Selena Bradford had held up better than many in the company could expect on the following day.  The woodlands they passed through were dense and well covered with the high boughs of the maples that grew everywhere in thick stands, but they could not entirely keep out the torrential downpour that struck the mid-southern ranges of Tamalaria.  Her magical nature should have rendered her powerless due to the soaking conditions, but she managed to keep both her spirits up and her magic flowing through constant use.  She kept her body layered in an aura of superheated temperature, evaporating the raindrops a few inches before they struck her delicate skin or tough, crimson robes.

 

Yet, unbeknownst to even her closest companions, her inner thoughts haunted her at every turn.  Every step further she marched with the army, now grown in size further from troops joining in from nearby villages and towns, including Bael and a few score of his Lizardmen, she felt certain she was getting closer to her own demise.  It was a sensation that she had felt vaguely during the assault on Desanadron, but the feeling had subsided when Byron and his company joined in the effort.  Now, her fate seemingly lay right before her, spelled out quite clearly, but at such a distance as not to be discernable.  The freezing rain and constant dampness did not add or detract at all from this inner sensation.  Not even the eager gait of the soldiers all around her contributed to her mental condition.  It came from within, from deep in the recesses of crimson fury that were so much a part of her being.

 

For as long as she could remember, fire had been her only friend. Her mastery of Pyromancy had come early, as she had told the others, but her powers had become who she essentially was.  They defined her as much as her name identified her as a living being.  In her adolescence, she had strayed from social circles, never truly settling in with any friends or loved ones because the lure of her magic called so strongly to her.  By the age of twenty, she had completed her own tome of spells, discovered through constant experimentation.  By the age of twenty-one, she had traveled across and seen almost all there was to see in the west of Tamalaria.  Yet one thing she had never seen, was war.  Sure, she had been in her fair share of confrontations, leading adventuring parties into dangerous and unknown territory, plundering secret temples and dungeons beneath the surface of the earth.  But war on this large a scale was something she had never been prepared to deal with; that, and the idea that she now had not just allies, but friends.  People who had become involved in her life for reasons that seemed to stem from more than having a common foe.

 

Byron, she thought.  He, of all of the company, she understood the least.  He was a Dread Knight, no matter how she looked at him.  The tales of his savagery under the control of Tanarak had persisted in her mind from the moment she met him, yet she could do and say nothing about it.  He did appear to be in this for the right reasons, and there had been changes in him, both obvious and subtle.

 

Shoryu Tearfang, she mused, looking over at the young Cuyotai Hunter as he strode hand-in-hand with his wife, the Gaiamancer Ellen Daires.  A werecoyote and an Elf, she thought with a grin.  Who’d have thought it could be?  Shoryu appeared to her to possess a singular determination that she admired in one so clearly inexperienced in the world and its many ways of life.  That he should find true love, if it were so, after losing so much at the hands of Richard Vandross, allowed her a small measure of pity and admiration both for the young man.  Ellen Daires, of course, came to her mind next.  So gentle, so calm, yet so fragile at the same time.  Her power over earthen magic was nearly a match for her own over fire, but Ellen was not meant for such conflict.  That much was clear to Selena in the way the Elven girl maintained such a death grip on her husband’s furry hand.

 

Morek Rockmight came alongside Byron for a moment, and the two began exchanging words quietly.  As the Human Pyromancer looked at the stout, rough-hewn brawler, she had to stifle a small laugh.  So much courage and tenacity, so much strength, for one so small, she thought.  The Dwarven Boxer moved and fought with a frankness and directness that deeply reflected his own taciturn personality.  A few well-aimed punches from those enchanted gloves he kept around, and even Shadowbeasts turned to smoldering, bleeding piles of refuse in a moment’s time.  But he was not the smallest of them all, of course.

 

There was Alex, the Ki Fairy, whose sarcasm and razor wit had kept her good company in the last few weeks’ time.  He alone seemed to appreciate her brand of humor, and often played off of her own jokes with his.  He was clever and crafty, and capable of much more than she figured most would attribute to him.  And lastly, there had been James Hayes, whom she had met before all of them.

 

She recalled the crestfallen look that hung over his features like a death shroud when first he had received word of Fort Flag’s utter destruction.  Byron and his company had not yet arrived to lend aid, and the systematic defense and assault on the city of Desanadron had been going on for two and a half days.  A scout had returned from his survey, as requested by the Paladin, and she herself had been standing near the steps of the library, going over defensive movements for the soldiers of the city with a Jaft Sergeant.  The blue-skinned humanoid had turned his bald head to watch the scout approach Hayes, but he must have seen something in the scout’s movements that told him to stay well away from the Paladin; he was going to take the news hard.  Selena had gone silent, and watched as the stern, warrior-like face of James Hayes had transformed for a few moments’ time into something so pitiable that it had made her want to weep for him. So many of his brethren slaughtered, while he had been trapped within the magical barrier erected around Desanadron.  But he had regained his composure, if only for a few minutes, to reply to this news.

 

“Sacrifices must be made in the name of mighty Oun, our great god. We all knew the risks our titles and order would entail.  I thank you, Martin,” he had said, returning a salute from the scout.  “Now go see the healers. They shall tend to your wounds.”  As soon as the scout had darted away, Hayes had marched stoically into the nearby church, a temple erected for the worship of Oun.

 

Selena had crept to the large, ivory doors, and listened as Hayes sobbed and wailed up near the altar.  “Why, oh great Oun?!  How could our faith and service come to this?  How have we betrayed you?  Why have you let so many of your own followers perish like this?!  It isn’t fair,” he had screamed, standing to his feet and striking the altar with the butt of his broadsword.  “Why?!”  He had raged and moaned, alternately, for nearly an hour before he got up from his knees next to the altar.  Selena had ducked off, out of sight, so as not to be caught eavesdropping.  James Hayes hadn’t been the same since that afternoon.  His faith had been shaken to its very core, but he seemed to recover some from his travels with the Dread Knight and his company.

