The army of the Dread Knight Byron, Thaddeus Viper, Morek Rockmight, and the free lands and peoples of Tamalaria, had advanced to within seven miles from the entrance of Mount Toane. Richard Vandross had responded to their arrival by sending several platoons out into the fields between the Dread Knight’s army and the mouth of the mountain. The army of Ja-Wen, which had managed to be just outside of the shock wave from Vandross’s Glorious Mother of Destruction, had revealed themselves on the southern front of Mount Toane, making a pre-emptive strike in the night when they arrived. The ruckus had roused most of Byron’s forces from their slumber, the surprised shrieks of Illeck mages and Shadowbeasts as they came under assault by angry, now-homeless soldiers and former constables of Ja-Wen breaking through their own sleep. Byron had let out a furious battle cry, and had launched himself, along with a small handful of Knights and Paladins, to include the members of his own company, into a skirmish with the guardian forces of the mountain’s main entrance.
They had, to say the least, slaughtered the one-eyed warlock’s forces without much effort. High on sudden courage and the realization that they could use this assault as a ploy to further their plans, the ranking officers and their men who had gone with Byron the night before had gone into the fray with few or no worries. Thus, they had fought without regard to their own well being. “Such a lack of self-preservation sometimes leads to our greatest victories,” Morek Rockmight had said to the Dread Knight as Byron cleaned the Morning Glory off after the fracas.
Of course, Morek himself had sustained the most severe of the company’s members that evening. An ice lance had run through his left side by one of the Illeck mages. He had lost a lot of blood, and the best of the Clerics in the army had been required to mend his wounds. “There will be some pain and discomfort for a few days yet,” one of the healers had informed him. “You will have to be very careful, for even healing magic can be undone by carelessness.”
Now, standing on a ridge some seven miles distant once again, Byron thought on the wisdom of Morek’s statement. It also leads to unnecessary deaths on both sides, Byron thought grimly.
Colonel Molis had provided him and his company, along with a platoon of men and women, a back way into the mountain’s catacombs, a secret tunnel through which to gain access to the warlock’s inner forces. Though the passageway would not allow more than a single platoon in with Byron and his company, it would be enough of a counter-balancing measure to send Vandross and his cronies reeling for cover. The shock factor would do most of the initial damage; Byron swore on his late wife’s soul that he and his Morning Glory would do the majority of the secondary damage. He originally thought to ask for volunteers among the army’s ranks, but James Hayes had cautioned against that.
“Every man and woman available would try to tag along, mighty Byron. It would be best to hand-select those needed for our unit.” The Human Paladin had already begun looking over those who stood closest, his eyes squinting as he thought long and hard about whom to select. “And may I make a suggestion, my friend,” Hayes asked with a near whisper. Byron leaned toward him without looking away from the face of Mount Toane.
“Certainly, James, what is it?”
“Well, sir, it’s about your selections for the unit. Look at a man, speak with a man, spend time with a man, and soon enough you’ll know if he’s got someone back home or not. Same goes for women, though they are usually more forthcoming about their emotional connections, sir.” Hayes walked around in front of Byron, blocking his view of Mount Toane. “Sir, soldiers with nobody to fight for don’t generally do well in these situations. They need to stay in groups. The best warriors are the ones with family, the ones who have people and homes to defend, to go back to when everything’s said and done. Sir,” he said, adding the title as an afterthought. Byron clapped Hayes on the shoulder, thanking him silently for his advice on the matter.
“Very well then, James. Take Morek and interview the candidates. You have a couple of hours, but try to be quick about it. We need a platoon of two hundred men and women, warriors and mages both. Be as swift as you can be. As soon as the platoon is assembled, gather the forces for one final address. I shall speak to them all, rally them to our purpose one last time. Because after the assault on the warlock, my friend,” Byron said, walking away from James and whispering. “I shall not be able to speak to anyone, ever again. When I fell Richard Vandross, I too shall die.” Hayes looked at his undead companion for a long, silent moment, then saluted and moved away to find Morek Rockmight and begin the selection process for the platoon.
As the Paladin and Boxer made their way through the ranks, Byron thought on what he would say to the men. How would he tell them that no matter how valiantly they fought, the world would not be as it was before Richard Vandross’s rise to power? How would he tell them that of the nearly twenty thousand of them present, more than half would most likely perish, here, today? He couldn’t be certain, because he had never, in his mortal life, been that straightforward with his troops. As a proud, noble Paladin in the Order of Oun, he had never thought about the defeats suffered on the battlefield. Overall victory, that was the message the Order cared about the most.
But what about the dozens, maybe even hundreds of lives forever altered by the death of a single soldier? Friends, family, loved ones, all deprived of that one common link. In retrospect, Byron supposed that the end of one man’s life rippled throughout the entire world, regardless of his Race, his Class, or even the kind of person he was. Looking out over the thousands assembled, he groaned inwardly; not the best time to be having such revelations. Especially when one could hold themselves personally responsible for that one man’s death, regardless of who he was.
Shoryu Tearfang came sprinting toward Byron from the south, having been dispatched to check on the status of Ja-Wen’s standing army. He stopped a few feet short of the Dread Knight, flashing him a keen, toothy grin, his eyes aglow with anxiety and good news. “Good Byron, Ja-Wen’s forces are bolstered with men and women from the Port of Arcade, the village of Holenwik, and Monks and Samurai from training grounds in the northeast and southeast. They number nearly twelve thousand strong, and suffered only twenty or so casualties last night. They are standing in full readiness, prepared to march when we make our move.” Byron smiled, a deep rictus that caused his lower jaw to stretch and distort out of real proportions, the twisted nature of his existence once again rearing its ugly head. Yet there was no malice in that expression, as once there most certainly would have been. It held only joy, and an extreme satisfaction. Richard Vandross had lost all of his advantages, it seemed.
“Two armies, Vilec Roak, two! And you mean to tell me that they outnumber us?!” Richard Vandross hurled bolts of lightning through the dark space of his throne room at the Shadowbeast General, his fury barely contained. “If they are only two armies, how can they possibly outnumber us? I have summoned nearly every available Shadowbeast and lesser demon from the Pit! I have collected together thousands of Illeck mages, each more than capable! I still have many hundreds of Khan at my disposal! How did we take that beating last night?” Another bolt of lightning, this one wrapped in the swirling, purple energy that reeked of decay, power from the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent siphoned into Vandross’s own mundane magic. Vilec Roak, having kept to the shadows of the throne room, removed himself from one, exiting the Shadowplane for long enough to explain the situation to his leader and summoner.
“My lord, we took such a heavy pounding due to the fact that, as per your orders, we have kept the majority of our forces in check, here, inside the mountain itself. If any platoon from without dares to march inside, they shall surely suffer as your many minions fall upon them, sire,” Vilec Roak explained, finally having regained a sense of calm, a sense of control. Colonel Molis’s aura had disappeared in the midst of the previous evening’s assault, and Roak presumed him dead. No matter, he had thought. Probably the best news to have in a while! “And besides, you can always use the Glorious Mother of Destruction on them, my lord,” he added, knowing full well that the one-eyed warlock could not, as yet, call upon that force again. At least not for now.
“No, I can’t Roak,” Vandross said with a heavy heave and a sigh, slouching into his throne of rock and bones. His hands smoked with spent power, his boots scorching the floor as he dragged his feet. Roak realized, rather suddenly, that Richard Vandross was exhausted, and still had not properly rested since utilizing the Glorious Mother of Destruction. “I need to rest before I can call upon that again. I’m going to my quarters in a minute,” he droned lazily, his one good eye already quickly closing. “I trust you can defend Mount Toane for a day or so,” he asked, already nodding off.
“Yes, of course, my lord,” Roak said, slinking away. He had plans, and they didn’t involve sitting back and waiting to be attacked. With Molis gone, and Vandross recovering, the Shadowbeast would go on the offensive, send wave after wave of demon and tainted man out into the fray. But he would have to distribute the forces evenly, or at least in a fashion that would utilize the strengths and weaknesses of his own ranks, and those of the armies set against the mountain and its masters. Vilec Roak passed out of the throne room and down through sets of tunnels, passages blurring by him as he swiftly traveled through the mountain. The old, familiar scent of fear clung to all of the mortal creatures within the confines of the mountain fortress, the salty stench of sweat and tears mixing together like airborne nectar to his senses. The sounds of grunting, growling, praying and conjuring echoed through the halls, and Roak could identify the purpose of each.
The growling of the Khan Soldiers, Knights, Berserkers and battle Clerics, all enraged that Lieutenant Tiberious Amon had been sent away, unable to lead them in this final confrontation. Here and there, as Vilec Roak slid through the shadows of their barracks and meeting halls, he heard words of dissent and defection. One Soldier Class Khan even mustered the gumption to say rather loudly that, “Lord Vandross is a mad dog, and we should not be taking cues from him any further! I am leaving this mountain at the first opportunity!”
The grunting that Roak had heard throughout the mountain turned out to be nothing more than several scores of Orc, Troll, Goblin and other assorted humanoid soldiers of varying Classes training themselves, getting ready for the onslaught ahead of them. The praying, for the most part, happened to be the Necromancers, all assembled into the lowest livable reaches of Mount Toane, raising the bodies of the long since dead, and jumbling them together into strange grotesqueries that could surely curdle the blood of most mortals. As for the conjuring, the literally thousands of Illeck, Human, Khan, Greenskin and demon mages and shaman inside the mountain were busying themselves with the setting of magical traps and caltrops, defensive barrier spells and the memorization of offensive, combat spells.
And outside, as Vilec Roak poked his head out into the noon daylight, the armies of the Dread Knight and Ja-Wen were stirring. It would appear that they intended to send skirmishers once again, as they had the night before. The key difference, of course, was that this time the outer perimeter of the mountain had been fortified with ranks of Vandross’s own troops. Shadowbeasts lazed about in the draining sunlight, weakened by the golden rays of heat and illumination, but they were, for the most part, the throw-aways of Roak’s kind. Most had been hand selected by the Shadowbeast Prime himself to shore up defenses during the daylight hours. He didn’t care much if they died; after all, death for a demon in the mortal realm merely sent them back to the Hells. Provided, of course, that they weren’t destroyed in very particular fashions. Roak shuddered slightly as he thought of the various methods of sending a demon back to the Pit to be a tortured victim, instead of a gleeful and malicious servant. One of those very ways was to simply be cut down by a Paladin of true faith.
Another of those methods popped up rather unwanted in the back of Roak’s mind; destruction of a demon’s soul. Unbeknownst to most mortals, the majority of the demons that dwelled in the seven realms of the Pit had once been the souls of mortals themselves. Some became demons through contracts made with the Timeless Ones, also known as the True Demons. Filled with malice and darkness so pungent and pure as to make angels writhe and cringe at their presence, those demons alone could say that they had always been in the Hells. Some lesser demons had been spawned from the mating of two True Demons, but they too held sway and power in the Pit, unlike the lessers.
Most, however, were the tortured souls of sinners who had grown numb to their eternal torment, or even those who began to enjoy their constant agony. Yet at their core, through the demon soul imbued upon them, beneath the ethereal flesh that covered their now misshapen bodies, dwelled the soul of a mortal.
A mortal that could be sent back to all that agony. Vilec Roak himself came from that category.
But the likelihood of Roak himself being felled in any of those methods felt slim to the Shadowbeast Prime as he turned his back on the scene of movement in the armies of the mortals. After all, when the battle began, lord Vandross’s armies would be more than enough to stand against the rush of the mortals without. Many of the warlock’s own troops came from the mortal Races of Tamalaria, and so the deaths of those troops would mean little or nothing to the General. However, he didn’t like the idea of having so many of his own kinsmen slain in the name of the madman’s cause. Perhaps there had been some wisdom in the Khans’ grumblings and musings.
As darkness wrapped lovingly around the demon, caressing his black, oily flesh like a long waiting lover, he smiled, pearly white razors gleaming through the shadows. He didn’t intend to be among the casualties of the massive battle that loomed ahead. He intended to leave the mountain the moment the tide of battle swung against him. And then Richard Vandross, rested or not, would have to do the commanding on his own. Roak had already decided how he would leave. After all, Shadowbeasts could walk through shadows whenever, wherever they chose.
Even if the rest of the mountain came down around the warlock’s ears, Vilec Roak would live to see another nightfall.
“What exactly are we doing, m’lord,” one of Byron’s officers inquired as the Dread Knight barked orders at the top of his lungs to the platoons within earshot, trusting the officers further down to continue the message. Byron gazed at the swelling ranks of Shadowbeasts, Illecks, assorted Greenskins and Khan shuffle and adjust around the outside of the mountain, apparently not willing to be caught off guard again.
“We are forming a wall, Major,” the Dread Knight responded coolly, his voice calm and sure, but his pinpoint eyes roving back and forth over the opposing forces. “A wall of men and women, five people deep and as long as the stretch of our forces, so that we may appear to be in constant readiness. Behind the wall, down the slope of the hills and the plain behind us, the remainder of the armies shall rest and take food, train a little for what’s ahead. One doesn’t lay successful siege to a base or domain by simply charging in at the onset, Major,” he said, adding a hint of scolding to his tone for the Human Knight whose rank was Major.
The man had served, apparently, with James Hayes at Fort Flag, one of the only half a dozen survivors from Hayes’s unit. After the Dread Knight’s company had left the city, young Steven Blaine had been asked to join Desanadron’s new standing army, which still had very few members, due to the city’s destruction. He had accepted immediately, and quickly been assigned the rank of Major for his hard work in helping the city rebuild. Now, here he stood, long blond mien of hair flowing back over the backing of his plate armor. Pretty boy, Byron thought with an internal growl. Some Knights are just like that.
“Of course, sir. You are still quite the tactician, aren’t you, sir?” The question came out awkwardly from the Major’s lips, and the Human immediately cast his eyes downward, embarrassed or ashamed of something he might have implied in the question.
