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Zaego

Avernum-related fan-fiction: The Downfall

31 posts in this topic

Foreword - All content, names, places etc. related to Avernum -series rightfully belongs to Jeff Vogel and Spiderwebsoftware Inc. I do not claim any rights or ownership to any conflicting content. I also do not intend to gain any monetary (or otherwise) advantage by writing this. The content is solely for entertainment purposes. This message will be written only once and not repeated in future chapters' starting points, but is applicable to all chapters equally. All right, all set, let's get banished to a net of caverns (once again), albeit not exactly to Avernum.

 

PS. Feel free to criticize and comment as You will - and do not be afraid to express Your opinions, as I am more pleased of a negative comment than not getting a comment at all.

 

The Downfall - Prologue.

 

 

 

***

 

The Downfall

 

Untold, a story, untouched by time and dementus

of dark, deep down, where no light reigns

of cold, caverns, with so black seas.

 

Foreseen, the need, by emperor long gone,

of prison, so huge, without an end

of end, of all, of all hope.

 

So it was, wizards, mighty and wise

were told, "Now, behold!

For I have thought!

 

I am the mist upon the mountains

My wisdom as high as the ridges,

I am the steel in the veins of stone

My strength as the foundations of the earth!

 

As though a blaze of the Sun is my gaze!

And I have seen, the rise of a peasant

of mugger, brigand, beggar, pirate

soreskin, filthy, courtesan

and gullible child!

 

Steel more trenchant than the sharpest words,

but should I slash the air, wish for death,

The blood of the cut ones calling out,

Civil war would be on us, no doubt!

 

Thus, go forth! go forth my wizards,

Find me a place to banish the misfit ones,

noble breed, who begs steals and crawls!"

 

* * *

 

Black water flowed by the slimy wooden posts sticking out of the river, just near the wharfs that were erected for sailors and fishermen docking their boats to the peaceful cove. A lizard screeched on the outskirts of town, a giant one. Torchlight flickered on the waves and ripples of the black water's coating and crackled away in the stagnant, moist, cold underworld's air, bringing about some much desired light and warmth for the passers-by in the darkness, where tons and tons of rock separated the banished humans and nephilim alike from the Sun's warmth.

An old man in his fifties wearing a worn tunic and scrawny pants thought merely about the coming meeting and had no time or interest to admire the views. He had to remain sharp. Infact, one could say that he was at his sharpest right now, sober and eager to trade. Truly, this slippery fellow of a man had the ears of a fox. Of course, his auditory senses were nothing compared to those of the nephilim, but he had managed to stay in the business of eavesdropping and gathering gossip simply because of the fact that humans caused much less suspicions and aroused much less attention on the streets of this small port town - the town was, after all, located on the humans' side of the Boneriver. Even with the amount of ale he had poured down his throat in his days hadn't softened his head none. When sober, he would sell the gossip he had managed to pry during his drinking sprees, and more often than not acted as intermediary for more than a few shady fellows who liked to lurk in the slums of the sparsely guarded Port Varib.

This evening was no exception. Streamy, as was his nickname aptly given to describe the way how liquid refreshments, money and knowledge flowed through him, walked sternly towards the meeting place between the two rotting boathouses, just behind the last torch placed on one of the walls to give the passers-by some light on their way back home.

Streamy clutched a long dagger on his belt and stuck his tongue to a gap in his teeth's lines - a habit that he sported whenever he felt awkward or nervous - and let his gaze sweep the alleyways and dark waters. He had got used to handling tough guys and ruffians alike as there were all too many outlaws who would rather cut Streamy's fingers off to gain the knowledge he bore than pay in coins, but not once before had anyone managed to go that far. The gap in his teeth was a sweet reminder of that. Even so, this night felt a little bit different from all of the others. Everything felt pitched, as though the darkness itself held its breath, waiting for something to happen.

Walking over the slimy planks, Streamy walked past the last torch and took a corner to his right, trudging into the shadows. He was eager to get the meeting over with so he could join with Marianne and Jeff, his trustiest companions, in Knockout, the local boozer for the poorer folk.

He leaned against a wall and stuck his fingers to one of his pockets. Searching around a bit, he surely enough found what he had longed for. He raised a small wooden box out into the cold docks' air and opened it. The small strongbox contained wax-like tobacco, ill-smelling and soft. He pried a small amount of it between of his fingers and stuck the stuff to his mouth, further sticking the chew, as it was called especially amongst of the sailors, to between of his lips and teeth. A tingling sensation spread all over his mouth, warming and pleasing the old man. Tilting his head back a bit, he quietly praised the value of money and things it could buy, such as luxuries like the chew, fresh from the surfaceworld.

Several moments passed. Streamy kept enjoying the chew for a while longer, hawked and spat into the darkness. The docks weren't exactly the warmest place to be, with the cold stream of water giving off a nasty draft as it went. Soon enough, Streamy took some steps and paced around. He was used to his customers being late, sometimes, as the life of an outlaw wasn't something to be hurried in.

Waiting for about a quarter of an hour, Streamy sharpened his ears. He heard boots stepping on the planks of the wharfs, coming closer from the opposing direction he had came from. The broker hugged the darkness and took a final glance around - he always picked the meeting places with care. There were at least three main routes leading out of the place, and he had some tricks up his sleeve, as well. It was time to exchange some information for some nice copper pieces.

The figure slowed down and quieted down his pacing even further, reducing the amount of noise to a near minimum. Streamy saw the silhouette of the hooded man turning into the alley, and heading straight towards him. There was an aura, a presence that made him immediately a lot more alert and cautious. He even considered fleeing the scene. His tongue found its way to the hole where a couple of teeth were missing.

Quickly Streamy pushed such thoughts back and thought of his reputation as an information's broker. He was not in the business of cutthroats and should not be treated as one - there were plenty of shadowdancers who enjoyed his services and would likely to be angered by the death of their informations' broker. If nothing else, at least one or two might consider robbing the murderer for the lack of better sport, dealing some selfish revenge, as well. With these thoughts, he steeled himself.

"Yer' lookin' fer someone?", Streamy whispered quietly from the shadows, and clutched a dagger in his left hand, casually yet firmly, willing to use it if necessary. He kept it out of sight to the best of his ability, as he didn't want to cause the meeting to go off with a wrong foot.

"I might", a hooded figure replied from the darkness of his mask. "You've something for me, I've been told."

"How do I now know yer not one of the guard?", Streamy hawked and practically spat out the last word.

"You don't", the figure replied coldly, and stayed quiet for a while. "This ought to pay off your doubts, however." The stranger took a pouch off of his belt and handed it over. Streamy took it cautiously and with the nose of an old merchant smelled that it was packed with silver coins. Propably stolen, but he didn't really care. No outpost or a barracks paid its soldier with silver, not out in the frontiers anyway, and since the thought of Cragsalt's city guard taking an interest in a small broker's actions this far out in the wild was impossible to even fathom, the broker accepted the stranger to be his weird customer he had been told about. He peered at the shiny coins inside and stashed the pouch away, nodding.

"A'ight, we're talkin'. State yer' business", Streamy sneezed and relaxed a bit, but still maintained his guard up - more than usual.

"You've something or not?", the figure asked, lowering his voice down. Streamy somehow got the impression that the man was in a hurry, or that he was impatient. Perhaps it was the way he talked? He couldn't be sure.

"Yeah, but I'd like ta'---", he started.

"How about it?", the figure cut in, clearly agitated.

"Eh", Streamy backed off a step. "If yer' gonna be like that, I ain't givin' you anything. My goods, my rules. I wanna' see the moni, first."

"Moni?"

"As in cash?", Streamy shook his head in disbelief. For someone living off a shadowy life, the customer was alarmingly clueless to the jargon that the shadowdancers shared. "Man's gotta eat, feed 'is family."

Keeping his mouth closed tightly, the stranger unbelted a second pouch and dropped it on the floor. The chimes of the coins inside the pouch hitting against a planken floor clearly gave away the fact that the coins were echt. Streamy scrutinized the speed of the fall and the sweet smell - gold. This customer started to feel more and more out of his league, someone who had got used to getting what he wanted now, and the faster the better for everyone.

"A'ight, you good. Now I'll fulfill my end of the bargain", Streamy started to placate the man, as he knew that were this stranger to attack him, there would be no question of the winner. Putting aside the disturbing thoughts, he motioned towards a small box, just like any other, a few feet away from the stranger. There were some old rags, covered in mold, on top of the box. "There, open that one."

"I don't think so. You'll do it", the stranger replied back. His words chinked on the wharf like small chips of steel, cold and unyielding.

"Right", Streamy nodded, understanding the man's paranoia. This kind of shadowy business was a horrid tightrope of trust, suspicion and mutual respect, and this man appeared to have at least some understanding on how these things worked, even if he wasn't used to down-to-earth kind of outlawfulness. "But you keep yer' distance, a'ight?", the old broker snapped, in turn.

Speechless, the stranger backed off several steps and nodded at the dealer.

Streamy, in turn, stepped onward quietly and cautiously, thinking about the way he would end this all with his life intact. He remembered a small bottle of smokey liquid inside, one he had once bought from a weird witch living with a nephil on the outskirts of the slums. The bottle was to, when broken, cause a cloud that would distract anyone not prepared for it, Streamy remembered the witch's explanation. He had this bottle up his sleeve, in a handy contraption from whence he could draw it quickly, should the need arise.

Casting the moldy rags carelessly aside, the broker proceeded to open the box, keeping his eyes tightly on the stranger. The box had been exposed to moisture for a long time, but with some work it opened nicely. He grabbed the lid of the box and dropped it nearby, motioning for the stranger to have a look at the contents inside. Backing off, he gave space for the stranger to have a look.

The stranger approached the box as though it had been full of dangerous snakes, and peered inside. He took one of the scrolltubes, backed off a bit and opened it. The scroll within was written in low-quality ink on rough vellum, but it did its job. The corner's of the man's mouth twitched slightly. He hadn't felt this content in decades. Closing the scroll back inside, he approached the box and grasped the rest of the scrolls. At this point Streamy backed off to the T-crossing from whence he could leave to either direction.

"Yeah", Streamy nodded. "'twas a pleasure doin' business with ya'", and threw his wrist. A longsword appeared out of nowhere to the stranger's arms, but the old broker had faster reflexes than one could've believed just by looking at his rough looks. The glassen bottle shattered with a smooth ringing sound on the wharf and immediately fulfilled the entire alleyway with silvery mist, so thick that the stranger couldn't see the box he had just grabbed the scrolltubes from.

As the mist cleared, there were no people in the alleyway, anymore. Just some moldy rags, an opened box, and a faint smell of sandalwood.

 

***

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 1: Banished

 

 

 

16th of Icefall, year 769

Several hundred miles underground, No-man's-land

 

Philip started slowly to come to his senses. His body felt numb, and everytime he tried to move a muscle it sent burning, stinging sensations all over himself. A piercing, shrill humming fulfilled the air and started to cut through the ringing of his ears. His veins felt as though his blood had been replaced with sand and as he drew the first proper breaths during his stay in the underworld his throat felt like salted rock. Bitterly he thought of how it would've been simply easier to resist the Empire dervishes and die to their blades. At least he would've died in the warmth of the Sun. Now he would slowly pass away in this terrible, cursed, dark labyrinthian net of caverns of which he had heard so many horrorstories about.

Coughing and his eyes bleeding, the young fellow slowly moved his head and had a look around. The cold, moist cavern's air felt sweet in contrast to the the rough stone he had rested his head upon. There were a couple of other humans nearby whom he couldn't as of yet recognize. His eyes still bled with tears both out of pure shock as well as the effects of the powerful teleportation magic that the Empire wizards had put him through.

Philip tried to get up on his all fours. After several painful attempts to rise the darkhaired newcomer finally succeeded in his aims and wiped his eyes, blinking heavily. The blood in his veins felt like it had started to circulate, and his control over himself didn't feel as stiff anymore.

Looking around, the northlander soon situated himself upon a rocky gorge. The hill, where the portal and the misfits to the Empire's 'perfect' society laid upon, stretched far and wide, featuring shallow inclines and chunks of rock here and there. Crude stone huts dotted the terrain downhill, further on the cavern's floor, surrounding the portalhill. Slabs of stone had been laid into a form of a path on one side, leading down to a courtyard of cobblestone. Philip thought he could see people amongst of the huts, emerging slowly to witness the tragic fate of these new outcasts. Once they had been in a similar situation themselves, but now this bleak event served as one of the few highlights of their existences - something special enough to justify them to abandon their chores and rest their hands from the toils of their daily lives.

Adjusting his ears and clearing his head for a bit, Philip started to hear again - or rather, ceased from hearing anything at all. It was eerily quiet. Wind didn't blow, nor could animals' calls or shrieks be heard in the air. The only thing that broke the silence was a dripple that echoed from somewhere.

The chilling stagnation felt even more horrid than the whispered rumours of fiery pits and screams of pain and torture in demons' hands. Silence, darkness. These two plentiful elements allowed for the mind to go berzerk in its mad schemes, with racing imagination whispering words of paranoia and delusions into the conscious soul. As thus, it was near paralyzing for Philip to realize how a person emerged from the loitering crowds. It was impossible to say at this range whether the person was a woman or a man, or of what race the person was. All Philip knew for certain was that the mysterious figure was clad in robes, looked to be hunchbacked and leaned heavily on a wooden staff.

The solitary character motioned for the outcasts to come closer.

"Yet another set of unfortunate souls, cast into the darkness for simply being different?", the greeter rasped from underneath of a hood and leaned heavily on a cavewooden staff. "And humans at that, not nephilim."

None of the outcasts had anything to say and so they simply stood there, awaiting for the greeter to continue. Even the only child who was amongst of the banished folk stayed quiet - instead of crying she merely held her mother's hand so tightly that her knuckles lost color.

"Have a look around", the old man coughed. "This underworld, I'm afraid, is going to be your new home. Well, the lands to the south and the west, to be precise. The lands to the north are under the control of three different nephilim clans." Philip had no clue where the directions would be, and he imagined that the others would be propably equally lost. Nevertheless, he remained quiet with the rest, and intended to remain that way - he was no icebreaker in situations with unfamiliar people. He refocused himself - had he really heard "in control of three different nephilim clans"? It was hard to think, but quickly the young sage came to the logical conclusion that the Empire had indeed lived up to the rumours and cast nephilim down here with a heavy hand. The fact that the officials would have sent humans through the same portal didn't make much sense to him, though. Casting these thoughts aside, he pointed his attention to the hunchbacked greeter ahead of himself.

"Well, welcome to Taghtarus, the infamous, relatively unknown sister of Avernum - the nephilim prison, as some have called it in the past", the old man coughed again violently and broke his voice. "Rather than having you stay here in the cold and under the gaze of your peers, I'd like to invite you to the Halls of Fire. You may warm yourselves there, eat some of the few provisions that we have and ask me about anything that you may have on your minds", the man continued. Just before he was about to turn away, he turned towards the flock once more and sharpened his voice.

"Taghtarus?", Philip thought to himself and tried to recall any memories from his shocked mind. He remembered his cousin's stories of a portal to Avernum and of how politicians were cast down there, but he also had heard of Taghtarus during his last visitations to the Imperial Colleges in Sarkagrad and Solaria. The fabled "nephilim portal" supposedly led to Taghtarus, although the existence of this lesser-known net of caverns was held a closely guarded secret - Philip deduced that all of the secrecy had something to do with the First Expedition and the horrid failure it turned to be. He decided to leave the details for a further time, and started to walk after the crowd.

"One last thing before we go. Bloodrock, the town in which we currently are, is considered neutral ground. As you are going to see there are nephilim here, as well. Indeed, we share this town with them. Even so, you aren't allowed to unsheath anything bigger than a dagger, and even that to only cut a loaf off of a bread. If the guards get a call and you're found quilty of violence, you'll be stripped of your belongings and marched to the chasm on the other side of the town and thrown into the chasm, no further questions asked nor mercy given. The same goes for thievery. In contrast, helping out your fellow citizens will not go unrewarded."

Having his initial speech delivered, the greeter turned away and slowly started to amble, unhurriedly, towards one of the larger structures on the courtyard. The considerably sizeable crowd, that consisted mostly of nephilim to the left and humans to the right, Philip noticed, gave way for the greeter. Whether they did this out of fear or respect for the old man; of pity or compassion for the newcomers, Philip couldn't really guess. He settled for the thought that the greeter was most propably considered as a mayor of sorts, and joined the others as they walked after the crooked man.

As Philip closed the distance to the Halls of Fire, he got a better look at the denizens of the town. Startlingly enough, all of the humans, men and women, old and young alike looked pale. Some had more tan to their skin than others, but this was mainly due to slight differences in the humans' origins. Philip, being from a land where the Sun would not shine during the winter months, was familiar with this effect. Only this time, down here, skin's paling would be far more thorough and final, as no Sun would rise up in the spring to cast its warmth upon the cold grounds. With shocked mind but blank face he walked, all the while thinking about how long these people had been here already. The full scale, both in size and longevity, of the underworld started little by little to sink in to his consciousness.

 

* * *

 

A cozy fire crackled in the long firepit in the middle of the main hall. Crude tables, roughly carved with pain and hard work out of the very stone that imprisoned the banished ones, surrounded the pit. Blackened, sooted cast-iron retainers hanged empty above the open flames.

The greeter, whom had entered the Hall first, walked up to the far end of the hall and sat down on a chair specifically reserved for him. The chair bore decorations and was placed on a slight elevation - this hinted for Philip that the greeter was indeed a person of high authority in the village. "Come by the fire to warm yourselves", the greeter motioned for the people at the back of the pack still outside.

Philip, being amidst the last ones to enter, had a glance outside from the doorway. There were still some villagers outside, gossiping and whispering amongst of each other, looking his way. He knew it was merely his own paranoia, but it felt like they were all talking about him specifically. Shaking his head angrily at his demented thoughts, he turned away and closed the door. Only now did he get a good look at the hall itself. He saw two doors at the very back end of the hall, one of which was open and let loose a shaft of light and sounds of a knife chopping on a cuttingboard. The open door propably lead to a kitchen, with the other one possibly leading to a staircase upstairs. The Hall, Philip had noticed, was tall enough to be two storeys high.

After the mixed crowd of banished ones had taken their seats and uneasily settled to their places, the greeter rose slowly up. The newcomers weren't sure on what to do, so they waited once again, trusting the greeter's guidance.

"Now, maybe we can have some time for questions, as we wait for the food to arrive", the greeter spoke solemnly. "Last but not least, if you rather prefer privacy and freedom over the obligations, rights and priviledges of our society we have built down here, you are free to leave across the borders at anytime you desire. Port city of Weswynia to the south sells boats. By following the rivers to either north or south you'll possibly find a way to your fortune, or rather what is much more likely to happen, untimely death", the hunchbacked bearer of knowledge rasped, and cleared his throat before sitting down. "The word is free."

One of the more dark-skinned newcomers, right next to Philip, started to glance around. After a heartbeat or two, he stood up. "May I?", he asked with heavy accent.

"By all means", the greeter replied and motioned towards the speaker with a hand, palm up.

"I am... I'm free to git?", the muscular man rumbled.

"Before we proceed to that, what can I call you?", the greeter raised his head so that his eyes glimmered in the darkness of his hood.

"I'm called Cair. Clan Jel."

"Very well, then, Jel's Cair. Even despite your desire to be free both of the clutches and priviledges of our Queendom, I wish to give you something for your road before you leave. Such is our tradition, that we supply all who come through the portal, man and nephil alike - for unlike the Empire above, we are not without a heart and consideration for our fellow citizens." Silencing for a moment, the greeter waved his spare hand and a pouch appeared on the table in front of Cair. "Now, you may go as you desire. May the Gods watch over your soul in this dark pit."

Cair looked suspicious and glanced at the greeter, to which the greeter replied simply by nodding patiently. Cair had a cautious look inside the pouch. The container held several coins, two chunks of dried meat and some dried mushrooms. He bowed deeply at the greeter, belted the pouch and walked out of the door, never saying a word.

As the silence after Cair's departure had stretched thin, a balding little man cleared his throat. "Pardon, but by what name could we call you?", he spoke and directed his words for the greeter.

The greeter lowered his head and remained quiet for a while. "Names contain power, my son. I would not rather give you my name as it was given to me during my birth. Instead, you may refer to me from now on as Father Dimitriy Miles."

"Right, then, Miles", the small, balding man continued. "You mentioned a society? What can you exactly tell us about this place? Where are we? And do you... we, actually have a queendom down here? In co-existence with the ... catheads?", the balding man practically spat out the last word.

"As I already mentioned once, we are in Taghtarus. This net of caverns stretches far and wide, and is large enough to hold our small Queendom, as well as societies of other banished ones, including the nephilim; or catheads as you prefer to call them. The caverns are barren, and we have to raid the little wood that we want from the marshes to the north, from the demons' grasp.

"Our queendom is small, make no mistake, just shy of ten thousand souls. We don't have nearly the amount of land that the nephilim and the demons to the north hold. What we have, we have paid for all of that with a price that has been way too high to begin with. With the blood of those who came before us we have painted the borders of our land. We mainly live off of the occasional mushroom field and the pale, slimy cavefish that we get from black waters.

"It's a rough existence, but we make do. Mining, farming, fishing, trading, government, smithing, alchemy, exploration - everything goes, so long as you live by the basic rule of doing anything you wish if it doesn't harm anyone else."

"As for what comes to co-existence with the nephilim, we have managed to settle a truce with the triad to the north, so that all of the outcasts who come through the portal are free to choose how they wish to live. No one gets slaughtered by the portal for the account of their racial heritage, not anymore. We came to declare this desolate ledge as neutral ground, and established a mutual, shared town with the nephilim. Of course, that's about as far as the truce goes, as of yet. A trust is a slow thing to build up, but we hope that our mutual fear of demons and their burning and pillaging, as well as the hate for the Empire can bring our two troubled nations closer together. I for one believe that there is strength in unity, albeit in a slim one.

"Moreover, we have managed to settle a peace with the recluse nephilim clan far to the west. Last when I heard, the Peoples' Comissariat of Defence and the Bureau of Royal Intelligence had managed to establish a joint watch to the western parts of these caverns, where the nephilim hold western side of a certain Boneriver and we hold the eastern side."

While the reactions of the new outcasts were certainly a varying lot but mild, the balding little man gave out his opinions about the news of the uneasy peace with the nephilim rather bluntly. Shaking his head and closing his eyes, he grumbled. "Would that this never came to pass... I'd rather die than join forces with the flaming cat-heads."

"I would not have you speak in such a manner", Father Miles leaned sharply onward and gained new vigor to his character. Everyone around the tables recoiled back a bit. "Have you not tasted enough death in this life to know that to speak in such a manner is to embrace madness!?"

"You would not have me curse those who took away from me everything that I have ever loved?!", the balding little man banged his fist on the table. "The frakking buggers... They... !", the balding man frenzied up so harshly that spat drizzled from his mouth on the table and his face turned into a color of deep purple. Philip would've regarded this almost as a comical sight had he not guessed the man's motives for getting angry - many a times he had heard of nephilim raiding an Empire town, killing anything and everything in their way as a revenge for taking their lands violently.

"Past is the past", Father Miles leaned back a little. "That is a lesson that you would do well to learn here, my son."

"You've got some flaming cheek! I am not your bloody son! And I certainly am not about to let the past rest, not before my wife and my... child... ren...", the man's voice trailed off into nothingess and he rose from the table, turning away.

"Would your wife or your children want you to throw your life away needlessly?", Philip opened his mouth before he even realized it had happened. He felt immediately heat rise up his neck towards his face. It felt painfully obvious, as did the fact that everyone in the table were staring at him. "Is that what they'd want? For you to spill blood on their account?", he continued, almost working up a disgusted hate at the man's irrationality. He had never understood or tolerated such emotional illogicality - nothing that the man could do would bring back his family, and by drowning into such a marsh of sorrow and selfpity would only make things worse. With a quickly by-passing flash of thoughts, Philip vaguely guessed how or why the man had been banished - such a display of emotions at the wrong place, angering a mayor or some other nobleperson was a very common way to catch a one-way ticket to one of the two underworld prisons.

"Oh, just get off, you knucklehead. Let me grieve in peace", the balding man leaned against a wall and swore in a colorful manner.

"Let him be, my son", Father spoke with a lowered voice and glanced at the bald pacing around at the back of the room. "Nevertheless, you are right when you say that, man of the north. Revenge serves nothing but Death itself. Now, let us leave that topic rest and move on with the questions, as we still have some time before the food is cooked up and ready."

After remaining silent for a while longer, those who still were sitting by the table started to get used to the atmosphere and their firm and wise host, Father Miles. Philip and one other man on the other side of the table opened their mouths at the same time, about to ask questions that troubled their minds.

"What...", Philip started, but silenced as soon as he realized that the other man was speaking, as well.

"How... Oh, excuse me", the middle-aged, chapped man motioned towards Philip. "Go on, you were saying?"

"Ah, well all right. Father, what are the exact laws of this ... Queendom?", Philip queried.

"The most important ones that you'll immediately need to know are as I have already described them to you. You are allowed to do anything you desire, so long as it doesn't harm anyone else. You are allowed to speak freely as you choose, so long as your aim is not to bring any harm to anyone. You can criticize, but not mock", Father Miles replied.

The outcasts were dumbfounded, some even shocked. "What do you mean... that we can speak freely?", many of them asked.

"It means, for example, that if you think that the fort's or town's mayor isn't doing his or her duties properly, you are allowed to express your opinions about it. We do not endorse earthly persons' worshipping here, not as it was prevalent in the Empire in the form of emperors' and empresses' propaganda and embellishment."

Philip felt lightheaded, and he knew many of the others felt, too. New laws, new freedom, and yet they were still trapped down here, doomed to never see the Sun again, never to feel the breeze of the early spring mornings. Poverty and bleakness plagued this place, he had noticed in the first moments of his life down here, and yet people had liberty to live as they pleased. It felt as though he had jumped into a childhood story that his cousin would read to him as he had been down with illness.

Distantly Philip realized that the man, who had spoken with him simultaneously before, now wanted to know about living and owning land down here. Philip knew that it'd be best to listen in, but he counted on Father Miles to repeat all of that again during the dinner. Right then and there he simply enjoyed the bittersweet, confusing and in some ways absolutely terrifying thought of absolute freedom, while still being imprisoned - a perfect mirror-image of how life was up in the surfaceworld.

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 2: Into the Darkness

 

 

 

16th of Icefall, evening, year 769

Western border of Queendom of Taghtarus, Port Varib

 

A long distance away from the arrival town of Bloodrock, there was a small town of Port Varib, situated at the side of what was commonly called Boneriver. Port Varib served as a home for fishermen and as a trading hub between of the feline nephilim to the west and humans to the east - 'a melting pot' would've been the most fitting description for the town. The port had been founded to a peaceful cove about twenty miles south of Fort Frejath, a strong human bastion at the borders of the human lands that had deflected demons' assaults for nearly four years. The Port had been expanded from the waterside up the hill towards the steep cliffs that lined the river on both banks, and featured stonework quite unique to Cragsalt Province, sporting angular shapes and arcs: it had a generally sturdy outlook, built to last.

As all towns had accustomed to follow the day-night cycle popularized by one of the less famous scholars of New Gothenburg College, so had Port Varib done as well. Since no Sun would blaze down in the caverns, a number of brilliant minds had come up with a system that would measure time in accurate hours. All of the large cities had been linked to this network that included a time-measuring machine in New Gothenburg College, located in Taghtarus' capital city Isenkrun. So it had been that two years after the system had been invented, Port Varib's bygone monarch had gathered enough taxes to be able to afford a belltower's construction. A great bronze bell had been crafted and erected to the tower in the middle of the market square, and two watchmen would keep ringing the bell at steady intervals: at halved and full hours.

Outside, on the wharfs and narrow streets, the toll of the bell could be heard chiming twice in a fast beat, then eight times slowly. It was a signal that the passage of time had gone over the noon, and that it was now eight o'clock in the evening.

Iríth'Maowr, a half-blood between nephil and rakshasa blood and an acolyte in search of her faith, walked quietly down the riverside and was lost in thought. She had a glance at the docked longboats as she went. Their storm lanterns were darkened and much of their cargo had been hauled away into the various warehouses littered throughout Port Varib, just like their crews had been tucked away to the nearby taverns. Unlike a lot of her kin, she didn't live in the Barugh Gharrum District inhabited mostly by nephilim, but rather in the Dark Quarters which housed a lot of warehouses, fish kilns, taverns, run-down residences and a rarity of unique status in her life - a human friend whom with she had quite a history.

It was this friend whom Iríth was going to visit. She arrived by the door and knocked ceremonially, more to acknowledge the witch of her arrival rather than asking for a permission to enter. Although a rakshasa's inability to enter a home uninvited was not a part of Iríth's racial heritage, she still cringed as she slided the runed key to the lock and started to open the hut's door quietly. Casting one final cautious glance around to make sure that no brigand was around, she entered and locked the door behind her.

Leaving the cold, damp, smelly and dark docks behind and embracing the hut's warmth was enough to almost knock Iríth off of her feet, and for a moment she leaned against the door. With closed eyes she experienced the cozy atmosphere via her senses of smell and audition. A bold flame crackled in the fireplace and the bitter smell of fresh ink hanged heavily in the air.

"Hey, Iríth", a voice woke the half-blood from her befuddlement. "It's a pleasure to see you."

"Hey yourself, Solfanes", Iríth quipped a greeting, trying to maintain an innocent visage. She felt rather guilty about insulting the witch's privacy in such a manner - it was just that she needed the company, to have someone to talk with; someone else than the two young acolytes who barely spoke.

"It's a bit of a surprise, this. I'm afraid you've caught me quite unprepared, you have", Solfanes rose from his desk and walked up to greet his friend and put her surcoat to hang by the wall. His movement was stiff as he had been sitting in the same position for three hours, inscripting magical formulae and figures on rough sheets of lichen papyrus. His mind was sharp, but as an equipoise the Gods had given him an accursed body in birth. As thus his joints were rather decrepit and some of his bones were quite frail, but he had come to make do with what he had been given.

"How have you been?", Iríth queried and replied to the hug.

"Well, the days have had their ups and downs. More bad than good, though... And how about you, how about your week?", the witch asked and motioned for her to sit by the fireplace. "Go on, rest by the fire. I'll brew us some tea."

"Hmrr, the bygone week has been a horrid one, I can tell you that", Iríth confessed bluntly and went to warm her aching hands and feet by the fire. "I've been sleeping at the temple these last couple of nights as I'm just too tired to walk home. Ever since Beatrice passed away ... I don't know. I'm still but an acolyte myself and already I should look after a temple and two novices. And the sailors have been really edgy too, nervous about something that's happening up near Fort Frejath", Iríth shared her experiences of the week, silencing only for but a moment. "But hey, in hindsight at least I've got a free reign over how I run the temple, now", she continued, smirking with an almost mischievous mien.

"The people aren't giving you any trouble, are they?", Solfanes poured some water to a blackened kettle. "They so much as lay a hand on you or the boys..."

"No, we're fine", Iríth said reassuringly and sat down on one of the three armchairs laid before the fireplace. "For the first few days after Beatrice was gone, those who came to the temple appeared quite queasy about me being their newly appointed priestess, but the people have gotten used to me, by now. It's not like they still like me, as I am not fond of them either, but we all tolerate each other. It's all good on that front", Iríth smiled.

"Well, that's a nice thing to hear. I take it, then, that you're more or less all right, you are? Or should I abandon my post and come help you there?", the fair-haired man managed to put the kettle on and sat next to one of the few persons who even tolerated him around.

"That's hardly necessary, but thanks for the concern", Iríth laughed. "Besides, who would brew love potions for people, if you weren't here?", she added with a sarcastic tone in her voice.

"That was a pure mix-up on my part", Solfanes said, blushing bright red. "It was supposed to be a vial that would help the imbiber fall asleep, I swear! Alas, I mistook a black-spotted toadstool for a redcrest milk-cap and, well..."

"Well, be that as it may, I've never heard so wild stories about anyone as I have heard here", Iríth whispered, enjoying greatly to have a chance to poke a bit of fun at her friend, and enjoying even more seeing him squirm - all in a good, high spirit, of course. "Wild rumours indeed, and about the town's mayor, no less."

"Yeah, well...", the witch mumbled, but in the end decided not to mention that the mayor had ordered a whole batch of such vials, and canceled the order for sleeping agent. Who was he, a lowly apothecary, to resist when the father of the town himself had made such a request?

"All that aside, how about you, then? I hope you haven't been sitting here all week along, gathering mold and dust", Iríth asked with a more serious tone.

"- I've had it rather quiet, I have. Then again, that is not to say that I'd have been dancing on a bed of roses, no. I had to go to Revven."

"Why would you step down into that cesspool?", Iríth reared her head back in amazement. Solfanes had once told her about it, more as a warning than anything else. Revven was a small net of caverns that dated back all the way to the founding of Port Varib. Back then, the town had been established close to an abandoned salamanders' or hydras' nest, and the caves had been used as a storage facility for supplies and construction materials. Ever since that the Port had been expanded and enlarged, practically built over the warren. The caverns had laid in slumber and housed a number of pests, until a certain thief came up with an idea to establish a hideout down there. The word soon spread throughout the outlaws, beggars and those who wished to remain out of law's reach and so the Undertown, named Revven after its inventor, was born.

"- I was fulfilling a task for the Bureau, hunting for information. Whenever I want to know about the most closely guarded secrets there exists, there's a specific person I go and meet. He's got the best sources but the highest prices."

"The bureau? A lawful institution with a strict hierarchy? Goodness gracious, I feel sorry for them for having to maintain you in a leash...", Iríth poked hard at the tall man's side, causing him to twitch and nearly fall onto the floor. "How did you come to serve under their rule?"

"- Damn you, girl... Well, I guess you could call it a parole. Sort of a community service for the high treason that I committed. Oh, yes, didn't I mention? They eventually judged the whole Fort Harqen incident to be a high treason, but lowered the punishment due to extenuating circumstances, and so I wound up serving for the Bureau of Royal Intelligence. Got lucky, really, as I could've easily gotten a lifetime as a lumberjack in the swamps, running for my life from the demons."

"Some infraction, hmrr...", Iríth scoffed.

"Yeah, well, what can you expect from a bunch of boneheads who'd rather make up stories of their own about the past than actually face the truth and step down from their moral high ground", Solfanes' voice lowered into angry mumbling and cursing. "No, no, Iríth, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have. I just... well you know."

"Don't be sorry. I know, all too well", Iríth nodded and lowered her head for a spell. She cheered up quickly, however, and thought about changing the subject to something else. "A question, if you don't mind, because well, you know how my curiosity knows no bounds."

"Shoot", the reserved man nodded and rose up to pour some tea - brewed lichen and mold - for them both. "Here you go. Watch it, it's quite hot, it is."

Since Taghtarus had right from the beginning been reliant on Empire's mercy and the exiles' ingenuity in smuggling down goods from the surface upon banishment, the people had been forced to come up with borderline insane methods of maintaining at least some kind of quality of life, and as thus various strains of lichen and mold were commonly used as a surrogate for tea leaves.

"Thankyou", Iríth warmed her hands with the cup for a long time before taking her first sip. "What's it like, working for the Bureau?", the emerald-eyed half-blood asked cautiously and glanced at the human.

"Don't worry, mate, I'm not involved in any nasty stuff", Solfanes sniffed quietly and took a sip of the bitter tea. "No, it's quite a pleasant task, actually. To be given a responsibility to keep tabs on a certain piece of a Province", Solfanes continued. "Even if it means that I'll have to keep dealing with lowlives and the muck of the town. There's almost a basic rule of thumb I've been following: the dirtier the face, the more he knows, and that applies especially to a guy called Streamy.

"Besides, for the whole of my life I've been keen on observing the life passing by. Oftentimes I just take a place and sit, gazing at the babbling mouths, flapping tongues and twisting fingers - when I feel like it, of course. Sometimes the amount of people around is just too much to bear. However the case might be, it's unbelievable how much you can learn, see and hear just by sitting for ten minutes in a crowded place, blended in. Mind you, it's even better when you sit on a rock in the wilds and listen to the silence. You should try it sometimes."

"Yeah, I ought to give it a try", Iríth agreed. "Maybe... maybe when I get back home", her smile dried up and she grew stiff as she thought about her real home and kin in blood - the Darkmoon Clan. She prayed for the Gods to help her, as she knew her friend well enough that he'd probably start asking about her home and the Clan, again. The guilt, the self-imposed exile, all of it would come flooding in, and she didn't know how to cope with it.

The Gods had either a very cruel sense of humor or her prayers hadn't been coming from her heart, Iríth thought, as she heard Solfanes' question ringing in her ears. "Hey, yeah, about that... the Clan. You mentioned last week that you'd tell me one of these days about the reason for why you moved to this Port. Did you get bored of leading the tribe, or what?"

"Uhh, you mean the Clan? Oh, yeah, that... Well...", Iríth felt quite uneasy and swiveled the cup in her hands. This time she couldn't dodge the question anymore and put the cup down. "The truth is..."

"Iríth, are you all right?", Solfanes had turned to face her. His gaze frightened her in all of its directness and empathy. "You sound a bit shaken."

"I'm fine", Iríth replied quickly, maybe a little bit too quickly, and rose up to pace around all the while twisting her hands. She stood there quietly, with her back turned at the witch. "I ... I couldn't stay there."

"Did something... happen? To you? Did they hurt you?", Solfanes rose up, alarmed.

"- No, no, nothing like that. Solf, I can't. Please, just, forget about it---"

"Iríth, please. A shared burden is a burden divided."

"- And a shared joy is a pleasure doubled, I've heard that before. It's just... something that I'm not ready to think about, let alone even talk."

The witch said nothing, but simply stood there, listening.

A moment passed by as Iríth stared at her hands and the shadows. Finally she turned around to look at the human. "I know you want to help, but, I need time to... I'll share it when I'm ready."

"- It's quite all right, Iríth. I've been there, I have."

Iríth said nothing, and walked up to one of the two windows in the whole hut and gazed outside. Her heart raced and she had to lean against the window frames so as to not topple over. Not even in her childhood she had experienced anything of this kind - or rather, especially not in those years, as most of the time she had been simply forced to fight for her rank and status. No-one had ever wished for her best nor cared for her well being in such a manner. With reared ears, as nephilim did not express pain or sorrow by crying in the manner that humans did, she lifted her gaze up to the caverns' ceiling far above where patches of peculiar fungus glowed with pale green light.

A thought passed through Iríth's racing mind: the Gods didn't have a cruel sense of humor, no. Maybe they had answered her prayers.

 

* * *

 

No-man's-land, Bloodrock

 

There were two taverns in Bloodrock - unsurprisingly one for humans and one for nephilim. Both were quite full for a lot of the time due to their cramped quarters. Although Philip's affinity for solitude had pushed him away at first, he had crossed his nature upon this occasion and squeezed himself to one of the tables by the counter, leaving the door out on his right and a blackened, windowless small stretch of wall behind him. If there was but a single moment in his life when the suffocating feeling of a crowd around oneself brought him consolation and amnesia of his troubles instead of anxiety, it should have to be this moment. He refused to look out the windows and tried to pretend that he wasn't in a cave a hundred miles below the surface of the earth, but back in one of Silverwater Valley's picturesque taverns that served not only as common houses but also as places of relaxation and silence during the hot noons of Midsummer's Eve.

The crowd here was quite mixed, with rough-skinned soldiers and mercenaries making up for at least half of the lot and frightened and still relatively shocked commoners fresh from the Portal making up for the rest. Philip saw a couple of familiar faces here and there: the man who had lost his family to nephilim, he was talking to some shady fellows near one of the central tables. The woman who had spilled her drink all over her dress during the Arrival Ceremony in the Halls of Fire, she was cuddled up with her son by the counter nearby. The loud couple from the arid badlands had taken up one of the tables near the staircase to the common quarters, and were quite clearly having a colorful conversation about their future plans.

Philip felt lightheaded and very tired. He figured that he would turn in for the night, soon, and gestured for a barmaid. He couldn't concentrate as he usually would, and what would have been a clearly audible concert; or cacophony, of human voices on any other day was now but a loud buzz going right past his ears. He had a glance at the half-empty flagon of horridly bitter drink, and realized distantly that it was the second time he had ever ingested alcohol. The first time had been, if his memory still served him right, when he and his cousin had nicked a bottle of redberrywine from a neighbour's cellar and tasted a sip of it. Personally, he hadn't quite enjoyed the sharp taste of alcohol upon his young and sensitive tongue. Although his cousin had initially shared his opinion, after taking a couple of more sips he had promised to hide the bottle away somewhere into the woods, instead of simply running the wine on the ground. For some odd reason he hadn't been seen for the whole of next day. Perhaps he had searched for a hiding place for the bottle with a deep passion.

It felt as though something had tried to attract Philip's attention, but had managed only so well in it. He raised his gaze and startled a bit. A tavern maid had walked up to his table and stood there, waiting for the pale man to come to. Her costume was rather revealing, and although Philip considered himself a man of honorful intentions the dark-haired outcast couldn't help but lift his gaze only halfway up towards her face. After but a briefest of moments, one that still felt like an eternity nonetheless, Philip blushed deep red and thanked the Maker for the shadowy atmosphere of the corner.

"Good evening", he articulated slowly. His tongue felt thick and lips stiff, making it rather difficult to talk clearly.

"You wanted something, sir?", the barmaid replied in a cool manner. It occurred to Philip that she either had not realized his embarrassingly obvious stare or simply didn't mind. However the case might have been, the young sage decided to pay no further mind for the matter.

"Yes, I did", Philip affirmed. "I would like to rent a room for the night. That is to say.. this is the only common house around, correct?"

"- Well, I shouldn't really be saying this, sir, but there's also a rather run-down place for... more unsavory folk, just around the corner. I believe it's called Leon's Last Stand. As for the room for the night, you would have to consult Master Erhard, sir."

"And where could I find Master Erhard?"

"- That would be behind the counter, sir. He is the owner of this honorable tavern."

"Very well, that'll be all."

The barmaid curtseyed slightly and cast her gaze down again, and went off to fulfill her other duties. Philip rose and walked up to an empty spot by the counter and waited for his turn. He realized that the man next to him was the traveling man from the badlands. The muscular man stood out from the crowd quite clearly enough simply due to his body size, but the peculiarly ornamented clothes and leather-pieces set him even further apart from others. 'A man whom I wouldn't want to get in bad terms with', Philip noticed himself thinking.

"What would you have? Another flagon of mushroom ale, or maybe something a little bit sharper stuff? I have here a nice brew called Red Mariella, named after a heroine who stood against the Fang clan nepharim onslaught for nearly three years. Only eight coppers for half a pint", an elderly chap with a large spot of bald atop of his head and a broad smile greeted him from the other side. This man was probably Master Erhard.

"I have allowed myself to be informed that you might have a room available?", Philip replied.

"That's right. Judging by the looks, you are fresh out of the Portal?", Master Erhard queried as he searched for a box of keys from underneath of the counter.

"Yes, that's... that's true", Philip replied looking away dismissively, not really caring to think about it. "What's it to you?"

"I was just wondering if you two will be taking the same room?", the barkeep raised his head to be able to look at his customers. "Or will you rather sleep in common room?"

Philip felt confused and had a glance at the large, deeply tanned man next to him. Slowly Philip realized that the barkeep must've mistaken them to be traveling together. The large warrior didn't seem to be bothered at all and shrugged at Philip. He rumbled a grunt at the barkeep. "We ain't acquainted but he looks all right to me. Much rather I'd sleep with an honest face than a room full of smelly brigands. Me, him and me wife will take the room. There are several beds in one room, aye? I'll pay for one night, son."

Philip's jaw dropped and he rolled his eyes back and forth between of the barkeep and the warrior as they traded some copper coins for the rent of a key. He wasn't rather sure on how to react to this situation, and so he stood there agape for the moment. He knew, of course, that the tavern in a place like this would be cramped, but the fact that the barkeep stuffed unacquainted people to mutual rooms was appalling at the very least. The last time he had experienced such treatment had been in Angel's Rest near Sharimik, all the way back in Valorim.

"A'right, young man", the large tribesman turned to Philip. "We'll be sharing a room tonight between the three of us. As I said, much rather I'd share a room with someone of your kind than some filthy thief. You fair, mate, I can see it in your eyes. Now, me and me wife'll be staying up for a while longer, so why don't you join us, get to know each other a bit better as there's hardly anything better to do, aye? I'll buy you something if you're still thirsty."

The young, reserved sage had to search for the words for a while. "I appreciate the offer but I think I'll pass the drink", he said cautiously. As a travelling man he had seen a lot of the world and had come to witness various cultures and customs; although refusing an offer such as the one he just turned down was a complete shot in the dark, since in the worst case this kind of refusal might've been an insult of the worst kind, he had decided to trust his gut feeling about this boisterous man and went with an honest answer, instead of politely accepting.

"Fair enough, my man. Come right this way, and we may introduce ourselves to each other", the warrior grunted and started making his way through the thick crowd.

Philip turned to look at the barkeep who had already turned to serve other customers, and shrugged. He could've excused himself, gone and asked for a private room of his own but he couldn't be bothered to do it anymore, and so he followed in his new acquaintance's wake. His second-guesses were short-lived as his anxiety had turned into a reserved interest in this odd couple. There was something reassuring about the nomad, an aura of honesty and strength - quite similar to how his late father had been - and having people like him around could indeed turn out to be quite a profitable prospect in a place such as this. Of course, not only the practical benefits mattered to him, but there was also the very fact that his previous life was all but gone and any previous relationships along with it, and having friends was never a bad thing in life. Soon enough he found himself standing by the table of two of the friendliest people he'd come to know in his entire life.

"Greetings and well met. Who art thou, whom my husband hath drafted along?", a gangly woman with thick, black hair and royal facial features rose and bowed slightly at Philip, offering her hand palm up. Her clothes were of high quality, despite showing the wear of long travels and weather, and bore intricate decorations and beads similar to the brutish warrior's clothing, Philip analyzed. He also noticed that she bore a golden ring, which was rather unusual, as a lot of people's possessions were 'confiscated' by the Empire soldiers back in the surface before banishment.

"Greetings to you in kind", Philip bowed similarly and lowered his hand down on hers. "Philip, Berthold's son, Danar family." He wasn't exactly acquainted with this kind of greeting but he was quick to learn. "And who might you be?"

"Kobierth, daughter to Kobus of Kthre-Manur", the woman articulated clearly, but even so Philip had hard time understanding the names. He figured he'd call her Kob for the time being, until he'd have mustered the dare to ask for her name again.

"And I am Grethenward, son to Gairjel Beger of Kthre-Manur", the warrior turned to Philip and offered a similar hand-greeting, albeit he didn't bow.

Again Philip imitated Greth's greeting and simply nodded, as he believed that speaking his name once was quite enough. "Honored to meet you."

"Have a seat", Greth boomed and shed the little shreds of dignified calm that he had worn during the names' introduction. He sat down onto the rickety chair that barely held his weight. "See, Kob, me love, I knew right from the moment I laid me eyes on this lad that he's a good boy. He'll be sharing a room with us for tonight", the warrior accented heavily with his bassy voice. Normally Philip would've been at his home maintaining a pleasantly smiling, polite mask but now he had hard time trying not to laugh out loud because of how humorous the man's accent sounded to him. All of the amusement was the alcohol's doing, he realized distantly.

"Marry", Kob nodded at her husband, smiling, and turned her gaze to Philip. They all sat down and while the two nomads kept on sipping their drinks Philip remained content with just waiting for either one of the nomads to say something. It didn't take long. "Now then, Philip Berthold's son", Kobierth continued. "I prithee to tell us about thineself. What is it that thy do for thine living?", she asked.

"I'm a sage and a scribe", Philip replied, getting into a more serious mindset again. "I'm a ... well I was a Librarian of Third Circle in Solaria's Imperial College. I've specialized in languages, cultures, and runic magic", he concluded, not really being sure on how to continue introducing himself.

"Keeper of knowledge, I see", Greth spoke almost before Philip had managed to finish his sentence. It was the first time that the sage had ever actually talked with individuals from the nomadic tribes of the highlands but it seemed like the texts he had read were true, as the people of the deserts were known for their talkativeness and intensity.

Greth continued. "I was a bargainer, myself, a merchant. I understand more about the stuff I can see and touch. It was an honest profession, and oftentimes I would join to caravans of traders. Me father, may his spirit walk with the Sun, taught me quite a lot about the way of the blade and spear, too. 'Twas the way of our people. We were some of the best traders out in Kalm-Katagür's desert, but as always, good intentions and generous offers ain't enough to fend off a bunch of greedy brigands."

"Alas, even thine skills nor tactics weren't enough to hold the armies of Empire at bay, my love", Kobierth cut in. Philip started to catch up on how the conversation flowed but couldn't force himself to speak on top of his new acquaintances as such a way of talking was indeed very alien to him. "But that art a topic for discussion elsewhere than in a common room such as this.

"For now, Philip Berthold's son, I pray that suffice it to say that I am of a noble bloodline, and hath leadeth my life accordingly. I would not wish to sayeth anything any further so as to avoid unnecessary attention. I am sure we all can agree that we are no longer surrounded by decency, but rather with cruelty of survival."

"I do understand", Philip raised his hand to underline his next words. "And please, just call me Philip."

"Very well, then, Philip", Kobierth said gracefully. "So, thy art from the northern parts of Pralgadian continent? Thy were a citizen of the Aizoan Empire, yes?"

"Well no", the sage blurted. "My home lies in a small valley to the east of Ndolvu Mountains, north of Valorim. There was a small realm, there, a triumvirate of three cities. Our peaceful existence wasn't found but until the Empire, which I presume you call the Aizoan Empire, razed the troglodytes into oblivion."

"What did the Empire do when they found yer' triumvirate?", Greth leaned onward, almost planting his face to Philip's, and seemed to be ready to pounce on any single interesting word that the sage would let out. The young man had to close his eyes so as to resist the mental image of a huge Greth-faced cat stalking him, a little Philip-mouse.

"They weren't too hostile, and we didn't really resist as we realized how badly we were outranked. Our dukes managed to parley with the Empire officials and we were given a freedom of life, to a degree, so long as we would pay the required taxes in gold and wheat."

"Did you get drafted out, or what? Why'd ya' leave your home?", Greth continued to query, and took huge sips of the enormous flagon fulfilled with ale.

"It wasn't until at later age when I decided that my insatiable thirst for knowledge would not be quenched by the libraries that my home realm's cities offered. Albeit I had never liked the way of living in huge capital cities, I figured that I would cope with it. Of course from time to time I would make journeys to distant archeological sites and oftentimes I would visit my home valley on my way back to Solaria."

"Ahh, there's a man after my own taste", Greth rose up and encircled Philip with his enormous arms. At first the sage felt panicked, suffocating and awkward, but after the incident was over he felt slightly amused, as well. "You see, brother, if you ask me - and I know you are not asking but you know I'm going to tell it to ya' anyway - the way I see it, is that big cities and wildlands are alike. The only difference is that in general when you're in the wilds, you can pretty much tell when someone's coming fer your throat. You'll hear a bear growling or a wolf howling, but humans... Pffft.

"Speaking of wildlands, have ye' heard of our homelands, brother?", Greth asked and leaned closer to Philip again, grasping the tall man by his arm. "The Kalm-Katagür's desert?"

"Well, I've heard bits and pieces from here and there", Philip nodded. "But..."

"Perhaps it's for the best if we doth not---", Kobierth interrupted Philip as if it was a natural thing to do. She didn't get very far before Grethenward cut in, in turn.

"Oh, it's a mighty land, jagged and rough, but beautiful---", the mighty man held Philip's arm with another hand and waved imaginary patterns of cacti and rough mountaintops with the other one.

"---bore our companion with tales that'd take forever to finish", Kobierth spoke on top of her husband and slapped her hand on his mouth. Greth continued mumbling on for a moment further before turning his gaze upon his wife. The dark-skinned man continued in this vein for some time, all the way up to the point until his face started to get visibly purplish, even blue, despite his skin's natural deep tan.

Kobierth lifted her hand a little bit and allowed for a breath of air to pass through her fingers to her husband's mouth. "... Mmh, mhgggh mhg .. mhg .. and don't even get me started on...", Greth mumbled with his eyes unfocused into infinity.

"I'm afraid he never stops when he gets himself started", Kobierth explained calmly and continued sipping her drink with one hand all the while suffocating her husband softly. Philip struggled to get a hold of what was going on across of the table. Finally Greth's head smacked on the table and sent all manner of tools and plates flying to various directions. "He'll sober up in a minute or two - a divine period of time when he's actually not running his fingers up my leg."

For the merest of moments Philip reconsidered the notion of asking for a private room; all the while giving the thought of abstinence for the remainder of his life a good and thorough consideration.

* * *

 

Port Varib

 

The Port's bell cadenced: eleven o'clock in the night. A fire crackling in the distance. Warmth, darkness, safety. One of the rare chances in her life to be vulnerable, and not to be constantly at her guard - Iríth rested sweetly. She wasn't exactly deep in a dream, but rather in a state between of awake and asleep. She thought about the last time when she could simply lay on her back and not worry about anything. It was frighteningly easy task, as she could skip large portions of her childhood without a worry. Back then she would sleep with one brass dagger beneath the pillows, with another hidden to a small locker inside the furniture.

The very first time had been when Iríth had fled from the Rakshasi. The whole idea for fleeing the Rakshasi had ignited from a fight with her step-brother. Out of pure desperation and panic she had killed him for trying to forcibly sleep with her. Being completely terrified and disgusted at the whole incident she did what she couldn't have ever dared to do before: she fled. She had ran for four nights, and by a chance she had ran into an old nephil healer gathering herbs. The healer had taken her into his hut and clan, Darkmoon Clan, and one of the elders had ever since became her guardian-father. It was in that first night when she had slept without a worry - not really because of trust for the nephilim but simply due to the knowledge that if she wouldn't have slept, she would have died of exhaustion. She was barely twelve at the time, not more than a poor cub.

