- Mighty armies march on Dracoshire, and the fate of West Kruna hangs in the balance.
All Roads Lead is the 20th questing area released (listed as 15 on the map) in the game and becomes available after completing the zone Fog of War on at least normal difficulty.
Completing each of the 5 mission bosses in this zone on normal will unlock the following Raids.
Nereidon the Sea Slayer (Raid), General Korxun (Raid), Drulcharus (Raid), Shaar the Reaver (Raid), Xerkara (Raid).
|The Battle of Dracoshire 1 | Dracoshire 2 | Dracoshire 3 | Dracoshire 4 | Dracoshire 5|
|Title||Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4||Level 5||Level 6||Level 7|
(Complete All Roads Lead on Nightmare difficulty.)
|"What the hell are you wearing?" Riani whispers. "I told you to bring a mask!"
"This is a mask!" you say.
"It's a potato sack!" The moon gleams within her narrowed eyes, silver-black slits embedded in a slice of pale flesh.
"When you cut eyeholes in it, it's a mask! Anyway, it's not a potato sack. It's a turnip sack."
"What's the difference?"
"It had turnips in it."
"This is a mask." She tugs the dark cloth at her cheek.
"My dad's a farmhand, not a bandit. We don't have fancy clothes at home."
"He's not a bandit! He's a scout!"
Riani snorts and turns away. For some moments the only sounds are the wind whispering through the crops, the hoots of disapproving owls, and the scraping of coarse material as you try to adjust your ill-fitting sack. After a good deal of fumbling you manage to place one hole and half the other over your eyes -- leaving a patch of greyness in the middle of your vision. Apparently your eyes are closer together than you estimated when you cut. And even with a breeze easing the warm summer night, your skin chafes against the roughness, hot and damp. You reach under the sack and try to let some more air in.
"Where's Gil?" you ask.
"I told him to meet us here," she says. "With a mask."
"This is a-"
"Quiet!" a voice says, in a sharp, high-pitched hiss. A small, slim form emerges from the tall stalks. Large antenna-like things bob atop its head. "You'll wake the farmers up!"
"Gil..." Riani says. Her voice holds a dangerous calm you know well. It usually precedes a knee or boot between the legs. "I said to wear a mask. A mask! Not a... Whatever that thing is!"
"It's an old pair of shorts."
"Can't you two do anything right? Mask!" She pulls on her own garment again.
"We don't all 'ave bandits for dads!"
"He's not a bandit! He's a scout! A scout!"
Her voice is a banshee's wail. The two of you flinch before it, and Gil's hands dart down to cover his groin.
"Shut up!" you say. "We-"
A loud, hard, angry bark tears through the night. Gil jumps. Riani spins round. A furry, four-legged shape bounds out of the rustling greenery. There's a low growl. Dark, moon-silvered eyes glare at the three of you above sharp teeth and salivating jaws.
"Mangler!" Gil says.
The boy squeals and turns to run. You grab his arm.
"No! If you run, he'll chase after you!"
"If we stay 'e'll eat us!"
The hound barks. Gil moans. Riani takes a step back, and Mangler's head snaps round to face her.
"Mangler!" you say. "It's me! Here, boy!"
You drop to one knee and hold out your hand. The dog sniffs. He looks up at you, growls, and barks again. You pull the sack off your head.
"See! Me! It's okay, boy..."
He steps towards you and pushes his face forward. His moist nose taps yours. Mangler paws at the makeshift disguise in your hand, sniffs it, and grabs it with his teeth.
"Even he thinks it's stupid," Riani says.
You tease it free from his maw and pet him. The hound pants, licks your face, then pads away. You put the mask back on. Being in Mangler's mouth hasn't improved its smell. Dog saliva mingles with the sweat on your cheek.
"Come on," Gil says.
Riani pushes him aside and leads the way. You both follow her across the fields, towards the town. Together you creep around moonlit buildings, pressing up against cool walls, peering around corners and gazing into the shadows. But there's no need for caution. No one else in Burden's Rest is awake at this hour of the night. You reach The Plundered Dungeon's backdoor without seeing or hearing another soul.
She reaches for the handle. The three of you glance at one another, and you realize that you're holding your breath. Riani gives the door a gentle push. It opens. You exhale.
"Told you he never locks it!" she whispers. She steps inside and holds the door open. "Hurry!"
Gil slips in after her. You take one last look around before following. The door closes behind you with a soft tap, sealing you in a small, shadowy room. A table, chairs, and stove take shape in the gloom as your eyes adjust to the kitchen's deeper darkness.
Riani walks forward on tiptoe, gesturing for you and Gil to follow. He bumps into something and stifles a cry after the first breath.
"Careful!" she says. "The taproom's through here."
A short hallway takes you to the tavern's main chamber, where argentine light drifts in between the shutters. It sculpts the outlines of round tables, numerous chairs, and a long counter.
Anticipation quickens your heart. Riani presses a hand to her masked mouth, stifling a giggle. Gil claps you on the back of the neck. The jovial gesture tugs your sack into disarray, forcing you to fumble with it again to put the eyeholes right.
"Too young for strong drink, are we?" Riani says.
She slides behind the bar and picks up a tankard. Her other hand reaches for the brass tap embedded in a barrel like a murder weapon.
"I'd say so," a gruff voice replies from across the room.
She gasps. Gil squeals. Your jaws snap shut, clipping the edge of your tongue. Pain erupts in your mouth. The tankard falls from Riani's hand and clatters on the floor.
"And that goes for all three of you," Roland says.
His broad-shouldered frame steps away from the darkness at the bottom of the staircase and passes in front of a shuttered window. Narrow strips of light glimmer on steel.
"Run!" Riani says.
"Oi!" Gil staggers back, thumped by her shoulder.
He reaches out, grabbing for something to stop his fall. A grasping hand snatches the side of your sack.
"Get off me! Get-"
Rough fabric scrapes against your face. It twists round on your head, moving the eyeholes -- those damned, badly cut eyeholes -- somewhere else. Footsteps pound down the hallway.
"Run!" Gil says.
You stumble after them, grappling with the sack, and cry out. Something thuds against your pelvis. Something else catches your boot. Your knees and elbows bang on the hard wooden floor.
Strong hands take hold of you and hoist you into the air. You thrash and struggle, trying to break free. But the old adventurer's grip is like steel. He swings you up, carries you across the room, and sits you down on a barstool. A hand whips the sack off your head.
"Call this a mask? I've met bandits who'd murder their grandmothers for a bag of teeth, and even they wouldn't be caught dead wearing a potato sack on their heads."
He tosses it over his shoulder. Your gaze follows its sad, inelegant flight, and falls on his sword. The blade's resting on one of the barroom's tables. At least he isn't going to run you through. Though if your parents hear about this, they might do the job for him...
"%name%." He squints in the darkness. "And if I don't miss my guess, that was Riani and Gil who just went out the backdoor like the hounds of hell were after them."
"That desperate for your first ales?"
"Don't tell my dad! He'll..."
"Give you the belting you deserve for breaking into a man's home?"
Roland laughs. He reaches past you and picks up a tankard.
"You want a drink so bad? I'll get you one..."
He goes around to the other side of the bar, holds the vessel under a tap, and turns the brass spigot. Liquid sloshes into the tankard.
He presses it into your hands. Your eyes widen.
You grin, already imagining the jealous looks on your friends' faces, and bring it to your lips. Strong scents -- harsh and fruity -- assault your nose and tingle inside it. You drink. Half a second later, you're doubled over, spluttering, spraying fire out of your mouth and nostrils.
"That's why you should wait till you're old enough."
"I'm... I'm... dying!"
"No, you're not." Roland's voice echoes around your head.
"Stay with me, damn it! There are still dragons to kill!"
The idiot's poisoned you! Your organs are exploding. Your stomach's about to fall out of your mouth. All because of that lunatic barkeep and his noxious death-
"You want a drink, mate? Then you'd better stick around! There's no blooming beer in hell, and up in heaven they only drink the poncy stuff!"
Rissa's mocking you. You're dying, and that stupid little gnome's just... Wait...
"I'll sing your dirge one day," Medea says. Harp strings sing. Music flows among her words and sizzles inside your heaving throat. "But not today and not here. If you die, I'm turning your song into a farce and saying you bedded a pig!"
Rissa D'Tang... Medea... In Burden's Rest? But...
"You and your friends should stick to small beer," Roland says. "You think that stuff's strong? A drop of orcish Skullsmash would set your head on-"
Fire. Your innards are on fire...
"We're trying to save %him%, not sodding cremate %him%!"
"Shut up! I know what I'm doing! And you lot shut up too, damn it! Close %his% wounds or I'll drink a water elemental and let it kick the crap out of you in there! Now!"
No... Not just your innards. Everything. The Plundered Dungeon's ablaze! You're choking, spluttering. Roland's laughing and lecturing -- the mad fool! -- while the pub burns. Hungry flames all around you...
And Medea's playing. A quickening melody, a beautiful tempest of sound and song. Playing while Burden's Rest burns...
"Someone stop that blooming elf before she kills %him%!"
"Get that gnome off me!"
"Ow! She burned my fingers!"
"Rissa, stay back," Lucian says. "Look -- the flames aren't consuming %his% flesh."
The scholar's right. You're burning, but you aren't dying. Your skin's intact and undamaged. If this is what beer does, you'll damn well become the town drunk when this is over.
The fire devours the tavern. It eats the darkness, the heavens, the town where you grew up. Everything's gone... Except for Roland. He's still there, grinning, while the universe crumbles to ash.
"I knew this wouldn't be our last adventure," he says.
Hidden clouds parted far above the forest's thick canopy. Shafts of sunlight fell through the leaves and pierced the gloom like a hail of golden arrows. The riders blinked at the sudden brightness. A few of the horses whinnied, and a mare stepped away from the column before the cavalryman halted her with a tug on the reins. The steed protested with a loud neigh.
"Control your animal, Neurmin!" Commander Medranta turned around in her saddle at the front of the unit. Dark eyes glowered between a fringe of hair and a pauldron that were almost the same iron-grey hue. "Or I'll make your walk to Dracoshire!"
Neurmin muttered under his breath and kicked the horse's flank twice. She whinnied again, but trotted back into her position within the two-by-two stream of mounted warriors. His neighbor waited till the commander's eyes weren't on him before she looked over and favored him with a faint smile.
"What's wrong with Skyrunner?" Vannta asked.
"Probably all these damn trees."
"You don't like forests?"
"It's like a prison. She misses the steppes." He patted the side of the mare's neck. "But we'll go back there, when the dragons are dead."
Clip-clopping hooves, murmured conversations, and jangling armaments filled the shadowy, sun-pierced world for a full minute while Vannta chewed her lower lip. Her gaze wandered across her horse's mane before meeting his again.
"Dracoshire..." she said. "Trale reckons there'll be a thousand dragons, and a million beastmen."
"He's full of crap. How'd they feed an army that big?"
"Trale said they're like locusts. They're stripping the land bare all the way to the capital, eating all the flocks. The people too."
Neurmin snorted and looked away. For some moments they both scattered their unspoken thoughts into the low rumble of the march.
"Maybe not a million," Vannta said. "But I heard the commander say it's going to be the biggest battle anyone's ever seen. They're throwing everything they have at the city. Everything."
"The bronze man's there, with the dragon-rider's old army. They'll beat the drakes..." He tried to hold her stare, but saw his own uncertainty shimmer in her eyes.
"Even if they do, what chance do we have?"
"As good as anyone else..."
Now it was Vannta's turn to snort.
"That's crap and you know it. It'll be like Blood Valley..." She turned her head and spat. No one in their unit ever spoke that battle's name without saliva hitting the ground. "They'll send us charging in to soften the furry whoresons up. But this time none of us'll come away with our heads. Medranta's leading us to the slaughter."
Neurmin stared into the trees, beyond the beams of light. The forest's depths were dark as the grave.
"If we go," she said, "we'll die."
If... That single word echoed in his brain. It shuddered with forbidden potential and unthinkable possibilities. The image of Blood Valley loomed over his thoughts, a savage specter: Utrech lying in the dirt, with three spears stuck in his torso like forgotten, flagless standards. Harris, spit from skull to waist by an ogre's immense blade. Erikka, butchered into so many hunks of meat that Neurmin couldn't tell her remains apart from her horse's. And Commander Medranta... Medranta, standing there covered in gore. Lance broken. Sword more black than red. Medranta, looking at the pyre where their comrades burned and saying, "They died well."
And in that instant, Neurmin knew. He didn't want to die well. He wanted to get home, to his wife, his parents, his little boy.
He didn't want to die.
Vannta leaned towards him, her eyes large and intense -- seething emerald oceans.
"Me, Trale, and some of the others are leaving. Tonight, after we make camp."
"That's..." He looked round, but the other riders were lost in their own musings, daydreams, or conversations. Only one of the horses met his gaze. That stallion gave a soft sigh. "It's desertion! Medranta will have you-"
"By the time she knows we're gone, we'll be miles away. What's she going to do? Search the countryside, and miss the battle? She'll keep going to Dracoshire." Vannta grasped his forearm. "Are you with us?"
"Yes." Neurmin's face reddened, and he imagined shame flowing into his features along with the blood -- proclaiming his treachery and cowardice to the entire universe. "I'll-"
A loud neigh, almost a screech, tore through the column. Then another, and another. Skyrunner's own voice joined them. She knew! They all did! They knew he was a traitor, a worthless, craven betrayer! They-
"Enemies!" Medranta's voice broke through the equine cacophony. "Arms! Arms!"
The undergrowth erupted. Bestial forms crashed through the foliage. Sunlit shafts fell on hides of fur and scale; they shone in fierce eyes and on the edges of sharp blades. A thousand roars, bellows, growls, and hisses waged war with the cries of human and horse.
Reptilian hands grabbed Neurmin's right arm. A quick, sharp jerk almost tore him from the saddle. But his mare reared up, smiting the air with her forelegs, and broke the kobold's grasp. The cavalryman drew his sword. Skyrunner's hooves thudded back on the hard dirt road. The kobold lunged again. Neurmin's blade cut through the gloom, and split the leering saurian face open in a dark, mangled gash. The kobold fell shrieking. Skyrunner stomped on his head, silencing him.
"Neurmin!" Fear blazed in Vannta's eyes as the beastmen pulled her off her tottering, wounded steed. She was unarmed. Her sword lay amidst the shuffling feet and hooves, red with fresh, impotent violence. "Help!"
And all around it was the same. War cries and pleas mingled in the foul, slaughter-stained air. There was no hope. The best they could do was die well. And Neurmin didn't want to die well.
He tugged the reins and kicked his heels into Skyrunner's flanks. The horse wheeled round.
Skyrunner ran, ploughing through the melee, scattering men and monsters, trampling fallen warriors and dying mounts. Neurmin hacked left and right, carving fur and scale.
He was going to get out of this. He was going home. To his parents. To his wife. To his son. He was-
A big, orange form stepped into the middle of the road. Feline jaws grinned. Long, jagged forearm blades glistened red and silver in the sunbeams. Neurmin's face grew pale. He kicked the horse's flanks again. Skyrunner accelerated, hurling herself forward. The world seemed to blur around them, horrific sights and sounds compressed into amorphous streams. But the tiger-man was crisp and clear in the middle of it all.
Muscles rippled beneath the beastman's striped fur. He swung his arm.
Blood exploded, showering Neurmin, splashing his face. And the mare's severed head fell away from the stump of her neck. The tiger-man's other weapon plunged through the redness and tore his gut open before the slain horse could even fall.
Neurmin lay on the ground, beside Skyrunner's headless body, and watched through unthinking eyes as agony grew dark and dull. Other men and mounts were groaning, screaming. The beastmen didn't stay to finish the dying. At the tiger-man's growl, they headed down the corpse-strewn road, stomping hacked flesh and broken bone underfoot.
Making their way to Dracoshire.
"That's Sir Marcus," Sulthus Quent said.
Aurelius Bloodwyn turned around in the middle of the room, arms outstretched, and spat the word from sneering lips. He completed his rotation and faced the throne once more. King Jamus stared at him from worn, impassive features. Quent stood beside the seated monarch and frowned.
"...is a disloyal, disobedient man who's unfit to wear even a town guard's uniform."
The assembled courtiers glanced at one another and murmured. Veteran politicians looked on, inscrutable, concealing their thoughts behind knitted brows or slight, insincere smiles. But for the newcomers -- those advisors and aristocrats who'd traveled to the walled city out of duty or cowardice, or else become trapped there when the news came -- the capital's political theatre was shocking and entertaining. A few of them gasped or scowled. Others grinned. To Sulthus Quent all this was tiresome, yet its familiar absurdity was comforting. If nobles could still preen and posture with enemy hordes marching towards the city...
"During the Battle of Fallows," Aurelius continued, "he deserted his post!"
"He helped save the town!" Teucer Tullian said.
The mayor stared, looked him up and down with exaggerated slowness, and snorted. Even a few of the seasoned courtiers let amusement slip out from behind their masks. Aurelius Bloodwyn was decked out like a peacock, clad in fine robes without a crease or wrinkle out of place. Teucer stood there in a worn, patched doublet and muddy old boots, with his bow slung on his back -- fresh from the martial drills taking place in the troops' camp outside the walls.
"Thank you for coming all the way from the barnyard to share your opinion," Mayor Bloodwyn said, "but-"
"Aurelius..." Quent said. "Get to the point."
"My point, Sulthus, is that the defense of Dracoshire cannot be left in his hands. Marcus is a-"
A barrage of coughs rippled around the throne room. Someone even yelled out, "He's behind you!" as though they were watching a pantomime.
"Sir Marcus!" King Jamus said.
The bronze man strode from the entrance, armor clanking around his body, and bowed. Aurelius looked at him askance from the corner of his eye.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," Marcus said. "I was with the army and-"
"And didn't see fit to obey a royal summons in a timely fashion!" the mayor said. "I see your respect for authority is no greater than it was when you were under my command."
There was a glint in Marcus' eyes, and his mouth set in a thin, pursed line. But he said nothing and carried on facing the throne.
"How do they fare?" the king asked.
"The people of Dracoshire have been generous, sire. They're eating well."
"And drinking..." Aurelius' stage whisper hissed throughout the chamber.
Marcus' steel-clad fingers clenched into fists, but he coughed and continued.
"Spirits are as well as can be expected. When the battle comes, we'll be ready."
"Has there been any word of the dragons?" Quent asked.
"Ah!" Aurelius said. Again he spread his arms and swiveled, meeting the eyes of everyone in the chamber. "The dragons! Oh, perhaps some of you haven't heard? Of course... Marcus saw fit to conceal the truth before the spreading rumors made it impossible!"
The bronze man looked away and fiddled with one of his gauntlets while the mayor continued.
"Our dragons, my esteemed friends, the ones the dragon-rider and his successor assured us were trustworthy allies, have fled! That's right! Solus, Penelope, and Andromeda have left Dracoshire. But not before drinking vats of our alchemists' best potions. Yes! They quaffed elixirs which would have made our soldiers swifter and more enduring on the battlefield."
Heads nodded. A few aristocrats sniffed. Others muttered to their neighbors. Lord Grantet's monocle dropped from his eye with elegant precision that Quent knew was long practiced.
"Perhaps they're cowards," Aurelius said, "and don't have the courage to battle with their own kind..."
