person he had ever met, but could fire a bow with a skill that matched her husband.
"I know”, he nodded. "I know.”
"Pla…plague.” Her body started to spasm and she groaned in agony.
Karnak shook his head and let the magic rise. He could heal her, but taking the arrows out, he realized, would probably kill her. She saw the dilemma on his face.
"No…it’s…alright…” she gasped and tried to smile, but started to cry instead. Karnak broke down beside her and wept, clutching her hand in his.
Her aura faded as she died. She would resurrect…somewhere. Then the nightmare would begin again as the mob killed her again and again. Karnak shuddered, remembering his punishment long ago. No one should have to endure that, ever.
He could hear them coming up the hill. Karnak wiped the tears away lustily and went though the back door. There was ten feet to the ledge, then a fifty foot drop to the houses below. This side of town was just starting to burn, which meant the townspeople were most likely directly below him. He quickly cast the spell of Bludgeon Protection on himself and Bludgeon Bane on his armor, and jumped. He crashed through the roof of the house and into a newly-started fire. The fire’s author framed the front doorway with three others behind him, torches in hand. They charged silently, using the torches as flaming clubs. Karnak, never having retrieved his axe and shield, took one step back and spread his arms. The inky halo spread forth and engulfed his assailants, passing through them, the growing fire, and finally the walls themselves. Karnak slipped one torch and yanked on the arm as it flew by. The arm tore away easily, still armored and clutching the torch, blood spurting from the torso of the hapless victim. He used the torch to decapitate the remaining three, who died silently, as had just about everyone else he had encountered today. Still gripping the torch, he passed through the doorway and now faced another house that started to belch smoke.
He heard crying within the house and immediately hurried to find the front door. He ran to the back room and what he saw froze him in his tracks.
A boy sat beside a woman, most likely his mother, who lay dead and mutilated. The child wept uncontrollably and urged her to get up. His face was thick with grime, but Karnak recognized the boy, or thought he did. He looked just like him. His vision blurred with a memory that had not haunted him in almost two centuries. He could hear the splash of water, the cool air from the mountains, the feeling of rabbit fur on his skin, and his friend’s voice. He was home again, in the long gone village where he was born, if only for a moment.
"Don’t move…” he whispered, creeping up behind him. "You’ll scare him.”
"Shhh…” Karnak said as quietly as he could. He clutched a spear that was taller than him by a foot. A spear he had made with his own hands. It was crude by any standard, but when he had presented it to his father, the smile was all he needed. In his hands, and in his eyes, the spear made him a warrior, if only to kill fish.
Karnak braced and threw it at the salmon some three feet away in knee-deep water. The spear hit the fish and impaled it. The salmon bolted for deeper water and took the spear with it, disappearing from sight.
"You dummy!” Lars shouted, laughing and holding his sides. "You are supposed to hold on to the spear!”
"Shut up!” Karnak retorted, furious. He still peered into the water, hoping the fish would come to the surface. It would die, but it would probably take the spear to far in for him to retrieve it. His mother told him to stay out of the water.
"You should have let me do it dummy!” Lars shouted, taunting his younger friend. "You can’t do anything right!”
Karnak quickly turned and leaped on him and started flailing his arms wildly. He was smaller than Lars and one year younger. Lars was a little better at just about everything and it was beyond frustrating. The older boy pushed Karnak away and the two got to their feet, fists clenched and breathing heavy. Lars smiled and raised his hands.
"I’m sorry…” he said in surrendering tones "…but you really should have let me…”
He stopped when he saw it and the tensing of his body caused Karnak to turn reluctantly, fearing a trick, to see what had caught his attention. They could see their village, Mjarnheim, a small fishing community, in the distance not three hundred yards from where they stood. They hadn’t heard it until now.
There were screams, and the unmistakable sound of clashing steel.
"Raiders...” Lars whispered.
Karnak looked back to the water. The salmon had come to the surface, still moving and still impaled on his spear. He waded into the freezing water and pulled it through the fish, leaving it there, the hunt no longer being important.
"C’mon!” Karnak shouted to his taller friend. "We can help!”
"Nooo!” he shouted back to the now running Karnak. "They said to run into the hills if the raiders come back!” He started to give chase. "You’ll get us killed!”
Karnak didn’t care at the moment. He wanted to see his father kill them. His father, Falgrim, was the village blacksmith and leader of their Althing, the law-making body of the village. A huge man, they looked to him in these times, as his skill with a hammer went beyond smiting the anvil.
"Karnak! Stop!” Lars yelled, desperately trying to catch him before they got too close. As they drew nearer to the village, Lars realized this raid was different. They usually attacked quickly with twenty or so riders, snatching a woman or a child and some horses and racing off before the men could assemble. The raiders were men usually, but sometimes there were…others. This band numbered perhaps a hundred and judging by the look of their weapons, weren’t human.
Karnak weaved his way through the huts toward the village square. He stopped just before he burst into the open, narrowly escaping being run over by two raiders headed for the marketplace. From here, he could see most of the main building in town, including the smithy. Where was his father?
Lars, losing sight of Karnak a few times, finally turned the right corner and came up from behind him. He yanked at his shoulder trying to pull him back into the small space between the buildings, giving his younger friend a tremendous start.
"You idiot!” he whispered to Karnak, trying to catch his breath. "Your father is going to kill you! Let’s get out of here!”
Lars again tugged on his shoulder, but gave up when he saw his mother. She was not fifty feet from him. A massive raider dragged her headfirst from her stall in the market, grasping her long hair in his mailed fist. He freed her head from her body with one swipe of his axe and screamed in sadistic glee as he tossed her head into the street.
Lars choked back a sob and began moving in a daze toward his mother’s body. Despite the screaming and chaos in the immediate area, and riders racing back and forth to run down those who tried in vain to flee, he reached the headless corpse safely. He knelt beside her and the tears, unchecked now, ran in torrents. The dust from the hooves covered his face, the tears now making dark tracks on his face.
Karnak was stunned. He had never seen anyone he knew die before and certainly not like that. He glanced dreamily at his father’s smithy. He could see him now, his hammer in his huge hands and the rage upon his face. He watched in awe as the hammer killed a raider, then another. His father was shouting something, but he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear anything save for the beating of his own heart. Another raider came up behind him and his father whirled to meet him, the hammer already arcing toward the enemy’s head. That was when he saw it. Four arrows stuck from his back, the fletching black as night in contrast to his skin. Blood ran in rivulets down to his belt and now Karnak could tell that his father was struggling with the weakness that always comes from loss of blood. His rage kept him going, fueling his strength and he dropped another humanoid raider with a swift backhand. One rider on a huge horse rode slowly up to him and dismounted. This raider was human and larger than his father by at least half a foot.
Falgrim finished another enemy and turned to meet the huge man. Karnak studied this man and judging by his armor and the effect he had on the rest of the raiders in the vicinity, he was the leader. Falgrim was surrounded. Karnak’s heart pounded in his ears, drowning all noise and his throat closed to the point of choking as he witnessed the next few seconds. They seemed caught in a dream, time crawling forward. Falgrim attacked viciously, but the enormous raider was fresh and parried it easily. He brought a huge sword over his head, narrowly missing the now wobbling Falgrim, but severing the arrows that protruded from his back. This brought pain to his face and he whirled to strike back, but the blow was blocked with little effort. The giant raider disarmed him in the next sweep of his sword, sending the hammer flying into the growing crowd of raiders. This seemed to deflate the blacksmith, robbing him of any further defiance. He slowly turned and knelt, waiting for the blow he knew was on its way. His eyes briefly locked onto Karnak’s and, in the same dreamlike crawl, whispered "Run”.
His head left his shoulders and disappeared, along with his body, from Karnak’s sight.
He could feel the anger rising like a living thing, clawing its way into every fiber of his being. He gripped his small spear, venting the rage. He looked to Lars, who now lay dead at his mother’s side. He hadn’t seen him die, but it didn’t matter. He would join his father…now.
Karnak, only four cycles old, rushed into the open, readying his spear. He had the vague notion that he was screaming, and the reaction of the raiders confirmed it. He locked eyes with his father’s slayer.
"Kill him” was all he could muster in his mind.
The leader was smiling.
He launched the spear with everything he had and it was on target, streaking for the man’s head. He was striding forward now and saying something, but the dream crawl still sucked all the sound out of this reality. He caught the spear without breaking stride and backhanded the child, the blood coming from his mouth in one great gush. Karnak hit the dirt face down and passed out.
He could taste the dirt in his mouth and feel the horrible pain in his jaw, or so he thought. He shook the last remnants of the memory away and focused on the child.
"Come with me” he said slowly, offering his hand, the other hand instinctively checking his own chin to see if it was broken.
The child looked up at him as if startled. The boy hadn’t realized he was in the room. Immediately, he began to scream and backed himself into a corner. Karnak forced back the tears as the memory started to flare again into his mind.
"What’s your name?” he managed to say, trying to sound gentle. Turning off the battle rage was something he never had to do when talking to his daughter.
The child stopped screaming and stared, sobbing.
"He knows” Karnak thought quickly. "The boy knows the people don’t speak or show emotion. Smart kid.”
The boy offered his hand slowly. Karnak could hear the mailed feet coming down the hill of the mage hut. He slowly took the boy’s hand and hoisted him over his shoulder. The child panicked briefly, but realized what he was doing and went limp.
"We have to get out of here quickly. I want you to close your eyes. Don’t open them until I say, understand?”
The boy said nothing, but gripped Karnak’s armor a little harder.
"You have witnessed enough” he thought.
Karnak made his way to the doorway and stopped. The next room was ablaze. He had forgotten about the fire. He turned back into the room and walked over to the wall. He knocked on it in places and judged it was thin enough. Holding the boy in his arms now, he ducked his head and plowed ahead. The wall gave way rather easily and Karnak burst into the sunlight of the afternoon, the heat almost as bad as the fire inside. He was tired, the heat as well as the day’s events sapping his strength. The armor was like an oven and he longed to take it off, but there never seemed to be any time. He heard the townspeople coming around the corner and he bolted toward the Al-Jalima portal to the southwest. He needed to get to Zaikal on his way north. He knew Darvin had taken up residence there for months now, using the library there as a second home in his endless pursuit of knowledge. He wondered if he would have to kill him too.
He ran back up the hill and now the townsfolk, some of them wearing the colors of Ishamael Creed, could see him. They changed course and silently, as always, began their chase. Karnak knew the arrows would be coming and tried to shift his direction in quick spurts to avoid them. He could stop and try to kill them all, but the boy would probably not survive the fight.
"Would they kill the boy?” he wondered.
The portal was in sight, it swirling purple glow almost inviting. The other side would no doubt be swarmed as the other portals were, he thought. He shifted the child to his back, freeing his arms for what might need to be done. Arrows hit the ground close by, hissing as they half-disappeared into the sand. The boy flinched as they neared the portal and Karnak pondered if the child was ever allowed by his mother to enter a portal. If not, he was in for a rough ride, the short trip through portal space being gut-wrenching for any not accustomed to it. Karnak had never really gotten used to it, but it was a necessary evil.
He jumped into the portal, readying himself for the fight of his life.
"If I use the magic, will the child be affected?” he thought with a start.
He began to materialize from the portal and could hear the sound of shuffling feet again. He dropped the child and without looking at him, shouted for him to run.
"Get over that hill, quickly!” He yelled. "Wait for me to come for you. If anyone else comes at you, scream!”
The people of this town rushed him, wielding clubs, pitchforks, swords, and bare hands. Karnak looked back at the boy one more time to assure himself that he was safe. The boy lay where he dropped him, an arrow protruding from his back. He was dead, his eyes gratefully closed. Karnak closed his eyes and swallowed hard, the tears and the memory lingering just beyond his vision. His whole life it seemed, he was never able to save those who loved him, or trusted him, or needed his protection. Power meant nothing if the gods mocked you.
The townspeople from Khayyaban never followed him through the portal and it was just as well. He had enough death for one day. Karnak disarmed the first person that reached him and used his new weapon, a doused torch, to break the legs of the thirteen attackers. It slowed them, but they still tried to stand or crawl toward him, reaching for his legs. A wave of nausea came over him at the sight.
"Zombies” he thought absently. "They remind me of zombies.”
He picked up the boy and ran northwest toward Zaikal. Darvin had to know what was going on. He had to.
Once out of sight of the town, Karnak stopped and gently lay the dead child on the ground. He took off one of his greaves and used it as a shovel to dig as deep a grave as time would allow. The shreth would not feed on this flesh, ever. If he had time, he would have built a funeral pyre, to ensure nothing ever feasted on the corpse.
"We have all the time in the world” he whispered, mocking himself. Just yesterday, everything was right with the world. He could still feel the mattekar fur in his hands, knowing Aiko would be surprised. He had discarded the robe in Arwic, deeming it too heavy to carry with a whole town after your head.
Finished with the grave, he searched the area for a grave marker. A large stone nearby was the best he could do. Reverently, he lifted the dead boy and set him gently into the grave and pushed the dirt over his body, his grimy face the last to be covered. Using his greave, he etched one word into the stone.
Allowing himself to weep once again, he crouched beside the headstone for long minutes. Then, wiping his eyes and fastening the greave to his leg, started his run toward Zaikal.
BlackEnd, Part Five: Regrouping
Winterhawk trudged ahead, trying to keep a brisk pace. It had been raining for nearly two days straight and showed no signs of ceasing in the foreseeable future. The clouds and haze of the rain mixed, turning the world into a muted grey. It seemed appropriate to the young officer who now found himself the leader of the remnants of the Northern Kingdom. There didnít seem to be a better color to describe the world, a waking nightmare of a reality where brothers kill each other and show no emotion or pity.
The wet made the armor heavier and the mailed feet of the thirty-seven survivors plunged a little deeper into the newly-formed mud of the countryside. They had slogged their way through the grassy hills and plains west of Rithwic, turning to the northwest once they cleared the area outside of Glenden Wood. They were now in the clear, as long as they stayed off the road. The rain, despite soaking the spirits of what was left of Lord Creedís kingdom, had actually been a blessing. The sound of the rain and thunder had masked their trek through the countryside and the deluge covered their tracks almost completely. At this pace, they would reach Stonehold by the end of the day if the weather didnít get any worse. They hadnít stopped to rest or eat since morning and when he glanced back at the troops, he could see that they needed a break. No one spoke and the body language of everyone remaining said they were cold and hungry, but willing to keep the pace if needed. Winterhawk had difficulty looking them in the eye and had to force himself to do so when he gave an order. This was supposed to be Lord Creedís duty. He was supposed to be here and lead them to safety, and then to eventual victory.
How had everything gone so wrong, so fast? He wondered.
Looking ahead, he saw a small copse of trees and decided it was as good a place as any to rest. They would need their strength in the next few hours, as the terrain was already starting to slope in intervals.
ìWeíll rest hereî the young commander shouted over his shoulder. ìThirty minutes, then we must move on.î
He looked to the east, back the way they came. He had no idea how much of a lead they had on Lord Ziranís army, or even if the army was pursuing them. He had no scouts skilled in reconnaissance and the weather made any attempt almost impossible anyway. The whole of Ziranís army would be slow on the march, that much he knew. He figured he had two days to prepare the defenses at Stonehold against an assault.
ìAnd then what?î he whispered. ìThirty seven against more than three thousand?î
He tried not to think of it in that way, but those odds were not something he was trained to entertain. Even General Cerebus would withdraw and retreat in the face of such overwhelming superiority. How could you not?
That led him to other thoughts that had been gnawing at the edges of his skull for almost two days.
Was Cerebus heading for Stonehold as well? Did he have time to initiate the contingency plan? Was he infected? If he was, would he get there first?
He blinked hard and fought back the urge to just run and hide. The tears came quickly and he fought them like he would an ambush. A whole world he no longer knew seemed to be after them and somehow what remained of the world he did know looked to him for answers and protection.
ìIf Iím luckyÖî he whispered under his breath, wiping his eyes and letting the rain mix with his tears ìÖIíll die in battle and it will all be over. But not before I take that bastard Ziran with me.î
That thought jolted him.
The infected seemed to die permanently, the sickness severing their ties with the stone. That much everyone knew. But what would become of them if THEY died? They hadnít a chance to link themselves to a different stone and if they died now, they would be back in Rithwic, which was now surely destroyed. The infected would swarm over them and there would be no escape. Resurrection would be an eternal torment and death would never truly come. He now fully grasped why the traitor Karnakís punishment years ago was so terrible and also grasped why the King had lifted the sentence. He shuddered and wrapped his drenched cloak a little tighter. No one should have to endure THAT.
They had to make it to Stonehold and link with its lifestone. The alternative was unthinkable.
He looked to his troops. Some had collapsed to the ground and laid motionless, thankful for even the least amount of time off their feet. Others were tending to wounds suffered in Rithwic as best they could. One other simply stood staring into the haze, weary of a massive army virtually walking right up to them. It could happen, Winterhawk realized. The rain and thunder drowned most of the noise. That was a blessing so far, but that could easily turn on them.
Winterhawk approached the young man calmly. He judged the man, by his leather armor with mattekar fur trim, to be a hunter. He hadnít noticed the man before now, as he had kept quiet the whole journey.
ìGormikÖisnít it?î Winterhawk began with as much calm presence as he could muster.
The young man swirled slowly and dipped his head slightly with a ìYes Sir.î
Some called him ëSirí and some ëMilordí. He didnít care, as he had no title other than what Lord Creed had bestowed upon him, which wasÖunclear.
ìYouíre a hunter?î
ìYes SirÖthe Esper Mountains mostly, although this area is familiar to me as well.î
Winterhawk paused to think. He had been to Stonehold over a dozen times on assignments. He knew how to get there quickly and efficiently. But this man probably knew every hill, valley, gorge and cave from here to Stonehold. A scout was exactly what he needed.
ìGormikÖhow are you at tracking?î Winterhawk winced, as it was a ridiculous question. Every hunter worth their salt could track just about anything worth hunting.
ìI am very good, and very fast.î Gormik replied calmly, with a hint of pride.