 

But he was not the last, she recalled.  Oh no, there was also poor David Spore, the one-armed Monk.  The moment he had become involved with the company personally, Selena had seen that he was doomed.  Skilled though he was, he did after all only have one arm to work with.  And he was a trusting soul, trusting enough to let an assassin close enough to deliver the killing blow.  But they had all trusted the Lizardman assassin, and the blame for Spore’s death lay with all of them, the group as a whole.

 

“Selena,” a dark, rumbling voice said near to her.  She shook her head to clear her thoughts, and saw Byron only a few feet away, concern somehow reflected in those twin orbs of glittering yellow light.

 

“I’m fine,” she snapped, rather more brusquely than she had intended.  “I’m just thinking about what lies before us.”

 

“Aren’t we all,” the Dread Knight replied cryptically.  Without another word, he moved away from her, back toward Prime Minister Viper and Morek Rockmight.  Had he seen it too, she wondered.  Had Byron felt the same disturbance that she had?  She didn’t know, and now, more than ever, she wanted to speak to the mysterious undead warrior.  But Byron kept his distance, like a con man who has spotted an undercover constable.  The army marched on, further into the forest, and she returned to simply following, building her magical force within her.  Before the day was through, she would need all the energy she could muster.

 

If Richard Vandross intended to send them to their deaths, Tamriel and Amon agreed, they would not leave the mad warlock their own people for his further designs.  Tamriel, after having been rather bluntly dismissed, stormed through the tunnels of Mount Toane, swinging his huge, ursine arms at every Shadowbeast and Illeck that came within reach.  The Shadowbeasts, for the most part, suffered only minor injuries, which they recovered from almost immediately.  The Dark Elves, however, did not fare so well.  Eight had to be rushed to healers right away, and nearly a dozen more perished where they landed against the rock walls.  Tamriel, leaving a wake of congealing and wounded soldiers and magic users behind him, took himself directly to the outside of Mount Toane’s entrance, to the western front of the towering mountain.  There, First Lieutenant Amon was drilling his Khan soldiers adamantly, taking them through combat drills specifically designed for mass combat situations.

 

It was a curious exercise, and for a moment, Tamriel stopped in his tracks.  Two Khan, armed only with their claws and fangs, wearing simple chain mail, stood in the center of a circle of nearly a hundred other Khan, who were all heavily armed.  Three of these circles swirled and flowed as the training combat ensued, the pair in the middle of the circle forced to defend themselves from all sides, under nearly impossible odds.  But the Khan, though they were not true lycanthropes, had a decent regenerative system; none of the troops were slain in the exercise, merely rendered unconscious. Though the conditions appeared quite brutal, Tamriel understood the logic of them.

 

If ever Amon’s personal troops found themselves completely outnumbered, they would take down a large number of enemies before they themselves fell to their wounds.  Of course, he added as a mental side-note, none of them appeared to be using magic of any sort, which would be present where they were going.  Lowering his lumbering head and sighing deeply, he set his back straight and stamped toward the Khan Lieutenant, who stood apart from the circles, his steel half-plate armor glinting in the fading sunlight.  As Tamriel came within ten feet, Amon’s ears pricked up, and he spun on his heel, sword drawn.  Seeing the Major, he sheathed his weapon and whipped off a quick salute, which Tamriel returned with haste.

 

“Amon, there is no more time for formalities.  We have been given orders from lord Vandross,” the Renka boomed, his deep, throaty voice echoing across the field.  The mock combat continued uninterrupted.  “At dawn’s first light, he is going to create a large teleportation rift, and we two are to lead two full battalions through to confront the army that marches towards us,” he said, a hint of anger in his tone.  Amon stared at him, dumbstruck.

 

“Only two battalions,” the Khan rasped, incredulous.  “But the scout estimated the opposing forces to be a full five battalions in strength!  Even my personal units here will not be enough for the task!  And none of these men, proud and noble warriors though they may be, have what it takes to stand against a magical assault!”  Tamriel gave Amon a smirk.

 

“That is why we shall take three battalions.  One of the Illeck sorcerer units shall accompany this battalion,” Tamriel boomed, nodding his head to indicate the surging groups downhill from him.  “And I shall bring a full complement of Shadowbeast and Human troops, along with my brothers. Combined, the three battalions should be able to hold off Byron and his army for long enough to do serious damage!  Then, when Vandross sees how effective we have been, he shall open the rift once more, for us to return to Mount Toane.  Surely he is not so far gone in his madness that he won’t see the wisdom in such a maneuver!”

 

Amon agreed with a grunt and a nod, then turned to his troops and gave out a ferocious roar.  The surging masses slowed to a standstill, then swarmed again as Amon raised his left hand in a fist, one finger pointing skyward.  They were forming ranks and rows for marching, donning their armor and weapons as they moved.  Tamriel admired their structure and practiced movements for a moment, awed at the sight of so many brutal warriors brought under the command of a single Khan.  Amon surely deserved better than his current rank, the Renka thought, but the Lieutenant had been adamant about leading only his own people, his own Race.

 

Vandross likely wouldn’t raise him in rank due to this particular request, but Amon didn’t seem to care so much about titles and ranks, or privileges.  All he wanted was war, and Tamriel understood quite well the Khan’s reasoning.  He had been a Chieftain in his tribe, undefeated in combat; he saw his own people as superior to anything that lived in Mount Toane.  He may have been right.

