Chaos of Choice
End of an Age
“A wise man once said to me: ‘If you desire Love prepare to be Hated, you want Friendship prepare to make Enemies, if you want to be Rich prepare to live in the Gutter, and if you desire Peace prepare yourself for War. One cannot exist without the other and oft times one requires the other. Many times Love is formed through Hate, Friendship forms with Enemies, life in the Gutter may result in becoming Rich, and Peace will always end in War.’ I didn’t believe him. Next minute, the war between King Elvaar and Lord Thenridred started.”
-Life as a Ranger by Rhodavin of the Essinendeür Rangers
Year 3630, the Fifth Age, the eighty-ninth day of Summer
The Kalladen plains were dry and windy with rolling grasslands as far as the eye could see. Not much else occupied these lands other than long blades of pale green grass, there was the occasional clump of trees or some boulders, but apart from that and the two rivers that ran through Kalladen to the sea there was only grass.
Although a weary traveller would find a few towns also grow out of the grass, mainly closer to Crydon or on the border of I’ender. But there were few large townships spread throughout Kalladen, along Hywatier River that came through Woodlands and branched into two as it moved southwards across the grasslands.
It was said that the plain of Kalladen was once the lands of great horse lords who lived in golden halls. But that was just a myth, and no one had ever found any proof of golden halls, although horses do run wild through the sea of grass.
Among the sea of green blades was also an ocean of tents and camp fires, of dikes and smoke columns, and shining helmets of soldiers and tips of spears. It was where the gathered forces of Krnōrel and I’ender had set camp in anticipation of the war with Sesserrech. The camp was situated on both banks of the River Temped that branched from Hywatier that ran from the Broiling Moors in the north and was virtually at the point where Hywatier divided into the two rivers; Temped and Vanyin River.
Despite its name the waters of the river were cool and refreshing, which Nigel acknowledged as he filled a pot and carried it back to the campsite. Nigel was an officer in Lord Artures army, and although he was not a knight he received respect wherever he went. Being barely thirty Nigel had moved up the ranks quickly and demanded respect where ever he went. The young Captain could say with confidence that he was a professional soldier and as such his views on war were always considered highly, or so he thought.
Nigel grew up on these plains in the town of Ledolm just south of Woodlands on the western bank of Hywatier. His promotions had been quick due to his uncanny ability to find himself in trouble and his equal ability to find a way out of it. Through the short years in the army Nigel had made great friends and when he was given the Captaincy he was allowed to form his own squad and outfit it with his own friends.
“About time Nigel,” remarked his good friend Julian, who was about the same age as Nigel and together they had won many battles. “Did you stop to insult a few of Lord Celots men from Calias?”
“Didn’t waste my breath,” Nigel replied as he put the pot of water in the spit.
“Good to see we are having some real food,” remarked the young soldier Griff, who had been placed in their squad because he had volunteered and was not under a Lord’s authority.
“I’m sick of stale bread,” Griff crinkled is nose.
“You never said where you’re from boy,” said the last soldier at the campsite, who Nigel only ever knew as Shorty, even though the man was quiet tall.
“Flottsome,” Griff replied seeming embarrassed.
“Never heard of it,” coughed Shorty.
“You got a girl there?” Nigel asked.
Griff’s cheeks went bright red, “Kind of,” the boy shrugged.
“What do you mean by kind of’?” laughed Julian, “Usually you have her or you don’t, it doesn’t really work in any other manner. Unless you playing more than one girl at a time?”
“He’s hoping, that’s what,” laughed Shorty, causing the boys cheeks to go even redder.
“When you get home serenade a love song to her and gift her flowers, and she will be yours,” Julian said with a sly wink, “Take it from me I am a boss when it comes to getting women.”
“How much did you pay them?” Nigel asked with a laugh, causing Julian to swing at him with his soup spoon.
“She ain’t at home,” Griff remarked offhandedly, “She volunteered like me.”
“Really? What division?” Nigel asked, genuinely curious as he cut up the vegetables for the soup.
“Doe Company,” Griff replied.
“Ain’t got the tits to be among the real soldiers then, ay,” Shorty laughed, causing Griff to get angry.
“Watch your mouth,” Griff flared at Shorty.
“Calm down,” Nigel replied sternly, “It was just a jest. Shorty was just saying that she isn’t as strong as our good friend Sev. Ain’t that right Sev?”
Nigel called across to the campsite beside theirs and to the group of soldiers that sat there, one of which was a woman with short blonde hair.
Sev raised her mug towards them but did not reply, clearly oblivious to their conversation.
“Do you want to know what happened to the last man that tried to force himself on Sev?” Nigel asked with an amused smile.
“Probably not,” Griff cringed.
“She severed his manhood with a dull and rusty blade,” Julian said ominously.
“Enough with the rabbit food, Nigel,” Shorty said looking at the food being prepared for the soup. “Where’s the meat?”
“We’re on rations Shorty,” Nigel reminded the bigger man, “So rabbit food will have to do. Plus, its healthy eating. If you didn’t eat so much bad food you could be as toned as myself, or as muscly as Julian, Shorty.”
Shorty grumbled but said no more.
“How did you get the name Shorty, anyways?” Griff asked curiously.
“Because he has only one eye, of course,” Julian laughed pointing at Shorty’s eye-patch, “He is short sighted.”
Nigel joined in the joke as did Griff, but Shorty was not happy.
“Nah, it’s ironic see,” Shorty said, “Cause I’m tall and big in the pants, I get the name Shorty. Which is why Julian is called Big Man.”
Their laughter increased tenfold and Julian smirked.
“For Julian it’s an understatement,” Nigel laughed back, and Shorty stopped smiling.
“Thanks boss,” Julian laughed as well and Shory grumbled something under his breath.
“Look, there rides Lord Brank from Woodlands,” Nigel point towards the entrance to the camp, “Late as usual.”
They all stood up to see a column of riders come through the wooden gates of the camp. Their cloaks flapped in the wind and the tips of their spears shimmered in the light from Inüer as they rode past, followed by the footed regiments.
“About five hundred head,” Julian remarked with a sigh, “I thought there would be more.”
“Black Pine Company is coming behind them,” said Griff excitedly, “I was hoping to see the Essinendeür Rangers too.”
“No chance of that,” said Shorty, “Unless it’s on the other side of the battle field.”
“Cardonian would have paid the Essinendeür Rangers a large fortune to fight for him,” Julian agreed.
About a hundred filthy road weary soldiers came through the gates, most walking, others riding tired looking horses.
“That was a disappointment,” Griff sighed.
“Don’t be fooled by their appearance Griff,” Nigel said, “As vicious as cornered beasts they are, just like us. But still, I thought there would be more.”
When the soldiers past they sat back down on the logs around the fire and continued to prepare their soup.
“You guys hear of the story of the young woman singin’ and cryin’ in Woodlands?” Griff asked, breaking the silence.
Nigel and his two friends groaned.
“Too many times,” Nigel said, “And unless this one is about how I ploughed her I don’t care.”
Griff’s shoulders slumped.
“What about the one of the farmer’s family on the Broiling Moors?” asked Griff, his expression brightening.
“This guy,” Nigel sighed and laughed slightly, “Every story you could think of we heard of it.”
Griff suddenly jumped to his feet, “Look there’s a Helwyr.”
This time the boy caught their attention and Nigel got to his feet to look where the boy was pointing. Directly across the wide river he could see the white hair of a Helwyr walking by the side of Lord Fornest who had lands just east from where they were camped.
“Female,” Julian observed holding his hand to his brow to shield his eyes from Inüer’s light, “That must be the famous Rivian of Garrald.”
“Don’t like all them scars,” Shorty remarked as they stared across the river.
“I’d plough her,” Julian shrugged, “Them scars are hot, and besides Helwyr can’t get pregnant.”
“You’d plough anything though, Julian,” smirked Nigel, and Julian shrugged in reply.
“You reckon she’s the only Helwyr here?” Julian asked.
Nigel shrugged, “Depends on how much King Lienthor is paying. But everyone knows Fornest is obsessed with that Helwyr, Rivian.”
“You reckon he’s doing her?” Shorty asked as they sat back down.
“Is that all you think about?” Nigel asked with smile.
“That, and food,” Shorty laughed, “Speaking of which.”
“It’s cooking. Be patient, my young and freakishly tall apprentice,” Nigel said jokingly and Julian laughed.
They all looked up briefly as a single rider galloped through the gates and towards the Commander’s tent at the centre of the camp, but gave it little thought and went back to waiting for the soup to cook.
Not long after the rider went through a commotion started to happen at the centre of the camp. Once again they all stood up and looked to the hill where the Commander’s tent stood.
“What’s going on?” Griff asked absently.
Nigel shrugged, “Probably another knight’s honour has been challenged and they think the best way to resolve it is to slash at each other with their ornamental sword.”
“On guard you braggart,” Julian said in a mocking tone as he swatted at Nigel with his soup spoon.
“You fiend,” Nigel replied in a similar tone and defended with his own spoon, “I shall kill thee dead. Yes, dead you will be.”
Nigel and Julian shared a laugh and Shorty joined in as Griff regarded them all quizzically.
Just then a group of runners came dashing from the Commander’s tent, screaming wildly to everyone in sight and ending the jest. The voices raised and Nigel could not hear what the runners were shouting.
“Hey Sev, can you hear what’s going on?” Nigel called to the blonde haired woman.
“Someone died, I think,” Sev shrugged in reply.
Finally Nigel heard what the runner was shouting.
“The Princess is dead. The Princess is dead. Princess Xanthia has been assassinated by Lord Cardonian. King Lienthor calls for the banners to match. The Princess is dead. Princess Xanthia assassinated.”
“Damn,” Nigel said as he threw his stirring spoon into the pot, “There goes our meal.”
It was a crisp night to end the month of Summer, and a cool and salty breeze flew in through the open doors. The sounds of celebrations could be heard echoing up from the city. Even though the change of month and the festival of The Watchers was a grand occasion it was somewhat subdued in the aftermath of Princess Xanthia’s assassination and the marching of the army.
The Night of The Watchers celebrated the coming darkness of Winter when the days became shorter and the nights longer. The night and darkness was always considered as concealing demons or evil creatures, and The Watchers were the ones who protected the good against such evil.
A demon hunt was usually part of the festivities, where The Watchers chased down the evil and destroyed them. It was all for show of course, and in fact had simply turned into a night of laughs and the darker undertones completely forgotten. To conduct this demon hunt people either wore masks that depicted a noble face for the Watchers or one twisted and evil for the demons. As most things usually end up the festival had become a form of courting. The woman wore the masks of the demons and the men The Watchers. The men would chase down the women and instead of mock killing of the demon, passionate love making would ensue.
But with most of the younger citizens marching to war for their country the festival seemed to skip the passion and move straight to the feast and the burning of the demon lord in the town squares, which was quite simply a bunch of people watching a bon fire while gorging themselves on many foods. Sadly the demon lord was more often than not depicted as an elf in memory of the disturbed Magi Gildon, who performed countless atrocities during the latter half of the Third Age. Gildon was finally killed by the warrior Argron of Alabast who later became the King of I’ender.
Gildon’s atrocities were never forgotten however and he is now considered as being a demon in mortal form, and as such is burned in effigy at the stake every year during the memorable festival of The Night of The Watchers.
Although, this year’s celebration was one to be forgotten.
Lieut waited calmly looking out through the open doors, the light of the full moons streamed in through the opening and across the marble floors, causing the thin curtains to glow in the light.
Heavy shadows cloaked the corners of Princess Xanthia’s private rooms, and the only source of light coming through the windows and door. King Lienthor had ordered that no lights shall ever glow in his deceased daughter’s chambers again, so now the bedroom was shrouded in shadow.
But the darkness held no fear over him as he waited patiently, his breathing steady and deep, the tips of his fingers tingled in anticipation. Explosions and fireworks echoed distantly in the city as he pulled back the cowl from his head, and still he waited.
The moons slowly climbed higher in the night sky and the glow on the floor receded from his feet. The light glistened off the dried pool of blood on the white sheets of the bed, reminding him of his task.
A strange sensation filled the room, and he felt a presence in the shadows. A light sound made his ears twitch, maybe it was his imagination. But he heard it again coming out of the darkness. Lieut had not expected to hear his brother enter. Perhaps the sound had been for his benefit.
“I knew you would come,” Lieut said softly, “Even after the funeral, I knew you would come here.”
For many minutes there was just silence filled with the moan of the wind and the distant crash of waves.
“It is my job, brother,” a voice came out of the darkness and a silhouette moved in front of the door facing him.
The light cast his features in a deep shadow but Lieut could see the two pale purple orbs of his brother, Ne’tra, staring at him. His brother was a head shorter than him and the youngest of his siblings. Like his other brother Nar’to he knew Ne’tra was a dangerous adversary, and Lieut hoped it would not come to trading blows.
“I was informed that you might show yourself here, Nen’on,” the purple eyed shadow remarked, his hands resting easily on the twin blades at his hips. “But it was not expected that the princess die by other means, aside from my own blades.”
Lieut shrugged, “I killed her to gain favour.”
“I hardly thank you for stealing my kill,” Ne’tra said coldly, “Favour could have been gained by completing your own mission, and not wasting your time here.”
“I need help,” Lieut replied, “I need to make communications.”
“You have PBE’s same as I do,” Ne’tra dismissed Lieut remark.
“That is my point, ever since the crash they do not transmit,” Lieut said, showing his exasperation. “There is Fog inside my head brother. I cannot get it out and it is causing me to see illusions. I need help.”
Ne’tra was silent for many minutes, his thumbs rubbing over the pommels of his swords, the silver metal carved into the likeness of panther heads.
“This is unexpected,” his brother finally said, “Not at all like what was anticipated.”
“You will help me?” Lieut asked, a sense of relief flowing over him.
“We will help you,” Ne’tra replied, “You are to finish your mission and will receive medical treatment on your return home.”
“But your betrayal of blood will not be forgotten,” Ne’tra said, his eyes flashing dangerously.
“I never wanted Nar’to’s blood,” Lieut angrily replied.
“Yet it is on your hands.”
“Nar’to was a fool to think he could defeat me,” Lieut shot back, “A fool not to listen to me.”
“You were the fool that went to Port Na’brath,” his brother replied angrily, “You could have completed your mission and headed home, and then sought aid for illness you have contracted.”
“Do not speak of what you do not know, brother,” Lieut growled, his golden orbs locking with Ne’tra’s purple glare.
His brother soon blinked under his fierce stare and looked away.
“You have always sought the glory,” Ne’tra said softly, “At the Sentrin Gate and in Cer’ben, and now here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You stole my target from me,” Ne’tra replied coldly, “Likely you were trying to take Nar’to’s in Port Na’brath. But I will let you have it. Soon it will be my turn to bathe in the glory. Your time as the greatest of us is ending brother, and I will be there when you fall.”
Lieut sneered, “You speak the words of a childish fool.”
There came no reply and Ne’tra turned to the open doors and headed onto the moon lit balcony where he simply stepped over the edge, leaving Lieut’s words to hang in the air.
Lieut growled angrily and looked for something to hit, but there was nothing. He sighed deeply and ran a hand over his face, and stretched the stiffness out of his neck. But from the irritation he felt a feeling of hope grew within him. If he completed his mission this Fog in his head would eradicated and he could go on without the constant indecision he felt.
“What will happen then?” Lieut asked himself, “If I am cured I will return to perusing the missions given to me, what will happen to the others, the ones I dare to call friends? I do not think I can simply abandon them, but that will be asked of me and if I refuse. . .”
Lieut’s voice trailed away as he considered what the future might hold, but he shook away the thoughts.
“One step at a time,” Lieut told himself, “Firstly I must be rid of this Fog in my head. I will deal with whatever may happen afterwards when it does happen.”
Lieut nodded to himself and he firmed his jaw as he looked back out the window of the Princess’s private quarters.
The sound of the festivals had all but subsided and all that remained to be heard were the waves crashing against the rocks. The eastern horizon grew light and Lieut left the chambers with a cloud of anger hanging heavily around him.
Several days later Lieut’s mind still played that meeting over and over in his head, wondering if his brother had always been like that, or whether it was he who had changed.
It was quiet on the Kalladen plains, nothing but the sounds of the wind whistling gently through the long pale green grass and the steady clop of hooves on the hard road could be heard. Inüer slowly climbed into the eastern skies rapidly warming the frosty morning. Autumn had begun and already the nights seemed colder, even though they were traveling through the warmer climates of Krnōrel.
Lieut had led the party over the wide stone bridge that arched the River Hywatier earlier that morning. The former camp of King Lienthor’s army was still clearly seen along Temped River where it branched from Hywatier. The soldier’s heavy boots and pitched tents had left a great scar upon the grasslands, and the wounds upon the earth were starkly present on the road before him.
The wind picked up and howled through the stony crags to the northwest, a perfect place for Grenlocks to hide. But nothing came running towards them brandishing weapons, and in fact they had come across very little excitement since leaving Crydon.
Neither had many words been spoken amongst the group, Vythe had been in a foul mood ever since they left the capital. Fairris never said much unless it was a request to spar with him in the mornings, which had been every morning since they started out. Bārdin said little as well, mumbling in his beard during the day as he wistfully looked toward the mountains far to the northwest, and slurring his words when he drank heavily in the evenings.
There were very few towns on the road through the Kalladen plains, but the ones they did come across were empty and devoid of life. The only forms of life were old dead eyed farmers who had no crops to sow since the army had taken all resources and all able bodies. They found no welcome in the keep of Calais, the south-western most town from Crydon, the Lord and his household had all left and the castle was now a silent monument.
The only other life they came across were either stragglers of army followers or petty criminals scavenging on what the army had left in its wake.
Once they come across a group of young men blocking the road, likely foolishly forcing camp followers to pay a toll. Lieut had hoped for some excitement upon seeing the pathetic outfit, but the bandits wisely moved aside and let them pass. Lieut had expected Vythe or Fairris to argue that they should teach them a lesson for they were bandits preying upon the weak and helpless, but no dispute was voiced. Lieut reasoned that the forlorn landscape and gravity of recent events had taken its toll upon the senses of his companions.
Usually the lack of conversation from his companions Lieut thought was a good thing, but this time he could not help but think their demure was somehow directed at him.
“We should reach the edges of the Foglornt Forrest by tomorrow,” Bārdin remarked absently, breaking the quiet moan of the wind. “We will be on the army’s tail by then.”
“Perhaps we can stop this war yet,” Fairris said hopefully, looking towards Vythe.
Vythe shrugged, “Perhaps.”
“Try to show some optimism at least, Vythe,” Fairris replied sarcastically.
Vythe sighed heavily, “My annoyance seems to overpower my optimism at present.”
“Still upset about the Princess?” Bārdin shook his head.
“Yes,” Vythe replied quickly, “There had to have been another way, we should have stopped the war from starting then. If only Lieut had agreed to give evidence against the High Commission.”
Lieut sighed loudly.
“You humans can sure hold a grudge,” Bārdin laughed, but his levity was not shared.
“There was no other way, even I can see that Vythe,” Fairris said seriously, “The Princess would have died one way or another and the army would have marched.”
“But all our efforts were for naught, the war has started despite our best determination,” Vythe said bitterly, “What was the point of going all the way to Crydon just to fail?”
“Sometimes that is just how it happens,” Fairris said simply.
“We could have done things differently, could Lieut not have killed the assassin?” Vythe asked incredulously.
“I would never willingly kill one of my own blood again,” Lieut said calmly.
“What of Port Na’brath?” asked Vythe.
“I had no choice,” Lieut replied with a glare at Vythe.
“Enough of this bickering and grudges,” Fairris said loudly, “How can we think to stop this war if we cannot keep peace between ourselves?”
Vythe sighed, “You are right, Fairris. What is done, is done. We need to concentrate on the goal ahead.”
Fairris nodded and smiled, “If we can obtain an audience with King Lienthor I believe we can change his mind, don’t you?”
“I share your hope, but we shall have to wait see,” Vythe nodded slightly.
The mood in the group seemed to lighten, but still few words were spoken and the day drifted by with the moan of the wind and the clip of their horse’s hooves on the hard road sounding in their ears.
Lieut decided not to correct Vythe and Fairris in their assertion of ‘we’, for he would not be accompanying them to see King Lienthor, he had a mission to complete. Although, Lieut did secretly want his companions to abandon their pointless quest and perhaps accompany him to the south, but he did not voice his thoughts.
That night they camped among a group of trees and made a small fire in a previously dug pit. The wind continued to moan sending thin fingers of clouds racing across the night sky.
“Didn’t Kalladen use to belong to some horse lords or some such?” Fairris asked curiously as she stared into the fire.
“So the tales suggest,” Vythe shrugged, “Do the dwarves of Ironwood have any tales, Bārdin?”
Bārdin looked up as if coming from a dream, the dwarf shrugged before pouring another mug of ale.
“Well?” Vythe pressed.
“What’s it matter?” Bārdin shot back.
“We are curious,” Fairris replied, “You are very defensive.”
“Well, I don’t go asking you lot about your race secrets,” Bārdin snapped.
“Secrets?’ Vythe raised an eyebrow, “It is history we are after not secrets.”
Bārdin shrugged, “Same thing.”
“Come on at least say something.” Fairris pressed curiously.
Bārdin grumbled to himself, “Alright,” the dwarf huffed, “There used to be Horse lords in the Kalladen plains. Happy?”
“Hardly,” Vythe replied with a slight laugh, “What happened to them?”
“Same thing that happens to everyone,” Bārdin said, “They died.”
“Just like that?” Fairris asked disbelievingly, “Was it a war, or plague perhaps?”
“How come there are no remnants of them?” Vythe inquired curiously.
“What does it matter?” Lieut said as he put another log on the fire.
“Exactly,” Bārdin agreed, “What’s gone is gone, no use dwelling on it.”
“So no use dwelling on Ironwood than?” Vythe was quick to ask.
Bārdin shot Vythe an angry look but did not reply and sculled his drink.
“Have you ever considered returning to Ironwood?” Fairris asked curiously.
Bārdin stared into the fire, “Every damn day.”
“What happened to those mighty dwarven halls?” asked Vythe.
The dwarf sighed “Maybe I’ll tell you one day. But not now with the Foglornt so close at hand.”
The night past quickly and midway through the morning they found themselves at the edges of the Foglornt forest. The old trees appeared out of the long grass, casting deep shadows beneath their bows. Lieut led the way along the wide road as it pushed into the forest and was very quickly lost to the shadow of the trees and hanging vines. Thick ferns groped around the twisted roots of the trees and the branches arched above their heads letting only the smallest shafts of light through. The wind had stopped completely and the air had already become stuffy and thick. Lieut could hear the sounds of animals and birds echoing through the trees.
Although the road remained wide, even his eyes could only penetrate very little the jungle’s gloom and Vythe and Fairris had become obviously uncomfortable. There was a feeling of malice and contempt among these branches, Lieut could feel it too. Bārdin, on the other hand, did not notice the quiet threat and had a bright glint in his eyes as he peered into the trees and listened to the wildlife.
“This road goes through the thinnest part of the wood,” Bārdin remarked. “To the north it is much thinker and much more dense. We will eventually come to Karrar’gorn, a magnificent bridge crossing the river Myst right where it splits in two. We dwarves built it you know, right into the rock it stands like a tower amidst the strong waters of Myst.”
“Likely the army has already reached that bridge,” Vythe remarked seriously.
“But they will be moving slowly,” Fairris was quick to add.
“How far would you say the bridge is, Bārdin?” Vythe asked.
The dwarf looked thoughtful for a moment, “If me memory is right we should reach it in no more than two days.”
Bārdin was correct in his estimation, and on the evening of the second day, just as Inüer was drawing close to the western horizon and disappearing below the trees, the thick branches parted before them and the rush of water filled the air. Glowing in the evening light stood the grey stones of the bridge as it reached out across the brown waters of Myst and grabbed hold of the towering rock that stood like a prow of a ship amidst the turbulent waters. The base of the small mountain divided the river right down the middle forcing the water to branch, one half moving off to the east and the other more southward.
The bridge arched high and into the rock face where a tunnel was carved through the mountain rock before an identical bridge jumped the river back towards the tree line. The cliff that divided Myst had been worn down to a sharp and narrow edge and resembled more of a sword’s edge than a tower, as Bārdin had described.
“This is Garāgg Dōrm, the workers hall,” Bārdin said as they walked their horses into the large cave that joined the two bridges, “The perfect place to rest.”
“Look here,” Bārdin said suddenly as he jumped from his pony and dashed to the far corner of the cave, “See these runes in the rock? Carved by the very dwarves that built this bridge: me ancestors.”
With night coming quickly they decided to set up camp in the cave, but they found little rest, the roar of the water echoed deafeningly off the stone and Bārdin spent most of the night looking around the cave and admiring the craftsmanship of the stone. Of course Lieut did not sleep and he spent all the night looking towards the south over the top of the trees.
That was where he had to go, Lieut knew that, but then what was troubling him?
The next day came too quickly and they set of early, and within a day they came across the first of the camp followers. Merchants, smiths, wives of soldiers with their children lined the road and crowded the way, all of them giving Lieut and his companions suspicious and scarred looks.
“Perhaps we would be better if we moved off the main road,” Vythe suggested when they were stopped by a wagon that had a broken axle. “Not to mention it would be quicker.”
Agreement was unanimous and they were soon dismounted and making their way through the thick growth. Fortunately there was evidence of paths leading through the forest which made their trek easier. The main road soon disappeared behind the trees, but Lieut lead truly and every now and then a glimpse of the road came into sight. Through these brief windows Lieut could see that they had moved beyond the followers and caught up to the infantry, and even when they did not see the army they could certainly hear the heavy tread of men and noise of chains, mail and heavy feet.
It was the afternoon when Lieut started to wonder why King Lienthor had not commanded any scouts to the side of the columns. Predictably, as soon as he started to wonder they were confronted by some scouts.
As they moved into a small clearing half a dozen men jumped from the scrub brandishing weapons demanding explanations from them.
“Hold an` be killed,” shouted a young man, holding a large crossbow.
“It’s ‘hold or be killed’ Griff,” sighed another soldier who bore a Fog long sword, “Not ‘hold and be killed’.”
“What does it matter?” Griff asked back.
“You idiot,” the second man laughed.
“Leave it Julian,” said the dark haired Captain of the scouting party.
“You got them Braxx?” asked the Captain, as he turned towards another man, who bore no weapons.
Braxx nodded, “They won’t be using no magicks, Nigel. Damn spies.”
“We aren’t spies,” Bārdin growled, his axe in his hands, “Or are you blind as well as daft?”
“Shut it midget,” snapped the large one-eyed soldier, who held a Fog broadsword.
“Be at ease Bārdin,” Vythe quickly stepped in front of the dwarf before turning to the Captain. “We are not spies good Captain, mere followers who did not wish to be lingering with the main group.”
“He’s lying boss,” said the muscled man with the long sword, “If they were followers they wouldn’t be hiding in the trees.”
“I can see that Julian. Anything else obvious you want to point out?” Nigel sighed, “And besides this one here has a Port Na’brath nobleman’s vest on. You lot going to come quietly, or do you want Braxx here to get inventive?”
A wide smile came to the magicks wielding soldiers face.
“Do you assume we will be coming at all?” Lieut replied coldly.
An uneasy silence fell over the clearing, and the soldiers looked nervously to one another.
“I expect that you will,” came a soft but cold voice from the trees.
Lieut knew it was Ne’tra as soon as he heard the words and his brother emerged from the shadows as if he were part of them.
“There is someone who wishes to speak with you brother,” Ne’tra said sternly, his pale purple eyes studying the group.
Lieut sighed and nodded to his surprised companions before motioning to Ne’tra to lead the way.
“Keep your anti-magicks spell over them Braxx,” Nigel said suspiciously as he moved close to Ne’tra.
“You sure this is wise Commander?” Nigel asked suspiciously.
Ne’tra gave the soldier a chilling glare but said nothing as he moved into the trees in the direction of the main road.
Lieut remained silent as he followed the cautious soldiers onto the main road and towards the front of the column. But they never came close to the knights, Lords and King at the head of the army. Ne’tra soon lead them off the road and back into the trees and the narrow paths between the gnarled old roots. Many minutes passed as they walked deeper into the forest, but always the sounds of the marching army could be heard. Eventually they came to a small clearing with a lone tent at its centre.
“Nen’on with me,” Ne’tra said simply, “You soldiers, watch the other three.”
“Yes, sir,” Nigel replied as Lieut moved to follow his brother.
“They’re spies, let’s just kill ‘em,” Braxx whined angrily, “I know the best spell too, it will turn their insides out.”
“Where did you find this one boss?” Shorty asked shaking his head, “He’s damned demented.”
Lieut ignored the rest of the conversation and pushed into the tent, wholly expecting what was to come.
Leaning casually against a table with his arms crossed in front of his chest and a slight smile upon his face was Kil’dar. The Shade, Lieut always knew him as, the legendary infiltrator, and a man he had worked closely with before. Kil’dar’s grey eyes sparkled as Lieut respectfully nodded to the man.
“Kil’dar,” Lieut greeted.
The man smiled widely, “My dear Nen’on, or is it Lieut these days?”
Lieut shrugged, “One name is as good as another.”
“Too true,” nodded Kil’dar.
“It would have been easier for you to go south through I’ender,” Ne’tra said, “Avoiding the tail of the army and any other variables.”
“This is my mission, and I shall complete it how I see fit,” Lieut glared at his brother. “And if you knew anything of my mission you would know that the contact is in Pentra.”
His brother narrowed his pale purple eyes at him and Lieut matched the glare.
“Nilvalna is a better location to meet with the asset. Your lack of logic is troubling,” Ne’tra replied stubbornly, “Perhaps I would be a better choice to complete your mission, and it would only fair seeing you stole mine.”
“Try it,” Lieut growled.
“Enough,” Kil’dar cut in before Ne’tra could reply, “Honestly, your sibling rivalry will bring us all destruction. This is Nen’on’s mission and he will complete it, correct?”
“Good,” Kil’dar smiled, “Then we can see about curing you Nen’on. But tell me how exactly did the Fog end up inside your head?”
“The crash caused my craft to explode,” Lieut explained hopefully, he turned his head to the side to show Kil’dar the scar. “I was injured and when I awoke it was there.”
Kil’dar rubbed a hand across his clean shaven chin, “That is quite an injury,” The Shade nodded, “You must have been close to the blast, yes?”
Lieut’s eyes narrowed slightly, as he began to wonder what the point of this conversation was. He also started to feel a slight tingling in the back of his head and stiffness in his neck.
“Close enough,” slowly nodded Lieut.
Kil’dar nodded, “PBE’s unresponsive, strange visions and illusions. Tell me: what other adverse effects have you experienced?”
Lieut started to feel uncomfortable, “Are these not question to be asking once I have returned home?”
“You refuse to answer my question?” Kil’dar asked in surprise.
Lieut reply became stuck in his throat and his brother smirked at him.
“Healing comes slowly,” Lieut answered seriously.
Kil’dar studied him closely for a few minutes, “Interesting, yet you seem normal.”
Lieut clenched his jaw and stretched the stiffness out of his neck.
“But you are right,” Kil’dar said, “These are questions that can be answered later and once you have completed your objective.”
“We shall be off then,” Lieut nodded quickly.
Kil’dar smiled at him, “That is another issue: we. What we?”
Lieut’s brow furrowed not realising that he had said that.
“They were a means to and ends,” Lieut shrugged.
“Were?” asked Kil’dar, “What are they now?”
“He is lying,” Ne’tra cut in, “He has been compromised.”
“Be silent Ne’tra,” Kil’dar commanded and Ne’tra instantly fell quiet. “He is your brother, do you want him to be compromised and destroyed?”
Ne’tra did not reply, but the way he looked at Lieut clearly stated his thoughts.
“Of course we do not want that,” Kil’dar continued, “Have they aided you well on your trip across the continent?”
“They have been quite useful,” Lieut replied suspiciously.
“How do they feel about your deception?” Kil’dar smiled, “It is clear they are under the impression that you came south to persuade the King to stop the war. I wonder how they will react when you head away from the army?”
Lieut looked at Kil’dar curiously.
“You are surprised,” nodded Kil’dar, “I have my way of knowing things. But you did not answer my question. How will they react when they discover the truth of you and the war?”
Lieut looked away from Kil’dar and shrugged, “Only the completion of my mission matters.”
Annoyingly Kil’dar smiled widely.
“I thought so. You may go,” nodded Kil’dar as he turned back towards the desk. “But say goodbye to your friends when you leave, for they will be executed for being spies from Sesserrech. There is a path that heads south from this clearing, follow that and you will soon come to the plains of Aierthian, you will be able to find your way to Pentra from there I trust.”
Stiffly Lieut nodded and left the tent. The Captain called Nigel waited with his horse and he quickly took the reins and spotted the path Kil’dar had mentioned. He gave a brief look to his companions and the confused expressions they all bore. With a slight shrug he turned and headed into the forest with the calls of his friends echoing behind him.
Cold steel and bright monitors filled the dark room each with flashing lights and dials, each designed for a specific purpose and at each of them someone sat, staring at the dials and lights. In a room full of sounds of machinery and technology it was hard to believe the level of silence there, not a word could be heard from the silhouettes watching the screens so intently, their focus was fixed and they had learnt not to let it slip from their tasks.
Discipline had been drilled into them since the first time they set foot into the world, the weak fell and the strong continued on. Only the best survived in this world, and here they were, in a small room staring at monitors, such menial tasks set for warriors of great skill. After years of brutal training they had reached great heights of physical and mental ability, and here they were, staring at computer screens.
The working day was coming to an end, but none of the workers were preparing to depart, instead a buzz of excitement hung in the air.