"Damn it, Bloodwyn!" Teucer said, "They've all fought wyrms before, and none of them shied away. Don't you dare-"
"Precisely! They have. So why do they flee now? Maybe they've turned traitor!"
This time the gasps were louder and more sincere.
"Aurelius!" Sulthus said. "That accusation is-"
"Is borne out by the facts, Quent! I've never trusted that blue whelp. The peasants say he can see into the future. If that's true, why did he allow the dragon-rider, our great hero -- and a %man% whom I considered to be one of my dearest comrades -- go to %his% death inside the Crypt of Caracalla? Because the dragon wanted %him% to die, and wants West Kruna to be-"
Marcus' fist caught him square in the jaw. The Mayor of Fallows collapsed in a heap, clutching his chin. The bronze man stood over him, an empty gauntlet clasped in his left hand, eyes blazing, bare fist clenched.
"He hit me!" Aurelius said. The mayor scrambled away from Marcus. "He committed an assault before the king himself! Your Majesty-"
"Hmm... What?" King Jamus looked up. The monarch had his crown in his hands. "I'm sorry, I was busy admiring this sapphire. Such lovely facets! What were you saying, Aurelius?"
"I... He..." The mayor's words degenerated into an inarticulate splutter.
"Sir Marcus, do you believe the dragons have betrayed us?"
"No, Your Majesty. They're as loyal to West Kruna as any of us."
"And I'll say the same." Teucer glanced down at Aurelius Bloodwyn. "So will anyone else who's ever fought beside them."
"Wherever they are, whatever they're doing, they'll return."
"I hope you're right," Jamus said.
The king sighed.
Centurion Gaius inclined his head slightly when Lucian approached, but he didn't look round. The eyes inside his skeletal visage remained fastened on the expanse of grass, tangled vegetation, and broken columns that stretched before him.
"My house stood here," he said.
The scholar could find no words.
"Why didn't you tell me Iula had fallen?"
"What would you have said if I had?" Lucian asked, in the centurion's ancient language.
"I'd have called you a lying barbarian." A sound almost like a sigh emerged from his lungless ribcage. "How did it happen? Was there a great war? An invasion?"
"Many. But the empire just... faded, I suppose. Eaten by time and a changing world."
"Faded... Faded and forgotten. We believed it would live forever, that the whole of Tor'gyyl would be ours one day."
"Not forgotten. There isn't a scholar in West Kruna who doesn't know of the Iulian Empire, and all it gave to us -- in matters of war, literature, art, architecture..."
"How is %name%?"
"Good... %He% fights well for a barbarian. And %he% found the eagle. The Thirteenth Legion remains true to its oaths and duty, because of %him%."
"What will you do now?"
"This is our home, and here we'll remain. No savage tribes will ever claim Iula again. Not while our bones are still whole." The centurion turned around. His glowing red orbs bored into the scholar's eyes, and almost made him flinch. "You and your friends should leave. This is a place for the dead now. The dead and faded."
"It'll be a long trek back to West Kruna. But there are friendly territories that should furnish us with aid, and-"
"No. The Sealed Temple will take you."
"The crypt? With Ariala gone, I fear we can't..."
"I was there when the witch forced Caracalla to reveal the incantation."
"You mean..." The scholar's eyes lit up.
"%name% returned the eagle to us. The Thirteenth pays its debts."
"Three thousand, nine hundred, and ninety seven..."
Another coin clinked onto the aureate pillar.
"Three thousand, nine hundred, and ninety eight..."
Ruth was counting.
"Three thousand, nine hundred, and ninety nine..."
Counting was important. Vital. Essential.
She capped the column and slid it across the table. One more golden soldier added to the growing legion which turned raw, incomprehensible riches into counted, catalogued, understood wealth. The kind of wealth that possessed defined worth and potential.
Ruth lifted a coin from the pile -- the messy, appalling heap -- and laid it down on the empty space before her.
"Four thousand and one."
Because counting was important.
"Four thousand and two."
Money was important. Oh, some of the bards and clerics said otherwise. They sang their silly songs and preached their pompous sermons about the wickedness of wealth and the downfall of the avaricious. But what happened when their bellies were empty or their temple roofs needed fixing? They came hat in hand, begging more sensible folk for coin. People like Ruth. And she took great pleasure in shutting the door in their faces.
"Four thousand and three."
The army lived off gold, like everyone and everything else. Heroism couldn't pierce an enemy's breast. Courage wouldn't stop an axe. And half-starved troops weren't going to hold the line against muscular monsters. Swords, shields, and rations cost money. So did the wages of professional soldiers and mercenaries. The bards never sang about that, did they? The poets didn't see fit to mention it in their frivolous pentameters. If it wasn't for people like her, who understood wealth, who counted and calculated, where would they all be? They'd-
Something thudded against the double doors.
The enemy! They'd reached the treasury!
Another blow shook the thick, steel-banded wood.
No! No! No!
Ruth leapt up from the table. Her chair flew backwards. Stacks of gold slid, then toppled in clattering cascades. She let out a piercing wail. Her counting! Ruined! All ruined!
A thunderous boom echoed through the chamber, and the doors cracked with the sound of breaking bones. They wouldn't hold! She had to save the gold! She groped for the coins, snatching them up, rescuing the precious, precious money. Without wealth the kingdom was doomed!
But gold shimmered and shifted in her grasp, escaping her clutches. Aureate waterfalls rained between her fingers.
The doors burst open. Ruth screamed.
But it wasn't kobolds, beastmen, ogres, or dragons who stood in the doorway. It was %name%. Clad in %his% armor, clutching %his% blade. %name%, glaring from angry eyes.
"Traitor!" %he% said. "Kill her and take the gold!"
"No!" she cried. "I'm... I'm..."
The world rattled around her.
Ruth opened her eyes and gasped in the darkness. Her heart thumped inside her chest, a frantic beast, and something bumped against her head. %name%... No. %name% was dead. She was in the carriage. The miser of Burden's Rest rubbed the side of her skull where it had struck the wall, and for a moment relief flooded through her. She was safe in this closed space with its curtained windows, hidden from the world. There were no enemies breaking down the treasury doors. The gold was...
She tore the keys from her belt and hunched over the great chest that occupied the carriage's floor. Dark presentiments gnawed away at her, impossible thoughts transformed into unquestionable certainties. Ruth swore as each key fumbled in its lock -- propelled by frantic, undexterous fingers. But one by one the thick metal seals clunked open and she heaved the heavy lid back with both hands.
The miser exhaled. It was still full. Even in that shadowy space, the coins seemed to glimmer -- promising all the innumerable things they could bring to pass. She closed the lid and redid the locks one by one. This time her fingers were slow, careful, and cautious.
Ruth sat back and let out a sigh. The gold was safe, and that was what mattered.
%name%'s voice slid from her nightmare and sliced through her thoughts. Ruth winced, but shook her head. She wasn't a traitor. Or a thief, no matter how furtive she'd had to be when it came to bribing, deceiving, or browbeating guards to secure her departure from the city.
"King Jamus says to let me pass," she said. The ruler's visage gleamed gold in the palm of her hand.
"I'm following the bronze man's orders. Do you want Sir Marcus to know you interfered with them?"
She was no warrior. What good would it have done to stay in Dracoshire? And when the fighting started... Horrific images flashed before her. The capital's criminals smashing their way into the treasury while the guards were off battling the enemy. Beastman shamans, creatures too savage to understand or care about money, melting the kingdom's wealth with their sorcery, cackling while West Kruna's lifeblood trickled away in worthless rivulets. Dragons snatching up piles of treasure for their hoards.
She'd done the right thing, she assured herself. If the capital held, if Marcus and the others triumphed, she'd bring the gold back and face whatever consequences awaited her. But if it didn't -- if the dragons razed Dracoshire -- the wealth she'd whisked away to safety would help raise fresh legions to liberate their land.
The miser of Burden's Rest sighed, pondering what the future might hold, whilst the carriage rattled onward, taking her further and further from her allies. Numbers arranged themselves in her mind like the neat golden legion of her dream. Mental calculations filled Ruth's head, resolving themselves into stratagems. How many swords? How many mercenaries? How many weeks of food could it buy? She lost herself in economic machinations.
"All hail Ruth, savior of West Kruna!"
A thousand voices called her name. A thousand more sang her praises. Because her clever gold, her marvelous money, had saved them all.
"Marry me, Ruth!"
"Take the crown!"
"We need a new queen! Jamus was eaten by dragons!"
"We'll build temples in your honor!"
She waved away the foolish, spendthrift masses and made her way to the treasury. Because there was counting to be done. Counting was important.
Ruth blinked, and the carriage returned. She cursed. There wasn't time to fall asleep, and wallow in silly dreams like a giddy schoolgirl. She had plans to make, calculations to...
A sense of wrongness clawed at her an instant before she understood why. The carriage wasn't rattling.
"Help!" The cry, her driver's voice, was receding into the distance. "Someone help!"
It was the breaking of a dam. In the next instant, sound exploded, rebounding inside the vehicle's dark interior. Roars and cackles. Charging feet. And the driver's scream.
Ruth shuffled across the seat, towards the window. Her fingers snatched the curtain away. And the miser of Burden's Rest shrieked. A big, ugly blue face glared at her. She dived in the opposite direction, making for the other door, and howled when her shin banged against the huge chest.
A horrific crash -- the shattering of bones, of treasury doors -- engulfed her. Wooden shards rained down on her back. Something seized her from behind, clutching her cloak and jerkin, bunching the hard, tough fabric and drawing it tight around her body. Ruth screamed again. She grabbed at the chest, tried to cling on. But the inescapable grasp yanked her away.
The miser flew backwards, through the gaping hole smashed in the carriage's side, into the harsh, grey daylight. Backwards, and then upwards. Ruth stared down into the ogre's hideous visage. A broad, bulging arm held her aloft. Three more hung from his thick torso, each clutching a fearsome blade. Ruth cried out and thrashed.
"No escape Drak-shire." The ogre grinned. "Xerkara say all die!"
He swung her through the air. A tree trunk rushed towards the miser's shrieking face. And the universe went dark.
Why were they here they shouldn't be here they should be in Dracoshire with the rest of the army not out here not in Stromhamre where that skull was grinning at her why was it grinning at her what did it know what was it planning and why were her thoughts whooshing through her head like-
"Soooooluuuuuus..." Andromeda said.
Why was that stupid dragon talking so slow it sounded like she was underwater and if they were underwater they were all going to drown and she didn't want to drown not in water or in words or-
"...theeeeereeee's nooooothiiiiiiing heeereeee. Weee shoooould gooooo baaaaack."
Maybe it was the potions all those stupid potions green and orange and tasting like fudge or honey or honey-fudge or squirrels or something and she drank too much this was all Solus' fault he told her she needed to drink so she drank and now she was dying in Stromhamre when she should be dying in Dracoshire and everything outside was going really slow but everything inside was going really fast and-
"Sooooooooooon," Solus said.
He was underwater too they were all underwater voices slow and echoing and Penelope felt like her brains were going to explode and if her brains exploded they'd need to big grave because she was a big girl now that she was a dragon and this was all Solus' fault so they should make him dig the grave with his stupid little dragon claws and that would teach him a lesson and he needed a lesson stupid potions the alchemists should help dig the grave too because this was all their-
"Weeeeee'veeee beeeeeeen waaaaaaiiiiiiiitiiiiiing foooooor hoooooouuuuuurs..."
Penelope laid her head down on the soft cool grass and put her hands over her face.
You're holding your breath. Your lungs swell with trapped air, imprisoning fearful anticipations. The rest of your friends are doing the same. You glance at them, arrayed in a circle around the chamber where you once fought Caracalla, where brave Dao perished -- and now lies in a corner, beneath the cloak that covers his body and the Starmancer's. All are silent. Some of their gazes dart around the room. Others are fastened on Medea, who stands in the middle, speaking strange words over the low strum of her harp. Words that may determine your fate.
Moments pass. Tension hardens around you like water turning into ice. Nothing's happening... The bard's words aren't working... Roland's hands clench into fists. Rissa's mouth shapes inaudible profanities. Tongues of fire blaze around Elyssa's shoulders. And you can almost see the thoughts revolving in Lucian's head, as he works out how long it would take you all to journey back to West Kruna by foot, steed, and sail. But Medea's voice doesn't falter. The incantation continues to flow, and her song rises to bolster it.
Those Iulian words are meaningless to you. But the music... You close your eyes, and let it fill the darkness with images of ancient temples and marching armies. Of centurions and legionaries from a time long past, waging war beneath golden eagles. Gaius is at their forefront. Blood, muscle, and skin cover his bones now. Firm, unyielding eyes occupy his sockets instead of the arcane glow. Yet somehow you recognize him all the same. Marius is there too. Battle brothers standing side by side, ready to face whatever barbarian hordes fate throws into their path.
"Thirteenth," you whisper.
The song changes. The shift is subtle at first, but in moments the melody has transformed into something new and wonderful. Those legions, those fighting men of Iula, are gone. Instead glorious landscapes flow beneath you while you soar on high. Blue waves roll across the world and meet grey cliffs in dancing plumes of white spray. That energy, that vitality, continues onward unthwarted, lending its passion to the country beyond. Plains, fields, and meadows undulate to infinite horizons. Vast forests sway and ripple in the wind. Rivers rush and shimmer through the lands they nourish. Mountains stand vigil and keep majestic watch over beauty that stretches from the southern marshes to the white north, from the vineyards to the steppes, from the untamed wilderness to the cities where nations dwell and dream.
West Kruna... The sights fill you with unimaginable longing. You swoop through the sky, atop Solus' back, while the wind whips across your cheeks.
There's a gasp, filled with glee. And you comprehend at the same time. The wind... It's real. When your eyelids part, dispelling the sweet mirage, it remains. Eldritch breezes whisper around the chamber. They play through the adventurer's grey hair, flutter the scholar's robe. They tease the thief's hood back, and make the pyromancer's flames flicker around her body. In the middle of it all, the bard sings from smiling lips.
You exhale and let your breath join the breeze.
The words end. Medea's tune finishes with one long, resounding, golden note. The wind elapses in a soft sigh. No one speaks. No one needs to. As one, you make for the doorway and head through the stone passages -- footsteps quickening by the second.
At the final turning you almost falter. What if the door's still there? What if that thrice-damned skull's still laughing, waiting to tell you that you're somewhere else, on another continent, still lost and far from home? But your friends sweep you along, and all doubts evaporate.
You run, amidst the joy and laughter. You all run. Along the corridor, into the daylight, into the world where dragons wait and there's a war to be won.
Orange eyes meet yours. Andromeda grins. Penelope lifts a scaly pink hand from her face, and stares at you through her uncovered eye.
"Still alive I knew you'd be alive Solus said you were alive and some people didn't believe him but I knew it was true and now we need to hurry the dragons' armies are all heading for Dracoshire and Marcus and the others are all there to fight them and I've drunk too many potions I think I'm going to be sick!"
"The fog's forming a complete circle now," Fontella said. The gnome strategist moved her finger on the map, tracing a loop through the countryside surrounding Dracoshire. "It's impossible to know for certain how many troops they have inside there, or where they're arrayed. But some of our aerial scouts report that more fog banks are still approaching from further out."
"That's why they haven't attacked yet," Sulthus Quent added. "They're waiting till they're at full strength."
King Jamus nodded and stared at the map for some moments.
"So our troops still have to guard all approaches to the city," the monarch said.
"Yes," Fontella said. "And once the fighting starts, they'll need to be quick on their feet. If the dragons focus on one particular spot when they attack, we'll have to scramble and-"
The door flew open, revealing a breathless guardswoman.
"Sire!" she said. Her eyes shone. "Dragons-"
The three of them leapt up from the table.
"We're under attack?" Quent said.
"No! Our dragons. They're back! And the dragon-rider's with them! Marcus' bringing %him% to the palace!"
Perhaps it was undignified for a king to run. Jamus' mother told him such things back when he was a boy, whenever she caught him tearing through the castle with a wooden sword in his hand. But the King of West Kruna dashed past the startled guard -- while his chief advisor and Fontella D'Tang followed close behind, in what was probably the most ridiculous footrace those austere environs had ever borne witness to.
The king reached the throne room via his private entrance, dropped into his seat, and panted for several seconds before realizing that the room was occupied. Dozens of courtiers blinked at him. Quent fetched up against the throne and coughed.
"We..." Sulthus began.
But there was no need to stammer out an explanation, because every head turned to the chamber's main entrance a second later. Sir Marcus, dressed in his bronze panoply, attired and ready for battle as he always was of late, strode across the room. Another warrior walked beside him. A %man% whose own grab was dusty, dirty, and disheveled; who looked like %he% hadn't slept in days; whose gait bore the telltale hesitation that came from recently healed wounds.
Marcus bowed. The stranger glanced at the bronze man before making the same movement. %He% rose from the bow, winced, and pressed a hand against %his% side.
"%name% of Burden's Rest, Your Majesty," Sir Marcus said.
"Most of us thought you were dead," the king said.
"Sorry," %name% said.
Some of the courtiers laughed. Jamus smiled.
"But at least you're here in time for the battle..." The king turned to Marcus. "Do the troops know our hero's returned?"
"Word's spreading as we speak, sire."
"A miracle from the gods... If that doesn't raise morale, nothing will. Make sure everyone in Dracoshire knows."
"Perhaps not just in Dracoshire," Sulthus Quent said. The advisor scratched his chin. "Summon the archmages. I have an idea..."
Xerkara hovered high above a spectral sea. Down below, great banks of white fog rolled onward, ushering her army and her destiny on their way to Dracoshire. Soon those phantasmal waters would smother West Kruna's capital and drown its defenders. Then the lesser races strewn across the kingdom like swarms of insects would kneel -- their spirits broken.
Keen senses turned the white wyrm's head. A red shape was approaching, a crimson blob emerging from the greyness of the clouds. She gave a little hiss of satisfaction as it hardened into a familiar draconic form.
"Drulcharus," she said.
The red drake's leathery wings swept on either side of his powerful frame, holding him aloft before her.
"My forces will soon be here," he said. "Their raiders harried us, and we had to slaughter them first."
"When they arrive, lead them to-"
Drulcharus turned his head. Xerkara followed his gaze, and her eyes narrowed. The creature flying towards them from the direction of the capital shared their winged reptilian shape, though it was far smaller than either of them. She might have taken the little drake for a messenger coming from another of her forces. But a human sat perched on its back.
"It's the traitor!" Drulcharus said. "Erebus and Kalaxia's spawn!"
The blue whelp drew closer, until she could make out his orange eyes and the rider's armor. Xerkara snorted. It was disgusting. One of their mighty race, serving as a wretched being's steed!
Drulcharus' chest swelled. His cheeks bulged, pregnant with flame. But the white wyrm waved a claw and forestalled the coming torrent.
"They have no scent," she said. "It's a projection. An illusion."
The phantasmal dragon stopped in front of them and hovered there for a long moment, staring into space. Xerkara glanced to either side. There were more of them, in the distance -- doppelgangers suspended in front of empty air, forming what she suspected was part of a ring that might stretch all the way around the city.
"My name is %name%," the rider said. %His% voice rumbled like thunder, hurled by sorcery. It echoed across the landscape. "But I've heard you call me Dratherax -- the God-Slayer."