This time it was different, however. The week had taken its toll and although Iríth could've possibly made her way back to the temple, Solfanes would have none of that. He objected, saying that he wouldn't send his quests walking across half of a dark Port and demanded for her to take his bed while he'd sleep by the armchairs. Although the priestess knew she had always been the more stubborn of them two, she had given in this time - even simply entertaining the possibility of being able to sleep without waking up every half an hour to check up on the young acolytes, Ken and Jonas, had been enough to break the mightiest of stubborness in her mind. She had rationalized that the guards would make certain that no ruffians would barge to the temple to piss around and also that the acolytes would know better to stay out of trouble. Thus she had agreed to stay over for the night.

The Port's bell cadenced: three o'clock in the night. Iríth laid wide awake, frozen in place by an instinct. Something whispered in her mind that not everything was all right. This something also whispered that she should get up before it'd be too late. Shakily, she got up from the bed and shed the blankets, embracing the hut's dry air. Hastily she searched for her clothes and after dressing she sneaked into the main room. Solfanes snored haltingly on one of the armchairs, with red embers in the fireplace still warming him. It seemed that he had drank one or two bottles of wine after he had made certain that Iríth had gone to bed, she realized.

"Solf, shh", Iríth whispered and shook his hand slightly. "Wake up, but for the love of Gods, be quiet." It took some effort, but she managed to wake her friend.

"Hmm? Oh, Iríth", Solfanes sniffed quietly and rose to a slightly better position, holding his head and keeping his eyes closed. "Is it morning already?"

"Shh! We have to be quiet", Iríth hissed. "Something's not right. I can feel it."

When the witch finally came to, the realization of Iríth's tone and her desperate gaze got him to wake up nearly completely. "What's going on?"

"I don't know", Iríth replied and started to make her way to one of the windows, nearly crouched. "I'm going to have a look", she breathed with barely audible voice as she went.

Solfanes said nothing and got up himself. He had learned to trust her instincts, as a long time ago Iríth had vaguely described to him how it had been necessary for her survival that she trusted 'the whispers', as she had put it. Once upon a time they had fought side by side, back to back, clawing their way through impossible odds to survive, and somehow Solfanes felt like those kind of times had come around, again.

The streets appeared to be quiet and devoid of life. As the half-blood sharpened her gaze beyond of the flickering torches and the thick mist that hanged heavily by the docks and above rooftops, she could see movement on the river. She saw something, and she ducked. "Solfanes, come here!", she motioned for the witch.

Albeit the human was a large brute and not exactly spoiled with thin body build, he still knew how to move quietly and stealthily. Even Iríth had some difficulty seeing him crouching around in the darkness until he practically leaned on her and raised himself to have a glance through the window. "What is it? What did you see?"

"On the river, mrr! Beyond the mist, can you see it?"

"- Not exactly... I don't have your nocturnal vision. Wait. Is that a... boat?"

It was at that exact moment when Solfanes fell down into shadows, and they both hugged the wall. A shrill voice pierced the tranquility and serenity of the night.

"- LIZAAAARDS BY THE RIVEEEER! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK! THE LIZARDS ARE HERE! THE DEMONS HAVE COME! WAKE UUUUUP! WAKE UUUUUP! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!" It appeared that one of the guardsmen had realized the boats from the midst of the mist. In the following moments after the voice had died down, the whole town sprung to life. While it seemed that the supposed surprise attack had been spotted primarily to be coming from the river, it seemed that there were infiltrators already inside the Port itself. The two cowering magicians could hear unnaturally sharp clattering as a couple of creatures started to run on the pathways made of planks. It sounded like scaly feet with claws on slimy wood.

"They're already inside", Iríth breathed with eyes widened out of fear.

Solfanes wouldn't say anything but sprung for his desk, grasping his Book of Knowledge and some of the rarest of catalysts for various spells. "It might be that we'll need to leave this Port, Iríth. If you have anything invaluable in your house, now would be the time to get it while we're still not fighting. Lead the way, I'm ready."

"What makes you say that?", Iríth rose up on her feet and tried to scramble herself into motion. "The Port has defenses, doesn't it?"

"I served at Fort Harqen for three years, remember, as a tactician and captain? This Port is wide open. No walls, no fort or bastion and a very patchworked infrastructure. It's a miracle if the Port stands even for an hour. The only way is to evacuate and flee to higher ground---"

The town's bell cadenced the very much feared alarm, one that signaled that every able-bodied soldier was called to take up arms to defend the Port. Alongside that ringing, Iríth remembered the temple and the young acolytes. "Ken and Jonas! They're still at the temple! We have to get them out!"

"- Iríth, no! You can't rush off to the streets like that!"

"Those poor boys are my responsibility! I the only family they have left! I'm not---"

"- I am not asking you abandon them! We'll go around the back! There's a secret hatch over here, come!" Solfanes moved a couple of pieces of furniture aside and tore a rug out of the way. There was a sealed trapdoor underneath. "This takes us to the back alley, which in turn leads away from the main streets. Hopefully we can catch a lucky break without having to fight."

Soon enough the magicians found themselves in a dark back alley. They started running towards the center of the Port, evading fighting wherever they could. They ran past several locations where townsfolk and guardsmen alike fought with tooth and nail against the demonically empowered lizardmen, Slithzerikai. Albeit both Solfanes and Iríth knew they could've been of some use in aiding in the fight, they still pressed forth with the defenseless temple acolytes being their biggest concern.

After a while they came to a scene that ceased them in their tracks. A whole street across the waterside had been smashed, alongside with a couple of buildings. Splintered wood, broken pieces of rock and badly torn up bodies floated about on the water. It appeared that something with incredible strength had gone to town here.

"How is that even possible...?” Iríth managed to breathe.

"- I don't know. I don't think this is the sliths' nor demons' doing."

"Maybe they have creatures in the river?" Iríth guessed, and stepped back a bit.

"- Be that as it may..."

"Yes, quite so. Is there any other way around?

"- There is a passage. It's one of Revven's main streets, mind you, but at least it'll get us past. Come!"

Solfanes took lead and led Iríth to a small manhole a short distance back towards where they had come from. With some work, they managed to move aside the stuff that was piled upon the trapdoor and climbed down into the thick darkness. Just as the human was about to close the trapdoor and bar it, he heard the clattering of claws that were all too familiar to them already. He heard a muffled discussion in a hissing language that he had no understanding of. He thought he could hear his and Iríth's name mentioned amidst the sibilant hissing, but decided to not pay further mind to it for now and figured it to be his bewildered imagination.

"By the divines", Iríth covered her face with her palm. "Has something died down here?"

"No, it always smells like this", Solfanes whispered.

"- I can't imagine anyone who would want to deliberately stay down here, even to stay away from the law's reach, hmrr."

"The air in the forts' dungeons is also quite nasty..."

"That's true enough, I guess... Solfanes", Iríth sank her fingers to the man's shoulder and froze.

"What is it?" the witch whispered back, keeping his eyes closed and concentrating on creating a small orb of light atop of their heads. He knew that his companion would see quite well in the dark but he would have hard time trying to find his way around in the pitch black, and there was really no time to wait for his sight to adjust.

"Solfanes!" Iríth whispered furiously, with a hint of desperate horror in her voice.

"What?!" the witch had to break his concentration and turn to look at the terrified half-blood. He tried to remove her fingernails from his flesh; alas, to no avail. "What do you---"

"- There are... spiders! Spiders down here! You didn't tell me there are spiders!", her whispering started to crack and become muffled screaming.

"Certainly you aren't saying that you are afraid---"

"- I am NOT going to huddle in darkness with those accursed creatures, I can bloody well tell you that! I'm absolutely terrified of spiders! NO! There's one and it's flapping its jaws at me!" the acolyte panicked and shuffled backwards, planting her back against a slimy wall.

"Iríth, calm down", Solfanes tried to shake her. "Iríth? Look at me. Look at me; no, don't look at it, look at me. We're going to get through this together, all right?"

"- For Styx's sake, didn't you hear what I said?! I'd rather go up to die than take a single step further!"

Solfanes sighed and considered on how to proceed. It was obvious that she was plagued by an irrational fear. He had encountered this kind of mental disorders before in his studies of psyche, and it occurred to him that he couldn't talk her out of the condition, not now anyway. As thus he breathed heavily and ripped a strip of cloth off of his sleeve and blindfolded her. All of this proved to be quite counter-productive to their desire to keep up the speed but then again, there wasn't any other fast way to the Temple.

"Wait, oh..." Iríth shuffled and flailed around now quite a lot calmer than before. "I... Thanks... It's... it's just that I can't stand them. I really can't."

"- It's all right. You're all right, now."

"But... they're still there... and... it horrifies me to know that..."

"- Shh. You're all right. They can't hurt you."

"But---"

"- Don't think about it. Come on, girl. As soon as I tell you to, hold on to me so we don't get lost from each other", the witch instructed his companion. He took his catalyst - a polished, wooden wand - and a pinch of salt. After he had waved the wand in the air in a circular pattern he cast the salt through the imaginary circle, mumbling several magical words. The outlines of the circle started to blaze, with four brightly glaring runes appearing around it. Solfanes took his hands to the middle of the circle and controlled the apparatus to raise above his head, mumbling even more arcane words. Finally, a reassuringly bright orb appeared atop of them. Sadly, while the light brought comfort for stepping on the slimy cobblestone, it revealed a repulsive scenery.

The light revealed the corridor leading down towards the town's center as well as an innumerable amount of eyes staring at the two wanderers hungrily from the cracks and crevices of the stonework. Rats scurried into their holes and spiders the size of a human's fist cowered behind their webs, all hiding from the bright light, but re-emerging as soon as pitch black had fallen again. The walk through the tunnels was slow, quiet and nasty business as there were occasions when the stench got even worse, almost unbearable. The magicians shared similar doubts about the origin of the stench, such as murdered brigands as results of shady deals and so on and so forth, but didn't speak about any of their guesses. The journey was quite enough unnerving and unpleasant already. Fortunately it seemed that the Revven's residents had quickly fled from the tunnels, and the slowly shambling companions didn't run to anyone on their way.

Eventually Iríth and Solfanes reached a crossing that lead to a ladder on their right. If the plaque next to the ladder was of any credibility, the passage led up to one of the storehouses on the east side of the market square. Quickly before ascending, Solfanes dispelled the magical light off of their vicinity and took Iríth’s blindfold off. As soon as she realized that there was an exit ahead she wasted no time in getting out, pushing the witch against the wall and blazing up the ladder, not wanting to spend another second down in the sewers with the spiders. She bashed the trapdoor wide open and disappeared into the room above before Solfanes had even managed to regain his composure. As soon as the witch got up to the dusty and abandoned warehouse he found her leaning against an opposing wall, shivering almost uncontrollably.

"Not a word. Mrr." Iríth grimaced at Solfanes and after calming down a bit, she added. "Could you close that trapdoor?"

"I wasn't going to say anything, anyway", the human grumbled quietly under his breath.

Iríth remained quiet for a second and paced around, approaching the only door in the warehouse quietly. "Where are we exactly? What street are we on?"

"- I wouldn't know. I'm not that familiar with the Undertown's nets. I just know what the plaque read, market square. Let's have a look outside, but carefully. Can you hear anything, actually?"

Iríth stood quietly for a spell. "No, hmrr. I can't hear anything close by. There's fighting in the distance but the echoes make it impossible to locate where it's coming from. We should get moving. Something ugly is going to happen... I can feel it."

The two taghtarians made certain that the alleyway they had emerged to was empty, and quickly made their way towards one of the main streets. It sounded as though the fighting had moved further south and east, towards the Captains' Quarters and Barugh Gharrum District. A dog barked in the distance, and smoke started to sting their noses. Bodies laid on the streets and piled up with ever greater numbers with each passing step they took towards the market square. Most of the victims showed signs of being pierced by two- or three-tined spears, but some bore vicious claw marks, too.

As soon as they got the market square to their view they saw glimpses of brown and green scaly skins, as well as vicious spears: sliths, hunched over, smelling and poking the bodies to search for any survivors.

"Blast it, hmrr! We can't get there from the square. We have to cut through these buildings, here!" the half-blood whispered furiously.

Before Solfanes had managed to open his mouth Iríth already yanked his arm and pulled him towards a bakery on their left. It was dark inside. A warm, pleasant smell fulfilled the air. They didn't get very far inside of the now empty bakery as they heard sliths moving to their direction outside. It had been certainly a move that had probably saved their lives, but there was hardly any time to remain to ponder on it. They heard sibilant hisses and what sounded like angry commands being yelled. It seemed that they had been spotted.

"Through here!" Iríth helped her friend up to a small window at the backroom, and followed quickly herself. She smirked at the clumsier human as soon as she cleared the window and landed onto the street. "They'll be searching us for a while, there", she nearly purred. Solfanes had landed roughly onto the street and bloodied his hands but with the panic coursing through his veins he didn't really notice it.

After a quick jog across of a graveyard and amidst a bunch of mausoleums the two magicians managed to make their way to the temple. Iríth opened a backdoor to the temple and cast a quick glance at the main hall. The main doors had been set on fire, with the fire spreading fast to the main floor itself, but she dismissed all of that - there was nothing that couldn't be replaced with a bit of gold. They ran hurriedly upstairs, where the atmosphere got eerily quiet. Silence and choking smoke hanged heavily in the air, forming a ghastly atmosphere. The crackling of the fire echoed from downstairs as a nasty reminder that they'd have to hurry. There was whole bunch of doors on both sides, many a door leading to a small and enclosed meditation chamber, but the furthest four doors lead to a library, a private prayer room and two bedrooms respectively: one for the higher ranking priests and one for the novices. The door to the latter was open.

As though in a nightmare, Iríth almost knew what to expect. She had taken her amulet off of her neck and clutched it tightly in her hand while Solfanes had started to prepare a powerful curse. They heard hissing voice repeating a number of questions over and over again.

"Hssss, where isss the priestesss?" the voice queried, clearly impatiently. "Where is ssshe hiding? Tell me, and I promise you we won't hurt you, nor her."

No answer.

"Sss, we know that Iríth is around here somewhere, sss." The two magicians sneaked closer, taking great pains on not causing any sounds whatsoever. Rounding the corner they saw the younger of the two acolytes, Ken, bloodied on the floor and a slith holding Jonas at spear point.

Enraged at the sight of her protégés being violated so Iríth turned into a fierce zealot and rushed forward with blinding speed, trying to prevent any further damage, dismissing any and all plans of trying to settle the situation gracefully. The slith was fast, however, and he turned towards the attackers. Iríth ducked and sent herself flying, aiming a kick at the creature's knee. The slith's spear swooshed over Iríth's head, slicing hairs off of her forehead. Jonas dropped onto his knees and crawled to the safety under the bed, away from the threats. The frightened boy stared at his brother with eyes widened out of fear. Solfanes grasped a catalyst and pointed at the slith, yelling magical words, weaving a curse to slow the lizard down.

Iríth's kick connected just as the slith's blow had landed onto a bed's mattress, missing the intended target. The assassin was out of balance already and the intense pain in his left leg helped none in his attempts at maintaining his poise. His body gave in, and with mighty thud his massive body fell over to the floor, crushing the lightweight half-blood underneath of himself. Iríth had her right arm free and she sunk her sharp claws into the slith's weak side, piercing the creature's lung.

The assassin hissed in pain and anger, and got up on his all fours, abandoning his spear and reaching for a dagger from handy quiver. Iríth was way out of position to cover herself, and her throat and chest laid bare before the hungry blade, veiled only by a thin layer of cloth. It was at this time, however, as the witch's curse hit and started to speed the world in the slith's eyes; slowing him down from the world's point of view. No matter how the slith tried to will it, he couldn't speed himself up. Iríth ripped her claws out of the slith's flesh and felt a warm gush of blood streaming down on herself. She grasped the dagger that was in mid-motion, aimed at her heart.

Solfanes had managed to recover from the trance and ran towards the slith who still struggled for the dagger's control with Iríth. He forgot about the spells, forgot about the catalyst and acted purely on instinct. He knew that the struggle for life and death would be decided in the next fractions of a heartbeat - for even despite the curse, the slith was still stronger than Iríth and the blade moved steadily towards her heaving chest. He charged a vicious kick towards the slith's head and caused him to topple over on his back. The dagger flew through the air and got stuck to a wall. Feeling a burning, painful feeling in his right leg, Solfanes knew he had strained a muscle or two and torn a joint, but it didn't matter now. There was still a powerful adversary to be killed. The decision for the next move had to come instantly, as it had become rather apparent that the assassin they were dealing with was no amateur. Solfanes kept going and aimed another kick towards the slow-moving slith's face. The blow let out a satisfying cracking sound as the creature's facial bones broke and shattered. What should have been a lethal blow, however, did not cause the assassin to lie down. The creature made use of Solfanes' distance to himself and reached for the dagger. Solfanes miscalculated the assassin's immunity to pain and received a nasty surprise as he struck the slith upon his neck with the catalyst: the scaly assassin didn't seem to feel the blow. The assassin grasped the dagger and despite being cursed to move slowly he was still frighteningly fast. The slith had already started to land his blow while Solfanes was still recovering from his own move. The slith slashed in wide motion, cutting the witch's abdomen and legs badly. Solfanes fell on his back and got paralyzed by the pain as his body wasn't used to this kind of physical torment, screaming from the bottom of his lungs.

In the meantime Iríth had managed to regain her composure and had rushed to the slith's blind left side where he no longer had an eye and struck at the softened skull, holding the holy amulet's sharp edge as a weapon. The amulet flashed blue and pierced the skull easily, smiting the evil creature's head badly. Keeping her eyes closed she ripped the amulet off of the the lizard-man's head. She rose up and ran for Ken's limp body, praying that they hadn't been too late.

“Solfanes, are you all right?!” Iríth yelled at her companion who squirmed on the floor.

“What do you think?!”, the witch groaned and gritted his teeth. “Holy Gods, the pain… It’s my legs. And my lower body. Guess I'll live, though. But you'll need to heal me! I can't concentrate, myself”, Solfanes swallowed and wiped tears off of his face. He covered his wounded parts with one of his hands and tried to hold the bleeding. With the spare hand he rummaged through his leatherbag and found a healing potion. He opened the potion's cork with his teeth and quaffed the vial's liquid. Sweet taste fulfilled his mouth and a tingling sensation covered the areas that had pulsed with sharp pain just before. The potion was enough to staunch the blood loss but only Iríth's prayers would be suffice to sow the torn muscles and internal organs. “How’s the lad?”

The half-blood didn’t answer but kept searching for vital signs, and had already clawed the young boy’s shirt off. It appeared that the slith had nicked an artery with his spear. Ken kept losing blood fast and was already quite pale, with his lips visibly blue. Immediately Iríth placed her hand on the pale boy’s neck and held the bloodied holy symbol in her other hand, mumbling a prayer.

Jonas had crawled from underneath of the bed and stared at the dead slith openly. “It’s all right, he’s not going to hurt us anymore”, Solfanes cringed as he tried to get up on his elbows.

“It’s… dead?” Jonas got up on his feet and stayed behind a drawer, glancing cautiously at his brother. “Is Ken dead, too?”

“Yes, that horrid thing is dead; and your brother is still alive. He’s in good hands”, the witch replied on Iríth’s behalf. He couldn’t close the wounds himself as the pain distracted him too much. Concentrating into a spell would’ve been too much for his already heavily taxed mind.

Few minutes later Iríth asked Jonas to come closer. “Come here, it’s all right. There, now, please, look after your brother for a while. I’ll have a quick look at Solfanes’ wounds, then we’ll be out of here.”

“Where are we going?” Jonas asked quite bluntly and stared directly into Iríth’s emerald green eyes.

“- I don’t know, sweetie. Not yet.”

The acolyte turned over to the witch who had placed himself to lean against a wall adjacent to the one where the slith laid dead. “Sweetie, hmm?” Solfanes smirked half-wittedly, falling to a shock because of the blood loss and pain he had suffered. “They’re your sweeties? Can I be your sweetie, too?”

“Yeah, mrr” Iríth sneered slightly. “As I’ve said, I am pretty much the only thing to a family they have left. The bygone priestess Beatrice was kind of their step-mother and so I guess that makes me sort of like their aunt.”

“- Only that you’re a bit Nephil-y to be their aunt. Oh my Gods, it hurts, Iríth. I think I’m about to pass out…”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, hmrr. You’ll have to walk, I’m sorry. There... Hold that leg still. No, the other one.”

“You sure? Yeah, I guess you have to take care of Ken. It’s the second time for them, you know?”

Iríth cast a interrogative look at the witch and continued healing the wounds.

“They… yeah”, Solfanes’ voice got lower. “Their homestead got wrecked a couple of years ago. It was a bloodbath. They were brought to the Temple to serve as novices as there wasn’t much any other kind of future for such small lads in a Port like this. And now this. Tragedy follows them. Tragedy…”

"I didn't know, actually. Never had the heart to ask about it." Iríth kept tending to the wounds of the injured witch and finally as the bloodied flesh healed she started to think about their next move. They were in a temple, surrounded by hostile lizard-creatures. From the beginning of her life she had learned on how to survive on her own but now there were four of them. She figured that her friend might have an answer, seeing as how he had served in one of the Queendom’s Forts as a tactician and a second-in-command under a brilliant commander.

“Solfanes. Concentrate, please”, Iríth slammed her friend tenderly on his cheek. “Where should we go? I’m a bit drained and you know the tactics better for this kind of situation. What should we do?”

“I, uhh… Oh, that’s better, it feels better already. Well the Port is lost, it is, and the guards have propably evacuated as many people as has been possible, and are shielding the civilians' escape uphill. I can only imagine that Fort Frejath has been already either cut off and if it’s not already under siege it will be soon. The best choice for us remains to make a run for the higher ground, see if we can meet up with the rest of the townsfolk and make further decisions as we go.” Solfanes grasped the half-blood’s arm gently and caught her gaze. “I know you’re worried for your kin but there’s not much we can do right now. The Darkmoon Clan has survived blows like this before. I’m sure that they will weather this storm, as well.”

“I hope you’re right”, Iríth reared her ears and kept staring at the human. Her eyes blazed with pain. “Or else I am the one who loses the only family she has left.”

“- We shall not let that come to pass, I promise you this. But first we have to get out of here, due east.”

Silence fell to the room once more. A dog barked in the distance, and a thick smell of smoke and blood hanged in the air. A door in the corridor opened up, and a horned imp's head popped out.

***

Queendom of Taghtarus, Fort Roc

 

The courtyard was cold and quiet, with a couple of guards standing by the sturdy gate’s sides. Philip, Greth, Kob and the remainder of the outcasts wandered through the streets of the Fort in a narrow formation, led by a captain of the watch towards the nearest inn. The travel from Bloodrock had been a painful one to be sure and the lack of breakfast started to make itself obvious after the many miles of traveling. A sign on the outskirts of Bloodrock had estimated the distance to Fort Roc to have been about twenty miles. Philip’s feet objected to this notion, stating that the walk had felt like at least double of the mileage.

There was still a little bit of walk left, and the little chattering there had been at the start of the journey was now gone – even Greth and Kob remained quiet uncharacteristically silent. The three newly acquainted travellers had fallen to the back of pack with Philip holding up the rear. The sage had spent his last couple of years studying intensely, usually staying indoors in libraries and prowling cellars as he had been pursuing the position of the Fourth Circle. Thus it was that in those times Philip hadn't had much time for anything such as travelling outdoors and hiking in the hills, causing his overall endurance and stamina to drastically drop from his youthful days.

While both Philip's mind and body were numb to the point of being nearly unconscious, he still tried to drive his mind into planning the following morning. He and his two new friends would wake up, have a meal, and then head off to the City Hall to register themselves officially as new exiles and members of the Queendom of Taghtarus. The sage smiled as he had finally managed to go through the plan for the following day. A success felt great after many failures in trying to get his halting and tired mind to work. He had always sported this kind of fore-thinking and planning, as it helped to calm the nerves.

The young, very tired sage ceased in his tracks, leaning upon a dangling stonewall to catch his breath and give his feet a little bit of rest. He closed his eyes and fell asleep almost immediately, waking up rather quickly in turn. At least that’s how it had felt at first. With a rush of adrenaline and fear he jumped up and had a glance around of himself, seeing only empty and twisting streets leading to various directions. He figured that all of this had to be just a bad dream, that Greth and Kob couldn’t possibly have left him there to fend for himself, could they? A chilling sensation ran across of his body. Maybe they hadn't noticed him missing in their equally tired state.

It was almost impossible to tell the way where the band of exiles were coming from and where they were going. Philip staid still for a moment, figuring that there would be a guard passing by soon – someone whom he could ask for directions. Before long a chill started to run down his spine and he was pretty sure it wasn’t just the cold air of the caverns that had started to bite through the cloth again. He felt like he was being watched by something sinister.

Signs on the buildings’ sides contained a lot of names that hinted towards trading and otherwise, and very few, if any, windows bore forth any light from the inside of the houses. There were barrels on the sideways and crates piled up onto the wagons that would be pulled by defanged and declawed lizards during the working hours. A gloomy mist hanged heavily in the air, and rats squeaked in the shadows. One could hear a fight in the distance between quarrelling alley-cats. Rotting mushrooms spread their stench from somewhere close by. Finally it occurred to Philip – he was lurking by one of the multitudes of market streets that dotted Fort Roc, the first proper human settlement in the Queendom. Panic rushed to his mind as he remembered what Father Miles had told the arrivals before setting course for the inlands.

All of you would do well to remember to be on your guard while travelling in the Queendom’s forts and cities, especially the first Fort you’ll go through: Roc”, the greeter had told his flock while all of them had finished their meals in the Halls of Fire. “There is a strict curfew on the streets during night-hours, again especially strict on Fort Roc because of the infamous gang called Beth’s Burned Hand. They are known to capture raw arrivals who aren’t yet registered to the Queendom and thus fall below the authorities’ surveillance.

Anyone who does not have a badge of identification; is found on the streets of the Roc after the curfew has been announced; is not within the presence of an escorting guard is suspected to be a member of Beth’s Burned Hand. The penalty for this crime varies from indefinite imprisonment to being thrown into the chasm. Harsh measures are necessary due to the Burned Hand's violent behaviour.

Thus I urge you, my children, to stay as close to the escorting guard as is humanly possible, and to not stray from the path. Hold on to one another, and on the next morning make haste to the city hall to register yourselves as citizens”, the greeter’s words echoed hollowly in Philip’s head.

A shadow moved inside of the darkness, and appeared almost as though it was about to pounce on him. For a moment the figure hesitated, and then fell back into the nooks on the building's side. Philip stared at the figure, and pondered if it was simply his own paranoia playing tricks on him. Maybe it was just a cat. Despite the feeble attempts to calm himself, he had risen to his feet, getting ready to run. As soon as the young sage heard distant footsteps echoing from his right, he surged into action and made his way to an alleyway behind him. The pale man concentrated on breathing as lightly as he could, and held a hand across of his mouth. Several moments passed as he just kept hearing the echoes but they didn’t seem to be coming any closer.

Finally a pale, orange light banished the dull shades of black from the streets and crawled slowly onward on the moist walkway. Philip saw a tall figure walking down the street boldly, holding a lantern in one hand and sword in the other. It appeared as though it was a city guard. An unnerving struggle fulfilled the pale traveller’s head, as he tried to decide whether or not to take his chances with the guard and try to explain himself. Moreover he lamented the fact that he had allowed for his instincts to kick in, hiding him away whereas it would've best for him to stay in the light.

The guardsman walked several steps farther and stopped to have a look around, almost as if sensing something. “Is someone there?” the guardsman called out and gazed intently at the shadows around him. Philip bit a lip and held the urge to come out. Something wasn’t right. Maybe he could’ve explained himself to the guard, say that he had been sent from Bloodrock under Father Miles’ authority to be escorted to an inn until the next morning, but something held him back – a fear of the figure he had seen earlier. Something told him that maybe the figure wasn't just his own paranoia.

“Come on out! If you are the missing person from the batch of fresh exiles I am here to guide you back! Some big bloke sent me, told me you'd know to trust me if I mentioned him” the guard kept calling out with a stern voice that cut through the misty darkness like a knife through rotten flesh.

It was in that moment when Philip’s voice got caught into his throat. What had started as a yell to reveal himself got stuck somewhere between of his lungs and his mouth as an unrecognizable gurgling. There was a figure on a ledge above the guard, sitting casually and holding two knives visible, one in each hand. A shaft of light from somewhere afar painted the ruffian’s face just so that the sage could see a wicked smile and a pair of eyes glittering from the shadows of a hood. He could almost feel how the ruffian whispered to him, “Don’t utter a single whisper or he dies”.

Moments passed slowly, agonizingly stretching from simple seconds into infinity. Eventually the guard established that the missing exile wasn’t here either and continued his search down the street. Philip was paralyzed with fear. The ruffian kept staring at him from the shadows, and moved back slightly, just enough to dissolve into the pitch black. Just as the young man started to think that he could make a run for it, he saw the dual-wielding brigand jump down from the ledge onto the street gracefully like a predator. Philip rose on his feet and started to back up farther down the alleyway. He started to run. Amidst his panicked thoughts he thought that maybe he could outrun and outsmart the knifeman, appear to one of the streets and explain himself to the guards. Now, as there was a cutthroat after him, facing a guard didn't feel too bad, anymore. Sadly the confidence hit him a few moments too late, while the fear of being cut wide open was a welcome boost to his survival and gave inhuman strength and speed to his drained muscles that had barely managed to propel him onward not ten minutes ago.

The alleyway took a couple of sharp turns and twists, eventually ending to a T-crossing. There were barrels and boxes that Philip had toppled over on his way to slow the brigand down, and picking a direction at random he started to run again, taking the corridor on his right. The alleyway was getting quite dark as there were a lot of rooftops that extended over it, and the space got narrower. Happily, due to his lithe bodybuild he was capable of continuing onward. The alleyway took a sharp turn to the left, and from there it led onward to a three-way crossing. The alleyways to both sides had been boarded off and random junk and refuse had been piled against them. Hastily the sage judged if there was any room for him to hide behind the trash. Coming to the conclusion that he had no time to hide, as the brigand would certainly hear him rattling the junk, Philip kept going onward. After one more shallow turn there was a door at the end.

The absolutely terrified sage felt his heart sink and blood escape from his skin everywhere. With shaking legs and trembling hands he sneaked quietly onward to the door, praying that it wasn't locked. He reached for the doorhandle and listened at the alleyway behind him. It didn't sound like the brigand was behind him, just yet, or at least he couldn't hear the footsteps following him. The doorhandle felt cold to the touch, and as the pale man started to yank it open, he nearly fainted. The door was locked. He kept gazing at the planks and went mentally through his gear, trying to remember if he had anything to pry the door open with. Having nothing else upon himself, he started to claw the door open.

"Don't bother", a gravelly, deep voice echoed from somewhere far behind the sage. He turned to look but saw no-one there. The pale, terrified man had managed to only bloody his fingers and pry some small splinters off of the planks. He took one and held it as a piercing tool. In a sudden flash of memories, he remembered what his cousin had told him about dirty fighting. "If you're backed off to a corner, and you have something sharp, pretend to be defenceless at first. Then as they get closer, throw something in their face and pierce the eye. If it doesn't kill them outright, it sure will paralyze them." The sage kept repeating those words in his mind over and over again until he felt at least a little bit ready to face the brigand.

At the exact moment as Philip had gained at least a little bit of confidence, another disaster struck. He stiffened and froze, feeling a warm breath upon the back of his neck. Someone had opened the door from his behind: appearantly the door's hinges had been greased and were used for this kind of overpowering quite a lot.

“Drop the shiv", a voice commanded. The lithe man had little choice but to do as ordered. "Rule number one for Fort Roc. Don’t struggle”, a steely woman’s voice whispered to Philip’s ear.

The brigand who had been chasing Philip sneaked into view from the shadows, stepping without making a single sound on the alleyway's cobblestone. He had put his daggers away, and pulled a sack from one of his pockets and approached the sage. “What a stroke of luck. Fresh from the Portal, and a young one, too. I was certain that I had lost him when I saw the guard, but this fool got scared and hid himself away. Other's misfortune is someone's fortune, or however the saying goes, right?”

Without replying anything the brigand woman struck Philip to the back of his head with something heavy. The sage lost control of his body and saw as the rocks of the alleyway rose up all of a sudden and hugged him. He heard a bone cracking as his face hit the ground violently but didn’t feel anything. Distantly he could hear the two brigands chattering about something. For a moment the young man tried to struggle to remain conscious, but inevitably the darkness took him.

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 3: Interlude

 

 

 

Unknown day of Icefall, Year 769

Somewhere in the demon controlled lands...

 

The swarm hissed and shivered in the cold atmosphere by the riverbank, especially the darklings. An imp of some intellect, Karzeekh, gazed at the cold-blooded lizardmen with his heat-revealing vision and saw them get colder and colder with each passing moment. One of the lords would surely set someone on fire to warm them up, it thought, and found some twisted pleasure in waiting for that to happen. A survival instinct at the back of its' horned head caused it to glance around suspiciously, making sure that there was some weaker imp-sibling close by, one whom it could grab and offer for the cause, so that it wouldn't be taken himself.

The lizard humanoids, slithzerikai as they called themselves, mostly kept to their own in a pack on the outskirts of the imp horde. Karzeekh the imp stared at them for a while longer and pondered on how stupid and boring they were as they didn't sport in-fighting or improvised arenas. They were mighty in a real combat, however, and the imp decided to pay closer attention to their tactics in the next few hours. Maybe the knowledge might prove useful one of these days.

Dismissing the darklings as uninteresting and unserving for its' desires, Karzeekh continued to skitter around with its' small legs and wings, searching for a quarrel to participate into, eavesdropping and listening to the others. Even though the other imps were much more interesting company because of their volatility and chaotic nature, they were much stupider than Karzeekh, only bragging about petty subjects such as how many humans as well as rivaling imps they had ripped apart in the past few days. Nothing that the aspiring imp could use to expand its' own lifespan. Seeing that there was no arena fight or a bloody skirmish coming anytime soon, as most of the warriors were excited and eagerly waiting for the coming raid, Karzeekh continued to shift closer and closer to one of the demons.

Yellow, glowing eyes and armorlike skin of what seemed like basalt - a demon stood fast, locked into a position so firmly that for the merest moment Karzeekh suspected the demon to have bound itself to a stasis. The demon remained a bit further away from the imps and darklings, placed there by the haakai Gulor-Baal to maintain a restless vigil and to make sure that the flock wouldn't murder itself before the raid to the human heartlands. As the task was rather trivial and unnecessary, the demon was in the present with only half a consciousness, Karzeekh deduced, peeking at the mighty creature from behind of a bunch of its' siblings. The cunning imp's interest concentrated soon on the demons' conclave a bit further away, in a natural cave to the west. The demons strictly forbade their lessen cousins from interfering with their business and expected absolute fidelity, and so the demoniac figured that if it wanted to get anywhere near the cave, without preparing the situation first, it would be caught out in the open as the distance to the cave was more than a hundred feet. Thus it decided to play a bit of a plot to distract the demon and its' brethren from ratting it out.

Approaching carefully a small band of imps, fresh from the Crucibles, Karzeekh decided to make them draw blood to reach its' own ends - a basic and petty scheme but one that brought it endless delight.

"You, newborns", Karzeekh croaked from afar. Most of the band turned to look at it, with the largest of them emerging from their midst to serve as their speaker, representing as a leader of sorts.

"Who are you, greasy one, and what do you want?", the brutish imp growled with its' gravelly voice that resembled stones breaking upon obsidian.

"Your name, you little gimp", Karzeekh walked up to the scarless demon and decided to introduce this one to the ways of the demonkind. It raised its' hand with lightning fast speed and scratched the brute's chest. Saliva fulfilled Karzheek's mouth as it felt his claws get wet by the young imp's blood. It tore the imp's flesh deep and nearly doubled over in horridly sharp pleasure.

The brute recoiled back in agony but accepted the pain. In response it repeated the motion and slashed Karzeekh badly, but not causing nearly as deep wounds as the cunning one did. Submittingly, the brute stepped back a bit. "Call me Terkiith, strong one."

"Very well, Terkiith", Karzeekh groaned. "I presume you maggots don't know much about how things work here in the conflux world?"

"No, disgusting one", Terkiith replied and stepped back slightly, awaiting another painful clawing. The complex conversationic rules applied as usual, and since Karzeekh had proven to be stronger of the two it was allowed to inflict pain upon the other one at whim. Terkiith recoiled back once again as another crippling pain burned across its' barren abdomen. It barely managed to keep himself from projectiling acidic vomit upon his tormentor.

"Mmm, fresh blood", Karzeekh licked its' hands in frenzy and the taste of Terkiith's infernal blood brought swirling warmth to its' entire body. "You birth-rightless feces, you all must taste the blood as I have, for there is no experience in kind to this - the taste of another's life upon your nasty little tongue!"

"Is there a point to any of this ranting?", a lithe imp emerged from the fresh ones' ranks. "What is it you, defiled one, are trying to get at?"

"Prove your strength to me, you whelp, before talking to me!", Karzeekh screeched and pounced towards the lithe imp. The small one evaded Karzeekh's motion easily, however.

"I think not, for there are those who know a little of this world, and I, the brightest of this lot of skanks, know that there is yet another way of proving oneself - the way in which Haakai mettle!"

Karzeekh recoiled back to reassess the situation. This newborn wielded an intellect unseen even in the most experienced of imps here, excluding Karzeekh himself, of course. "Very well then, you seem worthy enough, even if I am better than you. Let us test our minds! You'll ask first!"

The lithe imp bore a cunning look on its' face. "Brighter than a Haakai's eyes, hotter than the Crucible, larger than the sumps of misery in which heretics are tortured, never seen by one of us and touched by fewer. What am I?"

Karzeekh scoffed. "Phaugh, is that the best you could come up with? It's a Sun", the imp tried to dismiss the lithe imp's intellect while it was, infact, quite amazed by the vastness of this young one's knowledge. "I can bring saliva to your mouth; resurrect the dead, make you cringe, and reverse time. I form in an instant but I last a life time. What am I?"

The lithe imp thought for a minute. "A memory---", that was as far as it got before being blasted by a bolt of fire in the head. The lithe one had not taken into account the fact that no matter what the way in which the strength was mettled, in the end only the victory was that mattered. Karzeekh had managed to distract its' younger cousin long enough to have its' magical defences dropped, and only then at the peak of its' pride and confidence had Karzeekh struck, coming out victorious.

"Yes, a memory! And of this moment you will have one too to remind you of how life is in this world! You are all ill-equipped, the lot of you, to face this world in the current shape as such as you are!", Karzeekh screeched in frenzy. Some of the other imps nearby started to take notice in the racket. "Terkiith and you, lithe one, asked if there's a point to any of this! Yes! There is a reason, you filthy little unclean ones!", Karzeekh quieted down its' voice to nearly a whisper, still strong enough that the fresh, scarless imps all heard it. "You all must taste blood, you must understand why are we going to burn and pillage the towns! There are a group of darklings outside of our pack. Why do you miserable little mouth-breathers think they have been brought with us?"

Terkiith and the lithe imp thought for a minute and then their expressions changed. "Are they our livestock?", Terkiith queried hungrily. The lithe one remained quiet, as although its' knowledge was vast and auditionary senses sharp, it was not introduced to the demons' schemes and reasonings for bringing the migthty lizard warriors with them.

"Yes", Karzeekh whispered. Acidic saliva drizzled from its' mouth. "Although the demons have ordered us to maintain a co-existence with the sliths for now, the fact remains that the sliths require immense amounts of heat to be able to live. Soon the darklings are cold and stiff and no use to us, anyway, so before long that demon over there, Gurlaaqk'th, is going to order the ... eating of the sliths.

"In secret, the demons value those who show initiative and cunning, and we are more cunning than the sliths as they do not know that their doom is on its' way; and we show initiative as we take care of a problem in our midst", Karzeekh manipulated. It had always had a knack to appeal to the most basic urges of the demonkind - bloodlust.

Terkiith cast one last interrogative look at Karzeekh, who replied only by clawing its' abdomen once more. The brutish imp then turned to the fresh, unscarred ones and urged them to sneak around of the back of the horde, forming two groups and pincering the cold-blooded creatures in a nasty surprise attack. At first Karzeekh pretended to go with the fresh imps, but soon it slowed itself down and eventually halted. The timing was of essence now.

Karzeekh's wings flapped enthusiastically as it sped its' way to the other side of the horde. The rest of the imps had already taken notice that the unscarred ones were up to something: the ruckus of the horde aroused the guarding demon from its' slumber and it fixed its gaze upon the young imps, flexing its muscles. The cunning imp surveyed the scene and searched for whatever cover was available. Playing dead to distract the demon would not make do as upon death all demons turned into ash, and there were no natural cave formations apart from the occasional rock.

Just as all hope seemed to have been lost, the demon rose to its full length and started to run towards the imps who had now drawn first blood from the sliths. It appeared that rather than freezing the whole horde into a stasis the demon desired to send some imps back into the infernal plane by first tearing them apart, limb by limb, and then impaling them into a stalagmite. Ignoring the thrilled yells of the horde and agonized screams of Terkiith and the other unscarred ones, Karzeekh sped across of the entire distance to the natural cavern and used only its wings for the last few yards, floating gently above ground, avoiding from making any kind of noise. It neared the cavern entrance and with growing excitement started to listen. It managed to dock itself into a mass of stalakmites hanging from the ceiling and held firmly to them using its long and sharp claws. It hanged head down, gazing into the darkness.

The Haakai and the demon lords were close by, but it appeared as though they weren't planning anything, after all. No plots nor schemes to learn or take notes of, nothing that the young imp could use to lengthen its own lifespan. Infact, they were frighteningly still and quiet. There was only a very strong smell of sandalwood hanging heavily in the air.

It was only then when it occurred to Karzeekh that the Haakai and the demon lords might have had placed magical fields and auras to silence themselves to others, or even slow or speed time outside of the said auras. It also occurred that the Haakai were extremely paranoid, never trusting their underlings. Karzeekh turned its gaze away from the cavern and saw another demon guard emerging from thin air. It must had been hidden under a concealment spell nearby, maybe hugging a cavern wall, gazing and mocking inwardly the young imp for its stupidity.

Booming laughter caused Karzeekh to lose control of its body and it landed painfully onto the cold cavern floor. "Did you think we'd let anyone close to the Haakai this easily?", the demon walked closer as it speaked. Infernal heat and smoke roared forth from its mouth with each passing word.

Karzeekh realized that its' time had come. He had been caught commiting a grave violation of the hierarchy, and the sole punishment for such actions was banishment back into the infernal realms. It rose up to its feet, retaining its confidence and hiding the feeling resemblant to fear under a mask of indifference. It realized that the demon awaited for it to say something, and thus it spoke. "I do not want to be banished from this world without being rewarded for my cunning, oh vile usurper. Certainly it was a show worthwhile your time, oh accursed Tyyr'Kaarqh?"

"Certainly it was, Karzeekh", Tyyr'Kaarqh bared its fangs. "And rest assured, rewarded you will be. Perhaps in your next incarnation you shall become a hordling, or even a horned magog. But I see that more than ranks you hunger knowledge. Very well! Die knowing that even as we speak the Haakai are planning on shattering the humans' Fort Frejath and Fort Goasid and flooding the nephilim lands with lava!

"Indeed, there was a human traitor, who sold out their secrets and weaknesses! Now it'll be even easier to strike a critical blow against the thorn in our sides, and rip open their rotten Queendom! Pity that you were not cunning nor patient enough to see it happen. But that is enough talk. You have to suffer a hundred years of agony before you are judged, again...", the demon walked closer.

Karzeekh stared defiantly at the face of death and did not accept defeat even as the demons' claws neared its ribcage. In an attempt to ease the disgustingly annoying thought of having to return back to the infernal realm, the cunning imp thought of the reward that might follow. Possibly the imp would be raised to a higher rank that would bring more opportunities to hoard knowledge and superior skills.

All that pain, all that time spent being tortured and mauled. What for? Was it worth it? Just before the claws eviscerated Karzeekh's interiors, it came to a realization: no, it was not worth it.

 

* * *

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 4: First Blood

 

 

 

Unknown time

Unknown place

 

The room was quiet, dark, and moist. There was a smell of mold hanging heavily in the air. A single, mossy wooden door led out of the cellar to somewhere. There were no windows and only a couple of flickering torches nearby and one unshaven, unkempt brigand sitting upon a rickety stool at the other side of the room in a corner, dozing off. His bloodstained leather jerkin and a plain wooden shield distinguished him easily from the guards who always had the symbol of a wolf's head, the Queendom's insignia, painted to their metal armor, while the shield would be painted with the coat of arms of the town where the soldier hailed from.

Slowly Philip regained his composure and rose to sit. His head hurt badly and the aching of his jaw was even worse. Memory and thinking seemed to be intact, however, which was a good sign. The young sage crawled up to a wall and leaned against it, squinting his eyes. He felt incredibly dizzy. Distantly he realized that he was imprisoned into a cell of sorts, formed by thick rows of rusty metal bars. Memories flowed past his eyes in a rapid succession as he remembered how the brigand on a ledge had stared at him like a hungry cat gazing at a big, fat mouse.

"Hey", a voice whispered from another cell. The voice was bassy, low and had a certain cold cynicism to it. "Yer' alive in there?" The sage managed to squint just enough to see the dark surroundings and the iron bars that separated him from the remainder of the world.

"I think so", Philip groaned in response. "Not that I'm happy about it, to be honest."

"- Eh, keep yer' voice down. The guards don't like it if we talk to each other, you understand what I'm saying?"

"Fair enough", the man from the north nodded and felt content with silence. Talking made his jaw's aching worse, anyway.

"- Where yer' from, like?"

"I thought you said the guards don't like it when we talk to each other?" He held a hand over his eyes so as to let himself adjust slowly to the glaring torch-light. The cellar's dank air was quite cold, and started to bite through the numbing darkness that had covered Philip's consciousness just minutes ago. He curled up tigher to adjust to this.

"- Pfft. I don't give a flaming fish about what they think, just keep yer' voice down so we don't get beaten. They're quick to charge in here if we don't behave, you see? Fortunately our current guard is dumb as a post. And hung over, too."

"I hope you don't mind if I talk a bit slowly. I landed on my face as they caught me. And I hail from Ndolvu Mountains."

"- Mountainfolk, huh? Might I say that yer' long ways from home. What'd you do to wind up down here?"

"I made a stupid decision. I decided to rest my feet on the way here and got lost. Then I got caught by a pair of brigands. How about you, how are you here? You sound like a sailor." Philip opened his eyes and slowly turned to look at the man he was talking to. Quite much to his surprise he was having a conversation with a nephil! The feline had grey fur, bright blue eyes and piercings in his ear. It seemed as though the piercings had been either taken off or pillaged by the Empire troopers upon the surface. Philip weighed the latter option as more propable.

"Don't try to hide yer' expression, I get that look a lot. And concerning yer' question, I came to this landlubber-nest out of my free will. Well, me and Leyla did. We were trying to get to the funny sounding town, Wes-whatever, and either buy a boat or get commissioned to one. And before ye' ask, I never even considered of goin' north. Na-ah. A lot of clanless nephilim have gone missing up that way, I heard", the grey-furred nephil chattered. The years spent upon various boats and ships on the surface world's seas seemed to have smoothed off his purring accent, replacing it with a manner of talking that was common to sailors and pirates. The fact that he had been banished, as a nephil no less, hinted to Philip that he had been a sailor in a high rank. The Empire had absolute nil-tolerance for piracy and such outlaws of the kind that were caught by vessels sailing under the crown of the emperor did not live to see the next morning.

"I see", Philip replied shortly and shuffled closer to the bars, sticking his hand through. "I'm Philip, by the way."

The nephil glanced at the offered hand, spat on his and shook. "Glad to see yer' not troubled by my bloodline. Oh and yeah, they call me Quickfinger Garrom. Just Quick to friends."

"I judge a person only after I've talked with him, not before", Philip said quietly and rested his head against the wall again. With a bit of heat rising up his neck he remembered how he had lashed out at a bald man, in Bloodrock during the welcoming ceremony. He hadn't judged the person himself, however, only his irrational behaviour. Shaking his head, he forced himself to ignore the memories and return to the present moment: it was something that he found himself doing a lot.

"Well, that's a healthy attitude. It's something that you shouldn't apply to that feller over there, though, if you know what I mean", the sailor grumbled quietly. His low voice grew angrier and more despicable. "I've been here but for a coupla' days and already it feels like a month. Thanks goes to our very own whip-maniac. He's worse than some of the Aizoan boatswains I've had the foul luck to serve under."

"How about your friend? Is she with you?", Philip surveyed the few cells there were in the room. A lot of the cells had humans in them, but none looked exactly like someone whom the sage could've imagined to be a sailor. Soon Philip noticed his thoughts shifting to the hearty nomads whom with he had befriended himself already.

Quick sighed with a dispirited voice. "The skipper of this rathole took her to a different stowage. After we got separated one of the thugs knocked me cold."

"Oh, I see. I'm sorry”, Philip turned his gaze away, unsure on how to enforce his condolences.

"- Don't be. She can take care of herself. It's just that it's gonna be a real pain to get her out of there."

"Excuse me, what?", Philip's voice inclined involuntarily, just enough to wake the guard from his slumber. The young sage sank his head to betwixt of his knees and pretended to be asleep. Both him and the dark-furred mariner awaited for about five minutes before they managed to muster the courage to talk more. The guarding brigand appeared to have fallen asleep again.

"You intend to escape from here? How, exactly?", the lithe librarian queried, grasping an iron bar excitedly.

"- I don't know yet. But I do know that sooner or later it's the best choice to just rave the sheets and sail out of here. Me and Leyla were brought here a coupla' days back and ever since that there have been people comin' in and goin' out. More in, but some of those who go out never come back, you know what I'm saying?"

"I'm not following you", Philip tried to wrap his head around the matter and had a glance at the room and tried to come up with the most logical explanation for all this. Why would these brigands, assuming that there were more than a few brigands, catch people and drag them to a cell to rot for no good reason? There were only a couple of possible explanations, none of which seemed healthy for the prisoners. Either the prisoners were used for gladiator battles against impossible odds, or they were being sold off as slaves to crime-lords. It started to feel like that the bliss of being free from the Empire’s dominion did indeed have some major drawbacks. While brigandry was not unknown within the bounds of the Empire, it was very rarely as organized and large-caliber as the current situation implied it to be down here inside a walled city, even if it was just the case of one town. Or perhaps it was just that Philip had been blessed with good luck of not running to the wild areas of the Empire during his life? Casting such thoughts aside, he raised his eyes at the other prisoner.

"- I see it in your eye that you're tying the knots, like", the grey-furred mariner glanced at the lithe human and gazed at him for a brief moment more in silence. "Well, Philip, is there anything you'd want to know before I hit the rack for some time?"

The librarian shook his head, rationalizing that it was propably best for him to get some rest, too. The events were still taking their time to sink in to his consciousness. "No, I... I think I'm good for now. I'd just...", the sage stammered a bit.

"- Go on, I ain't biting, like. We're all in this sinking bucket together."

"I was just wondering if you... if I... If you're going to...", Philip lowered his voice and leaned even closer. "...escape from here, would you consider taking me with you?"

"But of course", Quick flashed a grin briefly. "If and when I break free, I intend to release as many of these mates here as I can. But I'm tellin' you the same that I've been spreading to the other cellmates, too. Breaking out always takes its' toll in blood. Just so ye' remember."

"All right", Philip nodded. "I thankyou for the information, Quick."

"Cheers", Quick flashed something of a smile and rested against the cobblestone wall, closing his eyes before Philip had time to bid him the wishes of good night’s sleep.

The sage quietly noted that formality was in very small demand around these parts. He felt a bit weird about the way how the sailor had ended the conversation but regardless followed in suit. Although the lithe northener had just woken up from the painful and fevery slumber, he figured that sleeping didn't feel like a bad idea at all. It wasn't like he had anything better to do, either.

 

* * *

 

Bandits’ cellar, several hours later...

 

It felt as though Philip hadn't slept but just fallen under as he twitched and opened his eyes. A voice whispered and something poked at his foot. He was laying on his back. Judging by the continued, very strong and audible snoring coming from the other side of the room he hadn't been sleeping for a long time - the brigands hadn't changed shifts yet. Still, even the short nap had refreshed him, even if it hadn't exactly lifted his spirits. Quite on the contrary, he simply wanted to slide back into the unconsciousness and not deal with the brutal reality. His prisonmate in the other cell on his left had other plans for him, though.

"You, mountain-monkey", the nephil cawed. "Paul. Wake up."

"It's Philip", the sage groaned. "And I'd rather not."

"Oi', Philip, ain't no time to lay about like that", Quick continued stubbornly. He continued in this vein for some time, and although he didn't know it, Philip had already started to rise up. The sage was just a bit slow at doing that. Then the nephil quieted down and an awkward, tense silence befell upon them. The dark-haired human sensed that something was coming.

Surely enough, a small rock landed on Philip's face, causing him to grunt and rise instinctively onto his elbows.

"Finally! Listen, I came up with something", Quick whispered furiously, pressing himself against the bars. If he had tried any harder he might have propably slipped through to Philip's cell.

For a healthy amount of time Philip had to maintain himself before managing to utter proper words. He would normally qualify himself as a rather calm and smart person, but the adversities of the past few days had started to strain his mind. He felt like snapping but forced himself to calm down. "What's the plan, then?", the bright-minded young human managed to whisper.

"Well, for starters, yer' going to need this", the nephil cast another piece of stone through the bars. It was a sharpened, thin piece of rock, capable of easily piercing through flesh and leather alike. "You learn to make these on the sail after yer' crashed on a coupla' islands for a few times. No, keep it, I have one for myself too.

"Now, from what I've managed to eavesdrop from the guards' conversations upstairs, I'm guessin' that we're going to get auctioned as slaves. That's the best guess I can come up with for why we have been held down here."

