The following morning, Richard Vandross was awoken by the sound of loud pounding on his bedroom door.  He couldn’t even remember having come back to his room to rest, and his body certainly didn’t feel as though it had gotten a break.  He felt instead as though he had been awake all evening, perhaps trying to tear the mountains from the very earth.  But he knew that when someone came pounding that hard and that long at his chamber door, he should probably get up and answer it.  Perhaps he’d even be nice enough to let the messenger live this morning.  He hadn’t yet decided.

 

When he dragged himself to the door, it was Vilec Roak who stood before him, a mixed expression of apprehension and triumph on his demon face.  Perhaps I should kill him, Vandross thought smugly for a moment. After all, what good has he done me lately?  I did away with Bael quickly enough when he had outlived his usefulness and fealty.  Why not Roak?  But every efficient plan needed a scapegoat for the very last minute, and Roak would certainly fill the role well.  Vandross had no qualms with sacrificing the Shadowbeast Prime at the last.  “Well, what is it General,” he asked, his voice hoarse and scratchy.

 

“Word has just been received, my lord.  The assault on Byron’s army failed rather spectacularly, sir.  We only managed to kill a few less than two hundred of their men.  But there is some good news, lord Vandross.”  The one-eyed warlock shot Roak a quizzical look as he took a drink of water from the jug on his table.

 

“And that would be,” he said, moving his cup in the ‘let’s get on with it’ motion.

 

“Another of Byron’s personal company has fallen,” Vilec Roak said, and these few words tasted like the sweetest honey ale to Vandross as he let the feel of them wash over him.  Another one dead?  How could that be? How could one of Byron’s companions fall in battle to anyone but Tamriel or Amon?  This he had to hear.

 

“Give me the details,” he rasped harshly, anxious to know what had befallen one of those enormous thorns in his side.  Vilec Roak proceeded to tell the tale of how the battle had gone as his spy had viewed it, from the near distance and with the aid of a spell of Farsight.  It was a useful spell that most mages could learn very easily, if they bothered to take the time. But of course, most didn’t.  The demon related how the Pyromancer, Selena Bradford, had used the most powerful and lethal spell known to Pyromancers, indeed, one of the most potent known to all magic users in the lands of Tamalaria.  Immolation, it was known as, and the price for the spell’s use was the very life force of the caster.  As soon as the battle neared its end, and Major Tamriel fell, the spy had used a Blink spell to return himself to his chambers in Mount Toane.

 

Richard Vandross grinned quite broadly, pleased that at least one more of Byron’s friends had died.  He too had suffered many losses in that battle; the three enormous Renkas, hundreds of Khan soldiers, and Amon. The Lieutenant had potential, but now that would not come to fruition.  And Tamriel would have fared much better at Mount Toane, but he had become more of a burden than was worthwhile.  Ah, well, Vandross thought.  That’s two more strings I can cut to focus on the task at hand.  Byron’s army was only ten days away now, Vilec Roak informed him.  Nine days to reach the top of the hills around Mount Toane, and another full day for them to descend the hills and make their way to the entrance.  That would give Vandross’s forces within the stronghold time to prepare for the approaching onslaught.

 

It had been much the same the first time he had dwelled here, he thought.  Tanarak of Sidius had known that the Final Push was at hand, and had been so well prepared for it that he had repelled the effort.  However, even with the aid of the mighty Dread Knight Byron of Sidius, his hold over the lands began to slip afterwards.  Tanarak had put too much of his energy into making Byron what he was, into fortifying the defenses of Mount Toane.  Vandross, of course, had already avoided one of those pitfalls; he didn’t intend to take any prisoners.  And, he had avoided another pitfall by sending a forward offensive to gauge the full strength of the undead warrior’s forces.  He would not be caught unawares, as his master had been all that time ago.  Where the Final Push marked the beginning of Tanarak’s end, this conflict would mark the age of terror for Tamalaria, a terror and fear that Vandross would bask and feed in and upon.  His deserved immortality was close at hand.

 

So why, he thought as Vilec Roak left the room, am I trembling?

 

That same morning, Byron awoke to find Bael, the Lizardman who had formerly been Vandross’s General, standing over him, with a wry reptilian smile plastered to his face.  “Rise and shine, my friend,” he said, his tone full of laughter, but cautious laughter.  Apparently, he had been appraised of the situation concerning Selena Bradford and Alex the Ki Fairy, for James Hayes stood next to the Lizardman warrior.  Byron got slowly, painfully to his feet.  He ached in places he hadn’t ached since his mortal life, and the renewed sense of pain and fatigue almost stole him back into the sleeping world as he stood.  He removed his still bloodied gauntlet, and shook Bael’s hand.  The rough, scaled palm felt strange, alien to the touch, but Byron welcomed any sensation other than the wear and tear his legs presently complained to his mind about.

 

“Good day, Bael,” Byron said, clearing his ‘throat’.

 

“I mourn the loss of your friends, lord Byron,” Bael said, inclining his head ever so slightly.  “Though I did not know them well, they stood truly as your friends and allies.  And as you well know, a friend of yours is a friend of mine,” Bael said, his forked tongue working with great ease over the ‘s’ sounds of his words.  He had been, Byron realized, one of the only reptilian warriors who seemed to have no trouble with the common tongue of Tamalaria.  He didn’t hiss or spit at length, and unlike most of his kinsmen, his slatted eyes didn’t rove when he focused on a conversation.  Such a tiny detail to notice, Byron thought, yet so pivotal in defining this man.

 

“I mourn their loss as well, Bael.  However, Selena’s sacrifice was not in vain.  Thanks to her efforts, we lost only a handful of men and women, where a heaping mound might have been the result without her spell.” Byron stretched his arms and legs, checked over his equipment, and made a brief scan of the encampment.  Most of the tents and lean-tos had been torn down and packed away; the army would be fully ready to march again within the hour.  Shoryu, his Cuyotai snout wet with the morning dew, came over to the Dread Knight with a water skin in hand, the sides of which appeared to be slightly stained a crimson hue.  Despite his earlier decision not to use it, Byron took the skin and thanked the young Cuyotai Hunter with a nod of approval, then turned and unashamedly poured Shoryu’s fresh blood over his skull.  An instant later, he felt renewed and full of vigor.  He was even beginning to feel a little younger at heart, as though the youth of Shoryu’s lifeblood were affecting his own personality.  Perhaps that’s a good thing he mused.

 

Byron gathered the remaining members of his personal party together with the ranking officers and Bael, who had brought a contingent of four hundred Lizardmen.  They were not all, of course, from the same village.  Some were not even from the same tribal backgrounds as Bael’s people.  But he had banded them all together with his commanding presence, and the promise of honor gained through combat for the greater good.  Though some few didn’t appear to care much about honor as much as they did about fighting, they appeared to be a rough and capable bunch. They bore no ranks or uniforms; their whole command structure seemed to be centered on the idea that they were all equals, and only Bael had the right, among all of them, to lead.  Byron didn’t ask if Bael had been challenged for the position of command.  Anyone of these Lizardmen foolish enough to do so would surely be missing a limb or a vital organ.  Say, an eye or an ear slit.  Perhaps an arm, as one fellow was.

 

Byron stood in the center of the assembled officers, waiting until their private conversations had died down to speak.  “We have only a few days’ march ahead of us before we are in the region of Mount Toane.  When we have reached the bottom of the hills surrounding the warlock’s stronghold, we shall wait.  There are inevitably going to be more scattered forces joining in the fray, and we should wait until they are all present and accounted for before we begin an assault.  Now I know what it’s like to attack Mount Toane.  I’ve done it once already!  My body is proof of what occurred that day!  We charged in too soon, without a structured plan of attack!  We went in without the benefit of some form of intelligence from within the mountain.

 

“However, I am not the only one who has been there once already. Morek Rockmight served with me in the Final Push years ago, and he too knows the interior of that accursed place to some degree!  We will not be going in blind, or unprepared.  We will have mages with the most experience divided up among the separate units, in order to detect magical traps and locked spells as we go.  The last time we rushed Mount Toane, we went in without anticipating traps, only minions, and it got a good number of our men and women slaughtered.”  Byron fell silent for a moment, waiting to see if any of the officers had anything to offer.  When no one spoke, he continued.

 

“The next three days will be harsh on us.  We’ll be passing directly south of the Allenian Hills, and that is historically one of the most Khan populated regions in Tamalaria.  Surely by now the wind has carried the smell of their many dead kinsmen to them.  They will be looking for answers, no doubt, and we may need to contend with them on their own turf.  They are not soldiers; they will attack without discipline, but with swiftness and cunning.  Be on the lookout, gentlemen and ladies, and keep each other informed.

 

“Also, you may be wondering how a force of this size is going to travel such a large distance in the coming days.  That isn’t too difficult either.  We have many mounted riders, and a good number of Q Mages to enhance the running and walking speeds of the footmen.  It’s going to be a hell of a strain on those mages, but we need you officers to make certain they do it, focus on it as hard as they can.  Each man and woman needs to be able to move as swiftly as a jogging horse if we’re to make this trip in so little time, regardless of interruptions.  I may also be able to help in this matter in some way.”  How exactly he would accomplish that, Byron didn’t know, yet he felt confident enough in his powers to offer his aid.

 

“Lastly, before I hear suggestions or reports from any of you, I need you all to go to your units.  Tell the men that if any of them want out of this business, this is their last chance to return to their homes and families and friends,” he said slowly, somberly.  The Dread Knight was certain that after that first battle, though not many died overall, many were injured and maimed, and of those unharmed, several had just been in their first real combat.  A bit of a shitstorm for a man’s first battle, and he could understand if the younger men had experienced second thoughts about this whole business of dealing with the one-eyed warlock.