“How do you mean, Major,” the Dread Knight asked, folding his arms across his barrel chest. The Major floundered for a brief moment before standing at full attention and saluting.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Byron said nothing, simply waving his hand as if to say, get on with it! The Knight relaxed visibly, and Byron could make out the faint, relieved sigh that huffed from the man’s lungs. “I’ve read all about your use of tactics in service to the Order, m’lord,” the young man gushed, his eyes glossing over with a feverish excitement. Blaine’s hands balled up as he posed rather exaggeratedly towards the undead warrior. “And I know this one! Byron Aixler’s ‘Wall of Unseen Readiness’! It’s just like I read in the Order’s latest tactics guide! You know, you’ve got about six or seven entire entries in the book,” the young Knight said, edging closer to Byron just a little too much for the Dread Knight’s comfort. He quickly scanned the area for James Hayes, his mind working feverishly to think of a reason to get rid of this suddenly insufferable youth. He understood awe and respect, but Blaine was giving him the willies. Just then, as Blaine’s eyes sparkled near to Byron’s breastplate, he found the Paladin he had been traveling with. He flapped his left arm up and down in a flurry of attention-gathering sweeps, his hand flung open and barely visible due to his rush to get someone to take this man away from him.
The white mustache and goatee of James Hayes whipped around, and as his eyes met Byron’s, he grinned widely, knowingly. ‘Spare me this please, my friend,’ Byron’s pinpoint lights seemed to beseech of Hayes. ‘Sure, you’ve suffered enough,’ Hayes’s replied. The stalwart Paladin sauntered over to Byron and the impressionable young Knight, a smile pasted across his face. “Steven, my good man, we have some patrol duties to assign, rations to disperse, the usual officer sort of things. Come along then,” Hayes said, already walking away. Blaine saluted Byron quickly, then sprinted off to follow James Hayes. Byron sagged with relief, free from the unexpected adoration of a young man, especially one who seemed so, well, effeminate.
Shoryu approached from the plains beneath the hill crest, coming from among the men and women already preparing to get some precious little rest. The Cuyotai Hunter had been ranging around Mount Toane since sunrise, and had gone off to get some food before making more reconnaissance checks. He smiled broadly at the Dread Knight, the fur of his canine snout pulling back with his lips to reveal a mouth full of dagger-like teeth. Any farm boy or inexperienced adventurer surely would have gone chilled to the bone at the sight of such a smile, the young Cuyotai’s eyes flashing wide and bright. The potential for murder lay deep in those green eyes, tucked away behind the kinder, jesting and joking attitude of Shoryu Tearfang. But Byron had become intimately aware of that component of Shoryu’s being; the boy was deadly accurate with that enchanted bow, and would have no qualms with proving it to anyone or anything that got in his way or threatened the well-being of his wife and himself.
“Anything to report thus far, my fine furry friend,” Byron asked, raising an ‘eyebrow’.
“Yes, good Byron. Military food really is terrible,” Shoryu said with a light chuckle. Caught off guard, Byron laughed a little bit as well before shaking his head, and trying to regain his composure. The stress from this whole escapade, the entire ordeal of handling Richard Vandross, had become overall rather taxing on Byron’s previously tenuous nerves. The peoples of the lands of Tamalaria had gone seemingly overnight from wanting to cut the Dread Knight down, to declaring him the only hope they had against a formidable warlock. Well, not the only hope, or nobody would have bothered sending an army, but everyone seemed to be in agreement; when the final blow was to be struck for victory, it would be the undead warrior who dealt it. “Other than that, I haven’t observed anything too out of the ordinary. However,” Shoryu said, holding up a finger pointedly. “I can tell that there are some very experienced Necromancers in the back rows of the guarding ranks out there, my friend. Already they prepare spells of conjuration to bring their ungodly minions to bear against us.”
“How many,” Byron asked, moving toward the wall of men and women set up as a ruse atop the hill slopes. As he approached, the armored troops of mortals in his service parted the way, allowing him to look down at the perimeter forces of Mount Toane. Shoryu loped along with him, and as Byron scanned the area, Shoryu pointed a long, narrow finger at the Necromancer group he had spoken of. Byron concentrated, and focused all of his visual attention on them. Utilizing magic of a neutral nature, as he had once before to search for demons, he brought his field of vision bearing right down on them, while keeping his sense of hearing back with the young Hunter. “Hrmm,” he mused.
“Seven, by my count,” he could hear Shoryu report. Sure enough, though Byron only saw six, he moved his vision slightly west, and found yet another. The one female Necromancer stood apart from the men, all of them Illecks. Stupid, he thought, to separate the one woman from their midst, simply because she happened to possess a different set of reproductive organs. Then again, almost all of Illeck society was like that; the men ruled and made the decisions, while the women were made to simply comply. Of course, this only served as the surface of their dark society. Truth be told, Byron thought as he recalled his many conversations with the dark Elves he had worked with in service to Tanarak of Sidius, the women were simply more capable of carrying out orders and plots than the men. Sure, the males were the great schemers, but the females of the Illeck Race held the physical and magical potency of their people. Perhaps, then, he thought, this Necromancer woman had separated herself from the men. Perhaps her talent stood much higher than theirs. He sincerely hoped not. That many Necromancers working together chilled him to the core enough, but to think that she held more power than those six men would prove fatal for many scores of the men under his command.
“Shoryu, be completely honest with me,” Byron said, bringing his vision back to its normal range of influence and turning to face the young Cuyotai Hunter. “Can you get a clean shot on one of them? Go for a kill right now?” Shoryu stepped next to Byron, shoulder-to-shoulder with the hulking Dread Knight. He covered his eyes to adjust for the glare of the sun, which had begun its long march to setting. After a long moment, he grinned at Byron and nodded.
“I assume you’ll want me to aim for the woman,” Shoryu said, not a question, but rather a statement of fact. Byron nodded slightly. A wind howled through the hills, tearing at the air with an eerie wailing reminiscent of the banshees of the night world. The air held no magic in it; this was a natural breeze, one that whispered of the death that soon would visit these hills, the fields, and the interior of Mount Toane. Byron shuddered, his confidence slipping for a fraction of an instant. What was being asked of him was more than he could have done in mortal life. He had tried once to stop a tyrannical warlock who resided in Mount Toane, and this accursed, wretched body and un-life had been his reward. What if he failed again, against the one-eyed madman within the earthen fortress? He gripped the handle of the Morning Glory hard with his left hand, feeling the holy power therein. No, he said to himself. There would be no failure this time.
“That’s right, young one,” he said, almost bellowing the words. “Aim for the head, in case she’s already performed the Rite of Rotting.” Shoryu raised an inquiring eyebrow at Byron, and motioned his hands in a circle, asking him without a word what the Rite of Rotting was. Byron heaved a thoughtful sigh. “It is a Necromancer’s ritual, the ultimate spell of their teachings, in its own way. The Rite is a ceremony that each Necromancer of high power and status performs when they realize that their own time on the mortal coil is limited. Most don’t recognize their inevitable fate for dozens of years, but when they do, they decide that they would rather become one of their own beloved creations than pass on to the seven Hells. Some few reach the heavens of some darker gods, but most burn for eternity in the Pit,” he spat, his words curt and hostile. Byron abhorred the undead in life, and here he was, standing as one of them. “Anyway,” he continued with a shrug of his shoulders. “The Necromancer prays to the dark gods, mostly to Necros or Necrophite, lords and overseers of the activities and un-life of the undead. They beseech these dark gods for a new body, a chance at un-life, when they are felled. Most return as Lordly Zombies, a variety of Zombie that is both physically and mentally their own equal in life. They’re also called Uberzombies. However, they too have the craving for the flesh of the living.
“Some, however, have been chronicled to return as Wraiths, some as Mummies, and even a very select few as Liches. They are the most powerful and fearsome of the lot,” Byron said. “Though Liches are not the most powerful undead creatures overall, these particular ones return with all of the powers of the Necromancer in life, and the unholy powers of a Lich. This woman could very well be one of those.”
“So why the head shot,” Shoryu asked, confused at the Dread Knight’s request. “If she’s just going to come back, I don’t see any reason not to shoot her through the heart like an animal,” the young Hunter said. For the first time since Byron had met him, he heard the slightest hint of true disgust and abhorrence in Shoryu’s voice.
“Because, Shoryu, if a Necromancer is slain by having their brain destroyed, they cannot be brought back through the Rite of Rotting. The damage cancels the whole spell out,” the Dread Knight said with a grin. Shoryu smiled in return, and drew his bow and arrow. Notched and readied, Shoryu knelt down to take careful aim at the Illeck woman. Who knew what sort of creatures she could summon if she indeed had that sort of power, Shoryu thought. Best not to take any chances. As soon as he had the Necromancer’s forehead trained with the arrow, he let fly his mystic weapon. All of the ranks of the wall gasped in shock as a single projectile fired from their midst, each man silently praying that the attack would go largely unnoticed by the perimeter forces of Mount Toane.
Only seconds later, there came from the Necromancer woman’s forehead a shimmering light, and an explosion of blood and brain matter. Byron tightened his fist and almost shouted ‘buyah!’ However, he resisted the urge, and focused his sight down on the collected male Necromancers. As he had hoped, they all had broken their little circle to rush away from their fallen comrade. Chaos soon erupted along the back lines of the perimeter forces of Mount Toane, and that chaos slithered along on its belly through the entirety of those troops, an invisible serpent that struck each man and woman in a mental vein. The cries of alarm rang through the afternoon air, a sweet symphony to Byron’s ‘ears’, as it were.
“Good shot, my boy,” he said, putting a heavy, armored hand on Shoryu’s shoulder. The boy didn’t bother to look up from the teeming swarm of Vandross’s men. His face had a dour and serious cast, and Byron looked out once again to see what it was the Cuyotai Hunter had spotted. Immediately Shoryu notched another arrow, and Byron spotted the creature that the Hunter had trained his next shot upon; a Dreadnaught.
Among the Necromancers’ most fearsome conjuring was the Dreadnaught, a creature assembled from the remains of several powerful men or beasts, lashed together with magic and stitching. In addition, most came with a large variety of weapons attached to their bodies or buried in their rotted flesh, held there by the dead muscle tissue that the Necromancer to summon it had reanimated. The circle of Necromancers had clearly pooled together their resources long before coming to the perimeter of Mount Toane. There had not been enough time for them to conjure and assemble a Dreadnaught during their stay outside of the mountain fortress. And the female must have been placing some sort of charms and protections on the beast, for now it made its way through the rambling lines of confused defenders of the mountain, a single, deadly silhouette against the afternoon light.
Byron tried to hone his vision on the creature, but his attempts failed. Some magic repelled his magical sight from the Dreadnaught, and he was forced to rally together several officers and the members of his own traveling party. All stood at full readiness, as the three-man deep wall of the Dread Knight’s army tensed to do battle with the fearsome Dreadnaught. Among the officers assembled stood Colonel Molis, disguised as an Elven Soldier. The outline of his aura gave him away to Byron, as well as Ellen Daires, but neither the Dread Knight or the Elven Gaiamancer made mention to the others, or indicated to the half-breed that they could see clearly through his ruse.
“There is a Dreadnaught approaching the lines, perhaps five minutes away from them. Have any of you ever dealt with such an abomination,” Byron asked them, but they simply muttered among themselves before shaking their heads as a collective. Only Morek Rockmight nodded his head in acknowledgement.
“A few years back, we ‘ad a drifter come through Traithrock, a Rakah,” he said. “Raven-men, if any of you’ve never ‘eard of ’em. Anyhow, their kind tend ta be a bit too curious for my liking, and this one ‘ad some of the most disturbing books and artifacts in ‘is arms and rucksack when he was checked at the gates. Still, even after I was appraised of the situation, I gave the go-ahead to let ‘im in. Big mistake. Apparently, he’d been gathering bits and pieces of things to assemble one of those things,” he said, pointing in the direction of the Dreadnaught’s approach. “Wanted a Dwarven spine or two to put in it. We Dwarves are fairly well known fer the strenth of our skeletal structure,” he said, smiling a little for a moment, pride hitting home. His face just as quickly set back to its usual scowl, however, as he continued. “Well, a couple of guards went missing that noit, an’ the next mornin’, we ‘ad one of those things attacking the city. They’re damned tough, especially when someone wif half a brain makes ’em. The Rakah, he only meant to do it as a study, but things got out of hand. He’d forgotten to put a limiter on the thing before he woke it up, and he had to come into our town and destroy it wif ‘is own magic.”
“So, what happened to the Rakah,” one of the officers asked.
“Oh, I dusted ‘is brain wif a couple well-placed punches after that,” Morek said matter-of-factly. “Not ‘afore I asked him how to stop those things on our own, though,” he added after several officers cringed from him. “See, they can take a hundred axes to the body, swords to the face, if’n they’ve got one, an’ they ‘aven’t got any concept of pain fer the most part. Most magic won’t work on them either, seein’s they most times have skins from different magic users implemented on their body,” Morek added, looking hard at one of the Cuyotai officers in Elven Kingdom uniform. A Lieutenant, and an Aquamancer as his primary Class. “However, blunt force works real good on ’em. Their bones never fuse quite roit during the construction, or so the Rakah told me. Break the limbs, then just tear it apart he’d told me. And fer some reason, lightning spells work just foin on ’em.”
“I have a couple of those on hand,” said the only Minotaur officer at the meeting, a tall, brutish looking figure by the name of Big John. His half-plate armor gleamed with patches of gold that the beast-man had banged into the armor himself. Captain Jonathan Reeves of the Port of Arcade Constabulary, or police force. He had come with Thaddeus Viper from the port city in the northeast, hand selected by the old bandit himself. Byron had not heard the man speak once in the whole time he had marched with the armies, but now he wanted the man to say more. After all, he had what they needed in this clinch situation. However, more time could not be spared to plan a defense against the constructed monstrosity, as it had already reached the front line of the wall and was roaring as it tore into the foremost soldiers. Blood sprayed the ground and dozens of troops, and the thick, metallic scent of it clung immediately to the air. The officers all spun around to face the creature, splitting up and barking orders of retreat and cautious attack, and Byron’s company readied themselves in combat formation.