"I've never really killed a god before," %he% continued, "but I've killed dragons. Lots of dragons. So know this: any kobold, beastman, ogre, or wyrm who attacks Dracoshire will die. If you want to live, run. And run fast -- because I'll be coming for you."
The Battle of Dracoshire 1
|"Now that's bloody ominous, as the girl said when the zombie started licking his lips."
It's a tidal wave of whiteness, a drifting avalanche. When you glimpsed it from above, speeding towards Dracoshire atop Solus' back, it was almost beautiful -- a vast, soft, ghostly expanse. Now it makes the hairs tingle on the back of your neck. You gaze between the crenellations, and watch it roll ever closer to the massed ranks of warriors arrayed on the plains below the city's wall.
"Reminds me of a volcano I saw erupt in Chalua," Roland says. "It threw out a big cloud of ash that swept over the countryside and buried all the villages. After it went by, nothing was left alive."
"Pyroclastic surge," Lucian says.
"Our mages will rebuff it before it reaches our lines," Marcus says. "Then..."
He doesn't need to finish. When the fog parts, unveiling your enemies, the crimson tempest will begin -- familiar carnage wrought on an immense scale. And the kingdom will live or die according to the strength and courage of its warriors.
You glance at each of your friends, the brave men and women who've stood beside you for so long and through so much. But everything that needed to pass between you was already spoken last night. So you all salute, wish one another luck, and go to take your places.
Hunger. A deep dark chasm. An aching void that howled to be filled. In the past her awakenings had been brief, and coupled with offerings of blood and flesh. Morsels that lingered in her digestion and her dreams as she slumbered. But now... Wrath undulated through her long, sinuous limbs.
They'd woken her and dragged her far from her domain -- compelled by ancient bonds and sorceries. This displeased her. Now she seethed in a strange place, quelled by the whispering songs that held her violence in check but did little to diminish her fury.
Someone would pay for this.
Someone would sate her hunger...
The Fish and the Frogs
|Trekex always sneered whenever the lion-men or goat-men stared up at their gods, or at their pteropine brethren, and envied them the grace of their soaring, swooping flight. Because here he had more freedom than any bat or dragon. And all it took was a little time on the land, marching or fighting in the dry warmth of unfiltered sunlight, to make each return to the water exhilarating.
The frog-man's sleek, strong body spiraled through the river's flow, reveling in its mastery. He shot down the channel, navigating its twists and turns with careless agility. Trekex's warriors thronged around him -- fellow missiles in the green and black volley. Webbed hands and feet propelled them onwards.
A second stream of lithe, fast bodies flew from another passage and joined their host. These were different from the frog-men. Their flesh was pale, and snaking tentacles writhed behind them, pulsing and flaring like the fingers of opening and closing fists. But their destination and intent were the same.
His batrachian features split in a savage smile. There would be plenty of killing for them all.
The river's mouth gaped ahead, ready to disgorge its deadly passengers into the broad, deep basin beyond. The lake from which Dracoshire filled its wells and obtained the precious liquid of life. The lake that would usher them into the city via flooded subterranean paths. Trekex's grin broadened. The foolish humans guarded their worthless walls, and patrolled the skies above. Their soldiers stood around the settlement, ready to give battle in the fields. But death would come from beneath instead.
He burst from the channel's maw, flanked and followed by his warriors.
The sneer died on his broad face.
The night before the Battle of Dracoshire...
Warm, humid air clings to your skin. Even in breeches and tunic, the steamy atmosphere is almost overwhelming. You can't imagine how Marcus endures it in his armor. But he walks at your side unperturbed, as though he were truly a man of bronze -- as everyone's taken to calling him.
"It's like an oven," you say.
"They enjoy the heat," he says.
A door opens on your left, and misty tendrils drift out into the corridor. Lord Grantet -- one of the aristocrats you met at court -- emerges from their embrace. He's still wearing that distinctive monocle, set in its ornate silver frame, along with a jovial smile. These are the only two things he's wearing, however, and his pendulous gut makes a valiant but vain attempt to cover his nether regions.
"<player name>! Come to relax before the battle, <old chap/dear girl>? Nothing like a nice steam bath to melt that tension away. Jolly good of Jamus to open this place up to the army. First built by the Iulians, you know? Splendid fellows, the Iulians."
"I know one who is," you say.
His monocle drops from his eye. Since its slim chain isn't tethered to a garment, the eyepiece tumbles through the air and shatters on the floor. You give him a nod and walk on by -- leaving him gawping.
Laughing voices and splashing water draw you towards the royal baths' main chamber, through parting curtains of steam that settle on your clothes and make them stick to your body, warm and damp. A big oblong pool occupies most of its length and breadth, beneath a vaulted ceiling adorned with colorful mosaics of joyful merfolk. And today their flesh and blood counterparts frolic below. Beings with humanoid upper bodies swim through the water, chased by elegant swishes from undulating fins and tails that shimmer with a beautiful assortment of blue, green, red, and orange scales.
Some of the bathers wave, and a few even cheer and applaud. You're busy basking in their adulations when an azure tail rises above the surface and comes crashing down -- launching a wave that spatters across Marcus' sabatons and soaks into your soft leather boots. The tail flips under the water, giving way to a giggling face framed by lengths of wet blue hair.
"Dragon-rider!" she says. "Join us!"
She swims away on her back, beckoning.
"You remember Princess Lysicaa?" Marcus says.
"Vhaliribdis," you say.
An old adventure... Before the crypt whisked you far away. The memory is absurdly welcome, despite the horrors and carnage it entails. Another reminder that you're home, in the place where your life and past adventures were waiting to be resumed and reclaimed.
"What about me, dragon-rider?" a voice asks. "Do you remember me?"
A mermaid pulls herself out of the pool, and you watch with interest as her tail parts -- scales and fins withdrawing in long, wriggling strings, retracting inside a pair of cyan legs. You've seldom had a chance to witness that transformation so close before. She stands up and meets your gaze.
"You almost had me sacrificed to the Ninth Terror!" you say.
Celcinoe's lip twitches into the ghost of a smirk.
Trekex waved his blade. The aquatic beastmen fanned out into combat formation, and swam towards their enemies.
Across the murky waters of the lake, the merfolk did the same.
|"Kill a dragon for me, <player name>!" the gnome says. He twirls his empty sling above his head and winks. "Then when the bards ask, say I brought it down with one of my bullets!"
"Sure," you say. "But only if you put a bullet through an ogre's head, and tell them I did it by spitting at him."
"To hell with that!" another slinger says. "I'll kill one for you, and say you just looked at him hard!"
You and Marcus walk on, amongst the sprawling camp's innumerable tents and huddled clusters of warriors, illuminated by cool moonlight and the warmth of their fires.
"<player name>!" A barbarian thrusts his sword into the air with one hand, and brandishes a half-eaten lamb shank in the other. "May Mathala crush your enemies' bones between her teeth!"
"I hope your goddess likes dragon marrow," you say.
"Good to see you alive, dragon-rider," a woman in Night Blade garb says. Her face is masked, just like the others that surround her campfire. But there's a twinkle in her eyes that betrays the invisible smile beneath. "One of these days there's going to be a fortune put on that head of yours, and I'll be disappointed if someone kills you for free."
"Talk to Medea. Whenever I sing, she'd probably trade the royal treasury to see you cut my throat out."
Marcus expounds his stratagems as you meander through the encampment, while you return each call, wave, and nod. King Jamus offered you a bedchamber in the palace if you wanted to rest. But you'd rather spend the night talking with your friends and wandering among the legions who've gathered to defend Dracoshire. For many of these brave warriors, this might be their last night on Tor'gyyl. No matter what happens tomorrow, the price in blood and lives will be high.
"...just like Fallows," the bronze man continues.
"Who's going to lead them down there?" you ask.
Familiar dwarven voices bellow from one of the larger tents, and stop you both in your tracks.
"Call yourself a... a... blue master?" Bernard Bronzefist says.
"It's Brewmaster!" Lenzy says. "Grand Brewmaster! Call yourself a drinker? Slurring after fifty pints, like a twig-necked elf!"
"Excuse me," he says.
He pulls the tent flap aside and strides into the packed interior. You follow close behind.
"Oh crap! It's Marcus!" someone hisses.
"It wasn't me! I'm not even here! I have an alias!"
"You mean an alibi!"
The crowd parts before him. Hardened warriors scurry out of his path like mischievous children caught in the act, pushing their neighbors back until there are howls of protest and the canvas walls billow outwards from the press of flesh and bone. He walks between them, and favors everyone with the guardsman's gaze that's broken many a criminal's resolve, and drawn confessions from countless malefactors.
At the far end of the tent, Bernard Bronzefist and Brewmaster Lenzy are sat, or rather slumped, on opposite sides of a square table. Piles of empty tankards fill the space between them. More rest on the ground in high heaps, along with a few barrels that lie on their sides, empty and forlorn.
"Bring me another!" Bernard says. "I'll drink this blue master-"
"Brewmaster!" Lenzy says.
"...under the table yet!" He waves a cup around. "Somebody fill it up!"
Marcus slaps it out of his hand. The empty vessel clatters atop its fallen brethren, adding to the considerable debris.
"Who did that?" The dwarf's bloodshot eyes glare, squint, and blink. "Marcus! Fancy a drink, bronze man?"
"A drinking contest..." The knight's eyes narrow. "A drinking contest, the night before a battle?"
"Couldn't leave it till after! What if we got killed? Can't drink when you're dead, can you?"
"Wrong!" a tall zombie calls out.
Marcus looks round, and the undead face ducks out of sight.
"Besides," Bronzefist says, "this one said he could outdrink me! If I didn't prove him wrong, my descendants would piss on my grave!"
"They'll piss on it anyway," Lenzy says, "after I leave you lying in your own puke!"
"Them's fighting words!"
Bronzefist reaches under the table, picks up his axe, and brandishes it overhead. Marcus grabs its shaft and snatches it from his hand. You move beside the former guardsman, in case he needs help subduing an irate Stonebound dwarf.
"Bernard..." you say. "Still a psychotic, axe-wielding drunkard, I see."
He sniffs and rubs his eye.
"Ah, that's what my mother always called me!" He gets up, and sweeps a blundering arm through the tankards as he rises. Half a dozen of them rain down from the table. Then he throws his muscular limbs around you, and squeezes the air from your lungs. "I've missed you, <player name>!"
You extract yourself from his bear hug. The dwarf wipes away another tear and tries to sit back down. His rear misses the chair by a considerable margin, and he drops onto the heaped tankards instead. Lenzy points at him, laughs, then falls off his own seat. There's a chorus of crunches and clatters as he lands amidst the litter.
"Bronzefist, Lenzy," the former guardsman says, "this isn't even vaguely acceptable."
"So?" Bernard says. "What're you going to do? Put us on latrine duty? The battle's tomorrow, and after that it's all over!"
"Yeah!" Lenzy says.
Marcus' eyes gleam.
"Latrine duty? I have something even better for you two drunks..."
"This is all your fault!" Bernard Bronzefist said.
"What?" Lenzy snorted. "We wouldn't be knee-deep in crap if you could handle your drink!"
The grumbling dwarves waded through the sewer's filth, splashing amidst the stinking foulness. Dozens of heavy footsteps stomped after them.
"Anyway, you're the one who said dwarves are the best underground fighters," the Grand Brewmaster continued.
"Well we are, aren't we? When he said 'underground', I thought there were tunnels or caverns that needed guarding. I didn't think he meant the gods-damned sewers! It smells like an ogre's ass down here!"
"Really?" a woman's voice said. "I hadn't noticed."
Lenzy turned around, glared at the hovering phantom, and grunted.
"Shandra," he said, "you're a damn ghost. You don't have a real nose -- just like those golems back there."
"Oh, so that's why Marcus wanted us down here." She giggled and flitted from side to side, illuminating the dark passage with her spectral glow. Swords and shields followed in her wake, suspended around her as though animated by the world's most lethargic whirlwind. A levitating blade passed through her body.
"Bah!" Bernard swung his axe and cleaved a thick cobweb. "You ask me, even those damn beastmen wouldn't be foul enough to come-"
Something flew from the shadows, spinning end over end. Bronzefist gazed down at the axe embedded in his beard's thick braids.
War cries rebounded through the sewers.
The dwarf grunted. Wading through gore would be an improvement...
War in the Water
|A human would've seen the battle. They'd have glimpsed whatever little slice of carnage their surface eyes could discern amidst the cloudy waters, a mere fraction of the omnipresent, omnidirectional violence that raged throughout the lake. But Celcinoe was a mermaid, born to this world and this way of war. So she felt the battle.
Each movement, every kicking limb, sweeping tail, and thrusting weapon, sent its force rippling through the liquid. Faint echoes of energy and action tingled on her fins, skin, and scales, supplemented by the mingled scents of friend and foe, of life and blood and death -- revealing a dozen deeds. Behind her, a burly merman drove his trident's prongs into a frog-man's chest. Red streams bloomed from the wounds like little plumes of smoke. Above, a mermaid grappled in a squid-woman's embrace. Tentacles entangled her body and her left arm. Another twisted around her neck.
Celcinoe shot upwards, launching herself with strong strokes of her tail. The enchanted coral blade in her hands needed little momentum to split flesh. Sinuous limbs parted amid blossoms of inky blackness. The squid-woman screamed, a piercing wail that whistled from her cheeks. The freed mermaid silenced her with a dagger through the eye, nodded at Celcinoe, then swam off in search of another enemy.
The champion of the merfolk darted away from the dark blood and allowed the fighting to flow through her senses once more.
Trekex twisted round, kicked against the water where his head had been a moment before, and drove his blade downwards -- straight into the face of the mermaid who'd attempted to skewer him from below. Her eyes widened. Then the frog-man twisted the sword, opening her skull, and they floated out of cracked sockets amidst a stream of pink-grey gore.
He inverted himself again and kicked her corpse towards the bottom of the lake.
The kill pleased him. But the triumphant sheen faded from his glistening eyes. Their enemies were wreaking havoc on his forces, whittling away the warriors who should've snuck into Dracoshire and slaughtered the unsuspecting. These damned merfolk had shredded the element of surprise. The city had anticipated their attack and thrown defenders in their path. Yet Trekex could save face, or whatever else his masters would bite off as the price of failure, if the beastmen slew their way past these piscine fools and caused whatever chaos they still could.
He gazed upwards, at the distant, shining surface. Was Nereidon there? The rivers that brought the aquatic raiders on the final stretch of their journey had grown too narrow for him, and he'd taken to the sky. Would he appear high above, watching his minions to ensure that they carried out his commands? If so, perhaps...
Trekex spat out a stream of bubbling froth. He couldn't afford to rely on Nereidon's arrival. He had to turn the battle himself...
Something buffeted him from behind. A shifting of water, as though from some large, heavy body. The frog-man swiveled. His sneer began to return, carving a gash in his sleek skin. But it died in the next instant. It wasn't salvation, transformed from wish to reality. It was destruction. A purple and orange boulder ploughed through the lake, smashing a bloody path through the beastmen, battering them in all directions, leaving ruined corpses in its wake.
No, not a boulder... A beast? But that realization gave way in turn as it came nearer, and coral-tipped shafts trust from holes in the carapace. Shields.... Shields made from the shells of crabs, forming almost a complete sphere around the merfolk within. A thousand oaths ran through Trekex's head. He'd heard of this, from a squid-man who'd returned from battle with gory stumps at the ends of his tentacles and an ugly gash carved into the side of his skull.
The frog-man let out a high-pitched cry. It pierced the water, and the nearest squid-woman tore her eyes away from the devastation long enough to meet his. He made a series of curt gestured with his left hand. Her eyes widened, and her tentacles twitched their demurral. Trekex pointed upwards -- towards the surface, the land, the sky. His meaning was clear enough. If she refused, it wouldn't just be him she'd have to answer to. She glared. Pale fingers tightened around the handle of her black coral blade. But she shrieked her subaquatic call to her minions. They rushed towards the armored formation, and Trekex swam after them. After all, he'd have to answer to their gods too.
The multifaceted shell, the arrangement of shields, flew at them like an underwater meteor. Jagged faces dripped with blood, flesh, and slivers of shredded organs. Coral blades emerged to claim fresh kills. But the beastmen didn't falter. It was too late for that; hesitation would only ensure their demise. Trekex aimed his blade and glanced up at the surface one more time. Still nothing. Whether they lived or died, it would be by virtue of their strength and weapons alone.
Spears thrust from between the bulwarks, ready to skewer. The squid-like beastmen's charge broke at last, and degenerated into what looked like the beginnings of a synchronized rout. Each of them flipped backwards, reversing direction. Ebon liquid gushed from their bodies and expanded into billowing black clouds. Ink flowed through the water, between the shields, blinding and engulfing the warriors within. Their armored formation crumbled. The shell broke apart. And Trekex's blade bit into a merman's neck.
Amphibious beastmen darted inside the shattered sphere. Tentacles grasped, and weapons cut. The killing was quick and gruesome -- just as they liked it. Redness mingled with the ink, and the colors of blood and shadow swirled in intricate patterns.
The squid-woman who'd first shied away from Trekex's command now grinned at him. Two of her tentacles waved the limbs of dismembered merfolk. Then her mouth contracted, and shaped a little 'o'. She looked down.
A shimmering, translucent spike protruded from her abdomen.
"You haven't met Julcinous," Marcus says. "He joined us while you were..."
"Dead?" you say.
The green-skinned merman climbs up the stone steps that lead out of the pool. And the water comes with him.
"Pleased to meet you, dragon-rider," he says.
You manage to take his hand, but you're too busy staring at his chest to meet his gaze. The man's tunic is liquid. It flows around his body in a series of streams and splashes, while brightly colored fish caper inside.
"Your shirt..." you say.
"Oh? Would you like one?" He clicks his fingers.
A column of water spirals up from the pool. It twists around you before you can back away, and expands until it encases your arms and torso like a second skin.
"So you're a... water-tailor?"
"Among other things..."
Julcinous winced. There were a lot of beastmen, all charging towards him with murder in their eyes and on their blades. But he had a job to do...
The water-weaver reached out with his mind, and liquid took shape like a sculptor's clay.
Vicious shapes. With sharp, translucent teeth.
Slaughter in the Sewers
|"My beard!" Bernard Bronzefist's roar echoed through the sewers, along with a barrage of outraged squeaks. "You ruined my beard!"
The goat-man didn't reply, either because he disapproved of the dwarf's belligerence, because he was simply antisocial, or because he was face-down in a river of filth, with Bernard's boot stomping on the back of his head. Possibly a combination of the three. In any event, he lay there, thrashed for a bit, and emitted a few bubbles of air before lying still. The Stonebound warrior kept stomping.
"Bernie..." Shandra said.
She flitted in front of him. Steel clanged on steel, as one of her floating shields blocked a hurled spear. The missile fell into the stinking water and a hovering sword darted away to inflict retribution. Meanwhile the dwarf continued to stamp on the beastman's skull -- which had stopped thudding. Now it squelched instead.
"He threw an axe at my beard!" The dwarf glowered at her, whilst brain matter and excrement mingled on the soles of his boots. "My beard!"
"Are you sure it was him?"
"Maybe..." His stomping slowed, and decreased in ferocity -- taking on a distinctly contemplative tone.