 

The officers saluted and walked away to their own individual units, some of them newly appointed into their posts.  First Sergeant Alowar Fleetfoot had been promoted to Sergeant-at-Arms upon Cassandra Payne’s death, and was trying to get accustomed to being a unit leader instead of the second-in-command who constantly busted balls.  He was an older Elven soldier, having served in three wars for the Elven Kingdom, and had always been used as the sort of gruff middle-management man that every unit needed.  In command, but never with the final say-so.  Now, Lieutenant Rook had given him the at-Arms patch that had been taken from Cassandra’s uniform when she was buried, and had told the old soldier that he would now be in command of the unit.  “At least until we get back to Whitewood, old friend,” Rook had tried to jest.  “Then you can put in your papers to be demoted back to First Sergeant!  Ha ha ha!”  Little did Rook realize that that was exactly what Fleetfoot intended to do.

 

James Hayes and Morek Rockmight moved away a short distance from the troops as they assembled their marching lines and files.  James looked up and down the field and hill that the army had rested on near the edge of the woods.  There had to be easily two or three thousand men and women, all willing to give their lives for a cause the whole land shared. Nobody wanted another Tanarak of Sidius, that much was clear from the ferocity with which they had all fought during the previous afternoon.  When the army did reach Mount Toane, it would be a much different battle than had occurred there some twenty years previous.  The Dwarven Boxer looked up at the Human Paladin, his eyes searching.  He had seen something there last night, something that had previously not existed since meeting the man in Whitewood.  There was a quality of relief, even revelation, in Hayes’s eyes, his tight-lipped grin, and even his movements.  The man had apparently been carrying some huge burden on his soul, which had been summarily shaken off like so much water in the night.  Morek envied him that, though he wouldn’t admit as much.

 

The taciturn Dwarf had been friends with Ellen Daires for years prior to that morning, and had never known her to be the adventurous sort.  She seemed so frail, even when casting her magic about her.  Though her power was great, and her new husband well skilled with a bow, Morek still feared that like Selena Bradford, Alex, and David Spore before them, she would not reach the end of this journey safely.

 

“Don’t be troubled, Morek,” Hayes said suddenly, his eyes still fixed on some far off point on the horizon.  “We shall succeed in our given task. Of this, I am most certain.”  Without another word, the suddenly enigmatic Paladin walked away from the confused Dwarf.  Morek scratched his thick red beard a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and set about giving out orders to his men.  The Q Mages had begun their work, positioned at points around the army in a large circle, focusing their power into a single enhancement, making the foot soldiers move as swiftly as horses.  The work would be tiring, but they would endure.  They had to.

 

Because more than anything, the members of Byron’s new army wanted to get this dark business over with.

 

Several hours later, as Lee Toren and a few of his associates scoured the battleground for what profitable goodies they might find in the wake of Byron and his army, the Gnome Pickpocket thought long and hard on his dealings with the Dread Knight.  Wherever the man went, he left a trail of destruction behind him.  His time as Tanarak’s General didn’t differ much more from the quest he was on right now.  The only difference, Lee thought as he watched one of the Wererats near him pocket a nice looking shiny, was that he was on the ‘good’ side of the struggle.  Good and evil, as far as Lee was concerned, were relative terms, and only truly mattered in the minds of men who concerned themselves with ethical and spiritual matters.  He didn’t consider himself such a man.

 

Yet, there was a noble quality to the Dread Knight’s mission.  He was attempting to redeem himself for the sins he had committed as Byron of Sidius.  Atonement for his atrocities.  “Feh,” Lee muttered as he rummaged through the pockets of a fallen Khan soldier.  Most of Byron’s men and women who had fallen had been buried, and Lee wasn’t about to disturb their bodies.  He may not have been a man of ethics, but superstitions?  By the gods and hells, yes he was, and disturbing the eternal rest of a buried man wasn’t going to be his fault.

 

“Hey boss,” one of the Wererats hollered from off to his left.  Lee snapped his small, fat head around to look at the wiry creature, and saw that the Wererat was backing ever so slowly away from something downhill, in the burnt-out crater filled with ashes and bones that Lee had rather pointedly avoided.  “Come ‘ere and get a look at this.”  Lee obliged the Wererat, and came over to see what could have spooked such an otherwise merciless bandit.  Flint usually didn’t shy away from anything, and this had to be something worth shying away from.  As Lee got to the edge of the crater, he looked down and saw what had taken Flint so off guard; from beneath the pile of rubble and ashes, a single arm was clawing its way free. From even this distance, he could see that the arm was plainly burnt nearly to the bone, but the glint of claws and the muffled groans and half-dead roars of whatever was coming out of there told Lee to keep his distance anyway.

 

After a few minutes of digging, the arm stopped, burying its claws into the earth outside of the pile.  The soot and bones and armor shuttered, and a bloodied, blackened Khan half emerged from his living tomb.  The tiger man gasped for air in huge, violent gasps, his chest heaving up and down as he fell on the side of his face, squeezing his eyes shut against the sunlight.  Lee Toren had taken a couple of steps back, not realizing that he had done so.  Flint, meanwhile, had begun to descend and circle around to where the Khan lay still half-buried by armor and bones.  The muscular Wererat grappled the Khan under his good arm, and what Lee saw was half of an arm.  The Khan had lost his left arm from the elbow down in whatever magical assault had clearly created the crater.  Flint, caring little for the state of his nice green and tan tunics, hauled on the Khan, pulling him fully out to reveal that the Khan was also missing his entire left leg, and had a gaping wound on that side of his abdomen.  Lee could hear Flint grunting to haul the man out, but also heard the distinct, guttural cursing of the Khan tongue issuing from the tiger man.  Tough bastard, Lee thought.  Too bad he probably won’t survive those wounds.

 

Yet the Khan’s wounds didn’t bleed, as Lee was certain they must. They were purest black, cauterized by the magic.  Most likely Pyromancy, Lee thought.  Flint brought him out of his thoughts and into action as he yelled at Lee, “For the gods’ sakes, Lee!  Bring one of your healing potions!” The Gnome Pickpocket rolled his eyes, and fetched a spare one from one of the other scavenging Wererats in his employ currently.  They weren’t the best thieves, but Flint was an alright sort.  Of course, he came from a premium crop, a guild known as the Hoods in Desanadron.

 

The Wererat was currently available for employment, however, since the city was rebuilding.  Lee went over to Flint as the Wererat propped the Khan’s head on his lap, handing him the potion, which Flint promptly poured down the Khan’s throat.  A subtle blue light shimmered over the Khan as the potion worked its magic, and the Khan’s eyes fluttered fully open.  The tiger man tried to stand, but Flint held him fast to the ground. “Not yet, Khan,” the Wererat nearly spat, for he had little or no love for their kind.  He didn’t, however, approve of suffering, and when he could keep someone from Death’s door, he would.  “In case you haven’t noticed, you’ve been badly injured.  You’re naked, your fur is blackened, you’re missing half an arm and a leg, and without that potion, you’d be missing a good portion of your abdominal region.”  Flint said this as gently as he could, easing the Khan’s head to the ground and standing over him.  “Now answer us some questions, and we may not let you figure out how to get somewhere where you can get help on your own.”  The Khan said nothing, only nodded and grunted at Flint.

 

“Very good,” said Lee Toren, sitting cross-legged next to the Khan, on his injured side.  An injured Khan still had claws, and teeth, and the Gnome wasn’t fond of the idea of being this Khan’s meals for the next day or so. “Now, first thing’s first.  What is your name?”  The Khan spat away from the Wererat and Gnome, clearing his throat in an attempt to gain use of his voice.  He spoke, but his throat was too dry for words to come out.  Flint handed him a water skin, which the Khan took greedily and drained. Wiping his mouth and handing the skin back, the Khan answered them quite clearly.

 

“My name, is Tiberious Amon,” the Khan said gruffly.  “And what has happened here I must tell you, for one woman was strong enough of will and spirit to do what had to be done, despite the cost.”  Lee and Flint looked at each other quizzically.  “The cost, was her own life.”

 

By midday, Byron, Viper, Morek and Bael’s forces had cleared the majority of the land leading to the stretch south of the Allenian Hills.  The Q Mages had done wondrous work with their magic, but two men were carrying each, each holding one end of a medical litter on which the spell users laid.  The Dread Knight was jogging along at a good clip, content to just feel the wind blow past him as he ran along the soft, springy soil of the Center Plains and the Allenian Hills region.  With any luck, the army could avoid another large-scale encounter that day.  However, despite the magic that had been used on the entire body of the army, several men and women were dropping like flies.  Some of them were Elven, some Lizardman, and a few were stout Minotaur warriors, but all three Races tended to have a natural resistance to magic, whether the power was used for their benefit, or their detriment.  As a result, the magic was wearing off on their kind quicker than on the others, who comprised the minority of the army.

 

Byron called out to Shoryu, who had been running along not more than twenty paces ahead, his own natural grace and readiness as a scout and sprinter serving him even better now that the Q magic was affecting him.  Byron had given Shoryu some maps of the lands they would be passing through the night previous, and had instructed the young Cuyotai Hunter to memorize them as best he could.  Hunters of almost every Race made certain they could read, decipher, and memorize even the minutest details from such maps and travel catalogues.  Some of the soldiers had their own personal questing journals regarding the areas they were to pass through, and some of them proved to be quite recent.  Shoryu had read over them all long into the night, and Byron had stayed up just long enough to watch him fall asleep next to Ellen Daires, his snout still buried in a journal.

 

“What can you tell me about this area, other than the danger of being so near the Allenians, my young friend,” Byron asked between jogging strides.  He sounded comical, even to himself, his words coming out bumped and distorted as he tried to jog and speak at the same time.  He hadn’t been much good at this in life, and certainly his undead nature wouldn’t make it any easier.  Shoryu turned his head, snout plastered with a bemused grin.

 

“Well, friend, there isn’t really much to tell.  There are supposed to be several dozen men in an Order of Oun fort just an hour away to the east, and some small Gnome tradeposts have been established since times I cannot remember.  Unfortunately, this is about raiding season time for the tradeposts, wherein the Gnomes barricade the buildings and hide throughout them.  They do this so that when the Khan or Simpa come down from the Hills to plunder supplies in their efforts to gain advantage over one another, none of the Gnomes themselves are harmed.  In addition, most of the weapons and armor that are left out are silver, so neither Race will take them.”