"Of course!", Philip slapped himself on his forehead. "They capture us, raw arrivals who haven't registered ourselves as citizens of the Queendom. They sell us as slaves. Then, because we have already passed through the Queendom's borders without registration we are considered outlaws and even if we could escape enslavement, we'd simply be met by a deathsentence in Queendom's courts, posing as bandits."

"Kinda' clever, you gotta' admit it", Quick frowned. "But darn cruel."

"Indeed. So, what happens next?", Philip leaned closer. The severity of the situation pressed down on him, now that he realized the amount of trouble that they were in. It could very well be that their very lives depended on them succeeding in breaking free.

Quick raised a finger just as his ears perked up. He stared at the door and whispered furiously. "Someone's coming! If they're just bringing more prisoners we should be relatively all right. But if they're coming for us, remember that our best chances lie at getting free while we're still inside. The jailors won't dare to kill us because we are valuable tradeables, to a degree. Use that advantage! We'll have to forget about---", Quick looked like he would've wanted to say something else but they simply didn't have the time anymore. The guard had arisen and yawned sweetly, sweeping the prisoners by his gaze.

Philip silenced and surveyed at what the other prisoners did. Most were panicked and frightful. Some rose from their sleeping pads, backing up against the wall. The young sage remained alert but also tried not to lose grip of himself.

The door swung open and a tall man with a considerably sizeable moustache walked in. His armor was finely crafted scalemail from what Philip could see, and he had a vicious looking rapier hanging by his belt. Shreds of a silky tabard flowed atop of the scalemail, more to add authority to its wearer than for any other practical purpose. The brigand's gaze swept across of the cells, starting from the young sage and ending unto the other side. The pale mountaineer felt like the brigand had come for him specifically, but forced himself to dismiss such delusions as paranoia - a flaw of character that he was prone to. Philip forced himself to think about the fact that even though the outlaw was clad in protective scalemail, his cousin's tips to dirty fighting still applied. Stick something sharp through the eye and it'll certainly bring them down. This time however he had a piece of stone instead of a splinter of a wood, and this time he might have time to hide his shiv so that it wouldn't be taken away from him.

It didn't take long as the guarding brigand had arisen to his shaking feet and forced at least some form of dignity upon himself, greeting the new brigand with a sharp salute.

"Good evening, sir", the guardsman mumbled with an unclear voice.

"Yusa, have you been drinking again?", the high-ranking brigand turned to the guardsman and flashed an askew smile. "Might do you good if you pulled up your pants a bit, hmm?", he continued with a voice that dripped with sarcasm. He looked like he had hard time holding back a laughter.

"Yes, of course", the brigand dropped his salute and raised his pants. "What's on your mind, sir?"

"Well, I just came down here to have a look at these lovely little creatures enjoying our accom-modation", the high-ranking brigand continued smiling and pulled at his moustache occasionally. "Yes, the cream of humanity have been garnered here again. Where do you come up with these people, I can only start to guess."

"From the streets, sir", the brigand called Yusa replied and gazed at the other one with his mouth gaping open. "Whiskey-throat and Mia brought one easy catch. Me and John---"

"Yusa... You never fail to amuse me. Whenever you aren't rock-stupid you act like a retarded little pig having a fit", the brigand grinned and started to walk up to the cells. "Let's have a look at you lot, shall we?" The moustached fellow started the review by walking to the side farthest away from Philip and the sailor nephil, and mumbled as he went. "Oh, there's a girl with a face of a seducer. Yes, you reek with guilt and sin. I bet there would be more than a couple of dirty secrets pouring right out if we cracked up that pretty skull of yours", the brigand grinned at someone who Philip couldn't see. He walked closer.

"Is that the 'captain of this rathole' you mentioned? The one who took your friend to another cell-block?", Philip managed to whisper with a voice that was barely audible. He knew, of course, that the feline nephilim sported very finely attuned ears, capable of hearing a whisper in a wind from a mile away. It was this sense of audition that had hinted the sailor to the fact that they were about to be auctioned, after all. Quick the nephil didn't disappoint him and nodded barely slightly.

Philip laid his head back against the wall and amidst all of the mental concentration and preparing, a startling question pierced his mind. How did he know that the nephil wasn't specifically placed there to find out about any mutiny or plans of escape? The question started to race rampant throughout his mind and the little consolation he tried to find in the hope that Greth and Kob might be searching for him died as he started to think about the size of the Fort.

"Well, well, well", the moustached brigand shook his head as he went by Quick's cage. "A cathead of the finest sort. Maybe I ought to keep you here? We'd never have another rat, I'm sure", he continued smiling. Philip listened hard at how the outlaw taunted the sailor next cell. His voice remained as sarcastic and cruel as it had been before. Maybe Quick wasn't a double-agent after all? And why would Quick have given him a shiv if his intentions to escape weren't real?

The high-ranking outlaw stopped by Philip's cell. "And finally, a human. Pale already? Maybe you know what's coming, or maybe you are from somewhere where the Sun doesn't rise very often. In that regard this place should fit you just fine", the brigand sneered wickedly, with his voice receiving intentionally high-pitched inclinations towards the ends of sentences. "Yusa", he turned away. "Get John. I want this one, the girl and that one over there. You can whip the rest and throw them out, but keep the cat. I'd like to have a bit of fun with him before we feed him to the lizards."

Philip gazed now openly disgusted at the man, with anger building up inside of him. He was smart enough to not say anything and to hide his feelings, but it certainly took all of his willpower to do so. There hadn't been many times in his life when he had felt he could've strangled someone to death, but this was one of those moments. He glanced at the feline next cell, who gazed back. Quick winked at Philip. From what little nephilim body-language the young sage had witnessed, he could've sworn that the mariner was smiling.

Numbed and dazed, the man from the mountains turned to look at the brigands who now approached the cells, bearing shackles and blindfolds, as well as other sortiments necessary to keep the prisoners calm and responsive. Philip would've wanted to say something to Quick, but he just didn't want to risk it anymore. There was no telling how the ruffians might react. Thus he glanced at the grey-furred sailor one more time and rose to his feet, unsure on what to think about all of this. It appeared that the seafarer's fate would be sealed with either by his own deeds or Philip's swiftness in breaking free and getting through armed guards to save the grey-furred adventurer. Within a split of a blink of an eye, what doubts Philip had bore before were now evanescenced as his rage against these bandits caused his blood to boil. He swore that he'd break free, in one way or another, but he also felt regret at being so undecisive before.

The shackles that the brigands locked around the sage's wrists were made of solid iron. The metalwork was badly rusted but still solid, and upon the initial inspection he figured he couldn't get them off without breaking a bone. The new brigand who had come to aid in tying Philip up started to stuff a gag to his mouth while Yusa threw a blindfold over his head. For the briefest of moments the paranoid man entertained the notion of execution, for had he not seen many a criminal to be executed in such a manner - being gagged and blindfolded - right before the headsman would have his way.

Dispatching such horrid memories aside Philip concentrated on preparing for whatever would be coming up. It didn't take long for both the prisoners and the bringands to start moving, following the high-ranking, sneering captain's orders.

Philip couldn't but hope that the place where they were going was indeed a slave auction. Disjointedly the sage came to realize how weird that thought might sound if it was ever to be removed from its context.

 

* * *

 

Philip had been dragged to a small room. There were no torches nor candles placed there to illuminate the interiors as it was simply deemed as a waste of resources. The small cracks betwixt of the door’s planks allowed for small shafts of light to flow in.

There were four people besides himself, two women and two elder men. The men and and one of the women sat in one of the corners of the cell and muttered quietly amongst of themselves, simply trying to stay sane. The sage realized they were exchanging stories from the surfaceworld. The last of the prisoners sat by one of the walls away from the others and tried to work the ropes that had been used to tie her wrists behind of her back. Her hands and physique was unnaturally thin and apparently the shackles would've simply slipped off of her. She was clad in worn leather jerkin and trousers that seemed like they had once born harnesses, judging by the galls. Interestingly enough, the woman had no shoes, and her feet looked like they had seen quite a lot of travel.

The lithe sage considered his options. He and the other prisoners had been laying here for some time, already, and it seemed like the brigands wouldn’t be coming for them anytime soon. There were no windows in the cell, nor any kind of other observation holes. The walls were painfully smooth and worn by countless of hands trying to claw their way out of the cell. It seemed as though the only way out of the cell was the sturdy cavewooden door. After a brief consideration the pale man had an idea surging through his mind.

Philip turned to the woman nervously. "Hey, there", he said. "I'd introduce myself but... well", he raised his hands apologetically and motioned towards the heavy iron shackles. "My name's Philip."

"Nice to make your acquaintance", the woman smiled, but only with her mouth. Her eyes remained distant and calculating. "What did you have in mind?"

"- How did you---",

"It's a habit. Keeps me alive. Call it a sixth sense, if you will. So. Let's have it."

Philip's skin crawled a little bit. First, he wasn't used to people going this quickly into business: he didn't even know her name. Second, whenever someone got inside of his head, he felt very uneasy. The man from the north dismissed all of that as unimportant since there were far more serious things at stake here. He proceeded. "All right, so... I have a...", he leaned closer and whispered so that no other prisoner or guard outside could hear anything. "I have a shiv on me. If you could get it for me, I could cut you free."

"What's the catch?", the woman sharpened herself and rose to stand on her feet rather than leaning against a wall.

"The nephil, the sailor, he has something planned. He's going to break free, and so am I", Philip whispered furiously.

"Quick? So he's alive? Do you two have a plan?", the woman queried. ”Oh, and I have some expertise in living in the shadows. I could try to pick those shackles. Keys would be better, though.”

"- No, he couldn't tell me, we ran out of time. The guards came for us before he could share his plan. The only thing that he managed to say is that I should try to break free as long as we're here. He said that we are valuable goods and as thus the brigands will try to simply subdue us."

"It makes sense. It gives us the advantage of the initiative. All right. Where's the shiv?", the thief came closer and started searching over Philip's clothing with an eye of a professional.

"It's... in my trousers", Philip whispered with a wavering voice and turned around. The thief didn't react, as far as the sage could see. He guessed that this was standard procedure among shady people - using whatever means to gain an upper hand and an element of surprise.

After a few moments of Philip and the thief struggling to cut her ropes, she gained freedom and massaged her numb and bloodless hands for a moment. "Thank heavens for that." For the briefest of moments Philip had a fit of mistrust at the thief and wondered if she'd be selfish enough to grab the shiv and make a run for it. Fortunately it seemed like the thief felt there to be safety in numbers and started to work on the lock, using the shiv as a makeshift lockpick. She cursed under her breath at the lock's design and painstakingly kept working.

With each passing moment Philip's paranoia grew stronger and stronger. He could hear the black market's racket now, just barely audible on the outskirts of his senses, which could only mean that they were getting to the point where the good stuff would be brought up for sale - the slaves. The thief started to look a bit nervous herself, and her gaze darted back and forth between the lock and the door. She forgot about elegance and started to smash the interiors of the lock hard. Finally it seemed to pay off. The shackles were old and rusted badly, weakened by the moist atmosphere of these dungeons. At this point the other three prisoners had stood up, eyeing Philip and the thief with a mix of both suspicion and hope.

"What are you up to?", one of the men walked closer to the freed couple but remained at a respectful distance.

"We’re breaking free”, the thief said and gazed at the other prisoners’ thick wrists and sturdy shackles that bound them. ”Alas, I can’t unlock all of us. I’ll have to preserve the shiv. I’ll find the keys. Then return here to unlock the rest of you.”

”This is going to be a bit problematic”, Philip said, holding his chin with one of his spare hands. ”If we wait for you here, we propably will get hauled off before you’d get back.”

”On the other hand, if you come with me you all risk getting gutted by accident. I’m not one to do frontal assaults. I can’t defend you lot.”

”Fair enough”, Philip proceeded. ”We keep up with you but we have to stay out of sight. We’ll wrap the shackles with cloth to reduce the amount of noise.”

The thief raised her arm in alarm and everyone froze still, with silence falling upon the cell like a thick blanket. She gazed at Philip and motioned for him to sit down close by. The rest of the prisoners shuffled quietly back to their corner and stayed still.

Distant footsteps could be heard, as though muffled by multitudes of doors. There were harsh guttural voices, barking sharp salutes. Philip almost couldn’t believe his ears. Could it be that there were goblins down here, too? He decided to worry about it later and concentrated on keeping up in the thief’s wake. After a couple of moments the noises closed in on Philip’s cell door, and the thief kept herself completely motionless.

Open door!”, a voice commanded outside. There was a brief rustle of keychains and finally someone started to work on the lock. As soon as the door opened an ugly creature stepped in – a goblin. The creature’s face twisted into horrified expression and its mouth opened to a screech, just to end up as a disjointed gurgle as the thief stuck the blade to the creature’s soft interiors. A guard pushed the goblin aside and got stuck in to the fight, swinging his heavily reinforced cudgel violently from side to side, trying to knock the thief uncoscious. Philip had barely managed to get on his feet and almost immediately started to roll about on the floor, trying to get away from the skirmish since he was, as of yet, unarmed. The fight was still not quite full-blown as it could’ve been, as the brigand tried to simply preserve the sellable goods in relatively unharmed condition. They all knew, however, that the more of the fight passed, the less these prisoners would cost, and eventually they’d become worthless, dead meat.

The thief continued on the defensive until an opening presented itself. She fooled the brigand and then rolled forward to an opposing direction. Nimbly she got on her feet and backstabbed the sweaty human. The shiv broke but had caused enough damage for the brigand to let go of his club. The thief caught the cudgel and turned to parry another goblin’s blow. The creature was surprisingly strong to be a representative of such a weak race, but even so the goblin's sword was struck away from its intended path. It was impossible to raise the sword to any kind of defence anymore. Quickly the thief ran her mace up the parried sword’s blade and towards the goblin's unarmored head.

A horrid stench fulfilled the cell, and the thief dropped the cudgel in disgust. ”Blast it all! Rusty club like this will never give up this smell! No matter the amount of cleaning”, the woman quickly proceeded to search the brigand’s body and found nothing. ”We have one club and one sword. Philip, you take sword and I take the blunt. The three of you, stay behind me.”

Philip got up on his feet, holding his nose with one hand. He grasped the bronzen short sword with his spare hand and tested its weight and balance, just as he had seen the village smith doing so many times before. The sword felt surprisingly heavy for such a short weapon, but it was a reassuring feeling, nonetheless. At least he wouldn’t die like a rat, defenseless and pitiful.

The armed woman had already crept to the corridor and keenly stuck to the shadows wherever the torchlight didn't reach far enough into the darkness. Philip went after her and had a glance at the other three prisoners. The rest had torn some of their clothes and tied the shreds around their shackles to reduce the amount of noise they would cause while moving about, following their two rescuers. As soon as Philip got to the corridor, the shadowstep threw him against a wall. A bolt whizzed by, almost cutting the sage’s roughspun cloth and the flesh beneath. The corridor burst full with noises of brigands calling for help as well as warnings about a cellbreak being in progress. Several goblins ran towards them being more than excited to have something to kill.

”Three stinkers!”, the thief yelled and placed her cudgel into a defensive stance. Philip imitated the posture and embraced himself. Fear and strength flowed through his veins, with his heart pounding like never before. A feral instinct ordered him to drop the sword and flee in the face of superior numbers, but cold calculating intelligence kept repeating that staying with the pack offered the best chance to survive. At some deep level in his mind the sage realized how horridly easily he had cast aside all sentiment and debt that he had for the thief for setting him free – all of the dignity gone, just for a drop of hope of living for a while longer.

The goblins had closed the distance and flailed their arms wildly around, yelling profanities in ecstasy. The thief rushed quickly onward and surged back to flee from a retaliation that never came back. Her attack had struck deep and true. Philip picked his target and waited for the creature to come closer. Time seemed to slow down and with strength he sent the sword into motion. The blade was shorter than he had expected, however, and it struck against a wall violently, sending sparks to all directions and adding a deafening ringing noise to the cacophony of the fight. Philip’s arms went numb and nearly limp with the impact, but with sheer will he ignored the crippling pain that his arms and hands pulsated with. The northern brute pulled the sword free with all of his might and managed to direct the blade to a collision course with the goblin warrior. A deep rage stemmed from somewhere within Philip’s body, a brutal desire to draw blood. For the briefest of moments he wondered if he did indeed have some of the northern blood in him, a racial trait he had doubted to not have. The goblin warrior had raised his sword to the left side and attempted a sweep at the defenceless human. The ugly creature was badly surprised as Philip’s weapon jumped back up and cut its' upper body. The goblin lost control of himself and its' sword fell onto the cold floor, next to the body of the thief’s first victim. The slashing motion had struck true, but had also put the thief at risk. The weight of the blade ripped itself out of the untrained man's control and hit the wall on the other side of the corridor, just above the crouched thief. The cold lady had seen the danger long before the sage had even realized what he was doing and had prepared accordingly. As a reward for this she received a shower of white-hot embers all over her, instead of being cut open like a ripe melon.

The last remaining goblin panicked at the death of its' comrades and was easily taken care of while fleeing the scene, but more brigands were on their way. The shady woman glanced at the sage with a practiced eye. ”You’re not fit to fight anymore, but you’ll need this, nevertheless. You don’t want to get caught alive.”

”I thank you”, Philip stood there, paralyzed with an intoxicating mixture of excitement and horror coursing through him and let the sword fall onto the floor from his numb fingers and grasped weakly the dagger that was being offered to him. He hadn’t noticed the thief taking the dagger from anyone, but then again that was propably why the woman had succeeded in the expertise of lucrative arts, being able to move faster than an eye could see.

”There’s not much time”, the thief cut in. ”You can’t fight. We certainly can’t fight together without one gutting another by accident. And finally, if the worst comes to the worst, I can’t hold them forever. You have to run.”

The sage glanced at the other three prisoners who had stayed behind in the cell. They had attempted to muster the strength to get out and flee but they had failed to find their courage. Instead, they sat there, close together and shook their heads. One of them yelled. ”Go! You two might get out! But we know our limits. We’re not that stupid as to die a certain death today. We'll put our trust to the guards, maybe they'll find find us before it's too late. May the Gods watch over you!”

Philip nodded at them and yelled back. ”May your paths lead you to safety!”

”The ’Gods’ hold no sway over me”, the thief whispered with a wavering voice and steeled herself. ”Bring it on, you muppets, if you think you’ve got the flaming cheek for it!”

Philip instinctually turned himself around and started to pick up speed, holding the sheathless dagger firmly in his hand so as to not drop it. Ironically enough, that one sharp blade was his lifeline. Quickly he made his way through the narrow pathway, illuminated by only a few flickering torches and tried not to listen to the sounds of the battle. The sage could only pray that the thief would either fight herself free or that she'd die a quick and painless death; that he, a sage, might outsmart the bandits and find his way out of this place; and that those poor souls who surrendered themselves would be spared.

A flicker of hope, that's all Philip had left.

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 5: Costs of our choices

 

 

17th of Icefall, year 769

Unsettled badlands, east of the ransacked Port Varib

 

Shortly after fleeing the temple and making their way to one of the last standing bastions against the flood of evil, a barracks at the outskirts of the Port, Iríth, Solfanes and the priestess' two young students had joined up with the few remaining guards. Their flight from the temple had been a tense one, albeit without any encounters with the dark sliths or imps. The guards decided to evacuate while they still weren't completely surrounded, giving their best at the advancing imps and hordlings and broke free of the siege with the magicians’ help.

The band of four citizens had managed to limp their way up the hillside to a rocky gorge, guided by the fleeing archers and shieldmen. Now that the combined numbers of nephilim and humans were almost halfway to the top of the hillside, the demoniacs had mostly given up the chase. The witch managed to query at the priestess' welfare amidst his heaving and panting. The climb had been a steep one and not entirely smooth, with fields of jagged rocks and the occasional slimy patch here and there.

The half-blood merely glanced at the fair-haired, gangly human and nodded. She had guessed quite correctly her companion's concern for her and wanted to reassure him that she had still her wits about her. The constant cacophony of grunts and heavy breathing was accompanied only by the occasional singing of the crossbows downhill towards gluttony-ridden imps who had foolishly decided to keep chasing the band of humans and nephilim. From time to time Solfanes would ask one of the shieldmen to lend him their bulwark as he weaved an icy rain downhill to slow and kill the fiery demoniacs.

Escaping from the last bastion within the burning Port had not been without its' losses. A number of guardsmen laid dead on the slopes of the fell, battered and pierced by javelins thrown by the dark sliths who had first joined the imps in their bloodlusty chase, but had since fell back to the warmth of the fires. Largely to the port's people's fortune, the cold atmosphere of the cavern quickly slowed the lizardmen's movement and nulled their morale to keep fighting. Almost all of the dead had nasty burns, as even the lowliest of the demonkin possessed capabilities of wielding fire and acid and conjuring it to their bidding.

The last shieldmaiden died at the very top of the hillside, with the camp already in sight. As the remnants of the platoon had finally collapsed on the ground on the outskirts of the refugee camp upon the hill far above the river, Iríth asked of one of the guardsmen to take the wounded novice, Ken, to the healing tents. She hadn't resisted as the other novice had demanded to go with his brother. While Iríth drew deep breaths with her arms aching from carrying the young student for nearly nine hundred feet uphill, Solfanes simply stared with glazed eyes at the younglings, and thought about how they’d grow up. How would bearing witness to this massacre affect them? Would they rise to become warrior-priests, searching for demons and evil people and purging the world clean of them, or would they crumble and throw their lives away trying to drown their sorrows of the past into drinking? Life in the caverns, he thought, was truly a brutal existence, where only the strongest would survive, if even those. With that, he succumbed to his pain as the adrenaline in his circulation abated.

After catching her breath, Iríth had a glance around while Solfanes laid against her shoulder, cringing in pain and grasping his guts. There were heaps of trash all over the cavern floor, torn clothes, burning piles of wood here and there. A greasy smoke thickened the atmosphere, making breathing difficult at times. Crying and screams echoed above the cacophony of voices of the refugee camp, as the survivors either found their family and friends or heard of their demise from someone.

The two magicians found a small bit of rest leaning against one another before a volunteer in grey dress marched up to them and asked them to join in cleansing wounds and saving lives. While the question was mainly leveled at Iríth, for she was still officially the only cleric and one of the few healers within Port's service, the volunteer eyed Solfanes as well. The companions had to but glance at one another as the decision had been readily made. They had been quickly cured of their ignorance of what they were up against, as the volunteer shared his concerns of the lack of medicinal supplies, this time gazing mainly at Solfanes who was known to have a knack for finding herbal remedies out of the most impropable of places.

The situation was far more grave than what it ever would have been upon the surface. Even in those regions untouched by the Empire and its’ endless chain of supplies, most towns and villages were able to fend for themselves for weeks on end if they were as unlucky as to get beleaguered by a pack of wolves or the like. Alas, this was not the surface and what little economy had already bordered outright poverty in the little Port had now descended into an alarming state of near-anarchy.

At first the dishonorable people from Revven had been shunned away by the guards and so the unsavory folk had formed their own camp to a depression a bit further away from the main refugee area. However, as soon as the Port’s people learned that the thieves had managed to smuggle supplies and goods off of their undertown, there were a number of desperate people bartering with the few possessions they had left. Some even went as far as to resort to threats and intimidation, which was obviously a lost cause as the thieves of Revven were nothing if not familiar to dirty tricks and verbal abuse. There was constant quarreling going on around the camp, and the magicians even noticed a couple of shady fellows here and there brokering deals, no doubt allowed inside the premises by the guards to help settle the needy crowd.

Several hours later, the witch sat quietly upon a stool in a tent and kept grinding at fungal tree’s root and common mold in a mortar with a pestle, ingredients that one of the squires had brought him upon his instructions. He gazed outside of the makeshift shelter’s entrance and felt uneasy. At any given time he expected to hear the wail of a guard who’d alert the whole camp to a hostile sighting. Iríth paced about outside, walking from a prone figure to another, placing her hand or amulet occasionally upon a wound to heal it. There was a third man, carpenter by the looks of his tools that still hanged from his belt, not far behind the half-blood healer, taking care of the wounds that weren’t quite fatal and thus did not require Iríth’s attention.

The witch turned his eyes at the squire who stood by the entrance, enforcing peace upon the mixed crowd. Within the eyes of the tall but thin guard he saw the reflection of what he went through himself – disbelief at the destruction of their homes within a blink of an eye. While most of the townsfolk had borne witness to blood and bits of violence on the streets, very few of them had actually ever been in a deadly fight and none in a proper war. Now innocence had been torn off of them like a cloth veiling a basket of mushrooms. It would take time until the shock would wear off.

Solfanes poured a sticky root-salve to a poultice, left it on the table and rose up. Despite having to remain careful of not straining his wounded bodyparts, he desired to have some fresh air. The tent's air was nothing if not stifling, with multitudes of patients lying upon rough cloth, amidst their own filth and vomit. The witch leaned against a wooden staff that he had left by the tent's entrance. Many an injury still pulsated with sickening pain, but he ignored all of that for now. He settled to the place, gazing around. Two guardsmen shuffled past him, heads lowered under the weight of the overly large helms. They both looked like they had trouble maintaining themselves in a proper posture while wearing the heavy iron armor. Solfanes lost the two fresh swordmen to the masses of refugees and gazed past the crowds of sailors who appeared to be more shocked of being on dry land than being driven away by a hungry mob of imps. Then he saw an archer being aided by a fisherman, working together towards getting the archer’s crossbow loaded. Farther away there was a sentry upon a hillock, leaning upon his spear with the weapon’s rusty tip wedged to a crack in the bedrock. From what little weapons’ training Solfanes had received during his military service, he knew that much that the sharpest part of the weapon should never be allowed to brush against anything that might harm the edge. Weapons were never to be used as objects to lean upon, they had been instructed.

Albeit the camp had a huge, ninety feet thick stalagmite to the north covering one flank, the western clearing that lead directly downhill towards the Port was wide open and offered little in the way of natural cover. The ground had crags and was more jagged towards the south, with huge dip in the cavern floor farther down the same direction. It was the first time Solfanes had managed to have a look at the surroundings and situation they were in, and what he saw didn't please him the least bit. It had not been favors nor buttering up officials that had allowed him to rise to the rank of a captain of Harqen's fort, but his knack for tactical and strategic awareness.

Solfanes decided to risk visiting the Executives’ Tent that he figured to be perched on one of the highest points in the whole camp, and query if the commander was knowledgeable of the situation that they were in. Perhaps the officer in command had been simply under too much pressure and had not taken into account the minor details? While he knew that the officers propably had their own share of advisors, he felt as though they lacked the real-life experience that meant much more than ranks within a war such as the one they had been plunged into. The Port had been, after all, one of the most peaceful places to live within Crathsalt Province.

A short walk later the witch found himself facing two guards wielding massive halberds.

“Halt. Name and reason for visit?”, one of the guards stepped forward. He had rat-like features for his face and a black, stringy hair.

“- I'm Solfanes, a former captain. I have Grey Clearance.” The clearances within the Queendom followed loosely those of the Empire above, starting from White, continuing through Grey and Red; ending to Crown Clearance. The witch stuck a hand to his satchel and pulled up his badge of identification with grey trim.

“Right”, the squire replied and tasted the word ‘grey clearance’ for some time. “Grey Clearance? You has grey. Reason to visit?”

"- I'm here to see Commander Godhart. I have some reports that I'd like to give to him."

A couple of moments later the former captain found himself waiting at a bench for an audience with the commander. Briefly he thought of what he was getting himself into, but he felt like he couldn’t just sit around brewing potions when there were severe signs of unpreparedness visible around the camp. It had never really bothered him to be the prophet and doomsayer who articulated aloud the things that everyone else was afraid to confess to even exist.

While Solfanes and the commander had previously had their disagreements on various subjects, Godhart had taken upon himself to ask of the spymaster for advice and bits of information on the movements of local bandits and the like from time to time. Solfanes hoped that he could use this link to have at least some kind of impact on the Port's command's awareness and survival.

 

* * *

 

The insides of her body felt weakened, as though drained of all life as she returned to the world of the living from the divine realms: Iríth opened her eyes. Her vision that had started to blur long ago no longer allowed her to see clearly the results of her handiwork. She ran her fingers across the sick human’s skin. The fever had started to cool down and the fatigue that afflicted her was finally laced with a healthy dose of joy and relief.

”One more blanket, please”, Iríth breathed with a barely audible voice and received one from the carpenter who bore a number of such torn clothes in his backbag, in addition to all of the other medical supplies that he was using to patch up the less seriously injured people. She didn’t expect the man to say anything, anymore. Quietly he handed out a blanket so as to keep the healed person warm. The dead or dying were not so lucky, as keeping a dying person warm with a blanket could have easily cost another’s life, now that all manner of supplies were in painfully great demand. As if the whole business was not macabre enough, the patients and sentries had nicknamed the carpenter as Lifegiver. Whether or not he enjoyed the name was not his place to argue about it – he was a mute.

Iríth gazed at the row of people whom she had, oftentimes merely partially, cured or healed and realized that she had just aided the last patient who had been in a critical state. She simply sat on the ground and closed her eyes, not being able to help herself but cringed out of pain and shame. She imparted herself of the one particularly horrid thought, and cleared her mind.

Soon enough the carpenter was there by the priest-acolyte’s side, holding his hand on her shoulder. She knew that if he only could, he would have told her not to feel ashamed for asking a couple of the veterans to separate those who were beyond saving and mark them with a shred of cloth tied to their arms. This had spared time and energy for Iríth that she had been able to use for saving the lives of those who had not yet passed beyond her aid; even so she felt horrid. She had even came across stiff bodies who still had held the torn shreds of such armbands in their cold fingers, having died trying to pry the ribbons of death off of themselves. Her mind brushed briefly with the horrid thought, but as though she had stuck her hand to a fire, she recoiled away from the memories and prayed for the Gods to make it all stop. Her whole body writhed as she clenched the comfortingly warm amulet in her hands.

”Iríth”, the harbinger of healing heard her companion’s voice. She heard as the carpenter shuffled off, continuing his job of tying and cleansing wounds and burns. Solfanes' arms surrounded her, but even from up close such as this she didn’t see the pain within the witch’s eyes, but merely mistook for him to be mirroring her own feelings. Alas, the pain that the witch felt was very much his own. Quickly enough the human gave up his own emotions and let the acolyte break upon his shoulder, landing her onto the ground.

Finally, Iríth could hold the thought back no longer, and whispered it aloud. "Ken... my student...", she couldn't say a word more. Solfanes had a glance around and as though in a nightmare saw a disturbingly familiar figure laying at the end of one the rows reserved for those who had been beyond the healers' aid. A boy, barely nine years old, laid in eternal slumber, with a ribbon tied to one of his wrists. He had an expression of calmness unseen on the faces of those who were still alive.

After an hour of settling in for the night, having nothing else that neither could achieve anymore without collapsing, Iríth laid within the warmth of her bedroll, curled up a ball. Solfanes remained awake watching over his friend’s sleep as well as thinking thoughts as black as the deepest chasms that the caverns had to offer, conjuring dark prophecies of what morrow would bring. The witch thought about his family and found solace in the fact that at least they wouldn’t have to bear with the terror of trying to carve out an existence in this cavernous prison whence the Empire had banished so many souls already. Little did he know that one of his kin was indeed being held in a bandit cellar at that very moment, about to be taken away for a slave auction.

Truly, it had been a shoddy day for them all. Somewhere in the distance, the ring of a bell could be heard one last time as the Port's belltower had burnt to the ground, as though heralding the times of great peril that the underworld Taghtarus far below the kingdom of Avernum had been plunged into.

 

* * *

 

Iríth gazed at the people going about their business from underneath of the cover of a blanket, and shifted herself to a better position. There was a sharp rock under her back, but then again it was the smoothest place they had found from anywhere nearby. Without being able to resist herself, her eyes crawled over the scenery towards the hillside where she and the nameless carpenter had brought so many people back from the brink, and pushed so many over it. There were some people still recovering from the night, some unable to move and some unwilling to do so. She pushed aside the memories of the carpenter using his own crude but effective methods of healing - maggots, leeches, bandages and burning embers - and turned to look at her companion.

Solfanes sat on his bedroll, cross-legged, and wrote something to one of his books that he had managed to grab before fleeing.

"Hi, you. Have you slept at all?", Iríth queried as she burrowed from underneath of the blanket.

"Hi, yourself", Solfanes turned towards the acolyte. "I got a couple of hours of sleep, I did, but then I just laid wide awake." The former captain had a glance at his friend, who seemed to have blocked out the last evening's events completely. He wouldn't want to press the subject, but decided to gently avoid it until she'd bring it up herself.

"- What is this sorcery? Since when have you started to rise up early?"

"Well, it's not like I spent the whole evening performing healing prayers or anything, unlike someone else", the tall man replied, trying his best to hide his worries behind a smile. He couldn't help a frown creeping upon his forehead and so he turned his attention back to the spellbook he held, pretending to concentrate on a new spell's creation.

"What did you do, actually?", half-blood kept kept staring at the human with her emerald-green gaze. "Half of the time I didn't see you anywhere."

"I was, ... I was, umm... I was. You know?", the human mumbled. "I was busy grinding and mixing curative vials, most of the time. Mostly to cleanse wounds but also for internal afflictions."

Iríth remembered suddenly her friend leaving, and returning some time later with a pained expression. Before she managed to ask anything he had already interrupted her thoughts.

"Are you hungry, already?", the tall man from the north stuck one hand to his a backbag, ready to pull out a couple of pouches.

"I guess we could eat", Iríth rose up. They munched on dried, stringy lizard meat and some mushrooms, fried in lizardfat and seasoned by bonemeal and qvar'lichen, also known as crownlichen. It was a breakfast as good as any other, only more than a bit lacking in privacy and tableware. Neither felt like talking, and so they enjoyed the peaceful silence. They had learned to be quiet around one another without feeling awkward long ago.

Having their bellies fulfilled, the magicians leaned against a solitary rock that provided a wall of sorts. The witch noticed how curious it was that they had quickly agreed to take the space by the rock as their camping site for the night - a psyche's desire for anything that resembled home in any shape or form was a strong one indeed, even if there was but one "wall" available.

Iríth breathed a heavy sigh and emerged from the warmth of the bedroll. She took her travelling clothes and dressed herself. Even despite her fur that gave her some respite from the harsh cold, she still shivered under her robes. "Hmrr, Sol, listen... I... I can't bear my own thoughts...", she glanced at the human with a pained expression. "Could you please distract me and tell me what really kept you up all night? I mean no offence but it can't much worse than what is constantly pushing itself to my thoughts, you hear me, mrrr?"

Solfanes closed his eyes and tried to find a way to talk about the subject. He was glad that she had asked, for it was indeed a topic that he couldn’t keep to himself. It affected them both, and her even more, if possible.

”- Sol? I didn't offend you, did I?”

”Yeah, no. I mean... I mean. No, you did not offend me, you didn't", the human stammered. "Well, I guess I’ll have to start from the beginning. I’m between a rock and a hard place. You see, I am still under the service of the Bureau of Royal Intelligence, and the standing orders are that in case of emergency all members of our division are to report back to the mainquarters for a new assignment. They'd propably put me in command of one of the frontal platoons.

”But that’s quite enough of that. I’m not the one whose fate should be considered here right now. I’m more concerned about what happens to you. Let me ask you, have you thought about your next step? Have you thought of your clan?"

Iríth remained quiet for some time and tilted her head. "No, I cannot say that I had thought of what to do next. You said that your orders would be to report back to Crathsalt as soon as possible?"

"That's not important right now, that isn't", the human shook his head. "Would you..", he stammered a bit. "Would you care to explain what all that was about your clan? The other night, when you visited my cottage, ...right before the, uhh, the assault."

Iríth grit her teeth and looked away. "My family, my kin." Those four words were the only ones that she could say at first. After some time of gathering herself she returned to gaze at her companion. She knew that he'd understand of half of a word, that she wouldn't need to explain it fully. "I ... exiled myself."

Solfanes didn't say anything, he simply gazed at the stream of commoners passing by on their businesses, glancing at Iríth every once in a while to give her some breathing space.

"I did somethig that I had sworn to never do again, long ago. Mrr. I couldn't stay."

"- And now you can't return."

"Exactly", Iríth let out a grave sigh, expressing more emotion than she had wanted to give out. All of a sudden, a faint hope blossomed within her heart. A faint one indeed, so frail that she didn't dare to speak the words that she desired to articulate, out of fear of shattering the white, beautiful flower that had grown upon her darkened and desolate heart.

"Is it permanent?", Solfanes queried quietly. "Is there a way to reverse that choice? I’d imagine that the current circumstances might give some weight for the clan to remain as large and unified as possible."

Iríth nearly choked and closed her eyes. "Yes, there is one way... But you have your orders to follow, and I do not have the heart to---"

"Girl, if there's anything I can do to help", the man leaned closer and enforced a deep gaze into her eyes. ”I’ll do it.”

"- All right, all right, mrr. Just... give me a moment.”

It was in that moment when racket could be heard from the outskirts of the camp, far to the northeast. Iríth was the first one to be up and helped the more rigorous and slow human to rise upon his feet. It felt like at least half of the camp had left their duties, aside from the guards who still maintained their frosty gestalt.

Whatever had happened, it felt like it was important, as even the elderly and the wounded had left for the camp’s border. Solfanes went first ahead as he was significantly larger than the lithe feline, plowing a way for them both. They kept their pace to a jog until they ran to ever thickening amount of humans and nephilim alike, and ground to a halt before seeing what the fuss was about. Iríth managed to slither her way through a couple of ranks onto a small rock, from whence she saw further. Solfanes followed closer but remained on the groundside. The crowd kept murmuring and talking to each other until the commander’s voice could be heard.

”Honored port’s people!”, the voice ploughed easily above the cacophony. ”As I announced immediately after we had settled to this place, we have been searching for a place where we could defend ourselves more effectively and settle more permanently until an offence can be mounted.”

Iríth crouched closer to Solfanes. ”Hmrr, I guess we arrived so late that we didn’t hear about any of this.”

”Not that it matters much anyway, seeing as how we’ll need to get you to the other side of the Boneriver”, Solfanes replied back.

”...the runners returned just moments ago, and from what they initially told me, there have been incidents further to the north! This, according to their report, may slow down the Queen’s men from arriving quickly, but I have been assured that they are own their way! We’ll just need to fend for ourselves for a while longer! Thus, I and the steward Fisher suggest that everyone who is capable of contributing would do so by either starting to pack and treating the wounded or visiting the armory for equipping oneself! The watchcaptains will instruct you further!”, the commander yelled with a voice that carried easily across vast distances. ”Long live the Queen!”

”Long live the Queen!”, the human half of the crowd replied, with the nephilim remaining quiet or muttering prayers to their ancestral spirits, favored Gods and the like.

As soon as the commander turned away to his tent, with the steward in tow, the crowd started to scatter, more excited and anxious than before. The time to sit about and wait for their inevitable doom was over, and they had a chance to do something, a chance to take control of their own fate. That, the magicians realized, gave the commoners a glimmer of hope.

Iríth turned to Solfanes and pushed him further aside. They made their way to a more secluded place betwixt of the tabernacles, where they could talk undisturbed.

"So, Sol", Iríth placed her hands on her mouth and kept her eyes closed. Her heart raced like that of a cornered rabbit. "You asked of how a banishment could be reversed, mrr. And, there is one way. But, it does not come without its' tribulations, as it requires rather immense commitment from those involved."

Solfanes said nothing but kept gazing at the feline half-blood from underneath of his brows, wrinkling his forehead so as to enunciate his unease at her disbelief in his volition to aid her.

"Hmmrr... It requires that you come with me to the Clan", the acolyte confessed and turned herself away a bit, afraid of the witch's response.

The human's expression baffled Iríth. "Is that what troubled you...? Or am I missing something here? Whatever kind of tests or audiences they'll require me to participate in, I'll best them. I want to see you returned to the position where you belong, that I want."

"There's... what?", Iríth turned her emeraldy gaze at the human. She couldn't decide if she'd be shocked or amused. "You would defy your Queendom once again by leaving on the eve of battle?! I can imagine that you couldn't get away with just a shallow deprecation anymore. You might get yourself beheaded!"

"- Well, if the worst comes to the worst, there's always a patch of land to the west where I'm sure I could put up a small cottage, within a specific Clan's lands... Besides, I might be able to call in some favors. And as for the unvoiced question that you no doubt have on your mind: no, I have no trouble leaving the front of the battle and striking at the enemy a critical blow from behind, provided that your Clan would allow me to its' ranks."

"But isn't it dishonorable, even for you? Leaving your country when its need is most dire?"

"- Is it dishonorable? Maybe. Is it also not the best choice that I have? Certainly."

Although Iríth had been forced to survive through her early years in the rakshasi colony, oftentimes bending what little honor she had, this was one subject where she could not understand her companion's point of view.

"Mrrow, I don't understand. For the whole of my life I've felt envious of those who have something they can call righteously a home, something that no-one is allowed to question. And yet here you are, willing to throw it all away for the sake of, what? Spite?"

"- Survival, mostly. You have to understand that when I made the decision to break you and your kin free from Fort Harqen's dungeons, I did so because of what I perceived to be right. Some humans, however, still see your kin as nothing but rabble and a stain to be wiped off of the face of this earth.

"And I... Well, to that kind of people I am even worse, I am still a traitor, instead of one of the two who brought peace between two nations. I accepted that fact so that you might live. There is no reprieve for me from them, and they would certainly hunt me mercilessly if I presented myself to anywhere near to the inner caverns. All I can do is to wait for the relations between our nations to get better. Until then, I have no business in going back to the Queendom's heartlands, even if I am its' citizen.

"Many a times I've heard of an 'accident' taking place in the heat of a battle. A misplaced sword or a badly aimed arrow... I have a feeling that there might be more than a few separatists just waiting to have a go at me."

"But aren't you giving them even more reason to hate you? Aren't you playing directly to their hands?", Iríth countered, shifting herself to a better position.

"I might", Solfanes nodded solemnly. "Then again, is there a reason for me to care about the opinions of people who fail to recognize a powerful ally, even when it has been presented for them right under a war?"

"Mrrr", Iríth purred slightly and stared unto the west, longingly. "I think you give our Clan a little bit more credit than what is due. We aren't that strong of a clan, unlike Fang and Longtail. Things have... changed since you left. For the worse, I'm afraid."

"Yes, but Fang and Longtail happen to share extremely hostile stance against humans. But that's enough of that, I think. Besides, I'm sure that things will get better once we get you back to Darkmoon lands. Your wisdom and faith will be more than enough to carry the Clan through these evil times."

"Oh, we agreed on that, mrr? All of that aside, we come to a question, how do we get there? Mrr. I'd imagine we'd have to find a shallow crossing across the river to the south, or hope that my priestly powers would be enough to carry us over. There is a prayer that allows me to walk upon harmful ground without peril, but I have never tried it on myself as well as someone else."

"That is a good question indeed", Solfanes held his hand upon his chin and wrinkled his forehead, losing himself to his thoughts. "Both of your suggestions are viable options, but slightly more risky than the proposition that I have. If we go to Crathsalt, as I'd suggest, we wouldn't need to risk encountering a pack of demoniacs on our own. Better yet, we'd do well to remember that the demon legion seemed to have aquatic monsters bent to their will."

Iríth nodded as she remembered the damage inflicted upon the Port. Several households and piers had been slated as though it had not taken any effort at all. Only where the water was shallow the Port seemed to have been left intact on the monsters' part, save for the violent fires that the demoniacs had set around.

"All right", Iríth nodded gravely. "It sounds like we are better off following your plan, mrr. I never enjoyed the thought of drowning, anyway. What happens when we get to Crathsalt? I suppose nephilim aren't exactly welcomed there? And what of these separatists that you mentioned? Aren't they going to try to kill you as soon as you step anywhere near that town?"

"Not town -- a province capital. As for my own well-being, the city is large enough for us to go unnoticed for the most part. So long as we avoid public places and inns of ill repute we should be fine. Even if they catch a wind of me, we'll be long gone before they have a chance to act. As for you, that brings us to the second question", Solfanes stammered and had an uneasy look on his face.

"Go on, divulge it", the acolyte shifted a little bit closer, enthralled by the thought that maybe she might see her home again. The very planning made it feel real enough to encourage her.

"I know it's not an easy topic for you...", the human continued, holding a palm across of his eyes. Iríth squirmed a little bit as she realized what was coming. "But, you are a rakshasa for half of your blood. Is there a chance that you could use your ... ability to shapeshift into a human? It would make both of our lives so much easier. Both now and later in Crathsalt, for there is something I need to tell you."

"Mrrrow...", Iríth took a deep, wavering breath and nodded. "I guess I could try to take on the form of a human, but you would do well to remember that even for pure-bloods the disguise is not perfect. Their eyes remain infernally lit. I've never tried my own capabilities... I could actually lack the ability to hide my tail or my ears, for example. But what is this thing that you mentioned, one that you desired to tell me about?"

"Look at me, took me this long to answer your true question, it took. The one thing that has kept me up all night is that when I yesterday went to see Commander Godhart, we spoke of many a thing. I brought up my concern for the safety of this camp, because it seems like at least half of the Guard's strength consists of drafted sailors and immature colts, in a manner of speaking. People too young to carry a sword, in other words. Godhart acknowledged this and mentioned that we'll be able to hold for at least two days further if we relocate due east, to a highland. He said that we have something that gives us an edge over the demoniacs, until and beyond the time as reinforcements arrive -- you."

Iríth closed her eyes and couldn't help but chuckle at the way how fate seemed to try and make her life as miserable as possible. "You are saying that the commander has decided that I stay here?"

"It's an unhappy coincidence", Solfanes said quietly and apologetically. "He doesn't know that you are in such a high rank in your clan as you are, and doesn't know that your clan needs you."

"It wouldn't surprise me if he didn't care even if he knew", Iríth snapped uncharacteristically bitterly.

"- However the truth is, I couldn't bear the thought of having you here, allowing Godhart slaving you to death with the task of healing everyone. Thus it is fortunate to hear that you're willing to come with me to Crathsalt." The witch added after gazing at his companion for a spell, scrutinizing her hidden emotions. "I'm not worried of the others as I'm worried about you. Your remarkable power sets you apart from the others."

Iríth laid her eyes down on the ground, and with broken voice she whispered. "But what of the novice? Am I not betraying him, like I betrayed...", she couldn't continue.

"No, you're not betraying him just like you didn't betray the other one", Solfanes placed his hands on the tormented acolyte's shoulders. "One was beyond your aid, even the experienced veterans saw that. As for the other one, you'll ensure his survival as you'll take control of the Clan and lead them to victory. We'll drive the demons away, taking back the lands inch by inch, on both sides of the river. Besides, you know that when we are in unison, our power is undeniable."

Iríth remained quiet for some time, gathering herself. "Sol, why are you so wise and how am I so blind?"

The human smiled slightly. "First, you are not blind. Second, we witches; the true good-willing members of the Covens and not the twisted, evil hags you find in control of goblin tribes in remote caverns; have a saying that unites us all. We believe that every deed and thought is eventually returned to you as threefold. How I'd perceive it, would be that you have given your share of good for the world and now it is being returned to you via my encouragement. It's just my theory, though. Far be it from me to claim that I'd understand the nature of the world."

Iríth was humble enough to keep the notion of her novice's death to herself. Rather she tried to accept the whole incident as a trial by the Gods to test her faith. Even so, she decided not to pay further mind for the matter, for it hurt her greatly. She took a wavering sigh, detached herself gently from the human's grasp and leveled an interrogative look upon him. "So, ... we have decided to go to Crathsalt, mrr? How can we get from there to Darkmoon lands? Is there an ancient mineshaft that extends all the way to the west?"

"All in its due time. When we're in Crathsalt itself, that's when the real trouble starts. It is here where we run to the third question. Can you... do you have the ability to either cloud another individual's mind either via your racial abilities or is there a ritual that allows you to charm a person?"

"- I never witnessed nor heard of rakshasi being able to actually control another being's mind, even if they are extremely skilled illusionists. If there was such an ability, anyway, I wouldn't be alive... That aside, I have heard of a ritual that allows one to cloud a person's psyche, but to what end, that I do not know. It could cause confusion, paralysis, dumbfounding or being charmed. It was never studied in our Temple, nor has it been studied by Darkmoon shamans either, for we have other methods for that, herbal concoctions to name one. Would it be a critical component to our success, hmrr?"

"No, but it could lessen the amount of casualties that we might have to cause", Solfanes said quietly. "All right, I'm starting to get a better picture of how we should proceed. I wouldn't waste any more of our time, since we can go through the details as we get closer to Crathsalt." After a moment of silence, the witch continued. "Are you... prepared to leave? The sooner we'd get going, the better. If we'd be going within the hour, it would be optimal."

"I agree", Iríth nodded quietly, but regardless she felt melancholic. "I... Will you...", a bit rose to her throat.

"Will I help you with the burial?", Solfanes asked. "Certainly. And we'll need to make sure that Jonas has someone to watch over him. The carpenter: he'll take care of him."

Iríth didn't have the strength to reply even with a half of a word. Instead she simply nodded. The half-blood shuffled off alongside the loose-robed hunk of man, and couldn't help but feel like she'd be leaving a part of herself behind: a part that had already started to accept the late Port Varib as her home.

Home -- Iríth remembered. Her and Solfanes' hardships wouldn't cease after they'd find themselves in the Darkmoon's lands, no. They would only start to get worse, for she would yet have to prove herself to the tribe and implore the elders to undo her self-imposed exile, before they'd even have a fighting chance to regroup the clan and mount a solid defence against the demons' onslaught.

 

* * *

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 6: Wings of Ash

 

 

Unknown time,

Brigands' hideout, below Fort Roc

 

Constant smell of filth and mold hanged heavily in the stagnant, moist air. The stench was thicker closer to the floor where Philip, a sage of lithe bodybuild and sharp mind, was currently hiding within a narrow space behind a support pillar. He sat and balanced between not breathing and fainting, for he did not desire to draw any attention to himself. He had fled quickly from the scene where the thief, who had set him free, had remained behind to fight her way through the bandits.

Despite the adrenaline-filled flight Philip had kept himself alert and had realized that there were numerous footsteps coming his way from ahead. Fortunately because of this he had had plenty of time to find a place to hide in. A couple of brigands had ran past him, no doubt alerted by some contraption using either long brass pipes that would extend from room to room or by small bells tinkered to behave in similar fashion.

Now the sage from Danar family crouched within the darkness, still uncertain if he should move. Albeit a thought of going back and helping the thief in her fight did pass through his mind, he quickly dismissed it as unhealthy for them both – he wasn’t a warrior: the nearly-disastrous skirmish against the three goblins had proven that. He also couldn’t help the three prisoners back in the cell, and instead he just hoped and prayed that their submission would not be met with hostility. It was becoming ever more obvious by the minute that he would have to rely on his mind, a tool that he had trained for the whole of his life. He gathered the bits of courage that he had scattered about while sitting the dark and forced himself to move. The hallway appeared to be empty, and so the dark-haired human continued onward, past the seemingly empty cells that the whole block had been lined with.

Philip tried to scrutinize the layout of the labyrinthian bandits’ nest from the little hints that he had managed to pick up on the way while being brought to the holding cell. He hadn’t heard the auction’s racket until he had heard a heavy door on iron hinges being opened. After the last door the brigands and prisoners had walked a moderate amount of paces to the holding cell. This in addition to the way how the goblins, who had originally arrived to collect the fresh slaves, had came from left-hand side told Philip that the auction was exactly in the other direction as he was currently moving. He figured that the auction should have to be about in the center of the whole nest, so as to allow for easy escape to various directions if the guards were to discover the source of brigandry within the city walls. The cells where he and the nephil sailor Quick had acquainted with one another were propably on the farthest side from the main entrance as possible, so that any prisoner who’d break free should have to traverse the longest distance possible amidst his or her captors, preventing most if not all attempts to flee and inform the City Guard of the illegalities that were taking place. The sage concluded his guesswork by adding the belief that the highest ranking brigands’ quarters were on the back end of the labyrinth, using same logic as with prisoners but in reverse; if the guards were to assault the nest, the highest ranking ruffians could have the best chance to escape via their secret passages and skitter away like the cockroaches that they were. It was in those tunnels where the tall youth had to place his hope – provided of course that his guesswork and logic was on spot with that of the bandits’ architechture.

It was rather propable that sooner rather than later there would be an encounter where the pale man would have to pass by one or more of his captors, and thus he got the idea to keep an eye out for a small guards' room. The thugs who had just ran past him had to have come from somewhere, most likely a small room where they could pass their time gambling when not on watch. Surely enough, there was a corridor to the left not far ahead that lead to a wooden door with heavy iron settings. The youth entered the guardroom cautiously and found the space to be inhabited mostly by a sturdy stone table; actually more of a slab of stone than a proper table, a couple of chairs and a dresser. There were a couple of shirts there, not exactly dirty but not clean either. They had been here for a while. Without hesitation, the northener grabbed one and wore it, searching around for something that he could mask himself with. There was nothing else but a leather cap on the side of the table. He took that, too, and belted a jug of empty wine so as to look more of a brigand than a captive. Casting a final glance around, the sage had a fit of greed and he also pocketed several dice and the few copper coins that laid upon the table. He considered them to be a fitting repayment for the bad treatment he had received and got going with a fresh surge of confidence.

Soon enough the dark-haired man of the north came up to a heavy wooden door with rusty iron settings. There was a small window with thick iron bars up above, near the roof. There were also a crude lock and a handle, with nothing else of interest on the door itself. While being almost certain that the door was locked, Philip quickly knit a plan.

”Anyone on the other side?!”, the sage had intended to yell loudly, but the words got stuck to his throat. He cleared his throat and attempted again, this time succeeding in uttering what he had intended to say earlier. There was no room for mistakes here.

Yeah, why?”, someone replied, with his voice carrying weakly through the narrow gap in the door up above.

”Open door!”, Philip commanded, as he had heard his captors yell earlier, just before he and the thief had broken free.

Ain’t gonna’ happen. Who are you, anyway?”, the voice asked.

