Bael’s struggle with the Dreadnaught had been mercifully short for the Lizardman.  The construct’s right arm appeared to belong to a Khan, and it held a giant broadsword in its hand.  Bael dashed forward, spells released from his right and left sides by his compatriots.  The rampaging Minotaur had lowered its horns and hit the construct at full speed, knocking it back as a ball of fire struck its face and a spear of ice had shoved through the waist.

 

Bael had launched himself through the air after those attacks and sunk his axe into its chest, burying it so deep that he had to leap away from its left hand as it grasped for him.  Then, an incredible stroke of luck, or a favor from the gods themselves, occurred.  Apparently, the right arm, that of the Khan, had decided to object to its current owner, and had turned the sword in on itself, stabbing deep into the chest and twisting.  With an animal howl, the creature had shivered and fallen, the right arm drawing out the sword and hacking away at its master’s head, splitting it down the middle and cutting it clean off.  After that, the Dreadnaught had fallen silent.

 

“What in the Heavens just happened,” one of the Elves asked from behind Bael.  The Lizardman laughed aloud, a long, tired peal of laughter.

 

“I don’t know, but those very Heavens just smiled upon us!”  He pulled free his war axe and severed the Khan arm from the construct’s body. “I’m not sure why, but I believe I am going to take this home with me. Clearly, it belongs to someone.  Perhaps the fates shall conspire to have me meet the whole of the man this belonged to.”  That said, Bael led the long, tiresome trek out of the mountain.  When he saw the entrance an hour and a half later, he could have sworn it was his eyes playing tricks on him, but it wasn’t.  Much more time had passed since entering than he had believed; the sun was rising over the eastern horizon!  As he passed out of the mountain’s bottleneck entrance, he stopped to bask in the silent, warm glow of the sun’s rays, letting the light wash over his blood-stained armor and clothes.  “Well folks,” he said, turning to face his valiant companions.  “It looks like I owe you a feast.”

 

As soon as he came in contact with the Seal of Fate, Byron could see the chamber quite clearly.  Something stirred in the shadows, behind a pillar of stone that stretched the entire height of the room.  The faint rustle of clawed feet scraping softly against stone was just audible.  Byron tried to bring the Morning Glory up in front of him, but found that he was stuck stock still, just as James Hayes had said he would be.  There was nothing that could be done about it, he mused, watching the pillar out of the corner of his eye.  Something moved again, and he could hear the sniffling of flared nostrils.  The scent of the chamber reminded him of the slaughterhouses he had gone to as a man, where he would pick up large slabs of meat to bring home for his wife to prepare.  The metallic odor of blood, but with the hint of animal hides.

 

A flash of movement darted across his field of vision as a man-sized creature darted from behind the column to the cover of another such column on the right hand side of the chamber.  Another movement, this one accompanied by the slow, clear ‘snikt’ of a blade clearing a sheath.  Byron had kept his left arm back behind the Seal, free of its magic, and felt his hand move slowly as he beckoned the rest of the battalion forward.  A single pair of smoky, crimson eyes appeared from around the pillar, accompanied thereafter by a set of teeth so slick with saliva that they appeared as though water had been poured on them.  A cackle of maddened glee escaped its throat.

 

“The vaunted and feared Byron of Sidius,” the creature rasped in a voice akin to the sound of glass shards scraping on brick.  It slinked forth into the dim light of the room, and the opening at the other side of the chamber slid shut, stone grinding on stone as the doorway was sealed shut. The Dread Knight knew that Richard Vandross was in that chamber; he had seen a hint of the warlock’s cloak as the door sealed.

 

“That’s right, demon,” he said in response, feeling the air with his limited senses and noting the demonic aura that positively radiated from the creature.  Even the most mutated of the Sidalis Race didn’t look that horrid.  Once again he moved his free left hand, putting it out to stop the advance of his allies.  He knew from the feeling of the air out in that tunnel that Ellen and Shoryu were mere inches from coming in contact with the Seal of Fate.  Wait, he told them with a hand motion.  Not, just, yet.  “And had this sorcery not been placed, I would tear you limb from limb,” he said. “Of course, if you came in reach, I could strike you with a Paladin spell or three and have the same effect.”