 

Tamriel took his leave and marched straight back into Mount Toane, locating Sergeant Robin after a sweeping search of the inner tunnels and chambers.  He found the Beastmaster and mage in a large, spherical chamber high up in the mountain, where few of the troops ventured.  Not even Vandross appeared to care much for the upper tunnels and chambers of the mountain, and so it made the perfect place for the mages of his army to concentrate and train.  Several Human soldiers and stray Lizardmen, those who had not joined Bael when the former General had been left behind to die, stood about, getting spells locked onto their weapons and armor.

 

Robin, with a keen eye for anything larger than himself, came straight over to Tamriel from his meditation mat, a scowl darkening his already shadowy face.  “What brings you here, Major?  Can’t you see we are, for the most part, occupied?”  Tamriel growled deep in his throat, and watched with satisfaction as the much smaller man backed away a step, his right hand drawing back into a fist.  He wouldn’t strike Tamriel physically, the Renka knew.  He would surely have a spell prepared, but he would need a few moments to cast it, and with Tamriel being less than an arm’s length away, he felt sure the mage wouldn’t risk having his throat crushed.

 

“Be at ease, Sergeant,” Tamriel said, putting his hands up in the ‘no trouble’ pose.  “I come late in the evening, I know, but I must commandeer one of your units for tomorrow morning.  We leave through a rift, at Vandross’s command, to attack the marching army that threatens.  You shall choose only those you think to be competent, but by no means send your very best.  Some exceptional magicians would be nice, though.”  Robin raised an eyebrow at him, standing straight.  “You do not have a choice in the matter, Robin.  If you refuse me, I shall tear out your spine and leave you a loose collection of bones and organs,” Tamriel threatened, smiling the whole while.  He saw his own teeth reflected in the little man’s eyes, and saw that to a lesser, mortal being, it must have been terrifying.

 

“O-of course,” Robin stammered, skittering away like a cockroach when a torch is lit in a filthy kitchen.  He sprinted out of the main chamber, and Tamriel gazed about the room at the assembled mages there.

 

These men and women, unlike the rest of the army, wore no uniforms, or any insignia on their personal garb that would indicate rank. Then again, perhaps it would be best this way, he thought.  After all, the rank they might be assigned by officers in Vandross’s army might not even reflect their true power or intellect.  Surely there was a huge disparity between the half-breed, Colonel Molis, and General Vilec Roak.  Tamriel had been touched by Molis’s power; it shone above all others in Mount Toane. When he had confronted the Colonel, up in the northwestern mountains, he had been spared his life; he knew, however, that Molis could have wiped him off of the face of the mortal coil without effort.  How he accepted the role of only Colonel while one such as Roak remained General was beyond him. Then again, he thought, Roak is cunning and quite sly, even by Shadowbeast standards.

 

Robin returned just then, with nearly fifty Human and Illeck mages trailing after him, their robes of all materials and colors, like a shimmering rainbow of mystical force.  Tamriel could feel the magic flowing off of them, and from the look of several of them, they had been training in combat magic with one another.  “Here they are, Major.  Forty-six of my mages, awaiting your orders.  I have apprised them of the situation,” Robin said, swallowing hard.  “Some chose to remain above.  They said that their powers would be best suited to the defense of Mount Toane.”

 

“Good enough,” Tamriel barked curtly.  “All right, all of you,” he said, thrusting a large, hairy finger at the unit assembled.  “Get some rest.  I’ll be coming to collect you first thing in the morning.”  After that, he had gone off to his own large chamber to speak with his brothers, who had agreed hastily to join him.  They had become rather bored in the mountain, and were hungry for the taste of blood and flesh.  He had gone off to his own cot to sleep then, to rest up for the following morning.

 

And now he stood outside of the mouth of Mount Toane, Richard Vandross off to one side of him, preparing to open the rift that would send them through to meet with Byron of Sidius’s army.  Vandross made no comment about the mages; after all, Amon had placed them cleverly throughout his own men, with a handful positioned strategically in Tamriel’s battalion.  As the rift opened, Tamriel let out a battle cry that echoed across the plains, and led the battalions through the rift.  As the opening in space clamped shut, Vandross sagged slightly towards the ground, but found that a cold, steel plated arm was helping him back to his full height.  He turned to find Colonel Molis standing there, his strange, shadowed eyes peering out from the darkness of his helmet.  Vandross shrugged the arm off, dusting himself down as the sun rose over the horizon.

 

“My lord, it is folly to send them after Byron’s army.  The Lizardman Bael has been spotted by several of my spies, leading a large force north to intercept and join the Dread Knight’s forces.  That was several days ago. Tamriel and Amon’s battalions, and the mage unit they tried to sneak through with them, are going to be utterly destroyed.”  Vandross chuckled merrily for a moment, patting Molis on his shoulder plate as he stalked toward Mount Toane.

 

“I know, Colonel, I know!  My own scouts reported the same sighting shortly before your men returned to inform you!  Indeed, they’ll be destroyed, but they’ll also take down a nice chunk of Byron’s army.  Of that much, I am very certain.”  Molis stared after the mad warlock for a moment, sprinting to catch up to him.

 

“And what of Sergeant Robin, my lord?  Did he not betray you by sending magic users with Tamriel, when you clearly ordered the Renka to take only two battalions?”  Vandross spun on his heel, his face twisted up into a savage smile.

 

“He has already been dealt with.  I needed to stretch my legs this morning, and test the edge of my scimitar,” Vandross said, cackling like a hyena.  Molis saw the slightest hint of quickly drying blood on Vandross’s scimitar hilt.  He had already known what was going to happen.  He knew that Tamriel and his units would be backed against a wall.  “However, do not be mistaken.  I intend for them to cripple Byron’s army severely.  I have secreted away into their midst a Necromancer, who is very skilled at quickly calling the recently deceased to her command.  As the dead fall to the ground, she shall have them rising from it, in order to serve her.”