 

“I thought Khan weren’t lycanthropes,” Byron said, beginning to huff and puff.  The Q magic was wearing off of him as well, and the army would soon be forced to stop so that the well-rested Q Mages could cast their collective enchantment on the army once more.  Shoryu cocked his head sideways for a moment, thinking about Byron’s statement.

 

“No, they are not, but for some reason, they are allergic to silver in the same way as their Simpa rivals.  The Werelions, however, cannot even get close to silver without getting sick, unlike the Khan.  Also, a clever Khan will simply wrap the weapons or armor in cloths, so that they can pawn them off in another town or village.  For the Simpa, the silver is useless, a good deterrent.  The Khan, in their greed, are also often distracted with trying to smuggle the weapons someplace where no questions will be asked. As a result, over the years, the raiding season has ended in the same way as every season and generation before it; neither side makes any headway.”

 

“Anything else,” Byron said, actually having to make an effort to keep up with the swift Cuyotai now.  “Anything to watch out for?”  Shoryu shook his head slightly, trying not to seem too pessimistic.

 

“Not really, except for battles between the Khan and Simpa.  Their struggle for claim over the region is older than most of us here in the army, and they see outside interference as an affront to both of their peoples.  Were they not so pointedly interested in killing one another, the whole Allenian Hills region would be one of the most dangerous to traverse.  Thankfully, outside interference doesn’t include getting close to or observing the battles; we would have to have someone foolish enough to actually get involved before we had any trouble to deal with.”  The two companions were silent for a while, Shoryu falling back a bit to carry his wife on his back as he ran along.

 

As the army came to the crest of one of the last hills in the region, lord Viper and Bael agreed to call a halt to the army’s advance.  They would all take an hour and a half to eat and rest before the Q Mages performed their magic again.  Ellen slid down off of Shoryu’s back, gave him a quick kiss, and whispered something in his canine ear that Byron couldn’t quite make out.  Shoryu looked at her solemnly, then nodded, keeping his eyes shut.  Byron stalked over, his legs beginning to cramp from running pel mel through hilly lands.  They hadn’t cramped since his time as a Human, his mortal life.  He was beginning to realize that there really were advantages to being truly undead.

 

As the army went about the business of resting and preparing a sort of lunch-dinner hybrid meal, Byron decided to have a short conversation with Voice.  He sat down near the eastern front of the forces, cross-legged, and closed his ‘eyes’, concentrating on nothing, letting his entire consciousness slide into a state of semi-trance.  He quickly found himself floating in the void, as happened when he spoke with Voice during his waking hours.  Only during sleep did Byron come to the cemetery.  Byron called out in his mind, into the void.  “Voice?  I believe we have some things to discuss.”

 

-I hear you, Byron Aixler,- Voice said through the darkness, the sound of it reverberating off of the barriers in Byron’s mind.  -Indeed, there is much to talk about.  I am truly sorry for the loss of your companion.- Byron bowed deeply in his soul-space, grumbling ever so slightly.

 

“As am I.  But you had warned me that she was going to do something like that.  Her time was coming, and she chose when to make her stand.  A good thing she did, too.  We might have lost many dozens of times more soldiers had she not made her particular sacrifice.  And James Hayes and I needed something to distract that bear thing.  I didn’t want to have to unleash my full potential on such a creature.”

 

-Indeed, that may have destroyed everyone else around you.  That would have accomplished nothing.-  Byron nodded.  -Something else plagues your thoughts, Byron Aixler.  What is it?-  Byron had to think long and hard about how he was going to word this next question; Voice often responded to him in riddles and half-truths, never revealing everything.  He needed to know a few things before he arrived at Mount Toane, and he wanted to get as direct an answer as possible.  Thus, his problem was not one of knowing what questions to ask, but rather, how to ask them.

 

“You have told me this much, Voice.  You have told me that not all of my allies shall survive this particular voyage, that those who survive shall be forever changed.  Pray, will anymore of them suffer the same fate as Selena Bradford?”

 

-No, none of them shall sacrifice themselves in a flare of magic,- Voice responded.  Damnation, Byron thought.  Too specific a question, he realized.  Voice would take everything black-letter literal.

 

“All right, fair enough.  Will those who joined me prior to this army perish before this undertaking is completed?”

 

-This undertaking shall never truly be over, per se, Byron Aixler,- Voice responded after a moment’s hesitation.  He was, Byron realized, trying to avoid the questions, which was rather unsettling for the Dread Knight. Voice may very well not want to upset him further than he was by letting him know that once again he would not be able to save one of his friends. Or perhaps, he thought, Voice didn’t want to set anything in stone; everything the being had told him thus far had come to pass.  Perhaps, if Voice didn’t say anything concrete, fate could be changed.  Byron considered this possibility seriously for a moment, and decided to drop that line of questioning.  It would lead him nowhere.

 

“Very well.  I have another line of questions for you.  Firstly, why did Richard Vandross send a forward assault force at us?  Would it not have been wiser to hold them in reserve, for the defense of Mount Toane?”

 

-The warlock is mad, Byron Aixler, mad with the power of the Glorious Mother of Destruction.  He also seeks to act in a different fashion from his former master, Tanarak.  This much I have learned from Locke, who still keeps an eye on the warlock’s activities.-  Locke, Byron thought. The enormous, crimson-armored Keeper.  How had Vandross managed to expel such a being from his very soul?  -Your time grows short, Byron Aixler.   The army is preparing to march once again.-

 

“Thank you,” Byron said in his mind, bringing himself back to full consciousness.  He looked around at the eager faces of the soldiers under his command.  They were already moving out, as Voice had said.  Byron stood up and moved forward, flanked on both sides by James Hayes, Ellen Daires, Morek Rockmight and Shoryu Tearfang.  For a moment, he expected Selena to join them, Alex on shoulder, but they would not be joining them again. Still, the friends he had with him, he would keep from the same such fate. He would protect them as best he could.

 

“So, none have returned?  None at all,” Richard Vandross asked, his twin harmony voice resounding through the throne room as he spoke with Vilec Roak.

 

“No sir, none.  I believe Colonel Molis suspects you sent them to their graves.”  Vandross smiled knowingly; he was certain that the half-breed would be furious with such a tactically unsound course of action, being the good soldier that he was.  However, Molis wouldn’t question him out-right, even if he had struck Roak.  After all, Roak was just another demon; he had become a god!

 

“If the Colonel has an issue with my strategy, he can take it up with me directly, General,” Vandross hissed through the open cavern space.  His eyes were glimmering with crimson light, and he could feel the powerful urge to test out the power of the Mother of Destruction.  “Aside from the Dread Knight’s forces, does anyone else march against us,” he asked, coming down from his bone-hewn throne.

 

“One of our sources in Ja-Wen tells us that their private army secretly moves from the east to fight us.  They appear to be traveling slowly, cautiously.  I believe they intend to join the main force of Byron’s army when they arrive, sire,” the Shadowbeast General said, scanning over some maps of the land of Tamalaria.  He pointed out a small token he had placed on the map, just west of Ja-Wen, between the sprawling city-state itself and nearby Mount Toane.  It was only a two-day march from the city to their position, and Vandross had sent several raiding parties into the city.  They had come back unscathed, reporting that they had met with little resistance. Could it be that their army had been lying in wait, seeking the opportunity to strike back when he wasn’t looking?  Of course, he thought.  Roak is correct; they are waiting for Byron’s forces, that they might have aid against us.  Too bad they won’t be around long enough to help the Dread Knight.

 

“Vilec Roak, prepare a single battalion to march for that smaller set of units, the one from Ja-Wen,” the warlock hissed, grinning like a fool.  He stalked directly toward the exit from the throne room that would lead to his chambers.  “Have them ready in two hours.  We shall take the fight to those fools, and crush them.”

 

“Sire?  What about Byron?”  Vandross turned on his heel to look threateningly back at the Shadowbeast, who cringed slightly away from him under that glare.

 

“We’ll be done with Ja-Wen and back in plenty of time to deal with the Dread Knight, General.  I want to go have some fun, first.  I want to make certain that the Glorious Mother of Destruction holds up to reputation.”  Vilec Roak shuddered inwardly as he nodded his black, shadowy head, shuffling off to go prepare a battalion.  Vandross himself stalked to his bedchamber, where Power stood, seemingly waiting for him. When had he released her into the physical world?  Had she somehow escaped?  The one-eyed warlock approached her at a creeping gait, trying not to gain her attention.  But as he reached her, the Orb of Eden’s Serpent manifestation whipped its head to look him dead in the eyes.

 

She flashed him a wide, mirthless smile, her eyes flashing in the torchlight of the sleeping chamber.  “You play a dangerous game, host,” she whispered threateningly at him, keeping her physical expression.  Her tone of voice and the cold, steely glare she gave him told Vandross that she was not at all pleased.  “You should not play with the Glorious Mother of Destruction as though it were a child’s toy.  Remember, we have given you access to it; that does not mean that you have the ability to use it whenever you wish.  You will be severely taxed, physically and mentally.  You should not fool around with it.”  Vandross grunted at her, stepping past the bed she sat on, sitting on his stone hewn chair.

 

“It is my choice how I wield my abilities, Power.  You should tell me how you got out of my soul without my noticing.”  The Orb manifestation smiled wider, the flesh around the corners of her mouth crinkling, threatening to split open and bleed.