 

“No thank you, Dread Knight,” the creature said, taking a few steps away.  Deceitful as demons were, Byron could not detect any traces of a lie. Then again, he was being affected by the Seal of Fate and its strange magic. “I don’t tend to like such attacks,” the creature said, bringing its huge sword into the light.  The blade was easily the same length as the creature’s height! Now, he motioned with his left hand, and Ellen Daires and Shoryu Tearfang came charging through.  The creature’s eyes went wide as they broke through the barrier, and Byron shouted at them immediately.

 

“Magic!  Strike it with your spells,” he hollered as James Hayes burst through with nearly a dozen Elven and Human mages in tow.  A mystic arrow flew through the air, a stone of magic from Ellen’s outstretched hand, a ball of flame, a stream of light from Hayes, and nearly a dozen other spells hit home against the demon’s chest, and as it stretched and howled with laughter, Byron realized his error.  The creature had tricked him, and as he watched in fury, the creature’s belly split open and spat out fifteen lumps of flesh.  Each flashed with a yellow light and in the place of those lumps stood fifteen exact copies of the demon, weapon and all.  Damnation, Byron thought with a flurry of other curses under his breath.  He was jostled and bumped as the warriors of the platoon broke through, engaging the copies straight away.  Weapons clashing together, the chamber quickly filled with combat and its responding sounds.  The clang of steel on steel, the rip and howl of men being torn apart and copies being slain tearing through the enclosed space.

 

Shoryu darted back and forth, only a few yards away from Byron’s face as he dodged swings from the massive sword of a demon copy.  Or was it the original?  Byron couldn’t tell any longer, and suddenly had doubts about the creature he had seen when he had become entangled by the Seal of Fate.  Could it be that it, too, had been a copy?  He couldn’t be certain of anything regarding the demon until he watched it some more.  But if he watched it too long, at the rate of damage it was dealing, even his own friends might be dead before he knew what to do about it.  Utter elimination of all of the copies might be possible, but the mages could only defend themselves with spells, and when the magic struck the demon copies, they reproduced more copies.  Frustrated beyond belief at the demon’s tactics, Byron struggled against the Seal’s magic, unable to break free.  He was incapable of lashing out to help the young Cuyotai Hunter against the considerable strength and raw demonic power of the beast that hacked at him.

 

Fifty dead, by Byron’s silent count.  Half of the men and women he had personally led here lay dead and in tatters across the chamber floor. The remaining fifty fighters were being driven back to their heels, pressed by the fresh assault of even more foes to each one of them.  Assaulted on various sides by multiple foes, even James Hayes was being forced backward.  Ellen Daires hid behind stone barriers and golems that she had summoned, using the natural environment of the chamber around her to aid in her swift casting and enforcing of the Gaiamancy she used to defend herself.  Looking to his left, Byron could see Shoryu roll forward, evading yet another sword blow from the demon copy assaulting him.  The Cuyotai Hunter leapt forward, digging his claws into the demon’s throat and setting his feet against its chest.  As he kicked off, he let his claws tear the demon copy’s throat apart, blood spraying the air where the nimble Cuyotai had been.  Byron saw that the Cuyotai had put his bow back in its place across his back.  What was the pup thinking?  As Shoryu turned toward Byron, he saw the gleam of mischief in his eyes.

 

Sprinting toward the Dread Knight, Shoryu zigzagged back and forth, weaving through a hailstorm of blades as a set of half a dozen copies sped toward him.  Shoryu collided into Byron, but the Dread Knight couldn’t be budged.  “The demons!”  But Byron saw suddenly that there was no need for worry; the copies had broken off their pursuit.  Or rather, they had been attacked by other battalion members.  Shoryu spat, his face livid with fury. “What is it, what were you trying to do?”