Jar’nesh was just finishing her duties when the commander called for everyone’s attention.
“If you could all look at me,” the Commander called above the excited murmur in the dim room. “As you all know the War party has been decided upon, and regrettably not everyone will be chosen to go. For those who remain they hold a great responsibility to keep order within Metrā and this establishment. For those who are chosen, glorious battle will await you.”
A slight cheer swelled, and Jar’nesh felt her own excitement growing, but the Commander quietened them down.
“I have here the list of names that will be joining the War party,” the Commander held up a piece of paper, and an anxious stillness flooded through Jar’nesh.
The Commander read out the names, causing small cheers to erupt. Jar’nesh bit down on her bottom lip hoping to hear her name, more than anything she wanted to go. The other names did not register in her mind as she held her breath.
“First Biotic Engineer Jar’nesh,” the Commander called out, “To be assigned to Craft One, the Cataclysm.”
A squeal of happiness and relief escaped from Jar’nesh’s lips, but she quickly composed herself in embarrassment. She did not hear the rest of the names, for she felt such excitement and disbelief.
The Commander finished calling the names and they were dismissed with the Commander stating that further preliminary information shall be given at a later date.
On a cloud of joy Jar’nesh skipped from the chamber and raced to find her friend to share her news.
“Nen’nel,” she called out when she spotted her friend down the hall, Nen’nel waved back, but she seemed despondent.
“Were you assigned?” Jar’nesh asked excitedly, but she could already guess the answer.
Nen’nel shook her head, her expression sad, “You?”
“I did,” replied Jar’nesh happily, but she almost felt bad for being so chipper. “Guess which craft?”
“The Cataclysm,” Jar’nesh could hardly contain her joy. “Isn’t that amazing?”
A look of disbelief came to Nen’nel’s features, “Craft One, the High King’s ship? Why am I not surprised?”
“I can scarcely believe it myself,” Jar’nesh burst out, “I wish you were with me. What tasks have you been given during the assault?”
Nen’nel sighed, “Head of Department, and acting Commander.”
Jar’nesh was genuinely surprised, “That is a big task.”
“Don’t think I can cope?” snapped Nen’nel bitterly.
“That is not what I meant, Nen’nel,” Jar’nesh replied defensively, “I was saying that they must value you to promote you to such a position.”
Nen’nel sighed heavily, “They don’t value me enough to send me with the War party. Why do you always get the good jobs, and I never get any breaks.”
Jar’nesh smiled understandingly, “You will get your break soon, I am sure.”
Nen’nel scoffed, “Unlikely, you get to go off and find glory, while I am stuck with the rest of the failures.”
“That is not true, Nen’nel,” replied Jar’nesh.
Her friend did not reply and a cloud of depression followed them through the halls. Jar’nesh found herself annoyed at her friend, why could Nen’nel just have been happy for her instead of making it a sad story about herself.
“Let’s just kill them here,” the Magi Braxx was whining as they pushed into another small clearing. “I want to see their heads explode.”
“Where did you find this loony Nigel?” sighed Julian.
Nigel ignored the question, “Stop acting so messed up, Braxx. Kil’dar said to take them far north into the dense part of the forest. So that’s what we are doing.”
Braxx grumbled loudly and shoved Fairris hard in the back, making her stumble.
With her hands bound in magickal bracelets she had been pushed along for at least an hour now since Lieut disappeared into the forest and they were sentenced to die for being spies. They had crossed the main road a long time ago and the Foglornt Forest was pressing in around them. Old branches grabbed at her hair and the trees constantly tried to trip her. The ground was muddy and the air thick and damp.
Fairris had been pushed along in a daze for most of the way, still disbelieving that Lieut had deserted them. She kept reassuring herself that he would show up and rescue them, but something was telling her that he had been forced to leave them by that man Kil’dar. She also caught glimpses of Lieut’s brother with the pale purple eyes among the trees, no doubt making sure that Lieut did not intervene. They had been trapped well and truly, the High Commission had outplayed them at every turn and hope was quickly fleeting.
Vythe had tried to reason with Kil’dar but whether or not the man believed them it seemed it did not matter. They would be executed even if they were not spies, and Kil’dar made that perfectly clear. Fairris also got the feeling that the whole encounter had been about Lieut, and making sure he was doing as he was meant to, which would explain his seemingly regrettable departure, and the unlikelihood of a heroic return.
“Quite a nice spot here. We will kill them here,” announced Nigel as they came to yet another canopied dell.
The sounds of the army were nothing but a dull hum in the distance and the dank of the wood crowded around them. Now that they were deeper into the jungle wisps of Fog were seen floating effortlessly through the trees and disappearing into the leaves.
“Finally,” grinned Braxx, “Let’s have some fun with the pretty elf before we kill them, what do you say?”
The loathsome man grabbed Fairris by the arm and pulled her close. Gritting her teeth Fairris head butted the man in the face breaking his nose. Twisting on her toes she moved to shatter Braxx’s knee, but the Magi had recovered quickly and pushed her off balance and onto the ground.
“Enough!” Nigel shouted, stopping Braxx from perusing her, “There will be no raping, you sick bastard.”
“You daft?” Braxx snapped angrily, “Look at that body, it would a crime not to.”
“There will be no raping,” Julian said darkly as he levelled a heavy crossbow at Braxx.
“Try and you’ll be the first to die,” growled Shorty, his broadsword in hand.
“Damn right,” Griff added awkwardly.
The other soldiers in the clearing also moved to enforce Nigel’s command.
Braxx looked nervously around, but did not move. Finally he threw his hands up in frustration and turned away, spitting on the ground and wiping the blood from his face.
“Where did you get this guy?” Julian asked in disbelief, but Nigel just shook his head.
“On your knees, you three,” Nigel said turning to the trio, “Let’s make this quick.”
“For Artāre’s sake we are not spies,” Vythe said emphatically, in one last desperate attempt to try and make them see reason.
Nigel shrugged, “I have my orders. Nothing personal I assure you.”
“At least let me kill them,” Braxx suddenly shouted, spinning on Nigel, his eyes wide.
“This guy,” Nigel let out a great sigh of exasperation
“Where in the Abyss did you get this one, Nigel?” Julian shook his head, “He’s cracked in the head to be sure.”
Nigel shook his head sighed, “He’s a volunteer and was assigned. I didn’t pick him, but he’s here. Unfortunately.”
Julian sighed also and did not reply.
“So can I kill ‘em?” Braxx asked excitedly.
Nigel looked at the Magi seriously, “No,” he said, “I will do it.”
A wave of anger suddenly came upon Braxx and he lunged at Nigel with a dagger. Reacting quickly Nigel stepped outside the stab and grabbed the Magi’s wrist. In the same movement he forced Braxx’s arm to bend and forced the dagger in the Magi’s throat.
The Magi fell away from Nigel and to the ground clutching at his neck as blood gushed out and into the mud and grass.
“Nice moves Nigel,” Julian exclaimed with a smile, “You beast.”
Nigel let out a slight laugh and smiled, “Thanks man. Next time I will make sure I decide who joins our squad. I’ve had enough of these blood hungry head-cases joining this war.”
Nigel let out a deep breath and turned from the dying Magi, “Alright, now for these three. Julian you handle. . .”
Nigel’s next words were stopped short as several arrows thundered into of his chest. Julian let out a cry of despair and dived to his Captain’s aid, but he was the next to fall with an arrow shaft in his eye. Griff screamed and shot blindly into the brush just as a spear blasted through his chest. Shorty roared loudly as an arrow flew into his knee followed by half a dozen in the back and chest. The other soldiers fell just as quickly in screams of pain, leaving Fairris, Vythe and Bārdin looking curiously at each other in surprise.
Fairris’s magickal bindings dissipated as Braxx coughed up a last bit of blood and she stood up and looked around the clearing as the hiding assailants emerged from the trees.
They were tall and thin, with long brown hair and dark eyes. They wore cloth of green and brown of leathers and leaf, perfectly made to let them blend seamlessly into the forest. Each of them carried re-curve bows of dark wood carved with flowing vines and leaves.
At first Fairris thought them Valenthōr; Wood Elves, but they were too tall and their ears were human in shape. They had to be hunters from the Sātor Warrior Tribes, though she had never seen any Sātor before. Most of the hunters gave the trio little regard and moved quickly to retrieve their spent arrows and spear.
But the tallest approached Vythe with a slight smile and greeted him happily. Vythe smiled and returned the greeting in the language of the Sātor, a language that Fairris could not understand.
“Can you understand them, Bārdin?” Fairris asked as she moved next to the dwarf.
Bārdin nodded, “They seem to be old friends. Vythe’s is thanking him for their timely arrival.”
Fairris moved to join Vythe but Bārdin grabbed her arm and motioned for her to wait.
“Their culture demands that you are formally introduced before you speak to him,” Bārdin said to Fairris’s questioning look.
Fairris nodded and stood still and waited. She did not have to wait long and Vythe motioned them to come over. The Sātor warrior was clearly someone of importance, his stern face was framed by long braids that fell to his shoulders.
“I have the honour of introducing you both to Fürin, son of Fāfnir,” Vythe said seriously, before introducing Fairris and Bārdin to Fürin in his own language.
The tall Sātor Warrior looked at her and Bārdin with his dark eyes as he lent on his spear, and nodded his head, those eyes glinting with wisdom beyond his years.
“If Vythe gives you honour than so do I,” Fürin said in common tongue.
“Fürin,” one of the Sātor called out, “One yet lives.”
Fairris and the others looked over to see the tall Sātor standing over the top of the Captain of the squad. The arrows that had pieced Nigel’s armour had somehow not hit any vital organs and the man was looking up at the Sātor with anger in his dark eyes.
“You have great luck,” Fürin said casually as he walked over to Nigel.
“Let me up and you will see my great skill,” Nigel replied threateningly.
Fürin smiled, “I need be elsewhere,” he said before nodding to the warrior who stood over Nigel with his spear poised to deal a killing blow.
“Wait, don’t kill him,” Fairris blurted out causing all to look at her in disbelief. “He stopped the Magi from raping me.”
Fürin looked at her through narrowed eyes for a few seconds before looking back to Nigel.
“Vythe, say something,” Fairris said as she looked to her companion.
“She speaks truly, my friend,” Vythe said to the leader of the Sātor.
Fürin nodded slightly before turning his attention back to Nigel.
“You have great luck,” Fürin said again, “Perhaps it will see you to the safety of your human army.”
“Let us go,” Fürin said to his warriors before leading the way from the clearing with Vythe beside him.
“It was fortunate we came this way,” Fürin said to Vythe, “You are to come with us to the throne of Thagg Dōrr.”
“It would be an honour,” Vythe nodded deeply, and motioned for Fairris and Bārdin to follow.
“What brings you this far North?” Vythe asked as they moved in single file from the bloody clearing.
Fairris glanced over her shoulder at the carnage in the dell and to the Captain who looking around at his fallen friends in despair. Fairris’s eyes widened as she also thought she saw two pale purple eyes watching her from behind a tree.
“I come to kill my father,” Fürin said, catching Fairris’s attention.
“The Trial of Ascension,” Vythe nodded understandingly.
“I am Glin, daughter of Ginna,” said a female huntress alongside Fairris, pulling her attention from the conversation between Vythe and Fürin.
Fairris smiled at the young Sātor Warrior, “I am Fairris, it is an honour.”
“The honour is mine,” Glin replied officially, “You are Zirarien, correct?”
Fairris nodded, realising that this huntress was curious, “You speak common tongue well.”
“Since the warrior Vythe came to us, Fāfnir the Wise commanded all to learn human speech,” Glin said with a smile.
“Fāfnir?’ Fairris asked, “The father of Fürin?”
“You are curious too,” Glin nodded and smiled, “Fāfnir is our chieftain, our Thagg. Fürin is his son.”
“But Fürin said he goes to kill his father,” Fairris said in confusion.
Glin nodded, “It must be hard for foreigners to understand. It is the Trial of Ascension. When the son is ready he challenges the father for the right to be Thagg. Because it is the Thagg who is being challenged he may choose the ground where they will fight. Fāfnir has gone to the throne Thagg Dōrr where he prepares for the fight with Fürin.”
“Is Thagg Dōrr another chieftain?” Fairris asked curiously.
Glin let out a slight laugh and shook her head, “No. I need to clarify. When a Thagg dies they are buried in a tomb in the hills to the north. The hill is then named after that Thagg. Several Thaggs have been entombed at Thagg Dōrr, and Dōrr the most recent.”
“I see,” Fairris nodded, “How long has Fāfnir been at Thagg Dōrr?”
“He just waits there?” Fairris asked in surprise.
“Not just,” Glin shook her head, “To prove he is worthy Fürin must past the trials made by his father. Fāfnir has prepared the ground with traps and bade the beasts to guard the land. Fürin must prove his skill of hunter before he proves his skill as a warrior.”
“It seems like a hard task for Fürin,” Fairris remarked.
“It has to be,” Glin replied, and Fairris nodded.
“May I ask you a question?” Glin asked.
“Of course,” Fairris smiled.
As they made their way through the narrow trails in the undergrowth Fairris answered many questions from Glin about the Zirarien and her homeland in the desert of Anastarā. Fairris spoke of the wonders of Cārrak and the beauty of the desert in bloom, all the while the young Sātor warrior listened intently with wide eyes.
Glin would have had to be younger than herself, Fairris realised, and yet the Sātor was nearly a half foot taller than her. Glin’s hair was long and braided like all the other warriors. Her garb was made from a minimal amount of fabric and showed much skin, displaying her lean frame and toned muscle. In one hand Glin carried a deadly looking spear with a sharp bladed head at each end and at her back was a re-curve bow and aquiver of arrows. Effortlessly Glin moved through the thick undergrowth her steps smooth, yet deliberate, and on her feet were tight leather shoes that did not even cover her ankles.
The Sātor were people of the woods, similar to the Valenthōr, yet so different. Fairris found she enjoyed talking with Glin as they moved hastily along, but worries constantly played on her mind. Her thoughts kept drifting back to the sight of Lieut disappearing into the trees.
It was late afternoon when the ground began to rise and Fürin called the hunting party to stop in a shallow dell. It must have been a regular campsite for there was an old fire pit and many places to comfortably rest between the tree roots.
The Sātor sat down among themselves and Glin went to join them as Vythe came towards Fairris and Bārdin.
“It was fortunate that you had friends among the Sātor,” Fairris remarked as Vythe sat down across from her.
“It was with Fürin that I learnt how to use the double ended spear effectively,” Vythe replied, “I always could conjure one but never could really use it correctly.”
“Sounds like quite a tale,” smiled Fairris.
“A very dull one, I assure you,” Vythe shrugged, “And not the time to tell it.”
Fairris nodded, “The whole time we were being pushed through the forest I was expecting Lieut to show up and aid us. But did you see his purple eyed brother? I think he had no choice but to leave.”
Vythe looked away, “That is not exactly what I meant. I did not see Lieut’s brother, but I did see Lieut deserting us and saving his own neck.”
“How can you say that? I believe he did not have a choice in it,” Fairris was quick to say, “If he had tried to do something they would have tried to kill him too.”
Vythe sighed heavily and rubbed a hand over his face, “Anyway, I was referring to the army, it would have likely left Foglornt behind by now and moving across the Aierthian Plains. We can still catch up and persuade King Lienthor.”
“To be branded spies again.” Bārdin replied, “Condemned to death again, and this time with no Sātor to save us.”
“So we should give up?” Vythe asked in disbelief, “Sit back and watch the world burn around us?”
“I’d rather that than dying,” Bārdin replied dryly as he pulled out some food to eat. “But I’d rather not be sitting back with the Sātor.”
Vythe sighed heavily again and shook his head.
“You do not like the Sātor Warriors, Bārdin?” Fairris asked, changing the subject.
Bārdin scoffed, “Let’s just say the Sātor and we dwarves from Grün Narād have had our differences in the past.”
Vythe let out a small laugh, “Fürin said it was more than just ‘differences’.”
Bārdin shrugged as if it did not matter, “Ended a long time ago. I be the only dwarf of Grün Narād left.”
An awkward silence fell over the three of them.
Soon the night came on bringing darkness into every corner of the Foglornt Forest. A small fire was lit and was soon crackling on the damp wood which produced no smoke. Outside the fire’s sphere of light small clouds of Fog drifted among the branches, reflecting the firelight to the immediate area.
“Why was Lieut’s brother following us to the execution?” Vythe asked quietly to Fairris.
“To see if Lieut showed up,” Fairris replied with a shrug.
Vythe stroked his chin thoughtfully, “Probably.”
Fairris looked at Vythe curiously, but she did not ask for any clarification as to what Vythe was alluding to.
Fairris stared into the small fire her mind wondering, she understood why Vythe wanted to stop the war, but there seemed little they could do anymore. Especially with that man Kil’dar and Lieut’s brother so close to the King. Then what was there to do? She could try and follow Lieut, but even she knew there was little chance of catching him, and all she really knew was that he was likely heading to Pentra, but Lieut never confirmed that as his destination.
Perhaps Bārdin would show them the way to Ironwood and they could find lost treasures within its ancient halls? But Fairris subtly shook her head for that was very unlikely considering the secretive nature of dwarves.
Whatever they did she feared that they would go their separate ways and she would once again be alone. Lieut had been the reason they all stayed together. She had stayed with him to sate her desire to be a better fighter. Vythe had lingered with them because of his curiosity and suspicions of Lieut. And Bārdin stayed because of his love of a good fight and Lieut always seemed to attract chaos.
What if they did break up, what would she do?
The thought scared her deeply.
“Why do you think Lieut needed to go south?” Fairris asked, breaking the silence over the group.
Bārdin shrugged, and Vythe shook his head.
“Perhaps we could track him down in Pentra?” Fairris suggested hopefully.
“We would never find him,” Vythe shook his head, “Besides we do not even know if he was going to the seat of the High Commission, those are only our assumptions.”
“What will we do then?” asked Fairris emphatically.
“What can we do?” Vythe asked back with a sigh.
“I ain’t sticking around here that’s for sure,” Bārdin huffed, “Come morning I’m heading east then south, I’ender is nice this time of year and there’s bound to be something happening down in the canals of Scaroul and Nivalna.”
This was what Fairris was afraid of, and without Lieut they will fall apart.
“You cannot,” Fairris said, trying not to sound desperate.
“You cannot stop a dwarf who has his mind set on something,” Vythe laughed, “I also have a mind to leave this region and head to Elmnest. To wait out this apocalyptic war and help put the pieces back together when it is over, I guess.”
Fairris bit down on her bottom lip, “Aren’t you curious?”
Vythe raised an eyebrow, “About what?”
“Who Kil’dar is and what exactly Lieut and his brothers are doing?” she asked.
“Helping the High Commission take over Essinendeür?” Bārdin guessed.
“Can it be that simple though?” Fairris asked.
“Much in life is simple,” Vythe replied with a shrug, “And I am growing tired of the High Commission.”
“What happened to the Vythe I met in the Gaia Prison?” Fairris asked desperately, “You could see then that Lieut was not human, and Kil’dar is of a similar nature, if I am not mistaken. Who are they? What stake do they have in this war? How do they profit?”
Fairris smiled to herself she could see Vythe becoming interested in what she was alluding at.
“Genetic mutants from Er’athōre laboratory in Aierthian,” Bārdin dismissed her questions. “Made by the High Commission to work for them.”
“But they are not working for the High Commission,” Fairris replied, “It was just Kil’dar and Lieut’s brother at that tent. If the High Commission are pulling the strings, where were they? I think this Kil’dar man is the real puppeteer.”
Vythe stroked his chin curiously, “Perhaps your theory has some grounding. But what I am starting to think is if I cannot stop this war, how can I profit from it?”
Fairris smiled widely, “Now that’s the Vythe I remember.”
Bārdin snorted loudly, “You two can conspire and make up theories all you like, but come tomorrow I’m I’ender bound.”
“Really?” Fairris baited with a smile.
Bārdin crossed his arms across his thick chest, “You’re damn right I am.”
“And miss all the fun?” she asked with a smile, “Somehow I did not pick you for one who liked the quiet life along the gentle canals of Nivalna.”
Bārdin narrowed his eyes and sucked on his teeth, “Perhaps I should get some rest before making any hasty decisions?”
“I know I shall,” Vythe smiled and shot a wink to Fairris.
A wave of relief flowed through Fairris as she rested back between the moss covered roots of an old tree, a delighted smile on her face. The humidity of the forest had not lessened, but she felt comfortable. Before she drifted off into an uneasy sleep she thought she saw two purple dots looking down on her from the branches above, but as soon as she blinked they disappeared.
He moved through a cloud of Fog, the colourful wisps trailing through his straight shoulder length hair. But he was undeterred by the potentially deadly effect such clouds of Fog could hold, he had a mission. Although it was not much of one, and in fact could hardly be labelled as a real objective, more of a task really, something to keep him occupied. But nonetheless it was something he would do to the best of his abilities.
Kil’dar had commanded him to follow the soldiers as they took the peculiar trio to be executed. Kil’dar had said that Nen’on would show up and reveal his treachery to them, but his brother had been nowhere to be seen. Kil’dar had been wrong. Perhaps his brother was not the traitor he seemed to be and his story of the Fog being inside his head was truth.
Ne’tra shook his head. It did not do well to ponder these things. Another cloud of Fog drifted around him as he made his way quickly through the Foglornt Forest. He briefly thought that perhaps he could have helped the Captain Nigel back to the camp, but he quickly shook the preposterous thoughts from his head. The Sātor Warriors had moved quickly and far from the main road, but despite being expert hunters in this jungle never did they notice him as he tailed them, moving between the shadows. The only one that had noticed his presence had been that Zirarien, but that was of little consequence. What was important was that Nen’on had not returned to save them as Kil’dar said he would.
It was very early morning when Ne’tra emerged from the Foglornt, Inüer had only just begun to brighten the eastern skies, but it would be well into the day by the time he caught up to the marching army on the Aierthian Plains.
At his quick jogging pace he made the road in short time as it stretched across the plains of grass. As he jogged along, Ne’tra noted that the plains, as they were called, were not so much flat barren grasslands, but more rolling hills of pasture land filled with trees and small rivers that rushed down from the Iron Mountains in the north and branched off from the river Myst, which came from the Foglornt.
It was a peculiar thing to be thinking about the lie of the land, but it had been a long time since he had crashed into the Golden Sea near Crydon and moved like a shadow into the city in pursuit of his mission. Usually once an objective was completed he would return home and return to his training. All this idleness and times of waiting for an order from Kil’dar had given a chance for his mind to think about other things, which was something he was not particularly comfortable with.
The soldiers were going about their daily tasks when he penetrated the edges of the camp and swiftly and silently he headed for Kil’dar’s tent. After the long march from Kalladen and through the Foglornt Forest, King Lienthor had made the decision to rest for a few days before moving on once again. The soldiers seemed happy with this decision and between menial tasks they lounged about the camp site.
Ne’tra moved through the campsite ignoring the common soldiers and headed directly for Kil’dar’s tent. It was already midday and as he came to his Commander’s tent Regional Commander Lethain Rook departed from the pavilion.
Ne’tra gave it little thought, realising that Rook must have spent the night and morning with Kil’dar for some reason that he did not really understand. He pushed into the tent to see Kil’dar doing up his pants.
“Commander,” Ne’tra greeted with a nod.
“What happened to your face?” Kil’dar asked curiously as he slipped on his shirt.
Reflexively Ne’tra touched the gash on his right eyebrow, “One of the soldiers fired his crossbow blindly when the Sātor Warriors attacked.”
“I thought you were quick enough to dodge such a shot,” Kil’dar said with a slight laugh.
“The bolt unexpectedly ricocheted off a tree,” Ne’tra replied evenly.
Kil’dar smirked, “So our reports on Vythe Varrintine were correct, he does have allies within the Sātor, interesting. Did Lieut show his face?”
“No,” Ne’tra replied, “Why do you call him Lieut? His name is Nen’on.”
Kil’dar lightly laughed, “His name is no more Nen’on then it is Lieut.”
Ne’tra’s brow furrowed, “But I am Ne’tra.”
“It is just a number.”
Ne’tra blinked away his confusion as Kil’dar finished dressing.
“Did any of the soldiers I sent live through the ambush?” Kil’dar asked absently.
“Yes, one,” Ne’tra replied, “The Captain Nigel.”
“And where is he now?” Kil’dar asked with some curiosity.
Ne’tra shrugged, “Finding his way back to camp, dead in a ditch, running back to Crydon. I don’t know.”
“Never mind that then,” Kil’dar dismissed the topic and began looking through some papers.
“You have another assignment,” Kil’dar said as he studied one particular parchment, “You are to follow Lieut and make sure he completes his mission objective.”
“But you were wrong about him returning to aid those spies,” Ne’tra replied, “My brother has not betrayed us.”
“Has he not?” Kil’dar raised an eyebrow, “Did you not think that Lieut might have known of our ploy to see if he would save his friends? Your brother is cunning, and he knew of Vythe’s allegiances with the Sātor and knew that they would save his friends for him. All the while deceiving us into believing his lies of the Fog in his head. Would you be so easy made a fool of, by your own brother? Always Lieut has wronged you, stealing your glory, making his brothers appear fools.” Kil’dar moved close to Ne’tra his grey eyes glistening. “Do you not remember what happened at Sentrin gate? He was instructed to wait for you and Nar’to to arrive but he did not and sacked the gates himself. All the glory and praise for himself, and you looked like a foolish child. Do you want that to happen again?”
Ne’tra clenched his jaw and his lips became thin, “Never again.”
“This is your time, Ne’tra,” Kil’dar said quietly, “Lieut will fall a traitor and you will rise as the greatest of the Brothers.”
Ne’tra steeled his pale purple eyes and nodded, “What do you need of me, Commander?”
A thin smile came to Kil’dar’s face, “You are to follow Lieut, and when he does not complete his mission you will kill him. I have arranged for one of the Magi in the King’s company to teleport you to Pentra, where Lieut will soon arrive and make contact with the asset, understood?”
“The Magi should be free to do so soon, if not now. You are dismissed,” Kil’dar turned towards his desk and waved his hand for Ne’tra departed the tent.
Anger burned within Ne’tra as he made his way through the camp to the Magi’s tent. Nen’on was no brother of his and he would kill him for murdering Nar’to and betraying them all.
All the Sātor sat in a circle, their legs crossed, their backs ridged and their eyes shut, as if meditating, and they had been this way since Fairris had woken up. Vythe had explained in a hushed voice that they were connecting with the jungle to aid Fürin as he fulfilled the Trial of Ascension. Vythe said that she and Bārdin must remain as quiet and still as possible.
The morning had been relaxing, as she laid back and listen to the sounds of the jungle around her. Watching the animals go about their daily routines and dozing in the cool of the dell when the humidity became overbearing. But it was now late afternoon and there had been no sign that anyone was returning. Vythe had said that he remembered being told that the longest ever Trial of Accession had lasted nearly eight days and even then the son had failed to kill the father which resulted in the old Thagg ruling for another three years before dying of an illness. This had caused a great fracture between the clans and many internal battles had resulted, but that had been over a century ago.
Fairris sincerely hoped that she would not have to remain still and quiet for another seven days, even now she was becoming restless.
As she sat in the dell with her back resting against an old tree she wondered what Lieut was doing. Would she ever see him again? Of course she hoped she would, but something told her that he was lost from them forever. She could feel the tears welling in her eyes as she continued to think about it, but stubbornly she pushed them away.
“Vythe?” Fairris whispered quietly, trying to take her mind off the painful thoughts.
Vythe turned and pressed a finger against his lips to silence her before looking back to the circle of Sātor Warriors.
Vythe glared at her, “Later.”
Fairris sighed and looked around for something to occupy her attention. Just then her sensitive ear caught the sound of shuffling feet and heavy breath. Sitting up she looked into the trees and undergrowth but there was no sight of anyone.
All of the Sātor immediately opened their eyes and turned to the path where Fürin had departed that morning.
The heavy breathing became louder and the tall Sātor Warrior staggered from the trees and into the dell. Fürin’s face was caked in blood that had streamed from a deep cut across his eye, many more cuts covered his muscled chest and arms and his spear was broken. But the Sātor Warrior stood tall and announced something loudly in his own language.
Fairris could only guess that Fürin had killed his father and thereby become the Thagg of the Sātor.
Vythe sighed loudly and ran a hand through his dark hair, a relieved smile coming to his face.
Despite the many gruesome wounds Fürin stood proudly as the other Sātor knelt before him. Some water was bought from a nearby creek and Fürin’s wounds were cleaned and dressed. The cut over his eye was deep but it seemed that he could still see out of it. Eventually Fürin virtually collapsed onto the ground and was given some food and drink.
“You are not going to congratulate him, Vythe?” Fairris asked curiously.
Vythe shook his head, “It would be inappropriate to go over to him at the moment. But I am happy for my old friend and that is enough.”
“You wanted to say something earlier, Fairris?” Vythe asked as he stretched his back. “I apologise for my rudeness.”
“Wasn’t she being rude by talking?” Bārdin asked before Fairris could say anything.
“You are right good dwarf,” Vythe smiled, “Perhaps she should be the one apologising.”
Fairris glared at both of them, causing them to laugh softly.
“I was just going to ask why you thought Lieut was going to Pentra.” She said with a shake of her head.
“Does it matter?” Bārdin huffed.
Fairris looked down at the ground, “It matters to me.”
Vythe shrugged, “I cannot say, but I would guess it has something to do with the High Commission.”
“Fairris,” Vythe said, making her look at him, “There is nothing we can do about it, Lieut has chosen his path as we must ours. You cannot have thought he would remain in our company?”
Fairris sighed, “No, I guess I knew he would always leave, at some point.”
She could feel the tears welling again, thankfully Fürin called out to them and bid that they join him, granting a welcome distraction.
Vythe moved and sat down next to his friend while she and Bārdin sat across from the Sātor. The rest of the warriors were moving about doing their own things making it just the four of them sitting there.
“I am glad we came across you in the clearing, Vythe,” Fürin smiled as he slapped Vythe on the shoulder.
“As am I,” laughed Vythe, “I have a fondness for my head where it is.”
Fürin joined the laugh, “I am honoured to have met your friends. But I fear our company together will be too short.”
“You will head back to the south to complete the ceremony,” Vythe nodded understandingly.
“Nay,” Fürin shook his head, “We shall travel northwest to the foothills of the Stone Trees, the Iron Mountains, where all the clans have gathered.”
Vythe cocked his head to the side.
“A messenger from the great Zirarien desert came to us not ten days past bringing word that their new King has gathered an army. The elf, Baelor has called out to all of the Elder Races to end the tyranny of humans and their racism,” Fürin explained. “This call to arms created much disagreement between my father and I. Fāfnir’s reticence to answer Baelor’s call forced me to claim my right at Ascension to Thagg. This war of Baelor’s is necessary for all of the Elder Races to have equality.”
Vythe gave Fairris and Bārdin a concerned look, “Why did you heed the call?”
“For years on end humans have trudged through our forest, killing and destroying,” Fürin replied seriously, “Fāfnir did nothing to stop this desecration of our lands, but I will not be so idle. I share Baelor’s ideals, and this army moving through our forest without permission is the last time anyone will do so.”
“But you must look at it in context,” Vythe replied, “King Lienthor’s army marches to their own war with no intention of insulting the Sātor and Wood Elves.”
“Exactly,” Fürin nodded, “They do not think, they do not care. Humans act brazenly without thought of who they insult, about who they discriminate against, or who they hurt. No longer will the Sātor be disregarded. There was a time when all feared our skill and ferocity, all feared to walk near this jungle, and so it shall be once more. The Elder Races shall demand respect once again and all shall think twice before discriminating against us.”
Vythe studied Fürin for a few quiet minutes.
“You know you cannot return from this path,” Vythe said quietly.
“I would not want to,” Fürin smiled back. “We leave at first light tomorrow, and soon shall we join the elves, dwarves, Mōrgul, and all other who heeded Baelor’s call. One of my warriors shall guide you to the edges of the forest then, if you so wish. But now I must rest.”
The light had grown dim during their conversation with Fürin and a small fire had again been lit. Fairris returned with the other two to their area, which was slightly away from the Sātor.
“What is Baelor doing?” Fairris wondered aloud as they sat down, “He cannot be working with the High Commission, can he?”
Vythe shook his head, “I would not think so. Baelor’s agenda seems completely honest, he wants the Elder Races to no longer live in the shadows of humans.”
“But why would the elves and dwarves fight for with Baelor?” Fairris shook her head.
“I feel like fighting with Baelor,” Bārdin said honestly, “I have always been sick of humans treating me like scum. Always cheating us on the crafts I make, never paying the proper amount. Most dwarves live poorly cause of it, and the humans are the only ones they can really trade with.”
“Constant derogatory comments, and malicious intentions,” Fairris nodded, understanding where Bārdin’s anger was coming from.
“Not all humans,” Vythe remarked, with a bit of surprise.
“But in general they are all bastards,” Bārdin was quick to reply.
“It still does not make sense why Baelor would do this,” Vythe shook his head.
“If you want a change you have to do something extreme,” replied Bārdin.
“That did not work for Gildon,” Vythe remarked darkly.
Bārdin waved his hand dismissively, “Gildon was cracked, mad, and insane with power. He betrayed the Elder Races and aided human’s racism of us.”
“Vythe is right though,” Fairris added, “Baelor is a Regional Commander, why would he turn against the High Commission?”
“Perhaps he can see a profit in it for himself,” Vythe shrugged, “He seemed the sort when we met him in Elestarl.”
“You think he created this rebellion to further his own ends?” Bārdin asked curiously.