ìHow is your health?î
ìAside from the worst headache Iíve ever had, I am fine.î
ìGoodÖI could really use you. I need you to watch the perimeter as we move, perhaps a five hundred yard radius. I need to know if anyone or anything is following us or waiting for us. We need to link with General Cerebus as soon as possible, if possible.î
ìYes SirÖIíll get right on it.î Gormik tipped his head and grabbed his bow and was off to the southeast, the way they had come.
Quick was right, Winterhawk noted. The man ran effortlessly.
He smiled. A rush of confidence that he was doing the right thing flowed through him like McNailís Rum.
He turned back to the remnants of Creedís Army. He hated to do it, but the sooner they got to Stonehold, the better.
ìBreak is over, we need to get moving.î He said abruptly, his voice on the harsh side. Why did he sound so uptight at times?
He shook his head. Creed radiated authority and never had to be harsh. People just followed him. It never ceased to amaze him. The man was born to lead. As was Cerebus.
That thought forced a new question to his mind, one he should have thought of earlier.
Who is in command when he links up? By right of the Seal, he should be. But how could he not let Cerebus take command when the time comes? He hoped he would.
ìSirÖî Gormik quietly announced, knowing Winterhawk was not paying attention.
Winterhawk jumped slightly. The man was very good indeed. He hadnít seen or heard him come up the hill.
ìYes, what is it?...î
ìGeneral Cerebus and his men are coming up the hill, Sir.î
ìWHAÖî Winterhawk cleared his throat and leaned in. ìexcellent news GormikÖî He stammered.
General Cerebus of the Winterguard strode up the hill quietly, amid applause from Winterhawkís troops. He was definitely a sight for some very sore eyes, the young commander mused. His face was granite determination, no hint of sadness, or despair. It was exactly what this group needed.
ìWhoís in charge here?î the general announced.
Winterhawk stepped forward. The Royal Seal of Ishamael Creed shone from his neck.
Cerebus knelt reverently, the look of determination fading into disappointment. ìHow can I serve you, Milord?î he asked in gruff tones.
Winterhawk collapsed mentally. He couldnít think of anything to say. The look on the generalís face said it all. He blinked in rapid succession and tried to speak, when the general spoke for him.
ìMilordÖif I may?...î Cerebus said in whispered tones without glancing up.
Winterhawk shook his head slightly and replied ìYes, yesÖyou may rise.î He blinked hard and cursed himself for his doubt. .
Cerebus stood and looked Winterhawk in the eye. ìForgive me, Milord, but I was expecting the King. We have been friends for years, and I mourn his passing. But make no mistake. YOU are in command. Lord Creed trusted you enough to lead his people to safety. That is enough for me.î
Winterhawk replied, but instantly wished he hadnít. ìI believe he trusted me only because I am not infected.î
ìIf you are not infected by this time, then I trust you with my life and the lives of my troops.î Cerebus said matter-of-factly. ìWe are fifty-five in number, including myself and my wife. How can we serve you?î
Winterhawk smiled and fought the tears, but it was a losing battle. Cerebus bowed his head and smiled. ìItís alright son, youíre doing fineÖî he whispered. ìKeep your head up and donít let the people see in your eyes what you feel inside. They will believe in you if you believe in yourself. There will be time later for reflecting on what has been lost.î
The young leader looked to the sky and allowed the rain to wash the tears away. He focused on his general and replied ìGeneral, letís get to Stonehold.î
ìYes Milordî came the generalís reply. He smiled and turned on his heels, already shouting orders to the troops.
Two hours of hard marching had brought them, under Gormikís guidance, to a small valley. Gormik assured them this valley cut through the approaching mountains, which would enable them to make better time, as they would keep to level ground. Winterhawk had never taken this way and wasnít sure, but the haze of rain and drizzle made visibility poor, so it was likely, he mused, that he just didnít recognize the terrain. The valley, Gormik said, would take them to Stonehold almost directly, with only a short, steep climb at the end. Winterhawk couldnít quite remember the terrain approaching the southern side of the fortress, but he was willing to risk it if it meant shaving off an hour or two. Gormik, constantly busy running the perimeter, had said they WERE being followed, but the scouts of Ziranís army were about three hours behind.
This news troubled him. Ziran knew they were headed to Stonehold, probably gleaning the news from the infected soldiers of Ishamael Creed. How long could they hold off that many men, even in a fortress the size of Stonehold Castle?
A few hours, perhaps half a day, his subconscious told him. They needed at least three hundred men to adequately maintain a presence on the walls. The garrison at Stonehold numbered five hundred when fully staffed, which was probably not possible given the spread of the plague. If Lord Ziran had siege equipment, which Winterhawk thought impossible given their pace, it would be less than an hour before they breached the walls.
Winterhawk shook his head and looked back to his men. Cerebus had brought a tight group, it seemed. Many of them walked together, conversing in low voices. He strained to hear them, but the rain drowned most of the noise. One man looked up and saw that he was staring at them. The young warrior glanced away and continued to talk to the woman that kept pace with him. Winterhawk recognized her now, although he hadnít earlier. Her hair was burnt in places and she walked stiffly as though she had been wounded. Her daughter struggled to keep up, yet kept silent and surveyed the world as it passed around her with eyes like mage orbs. The woman began to stare at him with a gaze sharper than any blade he could imagine. He realized he was being rude and started to look away, but the seed was already growing.
ìDo you have something to say to me?î she challenged in bold tones. ìI can see it in your eyes.î
ìMy apologies Milady, but I had just recognized you, and I wasÖî
ìYou were what?...wondering if my husband had something to do with everything that has happened?î
He felt the sting of the words more than he heard it. ìMilady, IÖî
ìDonít call me that! I am sick of hearing the word, as it always seems to be followed with a veiled insult about how my husband is a traitor, or that he deserved worse than what he got, or that I should take his damned place on that stone for having the AUDACITY to question the Kingís judgement!î
Everyone had stopped moving and all were slowly gathering to hear. There had been some tension between the two groups for hours, as neither army had worked with the other since the formation of the Winterguard almost a decade earlier. All the tension needed was a spark, and Winterhawk smelled a disaster.
ìEveryone, move along, we need to keep the pace if we are to get to Stonehold by nightfall!î he shouted.
ìYou heard him, lets move!î Cerebus shouted, coming back up the hill. He gave Winterhawk a quick look and raised his eyebrows. The young commander wasnít sure what the glance meant, but realizing Cerebus had known the lady for years, he thought he could give a good guess.
ìAiko Jade, isnít it?...î he ventured, trying to calm the storm.
She looked into his eyes and squared her shoulders, then nodded.
ìI meant no disrespect. I only wanted to sayÖî He swallowed hard, withering beneath that gaze. How did Karnak hold up to that stare, he wondered?
ìI only wanted to say, that I now know why Lord Creed spoke so highly of you.î
She blinked twice and he could tell he scored a hit. Whether it was a soft blow to the heart or a gut-wrenching blow to some vendetta she had, was hard to tell.
ìMilordÖî she began as she bowed her head in acknowledgement. ìI have heard that from buffoons like you for years. Iíll tell you what, you can speak to me again if you can find something in that hollowed head of yours to say that might be the least bit original. Otherwise, quit wasting my time!î
She said this with a twisted smile as she breezed by him. He stood motionless, stunned by the whole affair.
Koraz strode past him to catch up, shaking his head at him the way a soldier looked at the dead on the battlefield he did not know.
Winterhawk was jolted out of the shock of his verbal beating by a slight slap on the back. Ebon smiled, wincing with his eyes as he wrapped his arm around the young leader, who stared at him in bewildered silence.
ìStingsÖdoesnít it?î Ebon quipped.
ìYes it doesÖI canít wait to see her in battle.î Winterhawk said with an emerging smile. ìAre all the Winterguard women this fierce?î
Panna passd them both on her way down the hill, a look of disgust on her face. She glanced at him from head to toe and shook her head, her lips twisting in contempt.
ìI guess soÖî he laughed. It was the first time in over a week he had heard that sound.
They passed into the valley and after almost two hours of uneventful travel, came to a small pond. This struck Winterhawk as odd, as he couldnít remember any standing water this close to Stonehold. It HAD been raining, but judging by the growth around the area, the pond had been there for years. Then he noticed an oozing mud at the ridge of the pond. The water rippled slightly, as if disturbed recently. He knew instantly where they were, and the hair on his arms stood on edge. They had gone slightly east of where he thought they were headed. He didnít realize it until now. The haze had confused him in his direction. He had been here before, with Ishamael himself on a raid to explore the extent of the tunnels below.
The pond was an entrance to an olthoi nest.
Winterhawk looked at Cerebus, who had also picked up on the clue. Immediately, they turned and silently waved behind them to stop moving. The rest of the small force looked on in bewilderment, but did as they were commanded.
All that is, except Gormik.
Gormik stood at the rim of the pond, having arrived there first. He stood motionless, gazing into the depths of the water, intent on something within. Winterhawk whistled to get Gormikís attention, but the young scout never flinched. Any movement would probably be picked up by the olthoi underground. The commander was surprised the hive hadnít already responded, as the olthoi usually sent drones to the surface to probe the threat for weaknesses, then launch a full-scale attack if it was warranted by the matron inside.
Winterhawk again looked to Cerebus, who now had a hand on his sword, prompting Winterhawk to do the same. He chanced a look back to the group. The rest of Lord Creedís army had picked up on the emergency and were following suit. This is when he noticed it.
The rain had stopped, finally.
The steady thrum the rain made as it hammered the ground was still there, but Winterhawk realized it wasnít from rain, it was from the ground itself. He heard the faint creak of mahogany behind him. He knew what was happening now, and the realization that they were betrayed and trapped hit with a wave of nausea. He spun to face Gormik and possibly block the arrow, only to find the scoutís corpse splayed in the water.Black fletching protruded from the back of his head, and the black fletching was unmistakable. Enak emerged from the pool, another arrow already drawn, the archer looking for his next target. Cerebus looked relieved and nodded to Enak, sheathing his sword. Enak returned the nod and approached Winterhawk.
The young man almost fainted from surprise.
ìEnak!î The commander exclaimed, almost bowling the legendary archer over in his eagerness to embrace him. The archer smiled and accepted the show of affection, returning it quickly. The rest of the group was abuzz with excitement and hurried over to greet him. Enak pulled away, looking to the group for the first time.
ìThis is it?î he said in grim tones. ìThis is whatís left?î
ìIím afraid soÖî Cerebus said in calm tones. Winterhawk nodded.
ìWe are headed to Stonehold, as per the planî Winterhawk replied. He found it hard to sound commanding with two commanding presences flanking him to either side.
ìI knowî Enak replied in grim tones. ìWe have been trying to catch up for almost two days.î
Winterhawk turned slowly at this, not believing what he just heard.
ìWe?î he said hesitantly, catching his breath.
ìYesÖWEî came the voice from behind them.
Winterhawk began to turn, but he already knew who it was. The army of Ishamael Creed, or what was left of it, began to kneel and many began to sob in joy. The young commander broke into tears despite his best efforts and fought mightily to keep his legs. He completed his turn and gazed at his king, who fully emerged from the pond, two katars in hand, the blood of the olthoi running in streams from the blades. The sight caused him to kneel reverently, his sense of duty coming to the rescue where his emotions failed. His jaw quivered in undisguised joy and relief. He fully believed that with his king leading them, nothing was impossible.
ìYou did a fantastic job, sonî Creed said, smiling. ìI chose wisely.î
ìMilordÖI have failed youÖî
ìNonsenseî the King said, hushing him. ìYou could not know that Gormik was infected. Even Enak wasnít sure until he saw Gormik draw against you. By the time we realized you were off course, it was too late. We flanked you to see if this nest could be used as an escape route from the valley, but this is the only way in. I was hoping the insects had created new tunnels out of the valley since I was last here, but we arenít that lucky it seems.î Lord Creed wiped his katars on his sleeve and stared at Winterhawk expectantly.
ìForgive me Milordî Winterhawk said, his brow furrowing. ìToo late for what?î
The eighty-two members of Lord Creedís army seemed stunned as one entity, the look of relief on their faces evaporating instantly. At that moment, the sun made its first appearance in over two days, peeking in on the solemn gathering as it began its descent behind the mountain to the west. The event seemed an omen and many noticed it.
Lord Ishamael Creed, King of Rithwic looked into Winterhawkís eyes.
ìThe valley ends in a cliff about fifteen minutes north of here. This areaÖî he paused to wave his hand at the valleyís almost sheer walls ìÖcannot be climbed. The only way out of this valley is almost an hour behind us, and thatís an hour of swift travel. Lord Ziranís army trails you by less than two hours.î
Silence, save for the slight breeze in the evening air and the gentle lapping of the pondís murky water.
ìWe wonít have to worry about the olthoi for awhile, as Enak and I cleared most of this nest before you arrived. We can retreat into the hive and use the tunnels as chokepoints to keep their numbers manageable.î
Cerebus and Winterhawk nodded. It was as good a strategy as any at this point.
ìWe are trappedî Lord Creed said, matter-of-factly. ìWe make our stand here.î
BlackEnd, Part Six: Questions and Answers
The whisper echoed in the halls of the Zaikhal Library and Karnak winced. The silence was deafening in the new building, having been completed five years before. It was a simple structure, yet elegantly designed. The building was shaped like a chariot wheel, with the hub being the center where the Curator and his assistants were located. Each ìspokeî in the wheel was a hallway of about one hundred feet. There were six hallways, each lined with books and scrolls and each devoted to a certain topic. The topics were general, most pertaining to history, or research on magic or species living in Dereth. The hallways were linked with corridors that formed the ìwheelî. These were used for walking to other ìspokesî and contained many storage rooms for books and scrolls that were already overflowing from their respective halls. Karnak had wanted to visit since it was built, but Zaikhal had passed a law immediately after it was built that prevented convicted traitors from benefiting from the libraryís knowledge. Karnak knew this was written especially for him and had stayed away from Zaikhal ever since.
Even now he felt like he was trespassing, but the recent events had turned the whole world on its head.
He whispered again, his voice flashing through the chariotís wheel, the reverberations ringing in his ears.
Karnak frowned. This was the first city that did not ìgreetî him when he entered it, albeit with a plague-ravished embrace. The entire city was deserted, but the others were teeming with the infected. Karnak wondered if they had received word and able to evacuate in time. He hoped this was true, but the fact that Holtburg, Arwic, Tou Tou, Lin, and Khayyaban had not was disturbing. Zaikhal was no more removed in distance than any other town or city, thanks to the portal system linking each civilized area.
ìA blessing and a curseî, Karnak whispered under his breath. He chanced steps down the main hallway and was astonished at how loud they were.
ìDarvinÖî he whispered again, louder this time. Again the echoes were immense and Karnak wondered how anyone could study here with all the noise. He shuddered as he imagined the cacophony of sound when the library was busy. Each step sounded like hammer blows to an anvil. He realized that if anyone were here, they already knew of his presence. Whispering was useless.
The shout bludgeoned the walls and rang throughout the building. In the distance, he heard paper shuffling and the sound of scrolls and books tumbling. He startled someone it seemed. He began to move toward the sound, or at least he thought he was. The echo made pinpointing the noise difficult.
He heard footsteps and stopped moving to better listen. They were coming from behind him. He whirled to his back and caught a man darting behind a shelf of old tomes. Karnak didnít think an infected person would bother to hide. They never seemed to bother with anything else.
ìItís alright. I wonít hurt you. Iím unarmedî Karnak stated, walking slowly forward with his arms splayed wide.
Darvin slowly emerged with a dagger drawn. His eyes were shrewd and unforgiving.
ìForgive me KarnakÖ but prove it.î
ìHavenít I already?î He quipped. ìHave you heard any of them speak to you?î
ìNot to me, noî Darvin replied in steady tones, his dagger still pointing toward Karnak. The dagger was dull and only used to open letters, but it was all he had.
ìWell, how do you want me to prove it?î Karnak mused.
ìTell me a jokeî Darvin ventured. ìA good one.î
Karnak sighed. ìAre you kidding? I donít know any jokes, any good ones at least.î
Darvin suddenly threw the dagger at Karnak, the blade headed for his chest. Karnak caught it effortlessly and inspected the weapon.
ìThis is all you have?î He questioned. ìYou donít keep your weapons sharpened and polished anymore?î
He tossed the dagger back to him casually. Darvin caught it and sheathed it under his robe, walking slowly forward.
ìAnything else?î Karnak prodded, his smile emerging.
ìNoî Darvin replied, his lips broadening into a grin. ìI didnít have a chance if you were infected. I wanted to see what you would do if I was the one unarmed.î
ìSince when do you wear robes? Where has the old warrior gone?î
ìI can still swing a good axe, believe me.î Darvin said defensively. ìThis placeÖî He slowly swung his arm to encompass the building ìÖkeeps me busy.î
ìI can see thatî Karnak said nodding.
ìOh, and Iím sorry about the law. It is wrong and I have advocated getting it repealed, but no one listens.î Darvin looked to the axe warrior and said nothing. He knew Karnak loved books and being banned from the largest library in the world must have wounded him inside.
ìDonít be sorryî Karnak replied in hushed tones. ìIím surprised they have let me do half the things I do everyday. Why are you still here? Where is everyone else?î
Darvinís grin disappeared. ìI have been hiding here for the past few days. IÖî
He stopped in mid-sentence and looked at Karnak puzzled.
ìWhat do you mean, where is everyone else?î
ìThe whole town is deserted.î Karnak stated evenly. ìYou mean you didnít know?î
ìHow was I supposed to know?î Darvin replied with eyebrows raised. ìI buried myself under books and scrolls. By the way, do you have anything to eat and drink? I almost ventured out to find food, but it didnít seem worth the risk.î
Karnak opened a small pouch full of meat and cheese. It was all he had.
ìDarvinÖI came here for youÖî He said, offering him the food.
ìHow thoughtful of youÖî Darvin said with a mouthful of cheese.
ìIf anyone knows what is going on, it would be you.î Karnak stated matter-of-factly.
Darvin swallowed hard. ìWater?...î
ìSorryÖî Karnak untied his waterskin, which was almost empty. Darvin greedily downed the last of it.
ìWhat makes you thinkÖî Darvin said, in-between gulps ìÖthat I have the slightest clue?î
Karnakís face drooped. This wasnít what he hoped. If Darvin didnít know, who would?
ìI was hopingÖî Karnak said under his breath and looked away.