"It could've been one of them." The poltergeist jabbed a thumb over her shoulder, at the battle raging behind her.
Bernard's brow darkened.
"Which one of you bastards threw that axe?" He ran through Shandra's spectral form, barged two of her shields aside, and hurtled down the corridor. "Was it you?"
His axe sank deep into the bull-man's head without waiting for a reply. The ghost shrugged, making her assortment of floating armaments mirror the unconscious gesture, and floated after him -- stopping only to put a levitating sword through the back of a beastman who thought he'd managed to sneak past her.
"How about you?" the Stonebound dwarf said.
He leapt across the breadth of the passage, landed with a splash that threw unpleasant things all over Grand Brewmaster Lenzy, and hacked a wolf-man's spine.
"Damn fool!" Lenzy said. "That one was mine!"
"Bah! You kill like you drink! Slow and... and... Ah, get out of my way!"
Bernard ran onward, knocking a stone golem sideways, and kept swinging. Lenzy glared for a long moment, then charged after him.
"I beat you at drinking," the Brewmaster said, "and I'll beat you at slaying too!"
He swung his official hammer, with its big tankard-shaped head, and inflicted equally official violence. A lion-man's brains sprayed across slimy brickwork.
"Wait for the golems!" Shandra said. She glanced over her shoulder, where those warriors of stone and iron were punching, wrestling, or otherwise battling the enemies who converged from the various side passages. "They..."
The ghost sighed and hurried after the dwarves. Why were the living always so difficult?
"What kind of a dwarf has mice in his beard?" Lenzy said. He ducked a kobold's swing and thrust with his hammer. The saurian skull found itself caught between stone and steel, and found neither much to its liking.
"I had insects in there!" Bernard took a beastman's headbutt without flinching, and returned it with one of his own. The caprine face yielded with a crunch. "You know a better way to get rid of them?"
"It's called a comb!"
"Bah! To hell with you and your fancy ways! You've been spending too long with the humans!"
They kicked their foes' corpses aside and sprinted through the sewers. A hyenine head looked around a corner ahead, perhaps to ascertain the source of the pounding footfalls, and was decapitated for his troubles. Another leapt in front of the Brewmaster -- only to discover that when you plant yourself in front of a charging Stonebound dwarf with a large hammer, the laws of momentum (not to mention common sense) are very much against you.
"Bernard! Lenzy!" Shandra whooshed in pursuit. Swords and shields danced around her, their orbit growing faster and more frantic. "Wait! We..."
The phantom sniffed. Her brow furrowed. Her ghostly proboscis wasn't perturbed by foul scents as it had been in life, but it still worked after a fashion. She smelled something... What was it?
"I'm killing that spellcaster!" Bernard said.
"No!" Lenzy said. "I saw him first!"
A goat-man stood at the opposite end of the passage, his black robes soaked and sodden from the knee down. He raised his glowing hands towards the charging dwarves. And at that moment Shandra recognized the strange scent.
"No! Get back! There's-"
Fire burst from the beastman's hands.
A cataclysmic boom and a wave of blazing heat and flame tore through the sewers.
Boss: Nereidon the Sea Slayer
The Battle of Dracoshire 2
|"...and a blue orc named Dant'Kun," %name% said, "who-"
"Excuse me," Ridolphus said. The orcish scholar's quill paused above a page of the small tome he held in his other hand, wherein he was chronicling the dragon-rider's tale of adventure. "Did you say a 'blue orc'?"
"Yes. Like regular orcs, but..."
"How very peculiar." He scribbled down some notes. "And you're quite sure it wasn't just war paint, or a trick of the light?"
Marcus excused himself. It was a remarkable tale, an amazing account of adventures that spanned three continents, which rewrote history and changed the destiny of a small island nation. He'd been as eager to hear it as anyone else. But %name% had now recounted %his% latest exploits more than once, as each group of allies demanded to hear what the dragon-rider had been up to during %his% absence. And there were still many people the former guardsman wished to speak with before the night was over.
He scanned the tents and fires. The soldiers in this part of the encampment were busy sharpening their weapons or polishing their armor, with all the discipline of a professional army. Each of them wanted to make their illustrious leaders proud, and prove they were worthy to wear those coveted hues. Their devotion was heartening. Sir Marcus had long since come to appreciate the value of heroism, and how it contrived to make others strive to reach the same lofty heights. Yet the evidence still brought a faint smile to his lips. Whatever happened tomorrow, none of these men and women would falter.
The people he sought weren't among them. But he found Daltia sitting alone by a campfire, holding a blue pauldron and gazing at her reflection in its shining steel. The elven squire looked up when Marcus approached. Whatever wistful thoughts passed through her mind vanished from her face, usurped by curiosity.
"Where are the..." Marcus began. The word 'Seven' had been on the tip of his tongue. But there weren't seven. Not anymore.
Daltia seemed to understand both his meaning and his hesitation. She sighed.
"They're in the city, in the craftsman's quarter. Visit the weaponsmiths and armorers, and you'll find them."
He glanced over his shoulder as he headed for the gates. The elf was staring at the martial mirror once more, perhaps contemplating what the future might hold now that seven were six.
"Hail, bronze man."
A young man and a middle aged woman, both clad in mail, armed with halberds and tabards bearing Dracoshire's seal, lounged inside the gateway. They nodded at Marcus when he entered the cool, shadowy space beneath the city's thick wall.
"Still on duty?" the knight asked.
"Guard commander's orders," the woman said. "Probably thinks a dragon'll sneak in the second we leave the gates unguarded."
"Here," the man said, "if you're going inside, reckon you could bring us back some of Miggins' steak and kidney pies? If we're going to stand around, might as well have full bellies while we do it."
The sounds of the camp faded into the distance as he made his way through the streets, supplanted by a boisterous din that grew stronger and more exuberant as he approached middle of the city. Despite the hour, the blackness of the sky above, and the approaching hordes, crowds thronged Dracoshire's marketplace. The merchants were still out, manning their sprawling assortment of stalls.
"Madam! Madam! Got a sword? No? What if one of those beastmen sticks his ugly face through the window while you're in the bath? Buy one of these and you can cut it right off!"
"Maces! Get your maces! Good for crushing skulls and holding doors open. Maces!"
"We've got all the potions you need! Red ones, green ones, blue ones... And ones that'll make your lovers look like Caspis himself, ladies!"
Tantalizing odors hung heavy in the air. Smiling men and women handed sticky, honey-coated treats to gangs of clamoring children. Others dipped battered foodstuffs into pots of bubbling oil. Marcus' mouth watered, and he hoped his soldiers wouldn't be battling indigestion as well as the dragons. Over the past days some had murmured about siege preparations, urging everyone to conserve food and drink. But no one believed it would come to that. If the armies assembled outside the walls were vanquished, the city would fall. Thus the people of Dracoshire feasted.
"Sir Marcus!" a young orc scurried up to him. A big tray hung from his neck, piled high with colorful comestibles. "Lizard on stick. Free. Tasty!"
He shoved the treat into the bronze man's hand. Marcus grasped the stick and stared at it. The orc ran off into the middle of the crowd.
"Lizard on stick!" the trader said. "Even Sir Marcus eats lizard on stick! You eat lizard on stick, children, you grow up to be big and strong, like him!"
The bronze man sighed and took a bite. Crunchy coatings and sweet, gooey caramel filled his mouth. It was actually pretty good. He continued to masticate as he wandered through the square.
At least a dozen different bards were singing around the marketplace, standing on makeshift platforms, leaning from windows, or else simply meandering while they played. Their songs mingled with the cloying scents and endless banter. Tragedies and comedies, epic tales and rude rhymes, all danced around the reveling citizens. Sometimes the tunes would clash like warring legions. But in other places serendipitous harmonies emerged, and people danced to melding melodies that might never be heard again.
A beautiful voice and the fluttering of exquisite strings stopped him in the middle of the square. Marcus blinked. Perched atop a merchant's stall, sitting on the edge of its wooden frame while her legs dangled below, Medea released her music into the night sky. She sang of ancient armies that fought and died and fought again. Of tyrannies overthrown. Of a bold shaman and brave Starmancer who perished far from home. And of all the things that warriors dream and heroes do. Dozens had gathered before her, staring up at the elf, their thoughts lost in the drifting refrains and carried off to unimaginable places.
There was a pang in the bronze man's breast as he pulled himself away from the music. But there were things to do. So he finished his lizard, tossed the stick into one of the big clay refuse pots, and made his way to Miggins' pie stall.
"Two steak and kidney please," he said. "Have your boy take them to the guards at the eastern gate."
The plump woman nodded, set two oblong pastries on a small wooden tray, and gave it to the urchin who loitered nearby. He beamed a gap-toothed smile up at the bronze man before running off to carry out his mission. Marcus handed over a coin and glanced around as he waited for his change. His gaze fell on a diminutive hooded form that insinuated itself within the thickest part of the crowd, and he frowned.
Rissa D'Tang plucked the purse off an old man's belt with such speed and deftness that anyone else might have missed it, even if they'd been looking right at her. But his trained guardsman's eye followed the movement. He took a step towards her. Then he paused. Rissa opened the pouch, slipped a gold coin inside, and put it back with the same subtle swiftness. As Marcus looked on, she repeated the deed -- picking a pouch from a scruffy peasant woman's pocket while the lady grappled with her hyperactive children, adding to its meagre contents, and returning it. This time she noticed the bronze man, met his stare, and winked before disappearing back into the throng.
Sir Marcus smiled and made his way to the far edge of the square. Here the music was quieter. Preachers stood atop crates and barrels, offering final words of wisdom for those who cared to hear them.
"Do not fear death!" Belsamus said. The bare-chested angel hovered a few feet above the ground, a serene look on his handsome features. "I stand here as proof-"
"You're not standing!" a dwarf called out. "You're flying!"
The angel sighed.
"I... fly... here as proof that great rewards await those who lead pious lives. Karuss watches all that we do-"
"Even when we're in the privy?" a young boy asked.
"No! He... He watches everything apart from that."
"What about when me and the husband are-" a woman began.
"Or that! Or that! *ahem* All our deeds of consequence are watched and weighed, so refrain from sin and-"
"But we like sin!" a gnome said.
Other voices chorused their agreement. The angel reached for his sword, but Marcus caught his eye and restrained him with a shake of his head. Belsamus sighed again and flew away -- whilst the debate continued below without him. Some of his former audience drifted off to join another group nearby, which was listening to a marble statue who stood on the shoulders of a pair of squat iron golems.
"Tomorrow I, along with my brothers and sisters of stone, and clay, and iron, and other materials beside, will fight for you -- the good people of Dracoshire," Statius said. "Some of us will perish in this valiant effort, but we shall do so gladly. Will you honor these sacrifices by accepting that we are living beings, no different from any of you?"
"If statues are alive," a man shouted, "I'm marrying one of the ones outside the temple of Rassys!"
"Me too!" another said.
The women beside them glared, rolled up their sleeves, and commenced punching while the crowd cheered them on.
"Ladies, gentlemen..." Statius said. "If you'll kindly listen..."
His pleas faded behind the bronze man, along with the rest of the marketplace's merry din. The sounds of industry replaced it -- the rhythmic noise of pounding hammers and the hisses of hot metal cooled in troughs of water. Whilst others reveled, the city's craftsmen were still fashioning and mending the implements that would claim or save lives when the fighting started.
Heat, sparks, and rich glows poured from the forges on either side of a narrow street. The smiths who plied their trade and the customers who awaited their products all basked in the warmth, their eyes gleaming like miniature fires. Marcus moved among them and watched weapons being born.
"New sword?" a voice said, without much enthusiasm.
He stared into one of the open-faced blacksmith's shops. Gareth was there, with a noose around his neck -- hanging from a beam. His boots dangled a foot off the floor. The green-skinned zombie grunted and gazed heavenward.
"Come on, gods!" he said. "That last sword was good! Let me die!"
He waited for a moment or two, then grunted again and waved a pair of apprentices over.
"Get me down, damn it."
One of them pushed a stool under his feet. Another climbed onto a table and worked at the noose until it came away. Gareth stepped down, rubbed the groove on his neck, and looked at Marcus.
"Well?" he said. "Want a weapon or not?"
"No, thank you. I'm looking for Bohemond and the others."
"I saw them with Gurgun. He's using one of the forges further up the street."
Marcus followed the suicidal weaponsmith's pointing finger, and found the dwarf hammering out a vambrace.
"How's your plate holding up?" Gurgun asked.
"It'll last for another battle."
"Still going around without a helm?"
"The troops need to see their commanders. Are Aaron and the rest around here?"
"Back there. Working on their armor." He gestured over his shoulder, where a door led into the shop's closed interior.
Marcus crossed the forge, pushed it open, and went inside.
The bronze man looked up, into the soft blue morning sky. Their fliers had already taken to the air -- ready to intercept and engage the enemies when they emerged from the encroaching fog. Angels swept past in a wedge-shaped formation that resembled the point of a celestial spear. Griffins and wyverns carried their masters to and fro, while wands and staves glowed in the hands of mages who sat behind them and waited to unleash their sorceries. Penelope, Andromeda, and the other dragons hovered among the smaller shapes. And there was Solus, with %name% on his back.
Theirs was the heavens. Marcus lowered his gaze and left them to it. His own part of the battle was approaching, as the bank of fog nearing the eastern gate met the gusts of wind summoned by Rensha's clerics.
Mists parted. And with a myriad howls, roars, and war cries, the fighting began.
|"What do you think?" Aaron asked.
The six knights stood before Marcus, amidst the racks of arms and armor that filled the shop, decked out in their freshly painted panoplies.
"I think Velania would be proud," the bronze man said.
Tomorrow, the Order of the Seven would all wear red.
The bull-man bellowed and charged, horns lowered, yellow eyes glaring. Daltia stood in his path, unflinching. Because Sir Aaron was behind her -- fighting back to back, locked in swordplay with a pair of wolf-men. The squire stood between her mentor and those savage spikes. So she'd stop the beastman, even if it was by entangling him with her broken body.
Daltia lunged and drove her spear at the bovine skull.
The impact sent a shock up both her arms. Her weapon shuddered, then splintered. But the beastman came on, carried by his momentum, while his crossed eyes tried to focus on the blade embedded in his brow. She fell backwards, and raised her knees as she hit the ground -- just in time to catch the crushing bulk that collapsed on top of her.
He roared and flailed. Big, hairy fists beat at her blocking arms. The elf twisted her body one way then the other, weaving between the punches as best she could. The bull-man's fists thudded into the dirt on either side of her face. But still the blows rained down, and yellow-white lights exploded. Blood gushed from her smashed nose. Her left cheek screamed, shattered beneath his knuckles. Darkness surged around the edges of her vision.
Daltia screamed. But not in pain. It was a banshee's shriek, a demon's roar. The cry of a woman who wouldn't die. Not while her enemy lived.
Another punch burst on her brow. Blinding images flashed before her, and she imagined pulped brains leaking out of her ears. She ignored them. All that was left of her consciousness, of her comprehension, focused on one single thing: the blade at her belt.
The beastman roared. Bloodied fists rose and fell, hitting ground, hair, flesh, and bone in a murderous, indiscriminate bombardment. Daltia snatched the long knife from its sheath.
Her right cheek crumpled. Every tooth seemed to shake inside her mouth.
The bull-man bellowed, and spluttered.
He groped at his neck.
Daltia twisted the knife, widening the wound. Hot crimson gushed down, bathing her wrecked face, flooding her world. The squire's legs kicked out and knocked the beastman's corpse away.
A strong hand grasped hers and pulled her to her feet. She blinked at Sir Aaron through the blood, then glanced down.
"We're both red now," she said.
"Tomorrow I still will be. But you'll be blue."
It took a moment for the words to sink in.
"We were going to tell you after the battle." He whirled round and decapitated a hyena-man, then glanced back over his shoulder. "Head to the healers."
"No." Daltia shoved her knife into her left hand and drew her sword with her right. "The order doesn't yield."
Sir Aaron nodded. And the two of them ran into the fray.
The ogre swung his mace. A warrior in yellow plate crumpled beneath the blow -- her armor broken, body shattered. The ogre roared and struck again, splattering a felpuur's head.
Bohemond's eyes narrowed. He knocked the kobold aside with a sweep of his hammer, and put his hand on the back of Kerthia's neck. The unicorn heeded. She reared up, knocking another saurian creature away, and broke into a gallop. The battlefield blurred around them.
An arrow whistled towards the paladin's face. He caught it on his hammer. Kerthia was on the archer before he could fire again. Her horn pierced the goat-man's chest at full speed, and a jerk of her majestic head flung his corpse. Fireballs exploded. Clods of dirt and chunks of charred flesh rained around them, but the unicorn didn't slow or falter. Her gaze and limbs were as steady as Bohemond's.
His hammer crashed down on one side and then the other, bashing and bludgeoning. The rest of the enemies in their path melted away, or else were ridden down and trampled beneath Kerthia's hooves. At the end of the cleared channel, that path of churned mud and ravaged corpses, the ogre kicked a dying goblin aside and stared at them. He raised his mace up high and beat his other fist against his chest. The hefty weapon drew back, primed to crush and kill.
She lowered her head. The ogre swung. And so did Bohemond. Hammer met mace, and beat it aside. Kerthia's horn burst from the monster's back.
The ogre fell, and the unicorn trod his dying flesh into the mud.
Men and women shrieked amidst the roaring flames. Others convulsed and frothed at the mouth, while arcane electricity crackled around their blackening bodies. The stink of sorcery and cooked flesh permeated the air.
"I see them!" the gnome said. She jabbed her dagger into a kobold's kidney. "Keep this lot off us, so we can get them!"
"Meura!" Emeric snapped a kick into a beastman's groin and skewered him through the eye when he buckled. "With me!"
"Just because you're in red doesn't mean you can give orders!" she said. Her blades danced in her hands, opening two kobolds at throat and gut. "Come on then..."
The two knights whirled around Wenni and her troops, kicking, cutting, thrusting. Blood splashed across their panoplies. Emeric fought with the discipline and mastery of the eastern land where he'd trained, Meura with the cold pragmatism of the gutters and alleys she'd once called home. The slaughter was the same.
"You heard them!" Wenni said. "Now!"
Her first arrow flew. The second followed it before it ended its flight in a spellcaster's furry face, and took another in the breast. Her warriors' volley of shafts, stones, and lead bullets came an instant later. It shredded everything caught in its path.
"Help me, walrus!" Sir Colbaeus said. He swung his axe around his head in a big arc, driving the ring of bestial foes back. "Where are you?"
A kobold leapt at him. Colbaeus' axe cleaved his face in half. But the next one's blade carved a gash down the side of his head before the knight could hack his throat out. He staggered back, and the beastmen rushed in. Half a dozen weapons rose to claim him.
"For the love of all the gods!" a woman said. "How many of those stupid mushrooms did you eat?"
One of the beastmen collapsed, and Colbaea the Emerald stepped over his corpse -- a green axe in each hand. She lashed out in every direction, hewing limbs and skulls.
"The walrus said-" Colbaeus began.
"Shut up and fight, you stupid bastard!"
He commenced chopping, and the siblings carved a bloody swath through their foes.
"The others need help," Colbaea said. She pointed an axe towards a whirling melee, where Emeric and Meura did battle against insurmountable odds. "Come on!"