“I have no doubt of it,” Vythe replied simply. “He will lead the army of the Elder Races and destroy the armies of Krnōrel and Sesserrech once they have wounded each other.”
“How do Lieut and Kil’dar fit into all of this?” Fairris asked thoughtfully.
Vythe sighed and shrugged, having no answers.
“And how do we fit into all of this?” Bārdin asked.
Vythe shook his head again and cloud of silence fell over them.
The night slowly crept around them as they each pondered what to do, the shadows grew deeper and the clouds of Fog became brighter. The Sātor Warriors talked amongst themselves in their own language while they ate.
Fairris just so happened to be looking at Vythe when she saw an idea coming to the clever man’s head. Vythe’s dark eyes were distant as he stared into the fire and a thin smile slowly came to his lips, and those eyes began to sparkle.
“My friends,” Vythe smiled brightly, “I do believe I have an idea.”
“Well spit it out,” Bārdin huffed.
Vythe lent forward, drawing her and Bārdin in as well.
“We cannot stop this war, that much is clear,” Vythe stated, “But perhaps there is a way we can all get what we want out of it.”
“I was awoken by the sound of a hurricane. The horses had bolted and the earth trembled beneath my feet. The night sky was alight with a wall of Fog swirling in front of my face. I could have reached out and touched the torrent of Fog, but I was afraid. The earth shook violently and I could hear terrifying screams above the din of the hurricane. For days it lasted, a wall of Fog thousands of feet high constantly swirling in front of my eyes, and how the earth trembled. At last the hurricane ended and I stood at the top of a high cliff overlooking an ocean. All that was left of Gornl was a scar upon the earth. I knew then, that The Five had saved me and had punished the non-believers. I knew then, that The Five were the true Gods.”
-Eye Witness Account by Bryn Tugen, Priest of The Five
Year 3630, the Fifth Age, the tenth day of Autumn
The hour was late and the streets of Pentra were dark as Lieut made his way along the downward sloping main road from the gate at the north end of a deep ravine. There was many lanterns lighting up street corners and reflecting off the white stone of the houses, but most of the city was cloaked in shadow. Even during the day the houses built along the ravine floor were in the shadow of the high cliffs and the massive bridge that arched the chasm.
Lieut looked up at the bridge bathed in pale light and at the large buildings that were built upon the arch. Over one hundred feet wide the Pentrin Arch stood and sitting upon its curve stood many rich houses that provided a paradise for the wealthy, and it was also where the chamber of the High Commission sat. Two towers built into the cliff face at either side of the ravine soured up to the great height of the Pentrin Arch to provide access for the rich to the markets and businesses below. There were a few other tall towers throughout the chasm of Pentra, but none reached the heights of the Pentrin Arch.
The commoners were doomed to live in the shadow of the wealthy and in the sprawling maze of narrow streets that ran through the city. Houses were virtually built on top of each other, forming their own little arches across the streets and climbing the side of the cliff face all the way down to the sea at the mouth of the ravine.
Lieut had made good time riding across the rolling pastures of Aierthian Plains, avoiding the townships and farms along the way. The ride had seemed even quicker with his thoughts constantly upon his decision to leave his friends to be executed. He kept telling himself that there had been little choice in the matter. If he had tried to stop it Kil’dar would have deemed him compromised and ordered to be destroyed and his friends would have died anyway. It had been a test from Kil’dar, to see if he was still fit to complete his mission. Lieut had passed and now, once his mission was completed, he would return home and be cured of this illness that was plaguing his mind. Fairris, Vythe and Bārdin were a necessary sacrifice for his life to return to the way it was meant to be.
Then why could he not stop thinking about them? Why was there a constant tightness within his gut? And why was he still thinking about it?
He should not be feeling regret, he should not be sorry for the decision he made to leave them. These thoughts enforced the fact that he was not well, and that aid from his own people was the best course of action.
“Could I have helped them?” Lieut wondered aloud as he continued the decent into the city proper. “Killed the soldiers along with Kil’dar and Ne’tra?”
Lieut shook his head, “Kil’dar is my commander, and Ne’tra my brother.”
“But they were my friends,” Lieut stopped as he suddenly came to that realisation, “And I deserted them.”
Lieut gritted his teeth and stretched the stiffness out of his neck, “I do not have friends, only assets to be used and then discarded. They are dead now and all I have left is my objective and the cure for this mental ailment.”
Lieut nodded to himself and stalked determinedly down the streets in search of the rendezvous point with another asset.
He passed a few patrolling guards as he turned a corner, but they gave him little regard and continued on their way, no doubt to the nearest tavern. Such had been the way with guards in Pentra, even at the main gates they had seemed lazy. Lieut had arrived after dark at the gates and still they let him pass. There he had sold his tired horse and all the riding gear and all other useless items, but not his shoulder cloak and hood. For some reason he had become accustomed to pulling his hood low and avoiding the overly curious looks from passers-by. It gave him a sense of stealth, of concealment, a chance to relax from being constantly alert to potential enemies, or fools that try and fight anyone who looks different. With the low cowl covering his silver hair and shadowing his golden eyes he no longer had that problem.
The night grew darker as he moved through the twisting streets and the flat ground closer to the sea and docks. The houses in this district were more made of wood than white stone, but no less crowded.
Lieut soon found the area he was looking for and moved down a narrow street with no lights. He silently walked down a few steps and into a very small cul-de-sac where still no lights shone. But it was not like he needed the light to see his way.
As he came to the dead end he paused, feeling a familiar presence. Lieut let out a sigh and shook his head.
“How nice of you to join me brother,” Lieut said quietly to the darkness.
A shadow dropped silently down from the roof tops in front of him and two pale purple dots stared at him in the night.
“Concerned I forgot my destination?” Lieut asked with a snide smile.
Ne’tra narrowed his eyes and shook his head.
“I am merely following the order from Kil’dar,” Ne’tra said simply.
“Of course you are,” Lieut scoffed and shook his head.
Ne’tra cocked his head to the side but did not reply and Lieut pushed past him to a small door at the end of the cul-de-sac. There he banged heavily upon the old wood several times until a light appeared in the window and a man cautiously opened the door.
“The Fog has come,” Lieut said to the man.
“May Cystallis bathe us all in his power,” the middle aged man replied with a smile, “I was not sure when to expect you.”
“I thought it was just one?” the man asked with some concern as he spotted Ne’tra behind Lieut.
Lieut looked over his shoulder at his brother, “Now there are two.”
The man chewed on his bottom lip, “Alright,” he nodded, “My name is Jak, would the two of you wish to come in?”
“We wish to depart,” Lieut was quick to reply
Jak looked surprised, “Can’t do that, not until tomorrow morning.”
Lieut let out a frustrated sigh, “Very well. We shall wait at your ship at the docks. What number is it?”
The man looked nervous and chewed his bottom lip, “Five eighty-one,” Jak said, “My ship is called The Sparrow, it’s the three mast Caravel with lateen sails, can’t miss it. We will sail before dawn, be sure you’re ready I won’t wait long.”
With that Jak closed his door and the light in the window went out.
“You should have forced him to sail now,” Ne’tra remarked simply, his purple eyes staring at Lieut.
Lieut returned the stare, “Why? What would be the point? What difference would a few hours make?”
Ne’tra looked away and did not reply and Lieut stretched the stiffness out of his neck before heading back up the alley and towards the docks. It was only halfway through the night, but considering he had nothing better to do Lieut decided to wait at the ship.
The streets were deathly quiet and a mist had rolled in off the warm waters of the Gornl Sea. He could now see why no one walked the streets during the night for among the mist drifted thick clouds of Fog, and its potential danger was enough for fearful folk to stay indoors.
Although he could not hear his brother, Lieut knew that Ne’tra was following behind him. But why had Kil’dar order that his brother join him? Perhaps Kil’dar still believed that he had been compromised and Ne’tra was here to make sure his mission was completed and try and kill him if necessary.
Lieut glanced over his shoulder at his brother who was silently walking several paces behind, his purple eyes watching his every move.
Lieut shook his head and silently cursed himself, he should have known Kil’dar would never believe him; he could have saved his friends. Lieut sighed heavily and stretched the stiffness out of his neck, there was nothing he could do now, they were dead and that lament would follow him forever.
Lieut found wharf five hundred and eighty-one in short time and the Caravel, The Sparrow, was easily spotted. Along the wharf were a few wooden stalls for selling fish, many wooden benches and street lanterns that cast a yellow glow through the mist. At one of the benches Lieut took a seat and his bother sat at one opposite him.
Once again they locked stares and Lieut continued to wonder about his brother, something clearly played on his brother’s mind creating hatred towards him. What could he have done? Killing Princess Xanthia could not simply be it, there had to be something more. Had Kil’dar said something to build this hatred within Ne’tra, this loathing his brother seemed to have for him?
As he considered Ne’tra he noticed a gash across Ne’tra’s right eyebrow.
“What happened to your face?” Lieut asked curiously.
Ne’tra touched the cut and looked away, “That is no concern of yours.”
“I was just curious,” Lieut sighed.
Lieut looked back curiously, “Curiosity promotes greater knowledge. Have you forgotten our many lectures?”
“Of course not,” Ne’tra snapped back, “But that was in relation to our surroundings to gather intelligence. Not at a personal level.”
A crooked came to Lieut lips, “Why is it not healing?”
Ne’tra appeared taken aback by this question and his brow creased.
“It will.” His brother said firmly.
Lieut pulled back his hood and turn his face to the side so his brother could see the raw scar at the side of his head.
“I thought the same,” Lieut said, “But I received this when I first got here, and that was over one hundred days ago.”
Ne’tra looked away and subconsciously ran a finger over the gash on his eyebrow.
“Why do you wear that hood?” Ne’tra asked him after a few minute of silence.
“Why? Are you curious?” Lieut smirked causing Ne’tra to clench his jaw and look away.
“I wear it because I want to,” Lieut continued with a shrug, “I like it.”
Ne’tra looked at him incredulously, “You ‘like’ it?”
Lieut nodded slowly, “Have you ever simply liked something brother?”
Ne’tra did not reply and silence engulfed them.
“I ain’t sure about this,” Bārdin said softly as the three of them crouched in the undergrowth staring at a grey cliff face.
It had taken them several days to make their way northwards through the Foglornt Forest. The thick growth and varying terrain made their trip quite difficult, especially without any of the Sātor to guide them. Fürin had forbidden any of his warriors to travel with them once he discovered their intended destination. According to the Sātor this mountain region was cursed and any who venture here would become demonic and twisted. But despite the Fürin’s warning they still went.
“We need to do this,” Vythe replied to Bārdin, “Our plan requires it.”
Fairris regarded her dwarven companion closely; she had never seen Bārdin this anxious before. But she guessed that was to be expected seeing they were about to venture into the ancient halls of Grün Narād.
“I am sure it is long been deserted,” Fairris tried to reassure Bārdin, as well as herself.
There was something about this place that made the hair on the back of Fairris’s neck tingle and a shiver to run through her spine. It was a strange sensation to feel for nothing seemed unusual, apart from the lack of wildlife in this region.
“Whatever drove your people out has no doubt long since departed,” Vythe said unconvincingly.
“Or multiplied,” Bārdin grumbled.
“What did drive you and your people out?” Fairris asked curiously as they continued to look upon the flat grey stone of the side of the mountain surrounded by growth.
“I don’t rightly know,” Bārdin admitted, “It was all shadow and darkness.”
Fairris caught a concerned look from Vythe.
“Perhaps we could forego this part of the plan,” Vythe suggested with a nervous laugh.
“No,” Bārdin said firmly and shook his head, “I have put this off for far too long. It is time I claim my birth right as King of Grün Narād. It wouldn’t be right if the dwarves went to war without all the five Kings present.”
“Alright,” Vythe took a deep breath, “Quickly in and quickly out, that’s the plan.”
“You know Vythe,” Bārdin shot a slight smile to his companion. “I am surprised you remembered me shouting that I was the last Lord of Grün Narād back in Elestarl.”
Vythe shrugged and smiled, “I do not quickly forget information that has the potential of becoming profitable. But come now let us do this, and do it quickly. This place sets my nerves on edge.”
The trio moved from the undergrowth and up to the grey stone that was dappled with white specks and veins.
Fairris looked at the stone closely and ran her hand across the smooth surface.
“Are you sure this is the place?” She asked Bārdin doubtfully, “It was a long time ago.”
Bārdin shot her a glare, “Of course I’m sure.”
“It looks like a regular stone to me,” Fairris remarked dully.
“You got to be a dwarf to open dwarf doors,” Bārdin stated proudly, slapping himself in the chest.
Fairris stepped back and motioned for Bārdin to go ahead and open it.
The dwarf shot her another glare before moving close to the stone face, slowly he reached up and pressed his hand to the grey stone.
“So it is open now?” Fairris asked with a smile, drawing a chuckle from Vythe and a grumble from Bārdin.
Bārdin stood back and thought for a moment.
“You are certain this is the right place?” Vythe asked seriously, but Bārdin ignored the question.
Instead of answering Vythe, Bārdin pulled out a small knife and moved the blade across the palm of his hand drawing a bright line of blood. This time when Bārdin slapped his hand upon the grey stone a series of red veins shot across the rock and the white dapples turn blood red. Several Runes appeared upon the stone and the red veins drew the outline of a dwarf sized door. There was a loud crack and a door swung inwards with a scraping sound that echoed in the empty darkness.
“Gotta be a dwarf to open dwarf doors,” Bārdin said again, as they peered into the darkness.
Taking a deep breath Bārdin marched confidently into the tunnel, followed hesitantly by Vythe. Fairris ducked through the small doorway last, having no love for tunnels under the earth, especially when they were filled with death. Thankfully the ceiling of the tunnel was higher than the door allowing her to stand normally with the ceiling barely inches above her head.
Dust particles played in the long absent light that streamed through the secret door, but beyond the rare light it was utter blackness. Bārdin’s boots echoed loudly as he plunged ahead down the tunnel, but Vythe seemed very uncomfortable. Unlike Bārdin or Fairris, Vythe could not see so well in the dark.
Fairris was about to suggested that Vythe cast a spell upon himself when a glow began to appear within the very rock of the walls. Veins of reddish light began to creep across the surface of the walls and ceiling, creating the appearance of vines growing rapidly.
“The halls are welcome back one of its own,” Bārdin remarked as he looked upon the growing vines of light.
The red glow slowly changed colour and paled into a soft white light that illuminated the narrow path that lead further into the dwarven halls.
“Are all your corridors this stuffy?” Fairris asked, her voice echoing loudly down the hallway.
Bārdin shot her a rueful look, “This be an escape passage leading from the King’s chambers. No one wants to be admiring the stone work while they are fleeing for their lives.”
“Speaking of which, look to your feet,” Vythe cut in and drew their attention the several dwarf sized skeletal remains that were propped up against the walls, and strewn across the floor.
“Last Commanders of the Legion,” Bārdin nodded sadly, “They fell when myself, me father and a few others ran from this tunnel those many years ago.”
“Stand and be known intruders.” Came a hollow demand from within the darkness, “You won’t sneak into these great halls while I still draw breath.”
Out of the darkness a ghostly form of a dwarf stood vividly before them, causing Fairris and Vythe to stumble back a few steps in surprise. But Bārdin did not cower from the spectre, and he squared his shoulders to the ghost.
“I am Bārdin, son of Bain,” declared Bārdin proudly, “King of these halls.”
The spectre bowed his head, “Forgive me my Lord, I didn’t recognise you. But your father is still King of Grün Narād.”
“You’re confused ghost,” Bārdin replied, “Don’t you remember our flight from these halls?”
The dwarven ghost looked suddenly disorientated and began to look around vacantly before a look of terror came to its face.
“Me Lord Bārdin you must run,” the spectre yelled suddenly, “I, Legion Commander Thārad, will defend your escape. You must run the shadows are coming, the main hall has fallen. Run. They are coming.”
“That was centuries ago,” Bārdin tried to calm the spirit, but the dwarven spectre would not hear any of it.
“The shadow demons won’t take me alive,” the spectre roared, “I will defend you me liege. Run while you still can.”
The ghost wailed bitterly and raced down the tunnel, leaving the trio to look at each other in unease.
“Let us just be quick about this,” Vythe said seriously with a shadow of fear in his voice, “The chamber is not far I hope?”
Bārdin shook his head, “This tunnel leads through the King’s private chambers and from there it’s a couple of doors to the Vault.”
“I hope it has not been pillaged,” Fairris remarked, “Else this trip would have been a waste.”
“No,” Bārdin shook his head, “None but a dwarf of noble blood can enter the Vault, not even a shadow. Trust me.”
Fairris did trust Bārdin, but the babbling of the dwarven spectre had put her ill at ease, and looking to her companions she could tell that she was not the only one feeling that way.
Bārdin took the lead down the lightly lit tunnel as it ran fairly straight on a slight downward gradient. They came across more skeletal remains of the dwarves, but disturbingly they did not find any remains of what they had been fighting.
Soon they came to the end of the escape passage where another small stone door scraped aside as they drew near. On the other side of the door was the private bedroom of the King.
As they entered the room veins of light streamed across the walls with renewed vigour and pooled into crystals mounted in the stone walls. The crystals glowed brightly casting away the shadows in the large room, and revealing an odd sight. Nothing was damaged. The beautifully crafted stone bed still stood, as proud as ever with a rotting feather mattress neatly covered in tattered satin sheets. Several bookcases lined the walls with old tomes and scrolls, a desk sat in the corner with the object on top undisturbed. Apart from the effects of age nothing was damaged, there was no mess, and apart from the build-up of dust it appeared if someone was still living in these quarters.
“If it were not for the overwhelming sense of impending doom, I would find this quite interesting,” Vythe remarked with a slight laugh as he looked around the room.
Vythe’s levity was shared briefly by Fairris and Bārdin, but it was only very brief, for that sense of death suffocated every crevice of the royal chambers.
The ungodly silence rang in Fairris’s ears and the cold feeling of malice clutched tightly at her very bones. The weight of thousands of tonnes of stone and earth above her pressed heavily on her mind and she could feel it weighing on her chest and stifling her breathe. Every step she made as they left the bedroom increased her anxiety.
Bārdin led them from the bedroom and into what seemed to be a greeting hall with a large stone throne upon a dais at the end of a long hall. Such attention to detail had been made in crafting the throne and the statue of Dhror that stood behind it. Great stone pillars lined the long chamber and between them were more stone statues of great warriors and Kings, each one marvellously carved and undamaged.
Nervously Bārdin led the way across the crystal lit hall and to another corridor that lead to a lone door at its end and a stair spiralling up to the right. A few more statues lined the right wall, while the left side sat many arched stone windows that looked out across a great cavern.
Fairris looked out across the cavern as many veins of light began to stream across the surface of the stone. The dwarven city was filled with dozens of giant stalagmites and stalactites joining together to create massive columns that were carved with hundreds of windows and many winding stairs. Thousands of tall buildings had been carved into the stone around the bases of the columns with many wide streets and archways moving throughout them.
As the lights within the cavern grew brighter Fairris could see quite a few large tunnels leading out of the cavern to who knew where. Though she was never one for enjoying being underground, she had to admit that the city of Grün Narād was a spectacular sight, and she realised that she must be the first elf to look upon a dwarven city in many a millennia. But overriding that sense of awe was the realisation that the entirety of the city was dead, and all that was left was a deserted, undamaged shell.
“What happened?” Fairris wondered aloud as the three of them looked out across the empty city.
Bārdin sighed heavily, “I remember like it was yesterday,” Bārdin began as he started down the corridor. “Miners had crashed through a wall in the eastern tunnels into an empty void. Reports said there was just nothing, an empty pit with no ceiling or floor. They also said there was a strange magnetic energy creating lightning in the darkness. Me father sent scholars to see what they might learn, but we never learnt anything.
“First I heard were the cries from the lower halls. The shadow demons swept through in matter of minutes. Me father sent the Legion as quickly as we heard, but by then the shadow had reached the city. I saw them coming, the lights in the city started going out, and screams echoed up to the castle. Commander Thārad and a few others of the Legion came and got me and me father and most of the nobles. We raced to the escape tunnel. But then, the lights went out.
“Such fear I felt. Such cold dread. I just put me head down and ran. Not caring for the other nobles, and hardly caring for me own father. Screams chased after me as I ran through the darkness. I felt cold, right to the very marrow of me bones and smelt death with every breath. Next thing I remember I was lying on me back in the middle of the forest gasping for air and shivering in fear.
“Not me proudest moment,” Bārdin sniffed, “But one I can never forget.”
They stopped in front of the large stone doors at the end of the corridor. Heavy handles at the centre of the ornate doors and a myriad of Runes ran over its surface and around the arch. Bārdin confidently grab hold of the handles, and the sound of heavy bolts shifting was heard within the stone. With a mighty shove the doors swung inwards revealing a huge chamber glowing in golden light. Strewn across the floor and piled high in the far corners were millions of gold coins and glistening gem stones. Ornate gold and silver mugs, plates, swords, rings, armour and many other trinkets filled the large space causing all three to gasp audibly.
“Well,” Vythe said quietly as he looked around the chamber, “I do not think it has been plundered.”
“And it ain’t about to be,” Bārdin said firmly as he gathered his composure. “Take a single coin Vythe and the guardians will smite you where you stand.”
Bārdin pointed to the many stern faced carvings upon the walls with glowing eyes. Eyes that seemed to be watching them.
“Surely they won’t miss one single coin?” Vythe smiled disarmingly.
“Perhaps you should test that theory,” Fairris smirked.
“Only if I am not the test subject,” Vythe conceded with smile.
“The good stuff is this way anyway,” Bārdin said as he led the way to the right and to the foot of a large statue of Dhror.
“Get behind me,” Bārdin said as he stood in front of the statue, “And drop down to my level.”
Fairris swapped a shrug with Vythe but they did as Bārdin asked and knelt down close behind the dwarf.
Fairris watched and listened curiously as Bārdin said several words in the thick dwarven language. The stone eyes of Dhror flashed brightly and a large passage opened up at the base.
Suddenly the stone on which she knelt raced forwards and into the dark mouth of the small hole. Fairris heard the sound of scraping metal just above her head and the swish of air as sharp blades moved around her. The trip came to a quick end as it brought them into a much smaller chamber with a few tables. But from a single glance Fairris could see that the items in here were of much greater value than all of the gold in the previous chamber. Incredibly crafted items including weapons sat on the few stone tables, shining in the dim light, and emitting the undeniable tingle of magickal properties.
“As King of these halls I allow both of you to have one thing,” Bārdin said loudly as he began to look for something particular.
Fairris shot Vythe a disbelieving look before they both gleefully moved to look closer at the amazing crafts. There were many axes, swords, shields, and helms as well as pieces of armour, enchanted rings and belts, each one imbued with a particular magickal enhancement through the carving of dwarven Runes upon the surfaces of the items. Although Fairris could not read dwarven Runes she could feel the strong tingle of magicks coming from every item.
Fairris’s eyes immediately rested upon two swords with curved mahogany handles and small round trigger guards lying atop black leather sheaths.
“Gunblades,” Fairris exclaimed as she looked closer at weapons.
“Aye,” Bārdin nodded, moving next to her, “Dwarves invented gunblades, you know.”
Fairris nodded slightly, completely in wonder as she lifted one of the blades up before her eyes. Bright Runes appeared across the surface as soon as her fingers wrapped around the beautiful wood of the handle. Still in a world of awe she fastened the belt and sheaths around her hips which fitted perfectly. The twin sheaths fell comfortably at the back of her hips and hung on a slight angle so not to become tangled in her legs. Picking up the blade she admired every inch of them before hesitantly placing them in the sheaths.
“I expected more dwarven sized weapons,” Vythe remarked as he looked at a seven foot glaive.
“When the Fever comes upon you, you just craft,” Bārdin replied, “Without thought of who you are making it for.”
“Have you ever had this ‘fever’?” asked Vythe, placing the spear back in the rack.
Bārdin shook his head and walked over to another table, anxiously looking for something.
Fairris turned her attention to Vythe who had moved away from the spear and to a table holding armour pieces.
“Not taking one of the spears?” she asked Vythe as she walked over to where he was.
Vythe shook his head, “Too cumbersome.”
“Found you,” Bārdin declared loudly grabbing Fairris attention.
The dwarf pressed his hand against a carving on the wall causing a hidden cupboard to open and reveal a grand helm with an open face and square crown. Bārdin pulled of his own helm and dropped it to the floor before slowly taking the amazingly crafted helmet from within the cupboard and gently placing it on his head.
In Fairris’s eyes the dark iron helm with golden Runes and designs in the likeness of bare tree branches transformed the scruffy looking dwarf into a noble King. Bārdin straightened his back and squared his shoulders, his jaw firm and his eyes bright. No more was Bārdin the drunken blacksmith she had met in Midway and now he looked as King from ancient tales.
“Time to go,” Bārdin announced, “Hurry up and pick something Vythe.”
“I think I just have,” Vythe replied as he pulled on a pair of metal gauntlets that left his fingers and thumb bare and protected his wrists and forearms.
Across the surface of the beautifully designed guards ran dozens of small Runes and brought a wide smile came to Vythe’s face as he moved his wrists around without hindrance.
“Trust you to pick the most heavily Runed item in here,” Bārdin scoffed as he headed for the exit.
“What do the gauntlets do?” Fairris asked as she and Vythe followed the dwarf.
Vythe let out a small laugh, “So very much, if I am reading these Runes correctly. Mind you, my understanding of Dwarven Runes is limited.”
“Can they do anything more specific then ‘so very much’?” Fairris asked dryly.
“Well, I suppose the most simple thing I think they can do, is prevent my sustained magicks from exhausting me,” Vythe smiled.
Fairris cocked an eyebrow at this, “So, you could sustain your twin spear, or magickal buffs, forever?”
“Perhaps so,” Vythe shrugged and his eyes sparkled.
Fairris shook her head in disbelief at the unrivalled skill of the dwarves when it came to crafting magickal items.
“Just think,” Vythe remarked with a laugh as they left the treasure chamber, “I will be known as ‘The Invincible Vythe’, the greatest Magi and Warlock of all time.”
Fairris and Bārdin shook their heads and laughed as they began along the corridor to the throne room and the vaults door closed quietly behind them. But Fairris’s mirth was cut short and she gasped as she looked out across the city of Grün Narād just in time to see the lights begin to go out.
“Alarm. Sound the alarm. We are under attack,” the ghost of Thāran, the Commander of the Legion, screamed as he appeared before them. “They came from the darkness, they’re demons of shadow. The lower halls are lost me King, our weapons do nothing we must flee. To the escape tunnel, with me.”
Just then the throne room went dark and the air seemed to freeze around them.
“No,” the spectre gasped, “Quickly, up the stairs to Scrān Frün. I shall hold them. Run.”
“Die with honour me brother,” Bārdin nodded to the spectre before moving to flee.
Somehow Fairris forced herself to turn away from the coming blackness and raced after Bārdin and Vythe. Reaching the stairs she glanced over her shoulder to see the ghost of the Legion Commander be enveloped by the impenetrable darkness. Fear gripped at her heart as she sprinted up the stairs behind Vythe and Bārdin. The steps must have been magickal imbued for they began to ascend even as she began to climb. Upwards she sprinted on the spiralling staircase, her lunges ached and her legs burned but she forced herself to continue.
The lights along the staircase began to fade and she could feel the cold fingers of the darkness seep into her skin and clutch at her heart. Despair fell over her and she began to slow down. There was no escape. It would be so easy just to stop and let death take her. Take her like it had so many of her friends. What right did she have to continue living when so many had died because of her? What did she have to live for?
Fairris could feel her muscles becoming numb and her joints stiffening, she could just stop running now and let it all end.
There was a flash of light ahead of her and an image of Vythe and Bārdin sprinting up the stairs appeared in her mind. Suddenly her legs did not feel so tired and her lunges not so sore. But the cold despair remained, grabbing at her chest. This time though she knew that she had to keep running, she would not let herself be killed like this. Step by step she forced herself to run. Somehow she did not tire as it seemed that she had been climbing for hours. It was as if an unseen hand was pulling her along and away from the chasing shadow. Her lunges and muscles were numb but still she continued to be pulled along by an unseen force as it forced her feet to move.
Suddenly the darkness parted and she was out under the blue skies on top of a wide plateau with snow on its shoulders and around her feet. Vythe and Bārdin had collapsed in the soft snow drift breathing heavily. The shadow that had been hunting them had stopped its pursuit and the chill of the darkness was replaced by the chill of the high mountain cliffs.
Fairris stumbled through the snow to the other end of the narrow plateau and as far away from the dark tunnel as possible. Breathing heavily she leaned against the edge of a coal pit carved into the side of the mountain. Beside it was a large manual blower and anvil and caved into stone above was a great tree of iron.
As Fairris steadied her breathing she realised that she was crying and the cold she felt was not just from the snow and high altitude. Her heart ached and her very bones were sore, she grabbed at the knot in the pit of her stomach and collapsed next to the forge.
With shaking hands she reached into the extra-dimensional pouch Vythe had given her and pulled out a thick fur cloak. Wrapping it around her shoulders Fairris’s eyes became heavy and her consciousness left her.
Kil’dar picked some dirt out of the corner of his eye and flicked it away as he entered the dimly lit chamber. All of the Regional Commanders were present as he entered and each gave him a reproachful look. All except the young Regional Commander from Gaianaus who had only been recently appointed.
With a slight smile Kil’dar sat down in the empty chair that had been provided.
“May we begin now?” Lady Ka’rer Tallen of I’ender asked, giving Chairman Starak an agitated look. “Or are there more guests you have invited?”
The Chairman sighed, “We shall begin, and I shall first like to congratulate young Liuden De’Vaan on his new position as Regional Commander, and I am sure I speak for all of us here when I say: welcome to the High Commission. May you frequent this chamber for many years to come.”
Liuden nodded uncomfortably to the rest at the table, who all ignored him.
“I suggest we get to the important matters at hand Chairman,” Delfin Redaux remarked irritably, “For instance the war and who is to win.”
“Indeed,” Rook agreed, “I think King Lienthor would be an adequate ruler. He is stern, fair, and very honourable, a perfect King to rule Essinendeür.”
“Not to mention he is from Krnōrel?” Ka’rer sneered suspiciously, “You are his closest advisor and he would listen to you above the rest of us.”
“Lord Cardonian is clearly a better candidate,” Delfin jumped in, “He is power hungry and easy to be manipulated.”
“By you,” Winton De’lanner added softly.
“Is there any better candidates?” Delfin glared at Winton.
“Perhaps King Mar’ques of Sparren?” Winton offered, “He is equally ambitious and controllable.”
“As is King Arendt of Alabast,” Ka’rer added, “Plus he is a direct decedent of King Argron, who slew Gildon. Such lineage will bring him much support from the common folk.”
“Is it just a coincidence that you are his closest advisor?” Rook remarked angrily, “And more, if the rumours are true.”
“How dare you,” Ka’rer flared angrily.
Kil’dar sat back and smiled as the argument escalated around the table. The half elf Rook looked twice as beautiful when she was angry he mused. Ka’rer’s face kept turning red with every subtle insult the younger and more attractive Rook sent her way. While Delfin tried to overpower the argument with angry posturing and slamming his fist upon the solid marble table, causing the floating mountains of Thienlin to wobble.
Chairman Starak looked tired as he listened to the circular argument, and Baelor appeared very bored. Winton kept adding remarks to fuel the animated debate while young Liuden looked on with surprise and confusion.
Kil’dar smiled to himself for it was quiet the show, and very entertaining. If only he had brought something to eat it would have been perfect.
“Enough.” Chairman Starak yelled above the clamour and banged a small gavel upon the table. The man’s shouts ended with a coughing fit but eventually the debate stopped.
“Commander Baelor and Liuden,” Starak said between dry coughs, “Have neither of you anything to add?”
Liuden looked surprised and shook his head.
“It is my opinion,” Baelor began commandingly, “That the only candidates we should consider should be the leaders of the two armies, if anyone else should rule besides the victor it would seem suspicious. Thus it should be a choice between Lord Cardonian and King Lienthor.”
Baelor paused and the other Regional Commanders nodded their heads in agreement.
“As for which one?” The Blood Elf continued, “If we are to make the victor the ruler of all Essinendeür then we need someone who will do as we say. Lord Cardonian would be the easiest to control.”
“Like I said,” Delfin agreed wholeheartedly.
Rook sighed and shook her head, “Cardonian is a known racist against the Elder Race. If he comes to power it will be a step backwards.”
“His policies can be changed,” Chairman Starak said sternly.
“Forgive me if I am mistaken Commanders,” Kil’dar decided to speak up, drawing scowls from most of in the room. “But how are you to make sure Lord Cardonian wins this war? Perhaps I am not as clever as all of you, but how can you make decisions on an outcome that is out of your hands?”
Ka’rer snorted loudly in bemusement.
“Very lady like Ka’rer,” Rook baited with a cruel smile.
“It is quite simple, Kil’dar,” Starak said before Ka’rer could snap back at Rook. “There are two armies on each side, if one side were to become three armies they will likely win.”
“Where is this third army for Sesserrech coming from?” Kil’dar asked innocently, “Cientrasis and Gaianaus are under the Treaty of Neutrality.”
“Then they will become un-neutral,” Delfin stated as if it were obvious.
“Perhaps if the Zirarien were to march with Lord Cardonian it would aid the views of the Elder Races?” Rook added honestly.
“No,” Baelor replied firmly, “My people will not aid the humans with their squabble. The army will come from Gaianaus. Are you up for it Liuden?”
The Regional Commander from Gaianaus looked surprised and stumbled over a few words before clearing his throat.