ìHave you come into contact with them?î Darvin inquired, focusing on Karnak. He already knew the answer.
Karnak spun to face him. ìAre you kidding? It has been a non-stop battle just to get here.î
ìI figured. Well then, tell me your thoughts. You have more experience with them than I do.î
Karnak stared at the wall. Everything in the past couple of days had been a blur. The world had gone from perfect to hellish in that span of time. He wasnít even sure if his wife and daughter were still alive.
ìThey act like zombiesÖî
Darvin frowned. ìZombies? I wouldnít have used that word. They certainly donít look like zombies.î
Karnak turned to face him. ìWell no, they donít. But zombies donít show feeling or caring about anything. They justÖî
ìThey just what?î Darvin probed.
ìThey just react.î
Darvin looked at the ground, deep in thought. ìHmmmÖ maybe the word fits.î
Karnak glanced at him, his head turning slightly. ìWhat do you mean?î
ìWellÖî Darvin began, his head cocked slightly to one side as if pondering something. ìZombies are created, correct?î
ìCorrect.î Karnak responded. ìGo on.î
ìDo the people show any physical symptoms ofÖwhatever it is?î
ìNo. It has been my experience that they justÖî Karnak shook his head. ìÖchange.î
ìSuddenly?î Darvin prodded. ìYou have seen it?î
ìNoÖbut I have seen their loved ones killed and the way they died tells me they were surprised.î
Karnak blinked away the memory of Alias bleeding to death in Khayyaban. That was one of many examples in the past few days.
ìSomething is causing them to changeÖî Darvin said to himself, stating the obvious. He began to pace the floor, his robe whispering slightly as he moved. This was becoming a search for knowledge and it was something at which Darvin excelled.
ìWhat happens when you kill them?î Darvin asked, knowing Karnak would have intimate knowledge of this.
ìThey dieÖpermanently. No cries of pain, no last wishes, no uttering of curses, except that hunter in the Espers. I think he was infected, but I canít be sure now.î
ìYou killed someone who might not be infected? Shame on you.î Darvin rolled his eyes.
Karnak frowned. ìHe attacked me. He said ëMy name does not matter, nor does my motive for ending your life. It has already begun.í No one has spoken since then.î
ìHmmmÖî Darvin stared at the ground as he paced. ìIt doesnít make sense. Iíll bet whatever is happening is tied to the disruption of the Ether as well.î
ìYes, definitely.î Karnak replied. He looked down the hallway. ìDamn, it is incredibly loud in here. How do you read anything in the chaos, especially when itís busy?î
ìHmm?î Darvin looked up and said matter-of-factly ìOh, we use Silence Orbs. Itís one of the secrets we have uncovered here from Yalaini texts. I deciphered it myself. They silence everything within fifteen feet and turn off any magic. They prevent idiots from burning this place down or using magic to steal anything. They are quite handy.î
ìYes, Iíll bet they are.î Karnak said, listening to the echo of his words. ìBut where are they?î
ìI took them down last night so I could hear everything in the library. If someone was in here, I wanted to know without revealing myself.î
Karnak nodded absently. He was getting restless and felt like he was at a dead end. ìWe should get moving. We need to link up with the others at Stonehold.î
Darvin spun to face the warrior. ìThere are others?î
ìWell, there are supposed to be. We laid the foundations for that plan years ago. It made sense at the time.î
Nothing made sense anymore and Karnak wondered if it ever would again.
ìWhat if we are the only ones left?î Darvin mused, looking Karnak straight in the eye.
ìImpossible.î Karnak shook his head. ìWhy us?î
ìYes it is improbable. But are you prepared to kill the rest of them at Stonehold if you are wrong?î
ìIf I have to, yes. It would be a blessing. I owe them no less.î
Darvin stared at Karnak for long seconds.
ìEven your daughter?î
Karnak blinked and looked away. He had tried not to think of it in those terms. He wanted her to be alright. Aiko was a fierce warrior and would die repeatedly to defend Yoshiko. He had played endless scenarios in his head. What if Aiko was infected? Would she kill Yoshi? If Yoshiko was infected, would Aiko hesistate to act? What if he encountered them both, and they attacked him? He would rather face the Punishment of years past than entertain any one of those situations.
ìIÖî He stopped short of saying anything. To put the thoughts into words seemed disastrous.
ìDarvinÖI donít know what to do.î
ìI understand.î Darvin said quietly. ìWe need more information.î
ìWe donít have time, dammit!î Karnak shouted. He felt helpless and that feeling never sat well with him. ìI am guessing this town left to chase them. They are in for a terrible fight, IF they even make it to Stonehold. We donít have time to search the shelves and racks for answers!î
ìYou are right. To search here would take hours or days. We donít have that much time.î
Darvin stared at Karnak and tensed, knowing the next few minutes were going to be rough.
ìThere is a place we can find answers almost instantly.î Darvin said and clenched his teeth.
Karnak stiffened visibly, his eyes narrowing to slits. He felt baited.
ìWe are NOT going there! Are you fucking insane?î
ìI have been accused of that more than once, believe me.î Darvin exhaled lustily and looked away. He didnít like the idea at all and it would probably get him killed.
ìThere is thatÖor there is Stonehold.î Darvin said, pressing a little. ìI donít know about you, but I would rather arrive in Stonehold with a little more knowledge about this ëplagueí and how to fight the infected. If we are alone against them, we might be able to help them instead of slaughter them. If they are normal, then together, we might just beat this and saveÖeverything.î
Karnak walked away, visibly disgusted. The thought had never occurred to him. That place was the source of all his pain and shame. He hadnít been there since he began his hunt for Hamud years ago.
ìKarnakÖlike it or not, we have to go back to the Nexus.î
Slowly turning back to Darvin, the axe warrior gazed at him. ìYou have no idea what itís like in there. Iím not sure I can protect you.î
ìI can handle myself. Just get me to the pool and Iíll ask the questions. You justÖdo what you do.î
The two stood apart for almost a minute in silence. The lack of sound was deafening.
Karnak exhaled and smiled a little, shaking his head. ìI feel used.î
ìItís better than being useless.î Darvin replied with a grin. ìGive me a few minutes to find a portal scroll to the Nexus. We should have some, we have just about everything else. You head to the armory and get us some equipment. Weíll need some food as well.î
Darvin started for a nearby scroll room, his robes whispering as he ran. Karnak called back to him.
ìWait a minuteÖwhat if the food is infected?î
Darvin hadnít thought of that and stopped suddenly. He shrugged his shoulders.
ìThen we are in trouble. We have to eat. Get whatever you can find I guess.î He continued his run when Karnak stopped him again.
ìGet one of those orbs Darvin and bring it with us. It couldnít hurt.î
ìAlright, good idea.î Darvin shouted over his shoulder as he ran. ìGive me five minutes!î
It was a minute walk to the armory and Karnak grabbed a few axes and hammers and began to sharpen them on the grindstone. They werenít the best quality, but augmented with spells, they would do the job well enough. A suit of chainmail hung in the corner, but it seemed a little small for Darvin. He would just cast spells on Darvinís robe before battle, making the robe as strong as platemail. He began to think of combat again and the thought always soothed him. It had become such a part of him in the past one hundred and fifty years that the thought of anything else seemed alien to him. Even as a married man, he constantly sparred with friends and his wife, who enjoyed combat as much as he did. Even his daughter seemed to excel at it. He smiled as he sharpened the next axe. Yoshiko was shaping up to be a fantastic fighter, even at eight years old. He almost pitied her eventual husband, almost.
After fifteen minutes, the weapons were serviceable. He returned to the library to see Darvin carefully packing an orb into a knapsack.
ìHow do those things work?î Karnak asked. ìCan you shut them off?î
ìYou can cover them to negate the effects.î Darvin responded, slinging the sack carefully over his shoulder. ìIíll pull it out if needed.î
ìGood. Do you know what questions to ask?î
Darvin pondered a minute. ìNot at the moment, but Iíll think of something.î Darvin frowned and glanced at Karnak. ìWhyÖdo I have a time limit or something?î
ìNoÖî Karnak said as he tossed him an axe. ìBut you may be under duress while asking. Make sure you are focused and know exactly what you want to say.î
Karnak looked at him directly. ìHeyÖî he started, sounding gruff.
Darvin looked up suddenly, not sure what to make of the tone. ìYes?î
ìWhatever you do, donít get caught up in what youíre doing.î
ìWhat?î Darvin retorted. ìI thought you said to focus?î
ìYou need to focus on what youíre SAYING, but thatís it. Donít stare excessively into the pool. ëSeeí your answer and then stop.î
ìWhy?î Darvin prodded, his head turning slightly in suspicion.
ìThe pool is alive. Iíll leave it at that.î
ìOkÖî Darvin nodded, not knowing what to so with that knowledge. Karnak was one of the few that had visited the Nexus more than once, and left with an actual memory of what transpired. Most that traveled there, died there, or were driven mad.
ìDo we have everything?î Karnak asked, sounding impatient.
ìI donít have any armor, if that makes a differenceî Darvin replied, straightening the pack on his shoulder.
ìYou wonít need it. If you are fighting at all it means I am dead.î
ìComfortingî Darvin said with raised eyebrows. ìI donít really like the sound of that.î
ìItíll be alright. I donít think theyíll be happy to see me, but I donít expect them to be able to stop me. Weíll bind at the lifestone here, just in case.î
Darvin stared at him for long moments. ìCan you still hear them?î
Karnak stopped tightening the greave on his left foot and stared blankly at him, nodding. ìI can hear whispers if I concentrate, but itís become a soft buzz in the background. I hear them better when Iím asleep.î
Darvin looked away, ashamed he asked. ìIím sorry.î
Karnak shook his head slowly. ìDonít be. That little curse is going to help us today.î
The warrior sighed heavily and shook his head as if to ward off the memory. ìDo you have a portal scroll to Stonehold?î
ìAlready packed both of them. Is it wise to use them?î
ìAbout as wise as going to the Nexus. We wonít have time to run it though.î Karnak finished adjusting his armor and sighed again. ìLetís go.î
The lifestone was five minutes from the library and deserted. A few corpses littered the ground to all sides, of the blue stone, hapless victims of the infected crowd of people that guarded the lifestones in each town like angry bees surrounding a hive. They bound their spirits quietly, not wanting to attract attention of anyone nearby, if there WAS anyone left.
Darvin read the scroll calmly and Karnak followed suit. The world slowly twisted and vanished, a purple light enveloping them both. They were used to portal travel, but the aura surrounding this portal seemed alive, twisting around their bodies, the energy causing discomfort and pain. Darvin winced and clutched the sides of his robe. Karnakís heart began to pound in his chest. He had vowed to never venture there again, but knew somehow, circumstance would draw him to the infernal place once more.
The gods never cease in their attempts to ruin my day, he mused darkly.
The Nexus of Realities was a place where existences converged. A green pool of caustic acid was the focal point and was actually sentient. Because it touched every reality, the pool was aware of all things everywhere and when. It was willing to answer questions, and its knowledge was said to be infinite. The chance at omniscience came with a price, however. Powerful undead and malicious shadow beings haunted the Nexus and guarded the pool. To ask questions, you first had to fight for it.
The sudden sound jolted Darvin, who instinctively reached for his axe. ìWhat!?î
ìI forgot to pack some foodî the warrior grumbled. ìIím sorry. I knew you were hungry.î
ìItís fine. I think I just lost my appetite.î
The two materialized from portal space and glanced about the chamber. Magical green flames danced in two braziers on either side of a door. The door would lead to the main chamber, the enigmatic poolÖand the poolís guardians. The room beyond the door erupted with unearthly screams and the light from dozens of spells being cast. The screams cursed Karnak in tones that reminded Darvin of tortured children and whispering wind, a mixture that brought waves of nausea to an already churning stomach.
ìWe should have cast all spells back at the libraryî Karnak whispered. ìIíll have to hurry.î
Karnak began to recite spells that augmented physical and mental abilities, the strength of armor and weapons, and the bodyís ability to absorb punishment, both physical and magical. Casting spells on both of them took ten precious minutes. The abyssal voices became louder and greater in number, calling up strength from the depths of the Nexus.
ìGIVE IT BACK TO US!î screamed one voice, shouting over the others. ìIT DOESNíT BELONG TO YOU!î
Darvin glanced at Karnak with eyebrows raised. ìWhat doesnít belong to you?î
Karnak walked to the door and placed his hands on both handles.
He thrust open the doors and gazed at the force arrayed against him. Over thirty undead sorcerers and umbris shadows waited on the other side of the pool. The chasm that contained the acidic pool was over twenty feet square and adjacent to the door. Unsuspecting adventurers could easily fall to their deaths with their first step. The jump across was a daunting one, especially with the opposite ledge crowded with beings that aimed to kill you.
Over a dozen war spells hit him flush in the chest and sent him hurtling back, slamming him into the wall on the opposite side of the antechamber. Darvin scrambled to the side of the room to remove himself from the sorcerersí line of sight. He looked quickly back to Karnak with great concern, but the axe warrior was already on his feet and running toward the door, showing no signs of injury.
ìHow did he survive that?î Darvin whispered. He wanted to position himself to get a better view of what was about to happen, but he didnít feel like taking one of those spells to the face.
Karnak vaulted himself into the middle of the swarm and splayed his arms. A halo of inky darkness spread from his body like a shockwave, passing through sorcerers and shadows alike as if ethereal. The umbris shadows screamed and tried to flee, knowing what power was just used against him, but they were too late. Karnakís axe cleaved them into dark, oozing puddles as he maneuvered himself through the crowd. He rolled under three whirling blade spells and cut down all three sorcerers with a single swing, the magic animating them visibly dissipating. Two umbris managed to grab his arms with a frightening strength, attempting to immobilize him while the sorcerers finished him off. Karnak flexed his muscles and pulled inward toward his own body. The umbris, already affected by his spell, Shattering Pulse, were torn to pieces, their screams fading into the din of combat.
Hearing the screams and the thunder of spells blasting in the room start to fade, Darvin slowly walked to the doorway and gazed into the chamber. Karnak had finished the last of the sorcerers and looked to the far hallway, anticipating more. The host of undead and shadows against Karnak had held on for almost a minute. Darvin shook his head in amazement. How could one man do that so fast?
Karnak glanced over to him, stepping through dark puddles and decayed flesh.
ìYou have to make the jump. It will only work if you are inside the roomî Karnak said as he surveyed the distance.
Darvin glanced over his shoulder. ìAre you sure there are no more coming? I donít want to be standing here staring into a pool of acid with war spells flying all over the place.î
ìI donít blame youî Karnak replied. ìThey will keep coming as long as we are here. Iím going to meet them as they come up the hallway. They can only come into this room four or five at a time. You wonít be disturbed.î
Karnak positioned himself on the side of the pool and held his hand out. It was still a jump of over ten feet and at this angle, there was no room for a running start.
Darvin tossed his axe over, then made the jump. Not wearing armor helped him and he made it easily.
ìAlrightî He said, staring into the pool. ìHow do I activate it?î
ìHmmmÖî Karnak mused, frowning. ìThe last time I was here, I needed the guardian of the pool to activate it for me.î He looked to the slaughter at their feet. ìI think he was in there somewhere.î
ìBeautifulî Darvin said with a smirk. He looked at the rotting corpses of the undead all around him. ìWhich one was he? They all look the same.î
ìIím not sure it is any one particular sorcerer. They might all have the ability to do it.î Karnak began to stride down the hallway with a purpose. ìIíll be right back. I need to find a volunteer.î
ìRightÖî Darvin replied over his shoulder. He gazed into the pool. The acid was fifteen feet into the pit. If you fell in, there was no getting out. The pool should have been placid, yet the green liquid was slowly churning. It seemed to ooze around the walls in places and bubble and froth in others. Darvin peered intently at the pattern. He could swear that he could hear voices, hauntingly beautiful.
ìWelcome Darvin. Weíve been waiting for you.î
ìHow did you knowÖî Darvin began, trying to pull his eyes away from the now foaming pool.
ìWe know everything. We know you have questions. We have all the answers. Nothing is impossible or unfathomable.î
ìWho isÖwe?î Darvin asked, frowning. He was fascinated, despite Karnakís warning.
ìWe are a collective that spans every plane, every world. We are connected to everything, past, and present.î
Darvin closed his eyes. It was hard to focus on what he wanted to know. He swallowed hard, forming a question quickly, just so he could hear the voices again.
ì IÖhave come to partake of your knowledge. There is aÖî Darvin paused, searching for the right words. ìÖsickness that plagues the people of Dereth. I would like knowledge of what this sickness is, where it comes from, and how to stop it.î
The pool bubbled playfully and the melodic voices answered. ìIt is a simple answer, but it is not the question your heart desires.î
ìWhat?î Darvin blinked in surprise. ìWhat do you mean?î
The rumble of distant explosions shook the chamber, cracking some of the ancient grey stones. Darvin could feel it and his heart raced. Something was wrong and he had the feeling Karnak was in trouble. The pool was stunningly beautiful. He could spend an eternity listening to the voices. His body screamed at him to do something, but his mind was only interested in the information that was streaming into his being, his soul. The voices could hear everything it seemed.
ìYou are right. Your friend is in mortal danger.î
ìSo beautifulî Darvin whispered.
ìThere is so much to learn Darvin. Come with us.î
The air hissed and wailed as Karnakís limp body thundered into the room in a blur. The wall to the north of the pool crumbled around him, the sound echoing through the chamber and down the hallway. This finally shook Darvin from his trance, startling him and almost causing him to fall headfirst into the pool. He blinked hard to jumpstart his brain into action, not quite fathoming what had just occurred. The debris began to move slowly and Karnak pulled himself from the rubble, still clutching his axe.
ìDarvinÖî Karnak managed to groan. ìGet outÖrun!î
ìWhat?!...î was all Darvin could manage to say, the sound of the voices still caressing his soul.
The floor shook as the thing rumbled down the hallway toward them. The shadows it cast on the walls as it approached writhed like living things. It roared with rage as it sighted Darvin and accelerated straight for him.
ìDARVIN RECALL NOW!î Karnak screamed, moving to block the monstrosity that was barreling toward them.
The loremaster froze, still listening to the poolís melodic whispers.