She ran off, and Colbaeus followed. A familiar noise made him halt. He glanced behind him -- where the walrus wallowed amidst the bodies.
"You're late!" the knight said.
The walrus shrugged and munched on a dead kobold's head.
"Colbaeus!" his sister said.
"I'm coming!" He ran after her. "Stupid walrus..."
|They were weak.
Sargaash's crystal-studded knuckles crushed the beastman's skull. He tore his fist from the ruins of the creature's face, and hurled a handful of splattered brain matter into the mud at his feet.
A bull-man bellowed and hurtled at him. The oroc planted his feet and awaited the charge. His strong hands grabbed his enemy's horns; dense muscles and crystalline bones shook with the impact but remained unyielding. He wrenched the beastman's head. His foe's neck gave way with a snap and a crunch.
An ursine warrior's axe cleaved at Sargaash's brow. He grunted and punched the weapon's head. The beastman blinked at the splinted wreckage at the end of his shaft, until a headbutt broke his face, and a crystal elbow spike punctured his thick hide -- penetrating the heart beneath.
Sargaash grunted and stared up at the sky, where the dragons fought. They were mighty foes. Yet their wings put them out of his reach. This angered him.
"Cowards!" he said.
A hyena-man lunged at his back. The oroc turned around and shattered the beastman's ribcage with a thrust kick.
Were there no worthy enemies to battle? And then the Diamond Queen's champion saw him across the field: a hulking ogre whose helm was a grinning skull, who wielded four bloody blades in as many hands.
The oroc grinned.
Sargaash turns away from the oroc wrestlers, whose grappling contest has attracted its share of spectators from across the camp -- and even a good number from the city. He nods at you.
"You are alive, draken-kasan," Sargaash says.
"I am," you say.
"Good. Now you may find a worthier death."
"When you disappeared inside the Crypt of Caracalla, I pitied you. For a great warrior deserves a magnificent end, to perish in combat worthy of %his% name and thus earn a place in the crystal kingdom."
One of the orocs slips behind the other, grasps his opponent around the waist, and heaves him into the air -- before hurling him to the ground. The crowd cheers. Sargaash grunts.
"If we die tomorrow," Sargaash says, "may we both die well."
He strides towards the wrestlers.
"I challenge you," he says.
"Me?" the victor says.
The downed oroc jumps to his feet, and the two grapplers hurl themselves at the newcomer. An instant later both of them are sprawling in the dirt.
They were weak.
General Korxun rampaged through their battle line. The shield wall crumbled before him. His four blades cleaved and thrust till the ground was sodden with blood, and corpses broke beneath his heavy tread.
An elf went in low and tried to hamstring him with her curved blade. The ogre skewered her instead, lifted her impaled body, and tossed it away.
A vampire swordsman threw himself into a low lunge and thrust his sword up at the ogre's chest. Korxun parried with two blades, hacked the nosferatu's arms off with the third, and decapitated him with the fourth. The vampire's face blackened and disintegrated. Dust blew around the general's feet and joined the blood and gore.
Lightning flashed towards him -- a fizzing blue and white bolt of electricity. The ogre blocked it with a sword, and let the spell crackle along the ensorcelled steel before dissipating. The gnome mage swore and screamed the words to another spell. Korxun ran at her and knocked her flying before she could utter the final syllables. She lay on her back, groaning, and screamed when the ogre loomed above her. He stomped on her head, and her cry ended with a crunch.
Where were their champions? Where were the warriors who'd slain the very gods with strength and steel? Korxun grunted. And then he saw him. Across the field, a muscular oroc charged. The ogre general gave a battle shout that made his broad chest quiver, and ran to join battle.
Two kobolds moved to intercept the oroc. But the crystal-studded warrior barged through them -- and left them sprawling. A lumbering zombie swung his club at Korxun. The general slashed without stopping, and chopped him in half at the waist. Neither oroc nor ogre would allow lesser warriors to get in their way.
They both grinned.
Korxun brought his two right-hand blades down in a diagonal slash. The oroc leapt inside their arc and thrust his knee up at the ogre's groin. Korxun pivoted and evaded the blow, then thrust with the lower of his left swords. The oroc sidestepped and lashed out with a punch. Crystal-studded knuckles smashed against the ogre's forearm, and a weapon dropped from stunned fingers. The oroc's other fist thudded into the ogre's kidney. Agony exploded through the general's innards, and a stream of blood spurted from his maw.
The oroc threw his right fist at the ogre's face. It crashed against Korxun's skull helm, and the ogre's head snapped to the side. He staggered backwards -- while the world wobbled around him. A dark mass rushed at him in the middle of his blurred vision. The general thrust and slashed out of instinct, hacking and stabbing with his three remaining blades. Impact shuddered along his lower right arm. There was a grinding, shattering noise, like the breaking of gemstones.
Korxun's vision hardened. The oroc was impaled on his blade. Yet the warrior still lunged at him, and pummeled with both his fists. One battered the arm holding the sword, and it fell away from the handle, leaving the weapon embedded in the oroc's body.
The oroc fell to his knee, rose, and tottered. He grinned at Korxun.
"You are a worthy enemy," he said in the common tongue. "One day I will find you in the black depths, and we will fight again."
The ogre nodded, and cut him down.
A Greater Purpose
|"I have killed many enemies since we last met," Matricide says.
"So have I," you say.
The two of you stand at the edge of the camp, far from the firelight, and gaze across the plain. In the distance, moonlight paints the fog and turns it into the beginnings of a silver sea.
"But it is different. Killing is my purpose. All I exist to do. It is why you created me."
You wince. Several defenses, a dozen explanations, die on your tongue. Because she's right. You had the artificers build her for the battle against Echidna, as casually as you might ask a blacksmith to fashion a new sword.
The two of you stare in silence, and the banter from the camp seems so very distant.
She was a weapon. No more, no less. Her entire body built for the same function that manifested itself strongest in her blades. Other beings had hands to hold, caress, and comfort. Her arms ended in lethal edges with only one purpose. So she fulfilled that destiny.
Matricide's limbs, carved from the claws of two slain wyrms, wove their lethal pattern. And where they wove, enemies fell apart. Limbs and heads flew in all directions. A kobold's upper body slid off, along the neat diagonal line cut through his torso. Beastmen gaped at blood-spurting stumps before their heads went spinning away. Even a burly ogre shrieked when his right hand fell in the dirt, and his intestines followed in an immense, gory tangle. She didn't bother to finish him off. His death was certain, and she wasn't made for mercy.
Another scream, this one a human's, turned her head. A man in leather armor was stumbling backwards, while blood leaked down his ruined corselet in rich, dark rivulets. He waved his sword in front of him, fending off a beastman's steel. But his parries were weakening. Sir Aaron and his squire were running towards him. Matricide knew they'd only arrive in time to avenge, not save. But the man was of no consequence. He was wounded -- his part in the killing was over. What purpose could he serve now?
She looked away, in the opposite direction. A pack of kobolds crept over the ground, picking their way between the corpses, searching for a place to strike. She could engage them. Slash. Slaughter. Inflict the carnage they'd made her for.
The bladed construct stepped towards them.
The man screamed again.
"I was born to be a farmhand," you say at last. "That's why my parents made me."
"It is not the same," she says.
"Isn't it? My parents worked the land, and so did their parents before them. They needed another pair of hands to carry it on. To support them and keep harvesting the crops when they got too old. So they had a %son%. They made me for the fields and the turnips. Not to be a warrior, or to ride dragons, or to kill monsters. None of us choose to be created, or what we're created for. But we do choose what we do. Every one of us gets to choose our own purpose, in the end."
The man's legs gave way beneath him, and he fell to the ground. His sword dropped from his hand. The beastman howled and moved in for the kill.
Matricide's blade cut through the creature's middle, and he fell in two different directions.
She stared at the man. He was gasping, bleeding. But he looked back at her with shining, joyful eyes. Strange, unfamiliar thoughts floated through her mind. This one was alive because of her. From this moment on, his existence was her doing -- just as her own was %name%'s. The implications revolved in her consciousness.
The man attacked her, wrapping his arms around her leg. She was about to decapitate him when she understood. He was... Hugging her?
"Thank you!" he repeated.
It was a strange sensation.
"Release me," she said. "I have to go kill."
The man let go. She walked away, and left him to her allies.
She had a great deal to consider. But first she had to butcher those kobolds...
Queen of the Kavala
|The battlefield was a mangled mess, a maelstrom of spells, steel, and slaughter. Arcane explosions and the ebb and flow of combat had torn most of the formations asunder. Now bands of roving warriors swept across the churned-up plain, seeking enemies wherever they could, sowing carnage in all its furrows. It was a perfect place for the Kavalan barbarians. Their ululation split the heavens in celebration, the cry of a hundred swooping hawks.
Kobolds and beastmen turned, startled by the sudden sound. Then swords and axes flashed. Hands, hearts, minds, and souls unsoftened by civilization reaped a red harvest. In the middle of it all was Queen Lena. Blood dyed her leather garb, and splashed her skin like war paint. The same merciless hue decorated her blade.
"Dragon!" she said. Crimson steel pointed. A royal edict, a warrior's command and desire.
The drake was one of the smaller breeds. Its wings were torn, shredded by the arrows, sorcery, or rival's claws that had banished it from the aerial conflict raging above. But its fury was undiminished. Its jaws ground a screaming knight into a mess of twisted steel and gore, then spat her aside and bit a spearman in two. The dragon roared at the sky, a challenge to whichever foe had cast it down. Terrestrial enemies answered instead.
Queen Lena sprinted at the blood-drenched wyrm, and howling barbarians followed their ruler.
"And this sword belonged to..." Jamus frowns. "Well, I'm not quite certain. But if it's hanging here, it was probably wielded by someone of consequence. Alas, I never did pay too much attention to my childhood tutors."
"It's a nice sword, anyway," you say.
"Would you like to have it? If I called for the seneschal, I'm sure he could find the key to the case."
"Thanks, but I already have more blades than I know what to do with."
"Ah, yes. I've heard you're quite the collector."
"People just keep giving me weapons. Armor too."
"Showering the hero with gifts, eh? Makes the rich and noble feel they're doing their part, without the unpleasant necessity of actually risking their hides. Of course, I can hardly complain. I lie on my back eating grapes, while people like you and Sir Marcus go around fighting battles and saving my kingdom."
"I was being poetic. But I'm sure there are grapes somewhere, if you'd like them. Servant!"
"It's okay, I-"
A young man steps into the gallery and bows.
"The dragon-rider would like some grapes, which %he% may or may not wish to consume whilst lying on %his% back. Could we accommodate %him%?"
The servant bows again and runs off. King Jamus smiles, and continues to wander around the vast chamber, while you cast an appraising eye at the arms, armor, and artifacts which fill the glass display cases. Some of them are really quite spectacular. He stops in front of a cabinet containing an assortment of metal devices which look as if they're designed to either protect or eviscerate the wearer, and you wait for him to elucidate. But when he turns to you, the jovial amusement gives way to solemnity for the first time.
"After you disappeared, I thought the two of us would never meet. And it seemed so very strange to me that a hero could be celebrated across the kingdom, could live and die on behalf of my throne, without me so much as clasping %his% hand."
"Not for the throne," you say. The words blurt out before you can stop them, and blood rushes into your cheeks. "I... I mean..."
"Oh?" A faint smile returns to his lips. "Do tell. After all, I could hardly have you executed on the night before the battle, could I? It wouldn't be terribly good for morale."
"When the kobolds attacked, first I fought for my life. One of them tried to kill me, so I killed him instead."
"With a pitchfork, so I've heard."
"Yeah. Not many farmhands carry swords. Or we didn't before the war, anyway."
Speaking the words somehow makes everything seem even more surreal. One moment you were in the fields, with a pitchfork in your hands and sweat on your brow. Now you're in the palace, talking to the king. Though there's still sweat on your brow...
"After that, I fought to save my friends and protect Burden's Rest. Our home. I didn't think about anything else, until your people came and sent us off to Fallows."
"I suppose I should apologize, and tell you I regret your conscription. But it would be a lie. If you hadn't been present at the Battle of Fallows..."
"I know. In Fallows, things changed. I wasn't just fighting for myself, or my town. And I wasn't fighting for a crown and throne I'd never seen. I was fighting for them. For the people."
"The kingdom, not the crown?"
"Quite right. West Kruna is far more than-"
There's a cough. You and Jamus both turn, and find the servant standing in the doorway.
"No grapes?" the king asks.
"Forgive me, sire, but..." He coughs again, and shifts from one foot to the other. "I... I was passing by the throne room on the way to the kitchens, and the door was open. I looked inside and... Someone's sitting on your throne!"
"I see... Did you ask him to move? I don't wish to seem inhospitable, but a man's throne is-"
"It's a woman! And when I asked her to, you know, piss off... Begging your pardon, Majesty... She told me if I spoke to her like that again she'd throw me out of the window."
A terrible certainty niggles at the back of your brain.
"Your Majesty," you say, "I think I might need to deal with this one."
You head past the servant. And to your eternal mortification, the king follows you to the throne room. This is going to be awkward...
As you'd feared and expected, you enter the grand chamber to find Queen Lena as its sole occupant. She's sat on the royal seat, one leg crossed over the other, clasping its armrests while her sword leans beside her. She's made herself quite at home, and you have to admit that she cuts a rather impressive figure there.
"Lena," you say, "you... you shouldn't really be sitting there."
"This is a queen's throne," she says, "and I am a queen."
"Actually," King Jamus says, "that's a king's throne. My wife's chair gets stored in another chamber when she's absent from Dracoshire. She and my children were sent to a secret location, you see. Somewhere safe -- with a bare minimum of murderous dragons."
"Of course, if you wish to sit on a queen's throne, I suppose someone could direct you to it. But you'd be sitting in a cold, dark, drafty storeroom. I doubt it would be very pleasant."
"I'm going back to the camp."
She strides past you, pauses in front of the king, and looks him up and down.
"A barbarian king would be taller and stronger..." she says.
You hold your forehead in one hand, and wonder if the earth will do you the courtesy of swallowing you up.
"...but I'll still help save your city."
King Jamus inclines his head towards the Kavalan queen. She seems suitably satisfied, and leaves the chamber with her nose held high.
A viscous black blob flew from the dragon's maw. Lena hurled herself into a roll; it exploded behind her, and the screams of dying warriors echoed in her ears. She shrieked a war cry. The drake's neck bulged. A thick lump undulated up its scaly throat. It drew its head back, cheeks puffing, ready to unleash another murderous ebon bolt.
Queen Lena drove her sword into its gullet.
The dragon's maw opened, and emitted a choked gasp of air. Its throat opened too. Lena leapt aside, and rivers of blood and blackness gushed from the wound. The ground hissed where she'd been standing. Tendrils of smoke rose from the growing pool. She leapt onto the wyrm's back and thrust her blade into its bulk again, and again, and again. Strong steel pierced its scales. Blood fountained upwards, painting her legs.
She kept her footing as the beast collapsed, and stood atop its corpse -- sword raised to the heavens.
"For the Kavala tribe!" she said.
"Kavala!" her warriors chorused.
All around them, beastmen, kobolds, and ogres stared at their dead god and the woman who defiled its corpse. Their howls and roars formed a furious counterpoint to the barbarians' ululation as they came for vengeance. Lena gazed down at the approaching force, and beyond at the allies who were too far away to aid her people. She issued another martial shout.
The queen leapt where the foes were thickest. Her sword flashed and fed. Fur, skin, and scale parted beneath its savage strokes. Gore spilled over her boots. Not all of it was her enemies'.
Bestial roars became screeches of fear and anguish. Kobolds and beastmen ran, while their maimed comrades crawled on the ground and screamed for aid. Lena finished the latter.
"Kill!" she said, pointing her blade at the departing backs. "Kill them all!"
The Kavalan warriors ululated and hounded them. Queen Lena smiled like a proud mother, took a step, and collapsed. The world darkened around her.
And then came a burst of blinding brightness.
"Lena, Queen of the Kavala..."
She stood up and blinked. A cone of radiant aureate light surrounded her. Beyond it, the battlefield, the clashing warriors, and the walls of Dracoshire were dim and distant -- half-seen shadows. The pain had left her body. No... She glanced down at her shining spectral form. She had left her body.
"I come from Mathala, goddess of war."
Lena looked up. A winged woman stood before her, clad in a gorgeous panoply. Animated soldiers clashed on every part of it, from the sabatons to the vambraces to the gorget -- turning the angel's entire aspect into an immense, exquisite conflict. Only the celestial's head was bare. A proud face, surrounded by blood-colored tresses, smiled at the queen.
"Mathala has watched your deeds, and counts you among the greatest of her warriors. She sent me to bring you to the heavens, where you will serve as her sword, and smite those who've earned her wrath. I... Wait! Where are you going?"
Lena strode towards the edge of the light. She turned her head.
"The battle isn't over, and my people still need me!"
"The mortal world is of no consequence! In heaven you'll... Stop!" The angel grabbed her arm. "Mathala commands-"
Queen Lena headbutted her. The angel fell on her rear, and clutched a bloody nose.
"Ow! Youg... Youg bish!"
Lena turned back around. The angel moaned, and raised her hands to shield her face.
"Don't just leave my body there! Go put it in a nice tomb!"
Lena took a step towards her. The angel screamed.
The ghost queen grunted, and stepped through the light. The world returned from the shadows. War cries and death screams filled the air. Lena smiled and joined the battle.
Boss: General Korxun
The Battle of Dracoshire 3
|"All that we ever were,|
And were destined once to be,
Cast into whirling winds,
Bound by the Krunan Sea-ee-ee.
Our songs will fade away,
Who will remember us
Medea's voice and harp drift along the ramparts. They float out across the city, and perhaps the breeze even carries them over the plain -- into the clouds of fog where the dragons' legions lurk. You wonder what they'd make of it. Could even those fierce, brutal hearts go untouched by her melodies?
You listen to the bard for some minutes, unwilling to interrupt her song. But at last it ends as all songs do.
"That was beautiful," you say.
"All music is," she says.
"Even when I sing it?"
"Apart from that." Her lips only twitch in the faintest of smiles, but her strings hum with gentle laughter. Their amusement becomes the beginning of a soft, warm, wistful tune. "Do you remember the first thing I ever said to you?"
"You called me an idiot."
"I've always put a lot of value on first impressions..."
"...but sometimes I meet a person who changes the way I think about the world. Whatever happens tomorrow, if I survive, so will your song. And no matter how many centuries I see, it will outlive us both."
Invisible fingers, formed from sound and song, brush against your cheek.
"Roland wants to meet up for a drink," you say. "At The King's Crown. Will you join us?"
"In a while, perhaps. For now I'll play."
You start to leave, but pause.
"Will you sing something for me, before I go?"
"In Ryndor, at the pyre..."
Medea sings. You sit on the battlements, close your eyes, and let bittersweet melodies take you where they will.
The combatants were too far away to hear her song, too embroiled in the struggle between man and monster, defender and destroyer, life and death. But Medea played anyway. Her song rolled across the battlements, enveloping those who could only stand and watch as their friends and comrades fought on the ravaged field that stretched from the eastern wall.
She played while knights in crimson plate slew and fell and rose and slew, in memory of one who would never rise again. The bard sang and wept when an oroc hero bit into the dirt. Harp strings cheered the valiant deeds of human, elf, gnome, golem, and all the others beside. They mourned for a barbarian queen.