“I will persuade Baron Ellengar to break the Treaty of Neutrality,” Liuden nodded, “But he must a have a reason to do so.”
“Tell him that Lord Cardonian offers him anything he wants,” Delfin replied with a wryly smile.
“Does he?” Liuden looked confused.
“Of course not,” Delfin laughed, “But Baron Ellengar does not know that.”
“I am to lie?” Liuden asked slowly.
Delfin looked shocked, “We never lie, good Commander.”
Liuden seemed to suddenly understand, “I see,” he nodded.
Delfin gave Liuden a sly wink, “I will deal with Lord Cardonian, and you just get the Baron of Issia to break that treaty.”
Liuden took a deep breath and nodded.
“Very good,” Starak said, “The involvement of Gaianaus is a necessity and I am sure you will do well Liuden. Well, if we are all at an agreement and there is nothing else anyone wishes to bring . . .”
“Indeed I have a query I wish to bring,” Winton interrupted gently, raising his hand.
“Of course, Commander Winton,” the Chairman nodded to the Regional Commander of Norrendōrel.
“Firstly I would like to congratulate our Commander Baelor,” Winton smiled, “Not only is he the Regional Commander of Cientrasis, but soon to be effective ruler. When is the wedding to the Queen Regent of Elestarl?”
“The Hamyeth you mean,” Baelor corrected Winton casually. “Not until Spring.”
“Yes, of course,” Winton nodded back, “Elven superstitions.”
“You mean traditions,” Rook was quick to add.
Winton smiled, “My mistake.”
“I fail to see the query you are raising,” Delfin cut in irritably, “We all know of Baelor’s bride to be.”
Kil’dar noticed that the other Commanders around the room shared Delfin’s confusion. But he noticed that Baelor could see exactly where Winton was heading, there was a slight amusement in the corners of Baelor’s green eyes.
“It was merely a congratulations my associate,” Winton replied softly, “The query I am raising is directed towards the army Baelor has gathered.”
Surprise filled the room and the Commanders looked around in anger.
“What army?” Ka’rer demanded, “For what purpose?”
“Baelor?” Starak asked as he raised an eyebrow.
Baelor smiled dismissively, “I was about to bring this up myself, but Commander Winton spoke up before I could. The army is an insurance policy.”
“Who’s insurance?” Winton was quick to ask.
“This Commission’s insurance, naturally,” Baelor smiled back, “It is there to make sure that the outcome of this war is the one we want.”
“I thought you said that the Elder Races would not fight for humans?” Delfin asked suspiciously.
“And they will not,” confirmed Baelor, “But there a difference between fighting for humans and aiding the winning side at the right moment.”
Kil’dar smiled, silently congratulating the Blood Elf on a convincing explanation.
“That was prudent of you Baelor,” Starak congratulated.
“Indeed it was,” Winton added suspiciously.
“My dear Winton,” Baelor smiled, “Your fears are unfounded, only ever had I the wellbeing of this Commission and that of Essinendeür in mind.”
“We have no doubt of that,” Chairman Starak said with a smile.
“How did you come by this information, Winton?” Ka’rer asked suspiciously causing Winton to laugh softly.
“I am sure I am not the only one who has contacts within each region,” Winton smiled back, causing a few of the Commanders to shift uncomfortably.
“Indeed,” Starak remarked with a stern gaze, “Well, if there is nothing else, I shall conclude this meeting. We will not meet again until the war is over. So may The Five be with each of you.”
The Regional Commanders nodded and quickly departed leaving Kil’dar to slowly rise from his seat and stretch his back. Yawning and wiping some more sleep from the corner his eye he departed the chamber wondering why he even bothered coming to these meetings. None of them had any clue as that what was really happening.
It was dark, there was nothing around her but empty air filled with shadow. She was alone, and so very cold. Fairris hugged her arms close to her chest but that granted no warmth, for this cold was inside her, strangling her very soul. With every shallow breathe black steam drifted from her blue lips. A tear ran from her eye and froze on her cheek.
Fairris stumbled through the darkness in despair, searching for something but she did not know what. Images drifted through the darkness, memories of her mother and father being viciously killed. Her friend Sylar screamed her name as he fell dead in front of her. She watched helplessly as her comrades from the Gaia Mountains Penitentiary were mercilessly bashed and killed by the inmates of the prison.
More tears froze on her cheek and she continued to stumble through the darkness.
An image of Lieut appeared before her, his golden eyes looking right through her. A smile came to her blue lips and a glimmer of hope filled her heart, but it was quickly snuffed out as a sword exploded through Lieut’s chest and he died coughing up blood. Then there was Vythe and Bārdin smiling at her extending their hands to help her. But they both fell dead just as she reached them.
“Enough,” Fairris cried to the darkness, “Just let me die.”
Fairris collapsed to the ground, her body racked with sobs. She could not take any more of this despair. The unbearable cold took a hold of her, and her breaths came in shallow gasps as she began to shiver uncontrollably. She curled up on the ground and let her eyes close.
“I cannot let you die just yet,” a warm voice broke through the darkness.
A light began to appear in front of her waking eyes and warmth filled her body. A small fire crackled before her in shallow stone bed, wisps of Fog dancing among the flames. Around her shoulders was wrapped a thick fur cloak, but she could still feel a chill within her bones.
“Where am I?” Fairris ask groggily as she sat up, “What happened?”
“We are still in the southern ranges of the Iron Mountains,” Vythe said with a smile as he sat down next to her, similarly wearing a fur cloak. “As for your second question, I do not rightly know. But you have been in a strange slumber for the past day.”
“It’s because of the shadow that engulfed us,” Bārdin said as he skinned some small animal. “It fills you with utter despair. I remember it keenly when I first escaped Grün Narād. Me father and many of the others died cause of it, like they just gave up on life.”
“Did you not feel it as much this time?” Fairris asked sleepily.
Bārdin shook his head, “I felt it alright, but this time I was ready for it.”
“A shadow that creates despair,” Fairris looked into the fire and shivered, “No wonder I was so adversely affected.”
“You are alright now,” Vythe remarked with a smile.
Fairris strained a smile, but she was not so sure, still she felt so very cold.
“I cannot tell you how glad I am to have picked up these gauntlets though,” Vythe said with a laugh, “We would had collapsed with exhaustion halfway up those stairs if I had not been replenishing our energies.”
“So you were right about them?” Fairris asked, “They allow you to continually cast without tiring?”
“Not completely,” Vythe replied, “But they extend my stamina by an amazing amount and strengthen my connection to the Fog’s power.”
“Well wasn’t it fortunate that good old Bārdin let you have them,” laughed the dwarf who had finished preparing the meal and tossed it onto a spit over the fire.
Vythe smirked and turned towards Fairris, “He has not stopped remarking at how generous he has been.”
Fairris genuinely smiled.
“I am still not sure I understand how we are alive,” Fairris remarked as they watched their meal slowly cook. “The shadow caught up to us, shouldn’t we be dead?”
“I think the shadow was just some form of spell,” Vythe replied thoughtfully, “The real threat was what was in the shadows. I remember hearing the sound of many feet chasing us.”
“As do I,” Bārdin nodded and shivered.
All Fairris remembered from their flight was the cold fingers of despair grabbing hold of her. She shook the thoughts from that harrowing experience to the meat that was beginning to smell very appetising.
They ate well that night and slept intermittently among the high rocks of the mountains.
The next day they rose early, had a few bites to eat and set off through the rocky mountains. With Vythe’s extra-dimensional pouches carrying food stuffs along with many other things it would be a long time until they would want for food. Their going was painfully slow even with Bārdin leading them along ancient dwarven paths that were used to maintain the air chutes and smoke chimneys to Grün Narād below. But those paths soon vanished and they were left to navigate the barren and rocky terrain of the mountains. They decided to head directly west as much as they could and try and find their way to the southern reaches of the Crimson Wastelands.
Fairris took the lead once Bārdin could not find any more dwarven paths and led the way along narrow tracks made by mountain goats and other animals. Luck was with them and it snowed very little and by the fourth day the temperature had increased and a heat haze coming off the burning sands of Anastarā could be seen below them on the horizon.
By the end of the next day they had made it out of the Iron Mountains and had come to the foothills that looked out across hot deserts and the immense cacti forest.
“That must be the Southern Growth,” Fairris remarked as she stopped on an outcropping. “We should follow the foothills to the south.”
“We could head for the road that leads south from Elestarl,” Vythe suggested.
But Fairris shook her head, “Darians plague that road.”
Vythe wiped his brow and nodded, “Fürin said that he was to gather at the southern spur of the Iron Mountains. How far is that?”
“Another couple of days,” Fairris shrugged, and Bārdin grumbled to himself.
“Sometimes I hate myself for betraying that demon and not being able to teleport,” Vythe sighed.
“You’re not the only one,” Bārdin remarked despondently.
Fairris smiled to herself and took the lead. The last days had done much to replenish her spirits and the despair she had felt on their escape from Ironwood had long passed. As she jogged along she looked towards the desert and to the road on the horizon. That road would be quicker and it would offer the chance to kill Darians with her newly acquired weapon, which she had been eager to use ever since they had set out, but it would also create unnecessary delays. For all they knew the fighting between Krnōrel and Sesserrech had already started, if their plans were to work they needed haste.
They made good time jogging along the rocky paths of the foothills, and more importantly they came across little trouble. By the third day the Southern Growth of Cacti lessoned and disappeared to the north revealing the main road south from Elestarl in the distance.
With the Cacti forest behind them she decided that it would be safe to head for the road as Darians usually struck at merchants from the cover of the cacti forest. Vythe and Bārdin did not dispute her decision and by the next morning they were easily trotting along the flat and dusty road.
The temperature soon dropped and tufts green grass and woody trees littered the landscape, it seemed that they would leave the sand of Anastarā behind with no incidents. But the harsh desert had other plans.
They had just slowed down for a rest and recuperation from their jogging when a marauding band of Darians jumped out from hiding behind the large rocks that sat by the road.
The Darians came at them quickly, their clothes of Slyzard skin and Dune Cat fur camouflaging them well in the desert. In their hands they were wielding mostly crafted or plundered weapons with only a few holding arms of Fog.
Fairris was quick to react and eagerly drew forth her dwarven made gunblades and charged head long towards the nomads that numbered over a dozen.
She heard Bārdin roar loudly as she headed for a Darian holding a Fog sword. Dirt showered down upon her as Vythe sent a magickal explosion into a group of three.
Fairris spun under the Darian’s sword, slicing the back of his knee in the process and sending a magickal blast from her gunblade through his back. She turned from her kill and jumped upon the next Darian, a female, with a flurry of slices sending her backwards. Fairris spun low and kicked out her victims knees and sliced across the Dairans throat as she darted for the next in line.
Dirt and debris exploded into the air again as Vythe sent off another elemental spell and the dwarven battle cries from Bārdin put a smile on her lips as she furiously sliced her way past yet another Darian.
The next nomad wore a headdress of Sand Wyvarn horns sticking out of a Dune Cat’s head. Like all Darians he had dozens of self-inflicted scars across his chest and arms and wore the skin of the Slyzards, the horse sized reptiles that lived in the desert, as clothes. In is his big hands the Darian easily swung a large club made from a Wyvarn skull, but Fairris was in no way intimidated and she gleefully raced in for the kill.
The Darian yelled at her in his own tongue and swung his club viciously. Fairris ducked and weaved in and under the swings, deflecting the ugly club head away from her body.
As Fairris jumped back another Darian charged at her from the side. Instinctively she deflected the new Darians attack and twisted around to the marauders back creating a line of blood across the black skin of his shoulders. She had no chance to continue the attack for the club wielding Darian chieftain sent a mighty swing her way. Somehow she managed to manoeuvre out of the way and backflip further away from the Darians.
As Fairris landed a flash of light shot across her eyes and a Fog arrow cracked into the stone beside her. In surprise Fairris twisted away and levelled her gunblades in the direction of the archer, but the Darian had already darted behind a rock. Before Fairris looked back to the chieftain and his companion the archer was lurched up into the air and impaled upon spikes of rock.
Silently she thanked Vythe for his timely spell turned her full attention to the two Darians before her.
The Chieftain barked an order at the other Darian and the sword wielder charged at her. The Darian took two steps toward her before she sent him flying backwards with the back of his head blown open by a blast from her gunblades. She smiled to herself when she saw the fear come to the Darian chieftain’s face and he staggered back a few steps.
Fairris could have blown apart the chieftain with a stream of magickal blasts then, but she wanted the satisfaction of feeling her gunblades bite into his flesh.
Clenching her jaw and focusing all her hatred for the Darians at this one chieftain she sprinted ahead. The Darian swung powerfully with his skull club but she slid under the sweep and jumped up with a series of slices cutting at the chieftain. She landed several cuts on the Darians arm and chest but he did not seem to notice and launched a strong backhand swing.
Fairris quickly darted inside the swing again and severed the chieftain’s hand causing him to loose grip of his club and it fell to the ground. Fairris continued her momentum and twisted low and then high, taking the Darian’s leg off at the knee. Her masterfully crafted dwarven blade seared easily through ligament and bone and dropped the Darian to his back screaming in pain. She ended the screams with a squeeze of one of her gunblade’s triggers, turning the chieftain’s head to a bloody mess.
Fairris turned from the grizzly scene with a satisfied feeling and looked to kill some more Darians, but fight was over. She and her companions had turned the surprise attack back upon the Darians and slaughtered every one of the marauders. As Fairris walked back through her trail of carnage, absently blasting one dying Darian as she past, she saw Bārdin grinning triumphantly in the centre of half a dozen dead bodies.
Vythe’s Fog spear disappeared from his hands as she and Bārdin moved to join him back at the road.
“Eight for me,” Bārdin laughed happily.
“I killed seven,” Vythe remarked.
Fairris sighed unhappily, “I only got five,” she said drawing a laugh from Bārdin.
“One of them being the chieftain though,” Vythe added with a smile.
Fairris shrugged in reply, “Let’s go.”
“Look,” Bārdin exclaimed, grabbing her attention, “Wagon’s coming down the road. And I thought this day couldn’t get any better. Must have been what the Dariens were waiting for.”
Fairris and Vythe looked to the north to see a small wagon being pulled along by a single pony. The sound of small bells tinkled in the air as the horse trotted along the dusty road.
“I don’t believe it,” Fairris laughed softly, “Either of you recognise that horse?”
Vythe smiled wide as the wagon pulled up beside them, “Tornie Frogman Henry. It has been too long my friend. Never would I have thought I would be so glad to see a Peddler.”
“Nor I so glad to be so warmly greeted,” the elderly driver laughed back, “How are you all on this fine day?”
The smell of salt and wet wood filled the air as the tree mast Caravel The Sparrow carved a path through the still waters of the Gornl Sea. Lieut watched passively as a large heavily armed and armoured merchant ship sailed past being escorted by a Brig warship. This had been about the third merchant ship that had past them on this day alone, but the only one with an armed escort. With pirates plaguing the trade route between Pentra and Scaroul a merchant was forever risking his fortune. This was because Scaroul was a very prolific pearl farming and diamond mining region and the ships were the quickest and cheapest way of transporting the cargo. The land route was longer and required more carriages and was just as infested by bandits. Of course a merchant could pay a Magi to sustain a teleportation gate, but that would be more expensive and would take a long time to prepare, not to mention just as potentially dangerous. Shipping was the fastest and most economical way to transport the goods, and the pirates were just a risk the merchants had to take.
Lieut sighed as yet another merchant ship overtook them, this trip was taking longer than he had hoped.
It had been over seven hot days since they left Pentra, following the rugged shoreline to the east and only now had they begun to head south. The going had been slow because not only was there little wind but the whole of the Gornl Sea was filled with broken high cliff islands, or rocky reefs just below the surface. Some of these islands were barely wider than a house shooting like a spear into the air, while others were a line of thin rock formations with jagged plateaus. High on the flat of the islands he could see palm trees standing tall and vines hanging over the edges of the cliffs, around the base of most islands the waters were much lighter, almost a beautiful turquoise.
Lieut took a long drink of water from his flask and wiped a slight bit of perspiration from his brow. Inüer was hot in this region during the days and during the month of Summer fierce tropical storms were said to form. All throughout this maze of cliffs the land looked as if it had been ripped apart by swirling winds that had torn apart the rock and thrown the debris far and wide. Thus was the tale that was told of the decimation of Gornl, and one Lieut had read in the reports.
Many years ago, before the Gornl was destroyed, it was a tropical region known for its dense jungles and volcanos, where Summer was hot and humid, and Winter only mildly less so. As a result of the documented whirlwind of Fog the land had been ripped apart and the southern stretches of Essinendeür had been severed from the north. Since Gornl’s destruction, trade and communication had stopped with the Southern Kingdoms and many now did not even care that there were lands south of Gornl. Now, only adventurers, pirates, and brave merchants travelled south of Gornl to see what had become of the Southern Kingdoms.
But Lieut did not really care about the continent to the south, his mission had not included knowledge of it, so he gave it only little thought and continued to feel agitated about the lengthy journey.
The voyage had also been slow because of other things, Captain Jak was also a merchant and they had made two stops at trading ports along the high cliffs of the coast. The slow trip irritated Lieut quite a bit, but they was nothing he could do, Jak was one of the few Captains that were willing to sail into the maze of sharp rocks to bring pilgrims to the Crystallis Isle. The pilgrimage was made by believers of the Crythnin faith as well as others willing to risk their lives to see the spectacle known as the ‘Birth of the Fog.’
When they left Pentra he and Ne’tra had not been the only travellers, a group of Crythnin believers had joined them as well, along with a Magi and his assistant and two adventurers who appeared as brothers. Thanks to the combination of manual work by the sailors of the ship and Fog magicks there was very little to do, and in his boredom Lieut had had much time to observe these travellers, whether he wanted to or not.
The Crythnins were the typical bunch of pilgrims; poor, dirty and hard done by, which was mostly thanks to their choice of faith. The Crythnin belief was still widely unpopular in most of Essinendeür and anyone who openly practiced or preached it were segregated from the majority and discriminated against. Although one of the pilgrims seemed different to the others, less devout than his companions and very stand offish to the rest of his group. Lieut reasoned that the hard eyed man was likely a criminal running from the law, and what better way to disappear then to pretend to join the Crythnin belief and head on a pilgrimage to the ‘Birth of the Fog.’
Lieut studied the hard eyed pilgrim closely from under his hood as he leaned against the rail on the deck of the ship, wondering what crime the man had committed to force him to run to the far ends of the world. The Magi walked across his line of sight with his female assistant trailing behind.
Lieut had caught the Magi’s name being called once, and had taken note of it. Magi Cahln was on a research venture to study the Fog in its purest form. At least that was what Cahln said openly and often, and to all who could hear him, as if it were some grand feet. The Magi was fairly old, Lieut guessed the man to be into his late seventies by human years. The man’s hair was grey and thinning on top, his nose long and hooked and his fingers bony. His back was bent under satin robes and he constantly shuffled around the ship studying the scenery and writing notes on parchment, all the while ordering his assistant around like she was a servant.
His assistant was an apprentice from the Magi Guild, which was clear from the robes she wore and the way she practised magicks whenever Magi Cahln was not ordering her about. She looked quite young, not much past twenty, likely she had been a daughter of a rich lord from Port Na’brath or elsewhere similar. The young apprentice, whose name was Philla, was quite attractive with thick brown hair and large eyes, but Lieut could not believe how submissive the girl was. Everything Magi Cahln demanded she did, from fetching more parchment to massaging his feet, things so very pathetic in Lieut’s eyes.
Lieut shook his head and looked away from the Magi and his assistant, who were now sitting at the prow, and to the two adventuring brothers who had just awoken and were stretching as they walked across the deck.
They must have been brothers for they joked and baited each other, not to mention they also looked quite similar. They both had thick black hair and bright blue eyes, with strong arms and wide shoulders, all traits of natives from Gaianaus. The one called Braygah was taller and likely older than his brother Helfgah, and always seemed to take the lead in situations, as an older brother would do.
Lieut found himself feeling angry when he looked upon the two brothers as they joined Captain Jak at the helm. They were smiling and joking between themselves as they enjoyed another clear day on the seas. Lieut clenched his jaw as he watched Helfgah say something which caused his older brother to grab him in a headlock and whack the top of his skull.
Lieut looked away from the scene and across the deck where his locked eyes with the pale purple gaze of his brother. This also was making him angry. Ever since they joined company Ne’tra had been watching him, almost constantly. What was he looking for? Why could their relationship not be like the brothers from Gaianaus?
Perhaps that was why he was feeling so angry? Lieut could see the brotherhood between Helfgah and Braygah and longed for that with his own brother. Lieut shook his head and his eyes drifted to the wooden planks, he knew that he and his brother would never act like that. But once their bond hand been closer than it was now, why had it suddenly changed?
He looked back up to Ne’tra who was still watching him, with a sigh Lieut stood up and walked across to his brother. Ne’tra seemed surprised by this action but did not move away and shifted uncomfortably as Lieut leaned on the rail next to him.
Many minutes slipped by and his brother seemed to become more uncomfortable, Lieut hid is smile well.
“What do you think?” Lieut finally asked Ne’tra.
His brother gave him a confused look, “About what?”
Lieut shrugged, “This ship The Sparrow, its Captain Jak, the crew, the other travellers, or perhaps the sea and our surroundings. Do you think the Gornl Sea was described adequately in the reports, or would you make a different description?”
“What does it matter?” Ne’tra tried to dismiss the conversation.
“It doesn’t,” Lieut was quick to reply, “It is just something to occupy the mind.”
Ne’tra looked around but did not say anything.
“Why are you here, brother?” Lieut suddenly asked, drawing Ne’tra’s eyes to his.
“I am here at Kil’dar’s command,” Ne’tra looked away.
“Classified,” Ne’tra glared at him.
Lieut smirked, “Never mind, I know why you are here.”
A look of confused curiosity came to Ne’tra face and Lieut smiled.
“Kil’dar believes me compromised,” Lieut said simply, “You have been told to kill me once my mission is completed, or if I do not complete it. No doubt he has told you that I am no longer the brother you knew and I no longer care for my own blood.”
Lieut looked deep into his brother’s eyes, “But tell me, what do you think?”
He could see the confusion in Ne’tra’s purple eyes, but his brother pulled away.
“I will complete the mission Kil’dar has set for me,” Ne’tra said straightening up, “To the best of my ability.”
“Ne’tra,” Lieut called before his brother could walk away, “You have a choice.”
His brother looked even more confused, but Ne’tra pulled his eyes away and stalked off to the other end of the ship.
Lieut sighed heavily and also straightened up and walked to the helm to join the Captain. Beside Jak stood his only family a daughter, Elza, who was steering the ship’s wheel. She was about the same age as the Magi’s apprentice with honey blonde hair and bright blue eyes, and her skin was well tanned from the hours on the open sea. She was quite attractive to Lieut’s eye. Elza was wearing a low cut white top under a long coat with long tails which buttoned up tightly under the bust. She wore tight short leather shorts and high boots that came up just above the knee with large brass buckles. Belted at her hip were a delicate cutlass and several daggers along her belt, and no doubt she had more weapons concealed.
“How long until we reach Scaroul?” Lieut asked Jak absently, his eyes still upon Elza.
“Not for another ten days at least,” Jak replied as he looked over a couple of charts. “And don’t you get no ideas about me girl,” Jak said noticing where Lieut was looking.
Lieut looked to the Captain in surprise and quickly looked away catching a playful wink from Elza.
“If you have a need, go see Lenler in the crow’s nest,” Jak continued, “He’ll help you, for a price.”
Lieut shook his head and walked to the rail, “Have you no magicks to make this ship go faster?”
Jak laughed at the question, “Why do you think I wear a sword? Can’t use magicks genius.”
“Ask the Magi Cahln,” Lieut was quick to reply.
Jak laughed again, “I ain’t that rich. We will get there, don’t worry.”
Just then the five Crythnin pilgrims came up the stairs to the helm, each motioning for the other to talk first.
The hard eyed pilgrim sighed and stepped forward, giving his companions an exasperated glare.
“Why are we going to Scaroul?” the pilgrim asked, “That is the long way around, why can’t we just go straight to the Isle?”
Captain Jak gave the pilgrims an annoyed look, “Are you Captain? Do you know these waters?”
All of the pilgrims shook their heads.
“In there,” Jak pointed to the maze of rock formations, “Is a labyrinth of razor sharp rocks and hidden reefs, the seas change in there and smash war vessels like they’re drift wood. Only a pirate or a madman is foolish enough to venture into that maze. And that’s only the beginning. Amongst the skeleton of Gornl lurk things far worse, beneath the waves and up on the cliffs, just waiting for fools to stray into their domain. And I ain’t no fool.”
“We have some gold,” one of the pilgrims began to say but Jak’s laughter cut him short.
“I wouldn’t willingly sail into the labyrinth,” Jak shook his head, “Not for all the gold in Essinendeür.”
The hard eyed pilgrim scoffed, “Next you’ll be saying there are sirens and sea monsters. If the pirates can sail the waters why not you?”
“Cause I don’t want to be coming across a pirate at every turn,” Jak snapped back, “The shipping lane protects us somewhat for attack, we go in there and we have no hope of coming out alive.”
The pilgrims mumbled between themselves but they said no more and departed from the helm. But not before the pilgrim with the hard eyes winked at Elza and licked his lips.
Jak watched them go cautiously and moved close to his daughter, “See that one with the hard eyes girl? You stay clear of him.”
Elza nodded her head, “Aye father, he scares me.”
Lieut watched the pilgrim with the hard eyes move away from the other Crythnin’s and wander across the deck. There was something about that man he did not like and the probability that he had been a criminal before a pilgrim seemed even more likely. As the pilgrim struck up a conversation with the Magi Lieut turned away and looked out across the calm waters and the tall cliff face barely a hundred yards away from them.
Even at this distance he could see the grooves in the dark grey rock and the crevasses the sea birds use to nest. The tall cliff suddenly dropped away and a large Galleon warship came slicing through the waters.
“Pirates!” the sailor in the crow’s nest shouted down, grabbing everyone’s attention.
Jak quickly picked up is spy glass and looked to the ships flag and name.
“It’s Eorfin,” the Captain sighed, “Could be worse I guess.”
“Drop sail, white flag,” Jak screamed the orders out and his men jumped to follow them.
“We should fight,” Helfgah declared as he and his brother joined the Captain at the helm.
“With what weapons boy?” Jak snapped back, “The pirates will demand a toll. We will pay it and then we will leave with our lives.”
“But they are pirates,” Helfgah replied nobly.
“Stand down brother,” Braygah put a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder, “Captain Jak is right, we cannot fight them.”
Helfgah cursed but deferred to his older brother’s wisdom.
With the sails rolled up The Sparrow soon slowed in the water and the large Galleon came alongside before the pirates boarded. Leading them was a tall man with a puffy white sleeved shirt that was mostly open at the front displaying his broad and muscled chest. The man swaggered across the deck and to the helm, his high boots clacking loudly on the wood.
“Captain Jak,” the pirate laughed and bowed low sweeping his wide hat from his head and revealing his light brown locks that were shot with gold. “And of course the beautiful Elza.”
Jak’s daughter blushed deeply, causing a flare of anger to come to Jak’s features.
“Captain Eorfin,” Jak nodded.
“It has been too long since you graced these waters with your presence,” the pirate Captain said with a smile, his teeth showing hints of green, “And too long since I felt your gold in my hands.”
As Lieut looked at the Captain Eorfin he found it hard to believe that this man was a fierce pirate, his flamboyance and dramatic attitude was almost comical. It was as if the man had quite simply awoke one day and decided to become a pirate, drawn to the lifestyle by some romantic notion. But then again that could be because of his obvious use of the drug Sap which affected him so.
“And the same amount from your guests of course,” Captain Eorfin was saying, motioning to the deck where his men had lined up the pilgrims, Magi and brothers from Gaianaus.
“Get moving, maggot,” one of the pirates said as he approached Lieut, his sword drawn.
Lieut pulled back his hood and studied the pirate with his imposing stare.
“I said move, Helwyr,” growled the pirate after a few uneasy seconds.
“No,” Lieut replied simply.
“Come now my Helwyr friend,” Captain Eorfin laughed as he diffused his man’s anger, “If you cooperate this will go far more smoothly. Give me your gold and there will be no trouble.”
“I have no gold,” Lieut replied as he straightened up to look the pirate Captain in the eyes, “I have neither silver, nor any coin in any form. The last of my coin was spent on this voyage.”
Captain Eorfin studied Lieut for a few seconds, confusion showing clearly behind his blue eyes.
The pirate let out a hearty laugh and was joined by his crew, “Surely you have something of worth. Like that sword.”
“Try and take my sword and I will take your life,” Lieut replied coldly.
Captain Eorfin tried to smile again, but Lieut’s seriousness stole the man’s mirth.
“If you do that, my men will kill you,” the pirate strained a smile, the green of his teeth flashing.
“That is possible. But you will die, and that is certain,” replied Lieut, his eyes unblinking.
The pirate Captain studied him closely before a smile flashed to the man’s tanned face again.
“Who am I to take money from a servant of Artāre?” Eorfin said loudly, “You do not have to pay the toll good Helwyr. But the rest of you shall pay double.”
Captain Eorfin and the rest of the pirates laughed loudly and the sailors and travellers on The Sparrow reluctantly handed over their coin.
“Time to go,” Captain Eorfin laughed, “Unless the beauty of Elza could persuade me to stay.”
The pirate smiled widely at Jak’s daughter, who giggled and blushed.
“On your way pirate,” Captain Jak growled, “You have taken my gold, but you won’t be taking my girl.”
Eorfin was about to leave with the rest of his pirates when Lieut saw Ne’tra calmly walk out onto the deck. Lieut sighed to himself as he guessed what was about to happen.
“What’s this, another Helwyr?” one of the pirates laughed and moved to grab Ne’tra by the shoulder, “In line you.”
The pirate’s words ended in a scream as Ne’tra grabbed the man’s hand and broke his arm. The screams quickly stopped as Ne’tra crushed the pirate’s throat with a punch and dropped him to the deck.
Lieut acted just as quickly and drew forth his sword and levelled it at Eorfin’s throat before the pirate Captain could utter any words.
“Stand down,” Lieut called loudly grabbing his brother’s attention along with everyone else’s.
“It is time for you to leave Captain,” Lieut said to Eorfin.
So shocked the pirate Captain could hardly utter a word and another pirate moved to avenge his fallen comrade.
“Call your man off,” Lieut glared at Eorfin.
“Garhan, stop,” Eorfin managed to blurt out before Ne’tra could kill him. “Come now there are more merchants to fleece.”
Lieut nodded to the pirate and returned his sword to his shoulder.
Captain Eorfin stumbled away and motioned from his men to leave.
“We outnumber them Captain,” hissed pirate in fine robes, who was likely a Magi.
“We do not want to anger Artāre by killing two Helwyr, Bajeax,” Captain Eorfin replied, a cautious eye still upon Lieut.
“We are no Helwyr,” Ne’tra said loudly, causing a slight smile to come to Lieut’s face.
“See?” Bajeax said to the Captain, “Are you a pirate, or a pigeon?”
Eorfin still looked uncertain but he nodded to the Magi, “Kill them all.”
Eorfin tried to draw his rapier but Lieut was much quicker and his sword flashed down from his shoulder and carved open the pirate Captain’s muscled chest. Darting past Eorfin, Lieut moved to the most dangerous enemy in the Magi who was trying to cast a spell. But again Lieut was much quicker and his sword flashed again removing Bajeax’s head and shattering what protections the Magi had around him.
With the Magi dead he jumped the rail and headed towards his brother who was surrounded by pirates and who had already killed several of them. A genuine smiled came to Lieut’s face as he carved a path through the pirates and moved back to back with his brother.
By now all the sailors of The Sparrow had taken up arms and were fighting for their lives. But Lieut and Ne’tra had virtually won the battle already. Twisting in circles around each other they sliced apart the pirate ranks, showering the wooden deck with blood, limbs and entrails. More pirates came across the gangplanks from the Galleon but they fell as quickly as they charged. In a matter of minutes all the members of the pirate ship were dead on the deck of The Sparrow or floating in the tepid waters.
Hardly breathing heavily Lieut flicked the blood from his sword and returned it to the clips at his shoulder and turned to his brother. Similarly flicking the blood from his duel swords Ne’tra sheathed them at his hips and gave Lieut a smile before both of them turned to the stunned looks from the rest of the crew.
In the end only a few of The Sparrows crew died along with all but two of the pilgrims, unfortunately the hard eyed man was not among the dead. Both the Magi and his apprentice were alive as were the two brothers from Gaianaus, though the younger brother was badly wounded and being tended to by the apprentice Philla who, as it turned out, was quite good at healing magicks.
“By The Five,” Captain Jak growled angrily as he came towards Lieut, “What is the matter with the two of you. We were nearly all killed.”
The Captain was baring a few cuts and missing an ear, but seemed fine otherwise. Elza was also alive and wearing a few cuts and walking with her father.
“But father, it is because of them we are alive,” Elza said trying to calm Jak, “And we can plunder the pirates horde, not to mention sell their ship back in Pentra.”
Jak stopped and took a deep breath as he considered his daughter’s wisdom.
“You should be thanking them for such good fortune,” Elze continued, “Come on lets go get that Magi to put your ear back on.”
Elza shot Lieut a wink as she led her grumbling father towards the Magi.
Lieut turned to his brother, but Ne’tra was nowhere to be seen, so with a sigh he began searching the bodies of the fallen before tossing them overboard. The rest of the crew were doing the same but kept their distance from him, all the while giving him wary looks when they thought he would not notice.