Byron let Morek take the front position, since his enchanted gloves were really the only blunt weapon the company had to use aside from James Hayes’s mace, which the Paladin held in hand. Despite his recent injury and warnings, Morek wanted a piece of this freak. Finally, the creature came into full view of them, an Elven man impaled on the sword that had been attached to its left arm to serve as its main weapon. The sword bled with a wicked, purple aura, enchanted already by the sorceress that Shoryu had shot in the face. No face graced its wicked, contorted form. Instead, two large nostrils had been attached to its blackened chest, flanked on both sides by sheets of metal grafted onto the outer flesh of its mangled form. The reek of death and blasted muscles and flesh filled the air as it hurled the lifeless body of the Elven Hunter from its sword arm. It reminded Byron vaguely of the Shadowbeast in Whitewood that had pierced its own body with weapons, so that it could careen through the Elven capital like a whirlwind of weapons and death.
Maggots fell from small seams in the stitching of its flesh, crawling over its body with practiced ease. After all, much of this abomination had previously been their meals, and it made sense to see them writhing about on what they considered their property. The mere sight of it made several dozen of the troops vomit uncontrollably as they recognized the disgusting nature of the Dreadnaught. Slipping in their comrades’ blood and pools of their own excretions, several of the troops fell as they tried to follow their officers’ orders to fall back, stomped to death by the massive bulk of the Dreadnaught. Its torso was easily five feet around, and its legs appeared to have belonged to a horse or Centaur, making effective stamping and kicking weapons. Dagger blades had been attached to the sides of its feet, and a whole new dimension of danger presented itself as the beast lashed out with spinning kicks and thrusting stabs with its sword arm. It was tearing his men apart, and Byron felt helpless to stop it.
“Move,” Morek shouted as he charged toward the behemoth construct, weaving and dodging between men and women as they fled this way and that. The whole area appeared to be a mass of chaos now, on both sides of the conflict. A single arrow had started this all, Byron thought in horror. An arrow that I ordered Shoryu to fire! Damnation and hellfire, Hell and blood! As he and the company surged forward, Ellen Daires could be seen summoning magical force into her clasped hands, green light swirling around her chest. As the company closed to within melee range of the Dreadnaught, Ellen unleashed her spell, creating an outer skin of stone around Morek Rockmight’s body, save for his fists, that he might still strike with them. “Much appreciated deary,” he shouted back as he rolled to his left to avoid the downward strike of the Dreadnaught’s sword arm.
Before the Dread Knight could move forward to assist the diminutive Boxer, he peered to his right, down the hill, and saw that two waves of troops had been sent from the perimeter defense of Mount Toane. “All assemble for battle,” he screamed down the slopes to the resting and preparing members of the army. Much to his satisfaction, he saw that they had already started forming ranks to come to the aid of their stricken comrades. Already more than two score troops had fallen to the deadly construct, and by Byron’s calculations, only three or four minutes had passed. The creature had to be stopped before it could gain the assistance of the slowly marching ranks of Vandross’s men.
Morek Rockmight danced this way and that, unable to find an opening in which to strike out at the beast, its movements impossibly quick for dead flesh and nerves. The moment he thought he had an opening, he lashed out with a powerful cross at the creature’s hip, which was at his eye level. However, the Dreadnaught had purposely left the opening there, and lashed out with a third, hidden arm from its back, bashing Morek in his right side, tossing him dozens of yards away. The Dwarven Boxer landed with a heavy thud and a “Hoomph,” mere feet from Shoryu, who had taken up a position behind a rock barrier that his wife had constructed for him with her magic.
Byron hung back, Morning Glory in hands, observing this mighty foe. Surely the creature had some other weakness aside from the blunt weapons and lightning, but what was it? Where should he strike? His training had taken over, and he skirted the perimeter of the skirmish with the construct, which had turned its full attention on his party. Good, he thought. Come at us, we’re more than capable of handling you, you fucking freak, he thought with vehemence.
Morek had managed to get back up, but his right arm hung low, the hand covered in the enchanted glove dipping lower as the seconds ticked past. He knew his arm had been damaged, but now that he was in the fray once again, he discovered the true extent of the injuries, and felt the slow venom of doubt creeping through his blood. He couldn’t fight at full tilt, and probably the effect was permanent. If he survived this quest, he might never properly fight again.
The creature reared back, spreading its forward arms wide to expose its nostril-holding chest. A patch of its flesh just below those large nostrils peeled back to reveal a thin, feminine forearm stretching out, magical force flaring from its fingertips. “Everybody down,” James Hayes cried, diving for cover to the ground. Ripples of air in the shape of large, crescent-shaped blades flew out from the hand, striking Byron hard in the breastplate and legs, throwing him back and tearing open the greaves that covered his upper thighs. He slid back several yards, his heavy iron boots dragging through the dirt and tearing the topsoil apart as he stood his ground.
“Astrominus Raxium,” Ellen Daires screamed, launching her own magical counter-attack on the outstretched arm coming from the construct’s belly. The ground shook with fury from her goddess’s power, and the ground split a few feet in front of the Dreadnaught. Caught, perhaps, by a bit of surprise that was left over from a previous body part’s owner, the creature looked down to witness a large, stone and metal ore-riddled arm protrude from the earth itself. The arm came up to chest height on the monstrosity, cocked back, and pounded the creature with a mighty, close-fisted blow that sent the construct flying through the air, perhaps a hundred yards back toward Mount Toane. The surrounding troops let out a rally cry of triumph, and set themselves for a charge at the approaching minions of the warlock, Richard Vandross.
Byron sprinted over to where Morek Rockmight was slowly stepping from foot to foot, wobbling back and forth. Still dazed and a little edgy, the Dwarven Boxer took a swing at the Dread Knight, who had been wholly unprepared. As the Dwarf slammed his fist into Byron’s leg, the Dread Knight let out a howl of pain that was more genuine than he would have liked; the blow landed right where the Dreadnaught’s Aeromancy spell had torn his armor. Morek’s vision cleared, and he saw Byron knelt down, holding his leg as plumes of fury-induced smoke billowed from his eye sockets. “Oh moi goodness, look, hey man, it was a total misunderstanding,” the Boxer stammered, perhaps truly afraid for the first time in his long life. Byron did something unexpected then, though; he started to chuckle, a low, demonic laughter that began to rise in pitch and volume as he raised his head and straightened his back. He had the appearance of a madman about him, and as Morek tried to inch away, the Dread Knight reached out and grabbed him fast by the tunic, which was no longer covered by the stone skin Ellen had cast on him.
“Do you have a middle name, Morek,” Byron whispered in the Dwarf’s face as he pulled him slowly close. Morek simply nodded, his eyes locked onto those red, swirling pinpoints of light. “What is it?”
“Ralin,” Morek stammered. “Morek Ralin Rockmight. Why, friend,” he asked, plastering a shit-eating grin on his face, hoping for mercy.
“I just wanted to know, so that if I come back as a specter to haunt your fat ass, I know what to moan in the middle of the night,” Byron said, pushing the Dwarf back and laughing heartily, in a much more mortal fashion. “No worries, master Morek. Simply caught me by surprise is all. We have other things to attend to presently,” he said, brushing himself off and sheathing the Morning Glory as he rose to his feet. Having gotten a good sense of the creature’s aura and power, he now knew what to look for in terms of weaknesses. The metal plating laced to the Dreadnaught’s body served as conductors for lightning-based magic spells and thunder spells. That much could be rationalized. And the insides of Dreadnaughts often remained hollow so that weapons like the Aeromancer hand and other similar nasty surprises could be concealed beneath the patchwork flesh and muscle.
That hollow space could also serve as a means of destroying the creature, Byron thought with a wry smile. If someone could get close enough to strike with a bladed weapon, one with a spell locked on it, it could be set to go off inside of the behemoth. The creature would surely do little more than remove the weapon from its outer shell and wield it in battle, unaware of the damage being done to it from inside its own macabre body of assembled corpses. And if the spell were lightning-based, it would continue to conduct through the metal attachments, rebounding through the hidden weapons inside and the metallic components inserted into its main body.
“Captain Reeves,” Byron shouted over the roars of combat that had ripped the afternoon air asunder, like so much wet parchment. “To me!” The Minotaur officer, having heard his name called out amid the battle between the Dread Knight’s army and the outer defenses of Mount Toane, finished smashing a Khan in the skull with his war hammer and began sprinting over. The Minotaur deflected incoming blows from Shadowbeasts and Khan, leaping this way and that to avoid Pyromancy spells that flared to life mere feet away. Byron’s own company had come under attack as well, and unbeknownst to the Dread Knight, an Orc of considerable weight and strength was about to attack him with a cleaver.
The rush of splitting air, Byron noticed, as the entire world around him came to a near stand-still, his vision blurred shades of gray, the color going out of reality. The smell of long-dried animal blood, the kind one might smell in a butcher’s shop. The faint grunt of a Greenskin of some sort heaving its weapon at him. Taking all of these signs in, Byron felt the ground beneath him. He could detect the slight splatter of energy sent through the ground into the back of his feet from something heavy rushing toward him from behind, the ever-present strands of energy rippling through the ground itself vibrating in tune to his attacker. To the common naked eye and set of perceptions, the Orc was swinging his cleaver full bore, when Byron executed a back flip at nearly the speed of sound, landing in a crouch behind the offender. The Orc finished its swing, looking around in a daze for his target. What had happened? Had he completely disappeared?
It should be noted, at this point, that before a mortal being in the realm of Tamalaria dies, if it is bound for the Pit, it is given awareness of the fact mere moments before death. This short span of time is given by the gods, so that the creature has a few brief moments to apologize for his sinful ways, and beg forgiveness from the gods he had offended, including whatever god the creature is supposed to be worshipping by Class or Racial preference. The Orc had just begun to turn towards Byron when it was informed of its awaiting, eternal torment. For most combatants, this is the fatal moment when they slip up, make an error of judgement, or otherwise fail to do whatever task they are about. For the Orc, it proved no different. As it laid its hateful, baleful eyes upon the Dread Knight, Byron swept his palm up and pressed it against the Orc’s forehead, white-hot light flaring from his open hand. The Dread Knight’s eyes flashed golden light as he bellowed, “Holy Cannon!” A blast of holy power, and all that remained of the Orc was a quickly draining torso. Byron had cut the fiend’s legs off at the knees when it was finishing its turn, sweeping his Morning Glory from a quickdraw and casting the spell at the same movement.
The Dread Knight gazed over at the Minotaur, who had finally arrived, only to join a melee with James Hayes, the two veterans standing back to back as they circled, besieged by Shadowbeast underlings. They appeared to be having a fun time, though, as both men wore savage grins of battle on their war-weathered faces. Much as he would have liked to let the two of them have their fun, Byron noted that the Dreadnaught was coming back towards his company, sweeping aside Byron’s and Vandross’s men alike to get at the creatures that had fought it back. And though the Cuyotai Hunter was an excellent marksman, nothing he shot at seemed to cause the creature to slow. The mystical projectiles, for some reason, weren’t exploding in time, the Dreadnaught pulling them free and tossing them aside. The arrows exploded moments later, when the construct tossed them aside.
“He’s got a Necromancer’s defensive spell on him,” Shoryu cried out to Byron from atop a pile of Khan corpses. Minutes earlier, the mound hadn’t been there, and those Khan Knights had been fiercely attacking a group of Soldier Class troops from the Elven Kingdom. Byron shook his head in surprise and a grim satisfaction; the young man could kill, that much was certain. In a macabre display of in-field improvisation, Shoryu had stacked the bodies and crouched atop them, using the additional height as a sniper point, since the battlefield was devoid of trees at good enough locations to be used by an archer. The fact that the Khan appeared to have been shredded by claws and teeth instead of downed by arrows didn’t escape Byron’s attention.
“Understood,” the undead warrior called back. He turned back to the squad of lowly Shadowbeast servants, sprinting around them with the speed of a tornado, his weapon held at waist height as he cut them all cleanly in half. The Morning Glory flashed with each fallen foe, blinking more rapidly than most could see. As he skidded to a halt before James Hayes and John Reeves, stones and soil sprayed the air from his heels dragging through the soft soil.
“Aw, you’ve ruined our little game,” the big Minotaur breathed as he sucked in breath. A constable through and through, the big Soldier-Thunder mage Reeves was not accustomed to such frantic fighting conditions. However, push having come to shove, the towering officer had proven to himself and everyone around that he could indeed endure the harsh conditions of grand-scale warfare. “We were just starting to play!”
“I appreciate your newfound love of the sport,” Byron droned, somewhat sarcastically. “But we have a bigger problem. The Dreadnaught is coming back this way, and we have only a minute or so before he arrives again, this time with the slightly better understanding of what we are capable of. Do not misunderstand, the construct is a thing of the undead, but they always have a smattering of sentience left behind by their creators. It shall not fall for the same tactics again, so I need you to lock a spell of lightning of some sort on the tip of my blade.” John Reeves asked no questions and made no arguments, putting two fingers on the flat underside of the Morning Glory and lifting it to his chest height.
“Agurium Strovus, Pounding of Power,” the Minotaur chanted thrice as he spent his reserves of mana on locking the spell’s casting onto the tip of the sword. Immediately, Reeves stumbled back, seating himself heavily on the blood-soaked ground. Hayes knelt beside him, a look of worry on his face. “I’m fine,” the big man muttered, coughing heavily. “Just winded from the effort is all. Keep me guarded for a minute,” he asked, and Hayes nodded his acceptance of the charge given.
Everywhere the pair looked, Human Paladin and Dread Knight, blood choked the scrub grass of the hilly region. Swaths of corpses lay congealing in the baking afternoon sun, the reek of blood, vomit and death-induced bowel movements filling the air. For as far as they could see from their position in front of them, down towards the face of Mount Toane, mortal men and women rampaged against each other, seeking to spill their foes’ blood. How Vandross had managed to sway the Greenskins became apparent after a few minutes of thinking on the nature of Orcs, Goblins and Trolls. Might is right, that was their collective view of the world. Those with power should seize control.
The Shadowbeasts and other assorted lesser demons also seemed clear to him. Vandross had summoned them from the Pit for his own purposes, which the Dread Knight knew to be heinous and mad. Coveting power and control was the instinct of such villains as the one-eyed warlock. What Vandross sought to achieve seemed the goal of a delusional sociopath, to engulf the world in fear, just to slip back into the darkness, waiting for centuries before reappearing and feeding off of the newfound fear. That second wave of terror and every subsequent one thereafter would be worse than the one before, fueled by tales and legends of a great and mighty evil that dwelled deep in the bowels of Mount Toane. The entire citizenry of Ja-Wen would likely uproot and resettle elsewhere, someplace further from the mountain lair’s influence and reputation.