 

“Byron, you have been prone here the whole time, yet the demon has not struck at you,” the Cuyotai whispered into Byron’s skull.  “I think I know why.  It is the nature of such sorcery.”  With another of those dangerous smiles of his, the Cuyotai bound away, clawing at the back of another copy. Having caught its attention, he drew it towards Byron, ducking and weaving back and forth to avoid being cleaved in half.  As soon as he was only a foot away from Byron, Shoryu rolled away.  As the giant sword came down toward Byron’s head, a look of blackest terror spread across the faces of every copy in the chamber.  The Morning Glory was up over his head, and Byron felt the Seal of Fate shatter around him.  With a heave and a lunge forward, Byron lopped off the copy’s head that stood before him.

 

Thrown into confusion by the Dread Knight’s sudden freedom and ferocious battle roar, the demonic copies lost sight of their much more numerous opponents, and several were hacked apart before they regained their senses.  “Remain on the defensive!  Strike low and hard when you can,” Byron shouted to his allies, having caught at least one sign of weakness in the assaults of the demon.  Without any audible or visual sign that they heard him, the warriors of the platoon carried out the command, concentrating on defense until they found an opening.  Their legs then cleaved off, the copies quickly suffered large casualties, and even the mages with their daggers and staffs managed to hold their ground, relying only on defensive magic to continue in the melee.

 

Byron charged about the chamber, finding those copies that had hidden themselves and splitting them in half with the skill and rage only he possessed.  After only five minutes of this combat, all of the demons lay dead or dying.  Thirty-one men and women remained from the platoon, excluding Byron’s personal company, who had suffered a few wounds themselves.  Morek Rockmight had been severely overpowered by the demons, and had several stab wounds and gashes in his chest, arms and legs.  Bloodied but smiling, the Dwarven Boxer took a heavy seat on the floor as James Hayes went to work on him with the healing magic at his disposal.  The Paladin was running low on mana, however, and wouldn’t be able to offer much in the way of medical assistance.

 

“You know, you’ve done more damage to that arm of yours,” Hayes informed the Dwarf.  Morek didn’t seem surprised in the least.  His time as an efficient fighter was most likely at a permanent end, but he had his political career still.

 

Thankfully, one of the Human Clerics had survived the whole ordeal fairly unscathed.  This older man prepared a mass healing spell, unleashing it on the chamber at large.  Somewhat refreshed, the injured Shoryu, whose collarbone had been broken by an overhead hammer blow with the butt of a sword, managed to force a smile as he approached the Dread Knight.  “Well, our job here is done, isn’t it,” he asked quietly.  Byron could not bring himself to look back into those huge, wet eyes of brilliant green.

 

“Yes, yes it is, my friends,” Byron said, his voice echoing off of the walls of the chamber.  “You are all dismissed,” he said aloud, but even as the survivors of the platoon helped one another limp away from the chamber, Shoryu, Ellen, Morek and James Hayes remained behind, taking positions just outside of the entryway where the Seal of Fate had been placed.  They all wore the brightest smiles they could as they planted themselves there, Morek leaning against one side of the entryway, Shoryu and Ellen sitting together like a pair of cups that fit one inside the other, and James Hayes leaned on the opposite side from Morek.  Without saying as much, they let Byron know that his fate, was their fate.  They would stick by him until the very end, whatever the outcome.  And from their relaxed postures, their bodies told him that they felt confident in his ability to triumph over the warlock.

 

Richard Vandross stood opposite them all, his eyes filled with crimson malice, a wicked, curved scimitar in his right hand.  “Byron of Sidius,” he growled, his voice that of himself, and that of a demon speaking in harmony with him as he levitated off the floor.  Byron swung around to face the one-eyed warlock once again.  This was not their first encounter, but it was certainly to be their last.

 

“Welcome to your final resting place, Dread Knight.  I have been very patient, Byron.  I have awaited your arrival since first your armies set foot in my mountain.”  The gut rock of the mountain trembled beneath his armored feet, and the Morning Glory blazed brighter than before.  Such power, he thought, with a tinge of fear in his heart.  And such evil!  “You cannot imagine the powers I possess!  The ancient knowledge granted me by the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent is magnificent and splendorous,” he shouted, throwing his head back in mad glee.