When all the bodies were in the water and the pirates Galleon fully searched, finding some gold but nothing of any significance, Lieut returned to the helm where Jak and Elza were currently arguing about who was to pilot the Galleon back to Pentra.
“I can’t pilot a ship that big,” Elza was saying to Jak who had his head in a linen wrap. “Besides I don’t know who to sell her too. Only you can do that.”
“I can’t let you sail The Sparrow to the Crystalis Isle, it’s too dangerous,” Jak countered.
Elza sighed, “I have sailed them waters a hundred times. What is once more?”
“I was there every time to make sure you did it right,” Jak replied, his arms crossed in front of his chest.
“And I did do it right,” Elza snapped, “Every time without incident. I got to sail on me own sometime. Why not now?”
Jak stumbled over a few words and let out a sigh, “I am worried about you this time,” the Captain said honestly, “A couple of our fairs ain’t quite right, especially that pilgrim.”
Elza smiled at her father, “I’ll be fine father. Besides you saw how mister Lieut and his brother fought today, they’ll look after me.”
Lieut looked up from studying the wooden deck in surprise, but could not find any words to say.
Jak narrowed his eyes and walked over to him.
“You’re an honourable sort, I can tell,” Jak said to him, “On your honour will you watch out for me girl?”
Lieut clenched his jaw and his eyes narrowed slightly, “I will promise nothing,” Lieut said, “But neither will I stand idly by if something happens.”
“See father,” Elza said with a smile to Lieut.
“If anything happens to her, I will find you and kill you,” Jak swore, “I don’t care how good you are, I will kill you. Understood?”
Lieut did not reply.
Jak sighed and turned back to his daughter, “I’ll have to take most of the crew to sail that Galleon back to Pentra, but you should be fine. Those two boys from Gaianaus will no doubt help, and get those two pilgrims working along with the Magi, his apprentice and this one and his brother.”
Jak motioned to Lieut.
“What we found in the pirate ship will be enough if they want payment,” Jak finished and looked seriously at Elza, “You be safe girl.”
Elza smiled and kissed her father on the cheek, before accompanying him down to the gangplanks leading to the Galleon.
Lieut watched silently as most of The Sparrows crew left and the gangplanks withdrawn. In no time the pirate ship’s sails were unfurled and the large vessel slowly pulled away. Elza had little trouble employing the help from those who remained and in short order they too were away and making good speed with Magi Cahln casting spells onto the boat.
Elza returned to the helm with a bright smile upon her attractive face and gave Lieut a playful wink.
“You and me are going to have some fun,” Elza laughed and her blue eyes twinkled.
“The only true way you can understand someone’s character is through their action. They could be the most disagreeable, surly, uncouth, and annoying person in the world, but none of that matters if their actions are noble, honourable and heroic. It was once said to me that the fairest seem foul and the foul appear fair. Those who have no honour speak loudly and when it comes to take action they hide. I have learnt to never base my opinion on someone from first appearance, nor to base it on what they say. Only actions speak the truth.
-Said by a convicted criminal before their hanging
Year 3630, the Fifth Age, the nineteenth day of Autumn
The ride in Tornie’s wagon had been fairly pleasant and they were not accosted by any more Darian raiders. The rocky desert of the southern reaches of Anastarā drifted by with more trees and grass beginning to grow, and the temperatures had also begun to drop slightly.
During the trip Fairris and Bārdin relaxed in the back of the wagon among the Peddler’s merchandise, while Vythe sat shotgun and tried to get as much information of recent events from Tornie.
Fairris listened closely as Tornie spoke of the most recent political development with the war. It seemed that the Baron of Issia in Gaianaus had broken the Treaty of Neutrality and joined forces with Sesserrech and Norrendōrel. Tornie said that in fact the forces from Gaianaus were currently gathering with the rest of the army just south of the Nagra River on the border between Sesserrech and Norrendōrel.
King Lienthor of Krnōrel was becoming increasingly outnumbered, and from this latest development it seemed that the outcome of this war had been decided.
When Tornie asked Vythe questions about their unexpected meeting and the war Vythe did his best to avoid answering, and Tornie did not press the topic.
All too soon the most southern range of the Iron Mountains fell away to the plains north of Pentra and they bid their farewells to the Peddler and thanked him for the ride. Tornie was clearly curious about their venture but he did not probe them for information and said so long and stated he was heading for King Lienthor’s army to hopefully make some sales.
That night they camped in the barren foothills with no signs of an army nearby, but as Fairris had said even an army of elves would not leave traces of their passing.
“Dwarves are not so subtle in their passing though,” Vythe remarked as they sat around the fire.
“Hey,” Bārdin growled, “At least we’re smarter then you humans. Dwarves would take our hand crafted subterranean roads and only come to the surface when necessary. It’s you humans that stomp about with your heavy boots.”
Vythe smiled and did not reply.
“The southern range of the Iron Mountains is a big place,” Fairris said, “It could take a couple of days before we might find a trace of them.”
“I reckon that Sātor was lying,” Bārdin huffed, “Making up something just to be rid of us.”
Vythe shook his head, “The Sātor are honest peoples and Fürin is my friend, he would not lie to me. The army is here somewhere. We just have to find it.”
Bārdin mumbled something and did not look very convinced, bringing a slight smile to Fairris’s face.
She too had faith that they would find Baelor’s army of the Elder Races, but she was not so certain that they would be greeted with pleasantries from the Regional Commander; after all he had tried to kill them at their last meeting. Fairris sighed and turned over to get some rest before it was her time to take the watch. She hoped Vythe was right in his assumption or else they would be facing death yet again.
They rose to an overcast day with cold rain falling intermittently, and continued their search for the elusive army. They continued to find no traces as they worked their way along the southern side of the range heading east. To the south, the Aierthian Plains swept out below them dotted with trees and stony downs. Fairris found herself looking in that direction often as she wondered where Lieut was and what he was doing, and if he knew that she was even still alive.
The day after that, the ancient trees of the Foglornt Forest could be seen on the horizon to the north east, but there was still no trace of the army and they were each feeling more anxious. That day they were attacked by a band of Grenlocks which gave them a chance to vent some of their frustration and the small band did not stand a chance against them.
The third day of their search came to an end and they were all feeling depressed as they sat around the small fire. The rain had continued but they found some cover among the rocks from the wind that had picked up.
“I think we have come too far north,” Fairris remarked as they ate a bit to eat, “We should head back to the west through the mountains.”
“What are we still doing out here?” Bārdin grumbled, “It was a good idea, but pointless if we can’t find the army.”
“Have we anything else to do?” Vythe asked the dwarf, and Bārdin shrugged.
Fairris nodded, “Vythe is right,” she said, “Even trying to follow after Lieut would be pointless. This is our only real option short of heading to a completely different region in hope something interesting will happen there.”
Bārdin grumbled something in dwarven and shrugged in reply.
“Still thinking of Lieut, Fairris?” Vythe smiled at her.
The next day came with increased rain and Fairris led their push into the mountains. Staying to the valleys and broken dales where few trees grew and less animals frequented. Even with her skill in tracking they only found broken trails and rock strewn paths with cold mountains streams to break up the monotony. For the first few days that was all they found and with it brought dismay and the feeling of futility to their venture, and the steady spray of rain only deepened their moods.
Thankfully the third day into the mountains Fairris came across a positive sign. They had decided to move further south in the range and as they came into a wide valley with a deep lake at its end she could see instantly that a large number of people had been here.
“This had to be campsite of the army,” Fairris exclaimed to Vythe and Bārdin as they walked through the vale. “Look at the many cured fire pits, and the obvious paths.”
“How many were here do you think?” Vythe asked curiously as he too looked across the valley.
She shrugged, “A great number, some thousands at least.”
Vythe let out a small laugh and shook his head, “And this hardly disturbed valley is the only evidence of their presence.”
“They would have split into war parties when they left,” Fairris replied, “Even a couple of hundred elves can move through the land with little notice.”
“The dwarves would have headed to the trails below ground,” Bārdin added, “I can see several caves in the hills around us.”
“Can you tell how long ago they left?” Vythe asked her.
Fairris moved to the closest fire bed and looked around the old campsite.
“It is hard to tell,” Fairris replied, “Perhaps we might find some more clues further along the basin.”
Both Vythe and Bārdin nodded and she led the way along the vale floor, every now and then she stopped to look around the old campsites. Elves were experts at leaving little evidence of their passing and as such she found nothing that could tell her when they left.
Thankfully dwarves were not so skilled, or more to the point, not so thoughtful. Among a large group of fire pits she found half a dozen broken mugs, several empty ale kegs and an area where quite a large fight had been. Most importantly she found a few half eaten legs of meat, and although the rain had degraded the chunks meat greatly, there was no evidence of insect larvae.
Fairris smiled as she turned to her companions, “We are less than three days behind them,” she declared confidently.
Vythe nodded, a slight smile coming to his face.
“But which way did they go?” asked Bārdin, scratching his beard.
“West,” Vythe said confidently.
“I thought the elf was the tracker?” Bārdin huffed.
“It does not take a tracker to know which way they were going,” Vythe replied with a knowing smile, “The armies of King Lienthor and Lord Cardonian will soon meet on the Morrow Plains. So it is only logical that Baelor would lead his army there as well.”
Bārdin grumbled something quietly, but did not reply.
“We should have cut directly through the mountains when we left Tornie,” Fairris remarked with sigh, “I should have known.”
“It is no matter,” Vythe said, “We will catch up to them eventually, especially now that we can follow their trail.”
Fairris nodded and took the lead once again along the valley and towards the small lock. Initially the trail was easy enough to follow but as they left the gorge behind evidence became more difficult to see. But at least she knew of the general direction and she was not worried.
It took them another day before they were out of the mountains and found another smaller campsite. Feeling confident of their destination they stopped in the foothills and coming the next morning made a direct line to the west and to the southernmost spur of the Amber Mountains.
By the next day they were walking the paths through the foothills of the snow-capped peaks. As they moved towards the south facing hills more trees and bushes stood around them and even the grass became thicker. Among the foliage many dark grey stones shot with crimson veins littered the landscape. The rain had now stopped and Inüer once again showed His golden face, casting dark shadows through the undergrowth and across the crooked trails.
As soon as they had come into this region Fairris again became concerned that they would find it a difficult task to locate Baelor’s army. Despite her skill as a tracker and hunter she could see no signs of any passing feet.
“I have seen no sign of the army,” Fairris remarked when they had stopped for a rest in the middle of the day.
“Maybe they headed onto the Morrow Plains,” Bārdin suggested as he chewed on some jerked beef.
Vythe shook his head, “Baelor would not risk that. They have to be in these mountains somewhere.”
Fairris’s sensitive ears suddenly caught the sound of a rustle within the undergrowth and her eyes caught the sight of an arrow head peaking from between the leaves.
“Do not move,” Fairris quickly warned her friends and she held her hands out wide. “It seems Baelor’s army has found us.”
Both Bārdin and Vythe looked around in surprise as an arrow suddenly slammed into the ground before them. Quickly they followed her lead and held their arms out wide and unthreatening.
Several Valenthōr then emerged from hiding, each with a short bow loaded and aimed at them. The Valenthōr were the smallest of the elven races, most not much over five and a half feet. Their hair was brown with moss-green coloured highlights as were their large eyes. Their frames were thin and lithe yet strong and agile, and they wore clothes similar to that of the Sātor made from skins and light fabric. But the most remarkable feature of the Valenthōr would have to be their ears, much longer than their cousins in the Zirarien and Lithinüer.
“Nāra zien,” Fairris greeted the Valenthōr politely as their leader walked up to her.
“You are not stragglers,” the leader said in common tongue, “Speak quickly, what is your purpose here?”
“We seek Baelor,” Vythe said, “We have valuable information that concerns him.”
The Valenthōr narrowed his eyes at Vythe, “What are your names?” he asked Fairris.
“This is Bārdin, son of Bain,” Fairris motioned to the dwarf, “Vythe Varrintine, and I am Fairris.”
A hint of recognition flickered across the elf’s features and a few of the other’s mumbled something to each other.
“Take their weapons,” the Valenthōr ordered his companions, “Bind their hands and cover their eyes.”
The elves were gentle but firm as they took Fairris’s gunblades and Bārdin’s axe, which the Dwarf was very reluctant about. The Valenthōr searched Vythe from head to toe but found no weapons, and Vythe hid his smile well. The Valenthōr then bound their eyes and hands and pushed them firmly along. Moving through the rocky terrain they made sure to warn her of any steps or uneven footing. Fairris felt their path rise and fall many times before the sounds of a camped army could be heard clearly. Her confidence, however, did not grow any as they were moved through the campsite. She could hear hushed voices from the curious onlookers calling her and her friends spies and cursing the human.
Fairris was finally guided from the main camp and into a tent where her blind fold was removed. She and her companions stood in the middle of a large tent with a single table in front of them and a small cot in the corner. Leaning over the table across from them was Baelor, his pale green eyes studying each of them with a mixture of surprise and curiosity.
With a small laugh the Zirarien stood back from the table and motioned for the Valenthōr to leave. The leader of the band nodded and placed Fairris’s sheathed gunblades and Bārdin’s axe upon the table before leaving. The elves left and Baelor continued to study them for many minutes.
“You are either very brave, or very foolish to face me again,” Baelor finally said, his voice filled with menace.
“Or very clever,” Vythe smiled back, causing Baelor narrow his eyes.
“Is there a reason why I should not have the three of you killed for being spies?” asked the Zirarien calmly.
Vythe smiled wide, “There are several.”
A few seconds of intense silence drifted by and Fairris shifted uncomfortably watching the exchange between Vythe and Baelor. This was the moment when Vythe’s plan would succeed or fail disastrously.
“Are you waiting for an invitation?” Baelor sighed angrily.
“That would be nice,” Vythe smiled back, “But I shall continue without one.”
Vythe took a deep breath.
“There is no reason to kill us,” began Vythe, “In Elestarl we sort to stop the war from beginning, and ruin the High Commission’s plans. Now that is impossible, the war has begun and there is no way to stop it without large amounts of bloodshed. We pose no threat to the designs of the High Commission and in fact seek to aid you in your plans.”
Baelor raised an eyebrow and motioned for Vythe to continue.
Vythe smiled, “I think I am safe in assuming that the High Commission is unaware of the real reasons why you have gathered an army of the Elder Races, if they know at all.”
“And you are aware of my reasons?” Baelor narrowed his eyes.
Vythe’s white teeth flashed a knowing smile, “You wish for the discrimination against the Elder Races to end and for there to be equality for your people, which I doubt that is what the members of the High Commission believe.”
“I do not know where you obtained such information,” Baelor begun but Vythe cut him off.
“By all means deny it,” Vythe interrupted, “So perhaps I should direct this conversation to your gathered troupes?”
“What do you want?” Baelor asked seriously, his pale green eyes glaring at Vythe.
“To aid you,” Vythe smiled back, causing Baelor to look suspiciously at them.
“Why would you do that?” the Zirarien asked curiously.
“Well,” replied Vythe, “Seeing we cannot stop this war we might as well find a way to profit from it.”
“I am not about to share that,” Vythe looked shocked. “But, if Lord Cardonian loses this war my family will be in a pretty position having not supported Cardonian.”
“What of your companions?” Baelor nodded to Fairris and Bārdin.
“Equality of the Elder Races,” Vythe replied, as if it were obvious.
Baelor nodded his head slowly, “But you seemed to have overlooked one thing. How do I benefit from you three keeping your heads?”
“But that is the obvious part,” Vythe toyed with Baelor’s patience. “Fairris is a hero of your people and has returned successfully from a pilgrimage preying to the old Gods.”
“What of the dwarf?” Baelor asked dryly.
“I give you Bārdin, son of Bain,” declared Vythe loudly, “The King of Grün Narād.”
Baelor crossed his arms in front of his chest and studied the three of them through narrowed eyes. The Zirarien’s intensive stare made Fairris shift uncomfortably and made her wonder if Vythe’s plan would be successful, or whether she would find herself chained to a stone pillar in the middle of the desert again.
Baelor let out a deep sigh and leaned forward over the table again, “I think we could both profit from an allegiance.”
Scaroul was a peculiar place in his eyes, tall cliffs towered above the still turquoise water ways which created a maze through the land of southwest I’ender. Growing among the rocks and across the cliff faces were many plants and hanging vines that were covered in colourful flowers. Many walkways could be seen running along cliff faces and among the vines, bridging the water ways at many different levels. Tunnels and houses were cut into the rock and entrances into many mines were a common theme.
The epicentre of Scaroul was a singular giant island in the centre of a deep sapphire lagoon with hundreds of boats and ships docked at the wooden wharves that clogged up the docks. These main wharves and the large island were known as Nivalna and was the main trading port for the rich merchants and diamond mine owners.
Elza, the Captain of The Sparrow, was not a rich merchant and had sailed quickly through the Nivalna lagoon and down one of the many canals that led from it. Along these waterways were the less wealthy mine owners and merchants and the wharves here were much less grand.
It was night on the first day they had reached Scaroul and most of the crew had departed from The Sparrow to look around the place as the ship was restocked, his brother was among the ones who departed.
He had opted to stay on board, keeping to himself while he wrestled with his thoughts. Elza had been another to stay on board and stated that the Captain of a ship should not depart her vessel even if it is sinking.
The hour was now late and the twin moons reflected off the calm waters. Most that remained on ship were asleep, but he could hear Elza moving about at the helm. As he rested easily at the stern on the outside of the ship, just above the Captain’s cabin, he thought about Elza. He thought about her long legs and tanned skin, those bright blue eyes and thick blonde hair.
Ne’tra growled in frustration and banged his head against the wood of the ship. He knew he should not be thinking such thoughts, that sexuality should never be considered. Yet his mind kept returning to Elza’s cheeky wink and a slight smile came to his lips. Again he growled away those thoughts, and the thoughts of how enjoyable it would be to spend a night in her cabin, with those long legs wrapped around him.
A sudden pain came to his forehead and he shut his pale purple eyes against the hurt. Something was very wrong, his mind felt as if it would explode and a trickle of blood ran down from the gash at his eyebrow. Memories of Lieut talking about his fits when Fog flowed from his head flashed in Ne’tra’s mind and fear suddenly grasped at him. Ne’tra slammed his head against the ship as the pain increased and a colourful cloud drifted across his open eyes.
“No,” he growled, “Please no. Death take me not this.”
The pain in his head increased but he refused to cry out and alert all who remained on board. The Fog continued to swirl and blood flowed down his face from the gash above his right eyebrow, and strange emotions and feelings assaulted him. Ne’tra gritted his teeth and dug his nails into the ships wood, stubbornly forcing away his screams until the pain stopped.
Finally the agony subsided and the Fog receded back into the wound in his head. His breathing came in heavy gasps and the words Lieut had once spoken to him echoed in his ears.
“You have a choice.” Lieut’s voice said to him.
Ne’tra shook his head violently, “No I don’t,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “None of us have, not you Lieut and not I. Choice is a non-issue and just seeks to complicate things. I do not want a choice.”
Ne’tra sighed and looked to the stars in the sky which were much brighter than he had ever seen them.
“But what if I want the freedom to choose?” Ne’tra asked absently, “What if I am tired of simply following orders and never choosing what I want to do?”
Ne’tra sighed heavily and tried to rub away the tightness across his brow and the confusion he felt, but it was no use.
Voices from the helm caught his attention and distracted his thoughts.
“You’re up late Captain,” the hard eyed pilgrim was saying as Ne’tra peered over the railing and onto the deck.
Elza had been looking over some maps on the table and turned in surprise.
“So are you,” Elza stammered, her back to the table.
“I like the night,” the pilgrim replied smoothly, “The darkness is my friend.”
“Right,” Elza replied awkwardly, “Where’s your companion?”
The hard eyed pilgrim walked calm across the deck, and began to circle Elza.
“He is sleeping soundly,” the man smiled strangely, “As are all others.”
Ne’tra could see Elza looking nervously around, her back still to the table. He had had his suspicions of this hard eyed pilgrim the moment he saw the man, and the way he was acting now confirmed them.
“Perhaps I should turn in for the night,” Elza began, but the pilgrim cut her off.
“You are very beautiful,” the pilgrim interrupted licking his lips and he moved closer to the girl.
Elza quickly tried to move away from the man but he grabbed her and forced her backwards onto the table. Elza tried to scream out but the sound was caught in her mouth.
“I have always been very good at two spells,” the pilgrim said as he grabbed Elza’s wrists to stop her struggling, “Silencing someone and immobilising them.”
Elza suddenly stopped struggling and a strange glow appeared around her, but her breathing remained fast and her bright blue eyes darted around for some help.
“It is like a gift from the Gods,” the Pilgrim laughed as he began to calmly undo the buttons of Elza’s coat and top, “As if I am meant to always have my way with women. But the whores always turned around and called it rape, instead of divine design. So in turn I had to stop those whores from speaking, permintly. But everyone else was just as foolish. Maric the Molester, Maric Thirteen they called me back in Sparren, but who is laughing now. And you my pretty shall be number fourteen.”
Ne’tra looked away as Maric finished undoing her top leaving her breasts bare and began on her belt and pants.
“It is not my problem,” Ne’tra said quietly to himself, “It is not my concern. I should not get involved.”
Net’tra gritted his teeth and jumped silently onto the deck of the helm, fires burning within his pale purple eyes. Drawing his twin blades he calmly stalked across the deck.
Maric the rapist jumped back from undoing Elza’s pants as he saw Ne’tra walk towards him.
“What in the Abyss do you want?” the pilgrim demanded, seemingly unfazed by Ne’tra’s appearance.
“Your head,” Ne’tra replied coldly.
Maric let out a laugh, “Once I am finished with this whore I shall slit your throat too.”
Ne’tra did not reply and continued to walk calmly towards the rapist.
Maric smirked and cast a spell in his direction which he simply slapped aside with one of his swords. Ne’tra smiled nastily as a look of horror came to Maric’s face and the man desperately cast another spell. Again Ne’tra slapped it aside and moved closer, Maric frantically pulled a dagger from his belt and Ne’tra lunged ahead.
Ne’tra’s twin swords moved at dazzling speed as he darted towards Maric, forcing the man backwards and towards the railing. Maric tried to counter his attacks, but it was little use and with each move he cut into Maric’s skin making the man bleed from dozens of wounds.
With his next cut several of the rapist’s fingers fell to the deck causing Maric to scream in pain. As Ne’tra forced Maric against the railing the rest of the man’s arm fell as well followed by his head. Meric’s head fell to the deck with a sicking thud and Ne’tra kicked the bleeding torso overboard and into the warm waters.
Calmly he turned and cleaned up the messed around him, he impaled the head with his sword and tossed it over the side along with the arm and he finished by flicking the fingers across the deck and through the railing.
Flicking the blood from his swords Ne’tra returned them to their metal sheaths at his hips and turned towards Elza. With the spell that held her now vanished she was buttoning up her leather top with shaking hands.
Awkwardly Ne’tra looked away and moved to leave.
“Wait,” Elza called to him, making him stop and look at her.
Slowly she moved towards him looking as if she was having trouble finding words.
“Thank you,” Elza stammered, “Your name is Ne’tra, right? However can I replay you?”
“You do not need to,” Ne’tra replied awkwardly and again turned to leave.
“Don’t go,” Elza called out, again making him stop, “Stay here with me for a bit, please.”
Ne’tra rubbed away the tightness across his brow and stiffly nodded his head, causing Elza to smile widely.
“Come over here,” Elza said happily as she moved to the table which was carved as a part of the helm, “Take a look at this.”
Even though his mind was screaming at him to leave Ne’tra hesitantly walked over to the table and looked at the charts of the region.
“We will be leaving tomorrow,” Elza was saying, though he was not really listening, “Our heading is here.” She pointed to an island among a maze of smaller isles. “The waters are tricky but I’ve been sailing them since I was a babe.”
Ne’tra nodded stiffly, not being able to think of anything to say.
“Hey,” Elza said catching his eyes with hers, “Is your name really Ne’tra?”
“Yes, I guess,” Ne’tra stammered.
“You ‘guess’?” Elza looked at him in surprise, “Well is it, or not?”
“It is more like a number, than a name,” Ne’tra stumbled over the words. “But it is the only one I ever had.”
“A number is no sort of name,” Elza replied in surprise, “I am going to call you Raith.”
Ne’tra felt strange as Elza gave him a name, he wanted to be angry and yell at her that his name was Ne’tra, not Raith. But for some reason he did not, for some reason he secretly liked the name and he was suddenly not so spiteful towards Lieut.
“Don’t you like it?” Elza asked innocently.
“What does it mean?”
Elza shrugged, “It doesn’t really mean anything. I just thought you came from the shadows like a wraith. A vengeful spirit to save me from that disgusting man. So do you like Raith?”
Ne’tra did not really know what to say, “It is alright,” he managed to stammer.
Elza smiled widely and her eyes sparkled as she suddenly embraced him in a hug and kissed him on the cheek. So stunned was Ne’tra that he did not think to react until she stepped back from him.
“Time to hit the pillow,” Elza smiled, “Early start tomorrow.”
With that Elza skipped from the helm and down the stairs before disappearing into the Captains quarters. For many minutes Ne’tra stood there wondering what had just happened before slowly moving from the helm and returning to his secluded spot at the stern of the ship. Into the night he wrestled with his thoughts and doubts and even by the time Inüer brightened the eastern sky he had not become any more settled.
The ship’s crew rose early and people who had gone ashore during the time they were docked returned and were making their way out of Scaroul.
By the time Ne’tra decided to move to the deck and look for something to occupy his mind he had decided that he would adopt the name Elza had given him.
“Nothing like a clear and beautiful morning, am I right Raith?” Elza called to him as he passed the helm, clearly she had recovered from the nights troubles.
Awkwardly he smiled and nodded as he moved down the stairs and towards the prow of The Sparrow. He stopped below the foremast above the figurehead, his pale purple eyes looked to the twisting canal in front of them. Soon the tall cliffs moved apart and the open ocean greeted them.
Ne’tra felt the presence of Lieut come up behind him, but he kept his attention on the horizon.
“Ne’tra,” Lieut said as he stood next to him, “Or is it Raith now?”
He looked to his brother to see a slight smile upon Lieut’s face, and his golden eyes glimmering.
“Does it matter?” Raith asked angrily and turned away.
“Of course it matters,” Lieut replied seriously, causing him to look at his brother again.
They both looked back to the horizon without saying anymore and many minutes of silence slipped by. As they stood there Raith began to realise his was enjoying his brother’s company, for it had been a long time since they had been together. It made him think of Nar’to and anger filled his mind, anger towards Lieut who had killed their brother. But a sudden realisation struck him and replaced his anger; he too had Fog inside his head now.
What if he had been the one to seek aid from Nar’to, would something different have happened, or would he have had kill his brother as Lieut had done?
Raith realised that Nar’to would have turned on him just as he had turned on Lieut, just as he would have turned on Lieut if he had not otherwise been advised. The thought of having to kill his brother turned his stomach and sent a shiver up his spine. Yet Kil’dar had ordered him to kill Lieut whether he believed his brother had become compromised or not. Could he really kill one of his own blood? What would happen once Kil’dar discovered that he too had been compromised with the Fog getting into his head?
He shook away the thoughts, Lieut was different to him, he had killed their youngest brother without a seconds thought, just as he had done Nar’to. Lieut always sort greater recognition then the rest of them, first at Sentrin Gate and now here.
“Something wrong, Raith?” Lieut asked him, seeming to sense his inner conflict.
“No,” Raith growled back, rubbing away the tension across his brow.
“Clearly you are conflicted,” Lieut replied, “Tell me what is troubling you.”
“It is no concern of yours.”
“I am your brother,” Lieut began to reply.
“You are no brother of mine,” Raith flared angrily, “You lost that right when you sought the glory for yourself, at Sentrin Gate and now here.”
“Is that why you hate me so?” Lieut asked in surprise, “We all had our orders at the siege of Sentrin Gate. Like you I was told to proceed without the other parties after a certain time. You and Nar’to had been delayed, I followed my orders. And now I have only ever sought the aid of my brothers, of our people. Can you not see how Kil’dar has poisoned your mind against me?”
“Do not try and tell me how to think,” Raith snapped back, “You were always the older, but ever were we equals. Do not try and now tell me how to think as an older brother would. I have mind of my own.”
“Yes you do,” Lieut cut in emphatically, “You do have a mind of your own. Now try and use it on your own.”
Angrily Lieut turned and left him at the railing. Rubbing his brow Raith turned back to the horizon and the muddle of thoughts within his mind. The day drifted by and Lieut did not return to him, sooner than he realised the moons hung in the sky among the stars.
At night they did not drop anchor and wait out the dark of the night despite the dangerous waters, and Raith could see Elza at the helm confidently steering the ship. Something within him wanted to go over there and listen to her talk idly, but he stopped himself and instead headed below deck.
Lost in thought he silently moved through the dark corridors and past the rooms.
“I don’t want to, please don’t make me,” Raith heard the quiet voice of the submissive Magi apprentice Philla.
“You will do as I say child,” the harsh voice of Magi Cahln snapped back.
Raith paused in the shadows to listen to their conversation, for no better reason than to distract his thoughts.
“But master,” Philla replied quietly.
“Do you want to be Magi? Than you will do everything I say.”
“Not this, please. Not again,” Philla sobbed.
“Would you rather me take the pilgrim Maric up on his offer?” Cahln snapped.
“No,” Philla replied emphatically, “Anything but that, I am glade he is missing.”
“Then do as I say,” Magi Cahln growled.
“Yes Master,” Philla mumbled.
“Now take your clothes off and get on the bed.”
Raith heard Philla’s sobs as he moved through the shadows and away from the rooms. But as soon as he was sitting back at his secret spot at the stern of the ship he felt regret for not doing anything.
“Why did I not do anything, when I was so ready to aid Elza?” Raith asked himself quietly. “That was wrong it was not my place to interfere. Kil’dar has given me an objective and I will complete it without any further consideration of events that do not affect my mission. Lieut may be corrupted and beyond help, but Kil’dar does not know that the same thing has happened to me. I am not beyond aid. Everything will return to normal once I return home.”
“But I am as compromised as Lieut,” he continued to voice his thoughts, “Perhaps if I tell him about it we can together find a solution?”
Raith shook his head forcefully, “No, Lieut will smirk at me if I tell him. He will act like an older sibling and say he knows what I am going through and how he so easily resolved his similar problems. Lieut can never know that the Fog has found its way into my mind as well.”
Raith firmed his jaw and nodded to himself that was the way it had to be. Lieut will finish his mission and then he will be destroyed. Then Raith shall return to Kil’dar and everything will be the way it was before they ever came to this wretched land.
Raith sighed to himself, seemingly finding a solution to his troubles, and rested back against the ship and watched the sky as the night drifted by.
As the night wore on his thoughts drifted back to Magi Cahln and the apprentice Philla. The thought of the old Magi forcing Philla to engage sexually with him brought a bad taste to his mouth. Despite the fact it had no relation to his mission, he wanted very badly to slice apart the perverted man.
“I would like to kill that Magi,” Raith said to himself.
The remark puzzled him, “Is that what Lieut meant when asked if I ever simply liked something? I would dearly like to kill that Magi for no other reason than enjoyment.”
But this realisation brought new confusion to his mind.
“I should not simply like something,” Raith said shaking his head, “But Lieut was right, my mind is my own. So I shall use the name Raith, and tomorrow I shall kill Magi Cahln because I would like to see him die, painfully.”
Raith nodded to himself, “My mind is my own and never shall Kil’dar or Lieut hold sway over it. I will complete the mission Kil’dar has set for me and Lieut will be no more. Then I will take Kil’dar’s life and be free of his efforts at manipulation forever. I will then return home and everything will be the way it was, and I will be the master of my own mind.”
“But why kill Lieut?” Raith asked quietly, “Why not simply walk away?”
Annoying the question plagued him for the rest of the night and the morning came quickly. Soon The Sparrow was alive with activity and Raith rubbed away the tightness he felt across his brow. Standing up with a stretch he moved from his secluded spot and across the deck of the helm, shooting Elza a slight nod on his way.
Moving down from the helm he spied the Magi Cahln and his apprentice by the railing and he calmly walked over to them. Philla’s eyes were puffy from crying all night and a bruise had appeared on her cheek. Anger burned in Raith’s eyes as he approached the Magi, his hands twitching by the panther head pommels of his twin swords.
“A pleasant morning is it not, Ne’tra?” Magi Cahln smiled at him.
But that smile quickly turned to a look of horror as the silver edge of his sword slashed across the Magi’s throat, splattering the deck with blood. Philla screamed and Raith kicked the Magi over the railing and into the warm, tropical waters of the Gornl Sea.
“My name is Raith,” he said coldly.
A light rain fell over the pale blues grass of the Morrow Plains and sapphire lightning veined through the clouds of the overcast sky. The Morrow Plains, also known as the Lightning Grasses, stretched far across the land taking up most of the region of Norrendōrel. Only the western range of Farron Mountains, north of the Pass of Karadon and the southern woodlands of Vhasden stood apart from the Morrow Plains.
But the Lightning Grasses were by no means an empty wasteland and this rolling wet tundra was home to many animals. Including thin, dog sized rabbits with deer antlers, called Jackalopes which ran in herds, wild horses with steel grey coats raced across the flat land. Large flightless birds with thick legs and strong beaks pecked at the rich soil. Lions the size of horses, with pale blue fur shot with silver hunted in packs upon the unwary, and the impossibly quick Mynx with long singular whiskers and long thin tail darted through the Lightning Grasses.
At the centre of the vibrant land sat the immense Lake Ire, its cold still waters catching the large amounts of rain that fell on the Morrow Plains and sending it towards the Scar of Gornl along the wide river Yrn. Lake Ire also caught the run off from many streams and rivers that moved through the land on slight downhill gradient to the banks of Ire.