But the Khan and Illecks’ reasons for joining Vandross’s side of this continent-wide struggle eluded the Dread Knight, even now, as he watched the sorcerers and warriors of both Races collide with his own army. But before he could give any more heed to such thoughts, the malevolent undead construct burst into view over the crest of the hill, sweeping its sword arm in wide arcs to cleave those in its path in twain. The metallic shine of the blade had gone dull with blood, droplets of crimson life falling like spatters of rain to the ground. But the Dreadnaught did not come for Byron, or for the young Hunter who continued to volley arrows at it from nearly point-blank range. Instead, it began to bear down to the ground, squatting low and holding itself forward on its right hand. Firmly planted as it was, the top of its torso was targeted straight at Ellen Daires, who currently stood engaged with an Illeck Aquamancer, their spells lancing at each other with the ferocity of their nature-related schools of magic.
Heedless of the danger that might come from getting the mystical cross-fire, the Dreadnaught lunged forward, throwing itself like a bull at full tilt toward the two dueling spell wielders. Such speed, Byron thought, trying to get himself to move. However, he soon found that a pair of dying Khan had latched onto his legs, and were trying desperately to drag him to the ground to do battle with the last breaths of their lives. Bothersome creatures, the Dread Knight thought, his thoughts nearly in a panic. He had to get to Ellen, or she would be crushed by the Dreadnaught!
But as Byron tore the dying Khan from his ankles and looked toward the Elven girl, he saw a streak of brown fur and fangs flash past, slamming full force into the Dreadnaught’s left flank. Shoryu tackled it to the ground with a heavy crash of metal and the wet, meaty smack of dead flesh hitting the blood softened soil. When the tumult of motion had come to a full stop, Shoryu Tearfang stood atop the construct. His claws flashed back and forth as he rent large sections of flesh from the creature’s outer husk, finally jamming three fingers from each claw into the gaping nostrils on the Dreadnaught’s chest and tearing them open as he somersaulted backwards through the air, away from the lethal being.
The Dreadnaught was instantly on its massive feet again, throwing up its left sword arm to block an incoming blow from James Hayes’s mace. Big John Reeves had apparently gotten to his feet and joined the fray once again with the defenders of Mount Toane, and from all indications that Byron could see, his army was starting to take heavy advantage of the daylight and their numbers, as well as skill. Order had been restored by the calm and tactical minds of the officers under his command, and units moved in groups of ten or twenty men, making surgical strikes to the disorganized and failing minions of the warlock. Why had Vandross decided to go on the offensive? Byron wondered. It made little sense, as it was a move that Vandross’s predecessor would have made. Perhaps the outer perimeter is under someone else’s command at the moment, he thought, weaving his way through the throngs of combatants with ease as he closed into melee range with the abomination.
The Dreadnaught took several swift and hard swings and stabs at the Dread Knight, Byron parrying and blocking each blow with a practiced ease. His feet remained planted for only a few seconds each time, his training keeping him in a position to strike the moment the opportunity came. A moment later, after he blocked a roundhouse kick from one of the creature’s bladed feet, his opportunity came knocking hard on the door.
As the construct brought its heavy leg down, it cocked its sword arm back for an overhead blow. Byron thrust the tip of the Morning Glory into the left side of the torn nasal cavities on its massive chest, his eyes flashing, the discharge of thunder magic on the end of the sword riveting his body as it completed its casting. Byron withdrew the blade, and took several shuffling strides back, watching as the Dreadnaught began to spark and smoke, its weakness to the nature of lightning magic becoming abundantly clear. The protective charms that had kept Shoryu’s arrows from exploding on contact did not work on such magic, and the metal plating all over its arms and in its legs and back smoked and smoldered, streaks of blue and yellow power coursing through its undead flesh.
After a full minute, the Dreadnaught began to fall apart at the seams, stitches flying everywhere as patches of flesh and chunks of muscle and bone came apart, dropping to the ground and leaving the stench of burned, spoiled meat hanging to the air as it ceased to function. Seeing their leader’s victory over the Dreadnaught on the periphery of their vision, several of the officers and all of the members of Byron’s personal troupe gave out a vicious, ear-splitting roar of triumph. The minions of Richard Vandross, pierced to their hearts by the sound of that roar, turned tail and took flight back towards the safety of Mount Toane.
“Shall we follow them,” Thaddeus Viper shouted across the battlefield to Byron. The Dread Knight looked up at the old reformed bandit, and saw that the aging Human had not fared well in the skirmish, though being alive still was better than many had done. A hole the size of a gold coin had been punched through his right forearm, his hair and face held soot and singe marks from Pyromancy, and a black, ashen mark of the Pit lay across his bare chest. A demonic power that Byron was very familiar with; the Black Mark, an inversion of the Holy Blast Paladin spell had destroyed his armor. Had Viper gone into battle without his standard mythril chain armor, he surely would be among the casualties. Frail and old as he was, he shouldn’t even be on the field of battle, the Dread Knight thought.
“No,” Byron called out, sheathing the Morning Glory across his back and visually doing a brief status check on his companions. Morek Rockmight appeared to have unleashed a great deal of aggravation at his failure to take down the Dreadnaught on a collection of Illeck, and he sat amid a circle of their broken bodies, smoking a pipe of tobacco. His right arm looked somewhat crooked, and Byron realized that the damage done to the Dwarven Boxer would likely never be healed.
Shoryu and Ellen were holding one another for comfort and joy at having survived yet another assault together. And the stalwart Paladin James Hayes was applying his healing magics to several wounded men not twenty yards away. “No, for now we wait. We execute our original plan, tonight, as was our intention all along,” Byron said quietly as he dashed over to the Mayor of the Port of Arcade. “Viper, I don’t think you should join in the assault. You are already laid bare,” Byron said in a gentle voice, putting one heavy hand on Viper’s shoulder. The old man winced a little, and Byron eased the weight of his armored hand off. Viper opened his eyes and grinned wryly, patting the undead warrior’s hand and nodding, acquiescing to Byron’s request.
“Perhaps you are right, young man,” he said, slowly seating himself on the bloody scrub grass. He sat with his legs crossed, stretching out his arms behind him for support. A loud pop came from his hip, and once again he winced with pain, much more obviously this time. “Damnation! Popped my hip out of place,” he grumbled, gnashing his teeth behind his thick, bushy white beard. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he said with a chuckle, and waved off Byron’s offered hand of help. “No, I think I’ll sit here a while. Good master Morek,” he called over to the Dwarven Boxer, who exhaled a plume of smoke and looked over at the old man with a cocked eyebrow. “Mind sharing some of that with an old timer?” Morek smiled a little, got up from his seat, and walked over to share a good smoke with Thaddeus Viper.
“Mi’lord,” a young Lizardman shouted as he charged over to Byron, saluting him as soon as he stopped. Byron returned the motion, and turned to face the young reptile. “Lord Bael gives his congratulations on your victory over the Dreadnaught. He wishes to take council with you sssstraight away, my lord,” the young warrior said, bowing deeply. Byron motioned for the youth to go ahead of him, and he turned to address his company.
“I’ll be right back, so don’t go anywhere. I need you four,” he said quietly, lowering his eyes from them. A pang of guilt raced up from his stomach to his heart. He had formed a bond with his traveling companions, one that had sustained him throughout the long ordeal of battling against Richard Vandross and his intentions. The Dread Knight wanted to spend some time with them all before they rushed Mount Toane for the assault.
After all, if things went according to plan, he had less than a day to live.
Vilec Roak sent a blast of vitriol from the end of his outstretched fingers into the wall of the mages’ hall. Mountain gut rock exploded in a shower of stones and pebbles, the Shadowbeast Prime’s fury unchecked as he sent it out once again, this time striking a Human Q Mage in the face, melting his head into a bleeding neck stump. “Hellfire! Mighty fuck and damnation,” he screamed. He had personally aided in the construction of the Dreadnaught for the last week, and had kept it carefully concealed near the entrance of Mount Toane, hoping to spring it on the unsuspecting Dread Knight and his forces and have it deal a heavy blow to their numbers. He had watched from a Mage’s Eye spell from above the battlefield, and had witnessed his offensive turn to dust as the Dread Knight destroyed the construct. He had almost made it seem easy, though he had suffered one injury to his legs.
And where had Colonel Molis been all this while? The half-breed had slipped back into the mountain fortress after the defenders of Mount Toane had retreated, regrouping and taking themselves for the most part back inside the mountain tunnels and caverns. The army of Ja-Wen had not done quite so well as Byron’s forces, but they too had turned their attackers aside, leaving things a total mess for Vilec Roak to clean up. So here he stood, his demonic rage unchecked as he scolded the mages who had served as officers on the front lines, letting them know that anymore foul-ups meant their inevitable doom. He had just demonstrated that point rather well, though he hadn’t intended to. Still, an effective way of getting the message across, regardless of his purpose.
Now, however, he had to go up several flights of earthen stairs to the section of the mountain where the remaining Khan warriors and shaman had taken up residence. All had gone out to serve in the assault, and only about half had returned. But none had decided to stay outside. As Roak made his way hurriedly up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time where he could, he could hear the anger in the tiger-men’s voices. While he could easily intimidate the Human and Illeck mages, he would not have so easy a time with these beasts.
Khan were nothing if not tenacious and ruthless. Those very qualities had made them among the best choices for foot soldiers in Vandross’s cause, and their thirst for power had brought them easily under the warlock’s influence. However, Roak suspected that they had become more and more aware of the sorcery that had tricked them into staying with the cause when so many of their comrades had fallen in combat. The power of the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent had let Vandross see into their heart as a whole, and manipulate them with promises of territory and authority. They might well have fallen for that in the beginning, but now it would be a whole other matter.
The feel of the mountain rock softened the higher up Roak ascended. The chambers began to take on a more hill region feel underfoot, something the Khan had taken to rather well, considering their ages-long residence in the Allenian Hills region. Some of the chambers up this high even had holes in the outside of the mountain, allowing sunlight through the mountain face. The taste of the air held a metallic, blood-filled quality, and as Vilec Roak strode through the hallways into the enormous cavern where the Khan resided, he saw that they were stripping off their crimson-stained uniform tunics and casting them aside. “And what do you think you’re all doing,” he growled, a hint of sarcasm in his voice as he stood before them, arms crossed in front of his chest. He manipulated the shadows of the room, pooled them to his own body to give himself the appearance of greater mass and strength. A mere parlor trick, he knew, but this was a demon’s parlor trick, not easily recognized by such lowly intellects as these. The Khan seemed slightly put off for a moment; the optical illusion had done the trick, for now.
“We are leaving,” one of the older Khan said, his fur matted with blood and patches of gray showing through the typically vibrant orange and black. His left arm was resting in a makeshift sling, bone protruding through the bandaging at the elbow. A serious injury, Roak thought, yet still this elder has the strength of will to move and be rebellious. I shall have to make an example of him. “A group detached during the battle on the front already, and they have likely begun their trip back to our glorious hills,” he groaned, his injured arm moved gingerly to pull off his uniform tunic. “We intend to join them, dark one,” he roared as Vilec Roak took a step forward.
The Shadowbeast was stunned still for a moment; the fire in those dark eyes of the elder Khan, the sheer willpower it must have taken for the old man to draw his battle axe in his left hand as he shouted! It had been rather unwise to try to fool these creatures into helping them, he suddenly realized. Vandross at the very least should have kept Lieutenant Amon at Mount Toane. The proud Chieftain had at least possessed a sense of duty, and hadn’t questioned orders! Now, he was staring at a chamber with nearly one hundred of these beasts, all of them glaring murderously at him!
Yet, that served as a double-edged sword, he thought with a wide and razor-filled grin. Without the proudest of their numbers among them, would they have the spine to stand against him? Was not this stare-down and banter a sign of their inability to actually do anything? He decided to test the Khan, and whipped his left arm out toward the old man, stretching the fabric of his body and forming a spear with it. With blinding speed he struck at the old Khan, and was sure that he would pierce the tiger-man’s heart. But as the appendage raced faster than the mortal eye could see toward the elder, a figure dropped from somewhere above and knocked the offending weapon aside, sending it hurling back into Roak’s body harmlessly. The figure stretched as it stood, sword in hand, staying in front of the Khan. It was Colonel Molis.
“How dare you, Colonel,” Roak spat with manic rage. His eyes flared with yellow, demonic light. He had decided immediately to undo the restraints that Vandross had placed on him when he had been summoned; after all, he had no more need of a power checking system. Vilec Roak stretched and grew his body to twice its normal size, towering now over the assembled Khan and the strange, cold visage of the half-breed. Purple and red swirls of power raced along Roak’s arms, his talons extending into fine scythes, their edges gleaming in the little bit of sunlight that came into the chamber. “You do not know your place,” Roak’s voice boomed, echoing off the walls of the cavern, grating on the nerves of every mortal being in the room. No longer did he care about the nature of Molis’s demonic heritage. It mattered not. He had stepped far beyond his station yet again. “You have forgotten the chain of command, both in service to lord Vandross, and in the Pit! You are only a half-demon! What possible hope do you think you have against me?!”
“Let them go,” Molis muttered, his voice level and calm, devoid of emotion. The half-demon removed his helmet for the first time in Roak’s presence, and all assembled saw the coils of black, snake-like flesh that squirmed over his head. Only demons of status could retain those coils on the mortal plane, as they were an indication of rank in the seven Hells. Six of them wriggled in the air around Molis’s head. Vilec Roak stutter-stepped back, suddenly mortally afraid of this half-fiend once again. “They have no desire to serve the purposes of the warlock any further. I do not intend to let there be any unnecessary bloodshed,” he droned, his tone still cold and devoid of inflection. His voice barely carried to Roak’s ears, but the shocked Shadowbeast could very well have been mouth-to-ear with the half-demon. “So you shall let them leave, now.” The Khan assembled behind Molis had stopped moving, entranced by the powerful aura radiating from Molis. He half turned away from Roak, catching the eyes of a strong, middle-aged warrior with his own crimson eyes. “You there. What is your name, good man?” The Khan stammered for a moment.