 

“I never left, Richard Vandross, host and holder of the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent.  I am merely impressing myself upon your field of vision, from within.  None of us can now leave, for to do so would unleash the power of the Glorious Mother of Destruction on the very position we appear at.  In short, Mount Toane would be brought down around your ears.  The only way for us to be freed now, is for you to die.”  Richard Vandross did not trust at all the smug look of satisfaction on the Orb manifestation’s face, but he only had to see it for another moment.  Power faded from his vision, like a desert hallucination.  A small chill ran up his spine; his own demise would lead to the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent’ release.  Did they want exactly that?  Did they want him to use the Mother of Destruction on Byron of Sidius, and then die, so that they would be free to inhabit another warlock?  Surely not, he thought.

 

Because he was Richard Vandross, and no one would defeat him.

 

Evening approached, and the army of the Dread Knight, Thaddeus Viper, Morek Rockmight, and Bael settled down due southeast of the Allenian Hills region.  They had managed to get through without encountering a single raiding party from either the Khan, or the Simpa. Patrols of soldiers were set to guard the perimeter of the army, however, as a precaution.  They were to pay special attention to the supplies and healers of the army, and most of those put on the duty were Minotaurs, Dwarves, and some of Bael’s more skilled warriors.

 

Byron didn’t want to take the chance that the men and women of the army might be too tired or hungry to fight the good fight once they reached Mount Toane.  He sat around a campfire with his friends Shoryu, Ellen, Morek, Hayes, and Bael, each member eating their meal in respective silence.  The Dread Knight kept mulling over the situation he was in, the familiarity of it all.  When last he had marched from the west toward Mount Toane, he had not encountered any opposing forces; Tanarak had made the mistake of keeping all of his followers in and around Mount Toane.  That had allowed the Dread Knight to arrive with all of his forces fully intact.

 

One of the officers in the Elven battalions approached the company from Whitewood, an older man, who snapped a quick salute.  His fingers stayed just away from his forehead, which was still wrapped in bandaging from the battle with Tamriel and the Khan.  Byron stood and returned the salute, Bael and Morek rising with him.  “My lord, one of the scouts just returned at a full run.  There appears to be a large group of Khan approaching from the Allenians, intent on raiding our supplies.  We are prepared for them, but the men want to know how hard they should resist.” Byron understood; already the stench of death hung on some of the soldiers’ clothes.  Elves didn’t care much for warfare, or for death, and would want to avoid bloodshed if they could.

 

“Allow myself and my comrades to deal with the situation,” Byron said gruffly, motioning for Morek, Shoryu, James and Ellen to accompany him.  The remains of the company from Whitewood, armed and looking for some way to take out their frustrations at the loss of Selena Bradford and Alex the Ki Fairy in the battle with Tamriel, stalked solemnly towards the back of the amassed army.  Many of the enlisted men and officers stood to salute the company, and both Morek and James Hayes returned the gesture to the brave men and women, who were basically here because of them and their quest against Richard Vandross.  Many of them most likely belonged to other, smaller militias, ones that could approach Mount Toane unnoticed and better supplied.  But they had chosen to make Byron, Morek and Thaddeus Viper their champions; they would follow those three men, and Byron’s company, into the mouth of the Hells themselves if they had to.

 

Byron, unlike the Dwarven Boxer and Human Paladin, did not return the salutes of the men and women, but not for any reason against them; he felt unworthy of their admiration and trust, their commitment.  He was, after all, still a Dread Knight, an abomination in the name of the gods, in the sanctity of the living.  Despite whatever Voice told him, Byron felt himself to still be a monster; only the defeat of Richard Vandross at his own two hands would change that.  The company moved through the large, city-like camp of the army, nodding here and giving words of consolation and encouragement there.  Tales were being passed around the campfires of the Final Push battle like the words themselves were a communal water bucket, and everyone drank deeply of that water.  Though the body count had been high that day, it had led, inevitably, to the downfall of the house Sidius, and the warlock’s control would never rise again.

 

After about a half an hour of milling through the camp, the company from Whitewood found themselves looking at a small collection of young soldiers of many Races, all looking to be scared beyond all wit and reason. These young men hadn’t seen real combat until the attack by the Renka and his Khan.  Several were still bandaged and bleeding, others were jittering their teeth together nervously, but all of them had their eyes directed northwest.  They clutched their weapons, prepared their spells, and the air hummed with the deep vibration of animalistic brutality, fury, and fear boiling through their blood, into their bodies.  They were nervous, jittery, and liable to make lots of mistakes.  Byron knew, as did James and Morek that nervous young soldiers didn’t live long without someone to lead them, or to fill in for them.

 

Byron grabbed the largest, loudest speaking one of the groups, as they were all boasting about what they were going to do when the Khan arrived at the camp.  The Dread Knight wrapped a large knot of hair around his gauntlet and pulled the corporal’s head back, staring him in the face with his own undead countenance.  The young Human soldier was bent back over Byron’s left leg, his face turned suddenly from a fiery-red, intense scowl, to a blank-white sheet of terror.  The transformation didn’t take long. Byron chuckled softly under his breath.  “Haven’t the first clue how you’re going to deal with the tiger-men when they get here, have you?”  The low-ranking man nodded, as shallowly as was humanly possible, afraid, it seemed, that any large movements would get him killed.  In the Dread Knight’s current mood, it just might.  “I’ll take that to mean that yes, you have no idea.  Shove off,” he said, shoving the young soldier away from him.  “We’ll deal with this.”

 

Every member of the company began sorting through their weaponry, and in Ellen’s case, her available spells.  She was still mentally and spiritually exhausted, but she wanted to help the group as best she could, despite Shoryu’s protestations that she return to their tent to rest and stay safe.  “If I didn’t know any better,” she said coyly, “I’d say you were trying to take the dominant role in this marriage.”  Shoryu blushed beneath his fur, conceding to Ellen that he wouldn’t stop her if she truly wanted to join in the confrontation that was to come.

 

As Byron drew Morning Glory, he could sense the first of the Khan raiders coming down the slopes toward their position.  Byron made a simple hand gesture, and James Hayes sprinted around the supply area, dousing all of the torches that might reveal their positions.  While the Khan possessed a good sense of smell, they relied primarily on their eyes and ears for hunting and fighting.  Byron was establishing already an advantage over the oncoming raiders.  Firstly, he could still detect the presence of living things; secondly, he and his companions were prepared to fight in any conditions whatsoever.  He had a sneaking suspicion that this was not the case for the Khan.

 

As the darkness of night wrapped itself around the Dread Knight, the Paladin, the Boxer, the Hunter and the Gaiamancer, they took some small comfort in that encompassing blanket.  None of them could see the others’ faces, the calm, expectant expression that they all held.  Battle and conflict had become the meat of their existence, and they would never again, from this day, shy away from it.  The sounds of heavy footfalls coming down an unused pathway could be heard a short distance away, and Byron slunk into a nearby collection of bushes, trying to keep the Morning Glory’s light from being shone too brightly.  James Hayes stood his ground, broadsword in hand, held in a defensive posture.  Shoryu had taken up a sniper position on the highest hill near the army’s encampment, bow at the ready.  Morek moved forward next to James Hayes, cracking his knuckles as he took a defensive posture.  Ellen Daires remained at the back of the company, closest to nearby reinforcements.

 

The first of the Khan raiders crept along the path in a crouch, but to little or no effect.  The bright orange of his fur, broken only by the black of his stripes, showed his position to Byron.  The Dread Knight looked up towards the Cuyotai Hunter, who had an arrow trained on the lead Khan. His snout, however, was pointed down towards Byron, waiting for his leader to give the okay.  Byron raised his hand slowly into the air, and Shoryu retook his aim.  As soon as the Dread Knight could clearly make out the life signature of the other Khan raiders a short distance back from their point man, he closed his hand into a fist.  This he shook once, and the sharp, barely audible twang of an arrow being launched cut through the air.  While the shot itself was silent, the impact, explosion of magic, and screams of surprise and terror were quite uproarious.  Animalistic howls and cries of fury and shock ripped through the raider party, and, unbeknownst to them, a large Dread Knight with an enchanted, holy blade was about to leap from cover and assail them.

 

As Byron shot himself high into the air, the Morning Glory glinting in the reflected moonlight, James Hayes and Morek Rockmight sprang into action on the ground.  Byron came down with the Morning Glory, using his body weight, momentum, and timing to cleave one of the foremost Khan warriors clean in half, from skull to groin.  The two, evenly divided piles of bloody flesh and organs slid to the ground as though no bones had ever held it up.  As that Khan fell, James Hayes skewered one smaller tiger-man, and with his open palm blasted another with a surge of holy power.  Morek Rockmight ran like an unstoppable juggernaut through the ranks of the raiding party, dusting skulls and breaking breastbones and spines left and right.  By the time that Byron, Morek, and Shoryu finished with a minute of assaulting the raiders, Ellen had only to send a single boulder from the hills themselves to crush a pair of fleeing Khan.

 

Blood ran crimson and slick down Byron’s armor, James’s blade, and Morek Rockmight appeared to be a small golem made entirely of Khan life fluids.  The broken, ravaged bodies of the raiders lay in pools of their own damaged flesh and organs, broken skulls protruding from their faces. Several of them lay in dozens of chunks of meat from the magic explosions of Shoryu’s enchanted arrows.  None were recognizable as anything living. Byron and his company collected themselves together by the Dread Knight, who stood silently cleaning his blade.  They spoke not a word with one another; they had come to understand one another well enough after battles. James would want to pray and think on what he had done.  Morek would mentally tally the number of foes he had crushed.  Shoryu would attempt to figure out how his quiver never ran out of arrows, as well as cuddle for comfort with his wife, Ellen.  And Byron would do what he had been doing a lot lately; he would confer with Voice.

 

But at that moment, these activities were expected of the members of the company.  The creature not behaving as normal was far to the east, lost deep in thought in his secret chamber.

 

Molis couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t make himself form a cohesive pattern of thought.  Something deep in the bowels of the mountain rumbled, came to life.  While the half-demon couldn’t be certain of what it was, he knew where it was coming from; Richard Vandross.  The warlock’s presence was fluctuating in and out, as though he were in Mount Toane and yet not. Most likely, the warlock was preparing to teleport away from his lair.  How many would be going with him, Molis thought, gathering himself from the floor of his private chamber.  His armor clanged and scraped harshly as he rose from the ground, wondering further how many victims there would be this time.  The nearby villages had already been nearly eradicated, left barren and lifeless by the bloodlust of the warlock and his horde.