 

Stretching out his arms to his sides, he held himself in the air for a long moment before looking back down at Byron.  The eye patch had been burned off, and coils of yellow and purple energy swirled around his arms and chest.  The power of the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent was being brought to bear, Byron knew, and he would need every bit of skill and power at his disposal to be victorious.  “I shall be knelt and cowered before, dead man!  I shall be the man named in legends and tales that parents tell their children in order to scare them into staying in line!  I shall be the eternal, dreadful thing that brings the world to its knees in abject horror, Byron of Sidius! What say you to that?”  With a madman’s smile, Vandross’s face split slightly at the corners of his mouth, exposing a set of arachnid fangs, the influence of Vengeance coming to the forefront as Vandross drew on the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent’ entire power.

 

“What say I,” Byron muttered, almost without being heard.  The trembling of the mountain around him, and the blazing hellfire that a moment later spewed forth in patches throughout the cavern, made soft speech inaudible.  “I say, Vandross, that you have my name wrong, yet again.  I am Byron Aixler,” he shouted, dashing forward with the Morning Glory at the ready.  “And I shall send you to the Pit!”  Several feet before he reached the warlock, a wall of hellfire sprang forth from the floor, the heat and force generated by the wall’s sudden appearance throwing Byron back, black scorch marks dotting his armor.  His field of vision had gone blank and white as the northwestern mountain tips in midwinter, and he shook his head to clear it.  As he did so, stumbling backward, Vandross leapt over the fiery wall and lashed out at him with a vicious kick that seemed to come not from him, but from his shadow.

 

Letting out a heavy hoomph, Byron took the shot to the stomach, folding in half as he flew through the air and into a pillar of stone. Damnation, he thought.  He’s powerful, and fast!  I can’t keep up with him! Letting his body slide down the pillar, Byron landed in a prone, seated posture, his right hand still grasping the Morning Glory, his left palm facing up and slightly forward.  Richard Vandross stalked forward through the smoke and heat haze of the chamber, a wicked grin plastered to his face. “Is that all you have to offer me, Byron?  How very disappointing,” he cooed mockingly, bringing his scimitar into the air over his head.  “I had hoped for greater things,” he said with a heavy sigh.  Byron’s eyes flashed as he whipped his head up to look Vandross squarely in the face.

 

“Holy Cannon!”  The left palm, upturned as it was, flared with Paladin magic for a moment before unleashing a pillar of blazing white light into Vandross’s chest.  His face registered surprise for a moment before he was flung, smoking and screaming, nearly one hundred yards away, into the opposite cavern wall.  Crashing into the wall, jutting rocks breaking apart across his broad, armored back, Vandross landed with a steely crash of metal armor and groans of agony.  But both men were swiftly on their feet once again, swords in hand.

 

“Very good,” Vandross said, wiping blood from his lip.  Good, Byron thought.  Some internal damage has been done.  Where the spell had hit him, Vandross’s armor had been bleached purest white, but it remained intact.  A demon or normal mortal would have a hole the size of a small barrel in their chest, but the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent granted Vandross an unseemly amount of power and defense.  “I had hoped that this wouldn’t be settled so easily!  Now, Byron, know the power of Richard Vandross!”

 

Streaks of lightning sped across the chamber, the Dread Knight caught by one of them as he tried to duck and roll away from the magical blast.  His muscled writhed and twitched, burning from the inside from the power of the spell that Vandross kept locked on him.  A moment later, Byron fell to the ground, his body smoking, his armor flaring with traces of the spell’s effects.  As soon as he got to his feet, a gust of force knocked him clear against another pillar of stone, breaking the earthen rock across his stomach and landing him in a heap.  The pain he was in could not be described in simple words, so immeasurable was his agony.  Still, he said to himself as he once again regained his feet, planting them in a defensive stance with the Morning Glory.  Still, I must vanquish him.

 

“You do not hold all of the cards, dark one,” Byron said as Vandross seemed to melt into the shadows of the cavern.  No trace of his movements could be detected.  “And I have had enough of your tactics!  You no longer dictate the pace and nature of this battle!”  Byron took one hand off of the hilt of his weapon, holding skyward.  “Mighty Oun, grant me light, that I may see my deceiver!”