It was said that the lake was also filled with many fish and vicious monsters from its unmeasured depths. Not even the Mōrgul Cats, who called the Morrow Plains their home, were foolish enough to try the waters of Lake Ire in an attempt to find its bottom. It was said that one great Magi had attempted to measure the depth of Lake Ire, but she had never come back from those dark waters.
Despite the fertile soil and rich grass the Morrow Plains were virtually untouched by humans. The magicks of the Fog permitted easy travel between realm capitols so there was little need for many townships along these roads, and the Morrow Plains had none apart from the camps of the Mōrgul Cats. It was said there were many old ruins and towns on the western side of the Farron Mountains, but the plains were solely the domain of the Mōrgul, and had been for many Ages. The Mōrgul could very well be described as humanoid cats with thick fury hair, feline ears and sharp nails and teeth, even their eyes were cat like, but the Mōrgul loathed humans for making such comparisons.
Although Professor Dionel Atborogh had once studied the Mōrgul extensively and he made some observations that they shared many traits to the lions that also lived on the Lightning Grasses. Atborogh explained how the Mōrgul were nomadic in a way, following the herds of animals across the plains at the change of season. The Mōrgul were also very tribal and protective of their lands and they fought regularly over boarders with other clans.
Atborogh also observed that the Mōrgul did not use words to express themselves and instead used a combination of expressions and, as Atborogh described, cat like sounds. In recent years the Mōrgul had adapted skilfully and learnt common tongue to allow them to trade with cities and travellers.
But their adaption did not change how humans saw them, Mōrgul, like others of the Elder Races, were looked down upon by most humans and discriminated against where ever they went. As it was most Mōrgul stayed in their lands of the Morrow Plains and continued their traditional lifestyle, but in light of recent events most of the clans had joined Baelor’s army or moved far south and away from the feuds of human Kings.
The animals had also retreated far away from the mass of humans who had gathered on the north bank of Lake Ire and made up the gathered armies of Krnōrel and I’ender. A sea of tents stood among the pale grass and thousands of soldiers trudged about the camp turning the earth to a muddy quagmire. Towers of black smoke climbed over the top of the camp and large dikes had been built for protection.
“Such a disgusting sight,” Fairris mumbled as she looked upon the camped army.
It looked as if King Lienthor had decided that this position would be a good place to strike out from and also a good defensive position. On top of the dikes stood small towers conjured by magicks with glassy surfaces showing Fog within the depths, much like the prison in Gaia Mountains. Pits had been dug into the plain out from the dike and encircled much of the camp, and at varying intervals near the pit stood smaller towers of magicks. Beside the towers were many specialised cannons created in the Er’athōre Laboratory and designed to fire magickal blasts over great distances into an oncoming army.
A light rain continued to fall and another streak of blue lightning scorched through the high cloud as Fairris rode her horse towards the encampment. Alongside her was Bārdin who sat uncomfortably in the saddle of a sturdy pony, and Vythe who rode his horse Squall. When they had been captured by Kil’dar in the Foglornt Forest Vythe had been saddened to say farewell to his beloved steed, but remarkably he was reunited with the blue-grey stallion at Baelor’s camp.
Also in their riding company was Baelor and Delark as they made their way to meet with King Lienthor. Baelor rode a tall steed with a copper coat and Delark upon a similar coloured horse. Delark also carried a tall lance with a white flag tired to the top, just below that was the red and gold flag of Cientrasis.
It felt strange to Fairris to be riding in the company of the elf that once tried to kill her, but thankfully it was not as awkward as it had been when they first set out from the Amber Mountains. Initially Baelor had thought to teleport into King Lienthor’s camp, but Vythe had quickly dissuaded him from that course saying it would create unnecessary panic, besides Magi in the King’s company would have likely barred any unexpected teleportation into the camp.
Riding was the better course anyway, this way they would be spotted at a distance carrying a white flag of truce and the symbol of Cientrasis, and King Lienthor would have time to prepare for them. It was the polite thing to do, as Vythe had explained.
Baelor had not argued this point, and neither had he complained during the trek. Most of the time Baelor kept to himself and did not say much to them. Delark on the other had had pressed Fairris relentlessly on how her pilgrimage to the old Gods had faired, which forced her to lie with every answer. Most annoyingly was the way Delark held her in such reverence as if she were some kind of saint and it had been the same way with all her kin back among the army of the Elder Races. As soon as Baelor had announced her return, song and dance had erupted among the Zirarien and the other elves quickly joined in. The dwarves had been less exuberant to the point of telling the elves to stop their silly festivities, and the other races like the Sātor and Mōrgul paid no attention at all.
During the brief night among Baelor’s army before they left to go on this trek she had noticed that most of the Elder Races had heeded Baelor’s call to arms. The Valenthōr rivalled the number of Zirarien that were there, and the four dwarven clans that remained had showed and had rejoiced upon greeting Bārdin and accepting him as the King of Grün Narād. The Sātor and Mōrgul had also come in a good number, but there were no Yineth to be seen, as expected. The greatest surprise to Fairris was that a small number of Halflings had come from the Grassy Downs to fight with Baelor, rounding the army’s number to a little over ten thousand. Although, no Lithinüer had answered Baelor’s call to arms.
As Fairris looked upon King Lienthor’s forces however she wondered what ten thousand could do to aid the roughly thirty thousand soldiers that had amassed.
By now they had moved close enough to the encampment to be noted and a group of knights came out to meet them, bearing the flags of Krnōrel and I’ender on tall lances. The muddy ground sloshed as the knights stopped their armoured mounts before them and lightning cracked overhead.
“State your purpose here and be quick about it,” demanded the tall knight at the front who bore the enamelled black and silver armour of King Lienthor’s personal guard.
“I am Baelor, Regional Commander of Cientrasis,” the Zirarien replied sternly, “My purpose here is with your King, not his lackeys.”
“Watch your words elf,” the knight growled back, his dark eyes burning.
“We come under a flag of peace,” Vythe jumped in, “And such are our intentions.”
“What would a noble of Sesserrech want?” the knight asked angrily, “To try and assassinate our King?”
“My name is Vythe Varrintine, perhaps you recognise the House name,” Vythe replied confidently, “If you do then perhaps you would know that House Varrintine does not support Lord Cardonian in in any form. Now take us to your King good knight.”
The Krnōrel knight sneered and glared at Vythe angrily, “You will follow me,” the knight decided, “But if I see any threatening acts you will find my blade in your chest.”
The knights turned their horses and led them towards the camp and through the Fog created doors. A clear, muddy road led straight through the mass of tents and towards the bank of Lake Ire where the large tents of King Lienthor and King Arendt stood opposite each other. Between the two tents stood another large skin pavilion where the Kings would discuss battle strategies and to where the knight was leading them.
Fairris dropped down from her horse and into the mud before following the others into the tent where King Lienthor, King Arendt and their advisors sat waiting behind a large desk. All else from the tent had been cleared out and only the large table and exact number of chairs positioned. Suspicions eyes watched them as they sat down and a nervous silence filled the air. Beside the two Kings sat Regional Commander Rook from Krnōrel, and Ka’rer from I’ender, both of them looking curiously at Baelor.
As Fairris sat down none other than Kil’dar walked into the tent and took up the final seat, his look of boredom quickly changing to surprise as he realised who they were. Fairris hid her shock as well as she could and glanced nervously to her companions who she could see were sharing her worry.
“What is the meaning of this Baelor?” Ka’rer demanded suspiciously.
“I have come to talk with the Kings of this army, not the Regional Commanders,” Baelor replied evenly as he glared at Ka’rer.
The plump Regional Commander of I’ender pulled an ugly face, but she did not reply.
Fairris noticed that there was something between the three Regional Commanders in the room, and she did not like the way they looked at each other knowingly. It was annoying knowing that the Regional Commanders were pulling strings and not being able to say anything, but more annoying was the way Kil’dar sat there with an amused expression on his face.
“Then talk, Commander Baelor,” King Arendt sighed in a weak voice.
The King of I’ender was a short man with round shoulders and a plump face, and Fairris found it hard to believe that the man was a direct descendant of Agron as he bore no genetic resemblance. The only thing about King Arendt that matched the description of Agron was his dark hair and brown eyes, all else displayed him as a lessor son of a noble sire.
“We come with a proposition to aid your cause,” Baelor began hesitantly.
“I think there is little need to talk, regarding the company to come in,” King Lienthor interrupted angrily, “This viper, Varrintine, beside your Baelor is a crude and conniving devil wrapped up in fine clothes.”
Vythe sighed, “Good King, I was in your company when your daughter was killed, I came in search of peace to your kingdom. How can you place me in collusion with Lord Cardonian when I openly despise the man and the family.”
“Allegiances are about trust,” King Lienthor growled back, “I do not trust you master Varrintine, and I know that you were somehow involved in my daughter’s assassination. This moot is finished, leave while you are still under the banner of peace.”
“Good King, if I may interject,” Kil’dar spoke up, surprising most. “This is not about trust or whether master Varrintine is innocent or guilty of conspiring to kill your daughter. This is about the sixty thousand soldiers that Lord Cardonian has amassed. You would be a fool not hear a proposition from Commander Baelor.”
“Do not forget that you speak to the King of Krnōrel,” Regional Commander Rook scolded before turning to the King, “But my Liege, what Kil’dar lacks in proper decorum he makes up in wit. This is not about the tool in master Varrintine but its wielder in Lord Cardonian, who has double the number of troops that we do. Any aid from Baelor would come as a great benefit.”
“This is absurd,” Commander Ka’rer said, glaring at both Baelor and Rook. “Baelor can offer no aid for he has no army, no forces. What elf would willingly fight for human Kings?”
“This is not your place to doubt him Commander Ka’rer,” Commander Rook said forcefully, “If Baelor claims he can aid this cause, than he can.”
Ka’rer’s eyes widened, “But this is not. . .”
“Commander Ka’rer,” Baelor interrupted the Regional Commander of I’ender, “Has King Arendt passed his reign to you? Perhaps his voice should be heard more and not yours, save you from saying something foolish.”
Fairris noted the severe look Baelor and Commander Rook were giving the Commander Ka’rer, and it worried her.
“Yes, I am King,” Arendt agreed unconvincingly, “I think I would like to hear Baelor’s proposition.”
“Very well,” King Lienthor agreed sternly, “Why is it that you have come?”
All eyes turned to Baelor, including the still amused look of Kil’dar’s.
Baelor took a deep breath and began, “Lord Cardonian has gathered sixty thousand men to his banner, and you King Lienthor only thirty thousand. I have indeed gathered and army of my own, some ten thousand to aid you.”
Fairris noted that Baelor looked to Kil’dar many times during the conversation, which also set her mind ill at ease.
“But why would you aid me, and not Cardonian?” King Lienthor asked curiously.
“Cardonian is a racist,” Baelor replied evenly, “If my people are going to fight for a human King the equality of the Elder Races must be achieved, and you King Lienthor have advocated for the equality of races. But if my army is to fight for you that equality must be a certainty.”
“I cannot force the minds of the people,” King Lienthor replied, “But if you aid us, and if we should win, I will advocate more and louder for the equality of the Elder Races.”
A slight smile came to Baelor’s face and he nodded, “More finer details regarding lands can be discussed when, and if, we win.”
King Lienthor nodded and smiled, “A treaty shall be drawn up. Rook bring my scholars and call for the Lords, for I will get all their signatures. King Arendt you shall do the same.”
“Yes of course,” King Arendt said in surprise and jumped to instruct Commander Ka’rer who was still looking upset.
Fairris and her companions rose to leave.
“Hold you three,” King Lienthor commanded them to stop, “My feud with you and your companions is yet to be concluded Vythe Varrintine. But it shall wait until this war is over. Pray that you do not cause greater harm for I am willing to adjust my priorities. Now leave.”
Vythe bowed slightly and they left the tent, Bārdin grumbling in his beard the whole time.
“That went fairly well,” Fairris remarked as they moved to their horses. “Did you see the way the three Regional Commander’s looked and talked to one another?”
“Yes,” Vythe nodded, “Commander Ka’rer did not seem happy with the outcome. I also noted that Baelor and Kil’dar seemed familiar with one another.”
“Who cares?” Bārdin huffed, “Let’s get out of here, and out of this damnable rain. I’m sick of mud.”
“There will be much more to come, master dwarf,” Kil’dar said loudly as he approached them, “Best get used to it.”
Bārdin bristled angrily, his hand going to his axe, “I ought to cleave you in half.”
“That would be unwise,” Kil’dar replied, his eyes cold.
“Then we will tell everyone that you tried to have us killed,” Fairris said, her eyes burning.
Kil’dar shrugged, “Even if you could prove that, do you think anyone would care?”
That caused her anger to lesson, and Bārdin let go of his axe handle.
“Out of curiosity, you are friends of Lieut’s, correct?” Kil’dar asked, his expression unchanged.
“Does it matter anymore?” Vythe asked in reply, his fists clenched.
“No, I suppose not,” Kil’dar replied honestly.
“Let us go,” Vythe said turning away from Kil’dar.
“Farwell,” Kil’dar said with a nasty smile, “I am sure we will meet again.”
“You can count on it,” Fairris replied coldly.
“By the way,” said Kil’dar before they left, “Well played with the little alliance you orchestrated, you actually surprised me. But it was all for naught.”
Kil’dar left without saying anymore and Fairris to turned her companions with a worried look as she wondered what was meant by those last words.
There was no cold steel and bright monitors here, but the hall was filled with warriors of great discipline, warriors trained from their earliest years to achieve the greatest heights they could.
White lights flashed before her eyes as her opponent’s elbow connected heavily with her cheek. Jar’nesh fell back, temporarily stunned before she charged back in with a series of jabs and punches followed by a kick to her opponent’s knee. Her attacks were blocked skilfully and as her opponent blocked the kick with her leg Jar’nesh saw an opening. She stepped low and delivered a solid punch into her opponents gut, forcing her back a few steps.
But Ty’far, her opponent, came back furiously sending several fast kicks aimed at her head and body. Jar’nesh blocked them and as the last kick came low she quickly brought her opposite leg across to block and counter with a strong side-kick into Ty’far’s chest. But her opponent was equal to the task crossing her arms in front of her to take the weight of the kick.
Ty’far moved back in, coming at her with tight punches and elbows, all Jar’nesh blocked and countered superbly.
They were both fairly evenly skilled and had both improved since they had started these sparing season many days ago, all in preparation before they disembarked.
When they had first begun the training days Jar’nesh had not known many of the others would had been assigned to the Cataclysm, but she had soon made friends and Ty’far was among them.
Ty’far was of similar build to herself, roughly six foot with an athletic frame, she had light grey hair and deep grey-blue eyes. Like her, Ty’far had her hair tied in a tight bun and wore a simple white singlet top and tight black leggings. But unlike Jar’nesh, Ty’far had quite a large bust, which remarkably did not hinder her skill in fighting.
Since the beginning of the preparations Jar’nesh had been required to move from her house and into a form of barracks that was designed as a tower of flats where all the crew of the Cataclysm were required to stay, all except the High King of course. But despite the relocation Jar’nesh had enjoyed the change and relished the chance to meet new people who were to be her ship mates. There were all kinds among the crew, and Ty’far had actually orchestrated the initial reconnaissance for the invasion, where Jar’nesh was the only Biotic Engineer.
Jar’nesh smiled as one of her punches slipped through Ty’far’s defence and collected her opponent on the lip, splitting skin and causing blood to trickly down Ty’far’s chin. Even though they were friends there was no room for special treatment, they were each here to train at their best, and that could mean serious injury. But that was not an issue, serious injury did not matter, wounds can be healed, they were here to train as if they were in a real battle, and both were fighting as if they were.
Jar’nesh sent a quick turning kick towards Ty’far’s ribs, but her opponent was quicker and stepped inside her attack and grabbed her leg. In the same motion Jar’nesh felt her other leg be swept from under her and the impact from the mats as she fell on her back, blasting the air from her lunges. There was no time to catch her breath for Ty’far had followed her to the ground and put herself between Jar’nesh’s legs sending a rain of punches to her head. Jar’nesh brought her elbows up to her ears to deflect the punches but Ty’far had a serious advantage and was pressing it fiercely.
Jar’nesh managed to gather enough wit to clamp her thighs tightly around Ty’far’s ribs and locking her feet together she tried to press the air out of her opponent’s lunges. Ty’far’s punches continued to dart at the head from every possible direction as Jar’nesh held on tightly. A few blows slipped through and stunned her briefly, but they were doing little damage. Ty’far then changed tactics and Jar’nesh tensed her stomach muscles to protect against the blows. Stubbornly Jar’nesh continued to squeeze her thighs together and soon Ty’far’s blows came less frequently and she could see that her opponent was beginning to fade from the lack of air.
Just then a bell sounded and Jar’nesh released her hold upon Ty’far and they both collapsed in exhaustion. Ty’far did not even bother rolling to side and just dropped upon her, Ty’far’s head resting on her chest.
“Good defence,” Ty’far said between laboured breaths, and pushed herself up, offering a hand to Jar’nesh.
“Well fought,” Jar’nesh smiled back, “I think we are both improving.”
A whistle blew from the centre of the large training hall where half a dozen other hand to hand combat sessions just ended.
“Alright,” the instructor said loudly, “That ends the warm up now grab a weapon everyone. Remember first blood drawn equates to a victory, keep a tally of your wins for we will be beginning a round robin tournament within this crew and the winner will receive a one on one training session with the High King.”
An excited mummer erupted through the training hall, Jar’nesh and Ty’far exchanged enthusiastic looks as they moved to the weapons rack.
Both she and Ty’far chose a slender long sword from the many weapons that were there. Jar’nesh ran a finger along the edge to test if it was sharp enough and she smiled as she felt the steel bite as soon as she touched it. All the weapons here were meticulously cared for and each one masterfully crafted.
As she walked back to the mat Jar’nesh sent the sword into a few easy swings to get a feel for the blade. The moment she set foot on the mat Ty’far darted towards her, and the flash of steel led the way. But Jar’nesh was ready for the attack and spun away from the blade and executed her own devilish attack.
The day had only begun and it was still many hours until they would break for lunch, but neither she nor Ty’far even thought about that, both of them were too engrossed in their duel.
Tirelessly their blades moved as the drops of blood and sweat fell on the mat along with tatters of fabric from the torn clothes. Jar’nesh enjoyed every second as their swords clashed and the sound of metal rang out, every time she found flesh a smile spread across her face and every time she felt the sting of Ty’far’s blade she growled in determination to be better. She loved every moment, for this was what she was born to do, to fight and defeat all opponents.
By the time the lunch bell rang both she and Ty’far were breathing heavily and their clothes soaked with sweat and the blood from the many shallow cuts had basically turned their white tops to red. But each of them wore a smile and their eyes sparkled. Their clothes were in shreds as they returned the swords to the rack and walked arm in arm from the training hall to eat some food. Many of the other combatants were bleeding a lot more than they were, and even one looked as if he would die. But the medics were close by and took the man away on a stretcher to be healed.
Jar’nesh smiled as she noticed another friend Rai’ln, whose clothes were so badly ripped that she might as well be wearing nothing. Which was how it turned out for Railn laughed to herself, and to the others around as she ripped the remaining tatters from her body and confidently walked from the hall in her underwear.
Jar’nesh and Ty’far helped one another from the hall and to the showers where they could wash the sweat from their bodies and heal the wounds. From there they would have lunch before heading to their stations to perform countless simulations and tasks to prepare themselves for the launch. When the day ends she would virtually collapse into her bed in exhaustion before getting up early the next day to do it all again.
But Jar’nesh was not complaining, this is what she lived for, this was what she loved and very soon all this training would be set to the test when they went to war.
The colourful clouds of Fog swirled beneath the surface of the azure waters of the Gornl Sea as The Sparrow moved gently along. Lieut thought that the sea resembled a lake in fact for there were very little waves, which could likely be due to the Fog swimming under the surface.
Since they had left Scaroul the voyage had been excruciatingly slow due to the appearance of the many coral reefs among the ripped stone islands that barred their path. Captain Elza knew the waters well but that did not stop her from being very cautious, perhaps overly so.
Thanks to his brother, there was also now no Magi on board to aid their trek, the apprentice Philla tried to cast spells that would aid, but she was inexperienced and what spells she did cast were not very effective.
Lieut could still not believe his brother, who now called himself Raith, had killed the Magi Cahln. It had not only surprised him but all the crew on the ship, no one had tried to stop Raith after he had kicked the Magi over the rail, most likely out of fear. Even Lieut did not confront his brother about it, truthfully he did not care about the Magi, and besides Philla had cleared up the confusion after Elza had demanded what was happening on her ship. Once the issue was cleared up many even thanked Raith for his heroism, which was also surprising. What was more surprising to Lieut though was that his brother seemed to be enjoying the accolades and he saw a slight smile on Raith’s face, which annoyed Lieut.
Even more annoying was that his brother spent his time at the helm with Elza. It all pointed to the fact that his brother’s time here was causing him to change, just like Lieut had experienced. But if that was so, why was Raith not looking to spend more time with him.
“Is this jealousy I feel?” Lieut asked quietly to himself as he watched Raith and Elza talk to one another. “If my brother has indeed changed why has he not confided in me? Is there no trust between us?”
Lieut sighed heavily and looked back to the horizon and the many razor sharp crags that stuck out of the calm water.
As the warm day slipped by Lieut looked for opportunities to talk with his brother alone, but it was if Raith noticed this and purposely stayed with Elza at the helm. It was like this for the next few days as the ship slowly moved through the labyrinth of reefs and cliffs. But on one still night when they had dropped anchor and the crew had gone to sleep, Lieut found Raith sitting comfortably at the front of the ship on the figurehead as he gazed up at the stars.
“Have you been avoiding me, Raith?” Lieut asked as he came upon his brother.
Raith brother glanced at him but did not reply.
“You spend a lot of time with Elza,” Lieut tried again to engaged Raith in conversation.
“What of it?” Raith shot him a glare, “I like her.”
“So you have changed,” Lieut said, a sense of excitement swelling within him. “You are like me now.”
“I was never like you,” Raith said quickly and stood up, “Ever since the beginning we have been very different, all of us have. You were the first, the most elite. Nar’to was the one who had been perfected. But with me they tried new things. If I am like any of us, I would be closest to our youngest brother, the one you killed.”
“Is that why you hate me now?” Lieut asked back, his temper growing, “I followed orders, just like you would have done. But since coming to this land I have changed, we both have.”
Raith smirked, “You have not changed that much. I see you daily wrestling with your thoughts mumbling to yourself and wondering if you should complete your mission or not. You want to be done with all this and return home, to return to the way everything was before you came here. You do not accept the changes within yourself.”
“And you do?” Lieut snapped, “Have you easily adapted to these strange thoughts and emotions?”
“Yes,” Raith replied simply, “It is because we are so different that you could not adapt to these changes when you first discovered them.”
“You know nothing,” Lieut growled through clenched teeth, “You do not know what it was like when I first crashed and awoke to find strange thoughts in my head. You have no idea how it felt to reach out a brother who dismissed my plight and in return tried to kill me. The only reason you find this so acceptable is because I was the one who suffered first, I was the one who went through it. You only knew what to expect because it happened to me first. What I do not understand is why you avoid me? We can find a solution to this together, like the brothers we are.”
Raith shook his head, “This is where we differ, for you want it to be cured and I accept it. Never again will I follow an order from Kil’dar, never again will I be a puppet to be used. This is my life now and the only person who decides what I will do is me. If you complete your mission you aid our people in bringing destruction to this beautiful world, I will not help you do that.”
“What else do I have?” Lieut asked angrily, “Outside of my mission there is nothing for me here. What would be the point in saving it?”
“Find something,” Raith replied.
“Like you have, with your infatuation with Captain Elza?”
“Elza is my friend,” Raith replied simply.
Lieut’s eyes burned as he looked upon his brother, “I had friends too, or have you forgotten?”
Raith looked away from Lieut’s fierce stare.
“I will complete my objective, brother,” Lieut said coldly, “You would do well not to hinder me, or follow me any further.”
“You think I am following you?” Raith scoffed, “I am on this ship for myself, not for you. Know also that I cannot let you help bring death to this wonderful land.”
“Try and stop me.” Lieut replied coldly and turned away.
Fist clenched at his side Lieut stalked to the other end of the boat, his eyes burning with anger. Lieut stretched the stiffness from his neck and cursed his brother under his breath.
Raith had changed so much in the brief time they had been together, could it be true that Raith had accepted the internal changes better than he did.
Lieut thoughts were standing still as he climbed the Mizzen Mast near the helm, he could not even find the words to express how he felt about what his brother had said.
“What is wrong with me?” Lieut growled as he sat down on the topgallant sail. “Do I truly not care what will happen to this land?”
“No,” Lieut shook his head, “Perhaps I did once, but no longer. What good there was is now dead, and it was my brother and Kil’dar who had them killed.”
Lieut sighed heavily and stretched the stiffness out of his neck again as he looked to the stars.
“I will complete my mission,” Lieut nodded to himself, “If Raith stands in my way I will kill him and then I shall find and kill Kil’dar before returning home.”
As the next day dawned Lieut stood at the figurehead and looked to the horizon, and there he remained as the days drifted by.
As the fortieth day of Autumn came they had truly entered the maze of rugged isles. The sharp rocks towered above and around the ship as it weaved slowly through the narrow canals, avoiding the jagged rocks that stuck out from the water and scrapped on the hull of the ship.
Elza was a skilled Captain and knew the water ways well, steering The Sparrow confidently through the channels and remembering the correct path to take.
Lieut kept to himself, his golden orbs locked on the road ahead of him. He purposely avoided everyone else and especially his brother Raith. But every now and then he noticed his brother’s pale purples eyes watching him closely as if he knew what Lieut intended and was waiting for the chance to strike.
Raith was a master of stealth so Lieut forced himself to remain focused and alert throughout the nights and days.
Three days after the fortieth they emerged from the labyrinth and the sea was once again flat before them with a lone island in the distance. The island did not seem overly large and was girt by tall cliffs that prevented an easy access. Upon the lonely island stood a solitary peak with white smoke billowing out of it, even at this distance Lieut could see the dense clouds of Fog that accompanied the smoke as it drifted into the sky.
Lieut’s expression was unchanged as he looked upon his ultimate destination, but inside a feeling of excitement swelled, and a sparkle came to his golden eyes.
It took another day to reach the isle and dock at the poorly built wharf at the base of the cliff. The whole crew disembarked, all with excited looks upon their faces and boarded a singular lift made from rope and pullies that took them to the top of the cliff.
Lieut was the first to leave the lift and stride confidently along the rocky and flat path that led to the foot of the great volcano.
“You do not have to do this brother,” Raith said as he walked beside him, “You have a choice.”
“This is my choice,” Lieut replied coldly, his golden eyes locked on the volcano in the distance.
“War is the province of men? Nonsense. In death we are all the same.”
“There is no such thing as a wise or noble war. War is just that: war. The objective: to kill the opposition as quickly and as indiscriminately as possible, regardless of whether your adversary is a foot soldier, a knight, medic or King. There is only one rule in war: kill them, before they kill you.”
-War by King Erathor of Krnōrel
Year 3630, the Fifth Age, the forty-fifth day of Autumn
It was a rainy day on the foothills of Maluin Peak that sat on the northern most ranges of Farron Mountains, and conveniently overlooked the Pass of Karadon. Fairris, Vythe and Bārdin had been positioned in this location for the last few days scouting for the army of Lord Cardonian.
Fairris sighed heavily and a cloud of steam drifted from her lips. The cold of winter had come early to the regions of Essinendeür and a frost had greeted her this morning. At this early hour the skies were still overcast and trapped in the cold air. Squinting her eyes Fairris looked to the north in search of a coming army, but even with her far seeing elven eyes she saw no sign of them.
Fairris sighed again; she hated all this waiting around. But wait she must for the Pass of Karadon was the only way Lord Cardonian’s army could come so it was only a matter of time before she would catch sight of them.
Fairris, Vythe and Bārdin had been sent out along with a Mōrgul cat called Marin’cul as an advanced party as a platoon of King Lienthor’s army attempted to sack the city of Sparren. It was a good plan considering most of Norrendōrel’s forces had left to meet with the army of Sesserrech on the banks of the Nagra River. But it was only a good plan if the city could be taken quickly and with as little deaths as possible. However, Sparren was built into the very rock of the Farron Mountains by dwarves in ancient times and as such was a very good defensible position, not to mention a strategic one.
From her high position Fairris looked to the south to see the columns of black smoke still rising from where Sparren was located, a clear sign that things were not going so smoothly.
With a yawn Fairris stretched her back, and adjusting her fur cloak she continued to look towards the north. Where she sat was high on the foothills and at the edge of a cliff that fell hundreds of feet, but she had never been nervous of great heights and her feet swung easily over the edge. A crack of blue lightning thundered across the overcast sky and she felt her gaze move south and east in the direction of Pentra. Fairris’s stomach twisted into a knot as she thought of Lieut and what he was doing. She wondered why he had been heading to Pentra to begin with and if he succeeded in what he intended to do.
Over the last several days Fairris had had little time to sit and think as she and her companions had been sent scouting through the northern reaches of the Morrow Plains, from the Amber Mountains and across the Pass of Karadon to their current location. Much to her disappointment they had not come across any scouts from Lord Cardonian and only once did they have a slight skirmish with some Grenlocks. But that was very short and the Grenlocks practically ran without a fight. Their scouting had also been very quick and efficient with the Mōrgul Marin’cul leading the way.
During the trek Marin’cul had kept mostly to herself, speaking only when spoken to, but she seemed nice. During the nights Vythe had asked the Mōrgul a few questions about her clan, but Marin’cul said little as she brushed her thick black fury hair and manicured her claw-like nails. Such nightly grooming appeared a regular thing and in a way enforced the general consensus that Mōrgul were cats in human form.
Fairris sighed and rubbed a hand across her face, unfortunately she had pulled the short straw when they were deciding who would take which watch and ended up with the shift in the early hours of the morning. The change in sleeping patterns had worn her out and even now she was having difficulty keeping her heavy eyelids open.
Just as she thought she would soon fall asleep Fairris heard the light steps of the Marin’cul coming up the rocky trail to the lookout post to take over from Fairris’s watch. Pushing herself to her feet she stretched her back and arms and turned to see the Mōrgul coming.
Marin’cul wore no shoes on her feet and the only jewellery she wore were beaded anklets that chimed with light bells. She wore tight leather leggings and a small linen top that was done up by leather strappings which were also lined with colourful beads and pleasant chiming bells. On her wrists were many bracelets similar to the ones on her ankles as were her necklaces.
Fairris had always thought Mōrgul odd, in a similar way she thought Yineth were odd, for from the neck down Marin’cul looked just like her, apart from the sharp nails. It was only those sharp canine teeth, catlike ears, fury hair and slitted pupil eyes that set her apart from appearing wholly human, or elven. Those deep green eyes of Marin’cul regarded her now as the Mōrgul came up the last few rocks to her position.
“A beautiful morning,” Fairris greeted warmly, “Did you sleep well, Marin’cul?”
The Mōrgul smiled slightly, “I did, and it is. Now it is time for Fairris to rest and Marin’cul to watch.”
It was also strange how Marin’cul talked about herself in third person, but all Mōrgul did so.
“Yes,” Fairris replied again stretching her back. “Are you cold? Would you like a cloak, I think I have another.”
“Marin’cul is not cold,” the Mōrgul smiled genuinely, “She is used to these lands. Go now and rest. Surely you are tired and want the cloak to keep you warm.”
Fairris smiled and nodded, “Alright, I will talk to you soon.”
Marin’cul smiled but did not reply and Fairris started down the mountain path and to the sheltered alcove where they had set up camp. Bārdin was snoring loudly when she arrived and Vythe was also sleeping soundly. It seemed as though Marin’cul had cooked a brief meal before her watch and had left a small plate beside Fairris bedroll. With a smile Fairris happily ate the traditional Mōrgul dish and made ready for some sleep. As soon as her head touched the rolled cloth pillow she fell asleep.
The next few days slipped by in a daze and they received word through a crystal communication device that Sparren had not yet been sacked and the high stone walls had not even been damaged.
Bārdin was soon complaining loudly about the lack of entertainment with this whole ‘spying venture’, as he called it. Vythe was also beginning to become irritable, and Fairris too fell victim to the boredom she felt. The only one who did not seem to mind the idleness was Marin’cul, but it was so had to tell what the Mōrgul was feeling.
Although, Fairris had begun to pick up on many different micro-expressions that Marin’cul gave, and she remembered reading somewhere that Mōrgul mostly communicated through such expressions. Once Fairris began to notice these very minute expressions the mystery of Marin’cul begun to unravel and she tried to return such expressions in an attempt to make friends with the Mōrgul. Her attempts did not go unnoticed and one on occasion as Marin’cul took over from her watch the Mōrgul expressed her thanks for such attempts.
It was soon the fiftieth day of Autumn by Fairris’s reckoning and still she was sitting upon the outcrop in the cold hours of the early morning. This day there were fewer clouds in the sky, a rarity even in these northern reaches of the Morrow Plains, and Inüer’s golden gaze pierced through the scattered clouds as He climbed into the eastern skies. The warming light touched down on the frosty ground and sent a shiver through Fairris’s spine. Gazing to the north a flash of silver grabbed her attention and she jumped to her feet and strained to see as far as she could. As the light grew the cloud of many bodies darkened the horizon and the flashes of metal sparkled in the morning light.
“Finally,” Fairris smiled and she rushed down the mountain path to their campsite.