 

“Is she to be sacrificed as well, lord Vandross,” Molis asked, his tone taking on a hard edge.  Vandross turned to face him, and crimson light flared for a moment through his eye patch.  Molis took a defensive step back, clearly having enraged his master.

 

“Why, yes, she is.  Of course, she wouldn’t have agreed to go if I hadn’t promised her a safe teleportation scroll to use when she’s really in trouble.”  Molis had stopped following Vandross, realizing for the first time how much like Tanarak this man had become since gaining the Glorious Mother of Destruction.  “Don’t fret, Colonel,” Vandross said, spinning to face him on one foot, arms wide open like a cajoling child at play with close friends.  “I did give her a teleportation scroll!  It just so happens that it will teleport her about a thousand feet straight into the sky!”  He cackled then, a maddened predator amused by his prey’s pathetic attempts to run away or fight back.  The spider and the fly, Molis thought, watching the one-eyed warlock disappear into the dank gloom of Mount Toane.  The spider and the fly.

 

The assembled army under Byron’s command marched on through noon, not stopping to rest, as the sloping lowlands they had crossed into south of Fort Flag offered moderate temperatures and welcome breezes.  The plains were not filled now, however, with the birdsong and small animals that made them their home.  The wooded thickets did not appear to teem with any life; it was as though the whole region held its breath, about to sneeze at a moment’s notice into full activity and life.  Which was essentially what happened to the entire army when one of the forward scouts was seen atop a hill rise nearly a half a mile ahead of the army.

 

Though none could make out the physical appearance of the scout, everyone knew there was trouble coming.  Only one scout stood there, and he was now blowing on a great horn made of carved elephant tusk.  It was the warning sound for ‘incoming attack’.  A moment later, as the Elven scout took a breath to make a second blow on the horn, a barely discernable projectile, a crossbow bolt Shoryu could see, flew through the back of his neck and out of his throat, smashing his jaw apart as he died where he stood.

 

Selena Bradford could barely breath, let alone move as just over a thousand armed men and women, warriors, priests and mages all, began to shuffle into complex marching and attacking formations around her.  She had never involved herself in the middle of a combat of such magnitude; even in the Elven capital of Whitewood, she had been safely up on the walls around the outer perimeter, able to volley her deadly balls and cones of flames, her eruptions of magma, from a distance.  The fire in her soul blazed yellow for a moment; cowardice?  Could she be feeling a fleeting moment of hesitation?  No, she retorted mentally to the feeling of helplessness that had threatened to consume her.  I am not a coward!  I will not back down!

 

Moving herself into position near her other traveling companions, who had already assembled themselves as a single unit, Selena Bradford prepared herself for use of short range, up close Pyromancer spells.  There were not many, but enough that she could deal some hefty damage before retreating to her more comfortable distance.

 

“Any sign of them yet,” she asked Byron, but the hulking Dread Knight merely shook his head and shuffled forward slowly, trying to keep the little company from Whitewood and Desanadron behind the first unit, the Thirty-First Elven Infantry, and the third unit, Lord Viper’s mages. When at last they saw their enemies, Selena Bradford nearly choked on her sharp intake of breath.  Three enormous, bear-like creatures, bedecked in full plate armor and wielding enormous maces, led a full complement of Khan warriors.  The tiger-men had at their foremost lines a single man who stood out from the rest, himself wearing full plate like the bear-demons, while his soldiers were clad in much lighter braced chain mail.  While they marched head-on towards Byron and Viper’s forces, the central Khan barked an order in the tongue of his kind, a harsh and guttural combination of grunts and roars.  They broke stride and ranks, and from their midst came flowing dozens of magic users, each casting spells simultaneously on themselves and the warriors.  A few of the first offensive spells were being hurled at the Thirty-first Elven Infantry, and men and women alike were being burned, frozen into crumbling shards, and bursting apart at the limbs, their blood already staining the ground.

 

“Forwarrrrrd,” Byron shouted, charging ahead of the company into battle with the first set of troops.  Morek Rockmight leapt into the fray alongside, his own men joining the first troops.  Within less than two minutes, Selena could see, the battle would begin in earnest, and the body count would really begin to mount.  She herself might be included in that body count, if she weren’t careful.  All around her, the world morphed into a cacophony of sounds and flashes of steel and light, and as the first rows of opposing forces collided, she realized that she was being dragged along with the flow of the army, into battle.  The clash of metal weapons on armor pierced through the haze in her mind, and she looked around frantically to discover how the first few minutes of the raging battle had gone for her friends and allies.

 

Shoryu and Ellen, she saw, were each standing high up in the trees nearby, he picking off Khan and Illeck one by one with his enchanted arrows, she providing protective wooden and stone warriors from the ground and woodland itself.  Morek, off ahead in the thick of the fray, was throwing his fists around as though they were the tools of Armageddon, the mystic gloves he favored so crushing chain mail and bones as surely as a felled tree might.  And as she focused her attention on the smallest of the three bear creatures, the Renka, she noticed the comparatively small forms of James Hayes and Byron strategically fencing with the beast, striking it with their swords and backing swiftly away to avoid the slow, menacing blows of its mace.   Lost in her observations, she almost failed to notice the Khan soldier bringing his scimitar down toward her head.

 

She reflexively tucked and rolled away, springing to her feet and lobbing a fireball the size of a pumpkin into the Khan’s face.  As the orb struck him at the speed of a charging horse, his body slumped forward, sans head, a smoldering neck hole all that remained in its place.  The stench of its burnt flesh and fur lingered in the air, like expensive incense to her nostrils. Her veins filled with fury, the old fallback mental state she lapsed into in the heat of battle.  Rising to her feet, she began channeling her magic into the very ground, gouts of flame and magma engulfing handfuls of the Khan soldiers at the rear of their formations.  She would not risk such a spell with her allies close by; they would wind up victims of her onslaught as well.  For a moment, she was caught up entirely in her dance of death, hurling bolts of fire and cones of flames, summoning walls of heat and marching them through dozens of Khan.