Some of the warriors beside her clenched their weapons hard, yearning to be down in the fray, fighting beside their brethren. Others shuddered, and their eyes held both fear and shame. She played for them all.
Music undulated beneath her name, played by strings so very like hers, yet as different as night from day.
"Xalis?" Her own melody twanged in sudden discord.
The ghostly elven youth stood beside her, his eyes large and bright. Spectral fingers worked his instrument.
"Your friends are losing in the south! The enemies could scale the wall at any moment, and it needs more defenders!"
Her fingers slashed at her strings, and a blare of music sliced through the gathered fighters.
"Elyssa, Faustus," she said, "with me."
Medea ran across the ramparts. Her song and her friends trailed after her.
|"How about you, dragon-rider?" the elf says. "Hit me!"''
"Locris," you say, "I-"
"Who wants to see the dragon-rider knock me down?"
The townspeople's cheers and taunts reverberate through the broad street.
"Get him, %name%!"
"Bash the pointy-eared prat!"
"He's too cocky! Give him a hiding!"
"Dragon-rider! Dragon-rider! Dragon-rider!"
"Fine!" you say.
You assume a fighting stance and clench your fists.
"Come on!" he says. His tanned face smiles. The stripe of black hair seems to stand up on his head like a merman's fin. "Let's see how a hero hits!"
You shrug and throw a punch. It's a good punch, if you do say so yourself. Crisp and quick, but with enough shoulder and hip behind it to give the healers something to do. Unfortunately, it only meets empty air.
"Try again!" he says.
You step in and throw another punch. Then another. A combination of rights and lefts rains down on the elf. But his grin and the dark, painted flesh of his torso weave between them all. It's like trying to beat up a cloud.
Jeers and laughter ripple through the crowd. Locris slips back from your last punch, turns to them, and smiles.
"Could you do better?" he asks.
"Yeah!" someone says. Others echo the cry.
"Then take a knife or an axe, and show us!"
The elf gestures, and a group of goblins scurry among the audience, carrying trays laden with assorted throwing weapons. Locris turns round and looks at the people clustered behind him.
"You should move," he says.
They do as bidden, clearing the wide avenue till there's nothing but empty space behind him. Meanwhile, everyone else casts dubious glances at the weapons and the wardancer.
"I don't know about this," a woman says.
"It would be murder, it would," a man says. "They hang folk for murder."
"And it's bad luck to kill a hero before a battle!"
"A hundred gold pieces for anyone who hits me!" Locris says.
"Get out of the way! I'll kill that bloody elf!"
"Give me an axe!"
"I want one of those pointy star things!"
"Locris," you say, "I don't think this is... Damn it!"
You run for cover when the missiles start flying. Knives and axes spin end over end. Shuriken whirl through the air. A barrage of death bombards the elf. He merely jumps, skips, leans, ducks, and slides between it all. A moment later he's standing in the street, bowing, while dozens of armaments litter the cobbles behind him.
The crowd applauds, hoots, and hollers.
"You should join the Eclipse Circus!" a girl says.
"Or become a ninja!" a boy says.
"A circus ninja!"
His audience melts away, seeking more entertainment to fill the last night before the war comes to their doorsteps. As you walk off, to continue your search for Marcus, Mathias approaches through the parting masses. His purple eyes stare at Locris.
"That was impressive," he says.
"Thank you," the elf says.
"Ha! It takes years to be a wardancer!"
"I learn fast..."
"Help!" The gnome grappled with his crossbow, trying to reload. Beastmen pounded towards him. One of the wolf-men snapped a quarrel from a bloody shoulder and snarled. "Someone help!"
Locris ran. Spears and swords thrust around him. Arrows flew past his face. An axe cleaved the air in front of him, while another swept at his legs. He barely noticed them. Whether it was prophecy, as his mother claimed, or the instinctive agility of his supple thews and lightning reflexes, none of them touched him.
The gnome raised his weapon and fired. His bolt burst through a lion-man's skull, and protruded from the back of the creature's head with a chunk of bloody brain dangling from its tip. Then they were on him.
But so was Locris. The wardancer jumped in front of the crossbowman, into the forest of steel, wielding his twin blades. Elven edges slashed and severed. When it was over, none of the blood that daubed his war paint was his own.
"The position's lost!" Mathias said.
The sword in the Masterer's right hand was as red as the wardancer's own. His other hand glowed with the same bright purple as his eyes. He pointed its fingers at a charging kobold, uttered a word, and violet energy shot towards the reptilian creature. A pair of scaly legs fell from the ensuing explosion.
"There were too many," Locris said.
"All of you..." Mathias said. A torrent of purple flame gushed from his palm. Monsters screamed, and the stench of burned hair wafted over the field. "Fall back! We can't hold them here!"
Behind the Masterer and the elf, the other defenders ran. Beastmen howled and kobolds hissed.
"Go!" Mathias said. "I'll keep them off you for as long as I can!"
"Not alone you won't," Locris said.
The wardancer jumped into the oncoming tide. His blades described their elegant arcs, and tasted all the flavors of bestial flesh while a dozen weapons chased him in vain. Mathias sighed. He spoke a word, and the purple energy around his left fist rose up, stretching and lengthening until it resolved itself into a perfect simulacrum of his sword.
He hadn't been lying when he told the elf that he learned fast.
While Locris sprang and pirouetted on the left, the Masterer darted to the right. He danced between the fleeing allies and the charging enemies, and eldritch fire danced around his weapons in turn.
"You've never been wounded?" Mathias asked.
"Never," Locris said. And though bravado grinned from the elf's face, the Masterer saw no deception there.
"Without armor, or magical wards? How's that possible?"
The wardancer shrugged, and said-
"It's not my time!"
Locris' head bobbed under the beastman's spear, and his sword took his enemy's arm. He didn't stop to finish the wailing foe. There wasn't time. Instead he danced onwards, a flash of bronzed flesh and shining steel, twisting and darting through the forefront of the enemy horde.
Dozens converged on him. The routed defenders were forgotten, sliced away from their thoughts by the spectacle of elegant death. They had to kill the elf... But the elf wouldn't be killed. In the middle of a gathering horde, with weapons jabbing and hacking at him from all directions, he spun and wove and slaughtered. Soon he was dancing on the dead, springing atop heaped corpses. He glimpsed the field around the bellowing enemies as he leapt.
Mathias was a purple blaze of speed and sorcery, trapped in the center of his own raging tempest. And beyond, near the walls of Dracoshire, their comrades streamed away in both directions to join the armies at the eastern and western gates. Locris sighed.
He landed, cut, cleaved, and buckled.
Blood poured from a single wound, a gaping rent in his chest. The wardancer smiled. It was his time, after all.
He cut twice more, claiming his last foes, and fell.
Mathias learned fast, but he wasn't as fast. Not as fast as the wardancer. A dozen wounds blared around his body. Parted organs screamed in agony, and watered the ground with endless streams of blood. The Masterer shuddered, ravaged by endless pain, trapped in flesh that yearned to succumb but never could.
His swords carved a red and purple path. Violet lightning crackled around his limbs, sparking across his enemies' blades and zapping their flesh till bestial muscles convulsed and burst.
An ogre's axe split the sky and cleaved his collar bone. The massive blade ripped through muscle, shattered bone, and sunk into the softer tangles of his intestines. Mathias moaned. But he fought on. His sword thrust amidst a haze of blinding anguish, and pierced the ogre's throat.
"Enough?" a voice whispered.
"Enough," another said.
"We release you."
Mathias the Masterer sighed, and his soul flitted from his dying flesh.
Teucer's Last Arrow
|The archer was far from his comrades when he heard the shouts and growls, at the periphery of the battle that sprawled before the eastern gates. A packed, whirling melee was no place for a bowman to aim his shafts -- not even one as skilled and precise as Teucer Tullian. So he'd darted across the field, left his allies behind so as not to alert his foes, and found a place where he could pick off the stragglers. A dozen peppered corpses validated his stratagem.
But the roars and wails made him regret his audacity. When he turned, there were wide eyes and panicked faces. A gnome sprinted ahead of a straggling line of ragtag warriors. He waved a crossbow in his four-fingered hand, and shrieked incomprehensible words. Half a dozen beastmen were close on their heels. Saliva frothed around their maws, and weapons gleamed red in their hands. Behind them, jogging at a more sedate pace, was an ogre; he would've cut a comical figure, except for the blood and brains that caked his immense cudgel.
Teucer notched an arrow.
Teucer sauntered through the royal gardens and sniffed the fragrant air. A blend of sumptuous scents rewarded him, a melange of soft, sweet, invigorating odors he could almost taste on his tongue. The flowers seemed to bloom brighter with their heady perfume in his senses. They shone rich and vibrant in the moonlight, arrays of multicolored sculptures so flawless that each might have been wrought from marble by a perfectionist's chisel.
The path rounded a small copse of trees, revealing the azure shape that sat on the grass beyond.
"Solus," Teucer said. He nodded at the drake. "Where's %name%?"
"With the king," the dragon said. The blue drake turned his head and pointed his snout towards the palace.
Solus nodded, and Teucer sat beside him. The nobleman reached into his doublet and pulled out a folded rectangle of parchment. He waved it in front of the wyrm's orange eyes.
"Even with armies encircling us, and dragons flying through the sky, my wife managed to browbeat a griffin messenger into bringing me her letter."
"What does she say?"
"She orders me not to get myself killed. Not until I've given her Tasha."
"The daughter she's always pestering me for. She already has a name picked out. My family has some silly superstitions. The family elders keep telling her that alliteration brings good luck to a Tullian. And ever since my cousin died... Well, that just settled things. My aunt was crying for weeks, saying it never would've happened if she'd called him Tolus instead."
"Some things are meant to be. Destiny is more powerful than any of us."
"Perhaps. But my lady's mind's made up. Our first daughter will be Tasha, the second one Trathya. And if we have a third, she'll be Tessa."
Teucer couldn't be certain, but the dragon's mouth seemed to curve into a smile, and his orange eyes glistened in the moonlight.
"It's a good name," Solus said. "But perhaps it will have to wait..."
As soon as they turned the corner, clearing the southern wall and Teucer's line of fire, he let fly. A bull-man rolled in the dirt, thrashing like a landed fish, and scrabbled for the missile embedded in his chest. The archer plucked another arrow from his quiver and fired again. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth.
Beastmen fell one by one. Punctured hearts and throats spurted blood and life into the dirt, while screeching voices gave way to gargles and splutters. Soon only the ogre was left. He waved his club and charged at Teucer Tullian.
The aristocrat calculated the distance as his foe pounded towards him. He could get four, maybe five arrows in the air before... His hand closed on a shaft, and discovered the empty space around it.
One arrow, against an ogre.
Teucer sighed. Maybe his wife's second husband could give her a Tasha...
The ogre didn't yell a war cry. His mouth was wide open, gaping but silent like a woodcut illustration made to traumatize unruly children, revealing broad, brutish teeth. Streams of spittle dangled from his jaws. And that huge, terrible club hung over his head in a two-handed grasp, ready to shatter the archer's skull.
Teucer shrugged, and fired.
Then he laughed.
"A lucky arrow," he whispered.
He strode over to the ogre, crouched down, and pulled the bloody missile from his eye socket. It emerged intact.
"Maybe you'll have your Tasha after all..."
|Tomorrow, we're going to burn things.
I know. That's what we're here for.
We should do some practice burning first, just in case.
Practice burning? Seriously?
Yes! There are lots of buildings in the city. They won't mind if we burn a few of them down.
I'm pretty sure they will.
Then we'll burn them too!
Now you're just being ridiculous.
What about %him%? Can we burn %him%?
%name%? We just saved %him%, remember?
That means we're allowed to burn %him%! Ashes to ashes, dust to-
Fine... What about her?
No, you can't burn Panoptica.
All she ever does is stand around watching people, and writing on that scroll of hers! Can we at least burn the scroll?
You didn't even let us finish!
The answer's still no.
Tarquin Celwer Bloodwyn? No! What's wrong with you? He's a kid!
He's always playing with water! Splashing it all over the place!
Yeah... Maybe I'll ask him to give me hydromancy lessons, so I won't have to put up with you lot anymore...
You wouldn't dare! Hey -- let's burn her!
Bethany? Don't be stupid. We're not going to-
"Elyssa!" Bethany said. "I heard you've been all over Tor'gyyl."
"Yeah. First we went to-"
"And in all that time you still couldn't find an outfit that doesn't make you look like a common cutpurse." The sorceress laughed and sauntered away.
Now can we burn her?
Yes. But just her cape.
In the distance, far across the length of the southern wall, battle raged. Warriors in mail hauberks, and others with bare, painted chests, fought at the edge of the battlements, thrusting spears and swinging axes at the bestial creatures who swarmed between the crenellations. A figure with golden hair and a blue fur cloak stood among the defenders. She yelled inaudible words whilst brilliant whiteness shone above her raised hand.
"Whelps!" Faustus said. He pointed.
Dozens and dozens of winged shapes swooped down from the blue sky, a multicolored swarm of miniature dragons. Perhaps they'd been sent to cut off reinforcements. Or else they saw easy prey separated from the larger forces. Elyssa didn't know, and didn't care. Neither did her flames.
"Keep going!" she said.
The pyromancer pressed her hand against Faustus' back, urging him on. Then she slowed down and jumped up between the battlements' thick stone teeth. Elyssa planted her feet, braced herself, and allowed the conflagration to bloom around her.
Fire arced through the sky. The pyromancer smirked when the first whelp screeched and fell, flapping burning ruins of wing on either side of its body. So did her flames.
|A lupine face grinned over the wall, revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth. Aesa kicked him in the nose. He had time to howl before he went flying, and even flailed his arms for purchase. But the laws of physics were against him.
Steel clanged on steel behind her. The shaman cursed. Her efforts were futile -- their enemies had already breached the battlements elsewhere along their length, and plunged the ramparts into chaos. She spun round. Her sword chopped at a goat-man's hand, and his hatchet clanged on the stone along with three of his fingers. A thrust finished him.
"The blue wyrm watches!"
That cry made her eyes narrow and her weapon rise. She pivoted and glared. Half a dozen hulking warriors charged towards her. Blue dragons flexed on painted chests and stared from the devices on their shields.
"Knew we never should've trusted those bastards," the shaman muttered.
"Is it true?" Aesa asked.
She stepped into the campfire's glow, and the grumbling voices fell silent. Every face looked up at her.
"Aye," Inga said. Her face twisted into a cold, hard sneer, which the other Nords mirrored. "They've come."
A huscarl pointed.
She strode through the camp, and her people followed in a growing host. Far from the other fires, away from the edge of the encampment, a band of warriors glanced up at their approach. Their braids and garb marked them as fellow sons and daughters of Nordent. So too did the images on their shields, along with those some were busy drawing onto the others' flesh. Aesa's eyes narrowed.
"Someone get Marcus!" a voice called out behind them. "The Nords are about to kick off!"
"Good!" someone else said. "Screw those Frost Wyrms!"
"Well said, southlander!" the shaman called back.
She stopped at the edge of their firelight. Her fighters spread out to flank her on either side. The people of the Frost Wyrm Clan, ten in number, stood up to face them. Some clutched weapons, and one stepped forward with her spear in her hands. The tallest among them, a mighty berserker, waved her back.
"My name is Sigurd," he said, "of the Frost-"
"We know what damned clan you come from," Aesa said. "Why are you here?"
"You think honorable warriors will let the dragons' lackeys stand with them?"
Sigurd's eyes hardened, till his irises resembled chips of ice.
"We serve the true blue wyrm now."
"You were supposed to find honorable deaths! Not-"
"We hunted battle and death, like the dragon-rider commanded. We attacked the dragons and their armies. But they died, and some of us lived. So we fought our way to Dracoshire."
"Aesa..." Marcus appeared at her shoulder.
She stared at him.
"You'll allow this?" the shaman said.
"They did what %name% told them. And..."
"Bah!" She spat at Sigurd's boots. "When the battle starts, stay far from us."
Some of her people followed suit, and added their saliva to the ground. Then they turned away.
"The blue wyrm watches!"
The half-dozen, the last of the Frost Wyrm warriors who'd left Nordent at the dragon-rider's behest, glared murder and brandished steel as they came at her. Aesa raised a protective rune. But they parted, rushing past her on either side. And when their weapons struck, when swords and axes thudded into quivering meat, beastmen's hides bore their fury.
Her eyes widened, but only for a moment. Then she cut and killed alongside them.
"There!" Sigurd said, once the stone around them was littered with corpses. He pointed to the west, where kobolds clambered over the battlements and a handful of warriors fell back before their assault. "The blue wyrm watches!"
"The blue wyrm watches!" the others echoed.
They charged off along the wall.
"To me, Nords!" Aesa said.
She went to the crenellations and put her sword through a hyenine face. For the moment this part of the ramparts was theirs once more, but only if they could hold it.
The Battle of Dracoshire 4
|Roland paced across Dracoshire's marketplace. The square was almost empty now, vast and vacant; last night's teeming crowds, exuberant sounds, and delicious smells, mere memories. Battle's unmistakable din floated from the fields beyond, or down from the ramparts. It made his hands tighten around his swords. His gaze swept the plaza and streets they'd assigned him to help protect, then the miserly heavens, and he sighed. Thus far only a handful of winged enemies had managed to evade the city's aerial protectors and attack this portion of the settlement. A few pteropine corpses and a small dragon's carcass told the tale of that stratagem. Spells and arrows had met them on their descent. His swords had little to do, save for finishing one of the beastmen.
Long years of adventuring had taught him the value of patience, and the folly of impetuousness. He'd seen too many rotting remains impaled on dungeons' traps to rush in without thinking. But it was hard to watch and wait while your friends were in the middle of unseen combat, perhaps perishing in the mud and blood.
His ears strained to catch what they could. He tried to pick through the sounds, to discern whether the wordless war cries came from friend or foe, if the screams were those of enemy or ally. Faint strains of music reached him amidst the cacophony. He found himself humming along even before he recognized the distant tune, and for a fleeting instant he smiled.
Then a louder, more terrible noise came upon the breeze. An immense crash of splintering wood.
An old wooden sign hangs over the entrance, suspended from a rusty pole. Faded, peeling paint depicts a rather sad looking diadem, above worn and weathered script that proclaims it to be The King's Crown. You push the door open, revealing a gloomy, deserted taproom. The tables and chairs seem almost forlorn -- forgotten by the joy and merriment that enlivens the rest of the city tonight.
"Drink?" Roland asks. He appears from beneath the bar, with a pair of tankards in his hands, and sets them down on the counter. "The owner's long gone. Seems he headed west as soon as he heard the dragons were coming this way. But we can leave coin behind to pay our bill."
You sit down on one of the tall stools and take another look around the place.
"It's a shame," he says. "Back when I first came to this city, it was every adventurer's haunt. If someone wanted to hire a man like me, this is where they'd go. You could walk in here without a coin in your purse, and leave with it nice and fat. Of course, you could also get carried out with a dagger stuck in your back, if you weren't careful..."
"Time changes everything, doesn't it?"
"That it does. This place... The kingdom... Us. You're a long way from the turnips." He grins. "There's a barrel of Skullsmash here..."
"Great. If we die tonight, the dragons can't kill us tomorrow... Go on then."