“Larkun, sir. Larkun Fleshsunderer,” the Khan pronounced proudly, puffing out his already barrel-like chest.
“Larkun,” Molis said, seeming to test the word on his tongue. “Respect your elders. Help this veteran pack his things. Understood?” Without another word, the younger tiger-man swept over and began to help the injured elder assemble his things.
“These lowly dogs aren’t going anywhere,” Roak bellowed, having regained his sense of control. It was odd, he thought. As soon as those eyes had ceased to meet his own, he felt liberated, as though invisible shackles had been undone from his wrists and throat. “Barrac Minak Mooden,” he shrieked, sweeping his huge left hand in front of him and unleashing a wave of pitch black energy toward Molis and the Khan warriors. Molis had only a split-second to react, and he hadn’t in truth expected such a powerful demon spell to be cast at him. Unable to do much of anything else without a counter-spell readied, the half-demon lunged forward, arms crossed in front of his face. As the spell made contact with his armor, an explosion of purple light erupted on Molis’s forearms, and he was sent flying into the wall behind the Khan warriors. He slid slowly down the wall, grunting with agony as he hit the floor. The Khan nearest to him helped prop him on his feet, asking feverishly if he wanted their help. The younger ones seemed the most eager to fight, but Molis smiled and wiped his mouth, blood coming away on his hand.
“No, I shall dispatch this devil on my own. Continue to make your preparations for departure,” he said, satisfaction and an edge of battle lust tinting his voice now. One-on-one combat, he thought. That was what I had lived for as a mortal man. His vorpal blade in hand, Molis dashed with lightning speed across the chamber to Roak, who had begun to follow his enemy as he swept a handful of Khan Knights and Soldiers aside. As Molis approached his target, he spared those men and women a cursory glance.
No fatalities, good, he thought. As Vilec Roak swung a massive set of claws down at him, Molis took to the air, and brought his blade sweeping across Roak’s swollen chest. As Molis landed in a crouch, Roak’s cry of pain shaking the very mountain itself, he blocked hard with his left hand the kick that the Shadowbeast leveled at him. Pushing the offending foot with all of his considerable strength. Sending Roak into a spin, Molis once again leapt up, landing squarely on the Shadowbeast General’s shoulders. “Die,” he muttered, his tone once again cold and devoid of feeling. He gripped his sword in both hands and plunged it into the base of Roak’s skull, sending tremors down through the giant demon. “Musodeken Mihai Enyacko,” Molis conjured as he twisted the blade, two spiders of green energy spilling from Molis’s mouth and crawling lightning-quick into the open wound.
Molis jumped again, leaving the sword in the stricken Shadowbeast’s head as Roak spun on him. “Fool,” Roak groaned as he cackled with demonic humor. “Did you think a stab to the head could finish m-” he started, but stopped as he faced Molis. Roak’s enormous, gimlet eyes went wide, and his body began to quiver and shake as it reduced back down to the size of a man. His arms exploded in a shower of meat and blue blood, the oxygen having been taken from his entire body by the Wraith Spiders that Molis had summoned and sent into his body. As they severed the tendons and muscles from the bones, the ungodly magical arachnids drained the oxygen and demonic power holding Roak together from him, leaving him a wasted, limbless corpse when they were finished. Without another word, Vilec Roak’s demonic soul was sent hurtling back into the Pit, where it belonged.
Molis casually strode over and removed his vorpal blade from the smoking husk of Vilec Roak’s body. He turned back to the stunned Khan, who had nearly finished packing. Sheathing the blade, Molis approached the injured elder. “Will you be all right until your return to the Allenians,” he asked, his voice suddenly Human in nature, and filled with genuine concern. The Khan were once again left almost speechless.
“I’ll be just fine,” the elder said, catching his voice again. “I may be old, and I may not be the purest soul, but I know I owe you a great deal, Colonel. I only wish my boy was here,” he said, hefting up his rucksack with his good arm. The rest of the Khan all lowered their heads for a moment in respect to Molis, as well as in response with the old Khan’s statement.
“And who is your son,” Molis asked, helping the old man put his battle axe back in its holding loop.
“Tiberious Amon,” the old man said, his voice a sorrowed whisper. “I am Rexus Amon, his father. But my son was sent into a foolish battle by the warlock, and now, he is dead,” the old man said, tears threatening to break free from his constraint.
“Was his body ever recovered,” Molis asked with a knowing grin. He had seen the tiger-man only the day before, when he had decided to see how the rest of the realm was dealing with the war raging here at Mount Toane. Amon had been riding on a horse with a tall, noble-looking Wererat, if their kind could ever be described as such. The old man seemed to understand the implied question, the underlying statement that Molis kept cleverly concealed. He shook his head, and gave the half-demon a heart-felt smile of his own.
“If ever you are in the Allenians,” said Larkun from the front of his pack. “We shall offer you what we can. It is the least we can do. I know that sounds like the words of a Simpa, but I mean it,” the middle-aged warrior said, spitting the word ‘Simpa’. The werelions were the Khan’s most hated enemies, and their rivals for control of the Allenian region. Most Khan tribes were not seen as having honor, or a sense of duty. And in truth, Larkun’s tribe had been one such pack. However, seeing Tiberious Amon in command, and the way this half-demon had defended them and treated them with respect and honor, Larkun was beginning to question the ways of his particular tribe of Khan. There would be changes when he and his kinsmen returned to the Allenians. Big changes.
“I shall consider that an honor,” Molis said, bowing deeply to the group. “Now, you should make good your escape. I shall accompany you outside, so that there can be no misunderstandings. We shall be stopped, I am certain, by Byron Aixler’s forces,” he said, turning about and leading the way.
“Who is Byron Aixler,” one of the young warriors asked from the back of the moving platoon. “We know only of a Dread Knight by the name Byron, and he is Byron of Sidius.”
“He is of Sidius no longer,” Molis whispered, his voice carrying softly to the back rows of the Khan. “Or haven’t you noticed which side of this conflict he stands on?” Without another word spoken among them, Colonel Molis led the Khan down the twisting tunnels and stairwells, and out into the light of day.
Byron marched like the embodiment of death through the wounded and dead bodies lying about the fields and hills. The young Lizardman had waited for the Dread Knight to catch up with him, and together they walked toward the west, where Bael and his troops were currently surrounding a rather large pack of Khan, and a single man in silver armor. As Byron approached within earshot of the familiar half-demon, he laughed aloud and greeted him.
“Colonel Molis, you never cease to amaze me,” he said, embracing the half-demon as soon as he was within arms’ reach. Bael took a step back, clearly surprised that this creature with the serpentine head attachments was the turncoat Colonel. Molis returned the embrace, much to Byron’s pleasant surprise, and the two men stood like that for a long minute, patting each other on the backs of their armors. Pulling away from the half-demon who had once been his best ally, Byron surveyed the Khan behind him. “Heading home, are you,” he asked the Khan pack, who all nodded in unison. “Very good. Bael,” he said aloud, turning to face the Lizardman warrior. “Let them pass. These gentlemen and warrior women would like to go home, I believe. Back to their beloved hills.” Shouts of agreement rose up from the Khan ranks, and Bael smiled ruefully.
“Well, I suppose there isn’t much I can do to change your mind about that,” Bael said. “Break the chain,” he hollered, and the reptilian troops parted and broke their circle around the marching Khan. They moved as one group, heading away and off into the distance. Within mere minutes, they had almost marched double-time out of sight. Byron made note of the sun’s progress toward the horizon. It would be nightfall in a couple of hours. “What are your orders now, mighty Byron,” Bael asked, coming to attention.
“Hold the line, and be ready to take command when I head in through the tunnel, as planned,” Byron said, speaking rapidly now as he turned away. “Molis, are you going to stay with us until then? Or have you decided to leave as well?”
“I must return inside the mountain for an hour or so,” Molis said. “I have a resignation to formally submit, and some news to give Richard Vandross about his great General.” Byron turned and looked at Molis’s wicked smile, an eerie green light gleaming from within his throat.
“You mean the one named Vilec Roak? What happened to him? Did he flee for fear of his accursed life?” Molis laughed the cackle of the damned, a piercing chuckle that left Byron feeling slightly uneasy. True, half of the soul of this man belonged once to his friend, but the other half was still that of a demon from the Pit.
“No, good Byron. I had to slay him in order to secure the Khan’s defection. A minor setback of time, of course, but satisfying nevertheless. Ha ha ha ha haa!” Colonel Molis donned his helmet again, drawing it from the air itself, and placing it on his deformed head. “I shall see you when the sun is about to set. Tonight shall be the end of it all, Byron Aixler,” Molis said, and as Byron turned to reply, the half-demon was nowhere to be found.
Richard Vandross had been sleeping the sleep of the dead, a dreamless, empty void of darkness serving to let him rest properly. Without the meetings with the Orbs of Eden’s Serpent’ manifestations, he awoke well rested and feeling refreshed, slinging his legs over the edge of his bed. He couldn’t remember having made it all the way to his resting chamber, but apparently he had, and his back seemed to silently thank him for that. The one-eyed warlock stretched his arms and legs, and stood tall in the middle of his chamber. What sort of feeling would he have hundreds of years from now, when he awoke from the Eternal Rest? He felt sure it would be damned good, and require a whole day’s worth of stretches.
Something tingled in his chest, and the warlock immediately sensed a great foreboding, as though while he had slept, his entire world had come crashing down around his ears. Panic flooded his entire psyche, the dam of confidence and assuredness in his own power and control bursting in a violent cacophony of internal explosions. Muttering almost too fast to properly execute the spell, he cast a Mage’s Eye over the outside of Mount Toane, and saw to his dismay that Roak had gone on the offensive with the armies of Byron and Ja-Wen. His perimeter forces had been laid waste! Only a handful here and there of Greenskins and Shadowbeasts remained to guard the outer walls of the earthen fortress! The Dreadnaught that his General had prided himself so much in making lay in a heap atop the hill crest where a wall of Byron’s men and women stood guard.
Hundreds of the Dread Knight’s troops lay in heaps of death, but makeshift mass burial trenches were already being filled. Foolish, mortal sentimentality, he thought, smiling despite the appearance of the situation. It mattered not, in the long run, that his outer defenses had been dealt a hefty blow. The interior of Mount Toane was crawling with demons, Orcs and Ogres, mages of several Races, and the strange but definitely deadly half-breed Colonel Molis. Magical traps had been laid throughout the tunnels and corridors, set in the chambers and caverns to target only those forces that had not pledged allegiance to Vandross.
He threw open the door of his chamber and stalked out into the tunnels of the fortress. Demons and Greenskins saluted him as he passed by them, all of his troops having taken up positions after the assault on the hilltop outside. Yet he somehow sensed that there were was a large number of men missing, and he suddenly realized that as he had passed through several tunnels and poked his head into a handful of caverns, that he hadn’t spotted a single Khan. Then again, he thought with a shrug of his shoulders, they liked to stay in the upper reaches of the mountain. He had to admit to himself that aside from the demons, they proved to be the most stalwart of his soldiers. They all possessed a will to fight and kill that let them battle until all but their arms and head had been removed from their bodies. Only magic seemed to be an effective way of doing away with one, and even then, the tenacious tiger-men could survive long enough to do in their killers.
Odd, he thought as he stopped suddenly in a tunnel along the western side of the mountain. Why am I thinking so much about them? Once again that sense of impending doom settled on his heart heavily, a boulder that weighed more than he could judge by strength of muscle alone. Feeling rushed and dreadful, he sprinted down the corridors to the rock stairwell that would lead him up to the cavern that the Khan had chosen to stay in. Up he sprinted, until he ran headlong into a bumbling Ogre, who had himself been running down the stairs to find him. As Vandross picked himself up off the stone floor, he grabbed the huge Greenskin by the shirt, pulling him down to meet Vandross eye to eye. Crimson light swelled behind his eye patch as he growled at the Ogre. “What’s wrong,” he asked, pulling the Ogre’s face ever closer. The mighty Greenskin warrior thrashed a moment, his eyes flooded with mortal fear.
“You’re not gonna want to go up there,” the Ogre, a Sergeant by the number of his stripes, moaned fearfully.
“And why, not,” Vandross asked, black power surging through his arms as he levitated the Ogre with his magic over the steps and away from him.
“You don’t wanna see it, lord,” the Ogre moaned like a wounded child. Vandross hurled him down the stairs, crashing him into the wall without killing him. He had a little self-control, but he knew that if his fears were confirmed by the Greenskin, he would have slain him without a second’s thought. Taking the steps three at a time now, Vandross mentally said to Hells with it, and levitated his way up, finally arriving in the Khan chamber. He stood in stunned silence, looking at the mostly empty room, and the single, silver clad creature standing there with what appeared to be a bundle of black cloth in his hand. Colonel Molis, thought Vandross with a visible shudder. He had never known much about the half-demon, and had thought him only a potential nuisance at best. Now, however, the creature radiated an aura that nearly equaled that of his hated enemy, Byron of Sidius.
“What are you doing here, Colonel,” Vandross asked in a harsh whisper, keeping the black power from the stairwell at the ready. “I demand an explanation! I own you, and you will give answer to my questions! Where are the Khan? And what is that that you’re holding,” he said, pointing a single finger, wrapped in magic, at the cloth in Molis’s hand.
“The Khan have left,” Molis said, his tone level. “And I believe this belongs to you,” the half-breed said, again in that cold tone. He hefted the cloth-like material at Vandross, and as it landed in a heap at his feet, the warlock realized with a sudden and violent shock to his heart that it had been the body of Vilec Roak!
“What have you done,” he growled deep in his throat, slowly looking up at Molis with murder in his eye. Crimson fury blazed from behind his eye patch, nearly destroying the cloth. “What have you done,” he screamed, shaking the entire mountain as Vilec Roak had done merely an hour before.
“The Khan wished to leave. Your General sought to stop them by force. I intervened,” the half-demon stated coolly, taking a few slow steps forward. Vandross raised a barrier of hellfire between the two of them with a flicker of his wrist, his rage threatening to explode from his just-rested body. He had to keep it in check, he knew; he had to conserve his power for his meeting with Byron of Sidius. Despite all of his traps and minions, the warlock knew instinctively that the Dread Knight would find his way to him. And when that time came, he wanted to have all of his power available to bear down on the undead warrior and utterly crush him. He could not afford a confrontation with this traitor.