 

Only one target remained that could pose any sort of threat, and that was Ja-Wen.  Molis had utilized his limited capability to shape-shift, making himself appear as a battered Paladin, about a month before.  He had warned the citizens of Ja Wen after the first assault on their city that they should hold their forces in reserve, keep them hidden, as another threat might yet come along.  And now, he knew instinctively, that threat was about to go headlong into the city.  Molis looked over to the full-length mirror against the wall, taking notice of the way his eyes glowed yellow like a common demon.  He was not some common, bloodsucking Shadowbeast for the gods’ sake!  He was not the sort of monster that Vilec Roak had the potential to be.

 

Thankfully, he thought with a wicked grin, he had probably put an end to a lot of the Shadowbeast General’s plans.  By putting the Prime in his place, Molis had struck a chord of emotions that Roak had been completely unfamiliar with, he was certain.  Fear, the depth of which seemed to know no bounds now.  Twice since severing the Shadowbeast’s arm Molis had spied on him, felt the sheer panic and terror dwelling there.  However, Molis could sense that those fears had more than one base.  He himself stood as only one basis of Roak’s fear, and he had a pretty good idea what the other source was.

 

Colonel Molis checked himself over quickly, assuring himself that his weapons were strapped to his hips, his magic was readily available, and his armor showed no signs of its recent metamorphed form.  He had, the day before, gone through the Shadowrealm to the city of Desanadron, far in the west, to check on the state of rebuilding efforts there.  He had been pleasantly surprised.  The people of Desanadron were hardy folk, all of who had a great appreciation for hard work, especially when it came to their homes.  Not a single gold piece changed hands during the process, a friendly Elven woman had told him as he sat in the shade of a tavern patio.

 

“What do you mean,” Molis had asked, taking a sip of lemon water as he concentrated on retaining his metamorphed appearance as a young Knight.  The Elven woman, sitting in her simple yellow sundress, smiled invitingly at him, almost imploring him with her eyes to stay and speak at length with her.  The folk of Desanadron were also friendlier than most, it seemed.

 

“I mean, the Elves in the lumber yards don’t ask for money for their labors in making the wood for reconstruction.  The Dwarves aren’t charging anyone for their hard labor in putting the buildings together.  The Jafts do not charge any fee for their work in reworking the city walls.  And lastly, all of the supplies for the shops that require rebuilding are being provided by the traveling merchants who were trapped here when Richard Vandross and his horde attacked the city.”  The Elven woman took a sip of her fruit wine, delicately cupping the glass in her left hand, wiping the cherry colored lipstick from the rim of the glass.  Molis had not seen anyone so calm, so centered, in a very long time.

 

Likewise, he had not found himself so attracted to a woman since his acceptance of the demon’s offer of life.  Her form could be described as simply aquiline, all grace and smooth skin, flowing curves in all the right places.  Though her breasts did not appear large in her slim dress, Molis nevertheless found himself staring at them with a longing he had almost become unaccustomed with.  Shaking his head, his thoughts returned to what the woman had been saying.  He could hardly believe what she had told him.  Not a single coin had exchanged hands, in a metropolis that was known to run almost solely on cold, hard currency.  That such kindness and trust still existed in the mortal realm was almost unfathomable.

 

“So not a single person has been paid for their efforts,” Molis asked in a pleasant, Human voice.  “That’s almost too good to be true.”  He took another long pull of his lemon water, smacking his lips in the fashion that he had seen young men do when they drank such sweet drinks.  He felt awkward performing like this, but he had to do it if he wanted to remain unsuspected.

 

“That’s what everyone else thinks, too,” the Elven woman said with a sigh and a smile, finishing off her drink, and setting the glass down gently. She got to her feet, laid two silver pieces on the table next to her, and adjusted her dress.  The wind swept down the cobblestone streets, whipping her hair from around her long, pointed ears and into her face.  She laughed like a cherub for a moment, putting her hair back behind her ears and holding the bottom of her dress down, smiling at Molis in that kind, serene way she had spoken with him.  “Are you going to be in town long, good sir Knight?”  As she stepped down off of the patio steps, she turned to face him, her hands behind her back.  Molis was almost overpowered by his mortal urges, his want for pleasures of the flesh.  But the demon within spoke to him, warning that very soon his disguise would wear off, and this young Elf woman would be as horrified then as she was attracted to him now.  Molis wiped his brow, chuckled softly, and shook his head, tucking his chin into his chest.

 

“My apologies, my lady,” he replied, looking her square in the eyes for the first time since he had sat down next to her on the tavern patio.  “But I am only here today to check up on the status of the city’s reconstruction.  I am most pleased by what I see.”  The Elven woman raised an eyebrow at him questioningly.  She appeared to have come to a conclusion.

 

“Are you one of the new guys over at Fort Flag?  I heard there were a number of you boys coming to fill in the holes after the assault.”  Molis smiled coyly, glad to have a cover finally for his being here.

 

“Yes, I am.  I am Colonel M-” he began, stopping himself just in time.  Why was he telling this woman his name?  Why should she care? Why was he attracted to her?  A myriad of disturbing questions rose through his thoughts, and he quickly turned and sprinted away.  “Colonel Maelstrom,” he shouted over his shoulder, not pausing to look back, afraid now that the demon he shared his body with was going to become more hostile than imaginable if he stopped to look back one more time.  He had already become far too interested in the Elven woman than he should have been; after all, he was only here to see how Desanadron had recovered.  That much he had told her in truth.

 

And now he stood in his secret chamber, looking at the truth of what he was.  A half-demon, a freak of nature, an abhorrence that the mighty Oun would never forgive.  He shook his head sadly, aware now of what it must feel like for Byron of Sidius to get through his day to day life.  At least the Dread Knight had friends, Molis thought sourly.  The sort of company I keep, I’ll never have any friends, he thought.  Adjusting his weapons’ belt, he stepped to the barrier of his chamber, held up his right palm to the blue, shimmering field of light barring entrance, and conjured up the force to deactivate the field.  With a thrumming vibration, the field rippled and disappeared altogether, letting him out of the chamber.  As he stepped into the humid tunnel of Mount Toane, he turned around and brought up the field again, blocking anyone from entering.

 

His heavy metal boots rapping off of the stone tunnel floor, Colonel Molis stalked upwards toward the surface.  He was going to check on the status of Vandross’s forces.  At least, those that were still present.  A moment later, he felt a huge influx of magic surge through the ground over his head. Richard Vandross had just left, with about two hundred of his men.  They would be starting the assault on Ja-Wen shortly.

 

Another day, Byron thought, fairly miserable after a poor night’s sleep.  He had spent much of the time he should have used resting trying and failing to connect with Voice.  He had transported himself into the depths of the cemetery, the inner sanctuary of his soul.  There, he had called out for a good ten, twenty minutes.  After that he had simply taken a seat on a headstone, wondering when the Keeper would respond to his summons.  It didn’t appear, after a while, that it would.  Finally, however, just before Byron gave up and decided to get himself some sleep, Voice appeared to speak with him.  But it didn’t seem to be in a proper frame of mind to speak at length.

 

-Yes, Byron, I, speak to, you with,- it said when first it spoke from the darkness.  Byron looked into the sky over the cemetery, but saw nothing amiss.  Everything was in its proper place, and he could sense no malicious magics from any outside source.  What could be the problem?  Could something from outside of Byron’s soul even affect a Keeper in this fashion?

 

“Voice!  What’s wrong,” Byron had shouted to the abyss, jumping down from the headstone and scouring the cemetery for some visual sign of the Keeper.  As usual, there were none.  At least, none that would indicate that the Keeper was not the same.  Voice had only appeared to Byron in a physical form once, but all other times had come as simply an audible creature.  Hence why Byron had named him Voice.  The tone the Keeper had used a moment ago had fluctuated, starting with the soft, masculine whisper, but then rapidly jumping into a banshee screech and almost immediately down to an earth-rumbling bass.  Through that much, at least, Byron could tell that something worked against the Keeper and his best interests.  “What has happened to you,” he shouted, searching the cemetery’s landscape for some sign of change.

 

-WHAT, yoU, are TALkiNg, ByRon, aBouT,- it said, conversely shouting and whispering the different syllables out of contextual order. Byron began to jog, then sprint about the cemetery, looking into every tree, trying to decipher the script on the headstones.  But none of them had even a single name etched on them.  That much had also changed.  Why, he wondered again futilely.  Before he could make another inquiry, he felt himself slide into the normal dreams of a sleeping man.  Well, a sleeping whatever he could be called.  He had awoken unrested, discouraged, and in a fairly foul mood overall.  For the first ten minutes he was awake, Shoryu was trying to speak to him, but the young Cuyotai Hunter’s voice sounded more like a bothersome insect, the kind that waits until you’re totally still and about to fall asleep before it buzzes right into your ear.

 

Byron waved his hand dismissively at Shoryu, who knew better than to persist.  Despite not having any flesh or muscles on his skull, Shoryu had become well versed in the reading of the Dread Knight’s mood and disposition.  The young Cuyotai moved on to his wife and Morek Rockmight, who sounded as though they had struck up a conversation about the final outcome of their long and tiresome journey.

 

“Aye, lass, it shall indeed be a battle to remember,” Morek said to Ellen Daires as Shoryu joined them around a morning cooking fire.  The sun had not yet finished coming over the horizon, and Shoryu looked east into its brilliant yellow and scarlet light as it chased away the darkness of night. “Ah, young man,” the Dwarven Boxer said with a crooked smile and a twinkle in his eye.  “Decided to try and wake the beast did ye?”  Shoryu flopped down cross-legged next to his wife, giving her an affectionate lick on the cheek.