He laughs, and puts a tankard under the tap. Dark liquid gushes forth. Its powerful odor washes over you, like fire, fruit, and pitch all mingled together.
"Remember your first drink?" he says.
"How could I ever forget..."
"When people ask me about the hero, I'll always be able to say I served %him% %his% first ale." He turns the spigot off, puts the tankard on the bar, and begins to fill the other one. "If I've had a few drinks at the time, I might even say I taught you everything you know. Hope you don't mind."
"If it'll get them to buy the next round..."
He closes the tap and picks up his tankard. You raise yours as well.
"To first drinks, first adventures, and Burden's Rest," he says.
"Drinks, adventures, and Burden's Rest."
The tankards bump. Black beer sloshes from one to the other, and the two of you drink. Potent orcish ale burns your tongue and hammers its way through your body. You cough. Roland smiles.
"Nothing like Skullsmash," he says.
"Unless it's a mace to the back of the head..."
"You know..." He takes another quaff. "If the dragons had woken up ten, twenty, thirty years earlier, maybe I'd be the one riding a drake and talking to a king. Then again, if they'd woken up when they wanted to, maybe we'd both be in the ground. Fate's a funny thing. But if I ever meet her, I'll say she chose the best %man% for the job."
"And that you taught me everything I know?"
"That too." He brandishes his tankard. "I'll tell her something else as well. I never had a %son%, but when I see what you've become, I'm as proud as any father."
You can't find the words. So instead you touch cups again, then take a long draught. It tastes like fire and friendship.
Xerkara's eyes glared down at Andromeda, twin emerald hells promising endless pain and eternal damnation. Her claws dug into the turquoise drake's hide as they plunged through the heavens. Air rushed around them, crisp and cold and callous. Their wings trailed behind like capes, swept aside by forces stronger than even their draconic thews, while their legs grasped and kicked.
Andromeda's teeth snapped at the white wyrm's throat. Xerkara's sinuous neck evaded her jaws and pressed against the side of her head, forcing them away.
The two drakes whirled around in their death lock, spinning in a descending spiral, twisting towards the rising ground. But Xerkara was bigger, stronger. Even Andromeda's fury and determination couldn't overcome her might. She pressed the turquoise dragon beneath her and drove her enemy down at the unyielding earth.
Xerkara roared into the wind, savoring this last moment, this instant when a foe knew doom came for her, certain and inescapable. Then purple flashed in the corner of her eye. A great force smashed into her side. It broke her grip, knocked her away. Her roar became a howl. The white wyrm tumbled through the air, whilst above her, growing further away, Andromeda and Penelope soared.
She tried to turn, to twist. Her wings battled against the atmosphere.
Down below, a thousand voices cried out.
Xerkara rotated her powerful body. Long, leathery appendages snatched at invisible holds. Her descent slowed.
Beastmen, kobolds, and enemies fled beneath -- scattering in all directions. Only butchered corpses remained. Her limbs shook and shuddered when they struck the ground. Her joints buckled. Claws ploughed through the mud and gore, grinding carcasses, digging deep gashes in the earth. But her bones withstood the impact.
She roared again. And her eyes flashed. There before her was Dracoshire's western gate.
Emerald flame surged from her innards. It spewed up her throat and emerged in a dense green torrent. Magic wards pulsed across the huge wooden doors. Arcane shapes blinked into existence on their surfaces, flashing as they tried to resist the onslaught. Xerkara's organs trembled. They quivered inside her, expanding and contracting, till it seemed they must burst, would explode into fragments of gore as the fire tore free and immolated her guts. But her breath kept blazing.
Beastmen raised their weapons and shrieked her name when the gates exploded, a chorus so loud it warred with the thunderous detonation -- praising their magnificent, invincible goddess. She basked in their worship. But high above, her rivals were swooping down for another attack. Seeking to catch her on the ground, immobile, where their terrestrial allies could bring spells and weapons to bear.
The white wyrm sprang skyward and flew to meet them in battle. Down below, her minions surged towards the wrecked gateway, still bellowing her name as though it were a war cry.
|"You there! Ronald!"
The adventurer whistled a tune as he headed down the moonlit street, towards The King's Crown.
He stopped when a hand grasped his arm. A plump, flustered face appeared beside him.
"Ronald!" the woman said. She glared from beneath a round mass of grey curls that resembled a helmet.
"Me? My name's Roland. Pleased to meet you..."
"You're one of the dragon-rider's people, aren't you?"
"I am. If you're looking to speak with %him%..."
"I want you to do something about that zombie!"
"Sir Marcus has soldiers on our street. He says if enemies breach the western gate, it'll be the next line of defense!"
"Marcus knows his business. If he says-"
"And one of them's a zombie! Do something! Get rid of him! Chop his head off if you have to! A zombie, on our street! My mother's rolling over in her grave!"
"So she's a zombie too?"
The woman's face turned an interesting shade of purple, and her cheeks puffed out so wide he thought they might burst. But she swallowed back her outrage. She grabbed his sleeve, turned around, and attempted to drag him along. He sighed and acquiesced. They went down a short alleyway, which opened into a narrow avenue.
"This is my house," she said.
She pointed at a small dwelling. It was old and worn, but well kept. Industrious hands had cleaned its steps not more than a day ago. And the cheap paint on the shutters was fresh.
This time her accusing finger jabbed at the little group of warriors who milled around a dozen or so yards away. She tightened her grasp on Roland's shirt and stormed towards them. From the look on the humans' and goblins' faces, they'd dealt with her before. Most of them melted away in as subtle a fashion as they could manage. But a tall, broad-shouldered form remained.
"I don't want this zombie here!"
"Francis?" Roland said. "He's not even-"
"I explained that to this lady. Some of my closest friends are zombies, but I myself am-"
"Look at him! He's dead! He could have the... the plague! Get rid of him, or I'll petition the king!"
Francis looked at Roland and sighed.
"If you want, I'll take other duties. I'd rather be outside the walls anyway -- where the fighting will be."
The adventurer looked at the flesh golem, then back at the glowering woman.
"This man is fighting for Dracoshire. He's chosen to risk his life for-"
"He's not a man and he doesn't have a life! He's dead! Dead!"
Francis looked on, impassive. But there was a faint twitch around his left eye. His hands clenched and unclenched.
"Francis," Roland said, "stick to your post. And if this woman interferes with your duties, eat her brains."
The ghost of a smile crossed Francis' lips. The woman snorted, turned around, and strode to her house. Its door slammed behind her. A moment later, the window's shutters banged closed as well and a latch clicked in place.
When the explosion's wrath echoed across the city, Bertha screamed. It seemed as though the world was coming to an end -- that cataclysmic forces were rending her house asunder, and would cast her into the abyss. She threw herself down in front of the kitchen's tiny shrine. Her knees hit the stone hard, and blood trickled from split skin. But she ignored the pain and murmured rapid prayers to any god or goddess who would listen. The second crash, this one closer and far more terrible, told her they'd forsaken her. She wailed and grasped a knife.
A wolf-man stood in the doorway, outlined against the rectangle of daylight. Blood matted his grey fur. It dyed the muzzle where his lips drew back in a horrific snarl that was almost a smile. He sniffed the air, growled, and padded into the gloomy, shuttered room. Bertha's knife clattered on the floor. Warm wetness flowed down her leg.
The beastman lunged. She shrieked.
Blood splashed across her face.
He fell at her feet and lay there in a spreading crimson pool. A larger monstrosity stood over him, clutching a broad-bladed sword.
"Come with me," Francis said. "Hurry. We're evacuating this district."
He strode back to the doorway. Bertha gasped and ran after him, out into the street beyond.
"Run," he said.
Francis planted himself in the middle of the avenue. More of the bestial creatures charged towards him. Bertha hitched up her dress and raced in the opposite direction.
The flesh golem chopped at the bull-man, and hewed his arm from his shoulder. His next blow cracked open a hyenine skull. A thrust sent his sword bursting through a lion-man's spine. Francis grunted and yanked at the weapon, but it was stuck fast. He let it fall with the corpse.
A frog-man leapt at him, slashing with a curved knife. His punch threw the creature backwards and left bloody goo on his knuckles. A left haymaker displaced another beastman's jaw -- shifting it across the leonine face -- and knocked him spinning. The man from Vornstaag grasped a kobold by neck and groin, lifted him overhead, and brought him down onto a rising knee. There was a crunch. He tossed the broken saurian aside.
Two more kobolds fell back, scampering away. Francis moved to destroy them. But a taller, heavier form stepped into his path. A furry orange face growled. Long, jagged blades gleamed.
Francis threw a big, looping right hand at the tiger-man's head. The beastman slashed. And the golem's severed arm landed in the street. A second slash carved his chest open. He fell to his knees, and the tiger-man walked past.
The warrior of Vornstaag flopped onto his side. Darkness bloomed in his vision, shrouding the world. Death was coming, and it was welcome. Because if he could die, that meant...
"I was alive," he whispered.
Bodies in the Library
|The library doors burst open, throwing daylight into the shadowy, cloistered space. For a moment the beastmen stood in the entrance, staring into the gloom. One of them, a hyena-man, crept inside, clutching his sword close to his furry yellow body. He gazed at his surroundings and let out a low, puzzled sound. Perhaps he had no comprehension of what books were, or indeed why so many of them had been gathered here to fill the ceiling-high cases. In which case, the wretched fellow certainly had no business in such a place of erudite learning, and needed to be dealt with.
Lucian stepped out from between two bookcases and swung his cricket bat. The illiterate creature's intelligence was likely little improved by the severe application of blunt force trauma, which broke his skull and left him supine -- with the contents of his cranium leaking into a small puddle beside him. But the scholar couldn't help but feel that it improved the tone of the library nonetheless. He felt some modicum of pride in his handiwork.
The hyenine fellow's colleague seemed less delighted, however. He advanced on Lucian. A scar marred the creature's lupine visage. It ran vertical along the right side of his countenance, scoring an unpleasant pinkish-red gash through his fur. The eye which lay in its path was a curious milky color. This discovery pleased the scholar immeasurably. When the beastman attacked, Lucian merely executed a sinister sidestep and a sweeping blow to his adversary's blind side. As it transpired, this also executed the beastman himself, whose skull wasn't equal to the force thus applied.
The scholar took stock of the violence. And with the library secure, at least for the moment, he directed himself towards the doorway to ascertain what he might best do next. However, he halted when a rather large, indeed hulking, form loomed before him. The ogre's grey shoulders scraped the doorframe as he entered.
Lucian gazed at the brute, and decided that this was most unsatisfactory. Most unsatisfactory indeed...
Drinking with one's friends was a pleasant way to pass one's time. Indeed, it was no coincidence that so many cultures throughout Tor'gyyl's splendid and storied history produced intoxicating beverages, and were known to have enjoyed symposia and other friendly gatherings or festive occasions on which such beverages were discussed in every sense of the word. However, as Lucian left The King's Crown and reeled through the streets of Dracoshire, he couldn't help but feel that he'd partaken not wisely but too well. The toasts, libations, and general cheer had left him somewhat the worse for wear.
Thus when he reached the library he found a comfortable armchair close by the fire, wherein he ensconced himself for the purpose of resting his eyes and recovering his faculties. It was with some surprise that, an indeterminate amount of time later, he found himself shaken back to wakefulness by a young woman with curly blonde hair.
"Nina?" he murmured.
"Oh, forgive me," he said, as reality asserted itself.
"Don't you have a more comfortable bed somewhere?"
"Perhaps, but there are duties I have to discharge first."
"If you say so. But it's the middle of the night... I'm usually the only one here at this hour."
She wandered off into another room. Lucian stood, stretched, and found himself a table. There he began his academic labors. It had occurred to him, as with most of his colleagues, that the coming battle might very well prove to be his final endeavor. Thus it behooved him to tend to certain affairs beforehand. So he put ink to parchment, and began to write refutations, denunciations, and in some cases vicious polemics, concerning the works of scholarly ladies and gentlemen with whom he most strongly disagreed. He sealed each of these in turn, and would see that they were placed in safe hands -- to be delivered to the appropriate recipients in the event of his demise.
Completing this task satisfied him. But it also served as procrastination whilst he mused over the more critical matter which faced him. He picked up his manuscript -- a neat stack of pages his friends had thankfully preserved and safeguarded after his disappearance in the Crypt of Caracalla. This chronicle of the present conflict was to have been his great contribution to future generations who might wish to learn about the Second Drake War from the perspective of a fellow who'd associated with some of its pivotal figures. But as yet it remained unfinished. And if he perished on the morrow, then, without the aid of necromancy, he would himself be unable to see to its completion.
He wandered the library for some time, brandishing his work as though it were a talisman, walking between the shelves and pondering what he might do. He paused when the soft sound of a woman's snores drew his attention. He discovered the young lady asleep at her table, and did her the courtesy of removing her inkwell -- lest a stray movement upset it during her slumber. And as he did so, he glimpsed the pages which lay beside her. It appeared she was engaged in a great work of her own; a thesis of considerable scholarly merit, if he was any judge (and he rather supposed that he was). He continued to peruse her research, and was suitably impressed. It appeared that fate had smiled upon him.
He scribbled a note, placed it beside her, and hid his manuscript in a safe place among the shelves. If he failed to survive the coming battle, he hoped she would do as bidden.
Lucian sighed. The ogre was rather large, and whilst the scholar's own weapon would undoubtedly have proven superior on the playing fields of Darkfriars, the Zugesschule, or anywhere else where the civilized game was enjoyed, his adversary's axe seemed rather more impressive and intimidating when judged for the purpose of inflicting grievous bodily harm.
He brandished his cricket bat and prepared to sell his life as dearly as he could. He wondered if the young lady would do his work justice if she did indeed grant him the kindness of seeing to its completion...
"I love books," a voice said. A phantasmal form appeared before him, a shimmering blue woman who stood between the scholar and the ogre. "And I won't let you desecrate this library."
The ogre expressed his displeasure by attempting to cleave her in two. But his mundane weapon passed through her without causing any effect save for a slight ripple in her spectral garb. Rohesia's hand proved equally intangible when she inserted it into the ogre's chest, until it closed around his heart. Then, judging by the expression on his face, it became quite tangible. Quite tangible indeed.
Healers and Killers
|"Who healed these?" Machaon asks.
"Elyssa," you say.
"With what? A fireball?"
"Maybe. I was slipping in and out when it happened."
"Some of them will leave scars."
"Great. If my grandchildren don't believe my stories, I'll have proof to show them."
You lie back on the bed. The healer's hands probe the sealed flesh, and your skin tingles beneath his glowing digits.
"There are no internal injuries," he says. "You're fit to fight."
"That's good. Because tomorrow I'll be fighting, fit or not."
You sit up and pull your tunic back on. Machaon sighs. For the first time, you realize that he looks older than you remembered. The lines on his face are deeper, harsher. And more silver brightens his hair and beard. You've been trekking across Tor'gyyl, fighting battles, facing bloodthirsty foes. But it seems for all the world as though the past weeks have taken more of a toll on him than on you.
He gazes around the room, at the rows of empty beds.
"Where did the patients go?" you ask.
"I told the clerics I'd need this building to treat tomorrow's injured."
"You turned them out?"
"Of course not. I healed them. All of them. Their injuries, their diseases. And tomorrow I'll do the same with however many the angels can save from the field."
He sighs again. You both know that for every person they rescue, each fallen warrior they can pluck from the field and fly over the walls, a hundred others will likely perish. And no such salvation can await you. Those who fight in the air will fall further, and not even Machaon's great skill could mend you.
"Some of us are going to meet for a drink," you say. "Would you like to join us?"
"Thank you, but I have to rest. Tomorrow will be... taxing."
You look back on your way to the door. The healer sits cross-legged on the bed, staring into space. His face seems impossibly weary and ancient in the candlelight.
"Machaon..." Agnes said. She took hold of the healer's hand. "He's gone."
The healer nodded and stepped away from the bed. Agnes waved over another Sister of Radiance. The two of them wrapped the bloody sheet around the warrior's body. Machaon was already at another bedside, tending to a gnome's shattered arm. There wasn't time to mourn. Not yet. They could only mend or shroud, as angels brought the wounded.
An explosion shook the building. One of the younger Sisters screamed, and High Sister Agnes took her shoulder to steady her.
"Machaon!" the girl said.
"Ignore it." The healer didn't even look up. His glowing hands continued to work upon ripped flesh and broken bone. "We still have work to do."
Agnes met her gaze, and the girl nodded. Together they moved among the beds and ministered to the patients. Whatever was happening outside in the city, there was nothing they could do about it. So they healed. When cries rang out in the streets beyond, they healed. When pounding feet thundered close by, they healed. Even when the door burst open, and a beastman stormed into the room, they healed -- while Machaon moved between his people, his patients, and the blood-spattered foe.
Leonine jaws widened in a roar.
"We're healers," Machaon said. He raised his palms. "Not warriors."
The beastman grinned and came towards him.
"Speak for yourself..." Vanessa Celwer Bloodwyn said.
The noblewoman stood beside her bed, one hand pressed against her injured flank. Her other grasped her sword. She shuffled towards the beastman and forced her slow, aching limbs into a fencer's stance. He stared at her for a long moment. Guttural laughter rumbled from his fierce jaws.
His sword hacked at her -- a strong, savage slash. Steel rang on steel as she parried. Vanessa stepped, lunged, and thrust her point through his heart. The beastman blinked, perhaps wondering what had happened. Then he died.
The noblewoman groaned and staggered. Her sword fell away, still embedded in the lion-man's chest. Blood spread across her doublet, creeping through the fabric like the lapping waves of a sedate sea. Machaon caught her as she crumpled.
"Agnes!" he said.
The High Sister ran to his side, helped him take hold of the swordswoman, and eased her onto the bed. Machaon's bloody, pulsing fingers pressed against Vanessa's wound, striving to knit twice-torn organs.
"Machaon..." Agnes said. She took hold of his hand. "She's gone."
He signed, kissed Vanessa's forehead, and moved to one of the other beds. Because there were still others to heal. And there was no time to mourn. Not yet.
|Well, that was blooming brilliant and no mistake, as the wife said after she took a sausage grinder to her cheating husband's unmentionables. Sodding lot of good gates did for a city if they were just going to explode like that. Now what was a girl to do? Stand around on a wall while bored soldiers had a gander at her baps whenever they thought she wasn't looking, or go down there and find someone she'd want to put on the wrong side of a knife?
No bleeding contest.
So Rissa D'Tang sprang halfway down the stone stairs, lobbed herself into a bloody nice somersault, and landed on a rooftop. No sense in a busy lass running around through the streets with everyone else, when she could take a shortcut...
The gnome scarpered from roof to roof, jumping over the alleyways. And what a turn up for the books -- some of the beast-blokes had the same bright idea, which only went to show that the blooming sods weren't as bloody stupid as they looked. A couple of scaly tossers were up on the roof of that pub they'd all been at last night. They had a nice lot of spears with them, probably thinking it was a good spot to hang around while chucking them at people down in the street.
"Hey, mates!" Rissa said. She added a high, shrill whistle.
The kobolds looked up. Then they lobbed a couple of spears. She jumped between their shafts, twisting her body, and landed in front of them. A couple of cuts to the neck did the job a treat.