ìDonít concern yourself with the construct Darvinî, the voices said, soothing his fear. ìThink about what we offer you. Immortality. Omniscience. Join us.î
Karnak spread his arms and released the halo of darkness as the huge guardian lumbered up to him. He ducked a giant appendage and spun to the entityís flank, bringing the axe around in a blur. The weapon clanged off the constructís back harmlessly. The spell, for the first time, failed to work. The being spun to face him and roared in rage. Two tentacle-like arms swung in arcs to either side of Karnak and closed in. The arms were shrouded in inky darkness and resembled the spell he had just used. Karnak rolled backwards and under the massive limbs, only to be hit with a lightning bolt from the entityís cavernous mouth. The spell was incredibly powerful and hurled him back fifty feet into a stone column, shattering it and burying the warrior in debris.
Darvinís eyes watered with the thought of such power. What was he trying to achieve in the library, if not the accumulation of knowledge into one place? The libraryís knowledge was vast, but was nothing compared to what was being offered. How could he refuse?
Swallowing hard, Darvin turned to the pool once more. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, focusing his will into what he wanted to know.
ìHow do I stop the plague?î he demanded, his voice commanding and solid.
Karnak stumbled to his feet, retreating behind a column. The guardian seemed only interested in him, which was good, he thought. Darvin must have had time to glean what he needed to know. The construct, if thatís what it was, seemed impervious to harm, which meant he was fighting a losing battle. His armor was fused to his skin by the lightning and his left eye partially melted from the intense heat. He was protected against spells, but the power of that bolt was something he had never witnessed before. He concentrated to cast a Heal spell, but the column exploded behind him and sent him hurtling further down the great hallway. His arms and legs were shattered and he felt a torrent of blood pouring down his neck from the back of his head. Still, he managed to turn himself over to face his attacker one last time. His axe was gone and he lacked the capacity to even speak, his jaw in tatters within his skin. He clung to the hope that Darvin had enough sense to leave for Stonehold.
The behemoth pounded toward him, tentacles waving and mouth agape in what looked to Karnak to be a smile, if the entity was capable of such a thing. The defeated warrior tried one last time to get to his feet, but the monster pinned him with a foot as wide as the surrounding columns and began to laugh.
The sound chilled Karnak to the bone. He recognized the voice instantly.
The golem spoke in thundering tones. ìI KNEW YOU WOULD COME BACK. YOUR SOUL CALLS TO THIS PLACE EVERY DAY. YOU HUNGER TO STEAL MORE, DONíT YOU?î
Karnak blinked hard. While trying to lead a ìnormalî life with his wife and daughter, the one being he hated more than anything had been busy plotting revenge this whole time.
ìI WILL TAKE BACK WHAT YOU STOLE FROM US, AND YOUR SOUL WITH IT. FOR THE REST OF ETERNITY, YOU WILL KNOW THE CARRESSES OF DEMONS AND SHADOWS, SLAVE!î
The golem paused, as if relishing the moment.
ìTHE NEXT TIME YOU SEE THAT MEWLING DAUGHTER AND THAT MISERABLE WHORE OF YOURS, IT WILL BE AS YOU ARE CLEAVING THEM INTO PIECES, ALL WHILE LAUGHING AND PRAISING ME FOR GIVING YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO RELEASE YOUR TRUE SELF!î
Karnak struggled again and managed to free a hand, which he lifted to his mutilated jaw to hold it while he spoke.
ìHamudÖyou alreadyÖtriedÖto break me. Tell meÖhow did itÖgoÖlast time?î
Karnak forced himself to smile and laughed, the blood in his mouth gurgling and oozing down his cheeks.
The golem roared in rage and stepped off Karnakís body and began to drag him down the hall. It stopped suddenly as Darvin revealed himself from behind a nearby column.
ìDid you forget about me, Hamud?î Darvin asked casually, walking slowly towards the hulking construct.
The golem roared in laughter and approached the loremaster, its tentacles slowly circling behind Darvin.
ìWHAT CAN YOU DO TO ME, FOOL, THAT YOUR PATHETIC COMRADE COULD NOT?î
ìI only have one trick, but itís a good oneî Darvin replied, a smirk coming to his face.
The tentacles lifted him off the ground and brought him so close to the golemís face, Darvin could smell the magic. He calmly and carefully revealed the orb from its pouch and winked slyly.
The golem immediately slumped and fell over, the magic animating it dissipating instantly.
Darvin set the orb down carefully next to the golem and ran to Karnak.
ìQuick, what should I do?î Darvin said, looking over his shoulder. ìWeíre bound to have company soon.î
ìHold my jawÖhereî Karnak replied weakly, taking Darvinís hand and placing it under his right ear.
Darvin winced as Karnak spoke. He had never seen such gruesome injuries on someone who wasnít dead.
Karnak mumbled a Heal spell, but it fizzled. He blinked hard and tried again, using a weaker, less complex spell. This time, the magic poured over his body, sealing a few of the more grievous wounds, mending some of his bones, and restoring blood to his shattered body. He then slowly climbed to his feet and cast again, wincing in pain as the magic healed the rest of the injuries.
ìLetís get out of hereî Karnak said, rubbing his jaw. ìAre you alright?î
Darvin nodded thoughtfully. ìYes, of course, what about you?î
ìIíll liveî Karnak said with a smirk. ìThank youÖand good thinking.î
ìYouíre welcome, now letís go. This place isnít as fun as I thought it would be.î
ìDid you ask the right questions?î
ìYesÖî Darvin began, and his enthusiasm trailed off. ìI know how to stop it.î
Karnak recovered his axe and removed his Stonehold scroll from his pack. It was too damaged to use. He cursed silently and shook his head.
ìI canít go with you. You have to get to the others and warn themî Karnak said in disgust. ìIíll meet you there as fast as I can.î
Darvin removed his scroll quickly. ìGood luck. Is there anything you want me to tell Aiko when I get there?î
Karnak paused for a moment and stared at Darvin. ìHow do you know they are alive?î
ìI just peered into the pool, you would be surprised what I know. We donít have much time though, the rest of civilization is right on their heels.î
Karnak looked into his eyes and nodded. ìTell her Iíll get her that robe some other time.î
ìThatís not such a good idea, the robe thingÖbut Iíll explain later.î Darvin replied.
ìGoÖand good luck.î Karnak said, nodding.
Darvin read the scroll and vanished abruptly, the sound of his words still echoing in the hallway.
Karnak ran back through the hallway to the pool. His legs and arms felt like lead and his head was spinning from a lack of sleep. The Heal spell relieved wounds and pain, but didnít get rid of fatigue. He stared at the pool intently and the acid began to froth mildly. He asked a simple question.
ìWhat did Darvin see?î
After long minutes of ìseeingî his answer, Karnak heard the distant screams of the shadows and undead sorcerers as they made their way up from the depths of the Nexus. He was in no mood for another fight, not yet anyway. What he saw in the pool made him realize that every minute was precious and even then, he might be too late. He whispered a specially prepared recall spell and was immediately enveloped in purple light. As he materialized, he smelled smoke, andÖsomething else. The purple, churning light faded to a view of his house, or what was left of it. The fire that had gutted it had burned itself out, but some of the timbers still smoldered. There were banderlings everywhere, rummaging through the debris of other houses nearby and fighting over what belongings were deemed valuable.
He closed his eyes, not expecting anything different. The banderlings eyed him and ceased their activities, calling out to each other in their language. They began to approach him, close to twenty in number, most with their spears ready. Karnak had an unspoken agreement with this group. They stayed out of the village and he didnít kill them. Until now, they had kept their end of the silent deal. The largest banderling, his size making him the leader by default, approached, his teeth bared in an attempt to intimidate. The others followed his lead, growling in unison. Karnak stared at the leader and calmly shook his head, his thumb caressing the edge of his axe. The group, almost as one entity, hesitated and looked to their leader for support. Some of them remembered the last encounter with this axe warrior and began to back away. The leader, seeing the effect Karnak had on his troops, followed suit, leaving him to his work.
Karnak quickly jumped down into what used to be the cellar of his home, the fire having burned the floor away. He looked at the cellar floor intently and walked over to a particular charred floorboard. He tugged on in slightly and it gave way, revealing a large axe underneath. Karnak removed it from its hiding place and examined it. The magic augmenting it had kept the fire away, and the edge was sharp enough to cut through stone. He had been working on it for two months in his spare time. It was finished, but lacked a purpose. It seemed to have one now.
Fastening it to a scabbard on his back, Karnak gauged the run ahead of him. It would take about an hour at a fevered pace to reach Stonehold. He climbed out of the cellar and looked once again at what remained of his house. The only thing that was left on this world that he loved was one hour away and needed himÖnow.
He whispered a prayer to gods that never seemed to care and began his run to Stonehold.
Black End, Part Seven: The Battle of Stonehold
ìEbon, hurryî Aiko urged, her teeth grinding in frustration as she failed for the third consecutive time to cast a spell on her armor.
ìThe art canít be rushed Miladyî Ebon quipped with a slight smile, knowing that wasnít quite the truth. He had cast over one-hundred spells in the last twenty minutes and had never paused to catch his breath. Sweat poured from his face, yet the contours of his young visage remained placid. In his youthful impatience, he had learned to cast quickly and efficiently. He had become Cerebusís enforcer when dealing with outlaws and had become so feared in that capacity that Khayyaban, as well as the towns of Al-Jalima and Lin that were portal-linked to it, experienced no outlaw traffic of any kind. He had become infamous in outlaw circles for fighting, and killing the bandits while outnumbered as much as six-to-one, all the while antagonizing, belittling, and distracting his victims. He was, both General Cerebus and Karnak noted, as cool and calculating under fire as they came.
The same could not be said of the other members of what remained of Lord Ishamael Creedís Army. Most believed the odds to be so great, and death such a certainty, that there was nothing they could do. Consequently, most did next to nothing. A few prayed; either to gods never worshipped on this world, or to Asheron, in the vain hope that the founder of the exodus to Dereth would, or could, listen. Only the urging and prodding of their King brought action. They had fought together on countless occasions during their time here and had either been victorious, or had perished, only to be resurrected by Asheronís magical artifacts, the lifestones. Most were masters in combat, able to learn from lethal mistakes and apply the lesson in the next battle. Their confidence usually shined and their spirits soared, even in the presence of long odds.
This battle would be different.
Lord Creed had estimated the horde at their heels at around fifteen thousand, much more than what faced them at Rithwic. They had come from every town and outpost in Dereth, drawn like moths to the torch, gathered by a power no one seemed to understand. They were led by the most intimidating warrior alive. Ziran the Hellhawk was a swordsman that had no peer and was an army unto himself. He had defeated every foe he had faced and yet, lost his kingdom and his personal battle with an enemy he never envisioned, an immaculate sword thrust into the body and brain by an irresistible force immeasurably small. Despite this, his very name conjured fear in all, especially when your next death may be your last.
ìLady Jade, slow down and focusî Ebon said, the words of the next spell flowing from his lips before and after his comment.
ìI am tryingî Aiko fussed, her tone showing her exasperation. ìHow do you interrupt your cast like that?î she inquired with a frown. ìI thought that was impossible.î
ìI am beginning to believe that nothing is impossible with magic. I think we are just scratching the surface of what we might learn.î Ebon turned to her and smiled. ìRelax, Iíll get the rest of them. Where is Yoshi?î
Aiko looked around her quickly, her eyes suddenly large and panicked. She had become so involved in trying to cast spells on herself that she had completely forgotten about her. She cursed silently and ran off shouting her name, others pointing her in Yoshikoís last known direction. Ebon finished the last spell as she ran, one of Blade Protection. Aikoís body flared in bright yellow light as she hurried off. Ebon sighed and looked to Koraz, who had been silently sharpening his sword the entire time.
ìAlrightÖî he smirked, beginning a spell of Impenetrability on Korazís shield ìÖyouíre next.î
ìWe form a perimeter hereî Lord Creed stated, using his index finger to draw an imaginary line onto the ground. The line formed a semi-circle around the underwater entrance to the olthoi nest, the pool spanning only forty feet. The narrow gorge they were in was perhaps five hundred feet across. Ishamael Creed knew he didnít have the numbers to cover that kind of distance, which meant if they were not careful in their maneuvering, they could be surrounded and isolated.
ìThatís really our only realistic optionî General Cerebus replied, nodding. ìThat is, IF we stay outside. Milord, I still believe the tunnels, even in the beginning, are our best hope.î
ìI disagreeî Enak said, shaking his head. ìArrows from the three of us and magic from Ebon lose their effectiveness in there. That should be the second stage, after our line starts to give.î
ìI donít see it that wayî Cerebus retorted. ìIn the tunnels, their numbers at any one point become our numbers. With Ebon and Miette casting healing spells, we actually have an advantage in there.î Cerebus turned away from Enak and looked Lord Creed straight in the face. ìOut here, we risk being overwhelmed, and quickly. Miette needs to be able to concentrate on individual targets and to see her targets clearly. I am sure the same goes for Ebon.î
ìI have seen Ebon cast war spellsî Enak said to Creed, lofting the words over Cerebusís shoulder. ìThat boy is a prodigy and should be given space to work. In crowds, he will be devastating.î
ìProvided one of Ziranís mages doesnít cut him down while he is focused on something elseî Cerebus replied evenly.
ìLeave the mages to meî Enak said, half-smiling. ìThey will be my first targets.î
ìHe is good, there is no doubtî Cerebus said, nodding. ìBut he is equally adept in healing. Once someone is down, we have lost them for good. Remember that.î
ìGood points, both of youî Creed said, nodding thoughtfully while scanning the gorge for anything useful. ìEnak, I want you on that rock over thereî Creed said, pointing to a large boulder some one hundred feet from where they stood.
ìMy thoughts exactlyî Enak said with a smirk.
ìTake my arrows, I wonít be using my bowî Creed said, sliding a full quiver off his shoulder. ìWe will fight outside until the pressure is too great, then withdraw to the tunnels and regroup in thereî he said, surveying the three officers. Winterhawk was invited to the discussion and was present, but if he agreed with either of the other two, he gave no sign.
ìI will head into them when the full force of them hits us. I will instruct Ebon to do so as wellî Creed announced as he glanced at Cerebus. ìAre you sure that boy is up to it? The pressure will be enormous.î
ìI have seen him in battles with four other mages at once and come away without a scratchî Cerebus sighed, shaking his head in wonder. ìIf anyone can handle it, itís him.î
ìGoodî Creed replied, trying not to sound pessimistic. He felt as if he had just ordered the young manís execution, as well as everyone else. That thought might as well have punched him in the stomach, for he felt like vomiting.
ìWhat gives me the right, in a situation like this?î he mused silently, not allowing the question to taste the air, the unspoken words thundering in his head. ìThey follow my leadÖto this.î
ìMilord?î Winterhawk ventured, knowing the king was drifting in his thoughts.
ìHmmÖyes, what is it?î Creed replied, shaking away the unwanted doubts. Doubts were as dangerous as any enemy.
ìWhere do you want me in all this?î he returned, trying to sound calm. The young officer seemed ready to jump out of his skin in anticipation.
ìYou make sure you stay aware of the pressure that is put on the perimeterî Creed stated, turning to face Winterhawk directly. ìIf you feel the perimeter cannot hold, give the signal to withdraw into the tunnels, a fighting withdrawal, of course.î
ìWhat about the three of you? I donít want to leave you out here without support.î
ìCerebus and Miette will be with you. Miette is vital for the defense down there. They are going to be protecting each other, so it will be up to YOU to give the signal.î Creed raised his eyebrows and stared his young officer straight in the eye. ìDo you understand?î
ìAbsolutely My Lordî Winterhawk said instantly, bowing slightly.
ìYour Majesty, what do you want ME to do?î Yoshiko asked grimly, trying to look as important as she could. The four men turned in unison, resembling, for a split second, the infected people they were about to fight.
ìYoung ladyî the King of Rithwic said as he kneeled to her level. ìHow long have you been listening?î
Yoshiko fidgeted reflexively and looked away. This was the first time he had ever spoken to her. ìI uhhÖwellÖabout two minutes.î
ìJust long enough to be in deep troubleî Aiko Jade said, grabbing her by the arm and hair simultaneously and swiftly spinning her about face. ìWhat have I TOLD you about eavesdropping!?î
ìItís alrightî Lord Creed said heavily. ìWe have no secrets from anyone. What she heard will be said to all in a couple of minutes anyway.î
ìI beg your pardon, Milord. I will leave you all to your planning.î Aiko started to storm away, the unfortunate Yoshiko firmly in tow.
ìWaitî Ishamael Creed said calmly. ìI havenít answered her question.î Aiko stopped suddenly and turned immediately, eyebrows raised in surprise.
The King knelt again and chose his words. ìYoung ladyÖî he started, staring at her intently. ìI want you to stay in the tunnelsÖî he paused and cut off the emerging complaint with his eyes ìÖstay in the tunnels and find the best place for General Cerebus to mount a defense.î He paused to let the information sink in. ìDo you know what to look for?î
ìMilordÖsomeone is coming up the mouth of the gorge!î Bertohg, still fumbling with his armor, shouted into the air. All heads turned at the news. Creed quickly looked back to Yoshiko.
ìI think soî Yoshiko stammered, her eyes almost wide open.
ìLook for passages less than ten feet wide that do not circle in on themselves. We need to keep them in front of usÖunderstand?î Creed asked once more, his eyes searching her face for acknowledgement.
ìYesî she said quickly, nodding, her unblinking eyes starting to water.
ìI meanÖyes Milord!î she corrected quickly.
Lord Creed smiled. ìGood! Run along now. I will see you soon!î
Yoshiko turned and beamed at her mother, who looked surprised and angry all at once.
ìThe King gave me a duty!î she said, dripping with pride. ìIíve got to get to it!î
ìWait just a secondî Aiko replied, catching Yoshikoís sleeve. ìI am going with you to make sure itís safe.î
ìAww mom!î she whined. ìYou never let me do anything by myself!î
Aiko turned her daughterís body to face her directly. ìHave you ever seen an olthoi?î
ìNoÖbut you and Dad kill them all the time. How hard can it be?î Yoshiko mused, her eyes wide in innocence.