As she arrived Marin’cul was just waking up while Bārdin and Vythe still snored away. Fairris gave the Mōrgul a wide smile and tried to reflect her feeling of relief towards Marin’cul. The Mōrgul seemed to understand her and jumped to her feet and began packing her things.
“On your feet,” Fairris said loudly as she shook Vythe awake and gave Bārdin a kick in the gut. “Lord Cardonian has finally come.”
Vythe was up fairly quickly, but she had to kick Bārdin a few more times to get the dwarf moving. They decamped quickly and headed down the mountains along the paths that Marin’cul knew well. It was still early morning by the time they reached the lower hills and began southwards.
Marin’cul suddenly stopped as they reached the plains and looked north, “There,” the Mōrgul pointed towards the north.
Across the plains there was a flash of light and near on two dozen riders suddenly thundered across the grass heading towards Sparren.
“An advanced party,” Fairris observed, “Vythe, have you sent word to the forces at Sparren?”
“Of course,” Vythe nodded, “As we packed camp, but it will still take a long while for the platoon to retreat to the bulk of the force at the Little Ists.”
“There seems to be quite a bit of strength in their vanguard,” Bārdin said ominously.
Both Fairris and Vythe nodded.
“Cardonian must have been counting on King Lienthor to attempt an attack on Sparren,” Vythe remarked seriously.
“Cause some serious damage as they retreated from Sparren,” Bārdin nodded, “But there is little we can do, no way we can get to the platoon to aid.”
“Damn,” Vythe swore, “This could be a serious blow to Lienthor’s army. All we can do is send warning.”
Vythe sighed in frustration and took out his communication crystal and sent the word as Fairris turned angrily to the north, looking just in time to see the vanguard disappear as they teleported again.
In frustration they set out at a jog towards the south and towards the marsh lands that made up the area known as Little Ists and where King Lienthor had positioned himself for the first attack.
Early the next day they came upon the carnage that was caused by the forces retreating from Sparren as they had been attacked by Cardonian’s advance party. A fierce battle had clearly happened and many bodies lay dead in the muddy and burnt ground. Marin’cul’s sadness was obvious as they moved along the path of death, but Fairris could see that the Mōrgul’s sadness was not over the dead but rather damaged land.
“This one yet lives,” Vythe remarked before they set out again and they all moved over to where the soldier from I’ender sat leaning against a rock.
“Barely,” Bārdin accurately observed as they moved closer to the soldier.
Bārdin was right, it was rather surprising that the man was even still alive as he clutched at the puncture in his gut. The soldier’s eyes cracked open as Vythe knelt by the man, but his pale expression did not change.
“What is you name soldier?” Vythe asked softly and offered the man a drink.
“Clanard,” the soldier coughed as he drank a sip of water, “Footman, Second Class, from Dragoon regiment from I’ender.”
“What happened?” Bārdin asked gruffly, “Didn’t you get the message that the advanced party was coming?”
Clanard nodded stiffly, “They came upon us like a hurricane, like lightning from the sky. We defended best we could, formed squares against their mounted lance. Fell into the Turtle Formation and retreated best we could. But we only had a few Magi, and they were quickly overcome by the enemy.” Clanard coughed violently and blood trickled from his mouth, “There was nothing we could do. My square fell apart and the Lancers ripped through us. The sound of their hooves still thunder in my ears. I tried to save Tarrin, pushed him aside and got a lance in my gut”
The soldier tried to look around desperately, “Where is Tarrin? Did he make it?”
Clanard coughed again and more blood splattered from his mouth.
Fairris glanced around at the many other fallen soldiers, but she had no idea if any of them were Tarrin.
“I can’t make it back,” Clanard coughed, “End it quick, I can’t make it. Kill me quick.”
Vythe stood up, his expression hesitant.
Marin’cul was not hesitant and she stepped between them and drove a thin dagger into the dying soldier’s heart. Clanard died quickly and the Mōrgul wiped her blade clean before returning it to the sheath behind her back.
Fairris was about to say something when she noticed the slight expression of sadness and regret from Marin’cul. They could not have healed Clanard, nor carried him to the main camp, Marin’cul had done what was needed, and Fairris could see that Vythe and Bārdin understood that as well.
Quickly they moved from the dead soldier and along the path of many more dead. The day it took to reach the main camp at Little Ists was a sombre one.
When they arrived at the camp at Little Ists, they had little time to rest and King Lienthor instructed them to head northeast to the southern reaches of the Amber Mountains to continue their scouting and make sure Cardonian did not try and outflank them. As they got a brief respite they learnt that the platoon that had retreated from Sparren had suffered some great losses but not enough to make a serious gap in the army.
As evening fell Marin’cul led the way out the eastern side of Little Ists and towards the Amber Mountains. Sapphire lightning flashed through the sky at steady intervals and a misty rain fell. Fairris looked northwest to in the direction of the Pass of Karadon and she could see the light of hundreds of burning torches. Lord Cardonian’s army had come, bringing fire in their wake.
The island turned out to be bigger than Lieut had expected and it had taken him several days to reach the base of the volcano. The heat was stifling as the crew of The Sparrow moved through the thick damp jungle, the clouds of Fog drifted among the trees, the sounds of many birds and animals echoed around them. The dense trees led right up to the base of the lone peak that stretched high into the sky with snow upon its shoulders and white smoke and Fog spewing forth from its mouth. In a small clearing on the volcano’s feet sat a settlement for the followers of the Crythnin belief, their small huts made from fallen tree limbs and stone. It was odd that they had not used the power of the Fog to aid in the building of their homes, but Lieut knew that to be because they saw the Fog as divine and using it for magicks was considered blasphemy.
“Greetings brethren,” an elderly man smiled as Lieut led the crew from The Sparrow into the village, “Welcome to our haven.”
The only pilgrim left from the crew burst into tears and embraced the old man with a joyful hug.
“I thought I wouldn’t make it,” the pilgrim wept, “All my companions died.”
“Rest easy brother, you are home,” the old man returned the hug and waved another monk to him, “Go with Sister Lain, she will find you a bed.”
The pilgrim continued to weep and thanked the old man repeatedly.
“The voyage is harsh so that only the true believers shall make it,” the old man said piously.
“I am no believer,” Braygarh remarked.
The older man smiled at them, “No, but you are each hardened adventurers, most that come here are not. But where are my manners, my name is Mathinnis and welcome to the Isle of God.”
“I don’t suppose you remember me?” Elza asked, stepping forward.
“Dear Elza, of course I do,” Mathinnis smiled, “My you have grown, you were but a child when your father brought you here. I don’t see him among you crew, is he unwell?”
Elza shook her head, “He’s fine, this is my first solo voyage, that’s all.”
“Then I am happy for you,” Mathinnis smiled, “Come and eat and rest, for you all must be weary.”
“Which way to the Birth of the Fog priest,” Helfgarh asked impatiently, “That is why me and my brother have come.”
“I guessed as much,” Mathinnis replied, “The day grows late. But do not worry tomorrow morning we shall make a trip to the summit of Vhalinula, and there you may look into the Eye of God.”
The brothers from Gaianaus shrugged to one another and moved with Elza and the rest of the crew into the small village. Lieut gave Raith a glance, who was watching him closely with those pale purple eyes, before he too headed into the village. All the Crythnin devotees in the village, as well as Mathinnis, also watched him closely with curious eyes, but never did they try and talk to him.
The night came quickly and Raith spent his time with Elza, which annoyed Lieut more than he wanted to admit. In the night the heat persisted and large clouds of Fog lit up the sky.
Throughout the dark hours Lieut wondered if he was doing the right thing, if destroying the Birth of the Fog was a good thing.
“What else have I to do?” Lieut asked himself bitterly, “What reason is there to save this land? None, Bārdin, Vythe and Fairris are dead. There is nothing for me here.”
In the early hours of the morning a strange and sudden chill took the island and snow began to fall settling gently on the rooves of the houses and limbs of the trees. Lieut watched emotionlessly as the flakes of snow accumulated on the stony ground and glimmered with the colours of the Fog.
The snow was still falling when the rest of The Sparrow’s crew awoke shivering and Mathinnis came and gathered them together before the old man lead the way to the thin path that spiralled up the side of the mountain Vhalinula.
“By The Five,” exclaimed one of the crew, “It’s snowing.”
“Do not be troubled,” Mathinnis reassured the crew member, “The Fog loves all weather, such cold snaps occur quite often in the brief hours before the dawn. But it will soon become warm once again.”
It did at that, and as they began the trek up the mountain path, Inüer’s light grew harsh and the snow melted quickly. Before midmorning most were sweating profusely and gulping down many mouthfuls of water.
“What is the white smoke spewing from the peak?” Helfgarh asked as they walked along.
“It is the reason why Vhalinula was called a volcano,” the old man replied, “But it is not, for there is no fire within it. The smoke you see is simply just cloud that joins the Fog as it comes into this world.”
A few other questions were asked but Lieut paid no attention to them, he knew much already about Vhalinula so he kept quiet at the rear of the party. Mathinnis also felt the need like all priests to explain his belief to them and why it was the true religion and why the Fog was the one true God. But Lieut paid the pious man little regard and tried not to listen to Mathinnis’s preaching.
Clouds of Fog wafted around them as they climbed higher and the day became steadily hotter.
The morning turned to afternoon and still they climbed, resting when needing to. Lieut could have pushed past the Mathinnis at the lead and reached the peak a lot quicker, but he held his eagerness back, for his mind was still wrestling with doubt.
By late afternoon they came to a small shelf where a few huts had been built, and a few shallow caves were cut into the mountainside.
“This is our only stop,” Mathinnis said as he moved towards one of the small houses, “Rest now for tomorrow is the harder trek.”
After another unnaturally cold night the next day came bright and clear, the snow was quick to melt again and Inüer shone upon the path up the mountain. A hot morning breeze pushed at them as they walked along the path, making many feel the heat a lot more, but Lieut was not bothered, and nor was his brother or Mathinnis for that matter.
As they climbed the much steeper path the air grew considerably thinner and several of the ship’s crew decided to return to the bottom out of exhaustion. Soon only himself, Mathinnis, Philla, the pilgrim, the two Gaianaus brothers, Elza, and of course Raith remained to climb the last stretch of path to the summit.
The road became narrower and more dangerous and forced them to edge along the precipice of a tall cliff with their backs to it. Once Elza stumbled and almost fell over the edge but Raith had been quick to save her from Death. Lieut watched in frustration as his brother held Elza’s hand for the remainder of the section atop the high cliff.
The next section of path was just as dangerous and saw them scaling the side of another cliff, luckily for most the handholds were well used and easy to follow, and the rock climbing was fairly short. The last section of the path was easy and went up a slight incline which was covered in shallow snow and littered with grey stones.
Lieut walked eagerly up the slope his golden eyes fixed in awe at the monstrous pillar of cloud and Fog that poured from the peak and reached high into the pale blue sky. He could not stop his mouth falling open in wonder as they crested the peak to see the ground fall away before him into a deep caldera, from which the Fog and cloud gushed. The rim of the crater was narrow and stretched hundreds of feet wide, the other side being obscured by the eruption of Fog and cloud.
Lieut’s golden eyes followed the rim and out across the land bellow him, he could see the edge of the island the maze of hundreds of other islands standing chaotically above the water. From this height he could finally see a pattern within the litter of islands, as if the earth had been ripped apart by fierce winds that swirled out from this very mountain.
To the south he could just make out the shoreline of the Southern Kingdoms, similarly jagged and ripped as the shores of Essinendeür and the islands in the Scar of Gornl.
“Into the Cradle we go,” Mathinnis said, pulling Lieut’s attention from the view.
The old man led the way along the rim and down another narrow path that led into the caldera where the Fog and cloud spewed.
Clouds of Fog moved past his head and the smell of damp air filled Lieut’s senses. The trail into the Cradle was much warmer than seemed normal and the moisture from the clouds made his clothes stick to him. As Lieut followed further down this steep path a glow could be seen within the depths, a glow of Fog, and it grew brighter the further they went. Lieut’s anxiety grew rapidly with the passing hours and it seemed to become darker around them and the light in the depths brighter.
Finally they stopped on a small ledge that over looked a stone floor. Great cracks could be seen running through the ground as the glow and Fog streamed from them. Clouds hung heavily in the air around them and Lieut could not see very far across the bottom of the caldera.
“Is this it?” Helfgarh asked in surprise, “Where is it coming from, and what is that light?”
“We shall never know,” Mathinnis replied simply, “We have never found a way to go lower than we are now. There are no tunnels or caves on this island that allows us to do so. We have come to accept that this is the Birth of the Fog, this is where our God comes to us.”
“It is glorious,” the pilgrim wept and fell to his knees.
“It is quite remarkable,” Braygarh remarked, “But I guess I was expecting something more.”
Lieut did not hear any more comments and moved angrily to the edge of the ledge. This could not be it, his mind screamed. Was his mission all for naught? Was there nothing here but cloud?
“It seems it was all in vain, brother,” Raith remarked quietly as he stood beside him. “But it was always speculative at best. It looks like you will not be able to return home after all.”
Lieut glared at his brother before he dropped from the ledge and to the hard ground a few meters below. He could hear the calls of alarm from the priest Mathinnis but he did not care, there had to be more to it than what he saw before him.
“Will you search every inch of this ground?” Lieut heard his brother ask.
Lieut did not reply and continued to stalk into the cloud and Fog, with Raith close behind him.
Minutes passed and all Lieut could see was the glow from the cracks in the earth, a haze of cloud and Fog around him. But he would not give up, he could not give up, his mission had clearly showed there was something that produced the Fog. And that something had to been below him, he only needed to find a way to go deeper into the ground.
“Your search is futile,” Raith said, “Clearly they had been wrong.”
Lieut whirled on his brother angrily, “What do you want me to do, give up? I will complete my mission. I will dig my way down if I have to.”
“To what end, brother?” Raith shook his head in bewilderment.
Lieut growled and turned away from his brother to see a bright flash in front of his eyes which was quickly followed by darkness.
Sverth, a young soldier from Krnōrel, marched uneasily behind Lord Brank from Woodlands. Sverth had lived in the pleasant lands of Woodlands all his life and when the call for war had been heard he happily enlisted to save his home. Upon enlisting he had been given a suit of chainmail, a sword, a shield and a spear, all of which were too big or too heavy for him, and then told to march. His feet were sore and his mail chafed, but it had not been that bad. On the first few days of service he had been taught how to use the shield and sword, and he even learnt a few basic spells. But the pleasant times had changed quickly.
Sverth adjusted his helm as the column of soldiers from Woodlands kept marching. Being in the second row of the column he would be one of the first to see the blood of the dogs from Sesserrech, but he was not overly excited about that prospect and his hands shook uncontrollably.
Peering around the horse that Lord Brank rode, his heart jumped into his throat as he looked upon the coming army of Lord Cardonian. Sverth felt like turning and running for his life, but there was no escape for all around him were hundreds of soldiers.
The sounds of heavy feet and the noise of chainmail and metal rang in his ears along with the sound of his heartbeat and his heavy breathing.
The massive Cardonian line came closer and Sverth heard the first volley of arrows whistle over his head and into Cardonian’s soldiers. The screams of the dying sent an ungodly chill through him and nearly caused him to vomit.
“Arrows,” someone yelled above the sounds of the marching army.
Quickly Sverth raised his heavy shield above his head just in time to stop several bolts from killing him.
“Charge,” Lord Brank screamed and kicked his horse forward.
Sverth had no time to realise what was happening before he was pushed ahead from behind and the front line of Cardonian’s army loomed before him.
Sverth felt the warmth of blood spray across his face as Lord Brank fell from his horse with a spear in his chest. The Lord’s war horse continued to charge ahead without the rider and stomp and bite all in its path.
Sverth did not see what happened to the horse for the army’s shields clashed, metal clanged, and the screams of the dying filled the air.
“It has begun,” Fairris remarked as the centre columns of both Cardonian and Lienthor charged.
Blue lightning thundered overhead and a light rain was falling as she, Vythe, Bārdin and Marin’cul watch the battle begin from a vantage point on the peak of a large hill to the north of the battlefield. This large hill was called Yucht by the Mōrgul, and in truth was not very tall, but as a lone mound in the middle of mostly flat plains it provided an excellent view.
“Look,” Vythe pointed and peered through a spy glass, “Cardonian’s right column is moving to flank the centre. King Lienthor was correct in his thoughts.”
Fairris nodded, but did not comment.
It had only been a few short days since they had once again been sent out as a scouting party by King Lienthor but much had happened during that time. Lienthor’s position at Little Ists had not lasted long and after a brief skirmish with Cardonian’s vanguard he had retreated back to the fort he had built on the north bank of Lake Ire, where Fairris and her party had first spoken with the King.
But the retreat had been a tactical one, designed to draw out Cardonian’s main force, and it had worked, for only a few days later and on this grey morning there was Lord Cardonian with his great and terrible army.
“The left columns are branching off as well,” Bārdin observed. “Lienthor’s forces might be less but his strategies are working.”
“For now,” Vythe remarked gravely.
As Vythe spoke Cardonian’s right column had reached Lienthor’s centre and were pushing the attack hard.
“But it does seem that Lienthor is a better tactician,” Vythe pointed to where a unit of Lienthor’s soldiers had broken away from the rear of the centre and began to flank Cardonian's right column. “The Black Pine Company advances.”
“There they are, the bastard Essinendeür Rangers,” Blarric screamed to his men as they broke away from the central column of Lienthor’s army. “They try and flank us. Let’s show ‘em what it means to be a Merc.”
The Black Pine Company roared and followed Blarric with gusto towards the Essinendeür Rangers that were pressing the right flank of Lienthor’s central force.
The Rangers saw Blarric and his men coming at the last minute and moved to defend, but now they were the ones being pressed, and from both sides.
Blarric laughed and roared as he cut into the ranks of the Essinendeür Rangers, long had there been animosity between the two factions of mercenaries, and now they could vent their hatred for one another. Blarric ducked under one swing and opened up his opponents gut before clashing swords with the next in line.
Quickly realising that it was the Black Pine Company the Rangers pushed back with renewed vigour and equal hatred.
Blood flowed freely as the rival groups fought viciously. The ground soon became muddy and slippery, slick with the limbs and entrails of both squads.
Blarric screamed as a sword cut through his defence and sliced open his face.
“Well played,” King Arendt from I’ender congratulated.
Kil’dar yawned as he watched from atop the dike as the Black Pine Company split away from the back of the centre column and flanked the Essinendeür Rangers. He stood there alongside King Lienthor, King Arendt, both Regional Commander Rook and Ka’rer and several other Lords that did not want to dirty their shiny new set of armour.
“Well played indeed,” agreed one of the pompous Lords, “And look that fool Cardonian follows Lord Fornest and his Helwyr Rivian to the left. Leaving himself exposed.”
King Lienthor did not respond to the extravagant accolades from the Lords and King Arendt and silently studied the battlefield in the distance.
Lienthor was quite the strategist, Kil’dar noted with an approving nod to himself, and unlike these sycophants around them was no doubt thinking that the battle was perhaps going too well.
“This is perfect,” King Arendt laughed, “Send the cavalry right through that gap on the left flank. Cardonian will not know what hit him.”
“Their cavalry has yet to be seen,” Regional Commander Lethain Rook remarked wisely.
“You dispute King Arendt’s wisdom?” Commander Ka’rer sneered, “He said for the cavalry to charge up the left flank.”
“We should wait until Cardonian’s cavalry has made itself known,” said King Lienthor shaking his head.
“The majority of our cavalry has been supplied by King Arendt,” Ka’rer argued, “He should command them.”
“Yes,” King Arendt agreed, “Indeed I shall.” The King from I’ender then turned to one of his Lords, “Lord Haron, charge our cavalry through that gaping hole on the left flank and slaughter Cardonian’s army from behind.”
“King Arendt, that will place them in range of Cardonian’s artillery,” King Lienthor tried to persuade the man.
“Then they will just come back through that hole,” King Arendt dismissed the warning. “I said charge Lord Haron.”
The Lord nodded stiffly and bowed courteously before leaving for his horse.
Kil’dar smiled and shook his head.
Minutes later Lord Haron could be seen leading the cavalry, his bright helm flashing through the rain. He led his men right through the gap created by Lord Fornest who had pushed Cardonian’s left column towards the banks of Lake Ire.
“Why did he send forth the cavalry?” Vythe wondered aloud as he looked through his eyeglass. “Cardonian has not made known his mounted troop. That was a foolish move by Lienthor.”
“You assume it was Lienthor’s decision,” Fairris remarked as she too looked upon the battle, “Most of the cavalry came from I’ender, it was likely King Arendt, the fool.”
“Or that Regional Commander that’s always watching over him,” Bārdin huffed.
Fairris nodded and looked back to the fighting, still events seemed to be going in Lienthor’s favour despite the fewer troops. The centre column was holding, the Black Pine Company were pressing hard against the Essinendeür Rangers that had tried to flank the centre, and Lord Fornest was occupying the left flank and pushing continuously wider and onto the banks of Lake Ire, most likely not by design, but it was effective.
“Why are we here anyhow?” Bārdin grumbled, “We should be down there fighting. I haven’t had a good fight for ages. The last was that scouting part of Cardonian’s we came across. But that weren’t much of a fight.”
Fairris and Vythe laughed at the dwarf’s remark.
“There will be plenty of time yet, master dwarf,” Vythe began, but he cut himself short and looked through his spy glass intently.
“Damn,” Vythe swore, “Look, there is Cardonian’s cavalry, coming from the north. They are going to tear right through the Black Pine Company and into the right flank of the centre.”
“That’s not the only problem,” Fairris pointed into the distance, “Cardonian’s left column is breaking apart and blocking Lienthor’s cavalry from retreating.”
“Quick, get that talk-crystal-thing of yours out Vythe and send the word to Lienthor,” Bārdin said hurriedly, but Vythe was already doing just that.
As Fairris glanced back to the battlefield she felt a tingle of magicks and Vythe’s communication crystal shattered as he held it before him.
“To arms,” Marin’cul warned just as a squad of soldiers appeared before them on the top of the hill Yucht.
Fairris had her gunblades in her hands the moment she felt the second tingle of magicks in the air, but as the soldiers teleported a wave of magicks knocked her backwards.
She quickly rolled to her feet to see a squad of knights wearing the armour of Sesserrech’s elite guard. A golden eagle was enamelled across the chest of their pale blue steel plate armour and upon their full helms were golden wings. The knights also wore the insignia of House Cardonian upon the left breast and carried weapons of Fog. Among their ranks was also a Magi who was amid the casting of another spell as the knights from Sesserrech advanced towards them.
Fairris firmed her jaw and charged at the closest knight. Cardonian must have learnt of their activities and location and had sent some of the best to eliminate them. But she was not worried, Vythe, Bārdin and herself had fought through too many battles to die now.
Fairris slapped aside a spell from the closest knight and responded with a stream of magickal bullets from her gunblades. The knight dropped his shield in front for protection, which also shielded his view. Fairris darted ahead her gunblades cutting low and knocking the shield wide and slicing across the knight’s chest guard. Sparks and gold enamel flew through the air and she flipped away from the knight as he swung his sword for her head. Landing on her toes Fairris jumped back in and around the knight, her blades finding a crease in the armour at the knee and shoulder. Her gunblades cut into flesh but a spell from the Magi caused her attack to do little damage.
She jumped away from another spell and agilely defended the skilled attacks from the knight she had been fighting. As she spun and weaved in and around the knight’s attacks, making deft counters that had little effect, she was able to catch a glimpse of the fight around her.
Vythe was trading spells and energy blasts with the Magi as he fought fiercely with one knight, while Bārdin was charging in head first at two other knights and getting the upper hand. Marin’cul could not be seen, which worried her greatly as the last knight was attempting to flank her. They were outnumbered and the heavily armoured knights were beginning to gain an advantage.
Desperately Fairris twisted under another attack from the knight in front of her and again she sliced for the gap in the knight’s armour at the knee. This time her blade cut deeply and the knight collapsed under the weight of the armour. Fairris continued the turn and drove the tip of her gunblade under the helm of the knight’s bowed head. The knight fell dead to the ground, but the move had placed her in a direct line of the Magi’s spells, and she looked up to see the Magi about to cast one towards her.
A fork of azure lightning suddenly short out of the sky and struck the top of the Magi’s head, disrupting his spell casting, staggering him to the side and shattering all magickal buffs he had cast upon himself. Fairris watched in surprise as the Magi gathered his feet and Marin’cul appeared behind him. The Mōrgul quickly and quietly reached up to the Magi’s throat and ripped open his neck with vicious Fog created gauntlets that were in the shape if large claws.
Fairris had little time to ponder the scene for the last knight charged, his broad sword swinging wildly. Although the swings were powerful they were also slow and she easily avoided the cuts of the Fog blade and lunged for the creases in the knight’s armour.
Fairris’s blades slipped through the gaps under the armpit, at the ribs, hips and behind the knees and very soon the knight was bleeding from dozens of wounds and his swings were much slower. With one last great attempt to cut her in two the knight fell to his knees and screamed in anger and denial. Fairris ended those yells with a charged blast from her gunblades that blew apart the knights helm and head.
Fairris breathed sigh of relief and sucked in deep breaths as she looked to her friends. Vythe had his victim impaled upon a spear of stone from the ground and Bārdin was wrenching free his axe from one knight’s head. Marin’cul’s odd gauntlets had vanished and she walked calmly towards her. Fairris smiled sincerely and thanked the Mōrgul for the aid before they joined Vythe and Bārdin who were looking intently back to the battlefield to the south.
“Can we still send a message?” Bārdin asked seriously.
“It is too late,” Vythe shook his head.
Lord Haron’s sword flashed brightly as he led his charge along the lines of Sesserrech, flesh was sliced and shields shattered. Riding skilfully atop his high steed he controlled the horse with slight movements of his feet on the horse’s flanks and the reins in his left hand, whilst hacking away at soldiers with his right.
Initially Lord Haron had doubted his King’s command to charge, agreeing with King Lienthor that the cavalry should wait until Cardonian showed his mounted horsemen. But this left flank was so open with the left columns moving closer to the waters of Lake Ire, and his charge had created a great deal of disorder and chaos for Cardonian’s central column.
Lord Haron flicked the reins and his mount veered to the left, at a signal with his sword he led the vanguard out wide to make another charge across the ranks of Sesserrechien soldiers.
A cry of pain was heard at the centre of his column and several horses fell screaming to the ground. A ball of magicks exploded to his right and wisps of Fog disappeared into the air leaving behind a small crater. Cardonian’s artillery had moved closer and they were now in range of the Fog crafted cannons and their balls of explosive magicks. Several more volleys of magickal blasts landed dangerously close to Lord Haron’s horsemen and he steered his mount further to the left. There was nothing he could do against such fire power, so he sounded the retreat of his cavalry. But as Lord Haron began to retreat to the west and towards the safety of ally lines he noted the detachment from Cardonian’s left column moved to block his retreat. The detachment had set a strong defensive line across his path, but Lord Haron urged his men to charge, they had to brake that line else be destroyed by artillery.
The hooves of Lord Haron’s steed thundered across the muddy ground and five hundred horsemen galloped at his back. As they neared the defensive lines blasts of magicks rolled out from the Cardonian troops, ripping up the dirt and thundering past his shoulders. The shimmer of a magickal barrier lit up across the line of soldiers and Lord Haron saw his doom.
Fog cannon pummelled them with magickal explosions at their backs, and a magickal barrier stood in front along with powerful spells being cast at them.
Lord Haron growled in frustration and cursed King Arendt for his lack in judgement in ordering the charge. Desperately he wheeled his column of horsemen around and towards the centre column of Cardonian soldiers, but there was no way through there.
Horses and soldiers screamed as the artillery scorched into their backs and spells hit them from the front. There was no way out, to the left flank there was only Cardonian soldiers and the Lake, to the right the massive central column, and both in front and behind his men were slammed with devastating blasts.
“This cannot be how it ends,” Lord Haron growled as his black steed reared as an energy ball sent a shower of mud into the air.
Lord Haron swung his horse around and headed towards the artillery blasts.
“Charge!” Lord Haron screamed and his loyal horsemen followed him into the devastating rain of magickal blasts.
Riding the best horses in all of West March, Sir Raermin Cardonian, the youngest son of Lord Cardonian, led the charge into the Black Pine Company, which had the Essinendeür Rangers on the back foot.
Although not in agreement with his father’s decisions to go to war, he had been a dutiful son and followed the orders of his Lord and Commander. Patiently they had waited for Lienthor to send his cavalry and now they could press the advantage. The spies of King Lienthor’s, which they had received word of, would soon be eliminated on top of the Yucht hill and their charge would be a complete surprise to King Lienthor.
Raermin nodded grimly as he saw the left column trap Lienthor’s cavalry and a flash of magicks upon the Yacht told him that the Krnōrel spies were being dealt with.
Urging his grey stallion faster Raermin lowered his lance causing the flag of Sesserrech to wrap around the shaft. The white mane of his steed blew in the wind the hooves of his one thousand horsemen thundered across the plains, ripping apart the turf and causing the ground to tremble.
Excitement sparkled in Raermin’s blue eyes and his heart raced and sounded in his ears. Being the youngest of the Cardonian household this was his first battle, and his first command. Already his jerkin was sticky with sweat under his moulded blue and gold chest plate from anxiety and the exhilaration he felt.
The Black Pine Company saw them charge at the last minute and assembled a weak defensive line as horsemen stormed into the ranks, trampling soldiers and shattering bones.
Raermin’s lance was ripped from his hand as the crashed into the ranks of the Black Pine Company, angling the assault so they would charge through one section before circling around to charge again.
With his lance gone, Raermin summoned forth his Fog great sword and swung it effortlessly with his right hand as he reined his steed with the other. Heads flew from shoulders and shields shattered as he swung again, and again, all the while kicking his horse forwards and out the other side of the column.
Out the other side Raermin and his horsemen swung to the west and north, circling around to make another run at the Black Pine Company.
As Raermin swung his mounted troops around he could see that what was left of the Essinendeür Ranger had fallen back and towards the central column, leaving the attention of the Black Pine Company solely to him and his men.
“For Sesserrech, and my brother!” Raermin shouted to his cavalry and again they charged towards the lines of soldiers.
This time the Black Pine Company had formed a better defence against mounted troops. But still Raermin and cavalry plunged through the lines, trampling and hacking at the soldiers before breaking out the other side and circling around for another charge.
The Black Pine Company would soon be decimated, and he had lost only a few men. Again Raermin charged and crashed through the lines, felt a spear bounce off his shoulder blade and whistle past his head, his armour protecting him from harm. Raermin felt his sword rip into flesh with each swing, and blood splashed across his face. The stench of death filled his sense and he roared in bloodlust and hacked relentlessly at the passing soldiers as he once again burst into the open and began another circle and charge.
As he circled Raermin’s wide eyes caught sight of a detachment from the back Lienthor’s central column moving to aid the Black Pine Company. Raermin smiled to himself and adjusted their angle of attack.
Circling his mounts further around to the east he allowed the detachment to reinforce the Black Pine Company before making the charge alongside the central column and in attempt to spilt the Black Pine Company and the reinforcements from the main column.
Hooves thundered and men screamed as they crashed into the lines, hacking and slashing their way through. Raermin’s horse stomped and bit at any and all soldiers in the way, and his sword arm swung with tireless efficiency.
Raermin felt someone grab at his leg, but a swing of his sword severed the arm at the elbow. More hands grabbed at him, trying to pull him from his saddle, but Raermin would not fall. He kicked his horse forwards and stabbed and slashed at anything that moved. Raermin could see the lines thinning as he broke through to the other side.
This dividing of Lienthor’s forces would be his crowning achievement. No longer would he be overlooked as the youngest in the family. He would be a hero of Sesserrech and songs would be sung about his triumph and valour. The women of the court would blush at his passing, and finally his father would take his advice seriously instead of dismissing him.
The lines of the enemy broke away and Raermin kicked his horse forward. But then someone grabbed his wrist and a hand caught a hold of the cuff of his neck and he was yanked from his mount. The ground met him heavily and blasted the wind from his lunges. Raermin tried to gather his feet but a boot slammed him in the face, causing him to bite the inside of his cheek. The taste of blood and dirt filled his mouth and again he tried to stand, but a hoof of one of his men’s horses slammed into the side of his head and knocked him to the ground.
Raermin knew no more.
“Damn it to the Abyss,” King Lienthor swore loudly.
“Cardonian shows his cunning,” King Arendt nodded angrily, “And exerts his greater man power. Cardonian’s youngest, Sir Raermin, has done well to divide the Black Pine Company and their reinforcements from the central column.”
Kil’dar watched in amusement as King Lienthor’s lips became thin and he clenched his hands at his side.
“Look there,” King Arendt continued, oblivious to Lienthor’s growing anger. “The detachment that blocked my cavalry’s retreat has joined the main column and is forcing our troops back. Alas for my horses, their charge was in vain.”
“They charged because you ordered it,” King Lienthor turned angrily to the King of I’ender. “Your delusions of grandeur may have cost us all our lives. You are a fool Arendt, a lessor son of a noble lineage.”
Kil’dar nearly laughed in amusement.
“Watch your words,” Commander Ka’rer threatened.
“You should watch your words Ka’rer,” Commander Rook jumped in, “This is the King of Krnōrel you speak to.”
“King for how much longer I wonder?” Ka’rer asked nastily.
“Perhaps a while longer yet,” Kil’dar remarked, grabbing everyone’s attention. “Look to the field, your cavalry yet rides.”