Philip struggled a little bit before continuing. He tried to remember the weird accent that Grethenward had spoken with. ”Listen, me master is here at the slave auction. I was taking a leak around here, heard you had a sailor cat whom I could piss upon, but then I see this brute of a man and his lady friend coming at me with bare teeth and nail! Yer’ mates knocked ’em cold but I ain’t staying here. Look, I’ve got some debts that I have to pay to me master, sir Beringar. If I die here to these prisonbreakers because you didn’t open the door, the debts are gonna’ be upon you. You know how these things work. So get your arse up here and open this door, ye’ hear me?”

The other side of the door fell silent for a while, with the brigand there weighing his options. Philip had already started to lose hope and had grabbed a torch from a nearby sconch so as to set the door on fire out of desperation, as he heard a key rattling inside the lock. At first Philip thought of keeping the torch behind him so that the brigand would be blinded by the light and wouldn’t see his face but remembered that he had been veiled as he had been brought through. Behaving in such a weird manner would only arouse more suspicions within the criminal’s mind anyway. The guarding man had no idea if this man was indeed a squire to one of the filthy snakes at the auction or one of the freshly brought captives – hopefully.

The door opened.

 

* * *

 

Philip stood frozen, staring at a man with an eyepatch over his right eye and jagged looks. The brigand had a long but tended white beard, and was clad to an old scalemail. The armor was rust-free, even if the materials had lost their gleam and brand-new condition a long time ago. Philip also noticed that the guardian wore an old tunic, with faint red color and a large patch over the torso area -- almost as though the wearer had wanted to hide the crest he had once sworn allegiance to.

Quickly enough the sage was back on top of the situation. He knew that he couldn't let the brigand think too much, lest the ruffian would catch on to his plot. Philip realized that the brigand wouldn't propably risk his own life just for one slave, and propably might just slit his throat. Thus, he assumed Grethenward's accent again and barked. "A'right, me man, we gotta' close the door before the rats escape! Move!"

Philip and the brigand got about to pushing the door shut and slided the barring planks back into place. The guardian gazed at the sage suspiciously, still, and remained silent. Philip gazed back and was about to ask what the man was looking at -- that would've come right from his heart and not of the disguise as a squire.

"Well, I wouldn't trust you otherwise but the color of your skin marks you as one of us. How long have you been here? Whose servant you are, again? I see you don't have the Burnmark so you ain't one of our crew", the brigand queried rather calmly, asking regular questions that he would ask of any fellow brigand but to Philip it all felt like grilling. Quietly he praised his bloodline and innate paleness.

"You mean... down in the caverns? Two years. I am sir Beringar's squire. Let's just say that I happened to make a couple of bad choices, and here I am, serving me depts", Philip lied rather succesfully. He felt a slight heat rise up from his neck towards his cheeks.

"Beringar?", the old brigand tasted the name. "Can't say I've heard of him."

"Me master and I are from the farm areas around Crathsalt. We're running, let's just say, a small and not so legal brewery. It's no surprise you've not heard of us. We're just beginning our career, and well, that's what we need the slaves for. We've been tryina' come up with something better than the local swill", Philip bluffed and started to stammer. He felt like if he needed to continue in this vein any longer, he'd make a mistake sooner or later. "Speaking of which, I need to get going, me master's not a patient man, and I've wasted enough time loitering about."

"Right, then", the guardian spoke slowly, and added after a while. "If any other guards give you hard time on your way back to the auction, just be sure to tell them that Creyth sent ya'. That'll get you past 'em. I assume you know the way back?"

"Yeah, it's just 'round the corner, over yonder, ain't it?", Philip raised a thumb to the general direction behind his back.

The white-bearded brigand nodded and the sage turned around to leave. With hollow, limp legs and messed interiors Philip walked down the corridor, grasping the torch a bit too hard and felt his fingers grow cold. He tried to appear as natural and determined as possible, all the while thinking about what to do next. He knew that he'd need to find his way to the lowest cellar level, so that he could free the sailor from certain death, and with the nephil's survival skills and Philip's sharp mind they'd be sure to be able to escape. All the while his mind raced: he expected the white-bearded bandit to charge after him, having caught on to his bluff. The young librarian walked away from the man, and after glancing once behind of his shoulder, he saw that the bandit was no more in sight. The corridor steered just enough slightly to block them from seeing each other. With each passing step, the sage's confidence grew.

The pale man wandered for a while, taking various turns and met a few bandits on guard, to whom he mentioned Creyth's name, which immediately got him waved by. It seemed as though the news of the breakout hadn't reached this far yet, or that the criminals believed to have the problem contained. Either way, there was nothing for it but to press on. Once more he thought of the thief, and wondered if she'd been subdued already, or if she had managed to flee their captors' clutches. He considered her for a while, figured her to be a smart woman who had sharp instincts and put the matter at rest, believing that she'd propably find her way to these calmer parts as well.

The brigands' nest wasn't that large in size, but it was indeed riddled with maze-like corridors and rooms connecting to each other in the weirdest of ways, and it occured to Philip rather quickly that the ruffians weren't so clever builders in the end; even to him, a librarian, it was obvious that the style of construction made it almost impossible to form a reasonable defence against an invading force of equal strength. It was, of course, ideal in keeping the occasional escapist confused and made it easier to cut him or her off.

The young sage listened to his surroundings. There weren't any footsteps heading this way, nothing. Just the crackling of the torches on the walls, and squeaks of rats in the shadows. He thought he could hear the occasional echo of laughter from the auction's direction, but he couldn't be sure. Turning his attention back to the matter at hand, he felt a mixture of elation and fearful excitement -- he had found the entrance to the cellar from whence he and the other prisoners had been brought.

There was a rather broad passageway ahead, with stairs leading off to a sidepath to the right. Philip was certain that if there were holding cells anywhere in this blasted fort, they'd have to be behind those stairs. He counted his blessings for the fact that the stairs were unguarded. He proceeded down the stairs rather quickly and was faced immediately with two narrow pathways extending to left and right off of the main corridor. He inspected and found them to lead to similar holding rooms such as the one where he had been, albeit both were empty, save for several unused cells and stools. He proceeded down the main corridor and heard muffled noises in the distance. He could see a fickering light being reflected from behind the twisting passage. Another bandit, perhaps? The sage reached for the dagger, boldly strapped merely between of his belt and his waist.

Philip held the dagger so that the blade was behind of his wrist, upwards towards his elbow, hidden from the potential bandit's sight. Only at the last minute he realized to pray that whoever might've been behind the corner, it wasn't Yusa or any of the other bandits who had watched over him during his captivity -- lest he wouldn't have an element of surprise on his side.

Unfortunately, the bandit sitting at the end of the corridor was indeed Yusa, sitting at a stool and leaning against the wall. Fortunately, however, he was snoring with his mouth gaping wide open. Philip could hear muffled yelling from behind of the mossy door on the left, and heard a lash of a whip sharply cutting through the noise. Whatever suspicions the sage had bore before that moment, they were now gone. He approached the bandit, walking as carefully as possible, and placed his torch down. He needed both of his hands to hold the dagger still so as to not drop it. His hands felt sweaty and cold. His heart pounded so fast and hard that it made him feel light-headed. It was incredibly easy to breathe, and his lungs fulfilled with each draw of a breath almost on their own. His gaze started to lose color, and by the time he was at the striking distance of Yusa, he saw the world in shades of white, grey and black. His gaze was nailed to the brigand's throat, and he pulled his arms back to give more momentum for the strike.

The blade cut through the air. Philip's muscles obeyed. His clothes scraped against his sweaty and cold skin. The leather boots under his feet felt soft, allowing him to feel the coarse gravel underneath. He saw as the dagger's point reached its' intended target. Philip closed his eyes and felt disgustingly clearly as the blade did its' job. He grimaced and pulled his head away, shaking uncontrollably but holding the dagger still. He felt as Yusa's hands slammed against the dagger, instinctually attempting to defend the most vulnerable area of a humanoid's body. There was no further movement.

Philip's eyes watered. He couldn't help it. He didn't want to help it. His body writhed with pain. Gritting his teeth, he started to count down from ten. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. At three he would get ready. Four. Three. He had to be ready. Two. It would be over soon. One. Now he'd have to do it. One. One! "ONE!", he grunted and pulled the dagger free. He fell backwards, reeling, about to break. Despite feeling absolutely disgusted with himself, he forced himself to stay in control of the situation. He drew deep breaths, and felt relieved as his mind erected barriers between his consciousness and the horrid memories of the deed he had just committed.

"Come on, Philip. You have people depending on you", he placated himself and forced himself to gaze at the stonewall before him. He had to breathe rather heavily before he was able to get himself moving again. Killing the goblin had been different, as it had been an honest duel, but this? This was nothing short of a murder. The young sage forced himself to push such thoughts aside, and concentrated. The shouting continued on the other side of the door violent as ever. The pale man paced up to the door.

The door appeared to have both a lock as well as a wooden bar that could be lifted if need be. The bar looked rather sturdy but even to a sage, adrenaline-ridden no less, it was not too heavy to lift. Soon enough the librarian had learned that the door was locked, as well, and much to his dismay that meant that he'd have to rummage through Yusa's pockets and belt for keys. Keeping his eyes pointed down towards the floor, Philip performed a quick search. Surely enough, the guard had a bunch of keys hanging from his belt. Not a minute later, the door was unlocked. The pale shadow of a man shifted the door open just enough to fit his head through.

One of the brigands was standing close to the entrance, while two others were mistreating Quick and three other prisoners, with the long-moustached high-ranking brigand standing in the middle of the room, barking and yelling at the prisoners. It didn't sound like there was any reason to anything that the high-ranking cutthroat was spouting out of his mouth. As soon as Philip saw Quick, his guilt turned into anger. The nephil was bleeding from many a wound, and the sight was so unsettling that the sage couldn't bear to look at his cellmate. The other captives weren't in a great shape either, but it looked like the nephil had taken the brunt of punishment.

Keeping his fury in check, Philip reminded himself of what happened in his childhood when he had let emotion take control over reason. While growing up, he had been picked on for a couple of times by the village's other children. Before he had learned to use his sharp wits instead of attempting to out-brute his bullies, he had embarrassed himself a couple of times. Pure rage in itself was not enough if one didn't have the raw physical prowess to back it up. Thus he kept his composure and approached yet another brigand from behind, grasping his mouth and slit his throat wide open. It almost scared him how easy it felt, and above all else, how satisfying it felt.

The body weighed the sage down rather much, but he managed to settle it down onto the cold stone floor quietly. Nobody seemed to have noticed this amidst the racket just yet. As soon as he had managed to get baack up and closer to the marauders' captain, his eyes met with those of Quick's. While the sailor didn't even flinch, the high-ranking brigand somehow caught wind of an intruder being present in the room. Even when turning, the grinning devil had already drawn out his rapier and its' point was instantly trained at Philip. At the same time, Quick summoned his inner strength and power of rage, breaking free of the leather straps that had held him. While he never could've achieved such a feat of physical prowess on his own, the sight of a rescue had gave him unnatural burst of energy. The wildly howling sailor lunged at the closest brigand who was still in the state of shock and held a prickled whip limply at the side, which was a very bad choice for a hand-to-hand combat.

"Looks like we have angered one of our quests. I presume you've already dealt with the retard outside? That is a shame. That man was a source of endless delight with his absurd fits!", the captain taunted Philip and twirled his moustache.

The grinning captain hopped closer to Philip, trying to judge his character and tried to weigh if he'd win in an outright assault. In turn, the sage's only hope was to play enough time for Quick to assault from behind and end this thug's reign of terror, for he knew that his skills alone weren't enough to bring down the skilled swordsman. He realized that if he stayed merely on the defensive the captain would build up enough confidence to go on full offensive, and in that case Philip wouldn't last three seconds. He needed to make a series of fake attacks so as to hold the captain at bay but not put himself to a bad position nor reveal that he was only playing time. He shifted one foot and jerked his left arm which held the dagger, making sure that the captain would be occupied enough not to realize Philip's glance at Quick. The sage knew very well that if his opponent saw him glancing at Quick for aid, he'd be dead. It was a nightmareous situation, but once again reason took over before he might fall to panic.

Meanwhile, Quick had managed to maim his first victim into an unconscious state, which was more than enough at that point. He unsheathed a shortsword from the brigand's belt and dodged a blow he knew was on its' way. John, the nephil remembered.

"Surely you can do better than that, you pig-face", the sailor snarled. "No, nevermind, I shouldn't insult pigs in such a manner!", he grinned and dodged another vertical blow by pulling his stomach in and bending backwards.

John the brigand was a lithe and tall man, almost a third longer than the lithe nephil, but while being tall like that was certainly an imposing character trait, it did little good in combat, especially since his movement was a bit clumsy and handicapped in the relatively cramped and confined spaces. Indeed, half of the time the torturer's assistant was evading jutting rocks within the ceiling above. He didn't speak anything, he merely stared at his grey-furred advesary with cold eyes.

"Are you mute or simply thick? Did the cat take your tongue?", Quick grimaced wildly as he slashed violently and pressed the unbalanced brigand. The sailor managed to easily evade a rushed defensive blow and managed a nasty chop at the evil man's lower body. While he knew that he could have won this fight by simply crippling and bleeding the brigand out, he knew that Philip was never going to win the fight against the captain on his own. Thus he accelerated his attack into a flurry of slashes and chops, despite the fact that the shortsword did also excel at piercing strikes. During his career as a sailor, however, he had got used to using sabers and curved blades, and through them, his fighting style was mainly composed of fluid and continual chain of assaults, focusing heavily on fast attacks that most of the time couldn't be parried or blocked.

Philip, on the other hand, had hard time trying to hold his ground against the captain. By his sharp wits alone he managed to half-calculate, half-guess where the next blow was coming from. They circled around one another and tried to trick each other into running against a wall. The sage realized that, already by this point in the fight, the only thing that held him alive anymore was the fact that he had managed to get all the way here, sneak in and kill two brigands before facing the captain -- the moustached devil was wary of him, even if not afraid. It was in that moment as the librarian heard a groan from the general direction of Quick and John. He knew that one of them had fallen, but couldn't be sure which. Neither Philip nor the captain had the time to glance around, nor the desire to turn their back on the other fight. Instead, they just backed off slightly, hoping to catch a hint of the other fight's outcome and possible aid that'd be coming their way.

Much to Philip's dismay the captain was faster. The thug had backed off far enough to be able to afford a glance at the gory mess on the far side of the room. Quick had received a few cuts and scratches in addition to the wounds that his body already bore, and stood now as an imposing herald of doom in the middle of the room, closing in on the captain. The brigand poised himself and dashed towards Quick, forcing him to back off. He then turned at Philip, and faster than ever before he launched himself into the air, rapier pointed towards the hapless sage. The pale man from the north had no time to react consciously, and noticed himself hopping to the side, preparing for an evasive roll. Alas he wasn't fast enough, and felt a paralyzing flash of pain emanating from his right thigh. Even despite the numbing inner strength that coursed through his veins, he instinctually took both of his hands to the wounded part, letting the dagger fly off somewhere.

Within a mere flash the captain was gone, with the nephil storming right after him.

 

* * *

 

It didn't take long for Philip to free the three other prisoners, one of whom had succumbed to his wounds. Respectfully the librarian and the two other captives laid the elder man onto the floor, crossing his hands across of his chest and closed his eyes. While Philip had never been fervently religious, he found himself sitting by the man's side and praying to whoever God was listening. Without saying another word, he took one of the leather straps that had been used for tying the prisoners and tied his bleeding thigh. The wound wasn't deep nor fatal but if it wasn't treated soon he'd surely fall unconscious. Alas, there was nothing else that he could achieve at that exact time since there were no healing wares anywhere nearby to be seen.

"Are you two coming with me?", Philip mumbled with thick tongue. The insides of his mouth felt parched and speaking after such a struggle felt rather difficult. He knew that he'd have to move out soon, lest shock would strike him hard.

"We...", the woman, who had been badly abused, shivered. "Yes."

"Yeah", the young boy, barely fifteen of age, nodded.

Before they could say anything any further, Philip raised a hand and continued. "I know that your wounds make your movement difficult, but you have to keep up, and keep quiet."

Within a mere minute the three escapists had reached the main corridor. There were trails of blood leading off to the exact direction where they should have to go in order to escape through the secret exits. Philip deduced that it could only mean that the brigand captain knew of propable places where he'd find aid. If that was the case, they had to hurry. They couldn't afford to die one by one to the thugs' blades, but break through as a pack. He glanced at the two prisoners with him, who had armed themselves with rather makeshift weapons. The young boy held a snuffed out torch as a club while the woman had taken a prickled whip from one of the torturers. All three hoped that they wouldn't have to use those weapons.

It wasn't difficult to navigate towards Quick. All they had to do was to follow the trail of trickled blood and listen to the noises of skirmish. Soon enough the trio had caught up with the sailor, whom was also joined with the thief whom had been with Philip as they had broken free! She had indeed managed to free herself and had navigated towards the sounds of yet another skirmish, having righteously guessed that Philip and Quick would the cause for the racket.

Formerly a neat but spacious mess hall had served as a battleground between Quick, the thief and the brigand captain and his marauders. The captain now laid at the far side of the hall upon a stand, where the remnants of a sturdy table could be seen. Quick was closest to the entrance, with the thief standing closer to the podium, and a number of men laid at their feet. The captain rose up one more time to his elbows.

"This cannot be...", the captain fell to a fit of violent coughing. "I, Toten Kempmeier, a captain and a gentleman...", the coughing intensified. "At least I wasn't bested by a cat. Go and choke on a rat, you filth! I regret not allowing to whip you first!" The captain rose to lean against a wall and pointed his hand towards Philip. "And you, paleface. You've got some nerve. You ruined... You've! Agh!" The brigand had a spasm and held his chest, succumbing to his wounds.

For a long time, the room was silent. The four humans and nephil all stood there, gazing at their handiwork. The two escapists at the back held one another, having dropped their weapons and faced the other direction, unwilling to look at the horrid sight ahead of them. Philip walked closer with shaky feet and gave the dagger as thorough cleaning as was possible with an unclean piece of cloth. He walked up to the sailor and patted him on the shoulder. He propably wouldn't have resorted to such a personal greeting before but the events upon that very day had made him understand the fragility of life, and had loosened his fears of social interactions such as that.

"Damn you, Quick", he couldn't help but grin like an idiot, under the intoxicating effect of having the stress relieved off of his shoulders, of all of their shoulders. The sailor grinned in a similar fashion right back, looking almost scary or comedic. "Even though I'm not exactly a warrior you should've allowed me to have a piece of him!"

"Don't blame the sailor; the reason why that grinning bastard is dead stands right over there", he pointed over to the thief, apparently his friend.

"So we meet again, Philip", the thief quipped across the distance. "Don't be hard on yourself. You did more than enough. Your ingenuity of hiding the shiv set me loose. And you even sought out Quick on your own. You'd make for a damn great thief." Even if the thief had previously appeared cold and pragmatic, she was now smiling.

"Or an assassin", Quick grinned toothily. "Oh, Leyla, you should've seen the way how he carved those sorry bastards right open, didn't even flinch while doing so. It was his distraction that allowed me to break loose. If I had tried to break free on my own, they would've had me in three pieces in no time." While Philip cringed a bit and felt horrid at the inside, he knew that Quick hadn't meant any harm by those words. The sage himself did feel guilt over the killings that he had been forced to do, and before thinking of the matter any more, he opted to erect barriers over the memories again, effectively denying having ever committed such acts of violence.

It was in that moment, as they were still raconteuring, that smoke started to rise vaguely from the dead captain's direction. The captain, who infact hadn't quite died yet, had been lying on the floor, waiting for the warriors to drop their guard. He jumped up and held a wand in one hand, with the other still cramped across the rapier's handle!

"I always get the last---", was all that the captain Kempmeier could say before a painful spasm coursed through him. Still, it didn't prevent him from pointing his left arm at the floor just below the podium, and alongside his arm, a magical wand that released a burst of magical energy down onto the ground. The charge turned out to be the wand's last, as the rod then burst into a ball of fire and blasted both captain Kempmeier and Leyla to opposing directions, against the hall's walls. Red mist started to thicken around the area where the former captain had pointed, and a dark figure coalesced inside of it. The being had round shape, red, thick skin and yellowish eyes all across of its' body. The creature started to float and while its' form still twirled and shifted, it was clear to Philip what kind of evil presence they were dealing with -- either a gazer or an eyebeast.

"RUN! GET OUT!", the sage screeched from the top of his lung. The escapists at the back of the hall didn't need to be persuaded, but Leyla appeared to be suffering of shell-shock, and was only now getting back onto her feet. Quick had his sword pointed at the creature, which had pointed several of his eyes towards the sailor, with some following Philip but the brunt of its' gaze was directed at Leyla, the human closest to the magical creature.

Philip had ceased to the doorway, and witnessed the situation in utter horror. The reality had dawned upon him rather early already. His survival depended solely on his ability to guesswork the layout of the brigands' lair anymore, which wasn't exactly difficult at this point. The luxurious design of this hall indicated that the high-ranking officers' quarters had to be close by, propably just a few steps away. Quick's survival depended on the next decision he'd have to make, however. It was clear that they couldn't win a creature of this kind by the three of them, not without magical aid. Horrid thought it was to confess it to himself, Philip thought, it was also clear that Leyla wouldn't have enough time to flee the scene before being blasted by the evil being's powers.

"Quick! Save your sorry tail! Go!", Leyla yelled from across the distance. The nephil seemed to be frozen in place. The mist started to disappear, with the eyebeast's interior starting to pulsate with sickening light. It didn't much intelligence to guess that it was preparing a barrage of fire or something equally horrid.

"Leyla! You gods' damned ensign!", Quick ripped the voice out of his lungs. "I'm not reefing my sails without you!"

"Gunnery chief Quick! I have an order for you!", the thief yelled as she cartwheeled her way across of the podium, attempting to get a better angle in hopes of slashing at the eyebeast's side at least once before taking a pounding. "Live! Live long enough to see the Sun setting behind the seas! Remember me, remember HMS Red Revenge and her crew! NOW GO, THAT'S AN ORDER!"

Philip hadn't noticed himself running to the sailor. He had grasped the feline from behind and now dragged him towards the exit. Quick flailed and hissed, but Philip didn't hear that anymore. All of the sounds of the world had died out and it felt as though time itself had slowed. The sage glanced at the thief with tears streaming down his face, and through the mist he saw the woman form a single word with her lips. "Thankyou." Another life wasted. Another life horridly wasted. He wondered, amidst the chaos, if he could ever fall asleep again.

There was an implosion of fire, and the podium was engulfed in white flames. The heat burned the sage and the sailor all the way across the hall.

The sage didn't remember much from the following moments. He did recall knocking the cursing sailor out cold with the handle of the dagger, for he would've surely ran back into the room that had erupted into flames not a single heartbeat ago. He remembered feebly that they had performed a quick search of the officers' rooms at the end of the corridor, and surely enough, there had been a mechanism hidden behind a bookshelf in one of the war-rooms filled with records and maps. The mechanism caused a number of iron bars to plunge from the ceiling to block the entrance to the officers' war-room, and caused a section of a wall to slide off. Distantly they heard the eyebeast causing a tumult deep in the bandits' nest, blasting and burning its' way through the hideout, realizing that its' freedom was imminent now that its' master had died. Whether or not the marauders were capable of subduing the creature and whether or not they had adept mages at their disposal remained a mystery to the sage, not that he really cared anymore. A part of Philip hoped that the eyebeast would burn them all alive, but a part of him wished that the brigands would win, but only because of the fact that he didn't wish the captives to die.

With blackened and shattered mind Philip carried the wounded sailor upon his shoulders, making his way sideways on, following the two escapists. After a short while they had made their way up to an alleyway, and from there to the city streets. As soon as the city guards appeared in sight, the lithe man collapsed onto the cold cobblestone and leaned against his elbows. The two other escapists crouched next to him and the sailor, with their arms up to the proverbial sky and yelled out of pure mirth. Within moments there were a couple of city guard surrounding them, with one asking something that Philip couldn't quite make out. He answered something, and the other guard ran off. The pale man got the impression that the other one was running off to fetch more men and a cart. The survivors didn't have the capability to walk anymore.

Quick's hand twitched slightly, and Philip thought he could hear the sailor whispering something.

"Leyla... I swear it... Leyla."

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 7: Rubicon

 

 

17th of Icefall, evening, year 769

Unsettled badlands, the Great Crathsalt Plains

 

The cold atmosphere of the caverns and the eerie vastness of space were nothing if not familiar to the two travelers, a human witch and a nephil priest, but that didn't mean that they enjoyed the atmosphere much at all when trying to get some rest. Truly, they were exhausted after journeying for the better part of a day from their point of departure to the south.

The magicians had strafed along the riverbank for about a dozen miles towards the north, effectively evading the jagged stalagmite forests all the way inland upon their flight from the Port Varib's refugee camp. They had came across a small number of fishermen whose craft had been ran ashore in order to avoid being sunk and killed by a monster of unknown size and appearance within the water. The fishermen told of how they had been in a company of three vessels, two of which had been pulled underwater in a rapid succession. The surviving crew's captain had ordered his men to make their way ashore despite their fellow sailors struggling in the water. It had been the only way to stay alive, for had he attempted to rescue any number of people from the cold water their boat would've been abducted as well. The men were shocked to hear that their own incident had been connected to a larger assault against their neighbouring haven, and even more shocked to hear that Port Varib had been ransacked and burned. They were relieved, however, by the sole fact that a number of Port's people had managed to flee in time to the south. The captain of the crew had asked of the magicians if they had heard anything of their home haven, Port Mirebay, which was the southernmost fishing colony that humans had along Boneriver. Much to the mens' delight Solfanes did have news for them, for he had questioned some of his informers in the refugee camp during the morning hours, and the spies had reported that Port Mirebay had been spared of burning as the isolated villa was hard to reach due to jagged rocks and shallow water by the bay's throat. Nevertheless the Port had been infiltrated but the resistance had proved strong enough to allow for relatively safe evacuation. Not having really much else to say the two parties had traded for goods and fresh fish with each other, separated and departed each to their own way.

With the thicket of razor sharp stalagmites dissipating alongside the moundy and hilly region the cavern floor flattened further towards the north and gave way for the sparkling white salt flats that covered a large portion of the Crathsalt's region, with the white crust making appearances on the Darkmoon clan's side of Boneriver as well. Traversing the dry, cracked and very gently sloping terrain was certainly a lot easier and faster to passage than the gravelly and cliffy riverside. Deep within the salt flats Iríth and Solfanes found a small and cozy niche within one particularly steep hillside, and had set camp there for the night; or at least for what they perceived and guessed to be nighttime. It hadn't taken them long as they had mutually decided to risk using some of their reserves of netherclay; or nethersalt, depending on what area's slang one had gotten used to.

In absence of sources of heat, active fumaroles and volcanic areas there weren't many things growing on Taghtarus' cold soil, with the only fertile area being a swamp far to the north, in the middle of the main gallery. One of the rare plants that had adapted, or had been artificially altered by some ancient culture which had long since disappeared from these caverns, was a sparsely spread, dimly glowing lichen up within the underworld's ceiling. Thus, with the lack of things to be used as a fuel for burning fires, the early settlers had searched far and wide to find some kind of substitute for wood. Indeed, even the stringy cavetrees were so rare that the wood refined from them was deemed almost as valuable as gold. After a long period of desperate exploring, reportedly a dauntless fellow called Paul James Charlton had been the first one to find an alternative for firewood. The explorer had nearly accidentally set himself on fire while camping near a rich node of nethersalt. Despite his burns and fatigue he had managed to bring back both knowledge and samples of this substance. It was a mineral with dirty brown-red color; it was tough to mine and refine; it burned with lower temperature than normal black coal; but it was also the first and by far the only thing that the early settlers had for usage as a fuel for combustion.

All the while igniting a fire to a makeshift firepit Solfanes quietly praised the nameless explorer whom the very flow of history had forgotten to betwixt of folds of time. He memorized a simple cantrip, a spell known as darkfire that would render a lightsource invisible to all but those who had ultravision, or otherwordly senses. He figured that such a cheap and simple precaution was enough against bandits and animals traversing the wilds, so as to keep any hungry or hostile creatures from being drawn to the campfire like a moth to a lantern.

Iríth had already spread their bedrolls against the niche's backwall and sat by the fire's crackling flames. She smiled slightly, in a feline way. "You wouldn't know it, but that cantrip makes the fire look unimaginably weird to my eyes. And yet beautiful at the same time", she said with a bit of amusement in her voice.

Indeed, Iríth was an offspring of rakshasa father and nephil mother, and while she counted herself to be more nephil than rakshasa, she did retain some magical properties as her heritage: one of which was partially enhanced vision. Thus she perceived the darkfire at the same time as a normal person and a magical being, with the flames gaining a dark interior and luminous exterior.

Solfanes said nothing but smirked briefly. He felt relieved at the fact that his companion could smile and feel good about herself, despite the gruesome events back in the refugee camp. The witch regarded himself to be a bit of a tender soul underneath the hermitious and cold shell, and the prospect of burying a child had shook him greatly; he couldn't even begin to guess how Iríth must've felt.

"Yeah, I can imagine, I can", he said eventually. "It must be like watching the skies' fires, the aurora, is it?" He sat down next to her and pulled out his spellbook -- memorizing the incantations daily was a never-ending task of vital importance to all magicians.

"The aurora", the acolyte breathed a long sigh and gazed into the dancing flames. "Why did you have to remember?"

"Because that's who I am, I guess", the witch portrayed. "Always striving for something that I can't reach."

"Well, one thing's for sure. I can always rely on you for a copious amounts of melodrama", Iríth glanced at the colossal human hiding behind his book from the warmth of the campfire and poked him idly at his side.

"- Oww! Damn near spilled my ink! Lords, woman!"

"What? I didn't do anything", Iríth pulled entirely innocent expression upon her face and gazed back at the glaring witch.

Solfanes felt shocked and annoyed. The exhaustion had started to undermine his reserves of mental energy long ago, and now even the smallest of intrusions were enough to make his mind crawl. "Yeah, it's just me, you know. I'm so old that I'm getting cramps", he stared at the fire for a while. "Twitching and cramping. It's a real shame. I might even sprinkle some spiderlegs from one of my pouches without noticing it", he said with a gleeful malice in his voice, quite atypically to himself. He felt horrid and apologetic in the instant the words fled his lips. The human, while maintaining almost cold and strictly to-the-point demeanor outside of interacting with his friends and close companions, was very fond and fiercely protective of those few whom he had come to bond with; he was sometimes prone to unvoluntarily letting loose the dyked bitterness that had built up inside of him over the years. "Iríth, I'm... sorry, I---"

"It's been a rough couple of days", the half-blood said softly. Even if she was a bit shocked at the notion that her companion had actually went all the way to using one of her phobias as a verbal retaliation for a simple, harmless poke, she still understood. They were both at the brink of breaking as there wasn't a whole lot keeping up the mental barriers, damming the horrors of watching other people die right in front of their eyes. Still gazing at the bulky human, who had now turned away in shame, she placed her hand on his shoulder.

The witch said nothing, but turned back towards Iríth and placed his hand on her shoulder. After a while of mutual gazing into the fire under a heavy blanket of awkward silence, he drew a wavering breath and uttered.

"One thing's for sure, it is. I can always rely on you for keeping the mood cheery. No matter how bleak the world might be." Having said that Solfanes splashed a bit of water from his drinking cup at the acolyte and rolled just out of reach, grinning like a little boy.

Indeed, the underworld was a cruel place, but sometimes, quite rarely, one could witness a glimpse of innocent and carefree friendship and hear laughter that was as pure and spiritlifting as a mountain waterfall in spring; contrasted and distilled by the constant stress and depressive gloom all around.

 

* * *

18th of Icefall, evening, year 769

Fort Roc, Queendom of Taghtarus

 

After the ordeals of the day, the warmth and pleasant smells of the inn's mainhall had been a nice change of pace to the constant excitement. The thick crowd of the inn had been eager to listen to the young man's story of how he had fled from a horrid underground lair of bandits, but that had came to an end eventually as Philip had been reluctant to repeat the same story for the third time.

The young scholar leaned back in a chair, resting his feet cozily upon a bed, and went through the day's events. Immediately after waking up within the City Guard's cell, he himself, Quick the sailor and two other human captives had been questioned. After a time that felt like an hour, the captain finally appreciated that the band of four were indeed fresh exiles and not some lowly brigands who had fled their hideout like a beast driven out of its' lair with smoke. Behold, it appeared that the watchmen had found the secret, unclosed, back entrance to the brigands' lair and had raided the whole hideout. Most of those inside had been found dead, and although it had been evident that either a magical creature or a powerful sorcerer gone mad would have been accountable for the killings and mayhem, any such creature nor magician were nowhere to be found. Philip theorized quietly to himself that the eyebeast had been a magical projection which had been charged with a limited amount of energy, and that it had dissipated into thin air after it had expended its' lifeforce; but he could only hope. It was also entirely possible that the creature, seeing a chance for freedom, had fled.

After ascertaining that all four of the former captives knew where to go to register themselves to avoid any further similar incidents, the captain had loosed them to the streets. It was here that Philip had parted ways with Quickfinger Garrom, the sailor who had saved them all from certain slavery by the simple act of gifting a shiv to a half-stranger. The nephil had politely rejected Philip's offer of joining forces with himself and his two tribal acquaintances, stating that he could look after himself, even in a Queendom where it was a coinflip if the next person on the street wasn't going to knife him just for his bloodline of being a nephil. Just before leaving, Quick had given Philip a grey, smokey quartz stone with an anchor engraving, polished and smooth. He toned his regret for not having anything else to give, for he was very low on supplies, apart from what little trinkets, items and scraps of food he had managed to scavenge off of the corpses. With a final spit-reinforced handshake the sailor was gone, taken by the stream of people going about their business.

Having reached the City Hall, Philip ran into Kobierth who had been there on the lookout for her new associate. She and Grethenward had noticed Philip's disappearance soon after arriving to an inn last evening, and had immediately 'greased' a couple of guards with some copper coins to keep an eye out for him, knowing the Fort's dangerous reputation as a slavers' paradise. Kobierth was overjoyed to be reunited with him again, but was aghast at Philip's burns and cuts. While her demands to get the scholar's wounds tended to immediately were strong, they did eventually wind up inside the City Hall, waiting for an audience with one of the multitudes of officials.

Finally, the day had culminated in Philip, Kobierth and Greth reserving a room from Olof's Standing Stone Inn where an innumerable crowd had gathered, lured by the whispered rumours of a survivor who had managed to unmask a secret entrance to an infamous brigand gang's lair. While Philip did propose turning in for the night early, for the thought of entertaining a churning crowd that was enough to make an experienced bard feel a bit light-headed was last on the list of things he desired, the two tribesfolk managed to persuade him to stay. Kobierth placated the nervous scholar with the fact that albeit there were almost certainly brigands and all other sorts of unsavory people within the crowd listening, there was no chance that one of them would've risked of avenging their gang's destruction -- such an act would only serve the purpose of immortalizing Philip as a martyr and an accidental hero who, under the direst of circumstances, had managed to find the resolve to carry on where many others would've given up hope. Greth had smirked toothily and said that he would've almost killed for such an honor, so as to go down the pages of history as one such martyr. Kobierth, in turn, had replied dryly that she would've been amongst the first ones to grant him such a martyr's death, if she had been born a brigand.

"How's the reading coming along?", Philip returned to the present, to the private room they had reserved, all three of them, and turned towards the massive warrior who was hunched over the thin slabs of clay. The sage and the tribesman had spent some time earlier in the day and had ran to a stall in the market that actually sold small tablets with inscriptions on them. Each piece had cost a small fortune but Greth had managed to haggle for couple by selling one of his trinkets that he had worn around his neck. Philip had observed that the brute had indeed born a merchant -- his enthusiasm and unwavering will had truly shone during the transaction.

"Mmm?", Grethenward turned towards the dark-haired, tall but thin scholar. His eyes had a bit of guilt in them, and a hidden smile lingered on his face. "Oh. It's coming along well enough, me brother." Each word carried easily enough across of the room, and sounded as if they had been blown through a massive brass tuba. "I'm still tryina' get used to reading common tongue, 'cause I got so used to reading our tribal dialects, as well as Aizoan standard."

"What are they about?", Philip rose up and walked up to the only desk there was in their room. Even the private rooms in the best-reputed inn around wasn't all that decorated nor furnished. Just went to show the state of things down in the caverns. The young man laid his palms against the cold stone and gazed over the slabs which had writing engraved upon them and then painted with what was propably animal's blood.

"Ahh, things 'bout the caverns, different professions for example. I picked this one for me Kob 'cause she's always concerned about the big picture. One sack of worries that one...", the weather-beaten merchant handed over the tablet to Philip. "There are things about food, a necessity; drink, the most important of all; and various manners. It seems that the whole Queendom follows a standard time that's dictated by some kinda' contraption in the capital city, Isenkrun. The only exception is Bloodrock, which doesn't seem to follow any timetable. They've gotta' keep their eyes open in case the...", Greth spat. "Empire decides ta throw down more unfortunate souls."

"What does it say about drinking down here in the caverns?", Philip had a glance at a clay tablet. A quick glance revealed that largely the water was safe enough, so long as the water was not stagnant. He picked up a few other good bits of knowledge, memorizing the most common warning signs of a bad or poisonous spring; smell of rotten eggs, strange sensations when tasting the water such as tingling or numbing, dried bones near the watering hole, and so on.

"Well, I'll be damned", Philip stroke his chin and eyed a tile revealed from underneath of the first one. "Seems like the stall-owner gave you, well, bed-side manners, too. Propably by accident?" The scholar bit his lip and tried not to gaze too openly at a rather revealing and adult-mannered tablet underneath of the other slabs.

"Oh cr...", Greth gasped. "Well, this just goes to show what I've been saying of spending time in cities, me man. You can't even trust normal market-stalls. I had no idea. Ehh, good thing that ye' noticed. Really nice eye. I'd better put this away and... uhh, mm, dispose of it... later."

Philip continued to read the other inscriptions, but soon raised himself upright and thanked the divines as he heard footsteps approaching the door. It was propably Kobierth who had opted to search for a jeweller for whom she could sell one of her more valuable possessions.

"Greetings and well met. Hath thou two behaved thineselves?", the dark-haired belle sailed in through the door and opened her arms to meet her husband. "Yes, I missed you too---"

"- Come over here, love. Me man and me found some interesting things ye' might want to have a look at", Greth spoke even before his lady had finished talking.

"---don't grapple me like a sack of frozen vegetables. Please, Grethenward, heareth what I have to say. No, get thy hands off. I said off, thou filthy pig, not there. My news art rather urgent." She slapped the huge man on his face. Greth merely replied by a slap of his own, but at a far lower location. Philip gave way for Kobierth to sit down. He himself sat down on the bed's end, while Grethenward leaned against a wall.

"So, what's it's about?", the mighty tanned man rumbled, still smirking and rubbing his cheek.

"There were news on the streets, and I do I presumeth correctly when I say that neither of thou did learneth of ill tidings while thou were traversing the market square, yes?", Kobierth spoke with a clear tone of excitement and even well-hidden fear.

"Mmm, you presume correctly, me love, if yer' talking of anything else but the prices of cavefish, wood, and various coals. A monotonous voice of an obtuse auctioneer is all we heard above the market's racket. I'd have enjoyed to stuff his mouth with a big ol' hunk o'bread, so wide was his gob", Greth smirked. "Flipping mouth was so wide and face upwards that you could see the light shining from the other end..."

"Greth, that's quite enough of anatomy lessons, thankyou." Kobierth interrupted once again. Philip no longer drew much attention to this, as it started to feel almost normal. At least with these two. "Behold, I was traversing from the Whisle Street wherein I found a jeweller worthy of our people's craft's value, and as I was taking my turn here to Half-Ounce Street, there were lot of urchins running from the maingate, screaming and running from door to door, arousing people so as to draw attention.

"Further behind I saw a troupe of men dressed as though guards but wielding none but towershields and trumpets, presideth by an official dressed in clothes most expensive and carrying a scroll. Soon enough, they hath ranked themselves within the central with myself and a host of other interested gathering around them, more than hundred pairs of eyes and ears. There were whispers of a royal messenger visiting this Fort Roc for the first time in long time.

"Even more people started to gather, aroused and drew by the street urchins who would continue their way off into shadowy passages, no doubt paid off by some lowly lackey to gather an innumerable crowd. The official waited for a moment further, and speaketh:

'People of Fort Roc, Queen's men and women! By the order of the Crown's Cabinet, I hereby regret to announce that there have been incidents surrounding our borders, Fort Frejath and Fort Goasid.', Kobierth remained quiet for a while, both imitating the announcer as well as gathering strength for speaking out what she had heard.

'The initial reports suggest that Fort Frejath of the Crathsalt Province has fallen to the demonic legions, with Fort Goasid of the Dark Province taking a battering even as we speak. Thus the Crown's Cabinet has dictated that any registered human man or woman of age should consider giving themselves for the Royal Service! Though our power is undeniable and defences vast, it will strengthen the survival of the Queendom and is for the interest of all if more joined to the ranks of our brave defenders! Members of other races will be accepted to secondary ranks, if applied, with the exception of goblin slaves whom shall not be accepted at all!

'Those who deem themselves as worthy applicants and meet the conditions may apply at the City Hall, starting tomorrow... Upon Wednesday, 19th of Icefall. Long live the Queen!'

"With that, we all yelleth, 'Long live the Queen' as a response, with myself a bit late as I hath not known of this custom before, and the crowd started to disperse. The Cabinet's escort then retreated inside the City Hall, no doubt to formally inform the city council and monarch", Kobierth concluded.

Greth spent no time in opening his mouth. After all, he had lived with his wife for nearly twenty years. "And yer' saying we ought to apply for the army? We ain't even acquainted with this Queendom yet."

Kobierth rose up. "That would be the best choice, doth thou not agree?", she held her chin high, and attained a majestic vigor. "Politics and war art the only things I hath ever held nearest to mine heart, apart from thou. Commerce and war art nearest thy heart, apart from me. Doth not seek to cross me on this."

"And what of Philip? He's a wise-man, born to pass on songs and tales, to decipher the wisdom o'kings of old, not to flail an ax around!", Greth bellowed.

"This is hardly about any of this, art I not correct?", Kobierth closed the distance.

The large bull of a man was quiet for a change. "Mmm", his enormous lungs emptied in an agreeing voice. "By the Sacred Peaks---"

"First", Philip voiced, because he knew that if he didn't speak up for himself, he wouldn't get a say in a long time. "Do not concern yourselves with me just yet, we can discuss of that later. Now, just what is all this about?"

"Now would be as good time as any", Kobierth nodded and took her hand to Greth's cheek. Their eyes met, and the warrior nodded, with black hair bobbing alongside his head. "I believe we can trust in thy discretion, Philip of Danar family, of the north.

"Both I and him art from the deserts, Kalm-Katagür. But not myself nor Grethenward art of lowly bloodline. As thou mayhap rememberest, I told thou that we art of nobility. That much was true, but it wast not the whole truth, nay. We were the king and queen of a long-lost tribe of the wilds."

"A name that nay longer exists, for oor people 'ere scattered to the far-lands by the winds o'war that the..." Greth spoke on top of Kobierth and spat again. "Empire blew in oor direction." The man's hatred and bitterness were obvious within his voice and the amount of increased accent. Philip struggled to understand the flow of conversation, but at the same time was fascinated by the differing manners of speaking, albeit both of the royalties bore the same accent and intonation.

"- As thou can imagine, submitting ourselves to the bidding of another is a matter most heavy, for it weighs upon our pride and love for independence. And yet, I feel as though this arising war is a gift from the Gods themselves, a chance for us to repent our lack of sacrifice for our people."

"To hells with what the Gods think", Greth snarled and grabbed a nearby clay slab and cast it against a wall. "Give me a platoon of Dervishes and I'll fulfill 'em with holes of repentence and regret!"

"Doth thou wish to see happen to another Queendom the exact same fate that took ours? Maketh no mistake; I doth not cherish the thought of submitting to serve some wet-behind-the-ears ward or captain but what else can we---"

"How about...", Philip started again in the middle of Kobierth still speaking but ceased as he realized that he had just interrupted a queen, albeit a bygone one.

"Please, do continue", Kobierth smiled, guessing the sage's thoughts. "Thou maketh us proud, for thou have picked up our customs faster than many. Fear not our quick tempered minds: behold, while the Aizoan Empire may have been blessed with rational minds and steel, we were, and still are, gifted with the wisdom to see a human's heart. Now, speak thy mind, polite one."

Philip cleared his throat and wiped his now-completely red face. Being adressed so in such a direct manner by someone whom the scholar had known but for a couple of days felt weird, but heart-warming. "I was simply wondering if we needed not to offer ourselves for the Royal Service at all. We are, as of yet, relatively unknown trio of people, newcomers to this underworld. We could easily use the chaos as a cloak and find our way to a bit more remote areas where we could do our part for keeping this land safe from whatever threats may arise.

"Besides, we should propably do a bit more reseach on this matter. I for one have no idea of the scale of things here. I've seen some rough scrawlings of maps describing the Queendom's lands but we have no idea of the strength of these demons. For all we know we could be throwing ourselves into the flames as fodder and no more. Cruel and callous as it might sound: let those, who understand this Queendom and these lands, go first. We'll be following them right after."

"I agree to this", Greth spoke quietly. Even so his voice was enough to make the clay slabs tremble at the table.

"I wonder if we could offer our services as such as we haveth planned and thought of? Mayhap the Royal Service has a detachment of loose agents who covertly work their ways behind the enemy lines? That would certainly allow for us the flexibility and freedom that we both need and desireth", Kobierth glanced at her companions, clearly still driven by the thought of joining the ranks and earning their upkeep by the way of the blade.

"Fair enough", Philip nodded. "I must underline that I would propably do more harm than good if I offered myself as a draft. From what I've learned and read, and I know that the real-life experience is never anything even remotely close to what is being recorded to chronicles by historians, there would be very little chances for me to back-stab or remain behind the enemies in a full on brawl, should it even come to that. My experiences with the bandits' lair taught me that in ways most harsh."

"Should we be granted to the Service o'loose agents, we could teach you archery, me and Kob, on our journeys. Many of our lost clan's sages and wise-men were good with their hands and picked up archery rather well", Greth warmed up to the idea. "Well, some better than others. Anyway, what if there ain't such a detachment? Shall we simply walk out and go our own way? 'Cause that's what I'd do, at least."

"I'd say that we'll wait until tomorrow before deciding anything", Philip yawned unvoluntarily. "Well, I hope you don't mind me saying this but I need time to consider. I hope you understand. I am no warrior, just a ... well, scholar from the mountains. The very thought of venturing out into the wilds quakes my mind, even in such fine a company as you two are, but equally I am troubled by the notion of sitting in a dusty library and reading scrolls while this very realm burns."

"Marry", Kobierth nodded understandingly. Before she could continue, however, Grethenward took the liberty of speaking up.

"Philip, mate", the mighty man said almost cautiously, as though searching for words. "I hope whatever it is that ye' decide, be honest with us. We, I, well---"

Rather typically for these two, Kobierth spoke on top of her husband. "What my little golden pig is trying to sayeth is that we understand if thou decideth not to come with us to the Royal Service." She raised her hand to stem the words from Philip's lips. "Nay, doth sayeth nought just yet. It has been a rough beginning for all of us, and especially thorny one for thou."

"Exactly that", Greth nodded.

"Well, I think I'll turn in for the night, now. Do not worry about me if you two decide to stay up, I'm propably going to fall asleep as soon as I get on my back", the scholar mumbled sleepily. A heavy and irresistible lassitude washed over him as though someone had emptied bucketloads of it atop of his head.

"I'd wager that Greth might want to have a drink or two before we turned in for the night, as well", Kobierth replied, grabbing the room key from the table's corner.

After bidding good nights and other pleasantries, Philip laid on his back, not really bothering to undress. He realized that he didn't exactly have much in the way of possessions, as nearly all of them had been stripped away by the Empire troopers prior to teleporting. He still had the pouch of dried mushrooms tied to his belt, the one that the greeter had given him, but it had been emptied of the coins and meat by the bandits earlier. All of his finer clothes had been left up on the surface, for the exile had been hasty one indeed.

"Nearly all of them", the sage whispered to himself and stuck his hand between of the folds in his checkered green shirt. He felt a leather pocket's dry and wrinkly surface brush against the tips of his fingers. Onto the leather had been sown a single rune, slightly magical one, and warm to the touch. It was this rune that had hidden the secret satchel from the prying eyes of the bandits and the groping hands of the Empire troopers. While Philip was certainly not a magician, he was a watchful and savant, and had some knowledge of arcane runes and long-since forgotten secrets.

While the hidden pocket was a nice thing to have it was indeed just a ordinary pocket. Philip pried inside of the container and felt immediately the luckycharm that Quickfinger Garrom had given him as a parting gift in absence of anything else to give, other than his gratitude. He pried further and felt a single crystal that caused his whole body to tingle whenever he touched it. The scholar didn't need to see it to remember how it looked like -- a slightly glowing long and thin quartz-crystal, with warm, golden light emanating from the inside. It was one of the things that Philip had managed to get his hands on during his time in the Solaria's Imperial College, and consequently one of the reasons why he had been sentenced for exile. He had gathered enough knowledge that the quartz-crystal was an artifact of minor power, but didn't know how to use it. He knew for certain that the stone was used for clerical purposes; but whether it was used in the very holiest divine sermons with the aim of interacting with the Nine Heavens themselves, or simply in banishing evil spirits from those who were possessed -- it remained an unanswered mystery.

Soon enough the lithe man had fallen to light sleep, holding his green checkered shirt over his body as a blanket, for he didn't much care to think of the pests that the inn's sheets would hold within them. Surely enough, he would march out onto the market as the first thing in the morning and buy a comb for himself anyway, but at least, he hoped, this way he wouldn't get too bug-ridden. Philip woke up only to the sounds of the erstwhile rulers as they entered, and continued to hear their speech in their own native tongue through his waking dreams. From time to time the scholar heard a bottle being opened and his companions' voices raising a bit higher but then lowering again.

The last thing that Philip could consider, before plunging deep below into the sweet world of dreams, was the stark contrasts of the days that he had lived here in the underworld. Yesterday he had been held in a cell, guarded over by a hung-over brigand; today he slept upon a bunk in a shared room with a king and queen. With that, he smiled, sighed, and embraced the memories of sunlight and pleasant smells of gardens.

 

* * *

The same evening...

 

Quickfinger Garrom, as he had chosen to call himself, glanced one last time at the roaring braziers by the sides of Fort Roc's maingates. The lights of the vertical city, a bastion built upon a stone arch above a deep and seemingly nearly bottomless chasm, flickered in the distance, almost as though daring and taunting the shadows to leap up from the darkness beneath. He hadn't given a rat's arse of the warnings and half-racist yells from the gatekeepers, but had simply flashed his brand new badge of identification and pressed forth.

Now the sailor stood in green twilight, with an empty road before him and a nicked shortsword at his belt. "The last man standing of the HMS Redwave. Leyla... yer' godsdamned human. Flaming good officer", he bit his lip out of the irony of the thought. "You can tie yer' knots that I'll be raising a glass or two in both you' and yer' crew's memory. Mind you, I'll be doing a bit more than that..." The sailor started his march, limping and minding his healing wounds. "I'll wipe every magical being from this accursed, flaming pit, even I'll have to do it myself with my own bare hands!", the sailor calling himself Quickfinger grumbled.

Soon enough the lone figure had disappeared into the darkness of the wilds. Only the cavebats' squeaks and the distant purling of the Mirkriver could be heard anymore.

 

* * *

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 8: Interlude

 

 

 

The stone hall was quiet and dark, with unholy fires crackling on the sides, in front of the windows. Protective and powerful wards lined the walls. An altar of basalt had been erected by demonic energies to the middle of the long gallery, with the decorations and statues being twisted into horrifying travesties of their former selves. A pair of mung demons marched around the accursed main hall, weaving intricate spells and keeping constant watch for their leader.

Whispers, whispers of the dead.

"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, please, believe me..."

Such was the state of Fort Frejath, a human bastion that had stood in lone guard against the nightmareous infernal realm to the north. Formerly it had been one of the three major castles standing against the other races' reigns, and its' walls had been lined with the bravest men and women the Royal Army had ever known. Now almost all laid dead, for despite their furious defence the demonic legion had been near infinite, while the humans' supplies and men had dwindled quickly.

"We will never die, suffering will never stop, we will never, die we will never die suffering will..."

A haakai lord of no small power sat upon a twisted throne of molten rock with skulls of the fallen defenders embedded into the stone as a decoration. Its' blue, wrinkled skin pulsated constantly with inner power, and its' eyes blazed with bright orange, reflecting the unholy flames. Though the basalt altar was halfway on the other side of the hall, the haakai's eyes had no trouble seeing the crystal ball on top of the altar quite clearly. Dismissively it waved its' hand, and a vision appeared just underneath the crystal's surface.

"Help me, God... forgive me... make it stop, make it stop, God, make it stop..."

 

* * *

 

The Port had ceased from burning three days ago, but the ashes were still warm from place to place. There were crude constructions of shoddy quality here and there amidst the rubble, serving as a temporary shelter for the swarm of surviving dark sliths and imps. The higher ranking demons had moved below to the unflooded parts of Revven, the undertown. Ssstoch the One-Eyed, as his name was respectfully, stood gazing at the murky waters near the Port's main-square, where the imps had painstakingly managed to erect a crude altar in order to serve as a nexus for their profane rites and pitiful lives. From time to time one of the demons would emerge from below and perform a series of rituals around a crystal polyhedron placed to the middle of the altar, communicating and receiving orders from the higher hierarchies.

Ssstoch touched the side of his head but the claws scraped against only cold metal. A fearsome helm with thorns and intricately engraved wards had been crafted and moulded specifically for him both as a reward and a reminder for his continuing allegiance. It was there that the accursed priestess had managed to bash his head in and nearly killed him; and only because the Gods had been with her and her companion that day. If it hadn't been for the powerful but painful blood rituals that the dark shamans had managed to weave upon him, he would've been a goner. Truly, he had been a sharp point of the attack's spear and one of the favored assassins, but he was cunning enough to understand that the next such failure would be his last; he wasn't that favoured by the hierarchy, and while the shamans were more than glad to get to show off their powers, even they could not stand against the will of the legion's leaders.