 

“Indeed, though I’m not certain I should have,” the Hunter sighed as the Elven girl giggled and wiped her cheek clean.  The tan fur on his forearms ruffled as the morning breeze blew through the army’s encampment.  “He seems in a mood most dire.  What were you and Ellen speaking of?”  The Dwarf chuckled slowly, almost thoughtfully.  Ellen, a very soft spoken but expressive woman, folded her arms and turned slightly away from Morek, the creased lines of her long-uncleaned green dress folding to accentuate the dirt and grime on it.

 

“We, ah, were discussing the seemingly endless string of wars that the mortal Races of Tamalaria get themselves into.  You know, Racial wars, tribal wars, inter-Racial wars, wars over territory, wars over religions, that sort of thing,” Morek said, poking at the contents of the frying pan that one of the soldiers had provided him with.  He was presently preparing a good-looking meal of bacon, eggs, wedges of cheese melted over and dried bread. Shoryu took a long sniff of the food, the fumes of sizzling foodstuffs filling his nostrils like an inviting hearth fire in a small cabin home.  A home much like Ellen’s.  Or rather, like their home, as it now would be.  He shook his head to clear his thoughts, and consider what Morek had said.

 

“And how do you feel about the subject, my dear,” he asked Ellen softly.  She scowled at Shoryu, a fierce look that the young Cuyotai Hunter had scarcely ever seen on her face outside of combat situations.  He almost fled the circle for sudden fear of his manhood.

 

“I believe you know my feelings well enough, husband,” she spat, more at Morek than at Shoryu.  “War is not a natural part of mortal existence in my opinion!  It is simply the invention of a bunch of primitive,” she nearly shouted, now looking Morek right in the face.  Oh boy, Shoryu thought.  I hope I don’t have to break up a fight here.  I’m rather ill equipped to do so!  “Blood-thirsty, or power-hungry hatemongers!  War is not an essential part of existence, or of history.  And that’s that,” she said, harumphing and crossing her arms in front of her ample chest.

 

So beautiful, Shoryu thought, even when she’s furious.  Morek sat there, not moving the pan an inch, and then bust out in a riot of gut-laughter that Shoryu feared might become suddenly contagious, like a plague.  The burly Dwarven Boxer set the pan down and rolled on the ground, pounding his fists to try to contain his hilarity.  Has he gone mad, Shoryu wondered.  But Morek sat up and became stone-faced almost as suddenly as he had gone into his little fit.  He readjusted his tan tunic and his enchanted gloves, staring at the married couple across the fire, the flames reflected in his small, brown eyes.

 

“And I tell you this, both of you, so that you may know a practical man’s point of view on the matter,” he said, his voice low and focused.  His eyes wavered only slightly, going back and forth to meet both Shoryu’s eyes and his wife’s.  The effect was slightly unsettling to the Cuyotai, giving Morek the facial appearance of a murderer.  “War is an essential, ingrained part of our mortal existence.  Without war, there is no clear-cut way to prove who is the superior man or woman.  There is no peace without violence to win it, protect it, ensure it.  There is no kindness in the world without a cruelty to make kindness necessary and beautiful.  Without war, without violence, we would not know kingdoms, city-states, nations, or empires. That is fact, pure and simple.”  Morek stopped his speech part way through in order to put the amalgamation of food into a large bowl to cool, throwing more ingredients in to make a second batch.  He set the pan down on the spit over the fire, and waited for one of the others to speak.

 

At this point, Byron and James Hayes had wandered over to hear the conversation.  Neither Morek or Ellen had spoken at great length of such matters, and the rest of the company that remained wanted to hear how things would turn out, and perhaps put in their own two cents.  Byron had, since Shoryu had left him, felt a little guilty about basically growling at the boy to leave him alone.  He wasn’t some pup he could dismiss any longer; he was a married man, and an accomplished archer, essential to the group’s survival.  He had been listening to the conversation since the middle of Ellen’s speech, and had kept his distance until now.  At the moment, however, Morek had paused, almost seeming to invite the Dread Knight to join.

 

James Hayes had been slumbering peacefully nearby, but the shouting of the Elf girl had roused him from his slumber.  He had managed to catch something about blood-thirsty beasts, and had taken a quick swig of water from his canteen before ambling over.  However, it was the harsh, stones-slamming-into-the-ground tone of the Dwarven Boxer that had brought him fully to, and Morek’s words had shaken him to the core.  Was this how Morek thought?  Or was this the attitude of all Dwarves, or Boxers? He decided to sit in during the pause as well, seeing that the hulking Dread Knight had apparently opted to do the same.

 

“Let us take, for example,” Morek began again, stirring the food with a poker.  “The Elven-Dwarven War.  Took place from the year three twenty-seven A.F. to the year four thirty-seven A.F.  In case you didn’t know, my friend, that whole conflict started when the Elven Kingdom’s patriarch, King Sedmon III, decided that he wanted his kingdom to stretch north to south across the entire western coast,” Morek said, his tone deadpan, devoid of humor.  But something lurked there, in the dark corners of that statement, in Morek’s tone; an accusation.

 

The Elves were among the longest-living creatures of Tamalaria, sometimes living as long as nine or ten centuries before age even began to touch upon them.  “Mind you, now, that King Sedmon III was nearly four hundred years old when he became king, and had seen the Fall of Mecha, lived through it.  He knew what the idea of expansion could do to a country that had already become fat and bloated,” Morek spat, stirring the food in the pan rather more brusquely than was necessary.  “But he decided on a course of action anyway, one that history tells us leads to bad things.  He sent platoons into the northern plains, into the area where Desanadron was slowly regaining a population and some semblance of order.  He ordered his troops to seize the city, by force if necessary.  Now, what sort of Elf does that?”  Morek waited a moment, but was met by only the sound of the rest of the army preparing their morning meal before packing up camp to move on.

 

“So,” the Dwarven Boxer continued, finishing off the meal preparations and divvying out the food to his companions.  Despite his obvious state of mind, he handed Ellen her plate across the fire, nearly putting his arm right in the flames.  Shoryu, Byron and James all sighed a silent sigh of relief; this was nothing personal for the Dwarf.  He was just venting, just trying to explain his view on the subject.  But man, thought the Cuyotai Hunter as he began to eat his meal, is he scary when he gets on a tangent.

 

“The King’s troops meet a little resistance, but they quickly and quietly take care of that little problem.  The city is occupied, the entire territory claimed as land of the Elven Kingdom, and the troops set up base. More platoons are deployed almost immediately, and go further north into Dwarven and Minotaur country.  Now, this is important,” he said, diving into his own meal for a few brief moments, eating like a savage, his cutlery and silverware be damned.  “When the first of the platoons reached the southernmost Dwarven settlement, they didn’t even wait for orders.  They sent in mage-warriors to destroy everything, kill every Dwarven man and woman of adult age, and loot the stores.  The children were orphaned, and told to go with a detachment back to Desanadron, where they’d have to live in an orphanage until someone took pity on them.”

 

This was a grim but accurate account of that part of Tamalaria’s history, Byron recalled.  He had poured over hundreds of historical texts as a young Knight in training, and even more so when he attained the title and magics of a Paladin.  The Elves, while one of Tamalaria’s most beautiful and noble of Races, had suffered their own dark period of history, one which most of their Race was deeply ashamed of.  That Major from Whitewood, Svelk, probably wasn’t among those humble enough to admit the Elves’ collective wrong in that era, the Dread Knight thought.

 

“Well, word spreads quick among my folk.  Our language, while it sounds gruff and horrid to most, is actually rather simple, allowing us to relay broad ideas and amounts of information in a short span of time or paper.  One of the survivors of the assault made it to Korgingal, the first large settlement in the southern ranges of the Dwarven Territories.  He told the elders and priests about the attack, and the message was immediately sent by messenger bird to all of our kinsmen.  When the brunt of the Elven army reached the first of the mountain ranges, near Korgingal, they were met by eleven-thousand angry, bitter Dwarves.  So confident in themselves were they that the Elves had only sent a force of two thousand.  Their mages and mage-warriors surely could handle simple mountain folk, right,” Morek asked, smiling and raising an eyebrow as he wolfed down the rest of his meal.  The other members of the company were handing their dishes to a nearby soldier to be cleaned.  The young Human saluted Byron, who returned it in kind, before sprinting away.  Morek must have appeared to be a raving lunatic to someone so green.

 

“Well, that’s what one would think.  But we Dwarves, though not terribly inclined to be mages, make great clerics.  We had magic of our own, magic to heal the wounded, protect the fighting, and frighten our enemies,” Morek cried as he got to his feet and clenched a single fist in front of him, pounding his chest with it.  “Our Knights, our Soldiers, our Boxers and our Berserkers went out into the fields, swords, axes, picks and gloves in hand, and slaughtered them wholesale as they attempted to cast their spells and maneuver for tactical strikes!  We lost five hundred fighting men and women, some of the cloth, most of the blade, but all two thousand of those Elven troops were dead or left to die where they laid!  Ha ha!  What a victory!”  Morek’s fierce and fiery smile slowly faded into a look of dismay, then to stone once more.  He sat down heavily on the tree stump he had used as a bench, both to sleep on and to sit on as he had cooked.  “We had hoped that King Sedman had learned his lesson; leave the Dwaves alone.  But no, he hadn’t.”

 

“That’s right,” Byron said, and all of the company turned their heads to look from Morek to the Dread Knight.  He stared into the fire as Morek had, losing himself in the flames.  The sun had fully risen, and the sounds of the rest of the army packing up camp gave him the sensation that he would have to hurry the tale along.  “He spent the next one hundred and ten years of his reign sending waves of troops at the mountains of the Dwarves.  The Dwarves began to suffer some casualties, and one particular battle saw them lose Korgingal.  But after that, they had enlisted the aid of the Minotaurs, and both Races joined together to beat the Elves all the way back to the Great Forest that is now their kingdom.  The Dwarves did not occupy Desanadron, did not set up outposts.  They simply beat the Elves back into their original territory, and harried them from their own borders from there.  King Sedman III went himself to the front lines in the last major battle of that terrible war, claiming that his might and magic could strike enough fear into the hearts of the Dwarves and Minotaurs to send them packing, even make them subject themselves to his rule.”  Silence enveloped the company.