“You intervened by slaying my General? You are a fool, turncoat,” Vandross said coyly, gaining confidence from the fact that Molis had ceased his approach. Demons from the pit had no fear of hellfire, for it was part of their natural environment, but this freak was only half-blooded. The wall of flames would burn him asunder! “What is your intention now? Do you plan to attack me, here and now? You know you cannot! I brought your demon soul to bear! I likely provided you with the mortal body you inhabit,” he howled, bringing more magic to his available arsenal. He was tensed, readied. Surely a small release of power would be enough to do away with this meddlesome beast, he thought.
“I have no intention of fighting you. As you have said before, the binding laws of the magic you used to bring me to the mortal coil forbid such a direct assault,” the voice of the half-demon spoke, still emotionless and cold. It was the voice of one who was trying to keep themselves in check, Vandross noticed. But there was also the heft of truth in those words; though a traitor, Molis did not intend to fight against the warlock. He obviously had other plans that had nothing to do with the conflict here between the warlock and the Dread Knight. There was the soft clink of metal touching metal from the other side of the wall of hellfire. Two eagle-shaped pins came over the wall and landed to the warlock’s left. “Those also belong to you. I have no need for them anymore.”
“Mark my words, freak,” Vandross shouted in fury. “When I am through with the Dread Knight, I am coming right for you! There are no words in the mortal tongues that can describe the agony I shall visit upon your head and your soul!” Vandross let his power subside, despite his emotions. This conversation, he could sense, was nearing its end.
“It shall not come to that,” Molis proclaimed, a hint of pride in his tone now. “Byron Aixler is going to cut you down.” Without another sound, Vandross sensed Molis move outside of the mountain, through the earthen walls, and out of his life.
Sunset cast a shade of orange and purple flames across the evening sky, and as Byron admired the image, he wondered if he would ever be graced with such a vision again. The heavy winds that had kicked up carried on their drifts the scent of wildflowers, and he breathed deeply of the sweet fragrance, remembering the orchards and flower gardens that his wife had cared for and plucked from. “I’ll be coming home soon, dear,” he whispered to the wind, unsure if those words held any semblance of truth. Was not his soul damned for the atrocities he had committed as Byron of Sidius? Shoryu had argued against that thought not many days ago, as they had finished their march to Mount Toane.
“Your soul had been imprisoned in your very body,” Shoryu had reasoned. “You had no control of your actions. And when you did gain control, once, did you not tell me that you refused the warlock’s orders?” That much had been true, Byron thought. But to have a soul of such weakness alone told him that he was doomed for the Pit. Best to just do what good he could before his inevitable demise, and pray that his eternal torment would be lessened by the good he had tried to accomplish here.
Byron and his company now stood with a platoon of one hundred and ten men, the best that the armies of the Dread Knight and the army of Ja-Wen had to offer. Most were enlisted men, those that had not wanted to take command, though they had been offered officers’ posts. All had refused, preferring to fight alongside their subordinates, risking life and limb in place of those who had more to lose by dying.
Their position was on the northern side of the mountain, where no obvious entrance could be found. Bael had remained on the hilltop on the southern front of the mountain, ready to lead the remaining forces of the Dread Knight and Ja-Wen into the mountain proper. Byron knew as well as the Lizardman that many thousands would perish inside the mountain. Traps would be laid, ambushes set, and units would be separated. However, despite being informed of such facts, all had remained, determined to rid their lands of the threat of the warlock. Four words echoed in Byron’s mind as he thought of their devotion to his cause; ‘No matter the cost.’
Before Morek Rockmight could open his mouth to inquire as to the whereabouts of their half-demon ally and guide, Molis appeared before them all, his magical bubble ruptured by will. Morek took a hasty step back. “Crikey, couldn’t just walk up to us loik normal folk, eh,” he grumbled at the half-demon, who smiled in response.
“We have only a short time before somebody notices something amiss,” Molis said, his voice rushed and filled with the emotions he had been suppressing. “We can wait no longer. We must move now.” Byron wordlessly motioned the platoon to form ranks, and the men and women, warriors and sorcerers, assembled themselves in five rows, twenty deep save one column of thirty. Moving as swiftly and silently as their equipment allowed, the raiding party moved forward, Byron and his companions in a loose, scattered formation, as Molis guided them towards a single maple tree that grew some fifty yards from the mountain face. As they approached, Molis spoke several strange words of power, and the tree uprooted and moved aside, a panel of rock sliding with it to reveal a single stone stairwell. Molis stopped and stood to one side of the entrance. Byron stopped, and the whole unit came to a halt with him.
“You’re not coming, are you,” he asked Molis, more a statement of fact than a question. He did not look at the half-demon as he spoke, for fear that his memories of the man Molis had once been would take control, and he would begin to beg the man to join him.
“No, I’m afraid I have business elsewhere. You alone are fated to do battle with the warlock Richard Vandross,” Molis said, his voice once again flat and cold.
“Well then, I guess I’ll see you on the other side,” Byron said softly.
“No, you won’t,” Molis replied in that same emotionless tone. “We are headed in opposite directions when we are at our end. I shall ne’er see you again,” Molis said, a hint of sadness in his voice as he spoke what he knew to be truth. “It has been good knowing and serving with you, mighty Byron Aixler.”
“Likewise, Edgar Cesar,” Byron said, holding his head up and looking Molis in the eyes one final time. He saw there, in the darkness of the helmet, a pair of Human eyes. A moment later, they were gone, turned back into the harsh and feral orbs of a demon. Shoryu rubbed the back of his head awkwardly, and James Hayes smiled grimly as he peered down into the darkness of the stairwell. Silent as the shadow of Death, Byron cast a ward of silent movement on the entire platoon, ensuring their safe journey through the lower levels of Mount Toane. Without glancing back, he led the noble men and women of Tamalaria down into darkness. The sun had just set on his back for the final time.
A single tear ran down his skull, and Molis’s cheek.
Bael waited for the signal from Molis to make good the attack on the mountain fortress. The sun had just gone down past the horizon in the west, and the spring loaded nerves in his body tensed. In the beginning of the mad warlock’s quest for power, Bael had been his ally, unwittingly under his charismatic spell. Having been freed from the shackles of that odd magic, the Lizardman took some time to think over why exactly he had agreed to join Vandross in the first place. He could, to this point, still think of no good reason. Come to think of it, he mused as he awaited the half-demon’s signal, he couldn’t ever remember that first encounter with the warlock.
That mattered little now in light of the situation, though. The last streaks of vibrant, flaming orange winked out of the sky as the pale crescent moon loomed out from its hiding place. The eternal, futile hunt, he thought. “Fliego chasing Lunatis, and Lunatis chasing Fliego,” he whispered, using his people’s names for the sacred sun god and moon goddess. He didn’t believe in their divinity, of course. They were just there, he reasoned, probably so far up in the sky that no bird or beast could ever hope to touch them. At that moment, he looked down towards the direction that the Dread Knight and his company had gone, and saw the stark figure in silver armor raise a clenched fist from astride his mount. Molis, it appeared, would not be joining in the fun. Oh well, Bael mused. Perhaps I shall meet him again some day.
“Form, legions,” he shouted, and every man and woman in the assembled armies of the Elven Kingdom, Desanadron, the northwestern mountains, the Port of Arcade and Ja-Wen began their slow and steady march, formed into platoons of one hundred men a piece. Each platoon was one of seven or eight in a legion, each legion commanded by the highest ranked or most experienced member of the platoons that comprised it. Some positions had been shifted at Bael’s request, and nobody had any complaints. Nobody disobeyed the orders they were given; everybody present, all twenty-three thousand, were on the same page. To Bael, who had served for most of his life as a soldier in some capacity, it was a glorious, breath-taking sight.
Each legion waited its turn to fall into order behind the one that came before, as the entrance to Mount Toane would only allow a maximum of fifteen or sixteen men into the bottlenecked entrance. Scores of traps and ambushes surely awaited them, and Bael knew about Vandross’s ability to teleport mortal men en masse to different, far away locations. Many of the legions would most likely begin their battle inside of Mount Toane, only to find themselves doing battle with the warlock’s forces in the dangerous terrain of someplace like the Desperation, the great desert of the southeast. All of the officers had been informed of such perils, and given advice by the Lizardman warrior concerning what to do should such a thing occur. They were to engage their enemies, regardless of where they were placed. If they emerged victorious, he said, the legion or platoon was to disband and head for their homelands. There would be no long marches back, Bael had advised. The battle would already be decided by then.
The repugnant odor of magic filled his lungs as he strode along at the front of the army, flanked on both sides by his own platoon of Lizardmen, Elves and Minotaurs. Only one hundred yards away, the mouth of Mount Toane seemed to yawn widely to accept its victims as food for its wicked inhabitants to break down and digest. The earthen fortress had a reputation that would outlive anybody present, Bael thought. There were good reasons for that. “Sssir,” one of his kinsmen said aloud as they found themselves within fifty yards of the entrance. There were no lights in that gaping void, and without any sunlight to repel them, Shadowbeasts could already be coming at them. Bael had spent enough time among their kind, however, to know how to spot their barely discernable movements. He would not be tricked by the demons.
“What is it Renard,” he asked, not looking away from that monolithic entrance to the fortress.
“Ssssir, the reek of much magic issss here, my tongue can sssssmell it,” the other officer said, his bonemeld armor reflecting a little of the moonlight present. Ogre bones had been used to make the armor, Bael knew, because he had had a thousand of the torso armors commissioned when he decided to aid Byron at Mount Toane. Few Ogres actually had to die for this to be accomplished; Lizardmen were known far and wide as some of the best bonemelders of all the Races, next to Dwarves and Minotaurs. Only the Draconus, the dragon-men, could hold a candle to their skill.
As a result, Lizardman villages kept the bones of all of their enemies, when they could strip the corpses without having to worry about being attacked. Ogre bones made some of the toughest armor they could fashion, and so every Lizardman village in the southwest and south-central plains and forests had taken their stores of the bones and went to work. Though usually not very chummy with one another, the various tribes of the Lizardman Race had come together for a common cause; a lowly Human had wreaked havoc on their lands, and they weren’t about to have any of that.
“I am aware of the magical traps, Renard, thank you.”
“Do you think one of our shaman can deal with them,” the younger, less experienced warrior asked with heart-felt interest.
“I am not entirely certain,” Bael confided to Renard quietly, so as not to demoralize any of the troops. “That is why our platoon is not completely comprised of our proud species, Renard. The Elves are quite handy as pertains to the arcane arts of sorcery. Our nature magics might not be enough to handle the dismantling of complex magical pitfalls. And you never know,” he said, keeping his eyes locked ahead of him, on the entrance that now loomed only a dozen or so yards forward. Still no light could be seen within the demesne of the fortress. “Disabling one of the spell traps might trigger another, more powerful one. When the scent is at its strongest, we shall be at our closest to it, if not already triggering it. I shall take suggestions at that juncture insofar as what we should do about it.” He stopped the progress of the army once more, looking up into the darkness of the mountain’s gaping maw. “For now, we shall have to trust our fates to the gods.” Drawing his war axe and holding it high, he gave out a courageous war cry, the sound echoed by every single warrior and mage that opposed Richard Vandross.
Forcing his way ahead, Bael felt as if he had walked head-long into a wall of slick, wet cloth. Hundreds of yellow, gimlet eyes blinked in the entryway to the mountain fortress, fifty feet high. Hundreds of Shadowbeasts had linked their black, horrid bodies together, strands of dark vitriol lashed around wrists to stretch their blasphemous forms and hold them together. All in a split second’s time, Bael felt the creature in front of him, jumped back, and shouted a warning to those closest to him. He saw already that the warning had come out too late, as the demons had already descended and split apart, charging into the midst of the free mortal forces. Blood sprayed in all directions as Shadowbeasts tore through armor plating and chain mail with claws as black as night.
Nothing could have prepared Bael for such a surprise attack, and he knew right away what the stench of magic had been; a ruse, and nothing more. As soon as the Shadowbeasts had parted to attack the first platoon under his direct command, the scent had dissipated. Wielding his axe like a shield, Bael deflected blow after blow from all sides, keeping his head level and his manner calm and defensive. With so many of the creatures swirling around him, if he took the opportunity to strike he would be cut down without fail. For the moment, he had to pull back and close the gap between himself and his platoon. Risking a quick glance to his left, he saw that Renard had already been slain, his eyes smoldering holes where some form of black demon magic had burrowed into his head. “Fall back,” Bael shouted, and his orders immediately took hold. The front lines of his platoon cautiously withdrew a little, and the entire army’s progress came to a halt. “Severus maneuver, now,” he shouted, throwing caution to the wind as he turned his back on his attackers and sprinted away for cover. As soon as the command echoed back through the ranks of the first platoon, the thirty archers in the second platoon loosed a wall of arrows down on the approaching Shadowbeasts. Taking careful and precise aim, they let their arrows fall as close as three feet from Bael’s back leg as he tucked and rolled into the midst of his first row of men.
Even without the benefit of magic to enhance the destructive potential of the wooden and metal shafts, the missiles that flew into the oncoming Shadowbeasts struck their targets dead. Five separate volleys of thirty arrows rained down on them, turning the smarter and more cautious demons back into the relative safety of the mountain’s tunnels and catacombs. He had fallen for the trap, but luckily, he had taken the time for several days of the march to Mount Toane to go over combat tactics and maneuvers with the head officers of the army. He hadn’t had time to go over such things with Ja-Wen’s forces, and had relegated the duty of tactical striking to their head officer, a Commander Argent of the Ja-Wen People’s Army. Argent was a stout but capable Sidalis, or mutant as they were commonly called. With the power to bend space around and within his own body, the orange-skinned humanoid had used his strange gift for the betterment of the people of his fair city. And the man was a technical and tactical whiz, so Bael didn’t feel the need to worry about Ja-Wen’s troops, be they warrior or mage Class.