 

But the expense of her magic was wearing on her quickly, and there appeared to be no end to the Khan.  As Selena glanced about, she saw that while the number of Khan soldiers, Illeck and Human mages barely dwindled, the number of men and women fighting for Byron, Viper and Morek was slowly being chipped at.  Yet, there also appeared to be no change at all in the number of combatants on the field.  As Selena Bradford visually scoured the battlefield, she saw, to her horror, why the odds were beginning to seem in Vandross’s forces’ favor.  Standing amid a circle of Illeck Q Mages and Gaiamancers, protected by earthen and support magic, stood a gaunt, pale figure, a woman with raven-black hair and eyes the color of a swamp; a Necromancer!  As the combatants fell in combat, regardless of alliance, the Necromancer summoned their bodies back to life, using them to press the Renkas’ forces forward.  She had to warn Byron.

 

As she darted through the onslaught, swords and pikes barely missing or grazing her arms and legs, a stray claw strike knocked her clear to the ground several feet from the source.  She turned over, and saw a towering Khan who stood unarmed, his armor torn apart, but his eyes still livid with the bloodlust that can only be had by living, sentient creatures. The beast approached her, fangs dripping terribly with the thought of another kill, a sorceress no less!  But as the Khan reared up to bring its heavy claws down into her chest, a single, shimmering arrow pierced the soldier’s face.  Shock registered for a moment on that quickly paling creature, and as the flash of light from the arrow blinked, a sound like a walnut cracking in two split the air, and the creature dropped backward, its head split evenly to the throat.  Blood sprayed across Selena’s legs as she regained her feet, but she had no time to feel revulsion; she still had to warn Byron, warn the others, of the Necromancer’s presence.

 

She saw as she got closer to the Dread Knight that he and James Hayes had already finished off one of the Renkas, and were quickly backing another one against a tree, which Ellen Daires had just brought to life with her Gaiamancy.  She had to risk shouting now, or the tide of the battle could be turned against them.  “Byron,” she shouted, as loudly as she could.  Her lungs felt clogged and weighed down with soot and ash; yet another price to be paid for her brand of high power, high speed magic.  But she had caught his attention, just as James Hayes launched an assault of holy magic on the bear demon.

 

The Dread Knight turned his head for a moment, and James turned to face her as well.  “A Necromancer!  There’s a Necromancer in the middle of their-” she blurted, gasping for breath as she watched the Dread Knight and the Paladin smashed aside like rag dolls by an enormous Renka, this one easily twofold the others’ size.  It was the creature that had been leading the overall assault, she realized.  Vandross had sent a formidable forward offensive at them, and she watched in horror as Byron and James Hayes began their struggle with this larger, much more fearsome opponent.

 

Shoryu!  Of course, she thought; his arrows were enchanted, and he’s the best shot with an arrow she knew.  But as she searched the trees for him, she could find no sign.  Orders were being shouted throughout Viper and Byron’s army, orders to fall back, to concentrate on the undead first.  They were going to lose ground, time, and more lives, if something weren’t done. And the more of their own that fell, the more undead the Necromancer would wield against them.  Selena realized, in a moment of clarity, that she only had one option left.  One final spell that all Pyromancers of great knowledge know of, but cannot use.

 

The spell was best known as Immolation.

 

Byron had to choke down a hell of a lot of pride to issue the order to retreat.  But as it was, he couldn’t get a bead on the Necromancer that Selena Bradford had been trying to warn him about before Major Tamriel had knocked him and James Hayes further back into the woods.  Byron himself hadn’t suffered much in the way of injuries; he was still, for all intents and purposes, a Dread Knight, wearing the armor of a Paladin.  Both his armor and his training easily negated such blunt force trauma.  James, however, could not count on undead status to protect him.  The Human Paladin got up from the ground with much more effort than was required of the undead warrior, who gave him a hand at the last moments of grogginess.  After that, they began to move the lines back, taking care to ensure that everyone knew to destroy the undead first.

 

The second order he issued was flat-out refused by Thaddeus Viper, which was to cut off the heads of nearby fallen comrades.  Without the head attached, Byron had reasoned, it would be nearly impossible for the Necromancer to bring them back from the dead.  But Viper had refused the suggestion, barking at the Dread Knight that it was “inhumane”.  Byron would have argued the point that warfare in general wasn’t humane, but he didn’t have the benefit of time to do that.  As he fell back with the troops, he fended off the constant attacks of the huge Renka, the one who had led these Khan and Illeck and Humans against them.  But he had to duck and weave through the clustering lines of combatants when he noticed a single figure, clad in crimson robes, slowly and calmly approaching a small circle of mages.  He knew immediately that it was Selena Bradford, and he feared the worst for her.

 

The Dread Knight sent a current of holy energy ripping through Major Tamriel, almost as an afterthought, but the energy held him still, his huge, furry body thrashing in pain.  It was the opening he needed, and Byron sprinted back in the direction of the rest of the waiting Khan and the circle of mages that Selena was approaching.  She was going to get herself killed!  “Selena,” he shouted, swinging the Morning Glory like an oar through a river, felling and cleaving men and women as he went like a wind tearing leaves from their branches.  The Human Pyromancer stopped, and looked back at him with a smirk, shaking her head.  The look in her eyes told him to stop, and Byron felt his legs lock him in place.  He could not hear her over the din of battle behind him, the screams of the maddened soldiers coming at him, but he could read her lips, and the words she spoke struck home so hard, he didn’t even feel Shoryu and Morek Rockmight tear him out of harm’s way.