 

“Then what happened,” Shoryu asked, his whisper expectant, anxious.  He had never heard of these tales, never known much outside of his home village about customs and history.

 

“When he gave the order to attack, he charged in with his men.  He misjudged the amount of time one of his spells would take to cast, and a Dwarven General split his head in half with a stone pick-axe.”  Morek smiled half-heartedly at that, but quickly lost his smile.  “The entire battle stopped then, before it had even began.  Only one man died, and it had been King Sedman.  That is why that battle was known as the greatest battle in the war.  Only one man had to die, and it was all over.  The battle, the war, everything.  The Elves were devastated, demoralized, and awakened to the terrible wrongness of the things they had done because their king had decreed that it must be so.  The soldiers of the Elven Kingdom dropped their weapons, and the Dwarves and Minotaurs turned and began the long march home.”  Byron tossed one last twig on the morning fire, watching as lower-ranking enlisted men packed up his company’s tents and belongings for them.  “The war was over.  The next morning, Sedman’s eldest son, Alarus, was named king, and he declared that as penance for starting a war they couldn’t win, the Elves would never rule anything more than the Great Forest.  Since that time, they have kept their word.”  The company stared at the Dread Knight with a soft awe, keeping their eyes on him as he rose and collected the remainder of his things.

 

It was going to be a long day.

 

The sun had risen over the horizon, spreading waves of orange and crimson, blood-tinted light.  Blood, thought Richard Vandross.  Now there’s something I need to see.  He stood atop a hill overlooking the city of Ja-Wen below him, while hundreds of Shadowbeasts and assorted Races of mages hunkered down, preparing to attack, behind him.  The one-eyed warlock drew his sword, holding the cutting edge toward the sky.  He plucked a single hair from his thick black beard, holding it high over the blade, staring down at the townsfolk with a fire in his eyes.  He looked back at his waiting deployment, searching their faces and eyes for the anxiety, the bloodlust, that would surely be building in them.  He would let them have their fun, very soon.  Vandross kinked his head to the left, looking at Vilec Roak, who approached as quietly as he could.  Any loud, sudden noise, and the city of Ja-Wen might be alerted to their presence.  It was taking enough of an effort on Vandross’s part to keep a barrier around the forces assembled in order to keep themselves from being detected.  Any loud noise would ruin everything.

 

As the Shadowbeast General got within a few feet, Vandross leaned in close.  “Spread the word, that when I give the forward signal, they may strike.  But the moment I send a bolt of lightning into the sky, they are to retreat to this position.”  Vilec Roak knew why Vandross would issue an order of retreat; he intended to use the Glorious Mother of Destruction on the city of Ja-Wen.  And nobody would want to be in front of that sort of power.  Nothing would survive, of that the Shadowbeast Prime was certain.

 

Vilec Roak nodded silently, sending the message to his kinsmen mentally, and to the rest of the deployment through whispered word of mouth.  The entire body of the forces shivered with anticipation once again. Vandross looked down at the city below him, removed the barrier, and dropped the beard hair.  As it slipped down to the blade’s edge, it split cleanly in half, and Vandross thrust his weapon forward.  Without a single word spoken, he sent his troops rampaging down the hill and into the city of Ja-Wen, battle-ready roars of fury rending the air.  The townspeople panicked, running this way and that, the few city guards present barely able to raise their weapons before the slaughter had begun.  Vandross himself sauntered down the hill slope, easing his way into the city streets to witness his forces’ handiwork.

 

What he found was somewhat disturbing.  The bodies of civilians and guards lay about, but not in nearly the high concentration that a city like Ja-Wen should yield.  He had expected a much greater force of resistance as well.  Something, he knew instinctively, was terribly amiss. The main force of Ja-Wen’s standing army was probably already holed up underneath the city surface.  And rather than waiting for one of his men to stumble upon a way to the forces of Ja-Wen, he thought with a widening grin, he would tear the ground itself asunder.  He thrust his right palm toward the sky, pulling energy from the center of his being, drawing on some of the reserves available within Power, Vengeance, Spite and Deceit.  He shot a single, steady stream of brilliant, yellow lightning into the skies over his head.

 

Vilec Roak, understanding the signal and what it meant, screamed the command to pull back, and thankfully, the troops listened.  Nobody was eager to see the power of the Glorious Mother of Destruction.  Turning and sprinting up the slope of the hill skirting the edge of Ja-Wen, Vandross felt dozens of his minions brush against them in their bid to stay out of the line of fire.  As soon as he gained the summit of the hill, Richard Vandross turned and faced the city.  Hundreds of the surviving citizens and guards had begun to assemble in the middle of the city, still pinpricks at their position in Vandross’s view.  He didn’t care to see their faces, know their exact numbers; all he wanted to see was their blood fly across the landscape.

 

Slowly, like a symphony conductor preparing to stand to full height and begin his orchestration, Vandross rose to full stature.  His hands rested against his sides, palms open, flat against his chain mail greaves.  He had not been shown the movements for this ceremony, but he knew it, felt it within his soul.  A deep, malicious burning sensation, buried in his chest, scouring away every last trace of mercy, of sympathy, of weakness.  The dust and stones, rocks and scrub grass began to wave and sway back and forth, as a light wind began to blow in a huge circle around the city of Ja-Wen, its origin rooted in Vandross himself.  The scent of sulfur filled the air, and all of the warlock’s men shuffled further away from him than they had before. The sound of stone grinding on stone slowly, gently rose into a deafening crescendo as the wind whipped through the area faster than before, blowing the one-eyed warlock’s flat-topped hair about his head.  His black cloak flapped madly about him, a bat struggling to free itself from its perch.

 

Not lifting his feet even an inch, Richard Vandross slid his feet apart, inch by inch, scraping the dirt with his heavy metal boots.  His knees bent, and he thrust his hands out before him, the palms open, facing the sky.  His mouth opened, and crimson and violet light poured from his throat, his head bent down to look at the tearing, shaking ground under his feet.  His elbows locked at his sides, pressed against his ribs, translucent cords of aquamarine force flowing around his arms, his hands, his every fingertip.

 

Sulfur burned in every living creature’s nostrils within a ten mile radius, blending seamlessly with the stench of burning flesh.  A hoarse, demonic roar escaped along with the streaming light that poured from Vandross’s mouth now, a thick, raspy call of rage and ecstasy.  Several of the Illeck mages behind the warlock dropped dead where they stood, their life force flowing from their chests and into Vandross’s back.  Vilec Roak, in a state of panic fused with rationality, ordered his Shadowbeasts to shadow-walk back to Mount Toane.  He followed after them a moment later, taking one last look back at Richard Vandross.  I hope this kills you, the Shadowbeast Prime thought bitterly.

 

The power, Vandross thought in crazed wonder.  He clamped his teeth together as the light ceased to flow from his mouth, rising from his half-crouched position, clenching his hands into shaking fists.  As he approached a complete standing position, he hefted his glowing, throbbing fists over his head; the odor of burning flesh permeated the air further, choking and gagging many of the remaining inhabitants of the city of Ja-Wen.  For a moment, Vandross’s eyes flared with burning fury; in that one, perfect moment, he could see every one of them, taste their fear, smell the sweat and urine on their clothes, on their skin.  He could feel the sands of their life emptying into the bottoms of their individual vials.  The Reaper would have his work cut out for him this morning, Vandross thought with glee.

 

Richard Vandross howled, the demon within released, the Glorious Mother of Destruction writhing within his soul in a quasi-orgasmic fit.  The warlock slammed his clenched fists into the ground, and watched as a wave of translucent violet and blue energy wrapped around his body, thickening like a wall of magical protection, laced here and there with streaks of yellow power, shaped like screaming, flaming skulls.  His entire body shook with convulsions, his body nearly tearing itself apart.  The pain shot through him like quicksilver, flowing over his every nerve, his every bone, muscle and organ.  Finally, unable to contain it anymore, he shrieked in agony, and saw the wave of energy blast forth from his personal ring in a circumference, tearing apart everything it came in contact with.  The buildings of the city of Ja-Wen started instantly ablaze, exploding and flying apart moments after catching fire.

 

A fragment of a skull struck Vandross across the back of his left leg, and he turned and picked it up.  He recognized the slain servant as soon as he sought out the body.  A high ranking Human mage he had employed for his Q Magic skills.  Oh well, he thought, salivating at the sights and smells of the carnage around him.  The energy ripped the body of the Q Mage apart further still, spraying bits and pieces here and there over the area.  The ground trembled, crumbling apart around him, sending boulders flying through the air from the sudden tension applied by the ground’s destruction.  The warlock could hear the agony-riddled shrieks of the dead and dying in the city of Ja-Wen, and could feel the soft whimper of children crying their last mortal breathes into the bosoms of their soon to be decapitated mothers and fathers.  Blood ran through the streets like tributary streams into a river, draining into the sewer access grates laid throughout the city.

 

Vandross clenched his right fist against his chest, and raised it to the sky.  He looked back for his own men and women, but found that only a small handful had avoided the lethal effects of the Glorious Mother of Destruction.  Those few were already heading for Mount Toane on foot.  He should have let them go, he knew, but something inside of his soul urged him to kill them as well, and mount their heads on pikes and spears, as an example to the others of what happened to deserters.  Without control over himself, Richard Vandross flicked his fingers in their direction, snaring them with entrapment spells.  He sauntered up to their struggling forms, and disemboweled each and every last one of them, letting their innards spill on the dust and dirt.  Let them die slowly, he thought.  Yes, that seems fitting.