Ja-Wen’s forces, however, also had another advantage in their favor; the Ninjas. Classified as thief-types, the Ninja clan Ryoken had signed on with the Ja-Wen army, as the city’s estates had served as their training grounds for generations. Although highly perturbed by the arrangement, Argent had to go along with the city’s Governor when the woman had declared that she would contract their services. Ninjas lived in the darkness and struck with surgical precision, so having them present in Mount Toane could serve as a sort of ‘secret weapon’ for Bael. He had let Commander Argent know full well, however, that the Sidalis himself had total control of the Ninja unit. Numbering only six men and five women, they didn’t appear to be much more than a group of shadows trailing behind the army. However, once inside, the orange-fleshed Commander fully intended to tell them to “Do what you do best,” as he put it.
Bael led the first and second platoon down the long, bottlenecked corridor that served as the main entrance hall to the fortress proper, keeping his eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. Flicking his tongue, he smelled the air of the passageway. Goblins, but how many, he couldn’t be certain. High up on the eaves and overhangs of the tunnel. Bringing up his fist, he halted the advance of his platoons. Three fingers up; archers, he silently advised in military signal code. One of the Gaiamancers in his platoon, a burly Human decked out in a dragon scale cloak, began a slow and quiet mantra as the rest of the platoon readied their shields and protective magics. “Barrag Monesta,” the Gaiamancer finally cried, slamming one heavy fist into the ground at his feet. The mountain trembled around them, chunks of earthen stone falling all around the troops. The eaves and overhangs that held the Goblin Hunters gave way, and with shrieks of panic and doom more than two score of the green fleshed little savages came crashing down, hundreds of feet to their demise. As soon as the spell’s duration gave way, Bael led the last of the first legion inside.
One step forward, Bael thought. Many more to go.
Despite his advantage of being able to see clearly in the darkest of places, it had been Shoryu, not Byron, who had spotted the single trap laid before them. The Cuyotai Hunter had leapt from his place several yards behind the Dread Knight, landing directly in front of him and kicking his legs out from under him. As the Dread Knight landed with a heavy thud and a “Hoomph,” Shoryu crawled forward on all fours, standing on the other side of a trip wire set at head height. Using the most delicate and furtive of movements, he hung a strip of leather over the wire, to show those behind him where the wire was. Byron crawled forward, joining Shoryu and rubbing his lower back. “You could have just told me,” he grumbled with aggravation. Shoryu smiled devilishly at him as the others of the platoon crossed on hands and knees beneath the trip wire.
“That wouldn’t have been as much fun, though,” Shoryu chided like an imp before he moved away. Cuyotai, Byron thought silently. Ever the tricksters and merry-makers of the Races. The platoon pressed on, but this time Byron let Shoryu lead the way, his darling wife striding along easily beside the Dread Knight. For nearly an hour they marched forward, silence enveloping them. The aura that Byron had put up around them while they had waited outside allowed their movements and speech to be heard by the members of the platoon, nothing else, but still they moved in studied quiet. Near the end of the hour, before the tunnel came to an intersection, Ellen spoke softly to the Dread Knight.
“I must thank you once again, my friend,” she said to him as she gazed into his small, white pinprick lights. He tried to mimic a smile, but once more felt it came off as a grimace. “Without your appearance in my life, I never would have met my beloved. We Elves hold marriage to be among the most sacred of bonds, second only to our connection with Mother Nature and our various gods. I believe fate brought you and Shoryu to me,” she said, stunning Byron into silence by wrapping her arms around his massive left arm. “I am saddened, however,” she said, giving the armor-plated appendage a tight squeeze.
“Why,” he asked in a hushed whisper, his voice echoing back over the platoon and down the tunnel. Shoryu looked back and gave him a smile, his livid green eyes mirroring the sorrow in Ellen’s tone.
“Because I know that you have told us the truth. When you fell Richard Vandross, you too shall leave the mortal coil. It is your destiny,” she said, her words trailing off into the darkness around them. Byron stood straighter, and felt his heart race in his chest. In studied silence, the platoon came to a halt as Shoryu looked down the hallway that they had intersected, sniffing the air with his hypersensitive snout. After a minute, Shoryu continued straight ahead, ignoring the cross section. As they crossed the intersection, Byron returned a small squeeze of Ellen’s arms.
“Indeed, it is. But it is something that has been delayed for too long,” he said adamantly, his voice firm and strong. “I must stand before mighty Oun, and receive his judgement. It is something I cannot escape. No mortal can,” he finished, releasing Ellen’s arms. Now wholly silent, the platoon marched on, following the reliable nose of Shoryu Tearfang. Byron thanked Ellen in his mind for her kindness. He would miss them all.
The battle of Mount Toane had begun in earnest a few moments later, inside the caverns and catacombs that Bael had led the legions. Already several thousand men had been separated from the main force, having taken a series of turns apart from the course that Bael led them on. There were no traps here, in the set of halls and chambers that his legion and the one behind it had entered. There were only hundreds of Shadowbeasts, other demons, and Greenskins to be dealt with. Steel and magic coursed through the air, and a bloodbath of extreme proportions had begun. Bael himself was thick in the melee, his steel war axe cleaving foe after foe, his plate armor taking blows from blunt, Greenskin maces and cudgels as he dealt with the more deadly Shadowbeasts and apparitions from the Pit.
A heavy blow to the chest knocked him sprawling across the mountain floor, skidding and rolling along the hard, craggy surface. His axe fallen where he had been struck, the Lizardman Soldier ducked and dodged claw swipes and weapon swings as he made his way back to his weapon and the Troll that had smashed him with its hammer. Rolling away from an overhead strike by the offender, he balled up his left hand and took to the air, delivering an uppercut that would have made Morek Rockmight proud. Dazed and injured by the mighty blow, the Troll staggered backward, falling on top of a handful of fleeing Goblins and crushing them to death. Axe in hand again, Bael sprinted to the Troll’s massive head, hacking away at its exposed throat, once, twice, three times, crimson life spraying his face and chest, running down his front. Hefting the axe high over his head, he gave a mighty roar as he brought the weapon down a fourth and final time, cleaving the spinal cord in the monstrous Troll’s neck, severing its head.
No time to revel in such small victories he thought, spinning about to block the incoming claws of a demon that had the appearance of a man bred with a turtle. As he counter-attacked, the demon spun around, tucking its head and arms into its misshapen shell. Easy enough to deal with, the Lizardman thought, kicking the legs out from beneath the demon and bringing his axe down through its exposed belly. On and on he fought, leading the legion deeper into the mountain fortress. Leaving thousands of bodies sprawled lifeless on the floor of those chambers and halls, he pressed on. Little did he know that the vengeful, watchful eye of the warlock in command of these creatures saw his every action. Vandross grinned with deepening malice.
“So, you’ve returned to me, I see,” he muttered from high up in the mountain, in his throne room. “Fool,” he spat, waving the Mage’s Eye aside to peek in at another one. The teleportation trick had already been triggered by one legion, and Vandross watched as they fought against his minions deep in the Elven Kingdom’s forests. All was going rather well for his side of things, the warlock mused. Though he had suffered nearly three thousand losses within the hour of battle, he didn’t mind. There were many, many more where they had come from, and already almost four thousand of Byron’s troops had been removed from the mountain by the teleporting magic and by fatalities of battle. “But where are you, dead one,” he muttered aloud, bringing the considerable power at his disposal to bear. He was prepared for the final confrontation, and wasn’t going to waste his energy on anyone but the Dread Knight himself. “Why do you not show yourself,” he asked, his good eye squinting as it scanned the nearly twenty Mage’s Eyes spread throughout the room. Not a single one of them had captured an image of Byron of Sidius, or the four members that remained of his original party. Were they waiting outside the mountain, biding their time until the main forces of the army had cleared out what they could of the warlock’s minions? No, that wouldn’t be appropriate for his style, Vandross thought with a growl. They were here, somewhere in his mountain retreat.
“My lord,” Sergent Torim said from the entrance to the throne room. The Illeck had been made Vandross’s personal respondent after the death of Vilec Roak and the defection of the half-breed Molis. “The second and third Dreadnaughts have been activated, sire. We await your instructions,” he said, smiling broadly with unhidden bloodlust. Vandross stepped down from his throne, stalking over to the waiting Illeck. Gods he’s a pale one, he thought, looking Torim in the face. Paler than most of his kind.
“Teleport one of them to the primary hall,” he ordered swiftly. “Units are still pouring in from outside, though few of them are not within the mountain as yet. That shall cut the last of their forces off rather effectively. As for the second one,” he said, looking back on the Mage’s Eye that showed Bael, his former General. “Have it loosed upon the first battalion. I shall watch that Lizardman’s slow and agonizing demise with glee. Have it targeted to his presence as a priority,” the warlock said, looking back at the Illeck. “Did you put that arm on it like you suggested,” he inquired, referring to the arm that Tiberious Amon had lost when he had been struck by Selena Bradford’s Immolation spell. The limb had been mostly intact, severed by the spell and tossed nearly a hundred miles away, back toward Mount Toane. One of Vandross’s scouts had retrieved it, recognizing almost right away the tattoo near the elbow. The mark of a Khan Chieftain. Though Vandross had become fed up with the Khan Lieutenant, he had always admired the man’s skill. Attaching it to the third Dreadnaught had been Torim’s idea, and Vandross had rewarded him then with the promise of advancement. Once Robin had been dealt with, Torim had been given that advancement.
The Illeck sorcerer nodded. “Of course, my lord. The moment you approved, in point of fact, sire. Are you certain you want it targeted specifically on that man,” he asked, pointing to the tiny image of Bael as the Lizardman destroyed yet another demon.
“Yes. Make certain that it is aware of the other threats, but it should only respond to others defensively. It should be made aware that it is only to be offensive with him,” Vandross said, moving back to his seat on his throne. “You are dismissed, Torim,” he said, once more pouring over the Mage’s Eye bubbles. Where are you, he thought again, gripping the armrests with considerable effort. Where are you?
Up ahead, finally, a little bit of light. Byron’s personal platoon approached the lower levels of the mountain fortress proper. But Byron sensed swaths of magic up ahead, a familiar group of spells. Mage’s Eyes, from the feel of them. “Wait,” he called ahead to Shoryu. The Cuyotai came to a stop, his wife and companion James Hayes on either side of him. A set of roughly shaped steps led up out of the long tunnel to an incomplete barrier at its end. A secret escape route, Byron thought. Most likely made during Tanarak’s stay here. Why then hadn’t Vandross known to place guards here? Probably because the one-eyed devil had forgotten about it. Or at least its precise location. Some memory of another entrance must have remained to the warlock, because otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered to place Mage’s Eye spells around the area. Or perhaps, Byron thought with a malicious grin, he’s just being paranoid. That showed a smidgen of wisdom on Vandross’s part.
The Dread Knight crept up stealthily to the faux stone wall section, peering out as best he could from his limited perspective. “Damn it,” he muttered softly, spotting one of the shimmering spots of light up the tunnel a ways from the exit to the left. The tunnel curved gradually upward that way, and he had to ascend the mountain interior to get to Vandross. Already he could sense the warlock’s presence a long way up, and he knew that they would be spotted by the warlock the moment they exited the tunnel. “Are there any Q Mages among the platoon,” he asked Hayes as the Paladin came up to take a look for himself.
“I’ll go check,” Hayes responded, darting through the darkness to the assembled warriors and mages. The best of the best are here, Byron thought, but we didn’t make any sort of list to make sure we had a good variety of Classes. Most of them, he knew, were Soldiers and Knights, with a few Clerics for healing and protective spells. He hadn’t been specific about mage Classes he wanted to accompany them. He looked back and saw Hayes returning with a single middle-aged Half-Elf, his robes already torn and bloodied from the blitz attack on the mountain the night before. That a pure mage like this had survived the onslaught of the Dreadnaught and Vandross’s defending forces said volumes of his competency with magic. “Just him, Byron,” Hayes said.
“Good. I trust you have knowledge of a counter-spell to a Mage’s Eye,” he asked the man, who nodded immediately.
“The Mage’s Eye can be learned by any sorcerer or sorceress, my lord,” the Half-Elf reported in an unusually deep voice for an Elven man. His father must have been the Human of the coupling, Byron thought. Half-Elves tended to be much more like their fathers than their mothers. “It’s a very basic spell. I can likely dispose of four or five of them at a crack, sire,” the Q Mage reported.
“Excellent,” Byron said, putting an arm around the man’s shoulder and drawing him to the faux barrier. The man immediately looked up to the Mage’s Eye that Byron had barely spotted with heavy observation. The man was good. “I assume you see that one.”
“Yes, my lord, but it’s very weak. Cast in a hurry, too. The whole structure is sloppier than Hell,” he muttered, almost to himself. “I shall neutralize it,” he said, weaving arcane symbols of light in front of his face. “Mikon Soo,” he whispered, sending out a single stream of white light. It connected head-on with the Mage’s Eye, and both spells were suddenly gone. Byron tapped a single piece of rock in the fake wall, and it slid silently open. His barrier of silence would soon wear off, he knew, so they had to move swiftly if they were to make any unnoticed progress.
“Stay up front with me and mine,” Byron ordered the Half-Elf, who said nothing but prepared another counter-spell as the platoon spilled out into the hallway. Byron led the ascent, counting the minutes left to them before they were attacked. He knew he wouldn’t get straight to Vandross without a fight, and he drew the Morning Glory in preparation. Free of the darkness and into the fires, he thought.
Vandross watched with a detached interest as more legions were wiped out by the Dreadnaught at the entrance of the mountain. But strength of numbers and the handful of skilled mages in the very last legion to enter the mountain fortress proved too much for the deadly construct to deal with. No matter, he thought, watching another Mage’s Eye bubble as half of a legion was swept away from Mount Toane by a teleportation trap. Dozens of men burst into flames as a hellfire trap went off in another part of the mountain, engulfing them completely as demons overran their panicked allies. But then, something curious happened.
Vandross’s attention snapped to a Mage’s Eye bubble that burst apart and vanished, his gaze locked onto where it had been. Someone had noticed it despite the combat around them, someone with a good sense of magic. For a moment, Vandross might have dismissed it as a fluke, but when another one went out, he knew for certain that someone was targeting them specifically. Strange, he thought. There hadn’t been any troops of his sent to the areas near those ones. Lining a separate set of tunnels and stairwells, as well as a handful of caverns, those Mage’s Eyes had been set in the areas he least expected attack. Before his demise, Vilec Roak had suggested setting them in those areas, in case of a secret attack force.