Aiko shook her head and blinked hard. Yoshiko had never seen either of her parents in battle other than sparring, not even as they fled Khayyaban. Aiko had sent her ahead with Ebon when the town began to rally in unison against them. The young girl hadnít seen her Mother, Panna, and Cerebus draw them off to buy the rest time to escape. She had killed dozens, including some of the parents of Yoshikoís playmates. She had thanked lost gods that Yoshiko hadnít seen it. She would be introduced to war and death soon enoughÖbut not now. Not at the age of eight.
ìIím just going to check the entrance and look around a little, then itís all yoursî Aiko said carefully, trying to hide the near panic she felt. Under any other circumstance, she would have told the King to taste his own sword for giving her such a task, but given the choice between possibly a few olthoi and fifteen thousand murdering, unfeeling humans, the insects didnít seem that bad.
ìIshamaelÖî Enak said, intrigued and suspicious ìÖitís Darvin the Sage.î
The King turned at this and lifted his head slightly.
ìKeep your bow on him Enakî Lord Creed said evenly.
ìGive the word and heís downî Enak said, nocking an arrow fluidly.
ìYour Majesty!î Darvin shouted breathlessly, waving his arms as he ran forward. He tried as hard as he could to sound and lookÖhuman.
ìStay where you are!î Ishamael Creed shouted in commanding tones. The whole camp had stopped all activity to witness this new development.
Darvin stopped so quickly, he slipped, his foot rolling over a loose stone. His head thumped the ground and he cursed audibly, holding the back of his head with one hand, the other high in the air in a gesture of surrender. He slowly got to his feet and rubbed the bump away.
ìIím not infected, donít worry!î Darvin shouted in between gasps of air, his voice thick with pain and exhaustion.
ìHe could be lyingî Enak said in a whisper, his eyes focused on Darvinís head.
ìIÖdonít thinkÖî Ishamael said, his eyes narrowing to slits ìÖítheyí would lie. They have no reason to.î
Enak held back a chuckle ìI think ëtheyí lied to you at Sanctuary.î
ìI donít think soî the King said thoughtfully. ìI think Ziran wrote that letter before the plague took him. At any rate, what does it matter now? It is just one man.î
Creed turned back to Darvin who stood in silence fifty yards from them. ìApproach, Darvin. Hurry.î
Fatigue taking over his body, he struggled to make his feet move again. When he covered the distance to his King, he knelt reverently.
ìNo need for that, get upî Creed said impatiently.
Darvin rose and wanted to speak, but waited for Lord Creed to give him permission.
Lord Creed sighed and rolled his eyes. ìYou have permission to speak. Out with it.î
ìMilord, I just came from the NexusÖî Darvin started and paused to catch his breath.
The crowd, already gathering to hear, fell silent. No one present had ever ventured inside the Nexus. It was well known that Karnak had and it was widely known that something had happened to him while inside. The rest was history, and most left it at that.
ìThe Nexus?î Ishamael Creed said in unbelieving tones. ìIf that is true, how did you get out and what in Viktarís name possessed you to do something so foolish?î
ìI was looking for answers to the plagueî Darvin said slowly, taking advantage of the Kingís undivided attention. ìI got them.î
The news sucked the air out of the crowd, the only sounds coming from the clinking of metal as people shifted nervously. People had stopped guessing at the cause and how to stop it days ago and now focused only on staying alive. Cerebusís voice jolted them back to reality in a rush of adrenaline.
ìScoutsÖcoming up the gorge! This is it!î Cerebus shouted, the silence shattering like glass. ìTake your positions!î
ìWeíll talkÖlaterî Lord Creed said in gruff tones. He drew his katars and started to move to the front.
ìYour Majesty!î Darvin said, risking the Kingís wrath by grabbing his arm. ìI know how to stop it!î
The King glared at him, fury in his eyes. ìHow did you get out?î Creed snapped. Enak stopped and listened, a slight sneer on his face.
Darvin blinked and looked away. ìI hadÖhelp. Karnak was with me.î
ìI knew it!î Enak exploded, his face contorting with rage. ìI knew that fucking traitor had something to do with this!î
ìEnakÖtake your position my friendî Creed said evenly, his eyes never leaving Darvin. ìThis will only take a second.î
Enak stormed off, drawing an arrow and scanning down the pass for any obvious targets. The scouts had been killed swiftly and Enak judged the main body of the army was ten minutes behind.
Creed stood motionless two feet from Darvin. The loremaster knew what was coming, and hoped his response didnít get him killed.
ìWhere is Karnak now?î Creed said slowly.
ìOne of the two portal scrolls back to Stonehold was damaged. He told me to take it and warn you. He said heíd be here as soon as he could.î
ìIím sure he didî Lord Creed said, nodding and blinking heavily. ìDarvin, you shouldnít trust him. I cannot trust him, not after what happened last time. The stakes are too great for me to let my guard down again. When he arrives, he must leave immediately, or Iíll kill him myself.î The King of Rithwic started to turn to take his position at the head of his army, a kingdom of less than one hundred people. A kingdom of the homeless.
ìI beg your pardon Milordî Darvin said, speaking to Creedís back. ìBut who crafted the armor you are wearing?î Darvin paused as the King stopped in his tracks. ìAfter this is over, you had best think long on the word ëtrustí. I think you have forgotten what it means.î
Creed turned and stared, not at Darvin, but at the ground. Finally, he looked into the loremasterís eyes. ìYou need to live until we can speak again. Go into the tunnels and wait there. Karnakís daughter can show you around.î Satisfied that Darvin caught the whole meaning of the command, Ishamael Creed turned and quickly made his way to the middle of the crescent perimeter, a one-man-army leading a band of exhausted refugees that wasnít quite an army.
Darvin started to walk toward the pool, his eyes still focused on the King. As he turned, he nearly stumbled over Aiko Jade, wet with slime-water, having just emerged from the tunnels.
ìAiko!î Darvin exclaimed, a smile making its way through exhaustion.
ìDarvin!î she replied, shocked. ìWhen did you get here!?î
ìA few minutes agoî he said, quickly regaining a sense of urgency. ìWeíll talk later. Youíd better get to your post.î
ìDo me a favorî she said pleadingly. ìKeep an eye on my daughter in there. She is defenseless, but they need me out here.î She tried to keep her composure, but the cracks in her nerves were beginning to show.
ìI willÖI willî Darvin said quietly, nodding his read reassuringly.
ìThank youî she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. She hugged him briefly, then withdrew, not used to showing that kind of emotion to anyone save her husband.
ìAikoÖî Darvin said soothingly, his hand lifting her chin slightly ìKarnak is on his way.î
Her chin now lifted on its own and she tried her best to regain her composure. ìGoodÖî she replied, sniffing and wiping another tear from her cheek, a slight wry smile dawning on her face ìthat bastard is late.î She turned and ran to her position without a backward glance.
ìYes he isî Darvin said as he surveyed the pool, feeling a sense of dread about entering an olthoi nest without a weapon. ìHurry it up Karnakî he whispered, hearing echoes of the not-to-distant army rattle off the sides of the gorge. ìMy knowledge means nothing if we all die.î
ìIím too lateî Karnak thought to himself, running as fast as his armor would allow. For the last six miles, he had cast spells while sprinting, a trick Ebon had taught him. Occasionally he miscast due to improper inflection of the words or imprecise hand movements. Every half mile or so, he cast a spell to replenish his stamina, feeling the cool energy wash over him, boosting his speed slightly. Still he felt as if he was swimming in molasses. Stonehold was an hour off, but the gorge that contained his family and Lord Ishamael Creedís troops was only thirty minutes of hard running away. Thirty minutes seemed like an eternity when it took only moments for everyone you have ever cared about to die.
ìThe battle is starting Karnakî whispered a dark, melodic voice.
ìYour friends are dyingî said another, the voice coming like a winter breeze. Other voices, less melodic, chimed in.
ìNowhere to runî said one that sounded like glass being etched with a diamond.
ìShe screams your nameî said another, laughing, the myriad tones of the voice sounding like screaming children and shrieking banshees.
ìSHUT UP!î Karnak erupted, trying to blot out the abyssal symphony. He knew it was useless, as they whispered in his dreams and screamed in chorus when he was angry or under stress. He felt the power rising, a distant wave in a sea of hellish promises, curses, and threats. He would need the power in this battle. He knew this and reconciled himself with that fact. His concern lay in his ability to control it under dire circumstances. His fear, coming from the deep recesses of his soul, was that once he lost control, he would enjoy it.
ìEmbrace itî another gurgled, the voice wet with fluid. ìLet it riseÖand know true ecstasy!î
The thrum of the Nexus pounded in his ears. The wave of power began to wash over him, a riptide bowling him over and pulling him under simultaneously. The violent caress was not physical, but mental and spiritual. In the past, he had managed to control the flow by staying focused on pure combat. He could use a little at a time, shutting it down if he felt he was slipping away. The fear and anxiety he had since leaving the Nexus had opened the flood gates. The tsunami, once started, was irresistible.
ìNo matter what happens, or who fallsÖî Panna said as she clutched her takuba ever tighter ìÖwe stay together.î
ìYesÖî Aiko said, raising her voice to fight the growing echo of the approaching horde ìwatch each otherís backs and listen for Winterhawkís signal.î
ìDid I miss any enchantments?î Ebon said, his head turning to either side of him for a response ìSpeak up if you need something, I wonít be staying in the perimeter.î
ìWhat!?î Koraz said, shocked. ìWhat do you mean?î
ìHis Majestyís ordersî Ebon shrugged, his playful smile returning. ìHe wants me free of obstructions so I can cut loose.î
ìThatís not the only thing that is gonna get cut if you stray outside the formationî Koraz said, trying to remain calm. ìHow are you gonna keep them off you?î
ìYouíll see, hopefullyî Ebon said, scanning the bend in the gorge for the first visible signs of the enemy. ìIf I fall, do NOT come out to get me. Stay here.î
ìI still think we should be mounting the defense inside the olthoi tunnelsî Koraz said, shaking his head in disgust.
ìItís not for us to decideî Aiko said in rebuking tones. ìKeep them in front of you and donít worry about anything else.î
ìHere they comeÖî Koraz said, his voice nearly inaudible in the rush of sound as Lord Ziranís army cleared the final bend in the gorge and came into sight.
ìIs everyone ready?î Aiko shouted, twisting her head to glance at Panna and down the line. There was no answer. She turned her head to her left to check the man next to her. She did not know him, as he was part of Lord Creedís main army based in Rithwic. The man nodded.
ìNameís Bertohg Miladyî the warrior said. ìItís an honor to fight alongside you. I have heard so much about you. I never got a chance to talkÖî
ìDonít start thatî Aiko snapped. ìProper introductions when itís all over.î
Bertohg nodded and smiled.
ìPanna!î Koraz shouted, barely able to hear his own voice.
The blond swordswoman turned to her right, a quizzical frown on her face.
ìWhen this is overÖî Koraz shouted, glancing over to Enak as he let his first arrows fly.
ìYes?î Panna said, leaning into Koraz in an attempt to hear.
ìIÖwellÖI would like toÖî Koraz stammered.
ìSpit it out, quick!î Panna said, raising her shield, glancing to Koraz and then the approaching enemy, now only three hundred yards away.
ìGood luck!î Koraz said, looking defeated already. He turned away, visibly disgusted with himself. Puzzled, Panna frowned and turned to focus on the wall of infected humanity rolling ever closer.
ìA little closerî Lord Creed said to himself audibly, knowing no one could hear him. The echo in the gorge was deafening. He turned to Winterhawk, a look of confidence on his face. ìWe already have an advantage, they canít keep their ranks in here!î
Winterhawk nodded. ìNow is the time, my King!î he shouted, unable to hear his own voice. ìGood luck!î
The King of Rithwic nodded and bolted from the line. He knew Lord Ziran had hundreds of archers and dozens of mages and wanted to close the distance and put pressure on them as quickly as possible. His troops would crumble within minutes under a hail of arrows and war magic. If they focused the magic on him, well, so much the better.
Ebonís gaze shot to Lord Creed as he raced toward the horde approaching them. That was his cue. Casting a quickness spell as he began his run, Ebon raced unnaturally fast toward the enemyís left. To his surprise, the left swung toward the King in an attempt to envelop him, leaving a path into the heart of the mob.
ìThat wasÖfoolishî Ebon said to himself, grinning from ear to ear.
ìWhat?î Cerebus said inaudibly. It was a huge mistake, even for an army with such a numerical advantage. Was Ziran in command? Cerebus wasnít so sure, as the Hellhawk would never have made such an error. ìConfusion in a tight space?î he said to himself. ìOr are they that single-minded that they focus only on what is in front of them?î
Enakís aim was unwavering and deadly. He had been looking for mages and archers, but hadnít spotted any, so began to pick off the light screen in front of Ebon as the whole enemy line began to mob toward the center. What looked like an orderly advance had turned into a tangled mass. He had lost sight of the King, but the effects of his presence in the heart of the army were obvious. The river of foes never seemed to end and the entire army hadnít even come into full view yet. Despite the focus on Ishamael Creed, the enemy flowed ever closer. Once the front line was one hundred yards away, they stopped.
It was then that the arrows came.
ìShields up!î Cerebus roared. He raised his shield while looking over his shoulder to his wife, Miette. ìDownî he started to say, but she had already knelt behind him. The arrows tore into the thin ranks, but most weathered the barrage, having had their shields almost vertical. The next barrage was clever, and far worse. Mixed with the next hail of arrows were the war spells called arcs, especially useful for mages firing from the rear of the army. They did not require a line of sight like traditional war spells, but did not track a target. Cerebus realized that if they scattered, which was the common defense against an arc spell, they risked being torn apart by the arrows and losing cohesion in battle. If they stood their ground, they could be wiped out in one sweep. Withdrawing to the tunnels would crowd them into one spot briefly. Could he take that chance?
ìForward!î He bellowed, making a split-second decision ìFifteen paces!î
The whole line faltered, as advancing was not in the plan. Those who hesitated, died in a shower of arrows and flame.
The enemy line charged.
ìClose ranks!î the general shouted once more. ìQuickly!î
Cerebus looked back his wife, who had been right behind him before the last volley. Miette lay where she had knelt, impaled by five arrows, her robe engulfed in fire. She was alive, but just barely, and was feebly trying to cast a healing spell on herself. The first spellís effects washed over her, easing the pain and soothing the burns. Cerebus quickly knelt to smother the flames and removed the arrows as she cast another. Satisfied she was going to live, he kissed her on the forehead and turned to the chaos in front of him. The ranks of the infected raced toward him, the thunder of their feet almost painful to the ears. Above this, he heard someone shouting.
Cerebus turned slightly at this, thinking he heard his name. Enak was screaming at him, but the rush of noise throughout the gorge drowned his words. The archer leapt from his perch and began sprinting toward him. Cerebus glanced to the enemy, who closed the distance quickly and he wondered who would reach him first.
ìWITHDRAW!î Enak screamed, pointing furiously.
Cerebus frowned, not comprehending. It was too early to withdraw at this point. The General traced the unseen line from Enakís finger to its target and his heart froze.
ìHow!?î Cerebus whispered, every fiber of his body shrieking in alarm. The gorge they defended came to an end at a cliff perhaps fifteen minutes behind them. There was no perceived way in from that direction, yet hundreds of soldiers poured into view. Every one of them were professionally armed and most bore the insignia of the most powerful kings in Dereth. Briefly, Cerebus thought they were from Stonehold and were here to help. Yet Darvin had said the fortress town was deserted. These warriors shouted nothing as they charged and they displayed little organization in their ranks. Their plan could not work now.
ìFORM UP ON ME, NOW!î Cerebus screamed, but he knew instantly no one could hear. He frantically ran to each soldier and tapped them to get their attention. The expression of each turned from grim determination to utter despair. The ranks of the main body of the army slammed into them in a deluge, the momentum of the charge dividing the small force into pockets. The pincher thrust from behind ensured no one escaped.
In the center of the maelstrom that threatened to consume everyone, Ishamael Creed, the Son of Viktar, was a whirlwind of death. Both katars were slippery with the gore of countless men and women. He had witnessed over a dozen incinerated by arc spells meant for him. The spells had failed to touch him, his armor shrugging them off like annoying flies. Still, the pressure never eased, the enemies never ceased and it was all he could do to give himself room to maneuver.
ìThey should be in the tunnels by nowî he thought as he beheaded a warrior holding two nekodes. He noticed most of his victims displayed little tactical skill, not bothering to attack from different angles and never bothering to parry a blow. There seemed to be no sense of self-preservation. It made the killing easy, he thought, but his arms were already starting to feel heavy, his legs quivered with fatigue. He wondered; who would tire first? He hadnít even made it to the archers and mages yet, positioned at the rear of the army. It may, he realized, be too late.
ìI canít keep this upî he said to himself, eviscerating two more swordsmen, one of them donning his own battle standard on a splintered shield. He glanced at the sun quickly to get his bearings, but it had disappeared over the western horizon. The sunset worked just as well. There was no sign of archers or mages, despite his steady progress. More importantly, there was no sign of Ziran the Hellhawk.
He had never been this focused.
Ebon vaporized another handful of Derethís infected population in a halo of fire. He was so lost in his art, so channeled to his purpose, he saw not enemies, or people, or even familiar faces. He saw only targets. He rode the constant stream of arcane energy like an albatross used thermals on a warm day. It buffered him and made him weightless, his frame gliding over the ground with magical speed. Most of his victims never had a chance, only getting near when he willed it, and by then it was too late. A few would manage to swing their weapon, their flailing more often than not hitting one of their countless doomed comrades. The strikes that found the mark were either absorbed by the mageís protections and magical banes or consumed in the pure eldritch energy Ebon wielded as he transformed the almost liquid mana into any element he desired. The effect of his assault was much like the searing blade into newly-churned butter. He had never felt such ecstasy.
He erupted in flame once again, igniting over a dozen foes who fell where they stood, instantly seared beyond recognition. Explosions began to cascade all around him and he could taste the dissipating magic. They missed him, but succeeded in scorching a few more hapless Derethians, which finally cleared a path into the rear of the army.
Arc spells. The mages were firing at him.
He was dimly aware that he was close to his objective and that he must have killed hundreds to get to his current position.