 

The words she had spoken were, “It’s my time.”

 

 

 

Finally, Shoryu thought as he leaped down out of the tree he and Ellen had been using as refuge, a chance to let this out of my system!  As Humans and Illeck followed the units’ retreat, Shoryu let go of the pent up hostility and aggression that had been gnawing uncontrollably at him during their marching days.  The price of his gifts of blood to Byron had to be paid, and now he had the opportunity to do so.

 

Strapping his bow to his back, the Cuyotai Hunter unleashed his fury on the oncoming assailants, his claws tearing and rending everything and everyone he got close to.  In his maddened frenzy, he even tore the throats of allies who got between himself and the few Khan giving pursuit.  But he felt nothing for these losses.  All the world for him was a playground of destruction.

 

“What in the name of Karagesh,” shouted one Khan in heavy chain armor as Shoryu bit into his shoulder and tore the arm free of his body. Screaming in agony, the Khan fell, and Shoryu proceeded to beat the Khan about the head with his own severed limb.  When the man went limp, Shoryu stomped down hard on his head, bursting skull inward upon gray matter.

 

In thrall to the battle lust, he almost didn’t survive that frenzy.  A pair of Illeck mages struck him with a handful of spells from his right flank, and the pain and damage done knocked Shoryu’s senses back into order.  As they closed for the kill, he drew his bow and put arrows through their hands, wounding them and cutting off their magic.  He sprinted away from the front to fall back.

 

He would have continued, but saw that Byron was rushing out to meet the attackers by himself.  Morek Rockmight approached Byron from his right, and Shoryu assisted him by hauling Byron back from the left.  He appeared to be watching something far off, and when his struggles ceased, Shoryu looked at Selena Bradford, who approached certain doom.

 

As she turned her back on the Dread Knight for the last time, she thought about what he had been trying to do.  Perhaps he wasn’t a monster after all, she thought with a smirk.  Had she really ever doubted him, though?  No, she thought, shaking her head with a bemused expression. Not since Desanadron, when they had first met.  She looked around her, not focusing on much of anything but her own magic as she called it forth.  The circle of mages had made no move against her, and the Necromancer woman in the middle of the circle simply smiled at her with the utmost contempt, as if to say, ‘you think you can harm me?’  She intended to do more than harm the woman and her toadies; she intended to reduce them all to less than ash.

 

She waited patiently as the main struggle behind her fell just outside of the range of Immolation.  The Khan soldiers held in reserve were, however, not going to be so lucky.  They slowly closed in around her and the mages, smirking and laughing.  They too would perish in the mightiest flames a Pyromancer could summon to their aid.  With a sigh of resignation, Selena began to focus on the weaving of the symbols in the air in fire, the words that had to be spoken to conjure the exact magic to be used in the spell.  But she did not think on the one thing that most mages think of when they read about the spell of Immolation; the spellcaster will perish in the flames as well.

 

As she neared the completion of the Immolation, she looked up into the once smug face of the Necromancer.  The woman was losing focus on her own undead minions, and her smile was completely gone, replaced with a slight eyebrow raise of curiosity, perhaps even concern.  “Ka’ludruhn, Mefastus, Ifritinus, Meteordum, Ingulfum,” Selena chanted, raising her hands and revealing all of the symbols she had drawn in flames in the air. The symbols formed a wall of loosely connected flames before her, and only a single word remained.  A single word, and her friends and allies would have their chance at completing their objective.  A single word, and the road to Mount Toane would probably be cleared.  A single word, and no more of her friends or selfless soldiers would have to die in vain.  But she waited, looking up at the Necromancer, who opened her mouth to speak to the Pyromancer.

 

“And just what has this accomplished, Pyromancer,” the woman spat, smiling that smug smile of superiority once more.

 

“It has sealed your doom,” Selena said, waving her hands to her sides and slamming her palms together.  “Immolatus,” she whispered, and the spell of Immolation commenced.  A bloom of crimson fury pulsated around her chest, a single, tight ring of magical force.  As she bowed her head, the ring gained heat, energy, drawing it directly from within Selena Bradford, and the ring pulsated and stretched.  The Necromancer woman stood there, transfixed by what was occurring.  The Khan soldiers all sniffed the air, distrustful of any magic they themselves didn’t possess or know of.  They shuffled about uneasily, but held their ranks.  In the end, their training and discipline killed them.  The ring pulsed once more, and then shot outward in a circumference around Selena Bradford, turning every living thing it touched, man, woman, animal and plant, into a standing replica of what they had once been, formed of ashes.  In the next instant, the piles began to crumble and blow away in the wind, and Selena Bradford fell dying to the ground.

 

There had been a terrible burning sensation, not fifteen feet away from Byron and James Hayes, when the undead soldiers all dropped to the ground, reduced to their state of death.  All that remained of Tamriel’s forces now were a few mages, some soldier Khan here, and the Khan that Lieutenant Amon stood with in reserve.  Of course, Tamriel hadn’t yet realized that they were all dead, even the strategically ingenious Amon. Viper, Byron and Morek all turned their units back to squarely meet the remains of this assault, but the clever Renka issued an immediate order of retreat.  So their undead soldiers were no more; there still stood nearly two hundred behind the Necromancer, waiting to be unleashed…

 

Or so there had been a few minutes ago.  Where were they, the bear demon thought in a panic?  Had lord Vandross taken them back?  Had the mad warlock only intended to harm Byron’s forces and leave Tamriel and his brothers to die at the Dread Knight’s hand?  Surely not, he thought, as he turned his attention back to the undead warrior who was hacking and slashing away at him with that accursed holy weapon of his.  But as he looked back, his huge claws swiping just wide of the Dread Knight, his fear of having been abandoned turned into a different fear altogether; all who had remained behind had been reduced to ashes.