 

A small orb of golden light fluttered down from the ceiling, and Byron threw it hard against the floor.  A sound like shattering glass filled the room, and a moment later a wave of white energy spread throughout the cavern. Vandross, creeping forward, had been exposed, his shadow magic countered.  He was only three or four yards away, scimitar raised in both hands.  The sudden light had nearly blinded him, and his arms were positioned to shield his face from the light.  Byron let loose with a shout, and thrust the Morning Glory to the hilt into Vandross’s chest.  The stricken warlock’s face fell as he dropped his sword, falling backward.  But as he fell, he smiled once more the smile of the damned.

 

“You have not won, Byron!  I still have one card up my sleeve!  In the name of the unholy, of the great chaos, of the destruction I seek,” he proclaimed, rising to his feet and levitating once more.  Oh gods, Byron thought.  The Glorious Mother of Destruction!  With a black barrier of energy going out and wrapping around Vandross, he had no known way to counter this massive wave of destruction that was about to be unleashed on him, his friends, and every living thing in the mountain.

 

Didn’t Vandross realize that he, too, might perish in the aftermath of the dark ritual?  Or did he simply not care anymore?  In either case, Byron knew what he had to do.  Risking life and limb, he put his arms up in front of his face and charged into the wrapping barrier around Vandross. Wraiths and demonic souls raged at him from the barrier, the essence of the Pit all around him as the barrier slammed through him on all sides.  Join us, they seemed to hiss at the Dread Knight, but he held his arms up, and prayed to mighty Oun for the strength to finish this final task he had given himself.  The barrier around him then seemed to stream around him, leaving him unfettered, untouched.  The Dread Knight brought his hands back down to his sides, and stood proudly before the stunned warlock, who had ceased his incantation to stare wide-eyed at him.  “How,” was the only word Vandross could manage to utter before Byron gripped the Morning Glory, drew it out of his chest, and brought it in the same motion fluidly through Vandross’s waist, cleaving him cleanly in half.

 

The barrier disappeared, and the mountain ceased its quaking around them.  Vandross landed in a pile of his own gore, wailing like a child having a tantrum, beating his fists against the ground under his back accordingly.  He was starting to bleed heavily, and the demonic aura that had been radiating around him fell apart.  Byron’s heart sank as he looked at the carnage he had committed on this man, who was nothing more than a victim of his own greed and power hunger.  For a moment, he forgot all about the atrocities that the warlock had committed, forgot his own seething hatred of this mortal man.  And though his anger resurfaced, he knew in his heart of hearts, that he forgave him his trespasses.  After all, Vandross was only mortal.

 

“Please,” Vandross begged, his voice wracked with sobs and suffering beyond compare.  “Please, save me,” he pleaded, one bloodied hand reaching up from the organs he desperately tried to hold in his body.  However, he could not seem to keep them all together, or in the right order from Byron’s perspective.  The liver didn’t go there, did it, he wondered with a morbid fascination.  He began to feel weak, though, and stumbled a step back.  “You know what will happen if I die, don’t you?!  You’ll cease to have any tie to the mortal coil,” Vandross spat through blood-soaked lips.

 

The Orbs of Eden’s Serpent began to pulse inside of his upper torso, and one by one, all four began to leave his body.  The one-eyed warlock pushed them back into his body, though, clinging to them, as they kept him from Death’s door at this point.  The Orbs, Byron realized, were trying to save themselves.  If he finished the job now, the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent would die along with their host, and no longer be a threat to the mortal Races of Tamalaria.  They must have abandoned Tanarak of Sidius in his final hour, in order to preserve their malign power.  “You will die, Byron,” Vandross shouted, tears running down from his good eye, and his ruptured, mangled eye slid slowly out of its socket.  He’s falling apart, Byron thought. Literally.