They all looked to where he pointed just in time to see the flag of Lord Haron stream down the right flank and charge into the mounted troops from Sesserrech. Somehow the cavalry had raced behind Cardonian’s lines and escaped out the right side. Led by Lord Haron the horsemen flew down the right flank with such ferocity that the troops from Sesserrech were pushed back almost instantly. What remained of the Black Pine Company and the reinforcements rallied to Lord Haron and turned the tides on Cardonian’s cavalry.
“Praise that man,” King Lienthor remarked quietly.
Suddenly an unearthly shriek sounded from the left flank where the battling armies had strayed so far that they were fighting in the shallows of Lake Ire.
“What in the Abyss?” King Arendt squeaked and fell back in horror, and all of the other Lords followed his lead.
Kil’dar almost laughed out loud at the sight.
From the lake a great monster had crashed out of the waters and thundered into the fighting soldiers. The beast’s huge tentacles flailed and crashed into the army, slapping around the soldiers and ripping them apart.
“Damn,” King Lienthor growled, “We can offer no aid.”
“Your centre line waives King,” Kil’dar observed.
All standing upon the dike looked to see the centre column being pushed back fiercely by Cardonian’s army.
King Lienthor sighed heavily, “Sound the retreat.”
“Do not be absurd,” King Arendt said, gathering his composure, “My cavalry and what remains of Black Pine Company and the detachment will aid them.”
King Lienthor turned angrily to the King of I’ender, “The only thing they can aid is their retreat.”
The King turned to a soldier close by, “Sound a full retreat.”
Rivian of Gerrald, the Helwyr, ducked easily under the swinging arm of a soldier and opened the man’s gut, her sharp sword easily cutting through the chainmail. Quickly she moved through the ankle deep water and sliced through another soldier who was moving behind Lord Fornest. Somehow their fight with the Sesserrechien soldiers had ended up in the shallows of Lake Ire. Knowing well the dangers that lurked beneath the surface of these waters Rivian was greatly concerned. But there was nothing she could do at the moment for both sides were too engulfed in the battle and would not likely listen to any warnings she might voice.
Rivian’s white hair was tied back in a short pony tail and her yellow eyes darted around the shallows of the lake for the next enemy to try and kill Lord Fornest. Although she had been born and raised as a devotee in the Sect of Artāre for the sole purpose of killing the evil fiends that plagued villages and the darker regions of Essinendeür and spreading the light of Artāre, she owed Lord Fornest a favour and would defend the man as best she could.
Instinct saved Rivan then, and she fell to her knees and threw her head back just as an arrow flashed across her face, the bolt cutting a deep line across her cheekbone. Rivian jumped to her feet and sent a ball of energy scorching towards the archer before she wiped away the blood on her face and shrugged, it was just one more scar.
Quickly Rivan moved back to back with Lord Fornest, who was a head taller than her. She was also smaller framed and much less armoured than all of Fornest’s elite guard, but she was the only one who remained.
Another soldier splashed through the water towards her, his sword flashing dangerously. Rivian pirouetted away from the slice and slapped at the blade, but the water had slowed her movement and the soldier’s sword cut through her tight leather top and drew a bright line of blood, Rivian sighed angrily: this was her only top. She jumped away from the soldier and mumbled a spell under her breath causing her heart rate to increase and adrenaline to surge through her veins. Springing off her toes Rivian darted ahead, slapping aside the soldier’s sword and dropping the man to water where his blood merged with the rest of the dead.
Again she fell back to back with Lord Fornest, and grumbled about her ruined top.
“It seems we have strayed too far from the centre column,” Lord Fornest laughed.
“It could be worse,” Rivian replied with a smile.
Suddenly a giant beast burst forth from the waters of the lake, shrieking wildly and crashing into the fighting forces and stealing Rivian’s mirth. The beast’s large tentacles slammed into the armies, crushing soldiers from both sides and ripping them apart indiscriminately.
“By the Five,” Lord Fornest fell back in terror, “What is that?”
Rivian sighed, “Something worse. A Karaken. Not again.”
“Again?” Fornest balked as he regained his composure.
“I killed one quite a few years back for the Mōrgul,” Rivian replied, “This one is bigger.”
In terror most of the soldiers had stopped fighting each other and instead tried to flee.
“Do something Helwyr,” one manic soldier screamed as she stumbled through the water towards them.
The poor soldier did not reach safety as a tentacle smashed down and crushed her into the muddy lake bed.
Rivian sighed and summed up the beast before her, but she did not move.
“Well?” Lord Fornest asked hysterically, “What are we to do?”
Rivian settled her gaze upon the Lord, “Run.”
Sheathing her delicate long-sword, she backed away from the Karaken, her pace increasing quickly and with Lord Fornest calling for retreat close behind her.
“Fall back,” Fornest screamed to his men, “Along the bank and to the fort.”
The remainder of the army followed quickly, all eager to be as far away from the enraged Karaken as they could.
Rivian led the retreat along the banks beside Lord Fornest, and breathed a sigh of relief when the Karaken did not peruse and slipped back into the bloody waters of Lake Ire.
The worst seemed behind them and just as Rivian was relaxing a splash and a scream was heard and a soldier was tripped up in the shallows and mauled by another fiend. Several other screams echoed along the line of retreating soldiers as they too were attacked.
Rivian sighed and stopped running and drew her sword as she weaved her way through the fleeing soldiers and into the shallows of the lake.
“Out of the water you fools,” Rivian yelled to the manic soldiers, “Do you want to be eaten by the Rhakshar?”
Just then she felt the water move around her foot and one of the large crab like monsters lunged at her. Quickly her blade hissed from its sheath and severed the beast’s large claw. The thing shrieked and snapped at her with its wide mouth as it stood up on its strong tail. With skill and precision Rivian stabbed ahead in between the monster’s hard armour plates and into its central nervous system. As it fell to the water another two took its place, spraying black poison at her face. Rivian twisted away from the acid and the black goo hissed as it landed in the water. Her blade flashed again, slicing apart the venom duct and causing the black poison to gush through one Rhakshar’s toothy maw. The fiend whined and shook its head violently before striking at her with its claws. Rivian’s blade flashed again both claws fell to the water and was quickly followed by the dead Rhaksher.
The next Rhakshar shrieked and sent another spray of poison at her face. Quickly Rivian tried to dart away from the black acid but it caught her on the neck and shoulder.
Ignoring the pain of the acid burning into her pale skin and through the leather of her top, Rivian slashed at the Rhakshar, severing one of its claws. The beast screamed wildly and darted for the safety of the water. But it had one more trick to play and its wide scaled tail flicked behind it and connected heavily with Rivian’s head and sending her into the water.
Desperately she tried to gather her wits, through the pain of acid burning her skin but the Rhakshar came back for the kill, darkness began to take her. Rivian felt keenly the pain as the Rhakshar’s claws clamped hard on her leg, breaking skin and crushing bone as it dragged her towards the depths.
“Lienthor’s defensive line has been stretched too far, it is breaking,” Vythe remarked. “And there is the signal for retreat.”
“Look, to the left column,” Fairris exclaimed, “What is that thing?”
A chilling shriek rolled across the plains as giant tentacle monster burst forth from the water of the lake and assailed the fighting forces.
“It is a Karaken,” Vythe said grimly as he looked through his spy-glass. “Both sides are wisely fleeing from it.”
“But that was the division the Helwyr Rivian was in,” Fairris remarked, “Surely a Helwyr would deal with the beast.”
“You can fight something that size. You can only run,” Vythe replied seriously.
“Who needs a Helwyr, I could take it,” Bārdin huffed, “But we have to send word to Baelor that Cardonian is advancing and will be laying siege to Lienthor’s fort.”
Vythe collapsed his telescope and hoped down from the boulder he was standing upon.
“Our crystal communicator was shattered,” said Vythe with a sigh.
“Looks like we are running to Baelor’s camp,” Fairris remarked as she began down the north face of the hill Yucht.
“I’m sick of all this running about with so little fighting,” Bārdin grumbled as he and Vythe joined her.
Fairris and Vythe laughed and Marin’cul took the lead as they begun the hurried run to the north and to the foothills of the Amber Mountains and where Baelor waited for the moment to lead his army into battle. Timing was not that important as King Lienthor could hold his position for quite a while, in fact the plan was for Baelor’s army to come in behind Lord Cardonian as he was attacking King Lienthor’s position.
Despite the unfortunate turns in the battle it had gone almost exactly as King Lienthor had thought it would. They had drawn out Cardonian’s force and baited him into a siege situation, and opening his back to the army of the Elder Races, which would stream down from the north and crush Cardonian between them and Lienthor’s fort on the bank of Lake Ire.
The hour was growing late as they set out from the Yucht and were soon forced to make camp in the middle of the grassy plains. Light rain constantly fell, but Vythe conjured a small fire from the Fog and they sat around it on the wet grass.
“Marin’cul,” Fairris said when she had finished her meal, “During the fight with the Magi and the knights how did you summon that bolt of lightning and become invisible?”
Vythe and Bārdin also showed their interest to know, but Marin’cul looked hesitant to answer.
“Mōrgul secrets,” Marin’cul replied mysteriously.
Fairris did not press the Mōrgul for an answer, respecting such secrets, as did Vythe and Bārdin. Although Fairris could see that both of them dearly wanted know as much as she did.
During the night the wind and rain increased and deep blue lightning scorched through the heavy clouds, striking at the ground and causing the damp grass to smoke. From the south Fairris could hear the sounds of war over the top of the storm and bright flashes lit up the night.
The next day the rain and thunder continued to fill the air and on several occasions they were almost struck by lightning. But by that evening they had reached the foothills of the mountains and the weather had eased. They chose not to rest that night and pushed on to where Baelor’s army was camped. With the skilful sight of her elven eyes and a similar ability from Marin’cul they soon found the camp and hurried to meet with Baelor.
It was an odd thing to come straight from a battlefield filled with death and screaming soldiers to a camp of elves, dwarves and other Elder Races. Instead of screams, the air was filled with the sound of music and song from the elves, followed by responding choruses from the dwarves. Food and drink were plentiful and were consumed merrily.
A smile came instantly to Fairris’s face as she entered the encampment and looked around in wonder at the festivities. At each camp were large meals, twice as large at the Halfling’s camp, and many barrels of drink. Bonfires lit up the night and cheer and song drifted on the wind.
Fairris wanted nothing more than to enjoy the merriments with her friends, but alas this was not the time for enjoyment.
They moved as quickly as they could through the encamped army and reached Baelor’s tent where the celebrations were subdued.
“This is unexpected,” Baelor remarked as they entered his tent.
“Our communicator broke,” Vythe shrugged, “So we came ourselves to bring word that it is time to march.”
Baelor nodded slowly, “All has gone to plan then.”
“More or less,” replied Vythe, “Cardonian lays siege to Lienthor’s fort, his back turned and is oblivious to our plans.”
Baelor nodded again, “Get some rest you four, have something to eat and drink. Find someone to lie with, for tomorrow we march and you could well be dead soon.”
They each nodded and left the tent where Marin’cul bid them farewell and moved to join the other Mōrgul that had gathered. Vythe lead the way to a quiet fire to the side where no one sat and there they rested and ate.
The army of Elder Races danced and sang long into the night, but as the word of a march filtered around the merriment soon died down. The elves found partners and disappeared into their tents, the dwarves soon passed out from the large consumption of ale, and the Halflings rested back and smoked on their pipes before turning in for the night. The Sātor Warriors and Mōrgul were the most disciplined and had not partaken in the festivities and retired many hours ago.
Vythe and Bārdin had also drifted off to sleep some time ago, leaving Fairris to star into the embers of the fire. Sleep soon took her and seemingly instantly she awoke the next day feeling tired.
The camp was bustling with actively as tents were dropped and fire places cured. The elves broke into separate squads lead by a Captain or Commander, while the dwarves all marched together, following their Kings. There was only one squad of Halflings, Mōrgul and Sātor, and they followed their own leaders. While Vythe, Bārdin and Fairris were left to make their own way as the army moved from their encampment and towards the rains of the Morrow Plains.
As they marched along they somehow found themselves among the squad of Halflings and Vythe talked readily with the little folk about the art of smoking pipe weed. Their leader, Barlo Braywood, seemed delighted to talk with Vythe about the many different tobaccos and how a different type of pipe offered a different experience. Fairris felt a bit awkward among the Halflings but Bārdin also happily engaged them in conversation. As the hours flew by the Halflings eternal optimism brought cheer to her heart and the fear of war seemed a world away.
They continued to accompany the Halflings as they stopped for the night and she was quite pleased they did, for the Halflings surely knew how to make a meal.
In a squad of fifty Fairris found it remarkable that they had brought enough food for everyone to enjoy three full courses for dinner, followed by desert, as to be expected. It was so much that Fairris could not find room in her stomach to get past the first course, but the Halflings did not worry about that and seemed delighted that there was more for them.
After desert every single one of the little folk sat back with a mug of ale and smoked their pipes. Bārdin joined in gleefully, exclaiming that he had never had such a pleasant time in all his adventures. Even Vythe was tempted to try the special pipe weed, but Fairris smiled and declined politely.
During her time with the Halflings Fairris learnt much about them, though in truth she did not know anything to start with. But what she did discover was that Halflings were quite naturally skilled at magicks, not to mention excellent marksmen with a bow and arrow.
“We are not fierce soldiers that can wield swords and shields,” Barlo said as he puffed on his pipe, “So we will sit back from the fight and pummel the enemy with our spells and arrows.”
“What prompted you to fight?” Fairris asked curiously.
Barlo moved his pipe from his mouth, “We are a peace loving peoples. I do not want to fight, I love to sit back and enjoy a good meal, a mug of ale, and the taste of a well-aged pipe weed. There is nothing more satisfying than watching the land you have worked produce bountiful goods. But that is also the reason why we have to fight. It is people like Cardonian that forced us Halflings from The Vale those many years ago, and I will be damned if I let something similar happen to us in the Grassy Downs.”
Fairris nodded her head and smiled, “Your actions give me courage, Barlo.”
“There are few things worth saving in this world,” Vythe remarked taking a drag on his pipe, “And a Halfling’s way of life in the Grassy Downs is surely one.”
Barlo smiled widely, “You each must come when this war is done. You shall be my honoured guests and we shall have a magnificent party. Drink ale, eat delicious foods and smoke pipe weed until we can do it no more.”
The Halfling laughed happily and slapped his knee.
“I would like that very much,” Vythe replied sincerely, “Never have I been to the Grassy Downs, quite remiss of me.”
“Such beauty you will have never seen before,” Barlo said his eyes growing distant. “Rolling green hills, rich pasture and beautiful woodlands, merry streams that sing sweet tunes, and always Inüer shines brightly.”
Fairris smiled to herself for the Grassy Downs did indeed sound like a land worth fighting for.
The night drifted by with more pleasant talk and much more smoking of pipe weed. The next day came all too soon and the rain returned in a white hazy mist.
They made good time across the plains and by that afternoon they were looking upon a sea of soldiers as they assaulted Lienthor’s fort on the bank of Lake Ire.
“Time to end this,” Fairris said quietly as she stood beside Vythe and Bārdin.
Jar’nesh let out a slow breath, steadying her nerves and steeling her mind on what was to come. Beside her stood Ty’far as well as hundreds of other warriors all with similar looks of anxiety and excitement.
Nervously she checked herself, making sure that she was ready. At her hip her sword was belted and held in place firmly by a cleverly designed sword frog. She adjusted her grey buckled up vest and adjusted her tight black pants. Again she let out a steady breath and kicked the toe of her black boots into the ground.
“Relax Jar’nesh,” Ty’far said to her with a smile, “This is what we trained for.”
Jar’nesh returned the smile and tied her grey hair into a pony tail. Everyone in the chamber wore the same type of clothes as herself and similar weapons, even Ty’far. Although Ty’far had decided to leave her hair out and the light grey strands fell loosely around her shoulders, framing her attractive features.
Jar’nesh stretched her fingers and her eyes focused on the large metal door before her. She stood in the first row alongside Ty’far, a place of great honour for she would be one of the first to experience battle.
“The time has come,” The Commander of their squadron said loudly, “Time these barbarians witness the power of Nevārance.”
Fairris breathed steadily as she marched alongside Vythe and Bārdin amid the Halfling ranks. In front of them was the great column of dwarves, which was being used as the spine of the force. To the left of the dwarves were the many squads of elves and to the right the column of Sātor and Mōrgul marched. Barely two thousand metres ahead of the army was the left flank of Cardonian’s forces, which were completely oblivious to their coming.
All of Cardonian’s attention was upon the siege of Lienthor’s fort. Wave after wave of soldiers assaulted the entrenched camp all the while volleys of magickal artillery shells exploded into both armies.
The pace of the dwarven column quickened and the Halflings were puffing to keep in touch as they continuously cast buffing magicks upon the front lines of the three columns.
One thousand metres to go.
Fairris’s veins pulsed with adrenaline and excitement.
Out of nowhere a deafening crack sounded causing all to stop and cover their heads in shock. Blue lightning ripped across the sky as the heavy clouds burst apart as a gigantic craft plummeted towards the earth. Shaped like a spear head the ship thundered into the plains between the army of the Elder Races and Cardonian’s forces. The impact produced such force that the ground cracked apart and knocked her, along with everyone else, to the ground. As the first landed two more burst from the cloud cover with similar booms and crashed down alongside the first with similar ferocity.
As the second and third craft landed Fairris again fell to the ground, her face stricken with a look of horror.
“By Melenduil, what is that?” Fairris breathed in awe as she slowly got to her feet.
All fighting had stopped at the arrival of these massive mechanical ships and everyone stood stunned, their mouths agape. The metal crafts stood hundreds of feet tall and looked as if they would touch the clouds. Rain fell and lightning struck the monstrous ships as the clouds moved back together and blocked out the blue sky above.
Finally Fairris’s shock subsided and she managed to gather enough wits to close her mouth and look to Vythe for answers, but he could offer none.
Just then huge metal ramps folded out from the ship and crashed into the mud allowing hundreds of people to stream out with swords drawn.
“What? Allies?” Bārdin exclaimed in confusion as the warriors streaming from the ships were charging towards Cardonian’s forces.
Fairris was at a loss for words and shook her head, but a cry from the front of the elven column sounded and they raced forward, followed closely by the dwarves, Sātor and Mōrgul columns. Still in shock the Halfling also ran forward and Fairris followed in bewilderment.
In the few brief minutes they had landed the grey haired warriors from the ships had cut deeply into Cardonian’s line and yet the soldiers had not gathered enough wit to form a defence. Whoever these strange warriors were they held the ultimate advantage.
As the army of the Elder Races ran closer Fairris could not shake the similarity she saw between these warriors and Lieut. Suddenly it all seemed to click into place in her mind. This is what Kil’dar’s intention had been. This was the secret Kil’dar hid behind his bemused smile. She knew her theory was correct for the grey haired warriors had indiscriminately attacked both Cardonian and Lienthor’s soldiers. They were to take victory from both sides.
Fairris stopped running and grabbed Vythe and Bārdin, causing them to stop along with the squad of Halflings.
“What?” Barlo asked in confusion, “What do we do?”
“This is what Kil’dar was hiding,” Fairris said to Vythe and ignoring the Halflings questions. “This what the High Commission wanted from the beginning.”
Vythe nodded with understanding, “The death and destruction of all of Essinendeür’s leaders in one go. Then who will the people turn to if not the High Commission?”
Bārdin grumbled and spat on the ground, “We have been fools. What do we do now?”
Vythe shrugged and looked in awe at the massive crafts that loomed above them, “What can we do?”
“Follow Baelor?” Barlo suggested, “They will be needing our magicks if we are to fight these grey haired warriors.”
“Baelor is not fighting them,” Fairris exclaimed and pointed to where the elves had engaged, “He is helping them.”
Lieut suddenly sucked in a deep breath and forced his eyes to open, but he shut them quickly as the bright light assaulted him.
“How long have I been unconscious?” he asked groggily, there was no answer.
Slowly Lieut opened his eyes again, his pupils adjusting quickly to the light that was emanating from the uneven crystal walls around him.
“What?” Lieut mouthed in confusion.
The last thing he remembered was being in the mist and Fog filled basin of the mountain where the Birth of the Fog was supposed to be. So, where was he now?
Slowly Lieut got to his feet and made sure his sword was still at his shoulder before taking a closer look at the strange yellow crystal around him. The bright glassy surface was flecked with pinks and greens and moving through the air around him were clouds of Fog that blended easily with the colour of the walls.
Lieut shook his head in confusion and looked around. He stood at a dead end with only a single wide path leading downwards. With a shrug Lieut strode confidently into the depths of this strange place.
There were no sounds in this place, Lieut noted uncomfortably as he followed the path down. Only the sound of his feet on the crystal ground echoed unnaturally through the tunnel. But there was something else aside from sounds. There was a deep hum that he could feel press on his mind and chest but not hear. Such a sensation concerned him and reinforced the fact that this was not a place for the living to trod. There was also something else about this place that made him feel uncomfortable. Something intangible. Something that caused him to regularly glance over his shoulder. It was a quite malice that hung in the air, watching him and dancing with the clouds of Fog and filling the space with a seething anger. What made it even more ominous was that he could also feel a great sadness around him, pressing on his thoughts and weighing down his steps.
Minutes turned to hours and still he walked through the oppressive atmosphere, and still the path did not deviate. Lieut sighed in frustration, but he continued walking having no other option. As he walked along the unseen weight upon him did not lesson, nor did his unease lift, if anything it slowly increased.
He began wonder what happened to Raith, who had been standing right behind him when he blacked out. Was his brother in a similar predicament to his? Or was Raith searching around that basin and wondering what had happened to him?
Again Lieut sighed heavily and continued to walk.
Around a corner in the tunnel the area suddenly opened up into a massive cavern of crystal. The malice and wrathful despair increased and caused him to grab his head under the unseen pressure. A narrow path stretched out into the bottomless void to a small round floating island. A glow came up from the depths but he could not see where it was coming from, nor could he see what was causing it, and all around the cavern the clouds of Fog drifted.
But none of it was what really caught his attention for floating in a cocoon just above the round island sat a gigantic smooth crystal of pale yellow with shimmers of pink and green. The throbbing tension lifted from his mind and a smile came to Lieut’s face as he strode along the narrow path. Finally he had found his mission’s target.
Firming his jaw Lieut drew forth his sword and advanced upon the crystal.
“Stop Lieut,” the voice of Raith called from the entrance to the cavern.
Lieut turned and glared at his brother, “Why should I?”
“By now our people have landed,” Raith said as he approached across the narrow path, “As long as the magicks of the Fog are still accessible it is likely they will lose.”
“You want our people to fail?”
“Yes,” Raith replied emphatically, “If they win they will destroy this land as they did to our home in Nevārance. They will rip apart the earth as they mine for metals, and they will rape the land of it natural resources. Do you remember our home brother? Nothing but barren and dusty wastelands with no natural life aside from the fiends that feed off its sickness. How can you be the cause of the same thing in this beautiful land?”
“What does it matter?” Lieut turned away from Raith, “Why should I care about this land?”
“Your friends are alive. The Sātor saved them.”
“What?” Lieut balked and took a step towards his brother, “Why have you not spoken of this before?”
Raith sighed and shook his head, “I was jealous I guess. Perhaps I wanted the relationship between Elza and I to be unique, and not something that you had experienced before.”
Lieut’s sword tip drifted slowly to the ground as he fathomed what Raith was telling him.
“Do not complete your mission, Lieut,” Raith said quietly, “Save this land, save your friends.”
Lieut sighed deeply and his brow furrowed in confusion, he was at loss as what to do, a part of him wanted to complete his mission, but every time he thought about it a voice in his head changed everything.
“It is a lie.” A melodious voice echoed around the cavern and Lieut and his brother jumped on guard.
Suddenly a beam of light shot out from the crystal and onto the round island where a translucent image of a woman stood. Lieut levelled his sword cautiously at proud looking woman who was formed from the Fog.
“Who are you?” Lieut demanded.
A slight smile came to the woman’s face, “It does not matter.”
“What is a lie?”
“Your mission,” the woman replied.
“I do not understand,” Lieut shook his head.
“That does not matter.”
Lieut glared dangerously at the woman, “What do you want?”
“For you to complete your mission.”
“You just said it was a lie,” Lieut growled in frustration.
Again the woman smiled pleasantly, “That does not mean I do not want you to complete it.”
“What will happen if I do?” Lieut asked curiously, his defensive stance slowly easing.
“Not what you expect,” the woman replied, “But so much more.”
“Stop being vague,” Lieut snapped angrily, “Tell me what I want to know.”
The demeanour of the woman suddenly changed and the cavern grew dark around them. The only light shining dimly from within the giant crystal.
“Do as you are told puppet,” the woman’s voice had become deep and terrible.
Something grabbed a hold of Lieut then and his feet began to move against his will.
“I gave you your life and freedom, you genetic mutant,” the woman sneered, “If it were not for me you would have died at the crash site when you first came to Essinendeür. I saved you when you fought your brother in Port Na’brath and have guided you across this land. Do you think you would have come into the crystal tomb if it were not for me? Do as you are told and complete your mission.”
Lieut gritted his teeth and tried to fight against the will of the woman, but such raw power he had never felt before.
“No,” Lieut growled through clenched teeth.
Lieut’s heart pulsed in his ears and he painstakingly took another step forward. He could hear his brother calling out to him but the words were muffled. Three steps away from the crystal his arms began to raise his sword, Lieut shut his eyes tight he could feel the power pushing against his temples and stifling the air.
But he had power too.
Lieut’s golden eyes snapped open and with what mental power he had left he summoned forth a shock wave from his sword. The golden wave burst forth shattering the unseen hold over his mind and causing the image of the woman to disappear.
Lieut collapsed to the ground, his breathing heavy, and his mind throbbing.
“Are you alright?” Raith asked him with concern as Lieut staggered to his feet.
Lieut nodded and swung his sword to the clips at his shoulder.
“It is strong, yes it is. Always we knew it was, yes we did,” a lighter voice echoed around the cavern a young girl with straight black hair appeared standing before him.
“Kreha?” Lieut gasped in surprise.
“It did not recognise us?” Kreha asked with a smile, her large eyes glinting, “We forgive it. What we don’t forgive is you rudeness, no we don’t.”
“What?” Lieut balked in confusion, his head still aching.
Kreha looked surprised, “We saved you don’t you remember? At the crash in Gaianaus, and we also saved your friend, yes we did. Elfie would have died, if not for us. So why can’t you grant us this one favour?”
Lieut shook his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts, “If I destroy this crystal the Fog will disappear and my people with enslave this world and turn it to ash.”
“Silly, we told you that was a lie,” Kreha scolded as she stood with her hands on her slander hips.
“Perhaps you are the one that lies,” Raith cut in suspiciously, “Our people will be defeated so long as there are magicks to stop them.”
Kreha narrowed her eyes, “Really?”
Kreha clicked her finger and waved her hand creating an image in the Fog of many soldiers battling amid a muddy plain. It was clear that the forces from Nevārance with grey hair were winning against the armies of Essinendeür. Despite the volleys of magicks the armies of Lienthor and Cardonian were unorganised and falling to the combined force from Nevārance and the army of the Elder Races.
The image suddenly focused in on a group to travellers talking animatedly among themselves and with a squad of Halflings at the edge of the battle lines. A slight smile came to Lieut’s face as he recognised his friends.
Lieut looked to Kreha, “How will destroying the crystal stop the Nevārance invasion?”
“I will stop it,” Kreha said commandingly, her voice changed. “Release me and I will turn the tides of the battle.”
Lieut narrowed his golden eyes, “Release you?”
A thin smile crept across Kreha’s face, “At the end of time the Goddess shall rise and unleash her vengeance upon the Gods.”
“The Prophecy of the Five,” Lieut said quietly, “You are the Goddess?”
“You missed the part about bringing death and destruction to the world,” Raith cut in suspiciously.
“A mere embellishment,” Kreha replied simply, “Why would I destroy the world I love? The world I was born in? I do not wish destruction on it any more than you. All I want is to destroy are the Gods that imprisoned me in this crystal tomb and stole from me my true love. Is that so much to ask?”
Kreha moved forward and looked deep into his eyes, “Please Lieut,” Kreha begged, “Grant me the freedom I have given to both of you. Destroy my prison and I promise I will stop Nevārance from bringing destruction to this land.”
Lieut’s brow furrowed and Kreha stepped back from him. He looked to his brother, but Raith had no answers for him.
“It is your choice, Lieut,” Raith said simply, although he was still looking at Kreha suspiciously.
Lieut closed his eyes and sighed. Nodding to himself he slowly drew forth his sword and calmly walked towards the crystal. Taking another deep breath Lieut slowly raised his sword to the smooth surface of the crystal, but a sudden realisation stayed his hand.
“Kreha? Why did you try and force my hand when you could have just reasoned to me like you did now?” Lieut asked suspiciously.
A cold smile spread across Kreha’s face.
Suddenly Lieut’s arm shot forward without his will, driving his sword deep into the crystal and sending thousands of deep cracks through its surface.
Lieut pulled his arm back in horror and Kreha disappeared from sight. Suddenly the cavern began to shake as a surge of power could be felt growing within the crystal. Lieut was about to suggest to Raith that they both make a run for the exit when a wave of energy blasted him backwards. Lieut flew off the edge of the island and into darkness.
“We should at least help them,” Fairris said motioning to the battlefield still several hundred metres away from them and behind the looming ships of the grey haired warriors.
“Which them?” Vythe asked seriously, making no signs to move.
“I don’t know,” Fairris burst out in frustration, “I don’t know what is going on. I don’t know who these strange warriors from the sky are, I don’t know if Baelor is right in fighting with them.”
Fairris growled and then sighed heavily, “I don’t know what to do. If only Lieut were here.”
“At least he might have been able to clear up some of our questions,” Bārdin nodded as he stood beside Barlo the Halfling and the rest of the squad of little folk.
All of a sudden the world seemed to grow dark and all sounds became muffled in Fairris’s ears as if they were filled with cotton wool. In surprise Fairris looked around to the battle where explosions of magicks were happening and sword and shields clashed, but she could hear none of it. A bright flash appeared on the horizon far to the south and a beam of light scorched into the sky.
She was about to look to her friends in confusion when the sound of rushing wind sounded clearly in her ears and a wall of Fog ripped across the land from the south at an impossible speed.
Fairris’s eyes widened in horror as the wall of Fog blasted through the battling armies flattening everyone to the ground and thundered into the colossal air crafts causing the ground to tremor. The wave slammed into her chest and sent her flying backwards to the ground.
White lights flashed across her eyes as Fairris rolled on to her back in a daze on the muddy ground and gasped for air.
“What?” Fairris mumbled, but her voice was thick and sounded very far away to her ears.
White dots appeared before her eyes and her head felt heavy as she tried to push herself to her feet. Staggering to stand Fairris clutched at her head which felt as if it would explode and looked up just in time to see the gigantic mechanical crafts shatter like glass with hundreds of small explosions and crumble on top of her.
Fairris screamed out and fell back to the ground desperately trying to cast a spell that would protect her, but the Fog magicks did not heed her call.
Year 3632 of the Sixth Age, the tenth day of Winter
“The ships from Nevārance crumbled to the ground as the wave of Fog energy thundered across the land. So stunned were the grey haired warriors that the tide of the battle turned and Lienthor and Cardonian begrudgingly joined forces and pushed the smaller army back. But the warriors from Nevārance are fiercely good with a blade, and they had the Elder Races helping them, so a stalemate resulted. An uneasy treaty was soon signed and both Cardonian and Lienthor limped back to their kingdoms. The members of the Elder Races army vanished as quickly as they came and the warriors of Nevārance were left wondering what to do.”
The small tavern in Gerrald was quiet as Tornie Frogman Henry finished his account of the events.
“Have another beer, Pedler,” the barkeep said and handed him a foaming mug, which Tornie took happily.
“Is it true the elves and dwarves sided with Nevārance?” asked one younger man.
“I don’t righty know,” Tornie admitted, “There was so much confusion in Lienthor’s encampment that I did not know what was going on. But I saw the battle clear enough, just a mass of bodies hacking at each other with confusion and bloodlust. I’m not sure anyone really knew what was going on.”
Again silence filled the tavern as the few occupants stared absently as their minds eye viewed the battle through Tornie’s words.
“No one knows where the wave of Fog came from neither,” an older patron nodded, “But if you ask me, it was them Crythnins trying to wipe out the believers of The Five. You know that blast destroyed every single temple and monastery devoted to The Five, but nothing else?”
Tornie nodded, as did all the others in the bar room.
“Not quite,” the barman remarked, “It destroyed them crafts from Nevārance at the battle, as well as the ones that had landed by each capital city.”
“That just shows that the Crythnin don’t like Nevāranciens as much as the rest of us,” another patron replied.
“I don’t know about that,” Tornie remarked, “That wave of Fog may have destroyed the temples of The Five, but no one had been able to use the magicks of the Fog since. That doesn’t seem like something a Crythnin believer would want.”
The patron mumbled and half shrugged, “Here, gives us another beer Kven.”
“Last round boys, then I am closing,” Kven the barkeep said as he poured the mug, “What brings you to the small town of Gerrald, Pedler?”
Tornie shrugged, “You know, making the rounds, and seeing old friends.”
The old Pedler then hopped from his seat and stretched his back, “Good night gentlemen.”
“But I want to hear more,” exclaimed the youngest in the tavern, “Like what happened to the Helwyr Rivian, to the brave Lord Haron and Cardonian’s youngest child Sir Raermin.”
Tornie smiled at the young man, “Perhaps I will tell you next time, but now I will only say this: there are dark times ahead of us my friends, dark and evil times. Heroes will be needed before the end.”
Tornie waved to the patrons of the tavern and headed to the stairs that lead to his rented room.
“Good night and farewell my friends, until next we meet.”