 

As he turned back to focus on the Dread Knight, he saw on Byron’s skull what looked like a horrifying mockery of a smile.  As he reared up to swing his lethal claws, Tamriel felt the cold, hard blade of James Hayes’s broadsword pierce through his belly, where the chain shirt didn’t quite reach.  Major Tamriel was stunned for just long enough to allow Byron to leap up on his massive shoulders in a single bound, chanting odd words under his breath.  The Morning Glory sheathed, palms pressed down toward the Renka’s head, Byron unleashed the Paladin spell of Holy Cannon straight through the demon’s body.  Blood and bile sprayed all over him and Hayes in a shower of gore, the remains of the body folding inward like a house made of wet paper.

 

With their officers dead, their Necromancer reduced to dust in the wind, and no aid coming, the remaining troops attempted to flee in all directions, cut down by Elven archers and Viper’s mages.  The battle was over, and not more than ten minutes had passed since it started.  Byron, James, Morek, Shoryu and Ellen ran down the slopes of the woods to where Selena Bradford lay dead.  Byron was the first to notice that Alex, his first real friend since becoming a Dread Knight, lay burnt to death next to her head.  He had been with her in the end.  No one in the company spoke, nor groaned about their own injuries (which were thankfully few), standing silently to honor their friend and ally.  Finally, James Hayes rolled her over, folding her arms over her chest, and made the sign of Oun over her corpse. Byron copied the gesture, leaving the group to their own grieving.  He hated to be cold about it, but he had to get a report from the other officers regarding the remaining casualties.  He had to get an idea of what sort of resources they would have after resting the army.

 

Byron stalked through the long swaths of blood and corpses to Wilhelm Von Rook, Lieutenant of the Second Grade.  The Elven man had a large gash across his forehead, three diagonal claw marks, but they appeared fairly shallow, and so Byron wasn’t too concerned with his health to allow him rest before a report was taken.  Von Rook gave him a stiff salute and stood as straight as a board.  “My lord,” he said, his voice slightly weak and trembling.

 

“Casualty report, Lieutenant,” Byron barked, rather more harshly than he had intended to.  He was trying not to let his own feelings about Selena Bradford’s death affect his judgement, but already he was feeling his emotions overwhelm him.  Two fallen in his personal service, no more than a few score yards away in this case.

 

“Well, my lord, we’ve had a rather bad time of it, I must say.  We’ve lost one hundred and thirty-four men, nearly all of them infantry and unmounted cavalry.  We suffered a few losses to our mages, and a handful of archers, but as a whole in terms of numbers, nothing crippling.  However, sir, I knew many of those who fell in this battle.  They have families, friends, who are going to miss them terribly sir.”  Byron nodded, grunting disapprovingly.  Such is war, he thought rather dismally.  “And, my lord, Sergeant Cassandra Payne fell to her wounds.  A vicious spell of some sort was cast on her after she received a minor cut, and the wound spread from her stomach to her throat.  She fell almost instantly, my lord.”  Once again Byron shook his head, miserable at the thought that Vandross had once again gained the upper hand before him.  As he thought of the young Sergeant-at-Arms, he was reminded of the uncompromising nature of war in Tamalaria.  Young, old, middle aged, it didn’t matter to the gods of war; once you joined the battle, you were as expendable as the next soldier.

 

So what of Selena, he wondered with a twinge in his heart.  What of little Alex?  He had read the words on her lips; ‘it’s my time,’ she had said. That much he had been afraid of.  Voice had told him during the morning, deep in the recesses of his mind, that one of his friends would not survive the coming battle.  He had assumed that Voice had been speaking of the battle they would face at Mount Toane, but it had been here, long before they could even reach the lair of the one-eyed warlock Richard Vandross.  “Thank you, Lieutenant,” Byron said, absent-mindedly.  “Let’s get our dead buried this evening.  We’ll be staying right at the edge of these woods until morning.  The troops need time to heal their wounds, physically and emotionally.  That will be all.  You may tell everyone to be at ease after the bodies are taken care of.  And Lieutenant?”

 

“Yes, my lord,” asked the Elf as he snapped off another salute.

 

“Don’t bother burying our enemies.  Let the scavengers have them.” Without another word, Byron moved back toward the company he had brought with him into this mess.  How many of them would survive the onslaught of Mount Toane?  And if they survived, what would their lives be like afterwards?  Hard questions to ask himself, he thought, and no answers anywhere in sight.

 

Later that night, when everyone else in the army’s camp was eating or tending to the injured and the company’s supplies, Byron and James carried Selena Bradford away from the encampment, Shoryu, Ellen and Morek following closely behind.  Alex had been tucked under Selena’s hands, the Ki Fairy barely recognizable after the damage had been done.  They carried the two companions almost to the northernmost edge of the woods, a full mile and a half away from the army.  When they laid them down, the company stood about in silence.  Morek had brought three shovels from the supplies tents, but no one made a move to pick them up now that he had laid them down.

 

“What should we do now,” Ellen asked in her timid voice, her eyes filled with tears that threatened to break her resolve.  Morek and Shoryu moved slowly toward the shovels, but James Hayes put his hand up to stop them.

 

“No,” he said, softly, his own eyes almost cold and steely.  But he wasn’t being unemotional; rather, he appeared to have an idea in mind.  “I’ll stay here with her.  You two, Ellen, Byron, go gather up some wood.  We’ll give her a funeral pyre.  I think that’s what she would have wanted,” he said, his tone flat and devoid of inflection.  The Dread Knight nodded, seeming to understand James’s request.