He smiled. This is where he excelled and where the true fun began.
The archers opened up on him, but every arrow sailed wide, his casting motion being so swift they could not aim properly. He tore into them and cast another ring spell. Whirling blades exploded in all directions, shredding dozens of them utterly and wounding many more. A ring spell of acid ensured the wounded were finished, the acid eating at the wounds and burrowing deep into their bowels. He quickly reached the mages, who began to cast quick streaks and arcs, riding their own waves of mana. The streak spells took less than a second to cast, but tracked a targets path from when it was cast. None came close. The arcs were a challenge to evade however, the difficulty being greatly increased by the sheer number of mages present. Ebon circled and angled his way into the back of their ranks, his robe aflame from near misses. He cast a wall of lightning and quickly swung to one side, following up the lethal spell with a ring of fire. Most were electrocuted in the crawling storm and the few that escaped quickly succumbed to the flame. He chanced a look around and began to replenish the mana that flowed through his body.
One warrior approached accompanied by over twenty archers. Ebon began to cast another wall, this one of ice shards. The archers fired in unison, then charged. Ebon smiled and shook his head as he released the spell. The middle of their ranks took the full force of the wall and collapsed, impaled with numerous ice spikes. This dissipated the center, allowing the warrior to race forward unscathed. The archers circled and Ebon circled to keep them in view. He raised his eyebrows at the first tactics he had encountered since the battle began. He quickly moved out of range on a wave of mana and blasted the archers with quick shockwaves, the transparent force shattering their bodies. He turned to face the lone warrior, but found nothing. He frowned and checked the bodies that littered the ground, his smoldering robe caressing the dead as he glided over them.
He stopped and whirled to his back, sensing something disturbing the liquid power that cradled him. He readied a shockwave and floated backward like a leaf on an autumn breeze. The ornate tachi carved for the Lord of Hebian-To eased almost apologetically into Ebonís abdomen, as if honoring the prowess of its victim. Its wielder slowly twisted the blade in his gut and then removed it just as slowly, an artist admiring his work.
Ebon smiled as he gurgled blood, his eyebrows raised in surprise. He dropped to his knees, feeling the full weight of his body. He ached not from the sword wound, which was almost painless, but from the toll the mana had taken on his frame. He looked up to his vanquisher to receive the death blow he knew was coming.
ìBeautifulÖswordÖYour Majestyî he replied to the motionless king, his muscles twitching in spasms from fatigue. ìI amÖhonored.î
The tachi cut through his neck as swiftly as through the air. Ziran the Hellhawk turned and sprinted almost mechanically toward what remained of his rivalís army.
Enak, Cerebus, and Miette, isolated from the rest of the force, fought desperately to reestablish contact. The pressure was so enormous that they made no headway and found themselves pushed away from both their army and the entrance to the olthoi caverns. Enak, his quiver long since empty, now fought with katar and cestus, his maneuvers tight and swift, expending just enough energy to kill an opponent. Cerebus performed similarly, takuba and shield in hand, using sweeping strokes to keep the pressure off him and his foes off balance. Both were aided by Mietteís healing and augmenting magic, the mana caressing her body like a silk gown. Her robes, tattered and charred, nevertheless maintained their magical strength and turned away most strikes against her. She drained both vitality and vigor from the infected and used both however she pleased, healing herself and refreshing her stamina or transferring it into pure mana to replenish her supply that spun about her in a vortex of liquid radiance.
ìWhere are they?!î Enak shouted over his shoulder, chancing a look around after dropping three swordsmen in a short series of parries and strikes.
ìI donít know!î Cerebus yelled back, beheading someone who somehow forgot to bring a weapon to a war. ìWe need to move toward the fringes and get our bearings. I have no idea where we are!î
ìGentleman, focus please!î Miette said, the mana causing her voice to echo in spasms. ìWe are not far from the wall of this gorge. We fight our way there and we can keep them in front of us!î
ìAs good a plan as any!î Cerebus grunted, burying his sword in another victim that dared to attack his wife. ìIf you keep up the glow, Darling, perhaps they will fight their way to us!î
ìKeep them off me and perhaps I will!î Miette shouted, the mana causing her voice to escalate in octaves to resemble a bansheeís wail.
ìKeep your shields up!î Winterhawk shouted, trying to infuse strength into the flagging defense. The small band of warriors he commanded had numbered around twenty, the rest being cut off in the pincher movement that caught everyone by surprise. One by one, the twenty had dwindled and now those that remained struggled with an inexhaustible supply of enemies and growing fatigue. When he could, he glanced about for a break in the unrelenting mass or a sign that they were close to the caverns. He clung to the hope that the rest had made it inside.
A sudden push from the south caused the defensive perimeter to falter, a few defenders being knocked to their feet by the tide of humanity. This split Winterhawkís force in half and he desperately fought to break through. The smaller half, unable to regain cohesion, succumbed quickly to the swarm. Koraz, knocked aside by the push, regained his position and began to fight his way to Panna, the last of her group still resisting. He watched as she flailed frantically at her assailants, killing six of them before a sword thrust in the back paralyzed her, causing her to go limp. Her eyes met his as she fell, the press of attackers mutilating her as she dropped from sight.
ìNOOO!!î He screamed, managing to catch the attention of her killers. They turned and began to lunge at him with poorly-timed attacks. Koraz parried them all, cutting a swath through them in his attempt to get at the one who delivered the death blow. He heard Winterhawk screaming at him to stop, but he wouldnít listen until that particular group of diseased wretches died. The sword wielder bore the insignia of Ishamael Creed, but it wasnít until his own sword was buried deep inside Pannaís killer that he recognized her.
She stared at him soullessly for a brief instant before death consumed her. His vision blurred with tears. He almost dropped his sword when a firm hand gripped his shoulder and spun him violently.
ìGet the fuck back in the fight!î Winterhawk bellowed, parrying a sword thrust aimed at Korazís chest.
The noise of the world rushed back to his ears and he stumbled briefly from the onslaught. He slipped the next attack deftly and nearly cut the assailant in half in adrenaline-driven anguish.
It was then that the pressure lessened significantly. Winterhawk caught his breath in a desperate hope that they had finally broke through. When the mass in front of him began to part, he frowned, puzzled. In four seconds, the confusion turned to dread as a lone swordsmen strode forward, his face devoid of expression. The tachi in his hand was legendary and unmistakable.
ìZiranÖî Winterhawk said under his breath, gripping his sword in nervous anticipation.
ìWinterhawk, no!î Aiko shouted over her shoulder. ìDonít fight him alone!î
The mass of infected seemed to avoid him and the king of the Sho lands. Hundreds circled past him as if he were in an impenetrable bubble. He glanced around quickly, expecting a strike to the back, but they had completely ignored him to focus on his comrades. The sheer numbers isolated him and he could no longer hear the shouts and cries of his force, the only signs of humanity he had heard since the battle began.
ìThey respect youÖî Winterhawk whispered to his opponent as the two circled each other. ìThatís the most human thing they have done all day.î
Lord Ziranís initial attack was so fast that the young officer barely parried it, stumbling backward. The Sho king pressed his advantage as Winterhawk repositioned himself. The attacks were so fast and precise that he couldnít do anything except parry them. Yet, he WAS parrying them, something he didnít think he was capable of doing.
ìYouíre better than thisî Winterhawk whispered, referring to his adversary. ìYou should have killed me by now.î
After a whole minute of frantically warding off the onslaught, Winterhawk finally slipped a thrust and countered with a well-timed thrust of his own, aimed as Lord Ziranís throat. The greatest swordsmen on Dereth slipped it mere inches from his neck and drove his tachi deep into Winterhawkís abdomen. The sword sank into armor, flesh, and bone to the hilt, the blade protruding from the officerís back. The two swordsmen looked each in the eyes for long seconds.
ìMechanicalÖî Winterhawk mused, his voice thick with blood. He grasped the hand still clutching the murdering tachi and twisted, his right foot sweeping the legs of the Sho king. Ziran hit the ground flat on his back and Winterhawk, feeling his strength fade, quickly withdrew the tachi from his torso and slashed quickly at the fallen king. The Hellhawk rolled backwards, but his own sword found his left hand and effortlessly separated it from his arm. The king never flinched and once on his feet, disarmed the young officer, who now was barely able to stand. He retrieved his sword and glanced at the stump on his left arm. It bled profusely, but he examined it like a physician examines the recently departed. Winterhawk slumped to the ground, rolling to his back.
ìHurts, doesnít it?î the dying officer said weakly.
Lord Ziran said nothing, but turned in the direction the rest of his army faced.
Winterhawk looked around as he faded away. Soldiers were rushing past him silently. He smiled. Their activity meant his comrades were still alive.
The air inside the olthoi tunnels was damp, the floor spongy, and the darkness total. Yoshiko had heard her parents speak of killing olthoi by the hundreds in caverns such as this. She actively wondered why they bothered. It was the most unpleasant environment she had ever been in, even worse than the heat of Khayyaban. She had always disliked living there compared to the northern towns in the Kingís land, but she found herself missing the warmth, not to mention the sun.
As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she realized that some of the moss andÖwhatever was used to coat the walls, gave off its own light, albeit very little. However, it enabled her to find her way without bumping into the walls constantly.
ìI should have taken a torch with meî she whispered. The substance that coated everything in the tunnels seemed to absorb sound completely, leaving no trace of an echo. It didnít prevent her from whispering though. It seemed the right thing to do.
ìHow am I supposed to find anything in here?î she said to herself, exasperated with the whole affair. ìHow is General Cerebus gonna mount a defense when he canít see?î
A clicking sound came from in front of her and she almost screamed in surprise. She peered into the blackness and could see the outline of someone as they rounded the corner.
ìHello?î she said aloud, hoping the army had finally retreated into the tunnels. This ìmissionî was getting boring.
The clicking continued and was followed by an emphatic burst of noise that reminded Yoshiko of rocks scratching glass. The sound startled her and chilled her in a way the damp, cold air couldnít. She could hear rapid footsteps and could dimly see that the figure was charging toward her. She screamed in fear and backpedaled as fast as she could, her eyes riveted in horror on the thing she could barely see. The tunnel branched off to her right and she slammed into the wall, the spongy wall substance the only thing preventing her from losing her breath completely. The mantis-like pinchers of the olthoi stabbed at her, narrowly missing her face. She slid further down the wall until her back was flush with the ground, kicking wildly while doing do. She screamed in pain as one of the pinchers found her leg, impaling her left calf. She instinctively lashed out with her right leg and kicked ferociously, one of the kicks crunching the olthoiís exoskeleton at the joint which served as the insectís knee.
The insect recoiled at this, screeching in glass-etching agony. As it dropped, the creature squirted acid defensively. Yoshiko screamed again at this new pain and quickly wiped it from her arms and face. Her hands began to shake with pain, the acid still doing its deadly work. With the pain came the rage, the fear slowly melting away. She dove for the insect, which was trying to regain its feet, and tackled it. She could hear herself screaming and her fists began to bludgeon the creature almost of their own accord. She felt powerful suddenly and could hear the exoskeleton cracking with every blow. Her fists moved like pistons until they broke through to the soft inner tissue. The olthoi soldier twitched in spasms, then quit moving, but her fists did not. The tunnel filled with a yellow light and she could now see that the insect was uglier than the picture her imagination had painted, and it was quite dead. Something grabbed at her shoulder and she whirled and kicked upward. The kick was caught by a hand. A human hand.
ìWhoaÖeasy now!î the man said reassuringly, the torch he carried in the other hand almost blinding the young girl.
Yoshiko blinked hard and covered her eyes, the torch resembling the noonday sun. Her vision came back and she gazed at the man with unrecognizing eyes. The torch the man held cast shadows on his face. When he set the torch down, the shadows lifted.
ìDarvin!î she exclaimed and her pain and fear returned in a heart-throbbing rush. She began to sob at the sight of her legs and hands and started to tremble from the pain.
ìEasyÖî Darvin said in soothing tones, guiding her to lie down. ìHere, drink thisÖî he said, pulling a potion from a pouch in his robe.
Yoshiko sniffed at it between gasps of pain. ìUghÖwhat is it?î she said, her nose wrinkling at the pungent smell.
ìItís a health elixir. Itíll ease the pain and the wounds will close.î Darvin handed it to her carefully and she sipped it suspiciously. Approving of the taste, she downed the rest greedily. ìMmmmÖî she mumbled, tipping the bottle to get the last of it. ìHow can something that smells so bad taste so good?î
ìWowî she exclaimed, watching the wounds start to close and the burns fade. ìIt works fast!î
ìYes it doesî Darvin said while glancing up and down the tunnel. Not having a weapon in an olthoi nest scared him beyond belief. He was amazed the girl had killed a soldier without one.
ìHow did you kill that thing, with your bare hands?î
ìYeah, I had to. My bow is broken and I couldnít see good enough to shoot anyway.î
ìThatís quite an accomplishment. Your father would be proud.î Darvin bent over the dead olthoi and ripped a pincher off the carcass, the exoskeleton snapping loudly.
ìHereÖî Darvin said, offering the pincher to the girl which was half as long as she was tall. ìShow that to your father as proof.î
Yoshiko beamed with pride, then turned serious. ìI have a dutyî she said resolutely, her face grim with determination. ìI have to find a good place for General Cerebus to make a defense.î
ìA duty?î Darvin said with eyebrows raised. ìWho gave you the duty?î
ìThe KING did!î Yoshiko said emphatically, crossing her arms.
ìReally!?î Darvin said, opening his eyes wide to play along. ìWell, in that case, let me help you. I saw a suitable placeÖî
ìI donít need any help, but thank youî she said, her voice dripping with pride.
ìWithout the torch, how do you know if you found a good place to defend?î Darvin said calmly. ìHave you been marking your way through here so you know how to get back?î
ìUhhÖî Yoshiko said, faltering visibly. ìWellÖnoî she said in a near-whisper, wincing in shame.
ìItís alrightî the loremaster said, smiling. ìI have marked everything. Letís stay together though. I have only one torch.î
ìThatís a good ideaî Yoshiko said. ìBut stay behind me, just in case we run into more of them.î
Darvin stifled a laugh and hid his smile. She was every bit her fatherís daughter.
ìIf you insistî he said. ìBut we should backtrack a bit. I think there is a great spot back closer to the entrance.î
The King of Rithwic was exhausted. His arms and legs were burning with fatigue. He had never reached the rear of the army to assault the mages and archers, but their attacks had ceased regardless. He now tried to conserve energy, parrying strong attacks and letting his armor protect him from weaker thrusts. The mass of humanity around him made it easier than it should have been. Any coordinated attack would have finished him long ago. Nevertheless, he began to believe than he would run out of strength before the supply of enemies dwindled.
A flash of light caught his eye and he instinctively braced for a war spell. Nothing arced through the sky toward him.
ìFound youî he whispered, his heavy breathing not allowing for anything more. A strategic target gave focus to his strength and he plowed through a wall of infected to get to what he thought was his original goal; the rear of Lord Ziranís army.
What he saw relieved and shocked him.
ìMiette!î Lord Creed bellowed, racing toward her, ignoring the wild attacks his enemies made. Numerous swords, maces, clubs, and bare hands glanced off his armor as he pushed his way through. An axe glanced off his shoulder and bit into his neck and he immediately knew it was deep. He absently disembowled the wielder and stumbled forward. Enak hurried to his side and blocked the pursuers, giving them all they could handle.
ìMietteÖif you wouldî Lord Creed said quickly, holding the gash in his neck with his left hand.
The rush of life magic flowed through him and he gasped in euphoria. The wound closed quickly and the myriad cuts and bruises disappeared. A second rush erased the ache of exhaustion and brought renewed vigor to his flagging muscles. He glanced at their location to get his bearings. The glow of sunset was still in the air, but was fading rapidly. Soon the moons would be the only source of light.
ìWhere are the others?î Ishamael asked, fearing the response.
ìThey attacked in a pincher maneuverî Cerebus said, blocking a hammer blow with his shield. ìThey came from behind somehow, took us by surprise. It split us up and we havenít seen anyone else since.î
ìWhere are we?î Lord Creed ventured, looking around once more.
ìWe were hoping you knewî Miette said in her mana-filled voice.
Scanning the top of the gorge, Ishamael Creed noticed a jagged outcrop protruding from the cliff. He remembered that spot. Below it would be the boulder Enak positioned himself on when the battle started. The pool that housed the entrance to the caverns was only fifty yards from where they stood.
ìI just found our way through this messî the King of Rithwic said in commanding tones, stepping forward to kill two soldiers that got a little too close to Miette. ìFollow me and stay together! Fight as we go, slow and steady!î
ìDonít worry about killing them!î Aiko shouted to Koraz and Bertohg, the only three that remained from Winterhawkís group. ìSwing defensively to keep them off you and we move back to the caverns and link up with any that remain!î
ìHow the hell can you tell where the caverns are!?î Koraz demanded, slashing wildly at anyone that got within swordís reach.
ìItís got to be close!î Bertohg said pushing a soldier bearing Lord Ziranís insignia into a crowd of others. ìWe stay here and weÖî
Bertohg grunted in shock and pain as a blade made its way through his upper back and through his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground. Ziran the Hellhawk stood over him and then advanced on the remaining two.
As before, the hordes of plague-ravished Derethians ignored them, turning to run off to swarm some new target. Aiko Jade saw the opportunity.
Koraz stepped in front of her to block Ziranís advance, his arm instinctively moving to herd Aiko back behind him. She quickly caught his arm and flung him aside.
ìGet to the caverns, while you have the chance!î Aiko screamed.
ìIím not leaving you!î Koraz shouted, quickly getting to his feet.
ìGO!î she snapped ferociously.
Aiko parried the first attack by Ziran and briefly cast a vicious glance at Koraz to make sure he was moving. The young swordsman had seen that look before and started to run.
Satisfied he obeyed, she parried another blow and launched a wicked counterattack aimed at Hellhawkís head. He parried it mechanically, maneuvering his sword like the wind to an overhead strike. In that brief instant, Aiko noticed he was missing his left hand. She allowed him to strike and stepped into his attack, twisting to her left. She caught his sword arm at the elbow and flipped him over her back. This counter seemed to catch him by surprise, as he crashed to the ground with the full force of this body weight. He maintained his grip on his sword and regained his feet silently.