 

“I know this, wicked man,” Byron proclaimed.  “But it is my fate.  It is the fate of all mortal men, a fate that you and your former master cheated me out of!  And now I must die along with you, and face the judgement of my god, the great Oun!  I must accept whatever punishment he doles out to me for my wrongdoings!  I have accepted that fate, Richard Vandross.  It has always been my way of life.  We, who stand against the darkness, shall see it banished by our holy light.  No matter the cost!”  With his words echoing throughout the chamber, Byron drove the Morning Glory down through Richard Vandross’s heart.  There was an explosion of light and darkness, melded together for one brilliant moment of blinding energy, and as Byron held the Morning Glory in place, he could hear the shrieks of death of the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent and their manifestations.  After the light died, he looked over at his friends, who had all risen to their feet and hung in the doorway, their bodies tense.  “I believe, we are done here,” Byron said, toppling over and falling prone to his back.

 

Bael and his companions from the battle with the Dreadnaught sat up on the hill crest overlooking Mount Toane.  They had all taken a solemn vow to go in and seek out the warlock himself if nightfall came again with no sign of Byron.  But as they ate their meal of freshly hunted deer meat, the Lizardman could just barely make out four figures striding out of Mount Toane’s rock face.  They carried something, or rather someone, on a litter between them.  “By the gods,” Bael said, throwing aside his meal and racing down the hill toward the companions of Byron Aixler, who now laid dying on the litter they carried.  The Dread Knight’s bones had begun to turn an ashen color, and the lights in his empty eye sockets were flickering.  Bael walked beside the group, seeing that Shoryu Tearfang, the Cuyotai Hunter who had spent more time with the Dread Knight than any others among the company, held one of Byron’s bare, Human hands.  The effort of carrying his share of the heavy load and holding Byron’s hand must have been enormous, Bael thought, but well deserved and heart felt.

 

Atop the hill, as the company arrived at the Lizardman’s camp, the other warriors and mages had their hands over their hearts in respect for the fallen undead warrior.  “Please,” Byron croaked from his dry throat.  “That, is not, necessary,” he groaned.  The Morning Glory was now strapped across James Hayes’s back, but its white fire had extinguished the moment Byron had dropped it.  “Over, over there,” he said, trying to lift his free right hand, pointing to a single oak tree that grew despite the craggy soil of the area. The company, Shoryu, Morek, Ellen and James all walked with him between them, Bael and his own compatriots following closely behind.  The company laid the makeshift litter down, having rapidly made it from two lengths of stone fashioned by Ellen’s magic and the warlock’s cloak, ripped from his mangled corpse by Morek Rockmight.  The Dwarf tried to hide it, but slow tears ran silently down his cheeks and into his gruff beard.

 

“Is this where you meant,” Ellen Daires asked softly, unashamed of the streaks running down her own face.

 

“Yeeeees,” Byron said, trying to sit up.  Shoryu tried to ease him back down with one hand, but Byron still had strength enough to shove the hand away and get to his tottering feet.  He wobbled and swayed like a macabre marionette, but no one tried to help him.  His eyes shone brilliantly once more, and he lurched forward to embrace the Cuyotai, who could no longer hold in his body-wracking sobs.  Bael lowered his head out of respect for the moment.  Byron clapped Shoryu roughly on the back twice, then released him, and moved to James Hayes.  The Paladin opened his arms and accepted Byron gently, smiling all the while.  He alone did not shed a tear among the four who had been so close to the Dread Knight.  He alone held a genuine smile.

 

Byron then moved to Ellen Daires, who could barely hold the Dread Knight upright as he leaned into her with the last ebbing strength he possessed.  Kneeling down, Byron then gave Morek a mighty hug.  The Dwarven Boxer quickly shrugged him off.  “Go on wi’ ye, now.  I’m not up ta this sort a thing,” he said, keeping his tone steely and rough.  With a final turn to the Lizardman, Byron extended his right hand.  Bael shook it gently, then released it.  Byron slowly lowered himself to the ground, his hands crossed over his chest in a dead man’s position.

 

“I, must thank you all,” he said in a harsh, raspy whisper.  “You have truly been, my, friends.  I, have been blessed, this time around,” he said, and as he gave a weary sigh, the lights in his eye sockets went blank.  The warlock Richard Vandross was slain, his armies defeated, and the lands would soon begin rebuilding.  Before parting ways, the company agreed, they would do their fallen friend and leader one last service.  They began working on a proper grave, and in the twilight of evening, Byron Aixler was finally laid to rest.