The one-eyed assassin's vigil was interrupted by a violent flash of red. The crystal atop of the imp-altar beamed with sickening radiance and blared as though a dying dragon in its' death throes, causing hordlings nearest to itself fall to the ground, holding their heads in pain. Perhaps this was a sign? Perhaps they'd move on soon, to crush the meager human resistance and drive more severed heads through spikes for the sport of bats and infernal beings alike? Or maybe they'd move against the elusive but soft tribe of nephilim to the west? Quickly, as though the very whips of their masters had hastened their journey, three demons appeared all around the altar, stomping carelessly on hapless imps as they came.

"Give me your name, you lepery maggot!", boomed a voice from inside of the crystal. Whirls of fire whipped the air around the stone, and finally the chaotic tendrils lashed out against one of the demons.

"- Kaahj'Ygraa, mighty lord!", the largest of the demons replied. All three held their arms extended towards the crystal, but only one spoke. A wave of pain ensued, and the demons writhed in pain. Some of the closest imps went limp, with the infernal life leaving their frail bodies. The demon who had spoken his name directed a ray of harmful energy directly into the multi-faceted jewelstone. Even if the demon knew it to be in vain, it was still compelled by the strict rules. Such was the way of the demons, to always ascertain the ladder of power, with one participant in a conversation being dominant and the others being submissive.

"Listen to my words quite carefully, Kaahj'Ygraa, if you value your tumor-like head that festers that swollen body of yours! Let it be known that I and my legion have finally slain the last defenders of Fort Frejath, and I have now decided to call this place Spira'T Aardulu! Now, talk to me about the situation at hand! How goes the burning of the river's sides, or has the swarm drowned into the mud?" The haakai lord yelled out.

"- Terror of Spira'T Aardulu!", the demon replied. It had to take great pains in not using the same honorary title twice, for it was strictly forbidden amidst the demon-talk. Just like the usage of honorary titles, it was equally restricted for an inferior demon to adress a superior one by its' true name.

"- The humans' Ports have been burned to ashes, and the nephilim have fled from theirs! The Dark Swarm and Infernal Legion stand at the ready! The puny humans and soft nephilim keep skirmishing against our numbers but we are strengthening our foothold every day, infernal jewel of T' Aardulu!"

"What of their leadership?", the haakai inquired. "Are their ranks still firm and morale strong, Kaahj'Ygraa?"

"- Horrifying presence of Spira'T, unfortunately it must be made known that their resistance is still firm! It will change at the very moment when the great devourer of Spira'T Aardulu sees fit to let loose the runners and unscarred ones!"

"Send command to the Crucibles, fuel them until the very birth-gates melt! There shall not be another long cycle for the Queendom nor the feline tribes!", the haakai dictated. Its' voice sounded as though lava bubbling and bursting, deep and yet enough to make one's teeth ache. The message had been clear enough, and one of the lesser demons waved one of the horned magogs on its' way to pass on the orders.

"- Menacing predator of darkness, what of the Prophecy? Haakai Gulor-Baal's---"

"I know very well of the Vahnatais' Prophecy, Kaahj! Pursue the two whom you have found already! And let the dark lizard prove his worth... one last time. After he has their ugly heads, he must find a fresh exile! This man has entered the underworld but very recently. Even so, I can feel the danger he carries with him!"

"- And the ... traitor? The human who made this all possible?"

"The sack of flesh and scales I believe you call Ssstoch the One-Eyed may deal with him appropriately, after the rest of the Queendom has been razed", the haakai replied. "Now, go, you cancerous fountain of bile! Go and set a flame into the disgusting human-masses' flesh!" With that, the stone went dark and the demons stumbled back, drained of will to do anything but feed for the next few hours and regain their strength. A group of slowly dying, wounded dark slithzerikai shivered in a nearby pen erected for the single purpose of holding them as the demons' livestock, and murmured amongst themselves which they'd prefer -- to die of cold or to die of the demons' teeth.

It didn't take Ssstoch long to leave the port of cinder and ash. He had overheard the conversation and the orders but allowed himself to be summoned to the hearings. The strongest demon, Kaahj'Ygraa, had instructed him to hunt down the elusive quarry whom had been tasked to the slith earlier already, now with an added assassination of someone who had been teleported down into the Underworld but recently. He had also embossed to the slith's mind of the prospects of failure, contrasted by the huge rewards he would be given should he manage to not only sever the heads of the two magicians who had fled the sacking of the Port, but only if Ssstoch could manage to find the traitor. The assassin had heard of him of course: a human driven by ambition so absolute that he had sold out the very secrets of his own queendom for a scrap of power granted by the demonkin.

Right now Ssstoch the One-Eyed rejoiced, however, for he was officially unleashed out into the world again. He should not need return back to the folds of the swarm but until later, maybe after months if he was lucky and his marks proved to be skilled enough to evade him for long. Folding the description of the newcomer into one of his pouches, he steeled himself and ran by the side of the river and tried to evaluate the best possible route up to the refugee camp that the demoniacs knew to be a small distance farther inland.

"The hunt is on", the slith chuckled to himself.

 

* * *

 

A human in long flowing robes and exotic armor stood in the shadows of a stalagmite, gazing at the bustling colony of demoniacs and dark slithzerikai down below. A bat emerged from the darkness, landing upon the human's hand. In an instant, all of its' spying knowledge was made known to the man, and with a flick of a finger the simple creature turned into ash.

Spitefully the man snorted. "So, you're looking for an arrival, are you? And by chance it is someone with something potentially harmful to you, no less? This might be interesting", he cast one final glance at the lone slith running along the hillside, and turned around. A flash of a cloak, and the man was no more.

Only wind whistled melancholically, repeating ironic words. "The hunt is on."

 

* * *

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 9: Deus ex machina

 

 

 

20th of Icefall, year 769

Northernmost Great Salt Plains

 

The plains got more and more shallow and less undulating as Iríth and Solfanes travelled farther north. The salty grounds had been a beautiful surrounding to look at while traveling, oftentimes revealing interesting and bizarre natural formations, but very draining. While life was not exactly abundant in Taghtarus, it was known to be even scarcer in the great salt plains. Practically nothing could grow on the salty rock except for some very resilient mushroom specimens on tamer ground, usually to be found inhabiting a thick stalactite or a high plateau.

Only once had the two travellers met living creatures on their journey: they had been drawn to a large pond with a natural spring in order to replenish their multitudes of canteens. Solfanes had suggested that they'd camp on the shores, for even the few wild creatures that did visit this watering hole were wise enough to understand that this place was a shelter -- predators and herbivores could drink nearly side by side. At first Iríth was cautious about drinking the water, for it appeared strange to her that the water that was practically surrounded by salt could be pure. Quick glance around soothed her ailing mind, however, for she realized the tiny brooks that trickled the water away from the spring. She figured that when enough time had passed in the near ancient history since the birth of the small pond, the trickling water had cleansed the pond and its' surroundings free of salts.

Now the constant gloom and dark twilight started to get replaced by a green twilight, for the illuminating moss up in the ceiling was much more plentiful here. By the evening of their third day of travel they started to spot small patches of mushrooms, and a faint smell of lizards' litter hanged lightly in the air.

"Hey, look over there. Look", Solfanes tapped Iríth on the shoulder. "Those are the lights of Gartock. It's a small farming colony, and the westernmost in-land town. It supplies Fort Fr... well it used to supply Fort Frejath, but I guess it's no longer possible with the demon legions up there. I just hope they can hold, I really do hope..."

They stood on a gorge, before a shallow but long downhill, and gazed past the thick mist. Iríth had more success than the human did, but even with her eyes she couldn't make out many details at all. "I see... rows of mushrooms. People working the fields. A road... movement. Lots of movement. Mrr."

"- It must be either reinforcements or guards, I'd guess. What are they doing?"

"They're going to west."

"- Right... so, not all hope is lost just yet."

"Melodrama...", Iríth whispered quietly to herself and smirked. She had a surge of thought and turned to the witch. "But hey! What of ... the Ports' people? Ports Varib, Mirebay and Connor's Watch? Why haven't we ran into any of Queendom's soldiers headed south?"

"The Royal Service will propably send a platoon of reservists through the southernmost pass, supplying them at Fort Harqen. It's, it's the shortest way, albeit, not necessarily the easiest one."

"Yeah, I do remember...", Iríth nodded, and her memories swept her into the past, back to the days when the Queendom and the Darkmoon Clan had been at passively hostile relations.

"- Hey, you're all right, are you?"

"I'm quite fine. I was just taken back into the past for a moment, there. Mrr."

A nod. "- So, what say you if we disguised ourselves today? Could you do that?"

"There's still propably five to ten miles of walk left. Do you think we'll find a place to sleep from the humans' lands, hmrr?"

"- The towns are quite like the ports, always open; it's the cities that close their gates for the night. Thus it doesn't matter even if our calculations and time-measurements are off a bit. And well, to be honest, I wasn't even thinking of going all the way to Gartock. I was wondering if we might get a bed or two from a farmhouse on the outskirts."

"Oh yes, mrr. The town's propably packed jam-full of soldiers. It's a good plan."

"- The idiom is actually jam-packed..."

"You and your accurate linguistics: you know what I meant", Iríth poked at the man's shoulder.

"- Sorry but I couldn't hold myself", Sol smirked briefly. "Well, shall we get ourselves to a lower ground? We can mask ourselves there, be safe from prying eyes, as opposed to this hill."

"I... sure." Iríth recoiled a bit and felt a cold streak run across her heart. She didn't much care for the thought of embracing her other blood, one that she had always considered to be like a stain on her soul. Even so she'd need to accept it and use it today, and on the days to come.

"Hey", the human said sympathetically. "It's okay. You're still you. You aren't the sum of your kin, you aren't. If you were... you would've succumbed to your bloodthirsty viles when I opened the bars of yours and your people's cells."

The half-blood said nothing, but simply gazed into infinity. The colossal human was right, of course. But she couldn't bring herself to say it aloud. She gave in to his inveiglement and went with him, down the hill into the mist. Iríth still remembered. The smell of the iron bars, dried blood on the whips on the wall. The horrid shackles left to hang on the other side of the corridor, as a gruesome reminder for the prisoners within. The opened cell-doors and the delight of freedom, contrasted by the stark terror of seeing a dead guard on the floor, with blood pooling next to his cut throat. The severed head of another guard and the falchion clenched firmly in Solfanes' hand, and a dark smile on his face.

Iríth couldn't but wonder -- which of them was truly the rakshasa?

 

* * *

 

21st of Icefall, year 769

Eastern Queendom of Taghtarus, Wesvynia

 

Philip, Kobierth and Grethenward had held a quick council at Fort Roc a couple of days earlier, and had agreed that they would inquire discreetly from some guards if there was a call for veterans of stealth -- all three shared a desire to do something to help the Queendom in its' fight against the demon invasion, but equally they shared a desire to preserve their control over their lives, taking their first months in the underworld as an adventure, rather than rushing off to be commanded to the front lines without ever settling in first. After all, surely the war's outcome wasn't going to be decided by the contribution of these three fresh exiles? Surely?

The trio had been assured that there was indeed a need for people of stealth and were sent forward to the City Hall where the Royal Service was recruiting. After a couple of hours of waiting and loitering within the thick crowd they were admitted to a ward. They were asked if they'd want to join to the ranks of Hierarchy of Royal Steel or Bureau of Royal Intelligence. The ward explained that the Hierarchy was comprised of defensive, offensive and auxiliary detachments, while Bureau handled magicians, spies, scholars and assassins.

After a quick decision the trio had applied for the Bureau on the condition that they'd be allowed relative flexibility and freedom. The ward simply dismissed the notion as being none of his concern, and suggested that the recruits would fix their tone before talking to any higher ranking officers, lest they'd find themselves ferrying the fallen and mutilated from the frontlines and taking back maggoty lizard-meat and fresh recruits as a replacement. After a short bit of bureaucracy the ward took Philip', Greth' and Kobierth's badges of identifications and placed them into a special contraption, painting the trims white, congratulated them on receiving a "grunt's clearance", and marched them off to receive their gear from the quartermaster. Each were given a leather jerkin, a leather helm, a wooden shield and a dagger with a short sharpened piece of rock acting as a piercing blade. At least the weapon had a handle. They were also supplied with four days of military rations, which included heavily salted cave-fish and heavily salted meat, with a surprise addition of salted mushrooms. Greth had nearly opened his mouth to complain about the size of the rations, stating that it was only good enough to serve him as a breakfast and a dinner, and in an emergency another breakfast, but Kobierth's hands were quickly latched onto the man's mouth, preventing any permanent damage to their reputation.

The Queendom was divided roughly to four provinces, starting from the east and moving towards the west: Dark, Capitol, Sloughbrim and Crathsalt. Each province would have its' own capitol city, which would oversee its' own area and form a province government alongside the smaller cities' officials and monarchs, which all would be responsible to the Queen's Cabinet located in the realm capitol of Isenkrun. The new initiates to the Bureau had left Fort Roc at the same day of their admittance to the Service and had passed across the borders of Dark Province to Sloughbrim, and were headed to the latter's capitol city of Wesvynia, a bustling city of commerce. The city itself was located downstream from mighty rapids, spanning both sides of what was called Mirkriver. From there they'd continue onward to west, towards their true objective, Crathsalt.

Silence and emptiness had been dominant features on the only road that had led from Fort Roc to the rest of the Queendom, with a few paths branching off to struggling farms and watchtowers that had been erected to guard the Mirkriver; like Boneriver, this stream was connected to Magroos Lakes in the middle of the caverns, and served as one of the main routes for ferrying wood from the central gallery to Wesvynia. From this city half of the wood ferried there was distributed to other provinces equally, with the other half remaining up for private market. It was rather needless to say that this was also one of the best places to find a boat, if one didn't desire to travel all the way to the western borders of Crathsalt to the Ports dotting the Boneriver.

The three travelers stood upon a rise from whence they could see farther southwest. There was a crossroads about a mile away, with small convoys of carriages drawn by giant lizards going back and forth the road from west to south and vice-versa. One small pack of men took a turn towards the Fort Roc. It was going to be the first group of people the travelers would meet on the road. They had of course met people staying in an inn halfway through the journey, but they had been burly local farmers exchanging gossip and seeing what kind of fresh exiles had been ported down recently.

"Well, looks like we're finally getting closer to civilization", Philip said quietly, and gazed at the nearly enchanting sight of small dots of light huddling in the darkness, beyond the green twilight.

The two royals nodded. All three shared a moment of silence, and gazed at the scenery of the Queendom's citizens going about their business, accepting this to be their lives. Every day that the exiles had spent down in the underworld had embossed a thought into them that they were indeed banished into the darkness, hundreds of miles below the surface; but with each passing day the denial had pushed the thought back into the fringes of their consciousnesses. Only now did the understanding really take root. Soon enough they'd be amidst those little lights, on their way to the unknown future.

"Stray not into the gloom and fear of people", Kobierth said encouragingly, breaking the silence, "for soon enough we will traverse the wilds again."

"I don't actually mind the cities or the like", Philip replied. "It's just the feeling of not belonging here. When I see those people down there, I can't help but feel... Will I, one day, accept my fate as those people do? It was easier to not think about all of this when we saw nothing but fields of mushrooms and bats overhead."

"Aye, mate", Greth nodded gravely. "We share the same sentiments."

"It could be worse", Kobierth raised her head a bit. "We could be training at a mess hall's backyard, shaping ourselves to march in an orderly fashion and lifting stones to practice our strength to be able to wield a shield without strapping it off for two days straight. We haveth ill need for being ungrateful for what has been given to us."

The rank of three travelled downhill, and simply nodded brusquely at a pack of merchants on their way to Fort Roc, receiving a similar response in kind. The merchants knew better than to expect much trade there, for it was quite remote a location and many of the people there were fresh arrivals with not a lot of coins. Quickly enough the tribals and their scholar friend had reached the crossroads and started to inspect the signpost nearby.

"So, to the south art Isenkrun, the realm capitol", Kobierth read the sign. "I expect that we will find naught of use there; it would lead us away from our intended path anyway."

"Good, so we don't have to withstand the glares of this reign's nobles", Greth grumbled to himself.

Philip said nothing and glanced at the occasional wagon trudging by. He noticed that the giant lizards had their claws and teeth filed, and had thick, sturdy leather harnesses binding them. An unhappy looking driver was forced to apply a bargepole with a mushroom set to one end so as to lure the lazy lizards to go the direction he wanted them to, and whenever the creatures got a rush of stubborness to their heads the driver applied a sharpened stick, poking at the lizards until they got irritated enough to actually behave themselves. "It must be a dull job", the scholar thought to himself, "but an effective one at that -- a true testament to the humans' ingenuity and tenaciousness."

"To the west art Wesvynia, Kallwater, Fort Goasid and Fort Harqen", the brown-haired woman continued and glanced at Philip. The sage walked up to the signpost and pulled up a rough map they had obtained back in Fort Roc, making comparisons.

"Yes, Wesvynia must remain as our course. We'll be able to travel to the other side across Mirkriver, or ferry across, I'm not sure which. Then we can continue towards Fort Harqen and cross over to Crathsalt's region via the southern pass. It appears that there are two other passages across, but they both take a turn towards the north and I'd like to avoid it if possible." He pointed towards Fort Goasid, where they knew the fighting to still rage on.

"Fair enough", Kobierth spoke. Beads and beautifully carved bones chimed as she shifted weight from one foot to another. "Shall we go find ourselves a province capitol, then? Oh and Philip? Allow me to inform thou that we would appreciate if thou didn't get thouself carousing about with a number of bandits again. I know thou loveth drinking beer in secret with them, but it'd be such a nuisance to stain my best and only clothes to filthy rabble blood and who knows what." With that, the former queen turned about on her heels and started walking.

Philip had witnessed enough of this kind of humour to be already on the track with it, but couldn't quite think of anything clever to quip back.

"Hey, love", Greth called out, quickly catching on to her banter, like a dry grass igniting by a wildfire. He took his arm around Philip and together they started pacing after her. "Do me and wise-man a favor, would you? Next time in a public house, just go and pick something off of the floor. I'd so love to hammer a coupla' heads about for tryina' grabble you. I get to smite some heads, you get the groping o'yer life, and wise-man gets to laugh and pour ale on top of it all!"

With their spirits lifted, the trio of travelers pressed onward to the unknown, leaving the whistling and windy Dark Province alongside its' arid and desolate lands behind. A day later they found themselves at Wesvynia.

 

* * *

 

23rd of Icefall, year 769

Western Queendom of Taghtarus, Crathsalt

 

Iríth flipped through her journal and wrote down the memoirs of her and Solfanes' flight from Port Varib's refugee camp. She wrote down all of her innermost thoughts and deepest secrets. It was a very cleansing experience. The acolyte wrote of her desire to see her Clan once more, and of her fears that she struggled with every day. Each day they had marched as long as they could, covering ground to the best of their ability and ceasing in their tracks only to marvel at the grandest of sights. She even sacrificed some of the papyrus to describe a small skirmish she and Solfanes had got themselves involved in: against a small band of goblin marauders who had mistaken them for an easy prey. It was a short, very uneven fight barely worthy of mentioning.

Now they had found their way to Crathsalt, and they had taken a room from an inn called Edgar's Retreat in the Krav Mag Borough, the outermost part of city. Despite the little ostentation that Solfanes had to put up at the gates -- being compelled to flash his Grey Clearance and stating that the reason why his companion didn't have a badge of identification had something to do with direct orders from the Bureau -- Iríth felt safe and relaxed. From what she could gather from the jack-of-all-trades' tales and explanations, the Bureau of Royal Intelligence was known for cutting corners and not exactly 'playing it by the book' at higher ranks, as the witch had described; as opposed to the Hierarchy which was very rigid and strict in its' rules all the way from bottom to top. Thus the guards had no other choice but to wave the magicians through, and forget the whole incident.

Not having anything else to do the half-blood sat to the side of her bed, cross-legged, took the prayerbeads from around of her neck, and started praying and communicating with the divine realms, asking for guidance and seeking ability to remain humble in the face of the tribulations that this day and the next would certainly bring.

An hour later Solfanes walked in and locked the door behind himself. "Greetings, exalted... high priest... Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb." The witch had gone to the market to buy rations and clean water, and surprisingly enough a bottle of 'shroom'bsinthe -- strong alcohol that was oftentimes the object of many drinking contests in which the person, who could pronounce the name fastest five times in a row and not fail, was the winner.

Iríth simply nodded and intoned a slight purr. Usually after the trance of a prayer she reverted back to her own (body)language instead of common tongue. Finishing up the spiritual entanglement with the divine realms, she replied. "No, you didn't disturb me. ...Is that, alcohol? You're not going to break to a spree again, are you?", she grinned.

"- I'm not even... It was an act of humbugery just to track down that one smuggler! I'm positive I've explained this to you a hundred times---"

"Yes, but I've seen the bottles of wine in your, well... now gone cottage", the priestess tilted her head.

"- And another hundred times I've explained that I heard from a reliable scholar that one glass a day keeps your circulation clean."

"Who was this scholar? Someone on the surface?"

"- No, it was a monk living near Crossplank Cove, a couple dozen miles south of Fort Harqen, I think it was. He died about a year before I got promoted, and before I was tasked with keeping an eye on Darkmoon lands. I would visit him for philosophical discussions and the like."

"Oh... What did he die of? If you don't mind me asking, of course, hmrr."

"- Yellow-disease. His skin had turned yellow long before that, and finally internal bleeding got him. It wasn't pretty... Well, that... that's the price that some people pay in order to see progress being done, it is."

Iríth said nothing, just stretched and yawned mightily.

"What?", Solfanes asked with a confused smile on his face seeing Iríth's expression. He had unloaded the foodstuffs on the table.

"Nothing", the priestess sat down and dug in to her breakfast. "I was simply wondering what will be the course of this day?" She said, closed her journal with her spare hand, and eyed the last lines of text she had written.

"Fine, have it your way...", Sol grimaced and opened the bottle. "Besides, this absinthe is for wounds. It's the purest stuff you can find. Only town of Coralthiel on the slopes of Mirkriver distills better alcoholics."

"- I think the word should be 'alcohols'..."

"Yep, alcohols. And does it matter if I take a sip, just to make sure that the liquid's not all vinegared?"

Iríth refrained from the offered cup, for the years in the rakshasi colony had carved into her mind the dangers that the alcohol brought. Only slaves were known to drink it: the rakshasi there had to constantly stay sharp, keeping an eye out for backstabs and blindsides. Thus ingesting substances that dulled senses and created a sense of relaxation wasn't exactly popular.

"Vinegar or alcohol, both cleanse a wound, you bleeding drunkard...", Iríth smirked but kept her voice low enough to keep Sol from overhearing her.

"- What was that again?"

"Nothing. Plans for this day? Mrr."

"I swear, one of these days, I'm going to...", the former captain mumbled with a forborne smile and took a wavering sigh. "So, about today. First, I'll need to report myself to the Bureau. I should've gone there yesterday but, well, bringing you near the templar-guards there would have been suicide. They could've sensed you instantly. Thus, my absence will have aroused their suspicions. They'll propably try to contain me and pry my mind. None of that is important, I'll have to just survive and adapt.

"You, on the other hand, need to get to Gethadan, a massive library in Unevar's district. It's the westernmost part of the city, same one where the Bureau lies, but on the opposing side of the borough. It will not be hard to miss, it won't. There you run to the first of your problems. The first three floors are open--- Yes, the library is huge", the witch admitted upon seeing Iríth's expression. "but the last three are closed, and you'd need Grey Clearance for the fourth floor, Red Clearance for the fifth floor and Crown Clearance for the sixth floor.

"Alas, even if you'd have a high enough clearance the sixth floor is guarded by templar-guards, and they'll see through your illusionary form without any troubles, I'm afraid."

"- Who are the templar-guards?"

"Magically or spiritually adept soldiers with enough capacity in the Arcane arts to have true seeing, mental shielding, and some resistance to various curses. They're sort of elite guard who protect the Queendom's most valuable secrets", Solfanes explained.

"In short, unless I kill them, I will not be going through", Iríth pondered. "Like you, I'll have to improvise. Oh and let me guess, you'll want me to go to the sixth floor?"

"- Yep, that's right, it is. Once there, you'll need to remain watchful and make your way to the largest study on the whole floor. Only the members of the Black Tower are allowed inside, and even they visit the study very, very rarely. When you're inside, you must undo one of the protective wards in one of the windows."

"Couldn't I just do it from the outside? Climb to the rooftops and then cut the glass or maybe even break it?"

"- In theory. It's just that the wards render the glass as tough as the rock around them... The wards are painted on the study's side of the glass, and a simple scratch by a tableware knife is enough to disrupt the magic within the wards. They haven't really considered that a cat-burglar, no pun intended, would find her way inside."

"Pun all the way intended, I know you well enough... All right. And when I've opened the window, you'll be able to come through it, I'm guessing? But, just how will you come? Your joints aren't of top quality, you couldn't make that kind of a climb, not even with the aid of a rope."

"- I'll reverse a featherfall spell, into a feather-rise."

"Mmm. A simple matter of reversing a spell... Archwizard, you could just teleport inside with such powers."

"- Pffft. I'm not that skilled... yet. I have a little bit of something for that. Speaking of which, here, take one." The witch pulled out four bluish-black raven's feathers, and gave one to Iríth. "If you hold it in your hand and blow a gentle breeze into it, you'll be able to land for at least a minute, floating as gently as a feather.

"But speaking of which... I guess I didn't mention what we'll be fetching from the study?"

"Yeah, it might be nice to know what I'll be risking my little threadbare life over", Iríth tilted her head.

"- Teleportation coordinates."

The aspirant cleric remained quiet for some time. "Excuse me?"

"- We'll have to teleport to Darkmoon lands. It's the safest way. And I'm sorry I couldn't tell you before but I'm almost certain that we were being spied upon as we journeyed here. Regardless, this is not the time to talk about it. What matters is that once we are both in the study, we can ignite the teleporter and... well, calculate our landing to the other side of Boneriver."

"The Queendom has access to teleport technology? What if ...?", the endless possibilities for its' usage raced through the ascendant's mind. "I suppose you've had first hand access to the logs and diaries of the researchers? They have considered the possibility of trying to port to the surface, yes?"

"- I have, and yes. Alas, so far they haven't been able to manage much. Taghtarus, this whole net of caverns, lies on top of peculiar, raw energies that distort the very laws of nature. They're quite subtle and a layman will never notice the difference, but in short: teleportation, far sight, and psychic abilities such as telepathy are considerably contorted here."

The half-blood almost asked of the results of a failed teleportation but realized it herself all too well. If they'd miscalculate their landing or if these raw energies should warp their teleport, in the worst case they'd port inside solid rock or blast themselves apart by landing to several locations at once. "Are you sure about this? Because... I mean... Walking above water via my faith and praying seems much more safer option than this. Is there really no other way?"

"- Of all the scouting that me and my men did back in the days before this new invasion, we found no other passage across to your Clan's lands. It's either this or crossing half a mile wide river, at the narrowest point." The witch had a grim expression on his face. He took another swig of the absinthe, gagged and nearly vomited.

"Drink it up, mate", Iríth gazed at Sol and the bottle with a mixture of amazement and disdain. "Why didn't you tell me of this before?"

"- Because I was afraid that we'd be eavesdropped... Trust me, I considered crossing the river many a times during that night in the refugee camp, and time and time again I saw the absolute destruction of the Port before my eyes. If the Infernal Legion has command over aquatic creatures, then we'd stand no chance at getting across, with or without prayers. I'm sorry.

"And in case you're wondering why I'm not coming with you to Gethadan right away, is because while I do not plan to stay around to wait for a separatist knife to be embedded into my spine, I do want to help out the Queendom to the best of my ability. I'll surrender any information and reports that I have gathered, and for my part end my service to the point when I step out of the Bureu's door."

"- It's still not an honorable thing to do but then again... I'm starting to see your point, hmrr. Pick the lesser of the devils. Oh and one last thing", Iríth pondered. "Why is it that Empire managed to create that massive teleport in Bloodrock, and that it has behaved in such a stabile manner for all of these years, if and when there are these raw energies that warp these exact kind of magics? Why does Queendom's teleport---"

"- Sorry to interrupt: but it's more of an experimental teleport."

"Why does it react to these energies while the Empire's doesn't?"

"- It's kind of hard to explain in short so that it makes sense", Solfanes frowned and brushed his chin. "The reseachers have theorized that the Empire used some kind of scepter to allow for a single wizard to be sent down here. The wizard would then open a rift on this end, and connect it to a portal on the surface. The term is entanglement, if you're interested.

"The Queendom, on the other hand, doesn't have the resources required to keep such a portal open for extended periods of time, not even between two cities, and thus the wizards have been forced to come up with this economic version, that takes much less energy to use, but as a result is much more unstabile. This experimental way is called warp-rift."

"And consequently we cannot open a portal to the surface, because the raw energies would distort the teleportation at such a long distance?", Iríth concluded.

Solfanes nodded. "That is correct. You're catching on fast, girl. Yet despite the obvious lack of the energy-requirements and nearly impossible odds they haven't stopped from trying. Seems to me that an incredible amount of resources and money has been funneled into this project. It is no wonder why they have kept it very, very close to their chests. If knowledge of the amount of wealth being 'wasted' as some conservative people might say, there's no doubt it would cause a public outrage. People are starving, yes, but ... the decision to keep these kinds of researches going may very well have saved a certain clan, and may bring about a victory in this war."

"Politics", Iríth shook her head. "If I ought to pick one good thing about the lack of large societies that the nephilim clan-mentality brings, it's the lack of political play; well, in this excessive amount, anyway. Elders don't have to explain themselves for attempting incredible deeds if it is done in the name of the clan's survival or advancement. It feels weird to hear that human societies behave in such a way."

"Well, you don't see that on the surface. Empire is rather quick to suppress anyone who questions their government."

"So I've heard. You might not believe it but I'm glad I wasn't there to experience it first-hand", the feline replied with a slight smile. The magicians remained quiet for a long time, each pondering on their own thoughts: Iríth thinking about all the new things that she had learned, and Solfanes preparing himself for the coming arduousness of having to calculate the coordinates. They'd need to combine their efforts, for it wouldn't take long for the Black Tower nor Bureau to realize as one of their teleports would be ignited without a permission or proper schedule.

"Shall we...?", Iríth started. "The sooner we'll get about to the task at hand, the sooner we'll get to lay our heads to pillows."

"You know what you'll need to do?", Solfanes queried with concern visibly blazing in his eyes. He wasn't fond of letting his companion loose to the streets of the province capitol without any kind of guidance or security.

"Yep. Walk in, get to the third floor, find my way past the guards and repeat. I suppose I'll need to open the study's lock, too? Sounds easy enough, comparing that to what a nightmare it was, breaking out of the rakshasi colony, hmrrr..."

The former militant but nodded. "So, go for it, and I'll make sure your disguise looks good." Solfanes said quietly, refraining from voicing any emotions alongside his words. He knew that the subject was enough touchy for his aspirant companion, and he needn't add any more salt to the wounds by appearing patronizing.

Iríth rose and stepped closer. She closed her eyes and concentrated. At first it was like trying to control an extra limb that one never had before, like a tail for a human, but soon enough the reflexes kicked in, and the magical energy started to flow through her. The adept tried to keep from showing her fear and disgust for the feeling, to no avail. If she were to ever describe the feeling to Sol, she would describe it as being something that gets nigh impossible to control, like a barrelful of oil being poured on oneself.

Quickly the transformation was complete, and Iríth bore the appearance of a lithe human farm-girl with short hair and tan, non-descript robes. Her gaze was locked away to a corner, as she didn't dare to face Sol's gaze. The witch rose and walked around her.

"No tail, nothing. You're... in good disguise, you are", the mystic spoke and ceased in front of her. "And eyes?"

It did take Iríth quite some struggle but she managed to glance up at her companion.

The spymaster nodded. "Human eyes, albeit strikingly green." After a while, he smiled and whispered. "May the Gods watch over you, and the shadows hide you."

The two magicians hugged away their anxiety, hoisted their scant belongings on their backs and walked out of the door in complete silence.

It was time to go and get busy with some calibrations.

 

* * *

 

Outskirts of province capitol Crathsalt

 

The trio of initiates to the Bureau had reached Wesvynia very quickly, because of the lack of obstructions and the good quality of the roads that Queendom had provided for its' citizens. There they had asked around for the fastest method possible and were shown to a stables with lizard-drawn wagons. They hadn't stayed in Wesvynia because of how divided the town had been, with the Docks' District serving as a slum and beggars' nest, with thieves and other unsavory folk lurking at every corner. The other half of Wesvynia was comprised of two other boroughs, each being very rich and consequently very expensive. While it was a beautiful city in itself, upstarts - such as the three adventurers were - really had no place there.

The wanderers had left Sloughbrim and arrived to Crathsalt's province passing by its' first town Crossplank Cove. During the first evening of their wagon-ride they had stayed at Three-salts Inn, a high-quality tavern that housed many a merchant and travelling citizen on their way to and from Crathsalt Province. After a well-spent night their ride continued with bypassing Fort Harqen that served as the central guard to the surrounding farm-areas and larger settlements, and eventually they roamed through Woodgate, a town where a lot of the wood - chopped and hauled fresh off of the swamps to the north - that wasn't going to provinces of Dark, Capitol or Sloughbrim was handled, refined and marketed onward to city councils and private auctioneers alike. Indeed, Crathsalt's province was a place with far lower standard of living but much more feet-to-the-ground kind of mentality replacing the void created by the lack of wealth.

"A mighty place, that one", Grethenward spoke out loud and rose to stand upon the carriage. The lizard-drawn wagons weren't moving much faster than a jogging human so it was easy to keep oneself balanced. "That's Crathsalt?", Greth queried rather openly of the other soldiers who were also being carried to the city.

"Yep, that's the city herself", one of the veterans yawned and gazed at the imposing walls as though they were his old friends.

"That's no city, it's a fortress", the former king continued. "So sturdy construction, and blends with the stalactites and cavern features well. I'd give me left arm to be able to command that garrison."

"Cities aren't so bad after all, are they Greth?", Philip grinned.

"Phaugh, I'd throw the nobles out first and make them eat [censored]", the massive warrior replied. "With the exception of you, me love, you're the only royalty I can stand, and that's because ye' ain't sitting on yer' arse doing nothing but looking pretty." A roaring wave of laughter ensued, with the Queendom's soldiers glancing at Greth with amused gazes.

"And is that not what I am doing right now? Thou have spoken thyself to a corner. Make me eat [censored], my lovely pig of a husband", Kobierth replied without raising her eyes from the tablets of clay that Philip and Greth had bought from Fort Roc's market.

Another wave of laughter followed, with the men poking each other and whispering naughty things to each other about the lady. The Hierarchy's rigid code of honor did not apply to grunts and recruits in the way that it did apply to those soldiers who had arisen to the ranks of private and upwards -- these men took every ounce out of fun of the freedom they had left.

The remainder of the journey, three miles, were spent rather quickly and soon the carriage was halted before the massive wooden gates with truly robust iron- and stone-settings giving more longevity to them. Guards beckoned the carriage to be pulled closer, and a couple of soldiers in thick armor emerged from the garrison, followed by a wizard.

"Standard inspection, this one", one of the guards grunted with obvious disinterest. He had been forced to quit an almost certain winning in a gambling game. "What's the highest clearance you bunch got?"

The passengers glanced at one another and replied one after the other, "White Clearance."

"All grunts. Adept-minor Grimmard, prep' your spells", the soldier uttered and turned towards the carriage again. "If one of you lot has any sailor's pleasure or red-speckled 'shrooms, stand up right away. Makes all of our lives easier." The guard took the badges of identification from each passenger and made sure they were authentic. During this whole event none of the passengers said anything, and thus the guard turned away and stood aside, resting his hand on his sword. "Adept, do your thing."

A wizard in purple robes and a obstructing hood approached the carriage. He mumbled several arcane words and waved his hand around in grand gestures. Finally, after frightening one of the lizards and an elderly passenger, he nodded and waved for the driver to pass. The gates started to slowly open. "Welcome to Crathsalt, citizens."

"Kob", Greth spoke. "Look at this city."

"- What is it, now?"

The trio raised their heads in amazement at the grandeur and glory of the style of construction in the city. While the recruits did their best to appear as cold and professional as possible, even their faces betrayed emotions of awe. The buildings were simplistic in their designs, and a lot of the shapes were angular instead of having rounded corners and wavy patterns that they had seen in Wesvynia. Philip calculated that most angles were forty-five degrees or more, but never less. It was obvious that this city had been built primarily to last against the decaying tooth of time as well as the infernal contrivances of bandits alike, and only after the sturdy stonework had been entrenched had the aesthetics stepped in. From the main yard of the province capitol the passengers could see the top of the walls, where guards with heavy crossbows stared out across the desolate plains and struggling mushroom fields. Rows of javelins lined the ramparts between the majestic watchtowers, and occasionally men with broad tower-shields walked around to stretch their legs. A platoon of soldiers in chainmail and robust plates wielding massive bastard swords and large-shields passed the carriage with a slight jog, on their way to who knew where.

Philip gazed at the striking sight before his eyes and shuddered. Even if the Queendom was small in comparison to the nephilim tribes' triumvirate to the northeast and the infernal demon realm to the northwest, the garrisons here were imposing. It was even more chilling to think that something, such as the demonic legions, had strength to power through such defences and lay waste to entire Forts. Indeed, albeit Crathsalt was a province capitol, it was just a city; as opposed to the Forts which served only the purpose of defence and peace-keeping.

The charioteer pulled hard at the reins and managed to get the lizards cease in their tracks in more or less a timely fashion.

"So, recruits to the Hierarchy, I'm not going to even try to fit this thing to the narrow streets. You'll have to hit the road. Recruits to the Bureau, you three will have to enjoy the ride a bit farther", the driver instructed his passengers. One of the recruits cast a copper penny at the man, mumbling thanks for the smooth journey, while another lobbed a pouch of mushrooms as a sign of gratefulness. With that, the four humans and two lizards continued on their way towards another district, passing under a stone arch. There was a riddle of iron bars hanging high above the street level, acting as a lowerable gate in case the district should require barring.

There was a distinct difference in the atmosphere not long after the carriage had passed by the guards and the gate. There were far less people in Unevar's district, and while the area's wealth and standard of living hadn't changed all that much, all three could almost swear that they were constantly being watched. Some windows of the two- or three-storied buildings were dark, giving the place an unnecessarily gloomy atmosphere -- almost as blind eyes staring at the passers-by. From time to time, Philip thought he could see slight movement in the darkness. Very quickly he ceased from glancing upwards and maintained his visage leveled at the various convenience stores and important looking plaques dotting the walls. Despite his rational and calm nature, a horrid throbbing made its' presence known at the back of his head. He couldn't help but notice his mind slipping back to the memories of Fort Roc's events.

"Is this where the Bureau is?", Greth asked of the charioteer.

"- Yes, sir. A couple of blocks further."

"Well, I don't know about you two, but the dream of commanding this city's garrison is starting to crumble fast", Greth confessed. "Something 'bout the shadows that gives me the willies... Not that I was serious about it to begin with."

"'Tis a fitting atmosphere, considering the nature of the Bureau", Kobierth replied.

"Mm", Philip nodded. "I, too, do enjoy my peace and solitude amidst the civilization, but this is starting to be a bit too much."

"Hey, at least we ain't going to be spending too much time around here", Greth smirked.

"We'd do well to be prepared for anything", Kobierth spoke. "Maketh no mistake, for I shareth Philip's sentiments. But it is very likely that they will put us through some tests before setting us loose to the world."

"Then we will propably remain inside, where it'll feel at least slightly more cozy", Philip thought warmly about the cool and dry libraries of Solaria, Shayder and Keep of Tinraya. "Well, at least to me."

"Fear not, friend Philip", Kobierth smiled. "While we are people of the deserts and wide open wilderness, we art not afraid of a several weeks of gloom and claustrophobia, if the reward is relative freedom while pursuing our directives' orders."

"Gonna' need some ale...", Greth gazed down at his hands. "Or some nice training. You think they have rings?"

"Sparring rings. Or since my husband is concerned, more like fighting rings", Kobierth explained upon seeing Philip's questioning face.

"Yeah, that's it", Greth slammed a clenched fist upon his hand. "I'm becoming an assassin and I'll train to keep meself sane."

"Behold, Grethenward, the one assassin you really don't want hovering over your bed while you're fast asleep! He's as likely to scare you to death as he is to slit your throat! Pick your way of dying today!", Philip exaggerated his voice to match Greth's, and managed to get a hearty laugh out of the tribesfolk.

Indeed, while the atmosphere was gloomy and the sparseness of the illuminating lichen up in the cavern ceiling caused the shades between light and dark to contrast even harder, the laughter and bonds of friendship was the best solution to ailing mind and anxiety. Thus, the three recruits left the carriage, paid the charioteer some tip and got admitted to the Bureau after a brief inspection and questioning by the Bureau's gatekeepers. While the trio's enthusiasm to get started had only grown during their long journey; not even that could prepare them for the events that would start spiraling soon out of all natural proportions.

Truly, the seeds of destruction were already sown, and they were growing on fertile, war-torn soil.

 

* * *

 

"Oi' guv. Got a quid or two to spare? I 'aven't eaten since yesterday", an urchin quipped as a hooded man approached him.

"Here you go, son", Solfanes lobbed a couple of coins for the boy.

"Oi', it's ye, milord", the urchin grew a little bit paler. Not much, but barely for the spymaster to notice it. "Wot do yer' want, guv? Just a word and I'll see it done."

"Say, you Princes haven't received any kind of commission lately, have you?", Solfanes queried while glancing around, and handed over a pouch of copper.

"Aye, yer' worship", the urchin pocketed the pouch rather fast and leaned closer against a wall. "We might 'ave."

"Certainly not on any specific ... inquirer and his companion, possibly?", the spymaster handed over another pouch of copper. That was twenty coins, already, he counted.

"Aye, guv", the child glanced at the adult with a specific glance. That was enough to tell Solfanes what he had needed to know.

"- And these mysterious benefactors didn't give you enough to not be bought off, did they?", the colossal man leaned against the wall casually and handed over two pouches of coins. This time they were in silver.

"That'll do it, guv", the boy grinned. "Tell you wot, I'll 'ave a word with lads and we'll see if we can't keep the action out of yer' way. Oh, and these silvers, they ain't clean, are they?"

"Sorry, couldn't do any better", Solfanes smiled apologetically. "Well, make sure that the other mark goes without being touched, and a specific person will remember the Princes next time when he is around. Maybe with gold or trinkets, instead of copper and silver."

"'Twas pleasure doin' business with ya', milord", the urchin quipped and ran off to the alleyways. With that, Solfanes pulled a hood over his head again and marched onward, certain of the fact that Iríth's passage to the library could go without any troubles, and that he himself wasn't immediately in harm's way from the Bureau's part. Now he could flee into the city after reporting to his directing colonel, and make his way to the library unfollowed.

 

* * *

 

The library was indeed as massive as Iríth had thought it would be, and getting inside had not been difficult at all. The smell of dry paper, leather, fresh ink and candlewax hanged heavily in the air, with people's murmuring and whispering only adding to the soft atmosphere. Occasionally one could hear a muffled cough or some other similar loud noise emerging from the austere atmosphere, but usually they dissipated as quickly as they had arisen.

Iríth felt a mixture of emotions as she rose the stairs, all the while making sure to keep her head bowed down. She had opted not to hold a hood over her head as that would just draw too much attention to herself. The survival instincts and skill-sets from the dark days of her youth were frighteningly quick to spring back to her mind. The aspirant shook her head, cast the sullen memories aside and thought of the serenity all around her. It was somewhat different from that of a normal temple's tranquility but in some ways it had the same calming air of respect to it. She could almost forget that there was any kind of war going on at all: it wasn't a difficult thing to do, for the wonders of such a library had never ceased from inspiring or intriquing her. Unfortunately there was no time to browse for scrolls of ancient prayers or books depicting heroes of old slaying drakes and ursagi -- there was a study to be found.

By the time the half-blood reached the third floor she started to get nervous. The amount of people was smaller here, and they were mostly in clothes of high quality. She considered the notion of finding a distant and safe nook to switch her appearances once more but dismissed it almost immediately; she didn't want to risk any kind of mistake getting in the way of achieving her goal. She picked a shelf at random, grabbed a handful of books and went to a table to shuffle through them. The ascendant glanced around, especially at the entrance to the fourth floor. It appeared that some people managed to pass without even flashing a clearance at the sole soldier posted to the side of the staircase. Either the soldier knew a lot of the people or those who walked up the stairs were noble enough to take it for granted that they'd be let through.

Opposing the entrance to the fourth floor there were a couple of corridors, some of which had windows by the ends of them. The disguised priestess figured that she could pry one of those windows open and climb to the next floor, if only this exact storey wasn't so crowded as it was.

While time was not of essence, Iríth was still painfully knowledgeable of the amount of time she had spent shuffling through these few books. She had a thought, a plan that hatched within a blink of an eye, but one that took some time to muster the daring for it. The poor acolyte felt more than a bit grateful for the disguise, for even though she featured the typical signs of embarrasment for a nephil, it didn't transcend through the illusionary form. She stuck the books back to the shelves and walked with steady footing towards the soldier. By the time she reached the staircase, she felt like fainting. The soldier, a young colt of a man, turned to face her.

"Halt", the soldier said with slightly lowered voice. Iríth did as was commanded.

"Who, me?", the half-blood took a hand to her chest, as if pretending to be surprised.

"You need Grey Clearance. I presume you have one?", the man shifted his weight from one foot to another. A part of Iríth realized that she might not get through with just playing a noble's part. Her clothes did not aid her position none.

The worst part of the current contingency plan had now come. Iríth took a wavering sigh and walked closer. "You know, I'm on a ... errand for spymaster Solfanes of Port Varib. But it just so happens that I was ushered out of bed with haste and it seems that I forgot my Clearance to my drawer. I know, how silly of me." She figured that dropping a name that was certainly known, in good as well as bad, might give more credibility to her story. Besides, she was certain that Sol wouldn't mind. The Queendom's officials would hear from him soon enough, anyway.

"- Ma'am, I'm afraid I can't let you pass."

"But... aren't you a handsome. You know, maybe I do have a Clearance. Maybe I could... show it to you in somewhere more... private?", Iríth whispered. She almost threw up after finishing the sentence but managed to keep a straight face.

"- I ... what?"

"Nobody will notice a single thing, and we both gain something out of it", the half-blood continued her inveiglement, touching lightly at the man's armor. That was as far she could go, and even there she resisted the urge to recoil her hand immediately.

"- Uhh... hot damn. Go. Go, go, up the stairs before someone notices! ...I'm so getting yelled at for this."

Iríth didn't need to be sicced twice. Before long, she and the guard had entered a small room on the fourth floor reserved no doubt for shady back-room deals. Fortunately none of the library's staff nor the visitors had paid any mind to two lowly looking humans going about their business. As the guard turned around to lock the door, Iríth approached him from behind and struck hard at a couple of tender places, knocking the soldier easily unconscious. She grasped the key-chain which she hoped to aid her in getting onward and evading the guards, and made her way out of the room as quickly as possible. She heaved for a spell against the door and regained her composure. The faster this'd be over the better.

Dancing through the fourth floor was not even a problem for an infiltrator of her skills. While resting in a similar one-table-two-chairs room as before, she discovered yet another racial trait at her disposal that she had inherited from her father - invisibility. The magical capability was truly there at the fringes of her essence, right at her fingertips, but in a raw and unrefined form. There was a lot that she didn't know about herself, but she thought that maybe it was better that way, for almost three days out of four she simply remembered herself only just as a normal nephil. Proceeding on with the planning for her next step, Iríth dismissed invisibility as well, for she would have to choose either the invisibility, which was considerably more draining, or the disguise. Both required constant channeling from her part and she decided to stick with the human form for the time being, as it gave her a constant element of surprise of being mistaken for a lowly researcher or a secretary.

Soon Iríth reached a secluded corridor's end between rows of bookshelves and display cases and started to pry open a window there. The relatively dry atmosphere within the Great Salt Plains and its' surrounding areas had left the windows' hinges quite easily operable and opened with ease. Fortunately for her wind in the caverns wasn't exactly common, albeit the air did move seldom due to the differences in temperatures, and her attempt at climbing out the window went unnoticed. The climb to the next floor was not an easy task, as there was very little in the way of light outside of the massive library. Most lighting for the city came from the use of burning torches with the application of nethersalt, which was plentiful. Thus she had to wait for her darkvision to come about.

About a quarter of an hour later the feline had managed to climb all the way to sixth floor's windows. There, she balanced on the salient and tried to cut the glass with her amulet. She knew that the amulet, the one that had been bestowed for her upon her initiation to Darkmoon Clan's ceremonial position as the clan's spiritist, did have some kind of jewel-stone in it, but she didn't know what it was exactly and if it was able to cut glass. All that she had managed thus far had been only scratching the glass. Eventually she lost her temper and prayed to the Gods with all her might and, closing her eyes, smashed at the window. The knell of breaking glass was enough to paralyze her for a moment, but quickly she forced herself to motion. She opened the double windows and jumped on the sixth floor's red, soft carpet.

It was eerily quiet, and for a moment she didn't dare to even breathe. Aside from her heavily pounding heart she heard only the continuous murmur of burning torches.

Where are the guards that Sol mentioned?, Iríth thought to herself. As though fate had heard her question, she heard a metallic clatter from somewhere afar. Why did I even... Nevermind.

There were no doors, only one aisle with bookshelves on both sides leading all the way to the main corridor running diagonally as opposed to the lane where Iríth was, which was exactly where the potential threat was now moving towards her, coming from the left. The shelves were too high to climb, and the pile of books felled on the floor would be a tell-tale sign of the invader having climbed to the other side, so attempting to sneak to another similar passage was out of the question. She'd be simply elongating the inevitable. The aspirant grasped her amulet firmly and sneaked closer to the main corridor. The metallic clatter was now quite close, but fortunately it seemed that there were but one of them. Iríth crouched and found a small stroke of luck gazing right at her. She slided inside an empty spot in the bookshelf on her left side, and felt rather thankful for the Gods for giving her such a flexible body.

Everything was going well until the guard had stomped all the way to the branching aisle's crossing where Iríth had infiltrated the floor through the window. All that Iríth could see were massive feet clad in iron armor, with spikes protruding from some parts of the metallic shell. She didn't realize the danger but until she saw her tail, disguised as a sleeve of a robe, laying on the ground. The guard stepped on her tail.

A horrid pain exploded inside the acolyte's head, and as soon as the guard had passed she curled her tail to a ball, holding it with one hand instinctively. However, she had enough control over herself to simply grit her teeth and project her soul towards the divine realms in search of comfort and protection. Soon enough, after a brief prayer, the pain ceased from throbbing and all that was left was stinging numbness.

The guard had reached the end of the aisle, the infiltrator realized, and made her move. She sprung for the main corridor, glanced to both directions, and continued right. The main corridor this way was lined with doors rather than bookshelves, and she started to inspect the first plaques she saw.

"Reading Room I", "Reading Room II", "Sixth Floor's Fungal Laboratory", "Sixth Floor's Archives", etc.

There were about a dozen more rooms, and there was no way she could inspect them all in time before the guard would be back. The aspirant had a quick think about the situation that she was in. It was propable that she wouldn't run to anyone other than a templar-guard, and they all had true-seeing. It wouldn't matter if she was invisible or disguised, they'd see her and consider her an intruder.

Thus the half-blood concentrated on a ritual, this time summoning something rather than projecting herself. She knew it was a very poor choice to announce her presence like this, but announcing her presence on her own terms trumped being caught red-handed, picking locks.

The amulet flashed with bluish and golden light, and soon enough the aspirant was no longer alone in the passageway. A shade with a pale green color hovered before her. Iríth's mind brushed briefly with that of the shade, and she fulfilled the shade's thoughts with her desire of it keeping her pursuer away from her for some time, possibly even attempting at enacting itself as the intruder. The shade remained motionless for a moment, then flashed white as a sign of approval and eventually turned slightly purple, doing its' best at maintaining its' thoughts hidden from the templar-guard. As the shade passed by the lane where the guard still was, she heard the human yelling something. More noisy guards in their carapaces of steel joined the hunt for the elusive shade. Iríth whispered a quiet prayer for the shade as she went, and after rounding a couple of corners she found a set of doors with black runic symbols etched to the dark wood surfaces.

These must the be the doors leading to the study! No other place would have this majestic decorations or ... this expensive wood used for them. Iríth thought with excitement fulfilling her mind, and sniffed at the door's surface. This is spruce-wood! Spruce planks! Someone has had considerable amount of wealth and influence to have been allowed to port this much wood down here. Or maybe the Empire has thrown down supplies and the crates and barrels have been re-used? However it is...

Just like with the previous doors, the aspirant went through the keychain but none of the keys fit. She cast the keys on the floor as she thought that they were nothing but burden to her now, and continued exploring the lock of the first door. She quickly came to the conclusion that she'd need to pick the lock, but also dispel its' magical protection. The acolyte had a glance out of the window, and understood why Solfanes had wanted to come through exactly the study's windows. They were, just like Iríth's entrance window, on the northern side of Gethadan and thus the city lights were very sparse there. The witch would have ample time to perform his complicated spell without being interrupted by the city guard.

The disguised heroine crouched onto the soft carpet and dropped her illusionary form, now that she knew almost for certain that the floor was fulfilled with nothing but templar-guard. Instead she focused her energy on dispelling the magical protection from the lock, which was something she knew she could do. She had used that part of her racial heritage to shield herself from the paralyzing spells during the faithful night when she had fled the gruesome nest: being forced to kill her step-brother and injure a rajah.