ìIíve had about enough of youî Aiko said caustically, her lips twisting in a sneer. She waved her hand, inviting him to attack. He obliged quickly, four swings coming in rapid succession. Aiko barely parried them but noticed his maneuvers lacked style and creativity. His speed was the only thing that made him deadly. She continued to parry everything, giving ground while she studied his attacks. When he parried her counterattack, he thrust at her abdomen, his speed making the sword a blur.
ìI knew itî she whispered as she observed him set up for the thrust. She slipped it and severed his arm at the elbow. The blood splashed her face and chest and Ziran calmly stared at his lack of hands, unfazed and silent. Aiko ceremoniously impaled him in the heart, her tachi embedded to the hilt. He collapsed wordlessly to the ground, his face still serene in death.
Aiko sprinted toward where she thought the pool should be, using the emerging stars as a guide to direction. No infected bothered her, although there seemed to be hundreds still milling around a single spot. She spotted a light source ahead that could only come from mana being transformed into a spell. She could faintly hear screams of fury coming from the center of the swarm and knew the others were also trying to gain access to the caverns. As she began to fight her way to them, the mass of foes in front of her were chopped down in a fury by Cerebus and Enak.
ìAiko!î Cerebus shouted in surprise. ìBehind you!î
The tachi-wielding Sho woman swung her sword in a blur to her right, the arc decapitating the warrior approaching at her back. She turned her back to Cerebus when she saw the horde close the gap, entrapping them once again. The pressure of the infected tide pressed them back briefly, the five of them unable to maintain their position against thousands. Then, the pressure lessened significantly and many of the plagued in the front became distracted. That was when they saw it.
The moons offered enough light to discern what was happening toward the rear of the infected army, if it could still be called such. Inky shadows slithered skyward and along the breadth of the mob as if alive. Every plagued Derethian turned to face this new threat, ignoring what remained of Ishamael Creedís kingdom. The center of the ebon maelstrom glowed supernaturally, giving the shadow tentacles it begat an even darker shade. The screams and whispers of tortured souls echoed through the gorge, their tones and textures legion, launching taunts and curses into the night. The plagued horde fell like wheat to the scythe, the shadowy fingers of death taking the substance of their bodies and transforming it to thick, gory liquid. As if miles distant, the screams and battle shouts of one man could be heard.
Ishamael Creed, Enak, Cerebus, Miette, and Aiko Jade stood transfixed by what they witnessed.
ìWhatÖî Ishamael Creed said in a voice probably not meant to be heard, yet loud enough to be heard by all ìÖis THAT thing?î
ìThat THINGÖî Aiko Jade said with unmistakable contempt ìis my husband.î
The creeping doom consumed everything still alive in its path. There was now nothing between it and Lord Creedís group.
ìIs he going to stop?î Ishamael said with a sneer, concern rising in his voice.
ìIÖdonít knowî Aiko said breathlessly. ìIíve never seen him like this!î
ìThen Iíll stop himî the King said, striding forward, gripping his katars in eager anticipation. ìGet into the tunnels, all of you!î
No one moved as Lord Creed charged into the tangled mass of sentient blackness. At this, the mass seemed to shrink and focus into a globe of seething, liquid-like, incandescent shadows. The inky substance hammered at Ishamael and flung him backward like a stone skipped on a pond. It closed in quickly and was now close enough that Karnak, clad in the substance as if it were armor, could be seen.
ìKarnak! Stop!î Cerebus bellowed.
Creed was bludgeoned again by the shadowed tentacles, his armor, ironically created by his assailant, being the only thing keeping him from liquefying. The chorus of damned voices urged Karnak for the kill. Ishamaelís body plowed the ground for over twenty yards until he lay at the feet of those he commanded.
ìKarnak! Please stop!î Miette screamed, the mana that caressed her body still altering her voice.
ìDammit, get in the tunnelsÖNOW!î Ishamael screamed, quickly readying himself for another blow. Again, no one responded.
Karnak was close enough now to strike with his axe, which was encased in liquid shadow. Creed brought his katars up to parry and began to twist into a counterattack, but lunged backward as his katars shattered from the blow. The shadowed weapon passed overhead mere inches from the Kingís face. He ducked another swing, but was entangled by a swarm of shadow tentacles, the screaming horde of souls cackling in triumph.
ìDamn you Karnak, WAKE UP!î Aiko shouted over the voices. She had seen hints of the power when he fought in battle, or when he woke from a fevered dream. But never like this.
Aiko whirled at the sound of her daughterís voice. The horrifying screams of the damned slowly faded, the liquid death subsiding like a spent wave. Color returned to Karnakís features and his face radiated awareness. He stared at Ishamael Creed for long seconds, blinking away the haze, his gaze then shifting to Cerebus, then to Aiko Jade, and finally to his daughter.
Yoshiko stared at him with undisguised horror and sadness. She burst into uncontrolled, yet silent tears. The rest stared at him as if he wasnít real.
Realizing his daughter now knew everything he tried so hard to hide, he collapsed to his knees and sobbed, ashamed. Aiko ran to him instantly, overcome with relief and anguish. She had not witnessed him cry since the Punishment on the Obsidian Plains, so long ago.
Slowly, his daughter crept to his side and kissed him on the cheek, hugging his head, her face contorted in anguish.
Koraz looked away, ashamed to witness such family intimacy. He touched General Cerebus on the shoulder and made a silent gesture. Cerebus nodded and conveyed the gesture to Lord Ishamael Creed, who ushered his remaining army out to the field of battle to look for survivors.
The last remaining family in Dereth wept as one, the sound softly echoing in the now empty gorge.
Black End, Part Eight: Oaths and Consequences
Over fifteen thousand plagued soldiers, adventurers, farmers, wives, children, and kings lay strewn chaotically throughout the gorge. The sounds of weapons, armored feet, smashed and splintered shields, and cries of pain, anger, fear, and anguish had vanished, replaced by gentle echoes of the wind as it whispered through the narrow pass. The caressing sound chilled the survivors, as did the howls of the carrion-eating shreth in the distance, who eagerly approached the grisly banquet. Each of the survivors searched the dead for fallen comrades and set them reverently onto a makeshift platform built of rocks, weapons, and shields. It was an ugly funeral pyre as pyres go, but they hadn’t the time or resources for anything else.
Koraz came to Panna’s body and began to weep silently. Beside her lay her killer, Lauryn Schurmad. Lauryn’s husband, Huanto Shi’an Maul was nowhere to be found. Koraz figured he was here somewhere, or had died in Rithwic. He gently cradled both women in his arms and carried them to the pyre, not feeling the weight despite being exhausted beyond reason. He lay them down, adjusted their armor and closed their eyes. When all of the fallen members of Lord Creed’s army were properly placed, the King of Rithwic spoke.
"Even kings…” he began, his voice wavering in the breeze "…cannot fathom a loss such as this. Our friends have perished to give us a hope of ending this…” he said in a voice that trailed into silence. He continued. "We cannot, will not let their deaths be in vain. If they are still alive, and alone, we WILL come to their aid as they aided us today.”
The howls of the shreth echoed through the gorge once again. They were drawing close. This sound gave the ceremony haste and Lord Creed finished the eulogy.
"To whomever watches over us in this strange land we call home, I pray to you: Accept our fallen friends with loving arms and keep them safe, until we meet again.”
The nine remaining inhabitants of Ishamael Creed’s kingdom lifted their heads as one. No one spoke to break the stifling silence afterward and the breeze made the solemnity all the more severe.
Koraz lit the fire and it caught quickly, the light wind whipping it about the pyre and engulfing the bodies. The others started their run to the south out of the gorge and up the mountain, but Koraz remained.
"I will come for you. I promise.” His breath was heavy with anger and grief, and he shook visibly.
The run to Stonehold was uneventful, save for the occasional banderling or shreth that got too close and was swiftly killed. The sense of urgency was apparent however, as the group kept a quick pace. Were there any infected left? No one knew for certain, but it seemed a very real possibility. Darvin had said Stonehold was empty, but the attack from the rear was inexplicable. If any of the group entertained any thoughts, they kept them secret. Suspicion was still as rampant as it was before the battle began.
"Why are we in such a hurry?” Yoshiko asked as she desperately tried to keep up. "Aren’t we safe now?”
Aiko slowed a little and grasped her hand tightly, her gaze darting to both sides. The darkness seemed to cling to her, despite the moonlight. It reminded her of what she witnessed just hours ago. She was sure she would never look at the shadows the same way ever again. She looked back to her husband, guarding the rear of the party. He had said nothing since the intimate family reunion at the end of the battle. She shuddered inwardly and clutched Yoshiko’s hand tighter. Would this change him forever? He hadn’t submitted to the power since the battle in the arena years ago.
It was the only time he had ever struck her in any way outside of sparring. She realized it wasn’t him, not really. Hamud had fully possessed him. "Hadn’t he?” she whispered to herself.
The pace began to slow as they approached the fortress town. Once a simple village situated on a bluff overlooking a gorge, Ishamael Creed had taken control of the village years ago. Stonehold had been transformed into a fort, with the approach carved into a switchback road to provide maximum exposure to archer fire. The walls were built by Lugians and were massive in both thickness and height. The battlements in front could support over 200 archers in a single line, with the walls being tiered to provide additional archer support from behind. General Cerebus had proclaimed it impregnable to any organized force on Dereth short of a Lugian army numbering in the thousands. Most people who knew anything about sieges agreed with him.
The gates were open.
Lord Creed glanced to Enak, who nodded silently and readied an arrow. He advanced to the gate quickly and peered inside. The small group drew their weapons and waited nervously. No one present relished the thought of killing more people if they didn’t have to. They had killed enough and had lost more than enough because of it. Aiko knelt beside Yoshiko and drew her near enough to whisper. The young girl jumped at her mother’s touch, her gaze having been focused on Enak’s every move. She turned to her mother, her eyes wild with uncertainty.
"Mom, what’s…” she began.
"Shhhh…” Aiko whispered, frowning. "Ask later. Keep quiet and watch. If something happens, stay close to me.” Yoshiko nodded, her eyes never leaving Enak, a look of fascination and fright frozen on her face. Aiko looked over her shoulder to her husband, who was staring at her intently, but once their eyes locked, he blinked and looked away.
After long, tense moments, Enak looked back to Ishamael and nodded, moving into the fortress. Lord Creed turned to the others and silently gestured the commands to move quietly and stay together. The others nodded in unison and approached the gates. They entered to dead silence. Nothing stirred in the town. There were no fires lit, either in homes or in the streets. The night chill almost required a good fire to make it through the night.
"Do they even care if they freeze to death?” Ishamael Creed wondered, whispering to himself.
After almost thirty minutes of searching, Enak could find no trace of any survivors. He had discovered corpses lying in the street, in doorways, in their beds, and on the ramparts. The plague had been busy here as well, turning the inhabitants on each other. It must have come swiftly, as some victims showed no signs of self-defense. Some of the wounds, Enak noted, looked to be self-inflicted.
"I don’t blame you” he said to a woman, dead on her knees, propped up by a sword through her heart. He blinked hard and fought the urge to run to Ishamael and advise him to leave. A death in the gorge swarmed by thousands was better than knowing you would eventually turn into a monster.
"Could I kill you, Ishamael, if I had to?” Enak said, shattering the silence. He startled himself and looked around. He hadn’t meant to whisper above the wind, his words sounding like a war trumpet. Convinced there were no surprises waiting, he turned back toward the center of town, where the others were making camp. He had loyally served his king for his entire stay on Dereth. They became friends quickly and he had remained by Ishamael’s side through everything. He now hoped that if he were to die, permanently, that it would be in the defense of the greatest man he ever knew.
It took over an hour to collect all the corpses from the fortress and pile them outside the gates. The pyre burned ferociously and resembled a beacon for anyone who was looking for them, but the last remnants of Ishamael Creed’s kingdom did not seem to care. The gates were locked, but no one bothered to stand guard. They knew nine defenders weren’t enough to defend a fortress of this size.
Cerebus and Karnak lit a fire in the town square and the remaining nine drew to it like moths to an open flame. The night was cold and crisp and the wind had picked up in the last hour. This made the occasion all the more solemn and depressing and no one spoke for long minutes. Seven of them formed a semi-circle around the fire. The other two, Koraz and Karnak, remained on the other side, although they both kept their distance from each other. Koraz, the anger and grief still raging in his mind, could barely contain himself. He stared balefully at Ishamael Creed as if waiting for something. Karnak stared into the flames intently, ignoring his wife’s gaze and the look of fear in his daughter’s eyes. He had been silent and brooding since the horrific conclusion of the battle. Everyone avoided him like he was evil incarnate. Ishamael Creed’s voice was startling, although he did not shout, the tone shattering the tension that permeated the air. He had always tried to bolster confidence and rally strength in times of uncertainty and his words usually achieved this, almost magically. Once again, he knew, people would be looking to him for an answer.
"Everyone here has lost something or someone” he began slowly, his voice rising above the crackle of the fire and the moan of the wind. He looked to each person as he said this, letting the words drift over their minds like a coastal fog. "The loss weighs heavy, I know, but we now have to face a grim truth. It is not over. The sickness is still out there and we must decide how to deal with it.”
Cerebus nodded as he glanced to his king and Miette leaned on her husband instinctively, her head resting on his shoulder, but her gaze never leaving the fire. Aiko looked to her daughter, who was studying the faces of all present, looking for clues as to whether to be terrified at the news. Aiko looked away from her and blinked hard. She would never get to grow up as she wanted her to. There would be no romances, no marriage and no children. She would grow up bitter and angry, raging against a world that had ripped the innocence away before its time.
Ishamael glanced to Darvin, who was waiting expectantly and nodded. "Darvin seems to have learned a few things while at the Nexus” the king said, his gaze never leaving Darwin’s face. Lord Creed’s voice carried undisguised suspicion. He nodded to the loremaster once more. "Go ahead.”
Darvin cleared his throat and looked around, surveying his audience. The pursuit of knowledge was his passion and he rarely passed at the chance to share it with whoever was willingly to listen. Realizing that he was speaking to what remained of the world left a lump in his throat. He swallowed hard and began.
"I…” he began, his voice cracking. The news was not good and would not be well-received. The lump in his throat persisted and he cleared it before beginning again. "I wish I had gotten here sooner, but I wasn’t prepared to…” he paused, his voice trailing into silence. "This information could only been obtained the way it was, from the Nexus. I couldn’t have obtained it without Karnak’s help.” He nodded to Karnak, who continued to gaze into the flames, ignoring the reference. Glancing at Ishamael Creed and seeing impatience flaring in his eyes, he continued.
"The sickness, plague, Black End, whatever you want to call it, was created by the Virindi.” He paused to let that fact sink in. Enak shook his head in disgust as he glanced at Cerebus, who acknowledged the fact with a nod, as if suspecting all along. "They have been working on this plague for a few years now and have infected a parasite to carry it to us.”
Many brows furrowed at this and Koraz spoke up. "Parasites? You mean, like lice?”
Darvin nodded, "Yes, in a way. They are fleas, smaller than lice. These fleas infested mattekar hides and we killed the mattekars and brought them right into our towns, where the infected fleas could spread to the people. When the first hunter returned with a Hoary Mattekar hide, the rush was on to get them before the price on hides dropped. The Virindi used our own greed against us.”
"Damn…” Lord Creed said, now taking his turn gazing into the fire. "Brilliant, to say the least.”
"Definitely” Darvin replied, raising his eyebrows while nodding. "But it gets worse. They engineered the plague to not only take advantage of our avarice, but to affect how we communicate with each other.”
Cerebus shook his head in amazement. "That was one of our chief advantages in every battle against anyone we have faced. Instant communication put us ahead of any maneuver they could possibly throw at us.”
"Exactly!” Darvin said emphatically, smiling in spite of the prevailing mood. He was starting to relax, now firmly entrenched in his element; storytelling. "The severing of ethereal communication was achieved because the plague changed the way our minds work, scrambling them into a pattern that resembled a Virindi’s. This makes the infected susceptible to their Directive, or the collective consciousness of their race. The Directive commanded them to kill or capture others who were not infected. They couldn’t resist.”
"You mean…” Aiko Jade started, taking her turn to be astonished "they were no longer the people we knew?”
"In essence, yes” Darvin said, sympathy shading his voice. He hadn’t taken part in the slaying of people he knew. He was relieved and ashamed of that fact all at once.
"I have a question” Yoshiko started, standing up, her eyes wide with innocence. Aiko started to grab her arm and even Karnak’s head turned as if to say something, but both were cut off by the king.
"Aiko, she is here and alive, with the rest of us” Creed said calmly. "Her voice is just as important as any of ours now. If she has questions, this is the time to ask.”
Yoshiko’s mouth gaped in amazement, but she recovered quickly. "I uhh… was wondering if what people were saying back at the camp was the truth. Can we really…die now?” Children were taught how to bind their spirits to lifestones at a very early age. They were also taught that death, although possibly very painful, was never permanent. This would unravel everything and teach to adult and child a new subject; despair.
Darvin paused, surprised. The kid had been paying attention. "Well, no, not exactly. We are still bound to a lifestone. However…” he paused to make sure everyone was listening "If we become infected by this plague, the enchantment placed upon us by Asheron fades.”
"What?” Miette said, frowning, clearly alarmed. "That shouldn’t be possible! To my knowledge, that enchantment cannot ‘fade’ unless it is willingly removed!”
Darvin nodded. "That is what I thought as well. But the enchantment endures because it recognizes everything we are in body, mind, and spirit. The plague changes this, so the enchantment removes itself.”
"That makes it perfect then” Miette said grimly, turning to Cerebus, then to her king. "I mean, in a Virindi’s eyes, that is.”
"Right…” Cerebus replied. "They overcame the two reasons we could not be defeated; communication and immortality. A simple solution, really.”
"They aren’t finished with it either” Darvin said, his voice calm with certainty. All eyes turned away from Cerebus and again focused on him.
"What do you mean?” Ishamael asked, a hint of frustration in his voice. The news already received was disastrous enough.
"Have you noticed that everyone here is not from the world of Ispar?” Darvin said, tilting his head slightly, measuring the king’s expression. "They engineered it for the majority of Dereth. That is why it spread so quickly. They are working on a new plague for the rest of us as we speak.”