 

Epilogue

 

Five weeks passed, and the land and its peoples slowly made progress towards normal life again.  Shoryu Tearfang and Ellen Daires had just returned to their cottage home in Whitewood after a long day of bringing in crops from the fields near the city.  Ellen was overjoyed to find an envelope on her kitchen table, and a familiar guest sitting at the head of the table with his feet propped up on a second chair.  The master Pickpocket and gentleman, as he liked to call himself, Lee Toren.  “Oi, ‘ope you don’t mind, I showed meself in,” the diminutive thief said as he whittled a small figurine.  Shoryu eyeballed him suspiciously, going into Ellen’s and his bedroom to check and see that nothing had been taken.  “Hey, I take offense to what yer doin’!  I didn’t take noffin!”

 

“Guilty conscience,” Ellen asked coyly as she took a seat on Lee’s right hand side.

 

“No,” Lee said, pulling his feet down and looking hurt.  It wasn’t genuine, of course, his expression.  “I happens ta be a foin, upstandin, law-abidin citizen.  Now, all jokes aside,” he said in a rush, leaning forward as he pocketed his whittling knife and carving.  “I did loik you asked, so if’n you don’t mind, I’ll be taking my payment, in full.”  Ellen smiled and nodded to her husband, who stood in the doorway casually.  Shoryu sauntered over to the icebox and removed a bowl that still steamed with heat from its contents.

 

“Here you are, Lee.  One bowl of my wife’s finest ontukara,” Shoyu said, horribly mispronouncing the title of the Elven dish.  The Gnome opened it and immediately pulled out his own wooden fork, digging into the savory meal.  “Don’t get good home cooked meals often, do you,” Shoryu asked as he took a seat opposite his spouse.

 

“Nope.  Comes wif the profession, lad,” Lee said around a mouthful of stewed potatoes and deer meat.  Gods, he thought, this stuff is good.  “Too many warrants, too many cities lookin fer me.  This place is one of the only kingdoms that I don’t risk it.  Too many honest folks.  Anyways,” he said, devouring the last bit of his meal.  “That’s the letter.  He seemed to be doing just fine when ‘e handed it to me, but he was in quite a hurry.  Lots of work to be done, he says.  Anyways,” Lee said, standing up to take his leave.  “You know how Morek is.  Hell, you both spent a good deal of time wif ‘im, seen a lot of rough stuff.  Was, uh, there anything else you needed me ta do for you?”  The married couple looked at each other, shrugged, and said no in unison.  “Roit then, I’m off.  You two be good, okay?”

 

As the Gnome thief walked outside, he took in the fresh evening air, the smell of pine trees and maples filling his lungs to bursting.  Well fed and feeling a little better about his karma, Lee looked over at his new traveling companion.  The tall, muscular figure strode over to the little Gnome, his wooden leg clacking against the ground awkwardly.  Tiberious Amon was still getting adjusted to his new leg.  “You sure your arm is in this kingdom,” Lee asked the black garbed Khan, whose eyes sparkled with newfound strength and determination.

 

“Quite sure, my little friend.  I could almost feel it that day, as though it were still trying to take orders from the rest of my body.  We’ll find it among the Elven cities or Cuyotai settlements.  We may even find it among the Lizardmen.”  Lee nodded in agreement, and together they left the city of Whitewood.

 

“You’re entirely certain about this,” the Cleric in charge of the Order’s artifacts said to James Hayes as the Human Paladin handed him the Morning Glory.

 

“Yes, I am, Father Epps.  It was never mine to begin with.  It should be taken care of properly, placed in the cathedral.  No arguments,” he said, holding up a hand to silence the gaunt Elven Cleric.  He had enjoyed his five days thus far in Fort Berring, and on the recommendation of the Order’s highest priests and Paladins, had been given command of the entire Fort. He was now High Commander James Hayes, of the Order of Oun.  And his work had begun with the assignment of exorcists to the Mount Toane region, to finish dealing with the demons that had taken residence there in that foul mountain fortress.  If it had been within his authority, he would have hired Alchemists and Engineers to devise a way of blowing the whole thing to high heaven, but the Order wouldn’t have approved of utilizing Scientists in their holy works.  With time, James Hayes intended to change the general attitudes of the Order.  It was a long and narrow road, and sure to be full of pitfalls and resistance, but it was the road he chose to walk down.  “The easy path isn’t always the right one,” he muttered as he left the fort’s cathedral.