 

Selena had been the first member of the company he had known, had fought with.  She had seen him at his worst, his most hopeless, that much Byron was certain.  The Human Paladin had been trapped with her in Desanadron as word of what had befallen his kinsmen reached him.  He would want a few words with Selena alone, even now, when he had only one last chance.  Byron began marching away into the woods, presumably to find suitable firewood.  The truth of the matter was that it was all around them, branches and sticks of good enough size and brittleness to burn quickly and powerfully.  However, he led Shoryu, Morek, and Ellen away into the woods, out of earshot of James Hayes.

 

When James saw that Byron had understood his meaning, he knelt down next to Selena Bradford’s body, laying his head on the ground next to hers, and wept as softly as he could.  He let out everything, all of his aches and pains, tears running in thin rivers down the landscape of his face.  After so much fighting and training in his life, it was beginning to be a rough terrain for even those precious, salty streams to flow through, but they found their way.  “I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything Selena,” he whispered hoarsely, trying not to sob, getting the words out all in one rush.  “I don’t know what to do anymore.  You have been the only person I could hope to keep safe, the only one who knows fully what I have felt.  You know how close I have come to losing all faith, to disbelieving everything the Order has taught me,” he nearly screamed, choking on the sobs that threatened to rack his entire body loose of its spirit.

 

“And even you, little Alex,” he said, touching Alex’s limp form with a single finger.  “I could not protect even the littlest of us.”  James shook his head disconsolately.  “And though I know you cannot hear me, know this; I am most sorry for my failure.  I am not worthy of my title any longer,” he said, and began to reach for the lashings that held his breastplate on his upper body.  The symbol of Oun, emblazoned across the metal, was worn and battered, covered with blood.  He felt unclean, unfit to bear the mark of his great god any longer, and he was going to do away with the armor, until he heard the faint sound of hoof beats.

 

James Hayes looked around, but could see no one, nothing in his vicinity.  Nothing stirred, nothing made a noise.  It seemed the entire world around him had come to a halt.  What had happened to him, he wondered. Is this the delirium of regret?  The hoof beats came closer, closer, as though they were right on top of him, and still he could see no horse.  He whipped his head around, hearing the braying of a horse, and saw standing beside Selena and Alex’s bodies a huge, pale stallion, and astride it, holding a scythe in one skeletal hand, a figure he instinctively knew all mortal beings must some day meet.

 

He dared not utter or think its name, for to do so, he felt, would mean his own immediate departure with the entity.  The black cloak and robes billowed about the entity as it dismounted, all tattered cloth and shadows. Yet Hayes felt no menace from it, no malcontent; rather, he could almost detect a sense of duty about the entity.  It stood by Selena’s corpse, the tiny Ki Fairy resting atop her chest, making no move, uttering no sound.  The wind that blew past James’s ear carried the faintest hint of a whisper on it.

 

HAVE YOU SAID YOUR GOOD-BYES, it asked.  James was so startled by the raspy, thick feel of the words that he barely had the capacity to think of what they meant.  MY TIME IS PRECIOUS, AND I HAVE MUCH WORK TO DO.  James collected his composure, straightened himself up before this most revered, and mostly feared, being.

 

“She can hear me,” he asked, fully aware of how much his voice trembled.

 

FOR NOW SHE CAN, MORTAL.  BUT YOUR TIME IS MY TIME, AND MY TIME GOES QUICKLY.  THERE IS MUCH MORE WORK TO BE DONE THIS NIGHT, AND I HAVEN’T THE PATIENCE FOR LONG FAREWELLS.  BESIDES, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW DIFFICULT IT IS TO KEEP THE REST OF THE WORLD ON HOLD?  James looked up the hill to the west, and saw Byron and the others, each frozen in time, carrying bundles of wood.

 

“My apologies,” James said.  He knelt down, and kissed Selena Bradford as tenderly as he could on the forehead.  For a moment, she appeared to smile at him.  “Good bye, my friend.  Perhaps we shall meet again, if mighty Oun allows it.”  As James stepped back, the entity swung his scythe down with such speed that all the Paladin could see was a flash of silver light.  Two orbs of light fluttered up and into the darkness of its robes, shining there like the pinpoints in Byron’s eye sockets.  As the being turned back toward his steed, James had a single question burning in his heart.  If he didn’t ask it now, he might never be granted another chance.  “Wait!  I do not want any trouble, but I must ask you something!”  The dark rider mounted his horse, but turned to face his darkened cowl toward the Paladin.

 

SPEAK QUICKLY, MORTAL.  I SHALL ANSWER AS BEST I CAN. Now there was a hint of impatience in the thin, whispery voice that carried on the unnatural wind.

 

“Who has granted me this opportunity?  Why me, and not another? Why have I been given this gift to seek forgiveness for my inadequacy?” The rider circled his horse once, for the steed seemed more impatient than the rider who James would not name.  There was a pause, and it seemed to stretch infinitely on, eons of moments passing around them.

 

I WAS AFRAID YOU MIGHT ASK THAT, FOR THE ONE WHO MADE THIS REQUEST OF ME REQUIRED THAT I ANSWER YOU THAT QUESTION.  IT WAS INDEED OUN.  NOW, JAMES HAYES, I MUST DEPART.  AND KNOW YOU ONE THING MORE, the entity said as it began to ascend into the air, fading from existence.  SHE SAYS, THERE IS NO NEED TO SEEK FORGIVENESS.  A small pain exploded behind James Hayes’s eye, and he found himself sitting next to Selena Bradford’s body once again, Byron and the others just now coming over the hill and out of the woods with the firewood.  It would appear to any outside observer that nothing had happened.  But for James Hayes, the most important event of his life had taken place.

 

He had received forgiveness, and confirmation of his faith.

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