"Wait, let me guess” Koraz said, standing slowly, the fury rising once again. "The reason the plague victims surrounded the lifestones in the towns was to capture people that resurrected so they could…use them for the new plague?”
"That’s about right” Darvin replied.
"That means they have Panna” Koraz said starting to walk away, his strides filled with purpose.
"Wait, wait…” Cerebus said, jumping up to stand in front of him. "Where do you think you’re going?”
"I’m going to Khayyaban to FIND HER!” Koraz said, his rage exploding. "WHY THE flarg ARE WE STILL SITTING HERE!?”
"Koraz calm down” Darvin said, his voice barely audible over the wind and fire.
"SHUT UP, YOU flargING COWARD!” Koraz screamed as he drew his sword. "YOU COULD HAVE TOLD US RIGHT AFTER THE BATTLE! WE COULD HAVE RECALLED AND FOUGHT OUR WAY THROUGH!” Cerebus positioned himself between Koraz and the target of this anger. Enak and Ishamael drew Koraz away and tried to calm him. Darvin gathered himself once more.
"Koraz, I am sorry for your loss, I really am, and I applaud your idea. That is exactly what I think we should do” Darvin said, raising his voice to complete with the clinking of jostled armor. Once everyone was seated, willingly or not, he continued. "However, they have most likely taken anyone that resurrected away.”
"Where?” Koraz said, barely containing himself.
"A pocket dimension the Virindi have created as a staging area for colonization here. The Aun Tumeroks call it Portal Space.”
"Where…is that?” Cerebus said hesitantly. "I have heard stories about the Virindi and their homeworld. But another dimension…how do we even get there?”
"Wait…” Miette said, her hand instinctively moving to her husband’s shoulder "…we’re not talking about going there, are we?”
"Why not?” Darvin said, his gaze turning to everyone present. When he got to Karnak, who had been silent and seemingly hypnotized by the fire since he sat down, he noticed the axe warrior was staring at him intently. Darvin blinked and looked away.
"So you’re saying if we stay here and do nothing” Lord Creed began, his voiced laced with concern "it is only a matter of time before the plague affects us?”
"That is exactly what I’m saying” Darvin returned calmly. "The Virindi are very goal-oriented. We may have weeks, days, or even hours. It really depends on how warm it gets in the next day or so. The plague seems to spread faster in warmer weather.”
"If we assaulted this…Portal Space” Cerebus ventured, "what can we expect?”
Darvin sighed and shook his head. "We’ll be up against an immeasurable force. I have no idea what to expect.”
"I do” Karnak replied. All heads swiveled in unison. Karnak’s gaze never left Darvin’s face. "In this dimension, they have no physical bodies and cannot be harmed by physical weapons. To have any chance in there, we need elemental weapons, lightning preferably. They have physical constructs that act as laborers. They are fantastically powerful and too numerous to count.”
"Provided we can obtain or enchant weapons for this task” Cerebus said, "”what are our chances?”
"Does it matter?” Koraz replied, his voice dripping with fury. "We are dead either way.”
This halted the discussion immediately as everyone let it sink in. Karnak turned to look at his daughter and a dread he had buried for days clawed its way to the surface of his thoughts. He would get to choose how she died.
"If it helps…” Darvin said, breaking the silence after what seemed an eternity "…the dimension does have a weakness.”
"What weakness?” Cerebus and Enak replied simultaneously.
"They have built an engine that allows the dimension to exist. They call it a singularity. If we could destroy that, the dimension would fold in upon itself and cease to exist.”
"Then that is what we need to do” Koraz said, convinced. "We should leave immediately.”
Ishamael glared at the young swordsman, then suddenly wilted and looked away. "Who am I to tell you your place?” Lord Creed thought to himself. "I am the king of nothing now.”
"There will be no way out once the singularity is destroyed” Karnak snapped. "The dimension will collapse too fast and there is no way to know if our spirits are still bound and can find their way back here.”
"I for one would rather die fighting than wait to be a slave” Enak said caustically as he glanced at Karnak.
Ishamael Creed looked at each survivor in turn. So many others had died at his hands. He could still see their faces, expressionless and serene, as he cut them down. If they stayed here, would he have to kill them all before killing himself?
"I’ll die a thousand times before that happens” he said aloud, not realizing he was speaking instead of thinking. Enak nodded, thinking it a reply to his comment.
"I cannot speak for anyone else, but I plan to attack them” Lord Creed said, again looking each person in the face. "I’ll go alone if I have to. I would rather choose how I die.”
"I’ll go with you, of course” Enak said instantly.
"So will I” Koraz replied, nodding.
"It is suicide, but what choice do we have?” Cerebus mused. "Miette and I will come with you.”
"I am in as well” Darvin said. "I haven’t been in combat for awhile, but you could use an extra pair of hands and eyes.”
Aiko stood slowly, looking at Karnak, who was staring at her expectantly. Tears began to stream down her face and she struggled to keep from breaking down. She looked to her daughter, who also began to cry, knowing there was a terrible decision to be made on her behalf.
"She is too young” Aiko said through the tears "but I would rather her die at my side fighting than to become one of those people.” She lost her battle with the tears and bent to embrace Yoshiko, who buried her face in her mother’s hair.
It was now Karnak’s turn to rise and he gazed at his wife as though he could kill with a glance.
"I’m not going, you’re not going, and neither is our daughter.”
Aiko regained her feet and stopped the tears almost instantly. "What?”
"You heard me.” Karnak said, his eyes flashing with fire.
"You…cannot tell me…what I can or cannot…”
"I CAN AND I WILL! SHE IS MY DAUGHTER AS WELL AS YOURS! YOU WILL DO AS I SAY WOMAN…FOR ONCE!” Karnak shook with rage and the familiar voices began to sing to him their haunted lullaby.
"Karnak…” Cerebus began, not liking the direction the discussion had taken "…you are really the only chance we have in there. We need you.”
Karnak raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and laughed. "Oh, now I am NEEDED?” He turned to face Cerebus directly, sneering with contempt, his voice becoming unnaturally loud. "NOW THAT I AM THE ONLY HOPE LEFT IN THIS WORLD, I AM SUDDENLY USEFUL!?” The comment was not directed at Cerebus and the General knew it. "THE WORLD CAN BURN FOR ALL I CARE!”
That was all Aiko could take. She strode forward in a way that could move mountains, her face writhing with a fury that could be felt be all present. Her martial cry echoed throughout the fortress as she punched her husband square in the face, her gauntlets naturally augmenting her strength. The axe warrior flew ten feet and smacked the stairwell leading to the ramparts with an unhealthy thud. Karnak quickly tried to get up, but his wife was there to hurl him to his feet and slam him against the wall, her hand on his throat.
The remaining survivors were frozen in awe, mouths agape. Even Ishamael Creed was shocked, but he was the first to regain his composure.
"Aiko, please, we don’t have time…” Lord Creed began.
"SHUT UP!” she shouted back to him. The king didn’t say another word.
"Get…your hands…” Karnak started, seething with rage. His skin started to darken and his eyes rolled over.
Aiko slammed his head against the wall twice and the darkness faded.
"SHUT UP AND FOCUS!” she said through clenched teeth. Karnak’s features smoothed a bit and his breathing became more controlled.
"Is this normal?” Lord Creed asked in low tones over Miette’s shoulder.
"No, it’s not” Miette replied without moving. "She usually leads with a kick.”
"Ah” Ishamael said, rolling his eyes. He gestured to Enak and Cerebus as he turned to walk away. The two warriors lingered briefly before following.
Aiko calmed her voice, believing she now had control. "How dare you speak to me that way?” she said, her voice dripping with venom. "After all we’ve been through, you have the nerve to treat me like I am a whore not worthy of respect, not worthy of having my own opinion?”
"Aiko, I didn’t think…” Karnak started, his voice still tinged with anger.
"That IS the problem, isn’t it!? Aiko said, shaking him slightly. "You didn’t think. Answer this…” the Sho swordswoman leaned close enough for only Karnak to hear. "Have you thought about how you will kill your daughter when the time comes?”
"Yes, I have” Karnak retorted. "That has nothing to do with my decision.”
"Well, it has everything to do with mine” she said in a hissing whisper. "I am supposed to protect her with my life. How can I do that if I become a murderous lunatic and kill her myself? How am I going to protect her when she is trying to kill me? I would rather be chained in the Obsidian Plains for eternity than be part of that and I am sure you would too.”
Karnak looked down, ashamed. "You are right, I would do anything to prevent that. But what if we lived up here in the Espers? Darvin said himself the plague doesn’t spread up here.”
"That’s not what he said” she snapped quietly, removing her hand from his throat. "He said it spreads faster in warm weather. Even if that were true, what then? We huddle in this fortress during winters and move to Frore in the summer? What kind of life is that?”
"It is preferable to living a life without the both of you” Karnak said, staring his wife down.
Aiko frowned and tilted her head slightly. "I don’t understand…” she said, her voice stained with suspicion "…what are you afraid of?”
"I thought it was obvious” Karnak said sarcastically.
"It isn’t, obviously” Aiko retorted, returning her husband’s stare. She was better at it and he wilted under the gaze.
"I can’t fight my best if I know you are in danger, let alone Yoshi” he said, looking away. The wind caressed Aiko’s hair momentarily and he fought the urge to try to kiss her anger away. "She would probably just punch me again” he mused silently. "How do I know I can control the power I will need when we get in there?” he said, avoiding the gaze.
"You’re lying” she said absently. "You know you are terrible at it. Why do you still try?”
Yoshiko approached slowly despite Miette’s warning. Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat. "Mommy…”
"Not…now Yoshi” Aiko said over her shoulder.
"Ok.” She slinked away, realizing she was intruding.
Aiko turned back to her husband. "Do you remember what you said to me years ago, about you always feeling like a pawn in a game played by the gods?”
"Yes” Karnak said softly. "That was the first time we talked about having a child. I think we made her and named her in the same night.” He smiled briefly.
Aiko kissed him softly with as much passion as her anger would allow. She drew away slowly and looked him in the eyes. "You also said you have pursued any type of power that would keep you and those you cared about safe. But you also said it seemed to be a curse, as all the power and training never seemed to matter.”
"I remember” Karnak said in a whisper, still relishing the taste of her lips. It had been over a week since he had been close to her and touching her skin, smelling her hair, and losing his grasp on reality as he gazed into her eyes was all he could think about.
"Well…” she said breathlessly, playing with him, knowing it was driving him crazy "that was a steaming pile of shit.”
"What?” Karnak replied, shocked senseless by the remark. "Why do you say that?”
"Where would we be, right now, without you?” Aiko quipped, her voice almost musical.
"You would probably still be fighting, but I have faith that…”
"Oh Karnak, come now” she snapped, frowning. "There were seven of us left and we had only killed a small fraction of them. We would have died of exhaustion at the very least.”
Karnak shook his head and started to say something, but Aiko cut him short. "You saved us during the Tumerok assault of Khayyaban. You helped negotiate the peace treaty with the Tukal Lugians. They signed that damned treaty out of sheer fear of what you could do. You were the only one that could have protected Darvin at the Nexus and you were the only one that could have saved us tonight.”
Karnak blinked hard, then smiled, shaking his head slightly. "You saved me long ago and made that all possible.”
Aiko returned the smile, kissing him again. "Don’t you forget that!”
He laughed and kissed her forehead, taking in the scent of her hair. It never ceased to amaze him that she always smelled so beautiful.
"The point is we need you. Your daughter needs you. If you believe that the gods made you a pawn, then you must believe that this power you have was given to you for a reason. Use it for what YOU want in life.”
Karnak stared at his wife in awe. "You have been waiting for years to tell me that, haven’t you?”
"Yes, but I was waiting for the right time to tell you” Aiko said, hugging him tightly.
"You picked a good time” Karnak said, returning the hug. "I love you.”
"I love you too, but I think you are getting slow. You should have ducked.” She gave him a playful punch in the stomach.
"Koraz, can I talk to you?” Yoshiko said, walking up to him and taking his hand, pulling him around the wall.
"Uhh, ok, yes” Koraz said helplessly.
Yoshiko guided him out of the range of prying ears, even Enak’s. They passed the blacksmith’s shop and stopped at the bakery, which was empty, but the smell of bread still lingered.
"What’s this all about?” Koraz asked finally. "I need to get some sleep, we leave at sunrise.”
Yoshiko stared at him for long seconds as she gathered her thoughts. "I want you to promise that you won’t go.”
"What?” Koraz replied, frowning. "I have to go. Panna is out there.”
"Koraz…” Yoshiko said in exasperated tones "…what do you think you can do by yourself?”
The young swordsman was taken aback momentarily. She sounded like her mother, which was intimidating to say the least. "What is that supposed to mean? They are going to need all the help they can get. I can fight and you know it.”
"I know that. But I don’t think my parents will be able to fight with me there” Yoshiko said, wincing. "They won’t let me stay here alone, so that leaves you to stay with me. They might go for that.”
"Yoshiko, I…can’t.” Koraz said and started to walk away. "I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I left Panna there to die. I’m sorry.”
Yoshiko watched him leave and began to think about the attack. The tone everyone used when talking about it frightened her. She had never thought about death, not like this. She didn’t want to see her parents die and did not want to see the look on her parents’ faces when she was about to die. With her there, she knew they didn’t have a chance.
She thought about crying, as she knew she needed to, but she was exhausted and needed sleep. She had the feeling there would be plenty of opportunities to cry tomorrow.
"What do you think?” Enak asked, shutting the door to Ishamael’s quarters behind him. "Can we trust him?”
"Of course we can trust him” Cerebus said calmly, turning to his king. "He has never let me down before.”
"That’s not what I meant” Enak retorted. "That power he has. Can we trust him with it without killing us all?”
"I don’t think we have a choice” Lord Creed said as he examined his bed. It wasn’t what he was used to, but what he was used to was gone forever. "With him leading us, we may be able to make it. It’s the best hope we have.”
Cerebus sighed. "It worries me that Darvin is the only one that knows the way. If we lose him, we may never be able to get out.”
"By the sound of it, it doesn’t sound like there is a way out” the King of Rithwic said. "But you’re right, we need to protect Darvin above all else.” He stretched and frowned, realizing how tired and sore he really was. Sleep would be a blessing. Enak and Cerebus took the hint and started to leave to their own rooms when their king stopped them.
"We leave before sunrise tomorrow morning” he said to them, nodding slowly. "Make sure everyone that is going is ready thirty minutes before we leave.” Ishamael looked Cerebus in the eyes. "Try to persuade Karnak to go, if Aiko hasn’t already.” Cerebus nodded and started to close the door, but was stopped again by Lord Creed’s voice. "Keep an eye on Koraz and make sure he doesn’t run off alone like a fool.”
Cerebus nodded once more and smiled. "Anything else?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
Lord Creed smiled and shook his head. The door closed and he stood for long minutes in silence. He felt useless, as if so much needed to be done, yet it was all beyond him. The others would probably all follow him into death. "Who gave me the right to lead them?” he whispered. "Father, you used to talk incessantly about duty, how truly becoming a king is not to rule others by force, but to use that force to serve them instead.” He paused, swallowing hard and looking to the ceiling, as if his father could hear him. "I don’t think I ever truly understood…until now.” He started to unbuckle his armor, a gift from Karnak years ago. It had made him almost impervious to magic. He had worn it often and it fit like no other armor he had ever worn. But it seemed heavy now and he could not remember the last time he took it off. If he was going to sleep in a bed one last time, he would sleep comfortably. He laid the armor on the table beside his bed and stared at it, thinking. Darvin’s words echoed in his head. "How can I doubt his trust when I wear his gift so freely?” He whispered, the sound gently echoing in the room. Sleep began to take him and he began to drift on a tide of guilt and regret. A single tear from both eyes crept down his temples toward his ears. He fought the tide as he faded into dreams, but something startled him, down to his soul. It burned away the fog and his eyes blinked open in alarm.
He smelled something. Death; ancient and evil.
He tried to grab a katar from the side of the bed, realizing what was happening, but he could not move. His vision blackened and he thought briefly that he was fainting, but then saw the shadows form in the corners of the room, creeping as if alive. They had substance and flowed up the walls and engulfed the ceiling, dripping from the rafters. The room was now pitch, yet he saw masses swaying in the darkness, coming closer.
"Not now” Ishamael whispered, unable to say it any louder. "Not like this.”
The bones of the ancient dead crept into view around his bed, the shadow substance caressing their frame like a passionate lover. Their eyes glowed a hellish red and their mouths gaped in silent triumph. At the foot of the bed rose a form that was more preserved, encased in an armor beautifully engraved, a style long forgotten. Yet the being was surrounded by an aura of terror and Ishamael fought the urge to vomit. The raw power that oozed from this being was indescribable and Lord Creed thought it could shake mountains to their core.
"So foolish” Ishamael whispered again.
"NOT FOOLISH” Lord Rytheran thundered, his voice not tasting the air, meant only for Lord Creed’s ears. "YOU RECOGNIZED THE INEVITABILITY.” Rytheran’s face was a nightmare and the shadows rearranged his features constantly, flowing from the young lover of Lady Aerfalle to the grotesque lich overlord he had now become. "ON THAT DAY IN THE ARENA, YOU PLEDGED YOUR LOYALTY TO MY LADY AND QUEEN. I AM HERE TO HOLD YOU TRUE TO YOUR WORD.”
"Why now?” Ishamael asked, the tears coming in a flood. He knew why. "The armor has protected me this whole time” he thought.
"MY QUEEN HAS DECIDED YOU HAVE LIVED YOUR INSIGNIFICANT LIFE OUTSIDE HER MAJESTIC PRESENCE LONG ENOUGH.” Lord Rytheran raised his arms and the world spun, the shadows mixing with everything else, the skeleton’s glowing eyes swirling into spirals of fire. "WELCOME ISHAMAEL CREED” Lord Rytheran said, his voice everywhere and immeasurably loud as reality folded in upon itself "INTO THE SERVICE OF THE ONE, TRUE SOVEREIGN!”
The living blackness retreated into the corners again, noiseless, yet screaming in the ether, the Dericostian tongues cackling to themselves.