 

“Commander,” a young Knight in silver armor said as he rushed up to meet the Paladin.

 

“Yes, what is it young man,” he inquired of the flush-faced Knight.

 

“Sir, there’s someone rather odd at the gates.  He’s asking for you, very specifically.  He didn’t say he wanted the Commander, or our leader, or anything like that.  He said he wanted to see James Hayes, the man who served in the Battle of Vandross with Byron Aixler.  He was very clear that he wanted to see only you, and not inside the fort.  What are your orders?” James thought long and hard about this information.  Who would address him thus?  Without going out to see, his suspicion was that Bael had taken a rather lengthy and unnecessary journey, as Hayes had already written the Lizardman that he would be coming through the region to visit with Shoryu and Ellen in a couple of weeks.

 

“Stay here, and don’t mind me.  I’ll go speak with him,” Hayes said with a smile to reassure the young Knight.  Sauntering confidently to the main gates, James came to a sudden halt as he peered at his visitor.  The traveler was a man of average height, wearing the most brilliant silver plate armor one could see, sitting atop a great black stallion.  Though the face of the visitor was decidedly Human, Hayes knew that to be a charade.  Molis dismounted his steed as Hayes signaled for the gate to be opened.  He strode out to meet Molis, a firm hand extended and received, shaken hard. “What brings you here, Mister, ah,” he stammered.

 

“Tarren,” Molis replied, lying so swiftly that it almost caught James off guard.  “James Tarren.  I just wanted to know how things are going for you now, James.  Wanted to see how you’re holding up,” he added in a much softer tone of voice.

 

“It’s been odd, being in charge instead of being led,” Hayes said, looking to the sky.  “But I’m doing just fine otherwise.  What have you been up to these days, Mr. Tarren?”  Molis shrugged his shoulders vaguely.

 

“Not much.  Traveling, seeing how the lands are doing now that the threat of Richard Vandross has passed.  I’ve come across some fascinating people in my travels, including an odd young Cuyotai by the name of Straig,” Molis said.  “I believe he is without family, so I’m heading back to escort him to a young couple, to live with them for a while,” he reported, pulling his riding gloves back on.  “They’re friends of the
Tearfangs.”

 

“Ah, yes, the Tearfangs,” James said with a nod.  He looked at Molis out of the corner of his eye.  “Anything else to tell me?  Perhaps you’d like to come in and confess your sins at the cathedral?”

 

“No thank you, my good sir,” Molis replied rather hastily.  “I must be on my way.  You take good care of yourself now,” he said somewhat mockingly.  “I’ll be checking in on you from time to time.  I used to serve here, you know,” he added, his voice carrying a hint of fading memory.  “It was good for me, at the time.  Not so much so anymore.  Well, stay well, James Hayes.  I trust Byron Aixler is in your prayers.”  James nodded in agreement.

 

“Indeed he is.  He always will be.”  With a mutual wave, the Human Paladin and the half-demon parted ways, but not for the last time.

 

Judgement, Byron thought, still wrapped in darkness.  He had died several weeks ago, and had been wandering through a dark void since that time.  When first his life snuffed out, he stood before a blinding light, and a voice had spoken through the wall of clouds to him.  “YE SHALL BE JUDGED NOW, BYRON AIXLER.  KNOW NOT DESPAIR, FOR I AM A VERY BUSY GOD, AND HAVE MUCH TO DO,” the booming voice of the god Oun said to him.  Despite being dead, time passed very slowly for Byron in the void.  He had no body, no substance.  He was floating freely through the void.  This was standard, however.  He had been taught in his time as a mortal man that the gods required long periods of time to pass judgement on a soul.  He felt certain that when he could see and feel again, it would be the flames of the Pit that he witnessed.

 

But even as he thought these words once more, he woke up to find himself lying in a green pasture.

THE END

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