 

Richard Vandross had no true idea how much damage he had caused, and at the time, it didn’t matter.  He felt suddenly very weary and weak.  He used the last bit of his available magic to teleport himself back into his bed inside of Mount Toane.  He had slain over eight hundred people, in a matter of six, perhaps seven minutes.  As for the farmland that had been struck by the energy wave, well, no one would be able to grow anything there for at least thirty years or so.  As Vandross lay on his bed, reveling in the vast amounts of fear and pain still coming his way, he fell asleep, comforted like a child.

 

He never saw the glowing yellow eyes in the shadows, or whom they belonged to.

 

The sky overhead swelled with clouds as gray as wolf’s fur, and a single shaft of crimson and midnight power shot into them.  Byron could see this from the distance he and the army were at, and he knew immediately what that power was; the Glorious Mother of Destruction.  He had witnessed Tanarak of Sidius use it once, during his time in the warlock’s service.  It was an awesome and terrible power, to be certain, and whomever Vandross had just used it on was sure to be dead.  Even if there had been men and women nearby…

 

Ja-Wen, he thought, almost coming to a complete stop as the others of his company surged ahead of him.  If Vandross had managed to ensnare their army before they could arrive at Mount Toane, then the forces that he currently led would have no allies in the upcoming siege.  That would make things more difficult than he had previously known them to be.  The Dread Knight put the spurs to himself, sprinting forward to catch up to his company, casting his gaze back and forth among them.  They had all witnessed the same power, in the distance, and it still reflected in their eyes. They all knew what it was; they knew it was the final power of the one-eyed warlock.

 

The army came to a halt around noon, in order to rest up and get something to eat.  The provisions were beginning to run low, so Shoryu took a small handful of Elven Hunters with him into the nearby flats and woodland to hunt for edible game and fruits.  Morek Rockmight set about trying to rally his Dwarven and Minotaur troops, telling long, Dwarvish jokes and a few well-known Minotaur favorites.  Ellen Daires sat on a flat patch of grass and meditated, mentally gearing herself up for the near confrontation she would be involved in at Mount Toane.  Hers was a magic not often used for straight combat or killing; she had to adjust her mental attitude.  And as Byron stalked like a wraith at hunt through the ranks of the army, he saw James Hayes standing in a circle of the few clergymen that accompanied the militia, talking over matters of faith and belief.

 

How many have died, Byron thought as he approached his officers, who had joined together in a small camp circle to discuss battle strategies and formations.  How many, since Richard Vandross had begun this conquest, his collection of the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent and consolidation of power?  How many had died, suffered, lost family and friends?  How many sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, would the warlock kill before he was satisfied?  How much terror did he need to instill in the lands of Tamalaria before he would be done?  It didn’t matter, he decided.  These were just questions he felt he needed an answer to in place of a corpse.  He stepped right up to the circle of officers, who all stood straight and saluted as he entered their group.  He returned the salute with a snap, an authority and sincerity he hadn’t fully felt before.

 

“Report,” he said, looking to his senior man.  The Major looked around at the surrounding troops, made a grimace through his half-faced helmet, and turned back to the Dread Knight.

 

“My lordship, several of the men have reported seeing strange creatures tracking us.  Shadowbeasts, from the way they are described. Also, my lord, I believe some of us have seen an outsider in our very ranks.” Byron tried to raise an eyebrow, failed, and waved his hand in a circular motion in order to indicate he wanted to hear more.  “My lord, I have seen this creature as well.  He is tall, dark-spirited, and has an all silver, shimmering suit of armor.  His face, however, is indistinguishable.  None of us have seen it.”  Byron knew who they were referring to; the half-breed, Molis.  He had been the only member of Vandross’s army that Byron intended to spare once he had spoken at length with him.  Edgar Cesar, he almost said, thinking back on those last few moments before he and the Human Knight had parted ways.

 

“If you see him again,” Byron said, standing straighter than before. “Do him no harm.  Approach with your hands open and at your sides.  His name is Molis, and he is in a strange position.  Tell him that he should seek me out, if he would speak with me,” Byron said, already sweeping the ranks of the officers with his pinpoint lights.  The half-demon, silver full-plate armor and all, was standing only about twenty yards away, somehow totally unnoticed by the regulars around him.  If he had been seen, Byron thought with a wry smile, he most likely had himself disguised from them all.  Yet, the Dread Knight could make out almost every detail from his current distance, from the slightly off-angled tip of his helmet’s face guard, down to the scuff marks on his huge silver boots.  A lucky thing that Shoryu isn’t here, he mused.  The Cuyotai would have gone berserk in the presence of so much silver, lethal as it was to him.  But the Cuyotai Hunter hadn’t protested to the half-demon’s proximity in the mountains, so Byron signaled with his left hand for Molis to come over and join them.

 

When the half-demon approached the back-most ranks of the officers, a chill shot through the air, as serpentine as venom through the bloodstream of a bite victim.  “By Oun’s grace,” one of the officers muttered as she shook with cold, her teeth starting to chatter together.  Molis stalked forward, and all of the mortals, Elves, Humans, and the smattering of Dwarven and lycanthrope officers present, cleared a path for him.  He exuded the same sort of presence that the Dread Knight did, one of leadership, strength, and something otherworldly.

 

However, his aura was different from Byron’s in one, very noticeable and essential way.  While Byron’s presence instilled courage and respect in the hearts of those around him, Molis’s inspired aggression and fear. Everyone around him suddenly turned on edge, hands on weapons, not quite ready to draw.  Byron had told them to withhold, and so they did, for the moment.  One false move on the half-demon’s part, however, and the Dread Knight knew that his officers would turn on him.  In the end, Molis would probably kill them all, or at least maim them beyond reasonable healing.  Regardless of what would happen, he had to be in the moment, focus on the now.  Nobody made a move except for Molis, who had stalked forward, closer to Byron with every passing moment.

 

But Byron felt no malice in those strides, saw no hatred in the gimlet, yellow eyes deep in the shadows of the creature’s helmet.  Instead, he felt a calm coming from the half-breed, a centering much like his own.  Molis came to a halt several yards away from Byron, knelt down, and drew his sword, which blazed with yellow power.  Molis held the weapon from the underside, his palms flat and open, as if offering the sword to the Dread Knight.  Byron gave a low chuckle; this was how he and Edgar Cesar had first met, when he accepted the Knight’s request to join the Order of Oun. Byron reached down, plucking the sword from Molis’s hands.  He watched as Molis lowered his head, keeping his hands up.  Byron swung the sword of the half-demon through the air a couple of times, then placed it back on Molis’s hands.  The half-demon sheathed his weapon and stood to full height, coming only an inch or two short of meeting Byron eye-to-eye.  I always was a little taller, Byron mused internally.

 

“Lord Byron Aixler, you know that my position is perilous,” Molis began, speaking in a strange twin harmony, his old, mortal voice chiming partially through the rough, raspy growl of the demonic nature of his body. “I come to offer what little aid I may.  Richard Vandross has used the Glorious Mother of Destruction on Ja-Wen.  Their militia was just far enough away to avoid damage, but the city itself was nearly turned to nothing but rubble.  A mystic barrier helped alleviate some of the destruction, and the city’s leaders were prepared for an attack.  I warned them not long ago to leave, as did their city elders.  But the civilians and many of the guard refused to budge.  ‘Better to die bravely, in our own home, than to scurry away and let it fall undefended,’ they said.  I am sorry, my lordship,” Molis said, hanging his head.  “I failed in even the small task of saving them.”  Byron placed a huge, heavy hand on the half-demon’s epaulet, and felt the regret and pity of Edgar Cesar surfacing.  The Knight had never been one for bloodshed, unless it was strictly militia.  Every soldier expected to be harmed in combat, but civilians and simple constables should not suffer so, he had said once.  Byron patted his shoulder a couple of times, holding him in place.

 

“You did everything you could, old friend,” he whispered, pulling the half-breed close to speak privately with him.  “Sometimes, it is the valor and courage of simple townsfolk that makes the biggest difference in war.  They feared no evil, feared no pain or death.  They gave their lives for their beliefs, for their homes, for their families.  Their sacrifices were not in vain.  Now,” he said, pushing Molis slightly away, speaking louder, indicating he had a question to ask that was on everyone’s mind.  Molis stood board-straight and stiff, easing rather quickly back into the role of the right-hand man. “We need to know everything you’re willing to tell us about the warlock before we arrive at Mount Toane.  Any small detail could prove very useful, and vital to our efforts.”

 

“Well, my lord,” Molis said, clearing his throat.  James Hayes, Morek Rockmight, and a handful of Paladins were approaching the officers’ circle, Byron saw, and their presence was likely making the half-demon uncomfortable.  Byron waved his hands over his head, gaining Hayes’s attention.  The Human Paladin sprinted over to the Dread Knight, who asked him to waylay the other Paladins if he could for a bit.  Hayes saluted, gave Byron a wink of understanding when he recognized the half-demon from the mountains, and headed off with his kinsmen and the confused Dwarven Boxer.

 

“My thanks.  First of all, and most importantly, were any of you aware that there is more than one way into Mount Toane?”  Byron nearly broke his neck whipping his head around to stare in shock at what Colonel Molis had just said.  All of those years in Tanarak’s service, and he had never learned of a single way in or out but the main passage!  Yet this half-demon, who had once been his dearest friend, had discovered a way?  It didn’t matter, he thought, shoving his pride and concern away.

 

“How certain are you of this entrance,” he asked, slowly, calmly. “How many others know of it?”

 

“None know of it, except for me,” Molis said, and Byron could hear the grin forming in Molis’s tone.  There, in the shadows, for just a moment, the Dread Knight could see the face of his old comrade and right hand man. Edgar Cesar, tactician extraordinare!  “Simply because, well, I just made it. Let me tell you how it works,” the half-demon said, and went on to explain the workings of his own, secret passage.  This war had just taken a turn, Byron thought, listening with a giddy anticipation.  And for once, it’s in our favor.

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