The magic resisted but while it was strong, it didn't have the force of will pushing it to restore itself. Slowly but surely the feline infiltrator managed to null the shielding and, using the keys as makeshift lockpicks, she did get the lock open. While she had concentrated hard, she had constantly kept one ear pointed towards the main library, where the guards seemed to have lost the shade.

The door opened without a sound, and revealed a huge study, with a laboratory in the middle of the room within a depression in the floor. If the sixth floor had appeared silent and eerie at first, this place practically dripped with atmosphere. The acolyte closed the door after herself and hoped that the templar-guard wouldn't get the idea to search these forbidden studies. Ignoring everything else, she concentrated on finishing her part of the plan and jogged across the study to the windows, grabbing a scalpel from a nearby stand. While the magic in these runes was much more powerful than the ones in the door, they had been only designed to keep people outside. As soon as a small flaw appeared within the rune, the magic disappeared as a dream within the morning's first light. Now all Iríth could do anymore was to wait, and pray that no-one would find her.

Unfortunately despite her skills and darkvision, the half-blood's gaze couldn't catch invisible beings. Although she did realize that not all was well, she dismissed it as the anxiety caused by the guards searching for her and turned to gaze to the unused backalleys and streets. Deep within a shadow, far across of the study, a figure moved slightly -- an invisible creature known as a guardian kept observing her.

 

* * *

 

Solfanes pulled the hood further over his face and made his way onward slowly, gazing intently at every nook and cranny, staring into the shadows and non-walled alleyways, constantly being on his guard for any advesaries. His worst fear was the threat of separatists whose intentions were to continue the extermination of non-humans, a campaign that the Empire had sported decades ago. The very thought of such agents getting their hands on Iríth caused him to unvoluntarily speed up his pacing without himself even noticing it.

Even though the city Crathsalt was well lit with the New Wall sporting huge braziers for burning incredible amounts of nethersalt, the distinct lack of glowing fungus in the cavern ceiling above the city rendered the grounds dull and poorly illuminated. Crathsalt’s walls and buildings were rivalled only by Isenkrun’s stonework. Both had been half built, half carved into the bedrock to bestow long life for the cities, but the Queendom’s capital city had naturally drawn more intellects and architechts than the regional capital city. The two magicians had actually traversed the vast fields of nethersalt to the south, long ways from the city proper. It had looked dirty and brown-red mineral embedded to the cavern floor and walls. It was a tough mineral to mine and refine but well worth the effort put into it – it was about the only reason why Crathsalt had arisen to such a seat of power instead of remaining as a backwatery mining and farming colony for the Queendom.

The residencial area of Unevar was the quietest district in the whole city, and therefore an ideal place for the secretive mainquarters of the Royal Intelligence. Besides, unlike many of the other barracks, there was hardly any need to place the military construction to the vicinity of strategically important chokepoints or points of interest and thus the building space near the walls had been left for more vital structures, such as storages for weapons and raw materials. The installation for the Royal Intelligence had been placed beyond the Krand and Krav Mag Disctricts, far away from the fray but close enough that important strategists shouldn’t have to trudge through half of the town to be able to visit each other and maintain office. After a dull and uneventful walk through nearly empty streets where lizards and drunkards shied away from anyone whose striding was even remotely bold or decisive, Solfanes rounded one more corner and walked unto a desolate area that surrounded the mainquarters. Many an apartment bore dangling stone-walls at hazardous angles and caved-in floors. The interiors looked like they were thoroughly picked clean of anything valuable.

Mainquarters for the Bureau of Royal Intelligence themselves were rather plain, as opposed to the imposing architechture of the remainder of the city, especially that of the goverment buildings and the library Gethadan. There were guards posted around the building itself, and iron fences with sharpened posts surrounded the place.

”Looks still the same as it did last time”, Solfanes whispered quietly to himself. ”Better to take one good, last look. I’ve got a feeling that I won’t be visiting this place anymore”, he thought quietly, being rationally afraid of being overheard by eavesdroppers, other than the urchins, who maintained a sharp vigil across the premises nearby to the mainquarters. Steeling himself, he took a step across of the street and was immediately faced by a couple of guards.

”- Halt. What's yer' name and business, 'sire'?”, the guard’s gaze was dull and his posture was impatient. It was clear that the man was a new recruit and very much in the wrong place because of his short temper.

”I am Solfanes Darkenheart, spymaster of Boneriver. I am here to see Alexander Ironhand, a colonel of intelligence for Boneriver and unsettled lands. Grey Clearance.” He spoke monotonously without even thinking of the greeting anymore and stuck his grey-trimmed badge to the hands of the guard.

”- Right. Go on in.”

The guard nodded and moved slowly out the way. The others maintained an intense visage at the witch as he went. Solfanes’ skin crawled. He knew that at least some of the guardsmen posted outside were magically augmented templar-guard, capable of sensing the difference between a truth and a lie. Fortunately it seemed like the augmentation project had not been expanded to allow for the agents and guards to read minds. If such a leap had been taken in the progression of the psionic reseach, however, the men would’ve surely stopped him from entering.

The front yard was barren and dry, since the high command had not desired to invest any money to decorating the place, unlike many of the monarchs and town’s mayors had done. Solfanes quickly walked up to a pair of heavy wooden doors with iron frames, and two massive guards opened the way for him, giving him sharp salutes as they did to everyone entering or exiting the building. The entry hall followed the similar style that the exterior bore. The pillars were plain and undecorated, the walls were of smooth stone blocks and the braziers that lit the place were of high-quality bronze with copper embossments. As per Queendom’s customs every bureau and ministry was allowed to have its hierarchy to customize the outfits for its guards without straying too far from the uniform style that the Queen herself had dictated. So it was that even after visiting the Royal Intelligence many a times, Solfanes still felt shivers running down his spine as he saw the mythical figures of hooded guards with spears in their hands either standing perfectly still or walking in pairs of two or groups of three.

Walking up the main stairs and navigating through a couple of corridors the witch started to feel like he was being followed. He glanced behind of himself more than a couple of times, and despite not seeing anyone but several guards he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. Eventually he came to a door. He knocked a couple of times and felt uneasy. The sooner he’d get out the better. In the few moments that it took for colonel Ironhand to command for the visitor to enter, thoughts and irrational fears went rampant throughout his mind. He feared that the separatist agents had already caught Iríth and now they’d be coming for his life.

”Enter!”, Alexander Ironhand’s voice echoed from inside. The voice was unyielding and firm, but not callous. It merely held a specific strength.

Solfanes walked in and bowed slightly before closing the door. He glanced at Ironhand, man who stood readily behind of his desk. The colonel hadn’t changed much since the last time, and he was still as fat as ever. Ironhand was known for his tendency to make others run for his errands, a habit that had but increased in the past years. The witch locked the door and walked up to the colonel, responding to the handshake.

”Spymaster of the Boneriver”, Ironhand grinned toothily.

”Colonel of the intelligence for Boneriver and unsettled lands”, Solfanes replied, smiling. He kept to the military code that especially the Royal Intelligence's high command was so fond about. This was something that the Royal Cavalry made a lot of fun of, who were known to be even more loose than the Royal Intelligence. The spymaster thought how peculiarly fun it was, in hindsight, that despite obviously having received word of the destruction in the Ports to the south, the colonel was still capable and willing to hold on to the routines and strict codes.

The witch didn’t really care to resort to any more pleasantries, but rather remained quiet. First off, he didn’t want to spend too much time raconteuring with the superior officer because he knew that with each passing moment he was separated from Iríth they both faced an ever increasing risk of getting gutted, and second he wasn’t all that used to talking with the man whom he barely knew. Something in Alexander’s demeanor had always unnerved him.

”So, what news from Ports? How are the refugee camps doing?”, Alexander Ironhand sat down onto his chair and shuffled through a couple of papers, trying to come up with the details related to them. His face retained a slight smile, almost in an eerie manner. Solfanes had heard that despite Ironhand’s merry spirit he wasn’t quite right in the head, and that he was known to laugh at the weirdest of things.

”To be blunt, sir, not very well at all”, Solfanes laid the facts to the table in a dramatic manner. ”I left the refugee camp on the first day, and the camp's defensive positioning was not ideal to withstand a determined push from the infernal legions. I suggested relocation for Commander Godhart, who eventually took the hint and took the camp further east. From what I managed to gather from my sources at Gartock and here at Crathsalt, I've been lead to understand that the other ports, Mirebay and Connor's Watch, have joined up with Varib's people and are now holding a steadfast defence upon the salt plains. I trust the Hierarchy's men have reached the fray already?”

"Well, this information is usually on a need-to-know basis but I trust you enough. You seem to care for the lives of those poor sods", Ironhand chuckled dryly. "I heard from one of my friends in the high office that they sent some brilliant promising upstart, commanding two platoons of reservists and one platoon of cavalry, to support the western flank's southern end. It seems all is good on that end. It'd better be, mind you", the colonel burst into laughter. "Otherwise we'll be mincemeat in no time."

"Yes, quite so, sir", Solfanes managed to utter a forced laughter.

"So, tell me, how do you think all of this happened? What have you managed to gather? I did pick up on the small messages that your couriers brought me but I'd like to hear how you paint the whole picture. Drink?" The colonel offered a glass but didn't pour any for himself. While Solfanes knew that the colonel didn't drink, something made him a bit suspicious. He refused the offer politely.

”I am not exactly sure, sir”, Solfanes confessed. Fortunately his mind was still sharp, and the good night’s rest had restored his strength and energy. Quickly he gave an answer. ”Sire, if I may present an educated guess?” He handed over the field-reports that he had managed to scrape together over the few days. Mostly the reports were of sightings, enemy movements and all kinds of tidbits.

”By all means, spymaster”, the colonel motioned with his hand. His face was unnaturally stiff as he shuffled through the reports.

”- Sire. While I was fleeing from Port Varib, I was faced by a large number of dark lizardmen, also known as slithzerikai, and small packs of imps and hordlings. Some of the slithzerikai appeared to be trained assassins. Last but not least I witnessed damage of the scale that could have only been inflicted by a large creature. Possibly an aquatic monster.

”I believe that the demonic legion must have overpowered Fort Frejath in a single stroke and seized at least some of our agents on our borders nearly simultaneously. They must have set ambushes for our runners and murdered our watchers prior to the attack. It is the only way how I can imagine that the legion could have moved in such a force without our knowledge.”

”You fled alone? Alone against such odds. Dare I say, that sounds the kind of legend told in an inn after hitting the booze a bit too hard”, colonel Ironhand gazed at Solfanes knowingly. The witch, however, failed to notice the suspicious gaze.

”Yes, sire, I fled alone”, the spymaster lied flawlessly but felt his heart racing inside; he had no interest in revealing Iríth. In the great game that the whole Bureau consisted of, Solfanes couldn't rely on anyone out of fear for the separatists. While he knew that his superior did have rather cool and pragmatic sense about the whole nephilim-human reigns' union, he couldn't be perfectly sure. The colonel remained quiet and motioned for his subordinate to continue, hiding an askew smile behind his hand.

”Before this latest incident”, Solfanes continued explaining, ”not a single boat has crossed the northern rapids without me knowing. All of this leads me to a very unnerving conclusion”, he tried to maintain a mask of stone but failed horribly. ”Someone... someone must’ve betrayed us from the inside. Someone gave the Legion information on our defences. They couldn’t have performed such a coup otherwise. Otherwise I would've received a word of their coming long before they'd have been anywhere near our watchers.”

After the last word had left Solfanes’ lips, his voice rippled in the air for some time. The room fell silent, as though the darkness itself was afraid to breathe. For the better part of five minutes the two humans sat in silence, being frozen in place. The thought was unfathomable, simply unbelievable.

”Someone... someone betrayed us?”, Ironhand snickered and clenched his fist and gazed into infinity. "You're absolutely certain that there is no other possibility? Some poor sod has had way too much guts for his own good."

Solfanes remained content at nodding and realized that he had fallen to the list of suspects, as well – most propably to the very top, he figured. It was irrational, of course, but his past with sympathizing for a small band of nephilim was enough to raise suspicions in the most fundamental and conservative of humans.

"- There is no doubt of it, sir. Not unless someone here in the Bureau managed to silence all incoming communications and messages for an extended amount of time before the assault; and that is a possibility that I am not even going to consider as nothing but a very bad nightmare. Sir."

”That would certainly explain a thing or two”, the colonel looked outside. ”Fort Frejath would never have allowed for that to happen, not unless they were besieged...”

”Nor I, for what it’s worth”, Solfanes clenched his fists.

”This is off the record again, but I do believe that you are not the traitor we are looking for here”, Ironhand nodded and rose, guessing his subordinate’s thoughts. Solfanes followed in suit and rose as well. ”No matter!”, the colonel barked and turned to stare out of the window into the courtyard. ”There is nothing that we can do about it now. We simply could not account for someone actually giving out our positions. Selling his soul for a petty lure of gold or trinkets or whatever the hell the demons swayed him or her with. Mark my words, we will have fun with the traitor once we find him”, the colonel laughed heartily. ”Yes, spymaster Darkenheart. We’ll torture him for years to come”, Alexander's laughter turned from hearty to maniacal. "So whoever it is that we think is the traitor, we'd better have some damn conclusive evidence about it."

Solfanes remained quiet and didn’t say anything. He awaited for orders and tried not to think of the traitor’s fate, should he or she be ever found.

”These new revelations... I have to say, again off the record, that some masterminds upstairs did theorize the propability of someone betraying our Queendom as soon as we received the first unconfirmed reports of the sightings of demons”, the colonel struggled to regain his composure and turned around. "There was also talk about you being this traitor, given your past with disregarding orders and whatnot..." the colonel continued. "Well, while I know that your duty was mainly to maintain knowledge of Darkmoon Clan’s movements and the southern lands, I have to reprimand you for not keeping a tighter leash over this side of the river!

"It is now clear that someone from within did this, and the high command will most propably hold you responsible for at least partially for this incident. If the traitor is not found, the complete responsibility will be laid upon you after the war is over within a tribunal. It is clear that the information must have been smuggled out through Boneriver towards the north, for if someone had used telepathic communications our wizards would've intercepted the messages”, colonel Ironhand spoke bluntly and gazed at Solfanes without any prejudice or spitefulness.

”What is it that you want me to do, sir?”, the spymaster queried with a sinking feeling in his chest. For a quickly bypassing moment he felt like his fate had been sealed, no matter what he’d do. He embraced himself quietly and awaited for the response.

The colonel stood quietly for a long time and gazed at the spymaster with an askew smile on his face. ”Go and find a bunk in the spare quarters. I cannot give you orders until I know what my superiors have in mind”, Ironhand cackled disjointedly for a moment, but without any apparent reason.

Solfanes’ eyes widened a bit but quickly he remembered why Alexander Ironhand had such a reputation as he had. It was his abilities that had earned him his rank, not his flawed character. He saluted sharply. ”Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”

The colonel replied to the salute and Solfanes dropped his. ”Dismissed.” Just as the witch had grabbed the doorhandle after unlocking the door, the colonel called once more. ”Solfanes.”

”Yes, sire?”, the spymaster froze.

Alexander Ironhand remained quiet for a moment and hesitated. ”Nevermind, young agent, nevermind”, the colonel said slowly. The witch replied nothing but fled the office as quickly as possible and slammed the door shut. He walked off towards the main entrance hall for a couple of paces. He leaned against a wall and breathed a wavering sigh. Something about the whole meeting had made him very suspicious and nervous, and he still felt a lingering malice in the air. Something was definitely not right.

 

* * *

 

If there ever was a time in a person’s life when one knew that he was truly done for, it was this exact time and place for Solfanes to experience such a horrid event. While he was pacing off quickly towards the two heavy-set doors that would lead him to further towards the main hall, he heard a muffled scream from somewhence he had came. He turned about and saw a pair of guards becoming just as alarmed as he was on the opposing end of the corridor. Time slowed down in the witch’s eyes as he saw colonel Ironhand’s door open up and a slith in plain gray clothes walk out with a bloodied shortsword in his hands and a spear hoisted around his back. The assassin turned to look at the witch but soon focused on the two guards.

”Intruder! Intruder! Breach in Administration Phalanx!”, one of the guards yelled with a voice that caused the whole corridor echo loudly. Immediately there were others repeating the same warning in other parts of the Bureau, and men started running towards the source of the emergency.

The witch had little time to react and instinctively he reached for his wooden wand and cast a slowing spell upon the assassin. He took a surrogate ingredient – a dried lizardbone – from one of the pouches and held it up, directing the curse at the target. Due to the nature of curses it was always wise to use a substitute for the curse so as to avoid bleeding negative energy upon the caster as well as the magician’s preferred magic wand.

Despite the supporting magic that Solfanes had laid upon the assassin, the guards fell quickly before the single-bladed assailant. The spymaster knew that he was no match for the skilled adversary who apparently had no trouble taking down two highly trained guards on his own. Just as the assassin had finished off the guards, Solfanes had started to make his way to the door nearest to him.

"Ssss, are you trying to hide from me?", the grey-robed slith called out. "Come, now. It will be all over, sssoon."

Frantically Solfanes kept glancing at the assailant, as if the adversary could have suddenly appeared right up to him to stick a blade to his guts. Even without a horrid miracle taking place in the corridor, the death-dealer was much closer to him than the guards, and he was certain that if he’d wait for the backup to arrive in time he would be dead meat. He bashed one of the doors open and charged in.

"We have at least one agent alive and two guardsmen down!", someone yelled at the far end of the corridor.

"It's a slith!", someone else's voice echoed from afar.

"- Send for healers! We need healers up here!"

"Sssoon you'll bleed like a stuck imp!", the assassin hissed, directing his words at Solfanes. None of this had caused him any trouble, so far. The infiltrator closed the distance fast, with deadly determination in his eyes. Solfanes slammed the door shut, trying to think quickly.

Only now, up this close, Solfanes realized that the slith was the same one whom he and Iríth had nearly killed while in Port Varib, in the Temple of Serene Waves. However, if he couldn't come up with a method of closing the door quickly the assassin would surely appear to the doorway in a matter of seconds. This would be well before the spymaster could open the window and make his way out. The witch had an idea. He stepped back a bit and pointed at the hinges with the magic wand, mumbling arcane words. Ice started to pour out of thin air in front of the wand as a thin spray, freezing the door shut.

A single moment too late for himself the assassin pierced the door with his spear. Solfanes dodged and managed to get one good look at the spear's blade, perhaps making good use of the knowledge later. The spear that the assassin wielded was decorated with intricate runes and ruby embossments. It also looked as though the piercing blade was not made of ordinary iron nor steel, but appeared much more radiant than any metalcraft of the similar kind that he had seen before.

Fraction of a heartbeat later the spear was drawn back through the woodwork and the corridor fell quiet. The spymaster leaned against a bookshelf on the right and crouched onto the floor, shocked by how close to dying he had been. He nearly jumped out of his skin as he felt a warm breath on his ankles.

"I'll make sure you die in great agony by sssinking my spear into your belly. The cat dies even slower, as soon as I find her", a voice whispered from underneath of the door. With that, the shadow of the infiltrator disappeared from the corridor and the soft sound of pounding feet upon the cold floor vanished into the shallow background noise.

There were sounds of half a dozen of heavy footsteps running from the other direction and yells of the guards soothed the spymaster's mind for a bit. Soon there was banging on the door.

"Who's there? Are you all right?", a clearly humaine voice asked.

"Solfanes. Darkenheart", the man's hands started to tremble quite hard. "I'm... all right. Colonel!", he jumped up. "Colonel Ironhand!"

"We got men already there, sir", a voice replied. "Are you alone in there? Can you open the door, sir? It seems stuck."

"There's no one else here. And I froze it shut. I had no other choice. The assassin was right on top of me, the bastard", the witch replied.

"- Affirmative, sir. It'll take some time, we're fetching some equipment to get you out of there! Shouldn't take long!"

A thought flashed through Solfanes' head. He needed to get out now as there was no time to waste. The assassin would make another attempt very soon, if and when he'd realize that one of his marks was trapped in a room alone. "Nevermind that, just make sure the Bureau is otherwise safe! I'll have to get out before the fuc... the bastar... I mean the assassin makes another move! I think he's got a thing for me and... someone else. We kind of pissed him off earlier, we did. I'll try to land onto the courtyard!"

"- Affirmative. I'll send a detachment there to meet you", the guard replied and returned to yelling orders at others. The voices distanced rather fast and more running could be heard.

All the while the Bureau's elite were busy trying to locate the slippery assassin who had claimed three lives and nearly took a fourth one, the fair-haired and very pale goon of a man rose painfully slowly to this feet and cursed his unfit body. With great pain the runaway spymaster managed to get himself through the small window and onto a narrow stone ledge. He surveyed the courtyard with a practiced eye and saw platoons of guards emerging from their barracks’ and entering the administrative building. The search would be compartmentalized, but even so it would take time for the search to reach the uppermost floors. The assassin could be very well lurking at the rooftops.

Smiling slightly, Solfanes thought of how ironic it was that the darkness that plagued the city now kept him safe from the slith's prying eyes. He had no reason to rejoice for long, however, as he started to glance around for possibly escape routes. There was nothing that Solfanes could use to get downwards easily. He had no doubts, however, that the trained assassin should have no troubles climbing and jumping between the ledges. He, on the other hand, suffered of decrepit joints and dared not to think about the fatality of the fall, should he fail to land properly.

Just as the witch pulled out a bluish-black feather that was the most precious item in coin that he had, he saw a shadow descend from one ledge to another, making five successful falls onto narrow decorations before finally making its way onto the ground level. The assassin was not completely out of the harm's way, however, as a couple of guards noticed his descent. Soon enough the pursuit disappeared onto the narrow streets of city Crathsalt.

"No rest for the wicked", Solfanes mumbled bitterly. Even though the immediate threat was gone, he would still need to flee before the templar-guard would be sicced at him and he'd be dragged off to a dungeon for further questioning -- he figured that colonel Ironhand had almost warned him just before their meeting had come to an end, but in the end had remained true to his orders.

"- Nevermind, young agent, nevermind."

"But you, colonel Alexander Ironhand, although you may have been wicked, you old git, you've earned your rest", the witch whispered into the winds.

Bitterly the witch raised the feather up above his face and breathed a steady blow onto it. The ancient crow's feather evanescensed into a thin cloud of fibers and specs of black. The dark glitter sprinkled all over him, and as he whispered prayers to the spirit crow - just one of the many creatures he beheld as holy and revered - he felt his weight lightening. Soon enough the human floated through the darkness as gently as mist upon the fields, and landed without a sound to the courtyard of stone.

The spymaster was still within the shadows, and recovered quickly from the fall, albeit his legs hurt rather much. Now he needed to somehow find his way out of the Bureau's premises and get to the library's backyard without being seen by the guards, whom were no doubt ordered to find the runaway spymaster and inprison him for safety reasons. Indeed, while he had brought back all the knowledge he had managed to gather during his journey, he didn't know whether or not the Bureau would want to let him loose to the world anymore. That was a risk he couldn't take.

The courtyard was quiet at the minute, but that could change at a moment's notice. Solfanes realized that he might be forced to fight through to get to the streets, even if there was just forty yards of inner 'garden' and two sets of iron fences. He went quickly through his mind and memorized what spells he had prepared in the morning.

"I should prepare the binding webs and silence. I don't want to harm anyone here and sleep nor slowing won't affect the templar-guard", the witch thought to himself.

As though summoned, a group of five guards, two of the templar, marched out from one of the side doors and descended the stone stairs to the courtyard in a rapid succession, glancing upwards and pointing towards the ledges, talking to each other frantically.

"Let the dance begin", Solfanes whispered to himself and aimed the magic wand at the guards. He started speaking the arcane words, but since he wasn't exactly a wizard nor a sorcerer as his chosen profession his mystical magic was only very loosely based on the language Soruharva, even if the spells were similar.

"Vaitelias, kolokko hiljanen! tyyni kun pinta vetten, koskematon, korpi ikään alla hopeakuun! Hiljene!", he yelled at first, and managed to summon a cloak of silence upon the courtyard so that the guards' yells couldn't be heard anywhere nearby. He had managed to exclude himself so that he could still continue his spellcasting unhindered.

"Tulkohon hitahat tuonet, vääjäämättä väheten! jalat ain' raskaammaksi käyväten, sidotut seitein hämähäkkihen!", he shouted and the magical energy took the form of sticky spiderwebs.

The templar-guard had been shaped and drilled much harder than the common guards and were first to be on their feet, evading the spray of the binding webs. The three guards were too slow to get anywhere and slammed onto the cold stoneyard as one huge mass of twitching arms and jerking legs. The two guards were clever and separated afar from one another, approaching from two different angles. Whatever the witch'd do next, he couldn't get them both with the same spell.

The third spell of choice for the escapist was a spray of ice -- it was going to be his final one. He would have to get at least one of the guards with the spell and hope that it'd slow him down enough to allow for him to run past him; but not wound him too much to kill him. "Legs, aim for the legs", the fair-haired man reminded himself.

Surely enough, the distance was less than twenty yards but Solfanes got one of the guards slowed down. The armor got cold and frosty, and froze solid at places, making moving and maintaining balance impossible. That was the one opportunity that the magician had, and he took it. While he knew that he wasn't in immediate danger for the guards were not out for his blood, (not yet anyway,) he knew that a single bash from a shield was enough to knock him out cold for hours. He wasn't suited nor trained to withstand a whirling melee with 250 pounds worth of metal, shields and fists.

Running across the courtyard in complete silence was very much a creepy experience. Solfanes had no idea of how close or far his pursuer was. Still, he wasn't interested enough to turn around and look. Rounding a corner, he gazed at the metal fence before him and considered what other options he had. The fence was taller than he had remembered, and he'd need some time to climb across -- alas, that was something that he didn't have. There was only one choice and do the unthinkable. He started to prepare a spell deep within his mind, not using the verbal nor somatic components at all. This was something that was taught to be complete and utter madness in some spell-schools, with even the leniest of schools considering spellcasting without verbal components, not to mention without somatic, extremely dangerous. One wrong thought or a misplaced object of the spell, and the magician could be setting himself on fire or worse.

The fence neared, and the spell was finished. The sheer terror and the threat of imprisonment drove the magician's mind to a peculiar state of clarity that had allowed him to finish the spell without hassle, and as he was still running, he jerked his arm and the magic wand. A fiery orb flew through the air in complete silence and blasted against the metal fence, turning the bars bright red and bending them a little. Another orb and the force of the blast bent the bars by a healthy amount. Fortunately there was nothing to be set on flames anywhere nearby, and now all that the decrepit witch had to do was to aim a jump through the burning metal.

He felt a jump, searing heat, the smell of burned flesh and pain for falling onto the cold cobblestone at the frontyard passing through his senses almost simultaneously.

"Think I made it." Solfanes managed to groan in the depths of his mind. Ignoring the broken bones in his right hand, broken ribs and the disjointed ankle he struggled himself upright and glanced at the templar-guard up above. There was a slight drop, about two yards from the inner yard to the street-level, and the templar seemed hesitant to perform the same jump as the witch had just managed, despite the templar being in much better shape health-wise. A couple of guards at the front gate gazed with their mouths gaping open, unsure on what to do. The hunted escapist guessed that they as well had been instructed for not letting the suspect spymaster through but the sight before their eyes confused them greatly. The fair-haired northlander made use of the confusion of the situation, and the fact that he was no longer inside the field of magical silence.

"Open the gate! Colonel Ironhand's orders! Open the gate!", Solfanes yelled as loudly as he could. The templar-guard behind the fence waved his arms and tried to yell something -- to no avail.

"What's going on?!", one of the guards stood to the way. "What's going on inside?"

"We're under attack", the spymaster managed to heave and held his thoroughly drained legs. His thighs felt as though they were on fire. A quick glance revealed that it was just figurative, not literal. "Colonel Ironhand. The slith. He mustn't get away!"

The soldier glanced at the templar-guard who still stood firmly by the gate. The templar nodded. "He's speaking the truth." Solfanes bowed his head and breathed a sigh of relief. Indeed, he hadn't lied to them, but rather he had only told a part of a truth.

"Now, open the gate! Open it!", Solfanes straightened himself upright and bellowed with the unnatural strength that the adrenaline had given him.

The couple of grunts got about to the job while the templar walked closer. "Is the Bureau safe? Are we needed inside?"

"Yeah", the manipulative goon nodded. "It's safe, now. Me and another templar over there managed to cleanse the inner courtyard. Please relay a message to the quartermaster that he may take the cost of the fence's repairs from my allowances!" He yelled the last words over his shoulder as he went, eager to get some headway before someone got a word to the gatekeepers that there were infact no orders from colonel Ironhand to let the escapist get away scot free.

Only after running a couple of blocks, making some random turns and wounding up in a coal-cellar did Solfanes cease in his tracks and lean against a wall to gather himself. His whole body trembled and he couldn't stand upright anymore. It had all happened in such a rapid succession that he hadn't had any time to properly realize the amount of risks that he had just faced. After about five minutes of steeling himself the former captain (and now former spymaster, he figured) climbed up and reached inside one of his belt-bags. The cool, smooth surface of the healing potion felt reassuring and calming, and upon quaffing the sweet liquid inside his health started to slowly replenish. At first the aching in the bones numbed, and finally the muscles started to tingle. He put the bottle back and chewed on a root that was oftentimes used in alchemy for spiritually enhancing potions and elixirs, and felt his confidence rising and his senses getting sharper.

Rising to an alleyway, Solfanes realized that he wasn't that far from Gethadan, the library where he needed to be. Pressing onward with newly gained vigor, he was certain that nothing could hold him from reaching Iríth, and consequently nothing could hold them from reaching the Darkmoon lands.

Surely no-one, else than the half-blood, had an idea that he was coming. Surely?

 

* * *

 

Ssstoch the One-Eyed sat upon a ledge overlooking the Bureau's front yard. While he had managed to shake the pursuers to the streets of the city, running about for so long in the cold had drained much of his body-heat. He did have a pouchful of drakestones which the Infernal Legion had supplied for the dark slithzerikai to crunch in their fists when no other source of fire was anywhere near to be found, but he didn't want to burn through them all in such a rapid succession. Thus he settled for crouching near a torch and maintaining a sharp vigil at the place where he theorized all three of his marks to be currently hiding.

The assassin had been clever enough to approach specific shady people who didn't much care for the origin of the person asking the questions if the coin was valuable enough. While asking around and warming up he had learned that the elusive fresh exile from the surface, who bore an artefact of major value, was also sighted in the Bureau's vicinity, as well. The slith couldn't be sure of the feline priestess' whereabouts but figured her to be in the Bureau along with her human companion. They had been sticking together this far, after all.

Unfortunately for the slith he had not seen Solfanes' flight from the building's gates, but fate had ascertained that at least one of his marks was there, even if he was expecting all three.

Meanwhile, inside the Bureau itself Grethenward, Kobierth and Philip were getting accustomed to the privates' quarters that had been introduced as their residence for the next few weeks. There were about twenty bunks in the room, a couple of carved stoneslabs serving as tables and multitudes of chairs, again carved stone with canvas paddings. Four dressers around the room served as storage for the privates' personal belongings, with one shelf belonging to one person, or upon agreement to several persons sharing one shelf.

"- Just pick up a bed", one of the wards passing by said, realizing the new recruits gawking at their new home by the doorway. "Those six at the back are unused. A pillow on top of the sheets is a sign of the bed being taken, and if it's under, it's free."

"Welcome to the Funhouse", a private quipped from one of the tables. Everyone else seemed content on going about their business as usual. The atmosphere was warm and very much unlike the eeriness outside.

The three recruits were still for a moment further until Kobierth took the lead and slipped past the crowded room to the back of the hall. Philip and Greth followed in suit.

"The people here seem surprisingly... indifferent to us", Philip voiced his thoughts, resting himself on the bed he had reserved for himself.

"Aye, it's usual among warriors' mess halls like these", Greth replied almost as quickly as Philip had managed to start saying the last word of his sentence. "No need to bond with newcomers if they go out the next day and have their heads chopped off. Less headache that way." The former king laughed shortly at his own pun.

"With the difference that we art not warriors nor art we going to have our heads chopped off", Kobierth cut in.

"- Yeah, but did ye' notice the smoldering fence by the front doors, me love? And the guards were so pitched, too. I bet there's been some thrilling chase not long before we came. This place is starting to feel more and more interesting by the minute we spend here!"

"Depends on personal preference...", Philip muttered and got a chuckle out of Greth.

"Hey, wise-man. Remember that yer' accompanied by two warriors without peers. I haven't told ye' about the story when me and Kob here went up to the Sacred Peaks and found---", Greth started.

"For the love of everything that is holy and sacred", Kobierth interrupted. "You're not going to finish that story tonight, Greth."

"---a bunch of drakes and basilisks infesting one of oor' Temples of Wind, have I? Ooh, it's a mighty story, that one, I'm telling you, and it goes to prove that Kob is equally capable with a spear of steel---"

"You fithy little---", Kobierth tried to stop Greth from speaking, to no avail. The man had forced his wife upon the floor and sat on top her chest, holding a hand on her mouth.

"---as a spear of completely another sort, if you know what I'm saying, heh. And mind you, I'm not without a part in the story either. Armed with a crystal shield and a blessed pike for each we fought side by side, evading from looking at the creatures in the face. Ooh, that was really something, and that was just the start...

"After we had killed the first few basilisks and shielding ourselves from their petrificative gaze, we pressed deeper into the bowels of the Temple and found signs of even greater lizards being there, taking shelter from the cold wind outside. 'Twas high in the mountains, you see, and it was incredibly cold but also secluded up there. So, obviously the creatures nested to a place that had been vacant, even if for just a short amount of time, less than one circle of a moon.

"Ooh, and I didn't mention how the crystal shields work, did I? The thing is that ye' can gaze right through one, see the battlefield and even gaze at a basilisk without being turned to stone! It's just that ye' don't want to do that against elder basilisks, or ur-basilisks, simply 'cause their gaze is even more dangerous than that of a normal one...", the massive warrior continued in this vein for quite some time, before he was interrupted by a yell from the doorway.

"- Recruits Philip, Ger...Ward, and Kob...Ra? Are you three here?"

"That's us!", Philip rose to stand and yelled back over the racket of the room that hadn't silenced none.

"- Come this way", a ward called out from the doorway and waited until the three recruits were before him in the corridor.

"Privates reporting for service, sir!", Grethenward grumbled. "Grethenward, son to Cairjel Beger of Kthre-Manur."

"- Kobierth, daughter to Kobus of Kthre-Manur."

"- Philip, Berthold's son, house Danar." The scholar had a glance at his two companions and realized that they were barely capable of containing their disdain at bidding themselves for the service to someone else. It was a contrasting feeling. He had been a peasant upon birth, but through his knowledge and sharp mind he had arisen to the respectable position of a librarian. Thus bowing before yet another bureaucrat didn't feel too harsh for Philip, but still he felt for his acquaintances.

"I'm ward Henry, responsible for training you three into agents for the Queendom. If you'll follow me, I'll show you around the first floor where you'll find all of the rooms that you'll need in your first weeks here", the ward spoke with a smooth and slightly lowered voice, as though he was afraid of upsetting his auditioneers. His hair was straight, dark gray and extended to halfway of his neck. His face bore features that were both aristocratic but also rather mysterious. The ward's eyes were of faint blue and reflected everything around them, but not betraying a single thought or emotion in return. He turned upon his heels and shuffled off, expecting the recruits to follow without any further commandments.

As the trio marched off after their newly appointed instructor, Philip couldn't help but notice the fact that a couple of guards clad in metal armor and with hoods over their heads emerged from a doorway far behind them. One remained stationary while the other one started to follow them. Or maybe the guard was just doing a routineful march around the hallways? On instinct, Philip grasped the interior of his jacket and felt the reassuring feeling of the crystal there. He had grown quite fond of the item's existence, actually, as everytime he touched it he felt warm and safe.

Greth's words "...This place is starting to feel more and more interesting by the minute we spend here!", ringed within the scholar's mind, but not in the same context of thrilled joy; but rather with horrified panic.

 

* * *

 

"You summoned me, archwizard?"

"- Come in, adept-major. What news of the Protegé?"

"Sire, adept-minor Grim affirmed our intelligence's reports: the man is exactly who we are looking for. Furthermore, it seems that ward Henry has taken the Protegé under his protection."

"- Very well. Who oversees the situation?"

"Adept-minor Exeanus, archwizard."

"- And what of the slith?"

"It seems that the Bureau's templar-guard didn't quite catch him, sire."

"- To be honest, adept-major, I didn't really think they could. The assassin seems well trained and is infused with demonic energies. It'll be a pain to bring him down. What of the half-blood and the witch?"

"The witch managed to escape from the Bureau, archwizard. And it seems that the aspirant priestess managed to infiltrate the sixth floor's study without ever being noticed. We have reason to believe that they are attempting to use our experimental warp-rift teleportation."

"- I think I know why..."

"Excuse me, archwizard?"

"- Nevermind, adept-major. I was hoping that it wouldn't come to this quite just yet but it seems that we have to make our move now. Prepare a warp-rift to Gethadan's sixth floor's study. We also need one rift inside the Bureau, preferably to one of our studies there.

"I want magister-exemptus Yenna to port inside the Bureau. She will know what to do. Oh, and inform the Archon Council."

"By your will, archwizard."

"- I just hope that they are up for the challenge...", the archwizard mumbled quietly to himself after his lackey had walked out of the door, and gazed into the fire crackling in the hearth before him.

 

* * *

 

It hadn't taken Solfanes all that long to reach Gethadan's backyard and weave the spell necessary to reverse the featherfall spell into a feather-rise spell. Before long he had floated gently upwards and had grasped the ledge of the window where he had seen Iríth waiting for him.

"Oh, Iríth, you have no idea how glad I am to see you", Solfanes burst in through the windows and greeted his partner in crime with overflowing relief. "You had no trouble getting here, did you? No one followed you on the streets?"

"The single biggest tribulation for me was waiting for you to reel your lazy corpse up here", Iríth smirked. "I'm glad to see you made it out in piece, too. Mrr. The guards should have no idea that we are here. Alas, they noticed my entrance as I broke to this floor through a window on the library's side, but I sent them after a shade. I hope that they'll simply mistake it as someone's failed attempt at sending a shade here to steal something or maybe as an escaped experiment. There are a lot of laboratories here."

"Clever thinking", Solfanes grinned and leaned against a table for a moment, gathering his strength. "Well, I was about to say that we'd better start right away but I think you should know... The slith, from Port Varib?"

At once all signs of happiness disappeared from Iríth's face and body. "What about him?" She nearly hissed, with her eyes blazing.

"He... uhh, the bastard killed my superior and two guards, may the spirits guide their souls. And he nearly got me, too. However the Bureau's elite soldiers managed to drive him off, and he disappeared into the city streets. I think he's after us."

"Let him come", Iríth scoffed and turned to look into infinity. "Sol, please... grant me strength to overcome this. I don't want my heart to blacken but I lack the courage the call for the Gods. My faith forbids me of revenge", she said quietly with her ears reared back and fists clenched.

"Don't worry, mate", the reserved man stepped closer. "I'll make sure he dies by my hand. And hey, we won't need to go out to search for him, he has found us once: he will find us again."

"That's... good. That's good", Iríth perked up again. "So, tell me what to do."

"Right, yeah... umm. We should propably consult the notes, before we proceed any further. They've kept a close record of their findings in their journals around here", the colossal man slided unnaturally easily through the study's mess. Only the pit in the middle of the study was immacutely clean, featuring flawless circle and several warding runes to keep demons and demonkin away. There were also two huge crystals at the pit's sides, dark and lifeless.

About five minutes later the human found what he had been looking for. "Aha! Found 'em. Here, first passage... 'Disengage prism inhibitors and accerelate the raw energy feed up to fifty percent.'"

Iríth glanced about and saw mechanical contraptions stuck to the sides of the crystals. "Those 'prism inhibitors' would propably be these, correct?"

"- It doesn't have any figures. Just explanations. ...I didn't remember it to be this hard."

"Use your imagination, human. See it with your m---", Iríth ceased mid-sentence, horrified at the thought that she had just realized. "Sol, didn't you say that the... templar have true seeing? Can they actually see magical residues?"

"- Excuse me, what.. what do you mean?"

"It means that I dispelled the magic off of one the doors to gain entrance to this study! Can the templar possibly---", a loud banging on the door interrupted her. Yes, yes the templar could see enchantments, as well as the lack thereof.

For the second time today Solfanes repeated the trick of locking someone out by freezing the door shut with ice. He ran up to the second door and froze it in place, as well, while Iríth didn't waste any time in going over the instructions and doing exactly as was described in them.

"Sol! What does this '...accerelate the energy feed up to fifty percent' mean?"

"- It means that either you or me have to channel magical energy through oneself into the crystals. The crystals will then start gathering the energy on their own from there. After that we just need to ensure that they dont overload! Either can do it, really!"

"I voluunteer! My restorative magic isn't exactly needed at the minute, don't you think, hmrr?"

"- Have you channeled before?", Solfanes finished freezing the door and ran up to the instructions. Iríth had already taken a place between the crystals, on the pit's side.

"Mate, I'm a magical being and a spiritist. I'll give you three chances to guess it right", Iríth grinned and closed her eyes.

"Yeah, but raw magical energy is that bit different from benevolent magic of the Gods", the witch mumbled but a mere glance at the determined aspirant was enough to dispel any opposition in his mind. "'Continue channeling until the crystals are at half. One assistant must weave one of the following coordinates, Gak, Tyo, Cha or Fwo, depending on the...'"

Fifteen minutes had passed and the task was starting to drain Iríth's mental capability. All the while Solfanes had kept an eye out for the doors and applied more ice when necessary, mixing elemental ice and waves of binding web to hold out the determined templar. They had managed to break the unsealed door that Iríth had passed through but were having troubles with the hardened ice. Their swords weren't exactly up to the task. While not doing that, he and the half-blood had taken turns in maintaining a containment field inside the pentagram, as well as maintaining the runic coordinates within that field, the ones that Solfanes constantly calculated. The crystals blazed quite brightly already, and soon Iríth would be freed from the task of channeling. The whole process might have been faster if either of them were a properly trained portal-mage; alas they had only Solfanes who had studied the art on his own for the past few years, sneaking in to the study whenever he had visited the Bureau, giving his reports and keeping up with the task that had been laid upon him.

"Are you absolutely sure about those coordinates?!", Iríth yelled across of the growing racket. "I really wouldn't like to learn how it feels to port inside solid rock!"

"- I am absolutely positive! I've been studying this technology in secret for three years now."

"Yep, on your own...", Iríth whispered to herself.

"- Did you say something? I didn't quite catch that!"

"Just keep calculating!"

All was going well until a Bureau's sorcerer appeared to the doorway. Iríth saw him first and screeched at her companion. The witch was quick to respond and noticed that the sorcerer had been melting the ice with his own fireblasts for quite some time already.

"How much further?!", Solfanes yelled across of the steadily increasing humming and staticy noise.

"It should be able to maintain itself soon enough!", Iríth replied. "Makes you wonder... You know what, nevermind! I'm not in the mood to jinx anything, anymore!"

The human smiled slightly and continued both calculating the final coordinates for the teleport's destination, and at the same time used every trick that he had to slow down the sorcerer. He knew that he couldn't summon a sphere of silence as it would result in a disaster, for if he and Iríth would be unfortunate enough to get caught inside the aura of silence, they couldn't communicate or weave spells anymore.

"The other door!", Iríth yelled across of the storm. "We're... this might be a bit too much for us! Maybe... we should flee?! We have featherfall feathers yet!"

"Just hang on! The teleport is almost ready! I just need two more coordinates and we're good to go!" What he failed to tell, or confess even to himself, was that he was a good distance away from calculating the coordinates. The task would've been considerably more simple if he didn't need to constantly maintain the layers of ice. He cursed silently his lack of experience, as it usually took six years of expertise to be a senior apprentice or minor adept. In technical terms, he was still but a neophyte.

"- Except that the templar will propably jump after us and murder us on the other side! They don't look like they're about to ask any questions anymore!"

Solfanes could say nothing but glanced at Iríth. She was right. She didn't have her human-disguise anymore, and while he knew her to be benevolent, not all in the Queendom considered even the pureblood nephilim of the Darkmoon Clan to be anywhere near worthy allies. Thus explaining that a creature from a certain bloodline wasn't necessarily evil simply because of her appearance was nigh pointless. Moreover, what would have he thought, had he been a templar on the other side of the ice-wall, watching a potential rakshasa and a known convict opening a rift to an unknown location? He glanced at the containment field in the pentagram and he started to consider the notion of staying behind to hold the templar while she'd make the escape.

Iríth saw through the human, however. Somehow she had a hunch. And when their eyes met, her gaze spoke on her behalf. "I will rather die than let that happen. I know that look. I've seen it before. I'll close the portal."

Solfanes was struck with disbelief, and paralyzed in place. All he could do was to keep channeling magic through himself and refining it into elemental magic to seal off two doors now instead of one, and gaze as the stream of energy from the aspirant into the crystals dissipated and died out. Iríth stood down from the platform, and glared at the witch.

"ARE YOU [censored]ING MAD?!", Solfanes screeched across of the cacophony. "Now your clan won't certainly stand a chance, not with the lizardshit leadership at helm!"

"- DID YOU MAYHAP FORGET THAT I NEED YOU?! I can't legally convince the elders without you vouching for me! And some life would it be, knowing that you'll be rotting in some torture chamber while I skitter away scot free! I can't take another ten years of darkness, doubt and loneliness, not like that! You're about the only person ever who hasn't treated me like a flaming demon!

"Besides, I know that you were going to stay behind to hold them off like some bleeding witch-king of legends, no matter what! I know you well enough! You and your stupid heroic stunts!"

"It's... all out of control", the human breathed and felt his energy draining quite fast. He couldn't deny the truth. No matter what, he was determined to go down fighting, and give a chance at life for someone whom he considered to deserve it more than himself. "IRÍTH, NO! DON'T START CHANNELING AGAIN! YOU CAN'T! THE CURRENTS WILL PEEL YOU APART!"

The crystals, while not completely charged and unstabile, started to shake and bleed raw, unrefined energy into the study. Tears in the reality itself phased in and out of existence, with weird worlds and distorted landscapes flashing by.

 

* * *

 

Just as the energy was about to spiral out of control, four rifts opened all around the room! They were not violent, chaotic entropy-driven warps, but controlled and docile. The warp-rifts opened into blue portals and eight mages in black robes poured into the room, six of them taking their places around the experimental teleport and started channeling magical energy into the crystals in unison with one of them stepping up to the witch's aid and emitted some kind of cold, negative ray towards the doors, one from each wand in his hands. Their coordination was eerily perfect, each continuing to mumble on with their eyes focused into infinity and arms and hands weaving patterns that didn't make any sense at all to a layperson.

The leader of the mages, an archwizard with an aura of absolute authority and immense power stepped up upon the podium where Iríth had stood not two minutes ago. He started weaving patterns even more eloguent than those of the mages around him and shouted words in the language of Soruharva -- Wizards' Tongue. Within a mere moment the teleport was soothed, and the runic coordinates inside the containment field spinned with speed that exceeded an eye's ability to follow them.

The amount of work that the two rogue magicians had managed within half an hour was re-done within less than a minute, and the archwizard waved at the doors dismissively. The formless lumps of ice turned into stone. Both the apprentice as Solfanes' aid and the witch himself ceased immediately, with the latter dropping onto all fours. Iríth was quite quickly there by his side.

"You bleeding fool", the half-blood whispered to him. "You would've stayed, wouldn't you? No matter what..."

The human set his orange-irised eyes towards the aspirant, reflecting her sad smile. "Guess neither of us is perfect, huh?" The magicians rose to their feet and turned to face the ancient-looking archwizard. "Our thanks, mighty one. I suppose I am not far in my assumptions when I presume that you are of the Black Tower from Isenkrun? Archwizard Zefaynas and your... faithful subjects."

The archwizard nodded solemnly. "That is correct, young rebel Darkenheart. And you must be Iríth'Maowr, Darkmoon Clan's leader, if I am not mistaken?" The wizard spoke every word individually, as if weighing each one carefully before allowing them loose into the world outside. His voice carried across of the room with ease, and yet he did not speak loudly. His forehead was wrinkled but not because of frowns, but rather because of a lifetime of raising eyebrows. Zefaynas' appearance brought a sense of calm, and his naturally grey eyes were wise, but powerful.

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, elder master Zefaynas", Iríth nodded and took a hand to her heart. "Your timing was impeccable, I must say, hmrr. Still, I wonder if you have come here to subdue us?" She held her hand upon her chest but slided it slowly towards her amulet, in case she'd need to perform a very quick prayer as a means of shielding both her and her companion.

"Rest your minds, both of you", archwizard Zefaynas replied calmly. "We foresaw your attempt and came here to inquire if you two would like to surrender yourselves for negotiations."

"What.. kind of negotiations?", Solfanes replied and glanced at Iríth.

"We know that you were going to teleport to Darkmoon lands--- No, do not attempt to deny it, are there not the coordinates of your destination laid into the containment field? Yes, I thought so. Now, the energy is building up fast and while I, Zefaynas, on behalf of the Archon Council would like to welcome you both to Black Tower to enjoy of our hospitality, there is simply not enough time. We have about fifteen minutes before the crystals are full and the teleportation may commence. I hope that you are content with listening to what I have to say, and answering or asking only after that."

The archwizard was clearly waiting for some kind of approval on the two young ones' part. "Yes, mighty one, as you wish", Solfanes replied on both of their behalf.

It was in that instant when a fifth warp-rift opened up into the room, somewhere behind the archwizard. The wizard seemed not to pay any attention to it, but rather he looked content, as though he had been expecting something of the kind.

"Right on time", the archwizard nodded and continued. "As you have first-hand experienced, you are both hunted by a slith assassin. I am almost certain that you think that he is out for your blood because of petty revenge? I thought so. One of my lackeys managed to get his hand on the reports that you, Darkenheart, sent from the refugee camp, and you mentioned assaulting and wounding fatally a slithzerikai assassin during Varib's siege."

At this point of the story Iríth's face grew gloomy, and her gaze swept the floor. Solfanes put his hand on her shoulder and stepped closer, reminding that they had to pay attention. They'd mourn the dead later.

"- However, not long ago, we managed to intercept a telepathic projection from the now-destroyed Fort Frejath. It was a directive from a haakai lord of unknown name and strength, for the stronger demon never reveals his name during an exchange between two or more demons. The haakai lord ordered a lesser demon at Varib's ruins to send the newly resurrected assassin, Ssstoch the One-Eyed, to hunt down both you and a third human whose identity we have uncovered but recently. It seems that you, and an artefact that this third person is carrying on his body even as we speak, poses a great threat to the Infernal Legion and its' reign. Thus, the assassin has been onto you right from the start of the war.

"As if that was not enough, the haakai lord mentioned a human who supposedly betrayed the Queendom from within for a boon of hefty proportions, and sold out the secrets of our defences. Today you, former spymaster Darkenheart, brought information and educated guesses to the Bureau about a theory of such a betrayer existing. To quote your own words, you said that you couldn't believe how the assault could've been performed anyhow otherwise. If, and it seems that this is the truth, the demons and dark sliths knew of our defences' weaknesses, they exploited those gaps, sent infiltrators inland and murdered our net of spies and watchers. Hence the blackout right before the assault's iron fist hit against Forts' walls, and by the time the Forts' scouts saw the demons advancing on the Queendom's borders, it was already too late.

"Finally, it seems that not only has the assassin been sent to kill you and the artefact's carrier and his companions whom with he has travelled unto this day; but that the aforementioned betrayer is also after the artefact. It seems propable that the betrayer knows that the demons have deemed him to have outlived his usefulness, and have commanded for his killing, as well. We have reason to believe that the betrayer seeks the artefact as an insurance against the demons.

"It is not a pretty picture, I know. But today's events have finally allowed us to unmask the evil behind all of this."

After the wizard had spoken, a heavy silence befell into the study. For a good long time the three magicians gazed at one another. The warp-rift behind the archwizard kept opening up, and Zefaynas glanced behind of himself, almost as though making sure that the rift was still there.

"What is it that you want us to do?", Solfanes queried.

"As a matter of fact, I would rather wait for a while longer until the last of our guests arrive", the master wizard replied slowly, and turned to look at the warp-rift that had just opened up to its' fullest. "Magister Yenna. I trust that you had no trouble within the Bureau?"

"- Very little. Ward Henry was very cooperative when he heard that I was sent by the Black Tower. The Protegé's two companions proved a bit less susceptible to my persuasion until I told of them of the threat of their assassination. Ah, here they are. May I introduce to you..."

 

* * *

 

"... Grethenward, Kobierth, and Philip", the magician, who had found them from a weapons' practice room, explained to an archwizard who stood in front a squall of magical, bluish energy: much like the portal that had just carried the three hapless recruits through from the Bureau to the library.

"Very well", the archwizard, whom the three travellers had overheard talking on the other side of the warp-rift, said. He turned to face the tribesfolk and the scholar and bowed slightly with his head. "I do apologize for what must seem to you three as an arbitrary imposition, but I really had no choice but to have you forcibly ported to us. Allow me to introduce myself. Archwizard Zefaynas of Isenkrun's Black Tower. I trust that you were able to overhear what I explained earlier, about an assassin hunting you all?"

"Yes, we did hear", Kobierth nodded deeply and looked at Greth at first. She then shared a glance with her husband at Philip Danar. The tribesfolk were as baffled as Philip was, but felt as though that their scholar acquaintance should speak up for himself, because of whatever kind of artefact that he held in his possession. It seemed to them that it was a part of a national security and a mighty weapon against the Infernal Legion they had so much about, lately.

However the matter was, they had been forcibly ripped from their quazi-peaceful existence and now an item that Philip bore was talked about as though a piece on a boardgame. The tribesfolk stood ready to defend their fresh friend, dying for his behalf if that's what it took.

Philip felt a slight heat rising up his neck. There were far too many gazes leveled at him for his taste, but he held his head upright. "I trust that you, Zefaynas of Black Tower, are a representative of the Queendom?"

"- That is correct."