"My mum always said if a bloke spent all his time hanging around dodgy pubs, he'd end up with a second smile."
The kobolds didn't seem impressed by the elder D'Tang's wisdom. One of them flopped onto the tiles. The other tumbled into the street below. But Rissa couldn't blame them. She'd never listened to her mum much either, bless her soul. The gnome thief legged it across the roof, flipped onto the next one, and kept moving. Up ahead there was a bit of a scrap going on. Some of the coves guarding the streets had turned up, and were trying to put a stop to the beast-blokes coming in from those sodding useless gates. She ran along the roofs to lend them a hand.
Down below, a tiger-man came through the rest of their lot -- a big tosser, with blades on his arms that looked bigger than she was. That'll do a bit of damage, as the girl who'd married an oroc said on her wedding night...
The orange beastman was a sodding maniac. He went through the men and women like a fat bastard through an unguarded pie stall, before she could even get close, and left them in bits. Someone had to stop him before he did anyone else in! And she was the girl on the spot, worse luck.
Rissa D'Tang vaulted down into the street.
"Nice pelt, mate. After we're done, I'm having that."
"Pour a girl a drink!" Rissa says. She jumps up and sits on the bar. "It's been a long night, as they said when the sun god was three sheets to the wind and forgot to wake up in the morning."
"Skullsmash?" Roland says.
"Got anything stronger, mate?"
"We could hit you over the head with the barrel," you say.
"Wouldn't be the first blooming time I did something on a barrel..."
Roland hands her a tankard. She takes it in both hands, raises it to her lips, and knocks it back.
"Spot on, mate. Spot on."
"I saw Aurelius Bloodwyn earlier," the adventurer says. "He was going around yelling at all the guardsmen, telling them someone had stolen his purse."
"Now who'd blooming well go and do thing like that?" The gnome winks.
"Rissa," you say, "hand it over."
"You spent it?"
"Not exactly. I shared the wealth. Gave it to the poor and destitute." She rolls her eyes. "Not me! Some of the coves in the marketplace. Might as well let them have a good night, at that tosser Aurelius' expense."
"At least you didn't stab him when you robbed him..."
"I'm saving that one for the victory celebration." She waves her empty tankard at Roland. "A little service, barkeep. Don't know how you keep that Plundered Dungeon of yours going, if this is how you treat paying customers."
"Paying?" he says.
"Point taken, mate. Point taken."
He refills her tankard and hands it back to her. Rissa raises it aloft like a victorious athlete's chalice.
"To Sulthus Quent," she says. "For giving a girl another chance, sticking two fingers up at old Aurelius, and letting me wander about with some of the finest blooming sods in the whole bloody world!"
Rissa jumped over his blades, and felt their razor edges split the air beneath her. When she landed she ducked and dived from two more attacks that fell around her like blooming lightning. He was faster than a cove that big had any right to be. She leapt away from another thrust, tried to go in low with her dagger, then threw herself into a backwards roll when his other weapon flashed up in a murderous arc.
Pain tore through her abdomen. Blood gushed from her rent garment, and splattered the street beneath -- a dozen tiny blooms that seemed to say, "You're buggered, love."
The tiger-tosser jumped at her.
Rissa turned and ran. Her daggers clanked in the road behind her. She needed those sodding hands free... One pressed against the place where the tips of the beast-bloke's claws had got her. It was warm and wet and agonizing. The tiger-man was close behind. His roar, his pounding bloody footsteps, came up behind her, so close it was like he fancied her and was breathing in her ear.
Not like this... She wasn't going to die like this...
Strength was draining away from her legs. The world blurred at the edges. And the sodding tiger was too bleeding close...
She screamed when she jumped. Wailed like a naked bloke who'd stood too near to a slamming door. She took her hands away from her wound, and it seemed like all her innards were pouring out. But she caught the ledge. And somehow, through pain worse than anything she'd ever felt, worse than landing on her head the first time she'd been bloody stupid enough to try running up a wall before she knew how, she pulled herself onto the roof.
The tiger-man roared. And Rissa ran.
Across the rooftops, holding her gut to keep her insides on the blooming inside, Rissa ran. She had to find a bloody healer.
Boss: Shaar the Reaver
The Battle of Dracoshire 5
|"Not long now," you say.
"No," Solus says.
Far beyond the tents, where cloud and fog meet on the horizon, dawn's soft pink glow suffuses the sky and begins to spread across the brightening heavens like paint daubed on a cosmic canvas. Ushering in the new day. Bringing the battle ever nearer.
"You know what'll happen, don't you?"
"Some things. My mother's far-sight was more powerful than my own. I've only seen fragments, little glimpses of what the future holds."
"Marcus said you knew I'd return. Something about blood in the snow..."
"Yes. When Kalaxia spoke to you in Nordent, she didn't deceive you. We've both seen far into the future. And our..." There's a slight pause, and a strange look comes over his orange eyes for a fleeting instant. "Your line will do remarkable things."
"Does Dracoshire fall?"
This time the pause is longer. The blue drake holds your gaze.
"Visions and prophecies can destroy those who try to follow or challenge them. We saw what they did to the Frost Wyrm Clan, and my own kin. What would you do if I told you Dracoshire will fall today? That there's nothing we can do to save it? Would you flee from the doomed city?"
"No. I'd stay and fight, no matter what."
"Then fight hard. And I'll fight alongside you. Destiny will take shape, whether we strive against it or not."
"Sometimes I think I liked it better when you didn't talk."
"So do I."
You drape your arm over his neck, and watch the new day being born.
The heavens are a bizarre battlefield. You've had more experience at sky-fighting than most %men%, maybe more than any being who doesn't possess their own wings or the power of levitation. The days when flying's lofty heights and unfamiliar lurches made you queasy are long gone. But even so, part of you will always find aerial combat strange, alien.
Like the merfolk and other creatures of the depths, you have to be prepared to attack or defend against assaults from any angle. To think in only two dimensions would be to invite destruction. But at least in the water they don't have to wrestle with gravity every second for their very survival. Up here, an incapacitating injury is a fatal one -- and will dash you against the unforgiving earth.
Perhaps only a lunatic would entrust %himself% to this form of war, where being unseated from your mount means certain death, and in which you haven't fought since the moment you were swallowed by a grinning ebon skull. For the past weeks you've only done battle with solid earth or stone under your feet. A million little voices urge you to join the fighting on the ground instead, to take the field alongside Marcus and the others. But up here in the sky, all your friends and foes will see you. Wherever on the battlefield they may be, north or south, east or west, out on the plains or inside the city, they'll watch you soar overhead. You friends can be inspired, and your enemies feel thwarted, by the fact that the dragon-rider of Burden's Rest still lives and fights.
And for all its terrors, there's something exhilarating about zipping through the vault of heaven atop Solus' back. It's a sensation you never could've imagined, as far beyond a mere farmhand's grasp as untold riches, magic swords, or legions of loyal warriors marching at your back. So you draw your weapon. Steel your nerves. Prepare to play your part in the defense of Dracoshire. And when the blue drake dives into the celestial melee, a war cry flies from your lips and whips away into the wind.
Bat into Hell
|The pteropine beastmen came in a vast cloud, a mass of leathery wings, furry muscles, and sharp teeth and claws. Even to an angel, one of the gods' chosen warriors, the sight was unnerving. But Belsamus couldn't show fear. Not with the eyes of Lord Karuss upon him, not while his brothers and sisters looked to him for guidance, and mortals gazed heavenward for inspiration.
"Their gods are false!" he said.
His voice echoed throughout his host, reverberating with celestial might, and the others took up the cry.
"Their gods are false!"
The angels' winged wedge shot through the sky, bristling with weapons. Ready to prove whose gods were greater.
Belsamus had once been a mortal, like all of his kind. Thus he understood human failings. And he was willing to give the people of Dracoshire another chance at salvation. The angel descended with that noble goal in mind, and landed in a small plaza where he hoped to find less disagreeable souls to save.
A little boy with a freckled face gawped at him, and gave an awed gasp that Belsamus regarded as auspicious.
"Here, mister," the lad said, "are you an angel?"
"Of course he's an angel!" another boy said. "He has wings!"
More children gathered around, and Belsamus beamed at them all.
"So do dragons!" a girl with pigtails said.
The angel's smile faltered. Had he once been this ignorant? He didn't think so...
"Does he look like a dragon?" a taller girl said. "You're stupid!"
The two of them glared at one another, and slapping hands began to fly whilst the other children cheered them on. Belsamus sighed. He took a firm grasp on the collars of their dresses, lifted them off the ground, and separated them.
"Children," he said, "refrain from violence!"
"Why?" the taller girl said. "You don't."
"Yeah!" the freckled boy said. "You've got a sword, for killing people!"
For a brief instant, the angel wondered if he could slaughter them all and claim he'd taken the child's words as an omen from heaven. But he thrust the sinful thought aside.
"My weapon inflicts only righteous violence, in accordance with the decrees of Lord Karuss."
The children digested this for a moment. Then the girl with pigtails raised her hand. It took a moment for Belsamus to recall his schooldays, and understand that she had a question.
"What happens to us when we die?"
"Ah!" The angel beamed once more. Now this was an opportunity to teach the children about the fate of souls, and the girl's question likely represented a far more plausible sign from the gods. "When you perish, your soul leaves your body and is judged. The wicked are hurled into hell, where a million horrors and punishments await them. The good are allowed to ascend to heaven. Those who are most virtuous, whose piety and deeds set them apart in the eyes of the gods, are bestowed with wings and permitted to serve as agents of the divine immortals!"
The children's eyes widened as they absorbed this information, and a surge of pleasure flowed through the angel's body. Then the freckled boy spoke.
"So what happens if an angel dies?"
The smile faded from Belsamus' face.
"For Lord Karuss!"
Belsamus' roar tore through the sky, and his sword tore through the beastman. Celestial steel parted bone. His enemy howled. The creature fell away, plucked from the heavens, flapping his sundered wings as the world below laid claim to his body, just as hell would soon lay claim to his soul.
An angelic voice, mellifluous even through the pain and fear, cried out. One of Belsamus' brothers thrashed and struggled in the grasp of three pteropine monsters. Their wings flapped around him as the four combatants hurtled through the ether, alternately shrouding and revealing his screaming face -- as though it were an immense pantomime, a dark spectacle on a stage. Claws, teeth, and black blades tore into his flesh. They shredded his wings.
Belsamus swooped towards them. But it was too late. The angel's lifeless body tumbled in a haphazard spiral, while the wind toyed with his broken appendages.
"So what happens if an angel dies?"
He didn't know. None of them did. Those who went to pose the question to their masters always returned without an answer, and were left to wonder -- blasphemous though it was -- if such things were mysteries even to the gods themselves. All Belsamus and his fellows knew was that those of their kind who fell in battle were never seen again.
The champion of Karuss bellowed his war cry and hurled himself into the middle of the beastmen. Celestial steel flashed in each direction, cutting and cleaving.
He didn't know what would become of him if he died at his enemies' hands. But so be it. He knew what would happen to his foes, what damnation awaited them. And that was enough. For the rest, he could only put his faith in the wisdom and benevolence of Lord Karuss.
"Their gods are false!" he said, and soared in search of new enemies.
|"How are you feeling?" Marcus asked.
"Tired," Penelope said. "But at least everyone doesn't sound like they're talking underwater anymore..."
"You left for Stromhamre before I could tell you... I've spoken with some of the city's archmages. With a little experimenting, they think they might be able to undo the wish spell."
The dragon got up with such suddenness that her tail dashed against a campfire, drawing shouts of protest. She turned her head.
"Sorry!" The purple dragon looked back at Marcus. "Really? They can turn me back?"
"So they say."
Penelope got up on her hind legs and performed a victory dance. Marcus waited for her to settle back down before continuing.
"They're willing to start trying tonight, if you want."
She scratched her chin, then held up a single claw in the manner of a scholar or philosopher imparting wisdom. The gesture was so utterly human that it seemed incongruous from a drake.
"I'd better carry on being a dragon for a bit longer. I can do more for us like this than I could with my old body."
"I'll let them know," he said.
He walked away. Behind him, Penelope performed the victory dance once more. When she got her own arms back, she decided, she was going to give Sir Marcus a big hug. In fact, she'd give everyone a hug. Even Bethany! With that happy thought, she danced on -- while her comrades stared and more than a few told her to piss off.
There was a moment of utter terror when the grey wyrm flew at her. Primal fear gripped Penelope, millennia of natural instinct warning her that this immense reptilian creature, this monstrosity of scale and wing and tooth and claw would devour her, that its snapping jaws would rend her flesh and gobble her up. Then a more rational part of her brain provided the obvious rebuttal: No it won't, because you're a bloody dragon too! With that in mind, she braced herself for the drake's attack.
He launched his onslaught with all the savage might of his race, biting and clawing, trying to tear at her throat, her face, her wings. She punched him in the side of the jaw. His head snapped to the side, and Penelope felt suitably proud of herself. It was surprisingly hard to find the leverage for a good punch when you were in the air -- but she was getting better at it.
The grey wyrm roared and swept away from her, seeking the space to recover. A powerful flap of her purple wings flung her after him. She leapt onto his back. He bucked and twisted, trying to keep clear of her mouth, expecting her teeth to snap shut around his neck as any other dragon's might have done. But whatever form she wore, Penelope still fought like a human. A human who'd learned how to brawl in an orphanage.
She wrapped her forelegs around his throat, and locked the chokehold in tight.
Dragons grappled, after a fashion. Most animals did. From cats to cobras, ensnaring and immobilizing were natural enough. But she doubted her enemy had ever learned the finer points of wrestling. And if he had, he must have forgotten that knowledge in his panic. Because his ineffectual thrashing, his twisting and spinning as their wings carried them through the sky, only drained him faster.
"Tomorrow," Penelope whispered to him, "I'll be human. Tell them that in hell. Tell them a human kicked your butt."
Maybe he heard her, before consciousness left his body. She didn't know. But she supposed she didn't really care either.
The purple dragon released his dead weight, and let it smash on the plain below.
Love Will Tear Us Apart
|"Cornelius Darcus Bloodwyn!"
The woman stood in the bedroom doorway, the jewels on her sumptuous gown sparkling in the candlelight. Her wide eyes goggled at the potbellied man on the bed. He clasped his hands over his nakedness out of instinct, before presumably realizing that his wife of twenty-six years had seen it all before, and raising them in entreaty instead.
"This isn't what it looks like!" he said. "I can explain!"
"Oh, this'll be good," Amata said. The angel sat up beside him, equally naked, and stretched her wings overhead. "Let's hear it."
"She seduced me! With her... her powers! She's an angel of Rassys! She bewitched me!"
"Really? That's the best you can do? I... Hey!"
Amata rolled off the bed, just in time to avoid the vase that shattered against the headboard. Edna Darcus Bloodwyn shrieked like a demoness and looked around for another missile. The angel didn't wait for it. She snatched her clothes off the floor, bundled them in her arms, and ran to the balcony.
Edna's insult and a bronze statuette followed Amata into the sky. Only the former reached her. The latter landed somewhere in the gardens, and she did the same -- dropping among the bushes so she could dress. That done, she flew over the wall and touched down in the street beyond. The angel laughed. She began to stroll away, but a voice and a blast of harp music stopped her.
"So that's how people behave in heaven?" Medea said.
The bard leaned against the garden wall, an eyebrow raised.
"The ones who worship the goddess of love," Amata said. "We aren't all made of ice and sarcasm..."
"Another woman's husband?"
"Please... Rassys lies with married men and women all the time. Why shouldn't we do the same?"
"That kind of thinking's why you're hiding down here with us, isn't it?"
Amata glared, but could muster no retort. Music slapped her across the face.
"I don't care what you do up in the clouds, but here, when you're one of us, show some respect. Do you think Marcus wants it known that our people are making cuckolds and cuckqueans of the city's aristocracy?"
"From what I hear, Rassys wants to pepper you with heart-shaped arrows for stealing a lover she stole first! If you'd like to get back into heaven, you're going to have to find another god or goddess. And what do you think they'll say about this?"
The elf gestured behind her, where Cornelius' voice could be heard drifting on the breeze.
"I was powerless to resist her charms! I... I... No, not that one! It's three-hundred years..."
His squeal and the crash of breaking pottery floated out into the night.
Amata twitched and wriggled, turning around on the spot while her wings flapped to keep her aloft. The breastplate and the padded shirt beneath chafed against her skin. It'd been a long time since she'd worn so much clothing, but...
"Do you think your goddess would accept me?" she asked.
"Maybe," the crimson-haired angel said. "But if you want to serve Mathala, you'll have to dress for war, not the brothel."
The former emissary of Rassys pulled an arrow from her quiver and took aim.
"Can you use a sword?"
"No. But I can fire a bow..."
"Good. Wait... Those arrows..."
"They make people fall in love!"
"We're trying to kill the dragons, not get them bedded. Find a fletcher and buy some proper ones."
Her shaft whistled through the air and pierced the whelp's scaly hide. The little dragon yelped, then fell from the heavens. Amata smiled. Maybe she could make this work after all...
She pulled another arrow from her quiver, put it to her bow, and took aim.
|Laerakia scoured the aerial battle in search of a worthy enemy. Her mother, Verkiteia, had displeased Xerkara -- earned the white dragon's wrath as well as her own death. Now her bloodline was disgraced. But Laerakia would see to that. All she had to do was prove her strength, and claim a bloody portion of Xerkara's victory.
"Die, false god!"
An angel descended towards her, thrusting a long, shimmering gold lance. Laerakia lashed out, and sharp claws ripped through the celestial's wing.
"Save me, Karuss!"
If her deity was listening, he paid no heed. The angel plunged to her doom. A pleasing kill, but not enough. To redeem her blood she'd have to... Her eyes gleamed. A yellow drake soared overhead.
The green wyrm's wings caught at the air currents and launched her upwards.
"Then it's so," Timon said. "You'll wear red tomorrow, like the others?"
"Yes," Emeric said. "For Velania."
The dragon sighed.
"I heard human children playing outside the walls. They called one of their number a 'yellow-bellied coward'. After all the millennia, you humans still use that taunt, and so do my kind."
"So?" Emeric shrugged. "They're just words."
Timon's eyes flared.
"After tomorrow, no one will ever speak them again."
The dragons crashed together, and their mighty frames shuddered.
"Timon!" Laerakia said. Her claws raked his scaly hide. "Run away, coward. Run away or die!"
He grasped her in turn, sharp talons digging into her flesh. Both wyrms hissed and growled. Laerakia bit at him, tore at his collarbone. The yellow drake clung to her, all four legs seeking purchase, embracing her tight as though to crush the breath from her body. She growled and clawed him again. The fool wasn't strong enough. He...
Timon's eyes met hers, and the cold fierceness in their gaze startled her. Laerakia tried to pull away, to break free from his hold. But his yellow limbs held her fast.
"I'm not a coward!" he said.
His wings stopped flapping. And the yellow dragon's weight yanked her downwards, sent them both plunging through the whooshing currents.
"Get off me!" Laerakia bit, and clawed, and struggled.
Timon only glared. Glared, and held, while the heavens soared away and the hills rushed up at them.
"Not a coward," he said, just before their bodies broke against the ground.
Thousands of eyes watched Timon murder the green wyrm with his own suicide, and in that instant yellow was no longer the color of cowardice. It was the color of madness.