His heart stopped for a moment; Byron! Of course the Dread Knight would find another way into his mountain abode! No one else among the armies would have the skill or knowledge to stage such an attack. While Vandross had deployed his forces to the most traveled passages and pathways, the Dread Knight was storming toward him through the back. Thankfully, he admitted begrudgingly, Vilec Roak left me some defenders on those routes. To say nothing of the ‘special’ guard that had been placed in the enormous meeting hall that was connected to the throne room by a single passage. And then there was the matter of the entryway to that meeting hall. The undead could not breach it, and would be held fast in the doorway until the hall’s defender was destroyed. And Vandross highly doubted that Byron’s company could fell the beast if they had an entire platoon to help them.
Almost as if on cue, the beast stalked into the throne room, dragging its enormous sword along the ground. It made nary a sound itself, the noise of metal scraping along rock the only audible sign that it was even there. Vandross looked directly at the creature, filled with both an appreciation of it, and a deep disgust. “They are coming, my lordship,” the beast said through its thin, slit-like mouth. The creature Vandross looked at was only about five and a half feet in height, with horse-like legs and the upper body of a muscular brute, a mouth filled with ragged teeth gnashing and chomping the air around it. This second mouth lay across the creature’s belly, and when struck with magic, the beast would open it and spew out a lump of what appeared to be flesh. This lump would instantly grow to the same size as the beast, identical to it in every way except individual actions and thoughts. And along with it, the freakish blade would be reproduced as well.
A magnificent demon, to be sure, Vandross thought. It could not be harmed by magic, and Vandross himself had tested the demon’s skill with a blade. The beast wielded its enormous weapon with skill and savage strength, the sort of might that only demons were capable of. And without Byron of Sidius available to fight the beast, who among his company could, thought Vandross with a sigh of satisfaction. Returning his thoughts to the beast’s statement, Vandross smiled wickedly. “I am fully aware of that. Make ready for their arrival. Have you any idea how many there are, Drake,” Vandross asked, taking a swig from his water skin. “My Mage’s Eyes are being counter-spelled out of the air, and I have no idea how many are coming up the back way.”
“One hundred and fifteen altogether, lordship,” the creature breathed heavily. Its voice was much like Vengeance’s, Vandross thought, pleased that this beast didn’t stall and stop every couple words to shlurp in air like the Orb of Eden’s Serpent manifestation. Without that, the sound was tolerable. The one-eyed warlock could feel the Orbs inside of him trying to gain his attention, presumably to speak more to him of warnings and tell him what he should do. He had decided hours before, when the assault on his mountain had begun, that he had tired of them. He would heed them no more. After all, they belonged to him, not the other way around, he thought with a concentrated effort.
They were trying to pull him down into the depths of his own soul, but he could not afford to lose consciousness now, not when the end of his troubles was so near! The Dread Knight’s companions would be slain by the beast, and he would go out and destroy him where he stood. If the beast attacked the Dread Knight, the bonds that held him would break, freeing him into the chamber. The warlock knew without a trace of doubt that Byron would destroy the beast without effort, and then he would actually have to concentrate and defend himself while he prepared to use the Glorious Mother of Destruction on Byron, focusing it right on his skull.
“One hundred and fifteen, right,” he muttered, keeping himself awake. “I don’t need to hear your council,” he whispered, tucking his mouth toward his chest. “I am your master, now and forever. Don’t forget it,” he growled, and the sensation of being pulled toward sleep lifted, freeing his senses. The beast was looking at him with a curious expression on its alien countenance. “Prepare to deal with them, Drake. And remember, when the Dread Knight is stopped by the barrier, leave him be.”
“I remember, lordship,” the creature said, turning away and stalking out of the throne room. “Byron of Sidius is yours to destroy,” it called back. Vandross smiled the smile of the damned. Yes, he thought.
“Mine to destroy.”
Bael looked back over to the stock-still troops under his direct command. They had come far, and fought hard for their lives and the lands they loved for nearly two and a half hours, without rest and without a stop. However, after disposing of a set of rooms filled with Shadowbeasts and Orcs, they all came to a halt. Less than five hundred of them remained from the entire two thousand in the first two legions. Casualties had numbered high, and those that survived had been forced, thanks to Illeck Necromancers, to slay again their fallen comrades. The mages needed to meditate, eat, or otherwise recover their stocks of mana energy, for without some break in the fracas, they would be left defenseless, and without spells at their command.
Bael sat heavily on the corpse of an Orc, pulling out his pipe and tapping some tobacco into it from a small pouch at his hip. Lighting it with the small Gnome contraption he’d bought some years ago in Ja-Wen, he inhaled deeply of the burning tobacco, spewing out puffs of gray, ashen smoke a moment later. His heartbeat slowed as the effect of the plant took hold, calming his nerves. Gods, he thought. Look at us. The remaining combatants under his command were worn, beaten, and injured. To be truthful, he was amazed that they hadn’t decided to turn around and leave, head back to safer pastures and activities. But when asked, all had refused to leave. They had a purpose, and they would all be damned if they were going to tuck tail and run. Bael smiled, despite the seemingly hopeless situation. Taking a long drag of the burning pipe, he puffed out another thick, opaque cloud of smog.
“Fifteen hundred men and women,” he said to no one in particular. “That’s how many we’ve lost. And that’s just two legions,” he said, uttering the words with a half-hearted smile. “And I know we’ve killed way more than that since we got in here.”
“Sir,” one of the Minotaurs in battered chain mail armor said as he came over, axe in hand. “Who are you talking to?” Bael looked over into the age-worn face of a Minotaur Soldier, a man whose eyes spoke of the dozens of battles he had participated in. The word ‘battle’, for most Minotaurs, meant ‘war’ to the rest of the Races. Streaks of gray hair had crept their way into the Minotaur’s proud mien, but he fought and spoke with a youthful fire. Bael admired him; he was himself perhaps half the man’s age, and yet emotionally and physically, he felt about twice it.
“Nobody, my good man, nobody at all.” Bael tapped out his pipe, emptying it on the stone floor of the grand chamber. “What do you need from me?”
“Well, sir, I sent a scout ahead, as ordered. He has returned, and tells us that we can make no further progress. From here, all paths lead nearly to the bottom of the mountain. He was almost spotted by another pack of Orcs, but managed to flee before they could see him. He saw that they were about to be engaged by another legion, sir. I believe if we are to make anymore progress towards getting near to the warlock himself, we shall have to go back down through the mountain and find another way.” Bael shook his head, knowing now what he had known all along.
“The warlock is not ours to take, my friend,” he said, climbing to his feet. “Everybody, listen up,” he hollered, letting the natural shape of the chamber echo his voice to every last man. “Our jobs are done here. We’re leaving, right now,” he said, and he heard much protest. “This was Lord Byron’s intention all along! We did what we had to, we vanquished many a demon and ill-begotten Greenskin. We destroyed monstrosities that would have left here today to go on to commit other atrocities in our lands many moons from now,” he said, putting his hands on his hips.
There were words of acceptance and agreement now rippling through the remaining five hundred combatants. They were beginning to understand, as Bael had only a few minutes before them, that Byron had never intended for them to destroy each and every last creature that opposed them in Mount Toane. Such a task was utterly foolish, and nearly impossible. “Remember well that when we leave here today, we leave all that happened here behind! We shall honor our fallen comrades, but we must not begrudge the Illecks, the Humans, the Khan who fought for Richard Vandross. We must not hate the Greenskins for their alliance to him, for theirs is already hard enough lot! Our relations with them, along with their general ignorance and savage ways of life, makes them easy prey for predators like Richard Vandross to enslave!
“So raise up your heads and your hands, for though we may have more to slay on the way out of this stark and horrid place, our victory is earned already!” A cry of triumph escaped the lips of every mortal creature in the chamber, and congratulations and celebratory ‘hoo-rah’s went up from many’s the soldier. But as they began to move away from their spots in the chamber, a low, fierce groan escaped from somewhere nearby. Bael looked to the far end of the cavern, where a hidden panel in the wall slid open. Looming in the shadows, he could smell the fetid odor of dead flesh and muscle. Holding the head of a wide-eyed Illeck in its hand, another Dreadnaught, more horrible and enormous than the first they had encountered earlier in the day, stood there. The bleeding corpse of Sergeant Torim lay in a heap at the creature’s feet, though Bael hadn’t known who the man was. One of Vandross’s own, the Lizardman knew. Still, he felt pity for the man. The corpse lay twisted and bent in ways that the gods of mortal man had never intended for Humans, or most any other living thing. It must have been a horrendously painful demise.
Unlike the construct that he had first seen outside of Mount Toane, this blasphemous resident of the mountain was structured and shaped in a very humanoid fashion, with two arms (that he could see), two legs, and a head, complete with a face. Also much unlike the construct outside of the mountain, this one had the gleam of some limited, animal-level intelligence in its three eyes. Two blood soaked wings spread from its back as it stepped out of its niche in the wall, and it hurled the head right at Bael. It seemed to ignore all of the other troops, who were all preparing to do combat with the abomination. Bael thrust out a single hand in their direction, catching their collective attention. Still the creature paid them no heed.
“Don’t,” he called to them, not looking away from the construct as it moved toward him at a snail’s pace. “It wants me, that much is clear! Take yourselves and get clear of this foul place, immediately!” Even as he shouted at them, the men seemed hesitant to leave their commanding officer behind. The Minotaur who had spoken with him as he smoked, an Elven woman of middle-aged appearance, and six others came rushing to flank their commander. The rest of the troops stood rooted in place, looking to him. “This many is too much still, but I think we can take things from here! Now go home, all of you! That’s an order,” he shouted, pointing to the exit with a waggling finger. His nerves stood on end; never had he faced an opponent more dreadful than this creature, he knew. Even when he had squared off with Byron, he hadn’t been so terrified. Then again, he had even then sensed an aura of mercy around the undead warrior. Here, there was only a sensation of cruelty and malice spreading from the evil construct. As Bael drew his war axe, he looked to his left and right, at the grim smiles set on the faces of these noble warriors and mages. “Gentlemen, and ladies,” he amended, remembering that two of his eight companions were female. “If the gods allow, I shall treat you to the grandest feast and festival of all times when this is over.”
The Dreadnaught had cleared half the distance to him, smiling impishly and revealing several rows of actual blades that had been inserted into its mouth. Sergeant Robin had spent the better part of a year creating the Dreadnaught, his labors finally coming to fruition shortly after having it moved to Mount Toane. The arm of Tiberious Amon had been the final component, and now the creation had slain its new master, Torim. Though these facts were unknown to Bael, he had the distinct feeling that the headless man had had a hand in the Dreadnaught’s construction. Gripping his war axe in both hands, Bael strode out to meet this awesome and mighty foe.
As the last of the Mage’s Eyes in the tunnel winked out of existence, the Q Mage stumbled. He had expended almost all of his reserves of mana, and required rest, or food, or both. Byron rummaged through his rucksack, finally handing the whole thing to the worn Half-Elf. “My lord,” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Byron smiled at him.
“I shan’t be needing that much longer,” the Dread Knight said in a light-hearted voice. At the end of the tunnel they now stood in, a single large doorway could be seen. There was some sort of magic laid over the portal, but from this distance, Byron could not yet tell what it was. As the platoon advanced toward it, James Hayes sprinted ahead, a look of shock on his face. He pressed his hand against a shimmering wall of energy. Shaking his head, he came back to Byron, who had halted the march twenty yards shy of the Paladin. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s a ward, Byron. A Seal of Fate. You know what that means,” Hayes said. Indeed, he did, Byron thought with a growl. It meant that no undead creature could pass through the doorway. While the rest of the battalion could advance without a problem, he was screwed. No counter-spell could destroy a Seal of Fate. Only an attack directed at the undead creature from the other side could get rid of it, and the attack had to have malice in it, or the Seal would remain. Having Shoryu or Morek strike at him while he stood on this side would not work.
“Hellfire, hell and blood,” he cursed, trying to think through his options. A Seal of Fate could entirely block his senses, as well as those of anyone on the guarded side of it. Nobody in the platoon would know for absolute certain what lay on the other side unless they stepped through. For all they knew, the other side of this Seal could be the face of the mountain, and they might very well march through and plummet to their deaths hundreds of feet below. But Byron thought not; these halls, or rather this particular hallway, was very familiar. His vision blurred, and a loud ringing blared in his head. As he squinted his eye lights blank, he could see in his mind’s eye the throne room that Tanarak had commanded him from, not far ahead. Only this tunnel and a massive, hollowed-out chamber separated the Dread Knight from the warlock. A seal of some sort would surely be up on the throne room’s entryway as soon as the Seal of Fate was crossed, and the platoon would be cut off from the warlock. Good, he thought with a heart filled with spite. Vandross is mine anyway.
“Oi, you all roit bone ‘ead,” Morek asked the Dread Knight, smiling up at him.
“Just fine, shrimpy,” Byron replied with golden light gleaming from his eye sockets. “I can’t pass through there, but rest assured, something awaits you all,” Byron said, addressing the entire platoon. “Many of you will die here, you know,” he said, his voice turning quiet. “I only brought you along to get us this far. Going any further may very well spell doom for you. You are excused, if you wish to leave.” But none of the steely glares of the warriors and mages present would move. Byron turned his back on them once more. “Well enough.” He moved forward, toward the Seal of Fate.
“Byron, wait! You’ll be stuck to the Seal,” Hayes cautioned. “You’re walking right into a trap!”
“I know,” Byron said with a grin. “And when I am, you’ll all flood in and let the mages blast whatever’s on the other side to kingdom come, correct?” Derisive laughter filled the corridor as the mages of the platoon moved to the front of the ranks, preparing their spells of destruction. Ellen Daires strode right alongside Byron, while Shoryu flanked him on the opposite shoulder, a mystic arrow already notched. Morek Rockmight cracked his knuckles in anticipation, and James Hayes stayed only two paces behind the Dread Knight.
“We’re with you,” Shoryu and Ellen said in harmony as they stalked forward, matching their leader’s pace.
“I know. I know it in my heart that you all are,” Byron said to his traveling companions.