"And your intentions here are... ?", Philip continued the questioning. Even though he was a quiet fellow, he was also rather rational one with a very sharp mind. He had caught on rather fast that the artefact that he had concealed to his jacket and smuggled down from the surface had burned as a beacon, burning the eyes of the demons and appratently these wizards alike. Quickly he pressed back the thought that flashed within his mind. "From a farmer to a librarian, and from an exile to a person whose decisions could topple entire reigns. Go, me!" Even if the whole business had not been none of his concern before, the artefact appeared to be somehow critical in turning the tide of the war -- a war that he had not even seen before -- and thus the matter had indeed just become something of his concern, whether he enjoyed it or not.

"- My intentions are to stop the assassin, and to make sure that after we are done with the Infernal Legion, it is nothing but cinder and ash. I have the means for bringing about just that, but I have not had the men for it, for our resources have been stretched thin.

"You, young hero, have the men and women around you, but not the means to have any kind of significant impact upon the outcome of the war. As a matter of fact, if you should go wandering about into the wilderness without my help, you would do quite the opposite. The artefact you carry would find its' way to the demons' hands in one way or another, and that would be when this underworld would burn.

"To adress your earlier question, young witch Darkenheart, I would ask of you and clan-leader Iríth'Maowr to join forces with these three people, to become an extension of the Black Tower's reach, and leap through the shadows, striking lasting wounds into the enemy's heart! Provided, of course, that everyone should agree."

It was only now that Philip and the tribesfolk glanced at the two figures farther in the study's shadows. At first Philip couldn't believe his eyes. Next he couldn't believe his luck. Eventually he wondered if this was just a very peculiar dream. The human on the far side of the room seemed to experience something of similar nature.

"I...", Solfanes stammered. "What of the Darkmoon? It is imperative for the Clan's survival that Iríth reaches her people and reclaims the status of chieftain of the clan. Not only that, but also with a strong leadership the Darkmoon Clan might be able to assist the Queendom's Royal Army and vice-versa!"

"A mutual interest, I understand. Infact, on behalf of the Archon Council I approve", Zefaynas replied. "But what of the matter at hand? The decision must be made quickly, for the portal is opening soon, and after it is opened, it will not stay stabile for very long!"

"What sayeth you, Philip?", Kobierth asked of the scholar and pointed a finger at her husband, silencing him with her gaze. "This concerns you more than the rest of us, I'd imagine. What of Philip if he deems this quest too dangerous or too sudden for his interests?" She asked of the archwizard.

"- We will ask of Philip to surrender the artefact into our custody for safe-keeping and further evaluation. It is too much of a risk to be left out into the wide world for the demons' grasp."

"A fair enough point", Philip nodded. He glanced at Solfanes and grinned almost devilishly. "You know, Kobierth, and Greth. I'm up for the quest. It's a chance to do something, leave our own mark into the world, and we don't have to sit about in a watchtower, staring at the horizon every day for the next two years, waiting for the fateful day when the demons rush through the gates and gut us all."

"Wise-man, yer' talking like a warrior now", Greth grinned and punched him lightly on his shoulder. "And, we'd be joining up with you lot, aye?", the massive warrior called out at Solfanes and Iríth. The witch took a step closer to the trio and encouraged Iríth to follow.

"Yes, sir", the witch nodded and offered a hand at Greth, gazing him deeply into his eyes with respectful stare, albeit a smileless one. "Solfanes Darkenheart." Meeting new people such as this had always unnerved him greatly, even if the people seemed honorable enough.

Greth introduced himself in return, and as the warrior was about to introduce Philip, the witch raised a hand. "We..."

"- We know each other already", Philip ended the sentence on the fair-haired man's behalf.

"He and I are cousins", Solfanes broke into a smile and hugged the lithe man. "By the spirits... I had hoped that none of you lot should have to experience this hellhole. Enough good folk down here as it is."

"- You see, I have about the best bodyguards that the Gods could grant me", Philip shrugged and glanced at his companions.

"Well, here's Iríth, a leader of nephilim clan far to the west. Iríth'Maowr, but she prefers the first name. She's the reason why I'm still alive and sane down here", the witch grinned. Iríth continued introducing herself to the trio, and received introductions in return.

After some time the archwizard coughed dryly and caught the five outcasts' attentions. He pointed towards the portal with one arm and swept the entire room with the other, closing the surrounding warp-rifts so that they wouldn't interfere with the teleport the Darkmoon lands.

"I take it then, that you agree to take this quest upon yourselves, even if it all happens under rather unusual circumstances? You agree to take on the responsibility of acting as the Black Tower's agents within the dark reaches of this underworld, scouring it clean of demons and doing as is the Archon Council's bidding?"

The five unlikely companions glanced at one another and nodded.

Greth was the fastest to ask a question. "Yer' highness. If ye' don't mind me asking, how do ye' know that ye' can trust us folk?"

Zefaynas flashed something like a smile. "I do not. But then again, why would you do anything otherwise than what I am asking of you? Should you flee to the darkness of these caverns, abandoning your responsibility for your nation, there would be no Queendom nor a Clan for you to return to. You would huddle in the darkness with just the five of you against the innumerable legion that would hunt you relentlessly until they'd find you. Should that happen, I should pray that you should be at peace with the prospect of merciful suicide."

The five outcasts shared nervous glances at one another. Then Solfanes spoke up. "Archwizard? How can we contact you? Boneriver is still infested with aquatic monsters, and there is no hope of getting across. That is the reason why we came here, me and Iríth, to teleport across, as it was the safest method conceivable."

"We had figured as much", Zefaynas nodded slowly. "If the plans that you five champions come up with are as bold in the future, then the Legion stands no chance. As for the method for contacting us, we will give you one week to find the clan and unite them under Iríth's banner. After a week, we will send a wizard through to the Darkmoon lands, whom will then find the clan, and shape a pylon there, one that links directly to this study."

After saying that, the wizard pulled out a number of charms from one of his pouches. "These will mark you, and only with this amulet you can operate the pylon. Be mindful, however, that the pylon will only have enough power for one teleport per a couple of days. After that it needs to recharge, before it can be used again. Simply touching the pylon will be enough."

"Last but not least, remember that you are constantly at danger. There are two assassins after you; one after all of your lives, and one after the artefact that Philip carries with him."

"Wouldn't the artefact be safer here?", Philip queried. "Here inside the fortress. Or maybe in the capitol?"

"- It is not wise. The best defence is a humanoid mind, and here there are five. Every lock can be picked, every wall scaled and every sentry murdered with enough planning and preparing, but an elite force constantly on the move -- you should have no trouble in keeping the artefact safe. We may ask you to visit us at the Black Tower in Isenkrun to allow for the study of the artefact, but that will be a long time from now. Before we can even to consider of using the artefact, whatever its' power is, we need to gain an upper hand in this war and near at their doorstep. It is no use squandering the artefact's power at mundane tasks such as killing single demons.

"I can also give you a little bit of money so that you can get yourselves better armor and weapons. We are at war, after all, but your association with our Black Tower will have rendered the Hierarchy's and Bureau's interests in you null. While they shall not dare to accuse you humans of abandoning your posts as recruits to the Bureau, they will support none you either.

"Thus I announce you as candidates to the Black Tower! Yes, you are a candidate too, Iríth'Maowr, by the power and authority that queen Ulv Isenkrun the First has granted to the Archon Council. As your first assignment, I bid you to go to Darkmoon lands and bring about stability, and shake the demons' control of the lands there! Good hunting!"

So it was that the five champions, whom had forged their allegiance not a quarter of an hour ago, now stood before a portal as though in a dream. While the warp-rift that the tribesfolk and the scholar had experienced had been quite a trip, it was still nothing compared to the size of the teleport that Zefaynas and his mages had just opened. The static buzz and words yelled in Soruharva's language fulfilled the air, and the reality itself tore apart.

The portal revealed a landscape of jagged rocks, struggling fungal trees and small mushrooms, and flocks of bats high above -- the Darkmoon lands.

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 10: Birth of a Legend

 

 

 

Chapter 10

***

Birth of a legend

***

 

23rd of Icefall, afternoon (propably), year 769

Darkmoon Clan territory, central wastelands

 

The cavern surrounding the campfire and the five champions seemed different in atmosphere than that of Crathsalt's region. There were small patches of wild mushrooms and even small fungal trees, but severely less so than in the Contested Swamp near Magroos Lakes in the middle of the whole system of caverns. While the air had been varying from dry to moist at the humans' lands, it was mostly latter at the western side of the Boneriver. A warm breeze could be felt from time to time, but as a contrast there were brief flashes of cold as well.

The party of five had teleported to the Darkmoon lands yesterday, but hadn't managed to get far from their initial landing. They had established their camp to a wide enough nook to house them all. As before, Solfanes had rendered the flames with a darkfire spell, and Kobierth had offered to take the first shift for maintaining watch and having a look around.

After a relaxing and rather uneventful night the band of freshly unified adventurers continued onward to the west, following Iríth's directions and Greth's scouting.

"Iríth, I hope I am not intruding? ", Kobierth approached the aspirant. They had been journeying for quite some time and Kobierth had noticed that Iríth had pressed further ahead, ever so slightly and sneakily.

"Not at all", Iríth replied and remained quite cautious. She had learned to be on her toes whenever she met new humans. Not all of them were nearly as tolerant of other races as Solfanes was -- she had learned that the hard way during her time of service in Port Varib's Temple of Serene Waves.

After a couple of moments of silence Iríth broke the ice while Kobierth was still considering a diplomatic way of inquiring about Iríth, her clan, and their stance towards humans. "If you're going to insult me, don't bother. I'm---"

"- Please, Iríth, stop. I beseech thee. Did I not ask of thou if I was not intruding thine peace? I merely wish to have a conversation. I am not here to insult thou or thy clan."

Iríth said nothing but shrugged. "I'm... sorry. I... I haven't got used to people... I mean humans, talking to me like I was a normal person, hmrrr..."

"Hear me out. I do confess, our tribe waged many wars against the nephilim during times of famine", Kobierth spoke. "But we also stroke many a deal and trade with your kin during ages of wealth and abundance. Just like we did with rivaling human settlements. I have no quarrel with thou, I prithee to believe me."

Iríth stared off into infinity with her ears flattened. She bit her teeth and witheld a pained kvetch.

The human cleared her throat and spoke with a lowered gaze. "I'm afraid I failed to properly introduce myself yesterday, with the fuss of finding a place to stayeth overnight and whatnot. ...I hope thou can forgive me?"

The half-blood understood the well-knit ploy with the aim of helping them both maintain their dignity, and still at the same time aiding them in starting with a clean slate. With a slight purr she glanced at the human. "And mayhap I could ask the same of you? Life down here... it makes you grow a tough shell. I figure that we all need to learn when to open our shells and let in a bit of warm breeze. Especially those who ought to be humble in the face of Gods." She made good use of the opening that Kobierth had offered her.

"Marry", Kobierth smiled, and albeit Iríth knew the word to mean marriage, she guessed it to be an archaic version for approval.

"So, Kobierth, wasn't it?", Iríth cleared her throat and felt much more cheerful. At least one of these new humans appeared to be of noble intentions and pure heart.

"Please, do call me Kob. Philip started to use that name immediately after we met, and I have grown quite fond of it, already", the dark-haired diplomat spoke calmly.

"- Fair enough, Kob, mrr. So, what's the story for you three? I gather that you and Greth came together from the surface, and that you met Philip later?"

Kobierth went to great lengths to explain their story. She told of how she and her husband had ran to the lithe, pale but sharp sage, and how they had been almost immediately separated with Philip getting lost to Fort Roc's streets because of dehydration and sleep-deprivation. The story continued to describe how they had experienced difficulties in settling in and rather than settling down or joining to the service the three had wanted to wander, to keep control over their lives.

The erstwhile queen wasn't quite trusting of Iríth yet, even if she realized that she was benevolent. Thus Kobierth decided to leave out the lot about the banishment and life before it. Indeed, it was a subject she didn't dare to approach lightly while strolling, especially not without her husband's calming, strong and rock-like presence. Not that she would've ever confessed it to him: he would simply turn from nearly intolerable to unbearably smug (in his own humorous way of course). The dark-haired, tan-robed woman of the unforgiving wilds finished her story, and figured that they'd be mutually agreeable to the fact that the memories of the surface would have to wait until another day.

"What about thou? How did thou and thine companion meet?", Kobierth queried in return. "I presumeth that thou have met here?" While the lady desired to understand more of the complex politics that seemed to have grasped these caverns, she decided to leave her inquiries until later.

"Yes, that's true, we met down here", Iríth felt quite relieved about letting her painful past rest, for since the human hadn't been exactly forthcoming about their life on the surface, the half-blood wouldn't need to share hers, either. After all, they had known but for three days. "Well... uhh, I'm sure Sol won't mind", the exile pondered how to milden the story a little; she didn't want to scare her new acquaintances off right away by the bloodied horrorstory that her and Solfanes' past was.

"We met in a dungeon in one of Queendom's Forts", Iríth started, not sure how to tell the story without having to explain the whole of Taghtarus' history. "I and some of my clan's nephilim were there, taken as prisoners of war by the Royal Army. Well, rescued more like it. One of our villages was burned by a bunch of imps. The human soldiers had been chasing that particular pack of demoniacs for quite some time already, thirsting for revenge. The humans came about and eviscerated the imps and took us survivors as prisoners. Solfanes had been leading another demon-hunting group and as soon as he learned of us, he used his superior rank to take us with him. Mrr.

"He was a captain in Fort Harqen, and he had us brought all the way across the Great Salt Plains. Looking at him now, he may seem cold and distant, but he perceives all life to be sacred, to a degree. He knew what was going to happen to us if we had been brought to any other Fort", Iríth shivered at the thought and moved on quickly.

"- He wanted to ensure thou and thy kin came to no harm?"

"Indeed. Mrr."

"- Then... why didn't he escort thy herd back to thine lands?"

"The village was one near the Grym' Hmurr River, and it would've taken us a week to reach the Clan's heartlands. It was a shorter and more familiar passage to Fort Harqen; for him. Besides, there were a lot of slith and imp raiding parties, and a lot the soldiers were wounded and run-down."

"Fair enough. Well, I take it, then, that the Queendom and thy clan have been at hostile relations before?", Kobierth queried, quite typically speaking almost on top of her companion in conversation. The politics had always interested her, and now she was really paying attention.

"- Yes, albeit not as openly violent as with the Triumvirate to the northeast. Members of the Longtail, Fang and Ratbane Clans forged an uneasy alliance to be able to hold off the demons' onslaught. Smaller clans were either subdued or assimilated into larger clans... The resulting strength that the Clans have right now surpasses that which the Queendom has. Still, the humanity is blessed with unity and ability to form a large society, while the Triumvirate struggles to stay together with each passing day. If not for the demons, the clans would've fell into a civil war years ago.

"During our first months of exile, our clan was forced to serve under the Triumvirate to even survive. After about a half of a year later we figured that we still had our strength left and our clan was more or less intact. So we decided to break free, steal some boats from Longtail Clan and made it across the Hmrr'Angunn Lakes, known in your maps as Magroos Lakes, to this side of the cavern. We found a patch of land unclaimed by anyone else and established our own dominion."

"How did the Queendom react to that?", the erstwhile human queen inquired.

"At first it didn't", Iríth commemorated. "A month later they sent scouts, and established a port to be able to keep a better look at our clan: Connor's Watch. We built our own fishing villages to the shores of Grym' Hmurr River, or Boneriver as it is known to humans, and never once incited hostilities. There was constantly a nervous tension in the air whenever my people and humans met, but I guess that the threat of demons stilled our hands more than I'd like to confess, hmrr. There were, of course, occasions when one or two boat-parties had engaged into slapping each other with oars and fishing nets, but rarely anything worse."

Iríth thought for a moment and took a leap of faith. Something reassured her about Kobierth's tactfulness. "We had never felt the urge to avenge our ancestors nor the stealing of our lands; even if it would've been a just cause. The Empire was, and still is, built upon ground that is drenched in our blood. Drenched in the blood of all those that the Empire in its' all consuming rage, hatred and xenophobia razed before them.

"It is just like one of the elders once sang. 'It wasn't a war, but an unfair and dishonorable fight. We kept, they took. They fought, we lost.' As we were simply bent on survival, rather than revenge, we never projected agressive hostility towards these humans here either, for are they not equally victims to the Empire's cruelty? Mark my words, however. We always have, and always will defend ourselves from those would seek to hurt us, be it the Crown above or its' victims." She remained quiet as she wasn't sure if Kobierth and Greth were from some part of the Empire, but figured that their presence here might have cooled down their love for their nation, in the case they were indeed from there.

"Just like we did", Kobierth nodded deeply and earned a glance from the feline beside her. While Kobierth had considered staying these matters for a later time, she didn't want to leave Iríth's trust for her go unanswered. "Myself and my husband art from a clan that nay longer exists. We were forced into negotiations with Empire's dukes and generals. Since we felt that their methods and customs threatened those of our own, we defended ourselves. It was a desperate and a foolish thing to do, but our pride wouldn't allow us to submit to their views and culture. Our...", the woman tried to continue but felt a bit rising to her throat. The thought about her people, those few hundreds who still struggled amidst the mountains and corraded a life barely worth living, choked her.

Iríth did nothing but offered the human her silent sympathy. She knew better than to say anything. After a while she took the reins, realizing that the human was in no shape to continue the conversation in the same vein. "Well, to finish the story about how I and Solfanes got to know each other... Goodness gracious, I'm like him, taking forever to answer", Iríth sneered.

"Oh, yes, thou didn't quite finish telling me how thou got out of Fort Harqen", Kobierth felt relieved to have something else to think about.

"I suppose I could give you all kinds of boasts about it---", the half-blood smirked.

"---like Greth would", Kobierth quipped and had a slight chuckle at her own notion.

"---but the truth is that we were starving and exhausted, hmrr. While we were still recovering and Sol was trying to come up with what to do with us, the bureaucracy and separatists got involved."

"- I'm sorry to interrupt, but who art the separatists? What is their agenda?"

"They're a bunch of humans who basically continue the Empire's xenophobic extermination down here in the caverns. They have nought-tolerance for anything that isn't human. Hmrr.. So you can imagine what a disaster it was when the separatists learned that there were nephilim in one of the Forts, alive and almost well no less." Iríth's face darkened. "There were some buggers who managed to get accepted to the ranks of the Royal Army. They got their hands on us and... Well, let's just say they never managed to achieve anything irreversible." She didn't elaborate, but Kobierth could guess well enough. Prisoners of war weren't usually met with the best of fates.

Iríth continued. "Luckily for us, Solfanes found out about it quite quickly and... freed us. He disregarded direct orders that he should bring us to Crathsalt for execution. 'Are we any better than the Infernal Legion if we slaughter each others like mad animals? After we're done butchering each other, there's not going to be anything left for the demons to kill', he yelled at one of the patriotic officers before striking him unconscious." Iríth lied, changing the part where the captain actually had gleefully drawn a falchion and severed the heads of the separatists, and finished the job with a handaxe to make it look like the assault had been performed by more than just one participant. She winced at the memory of the bloodthirsty and murderous rage in his eyes.

"We managed to stay out of trouble's way and journeyed to Darkmoon lands. Here, our friendship deepened, and he was accepted to our clan as a member. Ever since, we've been there for each other."

Kobierth listened to the story but said nothing, even after Iríth had silenced. She sensed that there was a lot of triumph, joy, pain and darkness within the story, as well; but Iríth wouldn't simply part with it.

"Then, what kind of fate wrought our lives to intertwine in such a manner? Why were thou on the eastern side of Boneriver, in the province capitol?", Kobierth couldn't hold her interest.

"We had travelled to Crathsalt from Varib's port", Iríth replied. "It is... was a port where humans and nephilim tried to start co-existing on a larger scale. A true separatist's nightmare", the half-blood grinned devilishly.

"Yes, we heard of this when were were journeying here. A peace-agreement between the Clan and the Queendom", Kobierth mulled. "It was thy doing, wasn't it?"

"Well, kind of, yes, mrr", the aspirant replied, trying her best to avoid from boasting. "While Sol didn't exactly have the Queen's authority on the matter, he just assumed it -- guessing that a chance for signing a truce was likely not going to present itself anytime soon. Equally, while our elders were indecisive and uncertain about such a decision's wisdom I invoked some of the Ancestral Code's finer points and managed to persuade a good number of the Covenant to see the benefits of such an agreement. The written pact then journeyed with Sol all the way to the human lands. He got imprisoned by the Army, accused of abandoning his post and all manner of things. With the miraculous intervention of some high-ranking people, he walked away nearly scot free and got assigned to carry the signed treaty back to Darkmoon Clan.

"It wasn't but much later when he got caught again and accused this time of high treason, but the punishment was lowered due to the benefits seen from the human-nephilim co-existence and our armies' cooperation in the face of the demon threat. As a result, he was assigned to some very secret forced labour for the Bureau, something that he couldn't reveal even to me but after some years had passed.

"The contrast between our fates is as bright as with a day and night. While I had entered my clan as nothing but a commoner, I was quickly admitted to become our shaman's novice. Through my service and faith I ascended to a rank of acolyte, and by the time the whole Fort Harqen incident happened, I was an elder acolyte. By the time the peace-treaty was signed, I had been rewarded with the ceremonial position of the chieftain." Iríth quieted down and decided to leave out the rest of her life in the Clan, especially the part of her self-imposed exile for now. It was a matter she hadn't confessed to anyone but her closest companion, the witch, for the pain caused by it was quite great.

"By the sacred Kromgar", Kobierth whistled quietly. "Thou two seem to have experienced quite a lot."

"Not nowhere near enough to call ourselves as anything else but as peace-keepers", Iríth laughed heartily, relieved by the fact that Kobierth had been tactful enough to not ask of the reason why the aspirant had left her clan for Port Varib.

"Well, I'm sure that now that there are five of us, the deeds that thy have done will be a good start for the legends of which they'll be singing songs long after our grandchildren have died. I have a feeling that we will achieve great things, Iríth of the Darkmoon", Kobierth put a hand on the half-blood's shoulder. The feline flinched at first but then glanced back with a curving smile.

"Yes, especially since we are on the path of righteousness", the acolyte replied cheerfully.

After a little while the two ladies moved on to talk about other things, such as the caverns' nature and how jagged and beautiful the scenery was at the same time. They had both revealed a portion of themselves, of their past, and felt better for the experience. Indeed, the underworld had a habit of either melding unlikely people together, or igniting a bitter war between them. So far Taghtarus had provided the five champions with a healthy dose of the former. They all hoped, from the bottom of their hearts, that this course would continue.

Little did the adventurers know that their wishes would be soon granted.

 

* * *

 

Sss-Syaren the Flamespirit rolled a small drakestone, or searstone as it was also known, in his hands and passed it on to the one other captive slith who was still alive. He and Sss-Khossan had been the only ones to survive the trek across the river beside the captured human fort. The darklings were in much better shape because they had been supplied with more searstones -- they were needed alive. The captive sliths were nothing but sacrificial fodder, as an added bonus to boost the morale of the imps and dark ones alike.

With a brightly burning anticipation Syaren thought about how he'd soon meet all of his friends and relatives in the ever-warm cavern from whence slith Goddess and the lesser deities reigned and watched over her faithful subjects. There he would experience no more pain or suffering. There would be warm pools of water with huge silvery fish whom the slith priests would reverently lull to sleep before preparing them for eating. There would be huge, milky mushrooms and bright moss would illuminate the cavern, and from a throne in the middle of it all, the Benevolent Goddess would oversee all sliths around her, and wash them with her love. Thus had the high priests foretold.

Syaren felt a surge of zealous strength and righteousness arising inside. He felt like he could bring some justice into the world before he'd part with it. For a moment his pacing got faster and a bright flame burned within his eyes, but then he remembered the cold shackles that bound his feet and hands.

"Sss-Syaren", one of the darklings hissed in the sliths' language. "Do not try anything. Make no mistake, we are glad to stick a spear in your guts right away, if it comesss to it."

"You have no right to ssspeak with the Tongue that which the Goddess taught us!", Sss-Syaren snarled. "Ask your beloved demons to grant you a head of an imp. Their manner of speaking would suit you much better, fallen one."

"Ss-ss-ss-ss. Mighty words for one who is shackled so", the sentinel chuckled with hissing, sibilant voice. "Do not worry, your sacrifice will allow us to bring even more death to this bloated world. Soon enough we will have the upper hand, and after we pierce the nephilim to the points of our spears and burn the humans at bonfires, we will converge on the Lost Basshikava and the warm caverns it lies in.

"Oh yesss, we know of its' existence. We true and strong slithzerikai, we who have seen the wisdom of the demons will find the Lost City. Our blood-shamans may have forgotten its' location and existence over the course of the countless yearsss, but our demon overlords managed to pry the knowledge of it from one of your false priests.

"Soon those who banished us into the darkness of these caverns will feel the true fury that is our heritage! We will break the Basshikava's doors and retake the homelands for our own by the priviledge of being stronger! Thus have the demons promised!" The sentinel grasped his spear and raised it to the air to unleashed a blood-freezing howl as a cry of respect for the demoniacs.

Sss-Syaren simply pressed his head down and considered the dire news he had been given. While the sentinel had been obviously just showing off, trying to drive the captives into a deeper despair and inspire the frenzied warriors around him, the Flamespirit considered if there was any truth at all to the sentinel's words.

"While it is propable that the demons have managed to pinch the Lost Basshikava's existence and even location from one of our high priests, may his or her soul rest with the Goddess, I cannot imagine that the demons would actually go through with the plan of aiding the dark ones to achieving their desires. The Infernal Legion is too hedonistic for that; they must be simply manipulating the dark ones.

"Besides, according to the war-chants of old, the doors of Lost Basshikava are indestructible. Even so...", Sss-Syaren the Flamespirit had been, like the rest of his tribe, originally demon-worshipping servants of Sss-Thoss but had wandered to these caverns in search of new demons to worship and greater foes to kill. After much bloodshed and countless of years of fighting against the creatures of the deep caverns, singular sliths of the warbands had been miraculously survived against impossible odds. A warrior whose fifty comrades had fallen before a mighty drake but he alone had been spared; a blood-shaman whose pack had been all but wiped out by a devouring horde of chitraches or cryo-hydras. The list went on. Slowly the survivors started to open up to each other, sharing visions of being saved by a shade of immense power and benevolence.

After an unspecified amount of time, these survivors formed their own tribe and left the dark ones, welcoming all who wished to join them in their search for the long-lost virtues of patience and peace. While all of the peaceful sliths who had turned from the path of blood and evil had done so willingly, many still feared their past. In this respect, Sss-Syaren the Flamespirit was no exception. His eyes unfocused and his mind strayed back to the painful moments when he had realized the wrongdoings that he had commited in the service to dark lords and nameless horrors. He remembered how the entire platoon of dark sliths in front of him had been mowed down by a swarm of hydras, led by a naga. He remembered a gentle humming noise as a globe of gentle grey light had concealed him and rendered him invisible to the giant reptiles. He had witnessed the devouring of his comrades, and listened to a soothing voice that spoke of reconciliation and of forgiving the past sins. He saw a faintly ethereal, incredibly powerful being standing ahead of himself, cleansing away the bitterness from his soul. Sss-Syaren, to this day, believed his savior to have been the lost Goddess, whom the darklings had rejected upon Sss-Thoss’ calling.

"Nameless Goddess. I am not worthy enough to even speak Your name, and yet, here I am, offering myself before You, as such as I am. Great are my enemies and tribulations, painful is the road that I travel, but rather would I walk across a lake of molten rock than to give up my faith to You, for You have shown me the way. You have shown me the Light.

"Please, Nameless Goddess, I beg of You: give me a chance to spill my blood so that understanding and peace could be achieved once more. Give me a sign. I lay my very soul unto Your hands." The slith felt hot shivers running all across of his body as a painfully beautiful serenity washed over him. Then he paralyzed, and fell upon all fours. A voice spoke to him: a voice whose power was immeasurable, albeit the not divine. It was a voice of a male, soothing, powerful, and wise.

"- Sss-Syaren the Flamespirit, my child. Arise and remember your priests' teachings of humility and righteousness. Cast away the fear and self-doubt, for those are the demons' tools, my child. Arise, and remember the virtues! Know that the Goddess has not forgotten us! There is yet hope for our kind, so long as we remain true to our hearts!"

A spear poked at Sss-Syaren's left arm and pierced the scales with ease, shredding flesh and sinews, but he didn't care. With tears streaming down his face he rose. The teachings and chants that the priests had sung from time of arousal to time of sleep rang within his mind. The dark sentinels mistook his tears to be those of pain and despair, but he felt a guilty pleasure in knowing how wrong they were. How wrong they were indeed.

"Hear our voices, raised to honor, virtues of patience, and peace", the song's words echoed in the young zealot's mind. "...virtues of patience, and peace..."

 

* * *

 

The dark sliths and imps were headed into a ravine, and it was there that the five adventurers decided to ambush the evil creatures. There was a huge flaw in their plans, however, for the magicians hadn’t exactly had time to arm themselves during their escape from Port Varib, and the trio of fresh exiles had but crude, grunt-issued stone daggers and bucklers. They had agreed that the magicians would hold on to the axe that had been used for chopping firewood, as a last line of defence in case spells or tactics should fail.

Indeed, while the five travelers could attempt to find some concealment from the infernal pack's eyes, they'd be almost sure to be forced into an encounter with them anyway. The badlands to the west from their location got more flat and smooth, and it'd be a nightmare, if not impossible for the two groups with the same destination to avoid each other -- both were headed for the Darkmoon Clan's heartlands.

”We have to hit ’em with rocks and whatever we have, and use oor' advantage of surprise to the fullest. We charge in and use the weapons that the first victims drop”, Greth spoke excitedly.

”I agree”, Solfanes nodded. ”Once the first stone is cast, there is no going back.”

”Works for thou and myself, Greth, but what of Philip?”, Kobierth countered immediately. ”Doth thou know how to use a spear, for that seems to be the favored weapon that the sliths carry. Imps resort purely to the strength of their their claws, from what the scouting has yielded.”

”Shouldn’t be too difficult”, the scholar nodded. ”It should be like using a pitchfork during the harvest. Only, I’m not comfortable at such a frontal assault. I don’t... uhh”, Philip stammered. ”I don’t know the tactics.”

”After all this is over, me and Kob will train you, wise-man”, the muscular warrior soothed his friend. ”For now, all ye’ need to remember is that you gotta’ keep the fight as unfair as possible. If you find yerself in an even situation, yer’ doing it wrong. Whenever either me or Kob are engaged with an imp, make yer’ way to the side and flank ’em.”

”Right, right”, Philip shivered. The thought of actually fighting in a full-scale skirmish unnerved him greatly.

”How about our magic?”, Iríth queried cautiously. ”Are you at ease with fighting side by side with magicians, mrrr?”

”We art, indeed”, Kobierth replied.

”Many a times oor’ best raids happened with the aid of the tribe’s shamans”, the former king reassured. ”We’ll just need to make sure we aren’t in yer’ magics’ way.”

”And I’ll keep an eye on the lot of you, in case you need my healing”, Iríth replied.

”Solfanes has the axe, right? You know, you'd best be prepared to use it”, Greth spoke quickly, glancing nervously towards the ravine. He was eager to get into the fight. ”Albeit we’ll be on the advancing side, they’ve got the numbers on their side, and we can’t be asked to keep every last of them occupied.”

”I shall take care of that”, Solfanes nodded with a mask of stone covering his face. ”I don’t mean to boast, but I have good awareness of my surroundings, in and out of combat. They won't surround us, none of us.”

"Hey, I'll hold you on for that", Iríth smirked. "If you fail... You're not touching alcohol for a month." She poked at the colossal magician's side with the aim of easing some of the tention before the skirmish.

"Shouldn't be a problem since I'm not a drunk", Sol closed his eyes and grimaced.

"Well, I'll think of some way to torment you. So you'd best stay sharp", the half-blood quipped and glanced at the dark-haired human.

”Right then”, Kobierth rose from crouching. ”Everyone art ready? Good.”

 

* * *

 

The adventurers lined the ravine’s cliffside and hid behind the largest of boulders. They’d have the height advantage over their advesaries, and had gathered large quantities of small, fist-sized rocks. The imps at the front passed by the ambush nervously, as if sensing something. The allied force of humans and one nephil let the convoy of imps and dark sliths pass by until one third had marched by.

Upon Greth’s mark the adventurers jumped up, cast stones and the three warriors charged the first ranks of their foes. Iríth balanced between the decision of using her incredibly sharp eyesight instead of completing rituals that would shield the warriors from physical harm. After felling three scaly foes the aspirant grasped her amulet and performed a ritual to shield Philip first – he was most liable for being hit during the first violent moments because of his rawness in the craft of war, and while the feline didn't desire to anyhow underestimate her new ally, she didn't want to trust him too much either: it could very well cost him his life. Solfanes, while having good hand-eye coordination himself, left the stones well enough alone and took up a couple of dried lizard bones and bits of dead bat to use them as catalysts for curses and negative spells. The first wave of slowing curses swathed a bunch of imps far to the left, preventing them from swarming the warriors, with the second wave hindering some of the combatants already engaged to the three flailing humans. Ten imps had fallen under his spells already, and were moving at considerably slower pace. That gave the three humans an incredible advantage and thus they managed to form a semi-circle, fending off the furious onslaught.

Philip had pierced his first victim and watched the evil creature wriggle at the end of his dagger. He grimaced and howled as he ripped the blade out of the imp's guts. His hands shook, his body throbbed with inner strength, and he was absolutely terrified. Another imp ran towards him, mouth gaping open. There was little time for anything but acting, and yet Philip found himself thinking if he was really cut out for this.

"Quit whining, you whelp! People are relying on you!", the sage abused himself. He crouched on the cavern floor and grasped a rock. He flinged it right towards the imp's head: just like he had flung stones at scavenging stray goblins to keep them from eating the family's crops up on the surface, back when he had lived in his family's farm. With a satisfying crack the rock smashed against the creature, but it wouldn't stop the demoniac, far from it; the nasty imp merely enraged.

Philip grasped his dagger again, raised the buckler into a defence and put his feet into a backwards position to give himself more leverage against the impact. Then Greth's words ringed inside the pale man's mind.

"If you find yourself in an even situation, you're doing it wrong", was what the muscular warrior had instructed. Immediately Philip started to scrutinize the imp's velocity and distance, and wondered if he could dodge out of harm's way and cause the charging demoniac to topple over.

In that instant the imp leaped, but way too high. In its' blood-thirsty excitement it fluttered with its' little wings to swoop down on its' prey. Philip jogged onward and watched the imp crash upon the ground, far away from its' mark. The sage jumped on the imp's back and, closing his eyes, slit the creature's throat. Hot blood sprayed on his hands and arms, with the being evanescensing into a black, greasy smoke and a pile of ash. Another victory, and a fourth kill in his lifetime.

Greth had found more success than his peers, as he had managed to kill a dark slith and take his spear for himself. The spear had two nasty tines, as sharp as the cruel winter's winds during the month of Evermoon. He pierced two imps with relative ease, and forked himself a third slith. Before he had managed to detach the former victim from his new weapon, Iríth screeched from somewhere afar.

"- Enemy casters! Keep an eye out for their elemental attacks!"

"Actually, Iríth, those are magogs!", Greth heard Solfanes correct the aspirant.

"More blood, less talk!", Greth yelled back, enjoying the chaos.

The muscular human saw that three imps, much more lithe than the rest of their bunch, had managed to glide up the opposing side of the ravine upon higher ground. Even as the warrior glanced at them with desire to strangle them all with his own bare hands, he saw them weave their arms and hands. Two of them had orbs of fire at their disposal, while one appeared to be preparing an acid storm. One of the magogs noticed Greth and aimed his bolt of fire towards him. The former king used the dead slith by the points of his spear and wringed himself behind his victim to use the corpse as a shield. Surely enough, the magical energy blasted the dead creature but left Greth unharmed.

Kobierth, in turn, enjoyed a little bit of duel with an imp whom she guessed to be a commander of sorts for the pack. Further behind she had noticed a couple of sliths being held in place by an imp armed with a prickled whip, but couldn't pay anymore mind to them at that time. She dodged the hordling's blows and realized that the mace that the muscular demoniac wielded was infact some kind of shaft with horned skull at the end. It was propably a battle trophy or a sign of power.

While imps, hordlings and magogs were the very lowliest of the demonkin, even they had strict hierarchy. Basic imps possessed very minor magical capabilities and were usually more at home with brawling with their enemies, using their sharp claws, physical resilience and numbers to their advantage. Hordlings were ascended imps with greater will, having moderately powerful spells at their command, while magogs were ascended imps with greater intellect, capable of wielding intricate and delicate spells. Naturally, both hordlings and magogs were also more physically fit than normal imps, but magogs held the highest rank of them all due to their cunning.

The muscular hordling flung its' cudgel back in a wide motion, but didn't use both arms for it. Kobierth remained wary of the free arm's reach and rushed onward, using the broken spear she had picked up earlier as a makeshift rapier. She aimed her blow towards the creature's arm that held the cudgel and flung the buckler at the imp's head. The planks connected and caused a nasty concussion, while the spear struck true. The scaly being was much more resilient than that, however, and tried its' best to scratch Kobierth from behind of the buckler. The human's leather armor didn't exactly stand fast against the piercing claws, but witheld them from causing any deeper or longer wounds. Armor made of boiled leather with chain reinforcements was sturdy stuff like that.

Kobierth grimaced in pain but ignored the wounds, knowing fully well that the claws couldn't have cut deep. Instead she drew the halved spear and repeatedly stroke towards the foe's scales. Curiously enough, the imp's skin was tough enough to not allow for the blade to pierce the central torso, and so the sharpened but rusty bronze tip was easily bounced off; she needed more velocity for her attacks to pierce through the creature's hide. With her body off balance and her blows landed, she stood vulnerable in front of the hordling.

Elsewhere, Solfanes had just finished weaving a freezing cloud that had frozen not only some dark sliths but also the acid storm that one of the magogs had summoned. An arrow of magic, another, third: three beings laid dead with their interiors scorched. Sorcery was a powerful tool, but a dangerous one. The witch felt his body trembling, his fingers cold and numb. Kobierth was in trouble. There were two more imps approaching her, and she had just finished a series of blows. She'd need to retreat to regain her composure, but couldn't stand for long against so many. The witch saw a creature with the corner of his eye: a slith was approaching him and Iríth. Sol knew that he'd need to dispose of the advesary before it could reach him and his companion; he also knew that the dark-haired swordswoman was badly outnumbered. Frowning, he memorized one of the greater spells in his disposal -- a tempest of darkness -- and aimed it at Kobierth.

Philip had done just as instructed, and while Greth had been holding a pair of cunning magogs from reaching himself, the scholar had sneaked up on one of them. He flung his buckler to the back of his enemy's head and growled with a bestial voice as his dagger pierced the little devil over and over again. A primordial rage had consumed him, and he had befallen into a false sense immortality. A cold voice of reason reminded him that blind rage was nothing compared to calculating intelligence: that he would do well to keep an eye on his surroundings. An imp on his left side had swung its' claws at him. Iríth's protective globe dulled the flurry of blows that the little devil unleashed, and when the seventh swing of an arm was turned aside as if it had hit a granite wall, Philip dropped his buckler and finished off the foe.

It was at that exact time when Philip's howl of rage turned into a whimper of pain. A slith armed with a standard, single-tined spear had closed up to him and pierced right through the priestly globe and the small buckler. While Iríth's rituals were powerful, even they had their limit. Philip glanced down at the spear in his guts, just below his ribcage on the right side of his body. The foe's eyes gleamed with bloodlust, and with misplaced sense of victory.

"Why didn't I listen?!", Philip screamed with a gurgling voice, with the words barely recognizable. "Die! Die! DIEDIEDIE!"

"Philip!", Greth boomed, realizing only now that something was wrong. He still had his hands full with a combat of his own. "ME BROTHER! DON'T YE DARE---"

The scholar's view went grey and black. All noises from the outside world faded, like heard through a mass of water. A paralyzing pain surged from the wound to every part of his body, but as quickly as the pain had arisen so did it dissipate. A numbness washed over him, and he felt strong, nearly divine. There was a gentle warmth, and he could almost feel angelic wings wrapping him into a protective shell. Whether it was the touch of Death itself or a rush of adrenaline, he couldn't really tell. In fairness, he didn't really care either. He let go of the buckler and grasped the spear, pulling himself free. With one hand still at the polearm, he swept a full arc and landed a dancing thrust right towards his enemy's head. A metallic helm protected the darkling from the initial attack and dented the dagger's point. The scholar realized his mistake and aimed again, this time towards a gap in the armor, just beneath the arm. Stab, another. Two more. The fifth stab went through the reinforced leather veil that shielded the darkling's throat. With completely ashen grey face, Philip embedded the dagger into the creature's forehead, cutting through the bone like it was silk.

"Don't give up, ignore the pain. Stay at unfair advantage", Philip mumbled to himself and glanced at the dying enemy at his feet. He felt light-headed, but desired to draw more blood. He couldn't feel his legs anymore. Greth's interrogative gaze caught that of Philip's. The young sage merely shrugged and forced a grin upon his face, holding the profusely throbbing and bleeding wound by one hand. "Just a scratch!", he yelled from the bottom of his lungs, or so he thought; he couldn't really hear anything. In hindsight, he didn't really know why he had lied about it so, but at the time it felt like a good idea.

The tanned man of the wastes had to leave the sage well enough alone, trusting that Philip was more or less all right. The scholar was standing, at least. Greth continued to grasp an imp by its' neck and cast it on top of another. He then proceeded to pierce both of the wriggling victims and for a moment entertained the thought of kebab, a local food that his people had invented, but much to his dismay the infernal meal vanished into thin air as a thick plume of smoke and acrid ash. The muscular warrior received a blow from yet another foe. The hit didn't hurt all that much, and so the hunk of gleeful excitement simply repaid by a vicious, if a little bit unfocused blow from his clenched fist.

While the swirling melee continued at the center of the battlefield with the two men keeping each other covered, Iríth had healed and blessed Kobierth, the tan-robed, dancing warrior of the deserts with her rituals. She noticed an orb of fire being hurled towards her by one of the magogs, and dismissed it completely. While she didn't know enough about counter-spells and meta-magic in the way that Solfanes did, she made up for it by innate resistance to elements and some other forms of magic. The roaring fireblast approached her, blazing through the air with incredible speed; igniting and exploding right before Iríth's body. She had turned her head to the side but trusted her magical resistance to save her. Indeed, the flames enwreathed her and fondled her clothes and fur but didn't burn in the slightest, not even curving a whisker.

The feline glanced at Solfanes, whom had managed to fell one of the magogs on the opposing side of the battlefield. Alas, two more magogs had joined to the squad, weaving bolts of fire upon the warriors. She knew well enough that the witch couldn't keep the enemy casters occupied indefinitely in a mage-duel. So far he had managed to hold two of them at bay, casting a continual streak of counter-spells with the occasional offensive sorcery thrown into the mix. Now, with the addition of two more spellweaving imps, enemy blows would start to land, at least for a short period of time. More than a half of the evil monsters had been slain or mortally wounded, but they still held the numerical advantage. All it took was one proper blow and there wouldn't be five of them anymore. Thus the half-blood concentrated on warding her fellow adventurers against elemental attacks.

Not long after finishing the elemental warding Iríth felt something approaching her. An instinct beckoned her to dodge, but it was already far too late for her. A vertical slash sliced her flesh deeply, breaking her concentration and shattering the ritual to heal and shield Philip. She screeched like a banshee.

A darkling had appeared from nowhere, and raised its' weapon to another attack. Panicking, the aspirant raised her amulet in defence and a golden light surrounded her, much like the one that had shielded Philip not long ago. The halberd's blow landed, but as soon as the light and the weapon touched the metal exploded like a star. Iríth glanced desperately at the witch. The world darkened quickly before her eyes, and thousands of stars fulfilled her mind, as the cavebed leapt up to hug her. With the one free hand she tried to reach for the human, but instead wound up flailing at thin air.

Solfanes was quickly by Iríth's side, shielding her with his own body and wielding an axe they had used for camping purposes -- aside from the daggers that both magicians had, it was the only real weapon they had for self-defence. With his orange eyes blazing with death, the witch swung the axe deep into the slith's armor, but wouldn't stop there. He raised the axe to another strike. Quite miraculously the darkling was healthy or numb enough to not have toppled over from the blow. The witch's furious assault continued, with the cutter being embedded into the armor once again, this time cleaving flesh as well as wrought iron. The slippery rock gave out under both of the combatants, plunging them a couple of feet below onto a plateau where the slith managed to rise upright before the less agile human. The dark warrior grasped the witch by his head and smashed him against the rocks, to no avail. Solfanes felt no pain, not after bearing witness for Philip and Iríth being wounded so, even if he knew he had broken several bones already. Unlike his cousin, whom was capable of remaining cool even under the direst of circumstances (like he had just proven), the fair-haired man let a storm-like rage consume him. There was no self-preservation left in him anymore, only vengeance.

"Kuole! Sinä pahan penikka, elinvoima sinust' lähteköön, Vammatar sinut periköön, Kivutar tuskat sulle antakoon!", the witch cursed the slith without considering it twice, calling upon two pagan Gods whom reigned over injuries and misfortune. The negative energy flowed through him, and while the curse enfeebled the foe, it also affected him, for he hadn't used any surrogates to absorb the bleeding, residual energy. Indeed, living beings and creatures with a soul were helpless against curses, unless imbued with powerful magic or wearing trinkets that nulled such energies.

While Kobierth saw Iríth getting wounded, she also saw the swirling hail of darkness that Solfanes had sent her way and danced around a bunch of imps so that they were forced to keep their backs towards the spell. The monsters were forced to make a choice. Either they'd stand their ground and keep attacking the woman, being obliterated by Sol's spell; or scatter and become vulnerable with Kobierth picking them apart as they couldn't rely on their numbers. The former queen dropped her buckler and teased the infernal beasts. That was the right move. The imps rushed towards her, blinded by their bloodlust and overconfidence. No amount of will had ever been known to stop an elemental spell, however, and while the imps were resistant to a large variety of magical effects, entropic darkness was not one of them. The darkness, a rare element that dark wyrms were known to breathe, melted the scaly demoniacs with ease and blasted their ashen remains upon the battlefield, leaving behind nothing but a smoldering crater.

Greth had a glance around and saw that the enemies had thinned, and those few dark sliths who still remained standing glanced around nervously. A couple of angry thrusting attacks from his spear only added to the hostiles' lack of enthusiasm for fighting. All of the melee imps were dead, and the only infernal creatures left with a will to struggle on were the magic-weaving magogs upon the rocky gorge on the far side of the ravine. While the magogs had free reign to bombard the battlefield as they desired, they were faced by three humans whom had been all shielded by angelic wards against their elemental assaults. Even if they could concentrate their spells to bring down one of the warriors, they'd still have to deal with two enraged humans and a frenzied sorcerer, whom they saw hacking one of the dark sliths into pieces with an axe. The band of five had, after all, brought down almost thirty creatures in a matter of minutes.

The human warriors glanced at one another and shuffled a bit closer to form a triangle against the remaining foes. Their defensive formation and lack of any visible injuries caused the remaining bunch of darklings to falter in their courage. For a moment, nobody moved.

 

* * *

 

While the demonkin was not affected by morale or lack thereof, the magogs were indeed wise enough to recognize a lost cause when facing one. The scaly creatures turned their backs on the remainder of the darklings and fled. One of them was not fast enough, as Greth had managed to flinge a scavenged spear like a javelin, piercing one of the fleeing casters. The darklings, seeing that their support was gone, retreated as well. Greth started to run to chase them, screaming profanities and laughing maniacally, but Kobierth limped in his way and stared at him with a commanding look.

"Let them go." The blood-soaked lady glanced at the sage who had found a spear to lean against. "Help me clean up. I doth not wish to ... subject Philip to the task, and I cannot do it alone."

"Aye, me love", Greth nodded gravely, and kept pouring obscenities at the fleeing magogs. His honour as a warrior commanded that he gave a merciful death to those who had fallen before him but had not yet succumbed to their wounds. It had been a task always reserved for the elder warriors; watching a dying person in the eyes and ending the spark of life even for such a noble cause was horrid, even to veterans at war.

"Art everyone all right---", Kobierth started and saw Iríth laying amidst the rocks. She started running, and found the witch from her side. Half of Solfanes' head was covered in his own blood, one of his eyes had swollen shut and his right shoulder was dislocated, but he had enough energy in him to perform a healing ritual. Iríth was in even worse shape, and although Kobierth had seen many a wound in her times, she recoiled back and covered her mouth, gazing elsewhere. Her status as a queen of her tribe had spared her of the gruesome task of treating to the wounded, for the tribe's shamans and herbalists had always taken care of that. While Kobierth had no trouble with spilling blood, she had very hard time watching blood being prevented from spilling.

"How is she?", the dark-skinned woman asked. She couldn't dare another look.

"She'll live, if it's up to me", Solfanes cawed with a broken voice, and continued the druidic ritual. His healing capabilities were not as extensive as Iríth's, but he made use of them to the best of his ability, scraping whatever mana he could from himself. He had passed the safe threshold of energy consumption long ago, and understood very well that continuing the ritual put his own life at risk. He felt his body weaken, but managed to complete the healing with the aid of generally forbidden art of necromancy, transferring life from himself unto Iríth.

"Doth thou require me being here? I...", Kobierth stammered. "By sacred Kromgar... Forgive me, how fare thee? Maybe Greth could help thou with thy... wounds? I'm no expert, I'm afraid."

"I'm ... well, I'm alive", Solfanes coughed, wiped blood from his lips and sat down onto the cold rock, covering Iríth’s lower body with a blanket. "How... how is everyone else? What about you?"

"Myself and Greth art fine", Kobierth crouched to Iríth's side and glanced at her. She touched lightly at the half-blood's shoulder and whispered words in her native language. "Dinqir ninn'du kan'Kromgar, ag'zi Kalm ennür gatha."

"Wise-man?!", Greth called out and walked closer.

"- I'm f...", Philip winced and drew a slow breath. "I'm fine. Kob? Sol? Iríth?" The breathing had gotten worse, and more painful, with each passing moment. He wandered uphill, very slowly.

As soon as the pale, ashen-faced sage had managed to reach the rest of the band, Kobierth rose, hugged Philip on her way and slapped him on his shoulder. As soon as she had reached a suitable enough distance she wiped the corners of her eyes, hoping that none of the others could notice her. She took a spear from a nearby frozen corpse and started going through the carcasses. She chanted old songs as she went, tales that told of eagles whom would carry the spirits of the honorable fallen beyond the high mountains to a place where the dead could finally find peace at last, revering the highest and grandest of Gods, the Sun.

Greth helped Solfanes to set his shoulder back into its' place. He cleansed some of the smaller cuts and bruises that they all had, and having finished the job the warrior glanced at Iríth. "There's not... anything else I can do?" The craft of war had taught the necessary skills of first aid for him, but Iríth's wounds were way beyond his scope. "I do have one healing potion, and some bandages over yonder."

"No", the witch shook his head with a glazed eye. "Her body can't take anymore healing", he held a hand by the shallowly breathing half-blood's chest. "I'd join you two in... your task of making sure there are no survivors in pain but..."

"Hex-man, ye' stay here. You too, wise-man. Ye' two have done more than enough", the tanned, wound-ridden warrior punched the cousins upon their shoulders. Just as he was about to leave, however, Philip toppled on his back. "Eh, I didn't hurt ye', did I?"

"Oww", Philip mumbled, and tried to rise up on his elbows. His eyes were closed and there was a pained grimace on his face.

"By the spirits, not you too...", Solfanes grasped his cousin's hand and pried one of his eyes open. "What in the name of the seven hells? He has passed out!" The magician pulled the sage's head back and made sure that he breathed. The young lad's skin felt cold and sweaty.

Together Greth and the witch pried off Philip's torn leather jacket, revealing drenched clothes, soaked in blood. The leather armor had concealed the depth of the wound and hidden the trickling blood. The tanned warrior cursed in his own language, quietly under his breath. Solfanes could quite easily guess the words' meaning: Philip hadn't wanted to be of any burden to the remainder of the band, bless him. Quickly the men forced the sweet-smelling healing liquid down the sage's throat, but the bleeding wouldn't stop. Bandaging such a large wound, one that was in such an awkward angle no less, would not be an easy task.

”Can't you close the wound?”, Solfanes queried as he saw the warrior's hesitation.

”No. I’m sorry, hex-man”, Greth replied. ”I mean, we could bandage him; but we’ll need to move both him and yer’ mate anyway somewhere away from this ravine. We need ta’ get a fire going, get some warmth and some food cooked. This place isn’t going to cut it, no pun intended. And moving him with a bandage at his side... the wound would just open again and he’d trickle to death before we got anywhere safe.

”I don't suppose ye' have anymore energy in yerself for another heal?”, Greth finished, glancing at Solfanes. He poured cold water from his canteen onto the wound and holding a bandage on top of it, trying to freeze the wound. Alas, the flow was too hard.

"- I'm afraid not. Mending Iríth's deep injuries was pushing it, already... I couldn't survive another ritual."

The weather-beaten warrior stared at Philip with uneasiness in his eyes. Open wound such as the one that emblazoned his friend's lower body was quick to catch an infection, provided that the victim could survive even the bloodloss.

"Shouldn't the potion close the wound, already?", Greth glanced up at the magician again, trying to exhaust all other options before having to resort the the last, and nastiest, of them all.

"- It should, but even brews have their limits. In case the blade has pierced something vital inside him..."

"---The potion heals that but lacks potency to heal him completely", Greth finished the sentence.

"- Exactly."

"Well, there's one thing... About the only thing we can do", Greth grumbled and drew a wavering sigh. "Oh, no, I don't mean that", he raised a hand immediately upon seeing the frightened look on Sol's face. "I mean... embers."

If it was possible, Sol's face got even more pale. He couldn't say anything anymore.

"It closes the wound effectively and stops an infection from spreading", Greth underlined, quietly so that Philip couldn't overhear.

”Fair enough...”, the witch nodded with sweat trickling on his forehead, mingling with his blood into a nasty, sticky goo.

"- Where am I?", Philip came to his senses. "This isn't real, is it...?"

"Eh, eh, wise-man", Greth pushed the young sage back against the cold stone. "Don't ye' try anything yet. You just ... took a small nap. Take it easy, man."

"I feel so weak", the grey-eyed librarian moaned and closed his eyes. He had so little strength that he couldn't but turn his head to the side and throw up.

"Do ye’ have any alcohol?", Greth glanced at the healthier of the two cousins.

"- Oh, snap, yes!" Soon enough the bottle of 'shroom'bsinthe was fetched and raised to Philip's lips. The muscular man had shuffled off to dig through his belongings for a small bit of brimstone and some nethersalt. "Philip?" Solfanes asked and raised his cousin's head slightly. "Here's a bottle of something. I know it's going to taste absolutely terrible but please, try to swallow some. It's for the pain."

"- But I'm not in any pain... I'm just so numb... I feel so weak... oww..."

"Trust me, you'll thank me later. Like, maybe tomorrow, or next week. Try to empty your lungs, and draw a breath. Take a swig, and breathe out. It'll help."

The sharp stench of the bitter alcohol caused Philip to throw up again but he managed to take a swig. It took all the effort in the world for him to hold the liquid inside. He shook his head violently. "What, are you trying to poison me on top of this all?"

"Yes, I am. Now, take another", the magician insisted. "And while you're at it...", he continued, glancing at Greth whom had managed to get a small fire going for the sake of healing purposes. "...tell me what you remember about the surface."

"Have I gone completely mad or is it just the world...?", Philip mumbled. "Maybe... maybe this is all a dream." The alcohol started to affect him: he was, after all, rather unaccustomed to consumption of alcoholic beverages.

As Greth forced Philip to take yet a couple more draughts from the bottle, Solfanes took the chance to tend to Iríth, making sure that she was laying comfortably. He listened to her breathing, which had steadied considerably from the halting struggle that it had been before, and nodded. He further tested her pulse, which was weak but steady. "And you, princess", the witch whispered at her. "I am so not going to see this through without you by my side, not without you giving me heart-attacks with your pranks or something else congruently stupid. So you'd best get better, you hear me?", he swallowed the bitter bit in his throat and forced himself to calm down before turning back to his cousin.

"Surface..." Philip commemorated. "Why...?", he closed his eyes and grinned. "Don't make me laugh..."

Greth glanced at the witch, having caught on to his plot. He nodded deeply, holding a burning ember in one of his gloved hands.

"- Silverwater Valley, our home...", the colossal man whispered with a broken voice. "Midsummer."

"Harvest moons", Philip replied. "I can almost smell the dry hay. The smell of conifer woods after heavy rains. Oh, why... Being drunk...", the young sage mumbled, with his voice trailing off. "The afternoons in Vanaha's forests..."

"- Remember the Sun?" Solfanes perceived his cousin's vital signs and tested his skin. The mixture of paralyzing pain, bloodloss and alcohol had numbed the hapless scholar and while it did prevent him from suffering of pain, it had driven Philip into a very incoherent state.

"Yeah, I remember the Sun. I can almost feel its' warmth..." Quickly Greth pressed the hot ember against the sage's skin. Solfanes held the wound close as the warrior ran the ember firmly across of the bare flesh. The witch held his eyes closed, unable to look, holding back a gag. "It burns, just like on the first days of Radiane... I can imagine myself walking on the roads near Lorelei, cobblestone roads lined with birch forests. Goblins so fast you couldn't catch 'em without a horse...", Philip chuckled for no apparent reason.

"Keep thinking", the older of the cousins encouraged the younger one. "Do you remember the Old Market and the couple whom ran the place, you remember? Walking by their house was always such a pleasure. The flowersbeds blooming in the summer’s warm breeze..."

Grethenward listened to the talk without saying a word. Memories flashed before his eyes, causing more pain that all the thorns and blades in the world ever could inflict upon his body. He glanced at the fair-haired man, who wasn't doing much better himself. Despite the tormentingly vivid memories they all smiled, albeit with tears in their eyes.

Not long after the whole operation was over, and Philip fell into a sweet slumber where he felt no pain nor numbing cold; but rather mumbled on about dandelions and bluebirds.

Solfanes rose shakily to his feet and stiffened between Greth's arms at first, but then remembered what Philip had told him -- the nomads were quite intense in their social interactions. He smiled awkwardly and raised another arm behind the warrior's back, slowly warming to the idea of his new acquaintance being as lively as a rabbit on a spring morning, as opposed to himself being like a bear settling for the long winter's slumber.

"Guess there was something that you could do, after all", Sol smiled weakly and stretched his legs.

"Aye, mate", the muscular traveler replied, grinning widely. "That's what we call tribework. Well, there's still something to be done down there, and I'd like to check on me love."

"All right, you do that", Solfanes nodded and sat down between his wounded companions, having shifted them to a bit better place. "And thanks. For everything." The witch leaned against his head against knees and held one hand on Iríth's chest and another on Philip's shoulder. It didn't take long before he fell under as well. Sweet dreams took him far away from the pain into sunlight: to be embraced by a familiar warmth and softness.

 

* * *

 

Kobierth stood frozen in place, holding a spear at the ready. Grethenward had quickened his pace from afar and walked up to her. There was a slith hunched over another, gazing at the humans with a fiercely protective posture.

Even if Greth was a little bit wild and bloodthirsty at times, something held him in place. "Are ye' all right, me love?"

"Yes, I am", Kob replied. Her husband's presence soothed her greatly. She lowered the spear, and in turn the shackled slith relaxed slightly. A pile of ash behind him told a clear story. "The slith killed an imp. I saw them earlier, the demoniac wielded a nasty looking whip. These two must've been prisoners of war."

"Or traitors", Greth's expression darkened. "And you know how I feel about turncoats."

"Considering the options at the hand, I wouldn't turn away a potential ally", Kobierth countered immediately and glanced sharply at the man at her side. "Iríth is badly injured, and the cousins doth not seem to be doing all that well, either."

"Still, I see no reason to trust these creatures", the conservative man grunted and stepped a bit farther away. Kobierth sighed and felt relieved that he hadn't overheard Iríth's story about how she and Solfanes had met. She wondered if hearing their story would change how he felt about ’traitors’, now that one such ’turncoat’ had definitely saved Kobierth’s life at a steep cost for both himself and his companion. With a fiery gaze she glanced at her husband and resisted an urge to give him a slap and a lecture – it’d have to wait, they had sliths to deal with.

"Greetings and well met. Who art thou?", Kobierth approached, switching to the common tongue back from her native language that she always used when talking with Greth. It seemed to do little good. All she received was a reply in the form of varying hisses. She could vaguely guess that it was either a greeting or a threat.

"I am Kobierth", the human pointed towards herself and placed the spear on the ground, trusting in Greth's fists' stopping power should the lizard-man react in a hostile manner.

The erstwhile queen thought she could hear a word "Sss-Syaren" amidst the hissing.

"Ssssyaren? Kobierth”, the dark-skinned lady affirmed. The slith nodded and seemed to relax slightly, but still hunched over his comrade, whose wounds bled profusely. Kobierth turned to Greth.

”Right, I’ll go”, the warrior grimaced with a disdainful look on his face. ”Greth, Syaren”, he repeated in the same way that his wife had just done. The slith had an uneasy look on his face until Greth pulled out the scraps of bandages that he had. ”You know it’s propably a bit late, right?”

”I know”, Kobierth looked away. ”But would not thou do the same to any tribe-brother who was in the same situation?”

Greth was now hunched across the badly wounded slith, whose breathing was as shallow as a whisper. The slith called Sss-Syaren eyed the dark-skinned human closely but allowed him to touch his friend, seeing that he bore no ill intentions. The tanned man went as far as to shred a small slice off his own clothes to finish the dressing, but small wounds still remained. It appeared that the slavering imp had whipped this poor creature before the other one had broken free and killed their tormentor.

The wounded slithzerikai opened his eyes and glanced at Sss-Syaren. He said something, something that Greth nor Kobierth could understand. Sss-Syaren pressed his head and closed his eyes, holding his hands on his dying friend. Even though the humans had no idea of the sliths’ language, they could guess the words’ meaning. Finally, the dying one turned his glassy, red eyes towards the human warrior and took a hand around his neck. The creature was already cold, but managed to whisper the last words of gratitude for the stranger. With that, the nameless slith laid his head onto the cold cavern floor and left the wretched world for a better one.

Indeed, the underworld was a cruel place where life was as brittle as a net of spider’s silk in the morning’s first light. Behold, it was from this exact brittleness that life’s beauty and value arose: in its’ limited and short quantity it had to bloom. Henceforth from that day, the previously unnamed valley in the Darkmoon’s lands would be fulfilled with ink-cap mushrooms coloured of ash grey and green colors, and tales would be sung of Dead Slith’s Valley and the events that unraveled there: all for the celebration of the continuation of life, and death that it ever so starkly contrasted.

As brittle as a spider’s silk; or a dagger’s point.

 

* * *

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chaper 11: The Fox and the Hound

 

 

Chapter 11

* * *

The Fox and the Hound

* * *

 

25th of Icefall, year 769

Darkmoon Clan's capital settlement Ymwar, central wastelands

 

Upon the first day of the adventuring band's time spent within Darkmoon Clan the nephil shamans had separated the whole band of six into four groups: Solfanes was led off to higher ground to be questioned, and hadn’t been seen since; Iríth and Philip had been hurried away into what Kobierth guessed to be the nephilim temple; Greth and Kobierth themselves were marched off into one of the huts that laid a bit separated from the rest of the settlement on a salient overlooking the lands to the east; and Syaren had been taken to a similar hut next to that of the humans’.

The hut was round and spherical, with a small hole in the ceiling. The walls comprised of blocks of stone, bound together by what appeared to be coarse gravel-like grout. While such a style of construction didn't provide for as lasting and sturdy architechture as the human-preferred faceted stone-blocks did, it was much faster to complete and spared a lot manual labour of quarrying incredible amounts of stone. There were two windows by the hut's walls, both of which had thick panes of rustic glass. The glass was lank enough to pass the light but thick enough to preserve the privacy inside the hut.

Kobierth glanced around and wondered how the others were doing. She wore her beaded leather jerkin, shivered because of the cold and added a small amount of firewood into the pit and watched the embers floating gently upwards, towards freedom beyond the hole above. She had already had a peek out of the door and had seen very little: more similar huts of varying sizes and bonfires at open clearings. A variety of stands and scaffoldings dotted the spare spaces, sustaining a variety of items necessary for the Clan's members' daily lives. Dried fish, dead bats, clothes of varying sorts, jugs of water, nets fulfilled with mushrooms and charred rats... the list went on. Were it not for the guard outside, the cold atmosphere and the constant cacophony of purring and muffled voices of the nephilim, the tan-skinned lady could've felt right at home.

The noble woman glanced at her husband, who laid on a treated giant lizard's hide and snored. While they hadn’t been treated badly, they weren’t exactly washed with hospitality either. Since they were bound to this hut and having very little in the way of supplies or anything to pass their time with, Grethenward had seen it fit to catch up on sleep and had been a better portion of the time in an unconscious state. He shared his wife’s concern for their wounded comrades and the witch who seemed to be actually accepted amidst the nephilim, but didn’t burden himself with woe for the feline clan appeared to have resemblant code of conduct to that of his own bygone tribe. Doing anything but remaining peaceable wouldn’t exactly help them, as the nephilim would no doubt take their time to ascertain Solfanes’ vouching for them.

Abruptly the silence and Kobierth's thoughts were interrupted. She rose to stand immediately when she heard marching steps from outside. There was no mistake. The nephilim didn’t march or stomp their feet unless in a real hurry, and even so the pacing was graceful: she had learned this from the few days she had spent in Iríth’s company.

Greth was well and wide awake, too, reaching instinctively for the dagger on his belt that wasn’t quite there: the nephilim had confiscated the little weapons they had.

Two nephil guards opened the hut’s cavewooden door and pushed Syaren inside. They also threw in a bag of mushrooms and closed the door quickly.

”Syaren!”, Kobierth exclaimed and supported the huge, towering slith before her. It didn't look like he hadn't been maltreated, but his eyes darted about the room cautiously. She noticed that the nephilim had kept the slith in shackles for the duration of the journey but had supplied a key, hanging from the slith’s belt. Quickly the lady opened her comrade’s shackles and gave him a portion of the mushrooms.

While Greth was muscular in his own right, a rare trait amidst the nomadic people of the wastelands, he was more or less of similar height as Kobierth was, about 5,6 feet. As he walked up to greet the green-scaled former prisoner of war, he found himself looking up at the slith. He hadn’t noticed the slith’s exact height before, but the reptilian was at least 7,8 feet.

”How. You. Aring... Are?”, Syaren struggled with the humans’ language. The lack of his native phonetics clearly bothered him and made his pronounciation awkward, but it was understandable. In the short amount of time that Philip had managed to spend with Syaren in his waking hours, they had exchanged some tenious knowledge of Imperial Standard and Slithzerikaiis, their native languages respectively.

”We are fine”, Greth replied. He felt awkward about Syaren, for the thought of him being a traitor bothered him; even if he had been a traitor to the Infernal Legion. Still, now that they weren’t on the move or constantly threatened by demoniacs or scavenging goblins, Greth could feel and experience his surroundings without a lense of critical caution. He squinted his eyes and frowned. There was an aura of burning righteousness around the slith, and his heart seemed pure enough. Certainly, the former king could feel guilt and regret within Syaren’s mind. Then again, there weren’t such things as saints in his opinion -- at least not born to human parents, or slith parents for that matter.

Syaren wasn’t exactly daft either, and he could see that the human was weighing his character, just like the nephil shamans had done not an hour ago. He shifted weight from one foot to another and massaged his aching wrists.

”I. Am. Not being a darkling”, the slith spoke, tilting his head in a similar manner as Greth. His red eye measured the warrior, and he nodded. Albeit at first glance all humans looked same to him, for he had never encountered these soft-skinned beings before, he realized that the warrior before him was the same one who had tried to treat Sss-Koss despite the obviously fatal wounds. ”And. I am being thank you. You ... heal Sss-Koss.”

Greth had no idea on what to say. He nodded and lowered his gaze upon the ground. ”It’s good to see you unharmed”, the warrior spoke quietly, turned around, and said no more. Despite the honest aura that he could feel within the slith, he couldn’t help his feelings and memories that washed over him. In the distant past, a traitor had nearly brought his and his wife’s entire tribe into ruin. It had left him deeply scarred.

”I prithee to forgive my husband”, Kobierth glanced at Greth and turned back to the slith. Seeing his baffled expression, she slowed down her speech and tried to lose the archaic accent from her speech and tried again, succeeding this time. ”Our past history haunts him.” While the words’ meaning evaded the slith, for Philip hadn’t managed to teach but some very basic words and grammar, Syaren understood well enough not to be offended. ”Syaren, what did they do to thee...?”, she inquired further.

”What... do... ? Ah. Ask, questionsss”, Syaren replied and sat down to lean over the fire, munching on the mushrooms. It had taken all of the self-control in the world to refrain himself from digging into the bag of edibles right away upon being freed from the shackles. ”Ask more questions. I ... say, I am not being a darkling. Nephil mage wave hand. Nephil mage... ask mind? Ask, soul? Am heal. Not wound.” He wished from the bottom of his heart that Philip was here to--- ”Philip? Philip, not being wound? Rakshasa? Human mage? Not being wound?”

Kobierth sat next to the slith, for she knew her husband well enough. He wouldn’t cease from moping for quite some time. She meted the fire and threw a small shard of nethersalt into the flames, taking a couple of mushrooms and bits of dead, fried bat from the offered pouch.

”- Philip, and Iríth, the rakshasa half-blood, they art wounded. Solfanes, the magus, he is... Well, to be honest I know not where he is. The nephilim art watching over them, I’d imagine. Healing them.” She added the words to make sure that Syaren could understand.

”Hssss”, Syaren the zealot hissed approvingly and spoke several words in his native tongue. Kobierth, not being an expert on languages, could understand none of it, but guessed him to be praying. His gaze told it all. Like her husband, she was blessed by the Gods and granted wisdom beyond mere Men, having an ability to see into a person’s heart. The slith’s eyes betrayed emotions of regret, guilt and sorrow at the death of the darklings; at the wounds that the adventurers had suffered in the darklings’ and imps’ hands. He was as humble as a person could be, and yet there was a burning rage inside of him, a desire to see the world scoured free of ill deeds and selfish emotions. While his heart was that of a priest, his posture was that of a warrior.

Syaren turned to look at Kobierth, glancing at her from underneath of a brow. ”I sleep, you guard. You sleep, I guard. G... Gert? Greth sleep.” The slith winked with an eye and laid on his side, warming himself by the fire. While his body was almost free of wounds or cuts, his mind raced. Being captured by the darklings, then freed by the band of adventurers, and finally being captured by nephilim. It was all very straining on his mind, and he badly needed the rest. The shamans’ herbs and spiritually affecting joss sticks had left him dizzy, too.

While Kobierth would’ve wanted to reassure Syaren that she was certain that the nephilim were watchful against the threat of demoniacs she agreed nonetheless. Not that she could’ve managed to get any sleep, anyway.

 

* * *

 

Two days later, evening...

Ymwar's residential district

 

Solfanes laid his head upon the pillow. The dried moss underneath the rough cloth felt surprisingly soft, much more so than the stuffings one was forced to put up with while resting in one of the Queendom cities or towns. Indeed, the humans had opted to use dried moss with the occasional tuft of fur or the pillow owner's own hair within a treated giant lizard belly-sack -- surrounded by a thin layer of fabric if one was rich enough to be able to afford such an elegance. Where the nephilim had fur to hold out the cold atmosphere of the caverns and could use moss for entire pillows, the humans had to use all excess fibrous material for weaving clothes for themselves, and thus using treated animal organs saved some of the precious moss for clothing industry.

It was warm. The whole camp rested, following the shamans' guidance, and there was nothing to be heard outside. If it wasn't for the damnable silence and eerie feeling of absence the witch could've felt relaxed. Alas, his thoughts rested with his companions and compatriots: thus he could find no repose. He rose to sit and glanced at the ’gross incandescence’ of the firepit, tossing a couple of chunks of nethersalt into the blazing cinders. The flames wreathed the dirty coal and whooshed in a beautiful display of white-hot embers, reminding him of the Sun and the warmth.

A memory flashed before his eyes, as painful as a dagger driven through his spine.

Iríth opened her eyes for the first time during the journey to Darkmoon’s settlement Ymwar from the Dead Slith’s Valley. Solfanes was immediately by her side, nearly choking of relief. While she was still weak, she could talk.

”Hey, you”, she managed to utter with a voice that was as weak as a whisper.

”Hey, yourself. Iríth, listen, I uhh...”, Solfanes stammered and struggled to be able to look at the half-blood in her eyes.

”It wasn’t your fault”, Iríth whispered, seeing the guilt right through the man’s mask of stone. She had little strength and while she felt better than after the fight, she wanted to get something off of her chest. Her gaze told it all.

”- Anything for you, girl. You know that.”

”Mrr, you remember... how I never quite told you why I left the clan? And the night before the attack on the Port, you nearly pinched it out of me, you flaming snoop?”

”- Yep, I do. I have a feeling you’re about to tell me... Hey, where does it hurt? Can I help?”

”No... mister, stop. The sooner we get to Ymwar the better. Oww... please, let me finish. Right... Look, just, don’t say anything, please? Otherwise, I, can’t. I ... killed ... someone. It was an honorable duel about the chieftainship, on Proving Grounds, but I took it deliberately one step too far. The name won’t mean anything to you but he was called Grum’Gaor. He was ... dangerous. To the Clan. His views... He was too erratic.

”I left the Clan to my guardian-father’s son, Tyamhurr. But I fear that Grum’Gaor’s child Morquor may still try to have a go at the chieftainship. And I fear that if he is as manipulative as his father was, you’ll have quite a tribulation ahead of you. Beware Morquor’Gaor. Beware his goons. And please, keep our friends safe.”

Iríth had strength in her for an exchange of a couple of more encouraging words but then the pain subdued her, and she fell back into unconsciousness.

The witch mulled over the revelation and considered what needed to be done. Ever since their arrival, Morquor had indeed attempted to resist the band’s entrance to the Clan at every turn. Still, Iríth’s authority lingered and while all of the nephilim considered her to be somewhat different and alien because of her bloodline, they all recognized her wisdom that had raised her through the ranks quite fast. Indeed, she had been the youngest female chieftain of the remembered annals at the age of twenty.

Upon their arrival, Solfanes had managed to persuade the nephilim of the humans’ honorability, and bluffed that they were his close kin. Although he wasn’t a master in things nephilim, he understood their ways well enough and knew how to create an atmosphere of trust – no one was going to suspect a known chieftain’s close companion’s family. Despite his pleas, however, he hadn’t managed to soothe the anxiety about the slithzerikai in the nephilim’s midst, and upon the elder shaman’s discretion Syaren had been hauled off to be placed in a different hut than the humans.

The elders had been quick to summon Solfanes to explain the situation to them. Surely enough Morquor, the berserker’s son, had been there trying to tarnish the adventurers’ name. While the human understood Morquor's point of view and hatred for Iríth he wasn’t about to let the young weapons’ master get away with his plans. After a nasty and loud quarrel Solfanes had emerged quasi-victorious, as he had placated the elders for the moment, and reassured them that he’d vouch for Iríth in her self-imposed banishment’s rescindment. Only afterwards did he realize that Iríth’s injuries cast her in a heroic light once again: sacrificing her own health for the sake of others.

Now, two days later, the elders had sent a word for the witch that they’d summon him to a meeting, where they’d decide whether to allow the adventurers to remain within Darkmoon lands or if they’d be sent on their way, and how exactly Iríth could be returned to the clan.

Solfanes rose up and walked outside, closing the door behind himself. Despite the fresh air calming his ailing mind, there was an inkling of something happening soon: it was as though the silence itself had been pitched, waiting.

”It’s... it’s too quiet without Iríth’s cheery presence...”, he whispered and clenched his fists, crossing his arms over his chest. "What a flaming fool I am. I ought to have my head cut off for letting my flaming guard down! First Iríth. And then Philip... His first two weeks in this pit and already he has taken a bite of a spearhead. I swear... I swear, I'll never let anyone touch 'em, ever again. Not even if it kills me", the witch grumbled and his voice lowered into angry muttering and cursing.

Two guards appeared from the general direction where Solfanes knew three of his friends to be imprisoned. He had attempted to visit them yesterday but the guards had barred his entrance. The nephilim – clad in hard leather armor and tabards providing an extra layer of warmth against the cold atmosphere that reigned within the caverns – walked up the hillside towards him. He poked inside to fetch his own waistcoat and staff that he had carved from a cavetree branch he had bought from the nephilim’s bazaar. An instinct told the witch that the nephil sentries were on their way to him.

The human met the two felines by the doorway, and after customary greetings they went on to business. They spoke with one of the dozens of Nephilian’s dialects. Nephilian was a language that was loosely related to the ancient nephilim language Mmh’rrur, but its’ origins laid equally much at the humans’ common tongues.

”Mrr, human witch Solfanes”, one of the warriors purred. ”The elder Thuir’M’Karr will see you now. After that you are to meet with the Elders’ Covenant.”

”- Very well, sentry. What news of my friends?”

”Concerning the humans, mrr, same as yesterday and the day before. The slith, however---”

”His name is Syaren”, the witch muttered sourly under his breath.

”--- has been interrogated by our shamans and stands relieved of suspicions for being a darkling. Mrr. It seems he abandoned the path of savagery long ago. He has been escorted back to the hut where your two of your friends already reside, mrrrr.”

”All right. Let us not keep the elders waiting, then”, Solfanes closed the hut’s door behind himself and paced after the watchers. He needed not to ask of Iríth nor Philip, for he had visited them at the temple earlier in the day. Although they were under guards’ gaze, they knew better to let the human pass.

Solfanes had known to await for the summons, but his anxiety only built up with each passing step. While it was good to finally reach a conclusion to the whole matter of releasing his and Iríth’s acquaintances to their clan, he knew that coming to a closure that he and the rest of them wanted wasn’t going to be easy – Morquor would surely take care of that.

 

* * *

 

It was a slow but uneventful journey to the Elders’ Dome, and the sentries remained respectfully at the top of the carved stone stairs that they had journeyed, bowing briefly at the Dome before proceeding. As per the customs, approaching an Elders’ Dome in any other manner was forbidden. Instead, a visitor had to travel a specific path, oftentimes passing by statues that housed some of the nephilim’s ancestral spirits. Paying respects or praying to said ancestors was not optional if the traveler was a member of the clan or a nephil. Obviously, in the case of emergency such methods were not necessary, but a shaman would traverse the path and soothe the spirits afterwards in case there had been an unvoluntary violation of the Ancestral Code.

The Dome’s interior was warm and filled with thick, blue smoke. Tall nephil watchers – tall for nephilim standards, as they were nearly as tall as Solfanes – stood at guard on both sides of the entrance. There were candles, expensive cloth and even silk woven from spiders’ webs, bowls and small carved statues with offerings left before them. Every time the witch visited this place he felt like he’d start to slowly lose his mind, in a disturbingly pleasant manner. A distant chanting fulfilled the air alongside the soft roaring of the firepits’ flames. Joss sticks hanged high above, alongside drying or dried cinecaps and red-speckled toadstools.

The human murmured a greeting for the sentries, not that it was necessary, and continued onward. He had been summoned specifically to meet the elder Thuir’M’Karr first, and so he headed into the cove formed by thick reeds and cloth that he knew to be M’Karr’s own little corner of the world.

”Greetings, human”, the elder purred with the Nephilian language. ”Please, do sit.” He motioned and gazed at the witch with his grey, piercing eyes. His ears swiveled around as though of their own accord, no doubt listening to psychedelic voices.

”Greetings, elder Thuir’M’Karr”, Solfanes started but ceased immediately upon seeing the elder’s raised hand.

”That’s hardly necessary, young witch”, Thuir purred. ”We’re almost family. Just remember to keep up the manners when we go to meet the other Elders, mrrr.”

Solfanes said nothing but nodded quietly. Behold, Thuir had taken Iríth as his guarded-daughter upon the surface. Thus he regarded her as his own child, for he had not been blessed with any of his own during his long age. The witch’s close relation to Iríth, crossing their racial differences, bound him to Thuir almost as intimately as any bloodtie.

”What news of the Queendom?”, M’Karr queried and handled a mushroom cap, smelling it occasionally.

”- Not good, elder. The demons have advanced somewhat inland but last when I heard we were holding them near the river. How fares Darkmoon?”

”We’ve seen better days, but the current situation is not worse than what we suffered during our time spent in the Triumvirate’s lands, hmrr... Nephilim clans, as you know, do not get along too well with each other. But here we have freedom of movement, and while the land that you traversed to get here is smooth, the northern parts of this gallery are of immensely jagged and rough terrain. That is a huge advantage to us, for our hunters have far less trouble moving through the rocky terrain than our adversaries.

”The demoniacs and their dark sliths, while already slowed down by the cold atmosphere, are having hard time now that our efforts may be focused solely on keeping them away, instead of having to remain wary of your Queendom, as well. The truce was like a fried, salted fish to a starving person. Mrrrr.

”Alas, that may soon change. I trust that Iríth has enlightened you of the situation in our clan, mrr?”, Thuir concluded.

”- Yes, elder”, the human replied. ”She told me of ... the Proving Grounds’ incident, and the contest for chieftainship. It seems that Darkmoon’s survival hangs in the balance.”

”And what are your thoughts?”, the elder queried rather bluntly, glancing occasionally at the mushroom cap in his hands.

”- About ... Grum’Gaor’s death at the Proving Grounds?”

”Yes.”

”- Well, Iríth’s choice seemed quite unlike her, elder. I ... while I cannot say I could condone such an action, I do understand why she chose as she did. If she believed it to be in the Clan’s best interests, then I stand by her side, even if it pains me that she was forced to take such a course of action.”

”You cannot condone such an action, and yet you’ve committed murders of similar kind yourself”, the elder gazed at the witch across of the fire.

Solfanes breathed heavily and blushed bright red. He wouldn’t dare to even look at the elder, but his gaze gravitated to his eyes nonetheless. ”... Iríth told you?”

”- The whole story, along with so many other things, mrr. There aren’t any secrets between myself and her. After all, she is like a daughter to me.”

The bright-red human knew well enough that the elder was waiting for an explanation of some kind for his outburst of violence. He swalloved. ”At the time, elder, what I saw in those cells were not inferior beings without any rights; but rather living, breathing and feeling prisoners of war who had seen too much horror for two lifetimes combined. And the blasted separatists only sought to add to their misery! During my time as a captain in Fort Harqen, I never allowed torture as a method to maintain the prisoners or gather intelligence from them. I have never allowed it, and never will.”

The human maverick started to warm up and continued. ”I believed the separatists’ actions to bring nothing but bad blood between our nations, and such dissent was hardly necessary in the face of a greater threat. Even now, at least three Forts in my homelands are ablaze, their defenders laying battered and bleeding on the walls and courtyards, having stood fast against nameless terrors right out of the worst nightmares. Numerous ports and towns burned in the region of Crathsalt alone.

”And yet, the separatists think that they can win this war alone, or worse yet, they believe it to be better to die divided than stand together. That, if anything, is molten insanity. I do confess, my hands are drenched in their blood. However, I believe that their deaths, and through that the nephilim prisoners’ and Iríth’s survival, have saved countless more lives in sparing our nations from butchering each other for the sole reason of racial difference.”

”I see”, the elder nodded, placed down the mushroom cap and waved a smoking joss stick before his nose, inhaling the fumes. ”You are as responsible as Iríth described you to be. That is good, mrr. That is necessary, if we want to continue such a conflict-less course for our nations. Indeed, we have a hotheaded tomcat to deal with who would want to lead our Clan to war against humanity.”

”What exactly needs to be done? Isn’t your own son a chieftain, now?”, Solfanes queried, remembering Iríth’s explanations.

”Yes, he is”, Thuir replied. ”However he is hopelessly honorable, while Morquor is cunning and isn’t afraid of using dirty tricks. Should Morquor attempt to challenge Tyamhurr’s rule, which he no doubt will do soon, there’d be no doubt of the outcome.”

”- So, Iríth would have to challenge your son’s rule?”

”No, that wouldn’t be necessary, mrr. There are a couple of ways to go about this. As per the Code, before challenging the chieftain those candidates whom the Elders’ Council accepts as contenders for the rank will have to duel as is recorded in the Ancestral Code. The duel must not end to either participant’s death.

"Thus, we can eliminate Morquor from competing for the rank for at least a year, and during that time we'll have a better chance to either have Tyamhurr give up the leadership and pass it to someone more suitable or otherwise. I doubt that the clan would accept Iríth as a chieftain so soon after her return but we could use her to topple Morquor’s plans like a crumbling goblin shrine under a landslide. Mind you, I do not cherish the thought of using my daughter as a weapon but there is really no other way, hmrr."

”- So, that is why Iríth banished herself? Because she defeated and killed a contender for her rank?”

”That is correct, mrr. The elders would’ve done that anyway, but self-imposed exile is seen in a more positive manner.”

”- I’m sorry for being this curious but what happens if a violator doesn’t exile herself?”

”Mrr. She is not equipped upon banishment and she is declared as an outlaw, branded by a burnmark. No clan will accept a branded exile, and such exiles usually wind up as brigands, or die alone to the wilds, hmrr.”

”- I’ll be damned... That sounds a bit harsh, that does.”

”The Ancestral Code has been created in such a manner. Our hierarchy and code of conduct is strict but fair. It has been formed so that it ensures our survival. Mrr, take into consideration that the aforementioned punishment is a result for killing a potential chieftain. Nephilim clans are always relatively small, and every member is valuable part of a greater whole. We cannot afford to allow for unnecessary bloodshed. Banishment works far better than just killing the violators, mostly because of the fear of reprisal from the executed nephil’s family or loved ones. Hmrr, have you not seen it first hand in how the Empire has handled misfits and rebels in its’ midst?”

”- That’s... fair enough, I suppose. But, returning to our Iríth. Her banishment could be revoked, yeah? How does that work?”

”Yes, mrr. Since Iríth has shown understanding and respect of the Ancestral Code and banished herself willingly, and she has shown to be honourable enough to have attained the trust of an outsider – yours – she can invoke your trust as a sign of atonement and selfless acts. A person of this kind has proven herself to resourceful enough to be of some use to the clan from whence she was banished, and may be admitted back, provided that certain requirements are met."

”- I’m sorry, but... how am I an outsider? I mean, I’m a member of Darkmoon Clan. Besides, Iríth and I---”

”It’s not so much about you being an outsider”, Thuir cut in. ”I apologize for using a bad expression. I did not mean to offend you.”

”- Oh, no, I’m not offended. I’m just as curious as I am confused.”

”The way how we nephilim see this matter... You did leave the Clan a few years ago. You left the clan’s grounds and had little affiliation with us, save for some rare occasions. Moreover, you are a human, and that sets you slightly apart from us. Not much, but enough to account you as an outsider. Thus, by the time Iríth persuaded you to return to us to quarantee her entrance to the Clan, you were not under any bond or oath to help her nor the Clan, and you had every right to reject the request. Hence, for the purposes of the Walk of Amang'Arrm, you are an outsider. Amang'Arrm being of course Rite of Passage, in case you had forgotten.”

”- That’s... weird. So any nephil, err, member of a clan in this case, is free to leave their clan if they so choose? But they also lose all rights and responsibilities as well?”

”Yes. Very, very few ever want that, however. A lone nephil is much more vulnerable to hostile clans. Besides, is it not the same for humans? Very few humans ever leave their societies to live in peace and solitude, is it not so, mrr?”

”- Well, that’s true. Strength in numbers...”

Thuir nodded deeply and tilted his head, smelling a joss stick deeply before speaking again. ”Concerning the Elders’ Council and your vouching for Iríth, do you know what to expect?”

”- She didn’t quite have enough strength to describe such a council’s passage, elder. As I visited her earlier today in the temple, she managed to but blink her eyes.”

”First...” the elder went to greath lengths to explain the way in which such councils were ran. He explained the strict code, greetings and a whole host of details. After a long talk he came to the important part. ”I have implored the other elders to agree that we’d first handle the admittance of your comrades to the Clan as visitors. We should have relatively little trouble here, as Morquor cannot deny the evidence that your pack vanquished a large warband of dark sliths and imps. Our scouts have confirmed this, mrrr. The elders will see this as a strong enough demonstration of your good will and usefulness.

”After their release has been secured, we’ll move on to Iríth. While Morquor is certain to try to calumniate Iríth, it will go unheard by the elders. Rather, he will try to incite you into ire, to cause you to make a mistake and discredit yourself in the eyes of the elders. You’ll need to stay calm and rational. The elders will ask of you if you’re willing to vouch for Iríth and if you’d be ready to put your life at risk for her.

”Should you accept, you’d be allowed to take one person with you to the Walk of Amang'Arrm. Alas, Morquor’s position as a weapons’ master allows him to choose the opposition, the warriors whom you’ll have to face.”

”- Does the Ancestral Code ensure that the vouching person should come to no harm upon entering the clan, as a visitor? Is he or she allowed to leave as they desire?”

”No, the Code doesn’t make any mentions of that, hmrr. Thus the customs vary from clan to clan, but annals generally describe that after the Walk has been completed and the banishment rescinded, the confidant is either drugged with strong medicinal herbs and lead far away from the clan so that finding a way back is nigh impossible, or sent on their way. That is just the way Darkmoon has followed for the last six hundred years, though. I couldn’t tell how Fang or Far-Fletch have treated their visitors, for example. Not that it's really necessary under the circumstances, anyway, since you are a member of the clan.”

”- Right, right... Speaking of which, what are the rules of Rite of Passage?”

”Mrr, you are allowed to bring any items and weapons you can fit on yourself without using backbags or similar carrying devices. You can wear the armor of your choice. You can enter with one other person as a support. You have to reach the end of the passage and bring us a golden skull as a token of succession. The weapons’ master will hide the skull somewhere into the maze, and there will be a fixed number of opponents.

”Here we run to another problem, mrrow. While the Code dictates again that all combatants must survive, that is to say neither you nor the maze guardians are allowed to inflict fatal wounds upon one another, I fear that Morquor will choose his fiercest and most loyal warriors. They will come for your blood and life, even if it means banishment for them. They’re absolute in their respect for their leader.”

”- Can’t you implore the other elders too accuse him of plotting such a deliberate violation and betrayal?”

”Even if I knew of his plans, and I do, I couldn’t pin it upon him directly. He would be likely to use scapegoats to take the blame, hmrr. Thus, you and your brother- or sister-in-arms need to remain wary. Ideally you should go for bludgeoning weapons to render your opponents into unconscious state, or disarm them so as to keep them from killing themselves to disgrace you. There is no knowing how far Morquor or his followers are willing to go to see this Clan turned to a path of blood.”

Solfanes’ head spun. While the prospect of such a test frightened him, now that he knew what kind of maniacs were up against him, he figured that he needed to share the story with Kobierth. She loved politics, and the bygone conversation had been fulfilled with twists.

”- That sounds... utterly horrible. I mean, Morquor and his zealots. If his father was anything like he is, I really understand why Iríth chose to kill him, I really do.”

”Between you and myself, I agree”, Thuir nodded quietly. ”However, this time we will avoid any further bloodshed. This time we will preserve our unity. Now, do you have any more questions? If not, we’d better go and meet with the remainder of the elders.”

The witch thought quietly for a minute. "Nothing comes to mind."

Silently the two figures rose and shuffled through the Dome. One of them had gone through these motions for hundreds of times, while the other felt a rush of awkwardness and fear, as though stepping before a witch-coven once again to be tried. The next few moments would decide all of their fates. There was simply no room for mistakes. With that in mind, the witch’s respect for Kobierth’s ability and interest to weave herself through the intricasies of politics arose by leaps and bounds.

A door of reeds opened, and the two figures entered a room, where they were met by seven pairs of eyes: six of them gleaming with interest and one sparkling with pure loathing. ”This is going to be great...”, the human thought to himself.

Morquor winked at a guard outside, whom nodded in return and turned away. As the nephil guard clenching a human-made shortsword disappeared from Morquor’s view, he purred quietly and turned his gaze at the human. ”Let the hunt begin”, he thought quietly.

 

* * *

 

Philip felt guilty and annoyed at himself. He remembered that someone had blamed him for striking a young girl's tooth out, but couldn't remember the reason for the death of him. Whether the incident was true or no, he had firmly decided to make amends. He was on the streets of Wesvynia, a port city that he and his two companions had visited about a week ago.

The sage had bought a gift as an apology from an arcane emporium where the black-robed archwizard called Zefaynas had served as a shopkeeper. The archwizard, who had taken a personal interest in Philip and the crystal he carried in his possession, had asked for a jug of maggots as a payment. The scholar had complied and thanked the wizard for the business. He had noticed an old friend from Solaria in the backroom, fiddling with pots fulfilled with severed imp heads. The atmosphere on the outside was chilly and misty, with the streets being twisted and alien, but somehow he knew exactly where to go. There it was, just beyond the corner.

"Anastasia's Care", the scholar mumbled. He rolled onward in a weird chair with wheels. Again, he had no idea why he was sitting in such a contraption, but he accepted it just the same. He glanced at a pouch on his belt. "A rose-red candle, that'll be enough."

There was a ramp close by, used by wagons drawn with the giant lizards he had come to accept as a familiar sight on the Queendom's roads. Upon approaching, a gate closed shut before him, barring entrance to the sanatorium's cellar. He cursed quietly under his breath but decided to remain cool under the circumstances and tried to look for another way in.

Philip turned around. The girl was there, staring at him with her mouth gaping open. She held her teeth in her hand, palm up. Her gaping mouth twisted into something that resembled a smile, and her skin stretched thin, revealing the veins and white bone underneath. "Wake up."

 

* * *

 

Ymwar's Temple of Meiar Diyth'Fangur

 

Despite the serenity within the temple's cellar where both the sleeping quarters and guest quarters were located, there was a tension in the air. Philip had woken up from a bad dream and glanced around. The room was alight with a couple of lanterns, and it was relatively warm. Off in another room, there was a fireplace with a chimney, providing warmth to the entire temple. Iríth laid on a bed across the room, covered with light blankets. The scholar turned his gaze unto other parts of the room and tried to shake off the haze that plagued his mind. Immediately he noticed that the nephilim guards were gone, which was very unusual. Philip's heart started pounding and his hands got sweaty. Something was very wrong. He was clad but in his rough shirt and trousers, with his green-checkered coatee laying on a small table close by. The pale, shivering man wore the coat and boots, with the intention of having a look around in case something had gone wrong. Being careful to not strain his body too much, he was about to rise up.

In that instant there were sounds in the hallway that lead to and away from the cellar. The sage pressed his head back to the pillows and once again hoped that passive observation would bring him an advantage over his advesaries -- he didn't have enough time to wake up Iríth nor set up an ambush. They were both still badly wounded. As he closed his eyes to a squint he foisted his hand to the sleeves of his shirt, just to make sure that the artefact was there. An idea passed through the young human's mind.

The door squeaked open and a nephil guard with a short sword appeared to the room. Philip gazed at the guard, squinting and pretending to be asleep. As soon as the nephil saw Iríth, however, he made his way towards her, sword steadily held towards the wounded feline's chest.

Philip cast the blankets aside and noticed a piece of firewood close by. He stuck the artefact back to his pocket and grasped the makeshift cudgel. The grey-furred nephil was almost by Iríth's side, but Philip was also right behind the assassin. The sage wasn't going to ask any questions, not that he could've understood the language, anyway. The human flung his weapon at the creature's head and got him to fall quite easily. He didn't check if the assassin was dead or no, but instead concentrated on waking Iríth.

"- Hmrr... The ocean's so deep. An island of sand in the night... Look, let's swim there..."

"Iríth, you need to wake up", Philip glanced nervously over his shoulder at the doorway.

"- ... It was just an instinct, but I didn't listen. I don't wish to wake up, mrr."

"Iríth!", the human's voice got steep with desperation. Something touched at his foot. The nephil guard wasn't dead! Not only that, but the nephil seemed disturbingly familiar, somehow...

The pale, dark-haired sage raised his cudgel to a rushed defence, just fast enough to halt a blow from slicing his head in two. He dodged backwards and waited for the guard to make his move.

"Garrom?", Philip breathed and lowered the nearly broken cudgel.

"By the kelps, mountain-monkey Philip!", Quickfinger Garrom snarled back. For a moment both combatants simply gazed at one another.

"What are you doing here?!", the human managed to ask. He clutched the cudgel so hard that his his knuckles lost color.

"Why, I found a clan that accepted a clanless sailor to their ranks. I even found someone who shared me views of the world", Quick surged towards Iríth. Philip managed to swing a nasty uppercut with the club and interrupted the nephil's assault.

"- Quick, stop! She's a friend!"

"There are no such things as friendly rakshasi! There are no friendly monsters in this world, Philip!", Quick raised his voice and paced around, with the sage protecting Iríth from him.

"She's a former chieftain, for crying out loud!", Philip screeched.

"Look, landlubber, I don't care! I swore a sailor's oath when I left Fort Roc! An oath, Philip!" He swung with his sword but the sage dodged and retaliated, with the wooden cudgel reaching nothing but thin air.

"And I don't care about your oaths! No, actually I do. Why, Quick? For the---" It was then that a realization struck the young scholar. "Was it because of what happened just before we fled the dungeon in Fort Roc? Because of boatswain Leyla, and that eyebeast?"

"First Mate Leyla, of Wainscotting", Quick hissed quietly. "Upon that day I lost the last member of the family that I ever cared about. The last member of HMS Redwave. By the graves of all those dead before me, I swore to cleanse this world free of magical beings. And that's what I'm doing!" The angry nephil leveled a nasty chop towards the human from above.

"Did you not hear what I just said?! She is a chieftain! She's hardly evil!", Philip yelled and danced backwards, dodging a flurry of blows. Quick did not seem to hear, however. His eyes were like mirrors, not betraying a single thought or emotion anymore.

Philip's strength waned fast and he knew he was no match for a swordsman of Quick's caliber. He had to end the fight short, now rather than soon. The sage entrenched his grasp of the cudgel and didn't dodge anymore. The sailor in his rage didn't see the trap sprung ahead of himself. Just as the sailor swung his sword down at the human, Philip timed a swing of his own at the sword. The sword took the blow, bent and got stuck to the spare bed's stuffings where the human had just slept. Philip readied his cudgel again but made no threatening moves -- he had no interest in killing a defenceless person, not even if he had just attempted to murder the sage's friend. Besides, he wasn't all that fond of killing at all if he could just avoid it.

"I'm not going to kill you!", Philip yelled at the sailor. "Abandon this mad scheme, Quick! Join us! Soon we'll leave to hunt demons. That'd be pleasant work for you, too, wouldn't it?"

"- I don't think so, Philip. I swore by the graves of HMS Redwave and her crewmen. Do yer' think that I'm about to betray me word because of some half-breed that I've never seen before in me life? Peg yer' pardon but that's a bit tall order."

"Then you force my hand", Philip tried his best to hold himself steady and cool. However, the prospect of assaulting his former fellow didn't really feel right.

A memory paralyzed the sage's thoughts. The blade cut through the air. Philip's muscles obeyed. His clothes scraped against his sweaty and cold skin. The leather boots under his feet felt soft, allowing him to feel the coarse gravel underneath. He saw as the dagger's point reached its' intended target. Philip closed his eyes and felt disgustingly clearly as the blade did its' job. He grimaced and pulled his head away, shaking uncontrollably but holding the dagger still. He felt as Yusa's hands slammed against the dagger, instinctually attempting to defend the most vulnerable area of a humanoid's body. There was no further movement.

That had been Philip's first kill, in the hidden brigand dungeon in Fort Roc, and now he was about to take yet another life. How many lives had he taken already? How many peoples' eyes had he closed shut? How long distance had Garrom traveled? He had managed to reach the Darkmoon's lands, hoping to find a place to rest, something to eat... The scholar's hands sweated and he had hard time looking at Garrom, anymore. Talking to the sailor had been a horrid, utterly horrid mistake.

Quick gazed at the human for a while and hesitated. Philip, in turn, could see that the nephil was considering a possiblity of assaulting him. While the two combatants glared at one another, a blue light pierced Quick's body and smote him against a wall. As the nephil hit the ground, his eyes were closed already. There was a throwing knife grasped within the assassin's hand, one that hadn't been there a moment ago. A few more seconds and Philip would've been a goner. The human closed his eyes and cast the club on the floor, doing his best to not break in front of the priestess.

"Iríth!", Philip exclaimed with relief and rushed to the wounded half-blood, helping her sit up.

"Whe... what... is going on?", the priestess breathed. Every word was a struggle, and even just being up and awake like this seemed to drain her strength. The ritual of smite hadn't helped much.

"You tell me", Philip shrugged. "I just woke up, as if ... warned by an instinct, and I saw ... him over there trying to slice you with his sword."

"How do you... nevermind. Morquor. That man must have been one of Morquor's goons", Iríth breathed heavily.

"Who's Morquor?", Philip queried as he helped the wounded priestess get up on her feet.

"Hmrrr, it's a bit of a long story", Iríth's ears drooped, and for a moment she had to hold herself still and keep her eyes closed. Nauseation and dizzyness from being on her back for such a long time washed over her. The amulet brought her some comfort and relief, however. "Suffice it to say that he doesn't like me, you, or anyone non-nephil. He wants to become a chieftain of this clan, and lead the nephilim to war against humans. He perceives me as a threat. Rightfully so, because we're here to stop him..."

"Okay, fair enough", Philip nodded. "Can you walk?"

"I think so", Iríth replied. "How about yourself? How do you feel?"

"- My muscles still hurt. I think I've got a fever, but... it doesn't prevent me from following your lead."

"Between you and me, I'm not actually that fond of responsibility of leadership. Just, don't tell anyone about it", Iríth confessed, purring briefly. "Be that as it may, it's propable that the couple of guards posted to watch over us are either dead or in the plot, so we'll need to be ready for just about anything. One of my rituals, a smite, should be enough to bring them down. Nevertheless, you'd best be ready to swing that cudgel."

The injured pair limped all the way up to the temple's main floor, emerging to the backroom. There was a shaman laying dead in a pool of blood, close by. Iríth crouched next to him and paid respects, offering a quick prayer for his soul. Soon they were on the move again and peeked from behind of a canvas curtain that served as a door between the preparations' room and the temple main area.

Sweet smell of incense hanged slightly in the air, and a couple of shingles burned within small holes in the walls. One nephil guard laid dead by the doorway, surprised by his traitorous comrade Quickfinger Garrom.

"Someone is going to pay for this", Iríth snarled with her ears leveled. She was quite bitter, run-down by the recovery from her wounds, and the sight of her people slaughtering each other for the petty lure of power disgusted her greatly.

The two patients had to stop to catch their breaths for a couple of times during the ridiculously short distance of twenty feet, but their bodies were in very bad shape. Philip's hands were numb, and he wondered if there'd be strength in him to even be able to raise the club anymore. After an arduous journey they had reached the main door, and laid against the wall on both sides.

"Where next?", Philip asked and warmed his hands by one of the shingles. He shivered, both because of lack of extra clothes and because of the fever that ravaged him.

The half-blood thought and considered all manner of options before her mind was awake enough to give her a proper answer. "We'll need to find the others. Solfanes. Kobierth, Greth and Syaren. They must be in the eastern quadrant of the town."

"Ah yes, of course", Philip slapped himself to his forehead, scolding himself for his slowness in understanding. Morquor hated humans and sliths alike, and if there had been a swordsman sent for Iríth and Philip, there were almost certainly more assassins on their way to the rest of the band. Now they just had to hope they'd reach the rest in time.

 

* * *

 

Solfanes and Kobierth proceeded cautiously down the ladder. Soon enough the warrior came to the ladder’s end and dropped down a couple of feet. Amang'Arrm was designed so that the participants had to enter an underground maze and couldn’t get out in any other manner than by using specific exits pre-defined by the nephilim.

”Jump down”, Kobierth encouraged the witch who was still hanging by the ladder.

The heavy-bodied human caused a loud crash as he fell and hit against a wall. His legs crunched trash and broken pottery beneath his feet. Quietly he rose and they made their way onward. There were no freshly ignited torches nor shingles anywhere close by as the nephilim had accustomed to only test their own kin, whom had no trouble seeing even in nearly utter darkness. Kobierth had prepared for this, however, and pulled up a torch and flintstone. A flick of a wrist later they had fire. This spared Solfanes from creating an orb of light – while he had got more profient in its’ creation lately, it still preserved his mana for a later use, even if it was just a small amount.

”So, we art dealing with warriors whom art potentially suicidal if they don’t take our lives first?”, Kobierth asked of the witch cautiously.

Both of the the humans knew that whispering was almost useless as if there were any nephilim within earshot they’d hear the humans with no real troubles. Solfanes had explained the situation in short words as he had been reunited with the rest of the band after the Elders’ Council had ended. Seeing his compatriots and especially Iríth and Philip unharmed and in relatively good condition had fulfilled his heart with warmth, and while duty called, he was not glad to answer. Kobierth had been quick to offer herself as a volunteer out of the three healthy members of the band, and soon enough they had been on the move.

”Yes. If they fail to kill us, they’ll propably try to either slash themselves or quaff poison or something similarly horrid”, Solfanes confirmed, remembering Thuir'M'Karr's words and the secret meeting before the Elders' Council. ”They’re true zealots, and they’ll try to disgrace us at all costs.”

”And should this Rite of Passage fail, Iríth could not enter the Clan”, Kobierth confirmed with an almost thrilled voice and marched onward. The passageway continued as smooth and in a straight-forward line for quite a bit. Something wasn’t right, and the erstwhile queen had a keen glance at the walls and the floor.

”That’s correct”, the fair-haired witch nodded. He had guessed correctly the fact that the woman was absolutely thrilled about the amount of plotting going on in the little clan. ”That would mean an end to the peace between the Darkmoon nephilim and humans.”

The warrior had opted to take the hand axe as her main weapon because no bazaar’s stall nor weaponsmith was open by this late hour, and the rest of their arms just weren't good enough for the job. While the axe had taken a couple of dents and notches when Solfanes had hammered the darkling during the fight in Dead Slith’s Valley, it still retained its' bite; moreover, Kobierth intended to use the axe’s hammer-side to knock out the nephilim so they couldn’t perform self-harm.

Kobierth crouched on the floor and inspected a couple of peculiar pressure plates that seemed just slightly out of place. ”Here’s a plate”, she muttered. ”And there’s another. I’m afraid I can not disarm them. To be fair, I doth not think these can be disarm'd without dismantling half of this place. The mechanism propably lieth dormant beneath the very stonework itself. We just have to move past these plates and keep watchful for any other similar triggers.”

”- Right, then.”

The atmosphere continued as gloomy and pitched. Since the humans couldn’t see in the dark and they had a burning torch, they effectively threw away any and all elements of surprise they had. They approached a doorway on their left, with the corridor continuing further onward. There was a small thread between the door and the hinge, no doubt sprung as a trap.

”For once, Lady Luck is on our side”, Kobierth smiled and went up to disarm the thread. ”It was much easier to see this trap within the torchlight, shimmering against the bright flame.”

”I have to confess, I had no idea you were so well versed in the art of shadowplay”, the witch commented and kept guard against both directions in case the nephilim had hidden pathways or secret doors which they could use to surprise the humans.

”It came with leading a tribe”, Kobierth replied quietly. ”Rival tribes’ warriors and thieves alike would make our lives a living nightmare. Traps, poisons, contraptions... I have seen them all.”

”I understand”, Solfanes replied and prepared a magical shield, similar in nature to that of Iríth’s shielding ritual. While sorcery had a tendency to manipulate, create and destroy the fabric of reality, the divine and holy rituals usually either preserved, restored or used the existing reality. There were exceptions, of course, and Solfanes’ magical shield was no different in this matter. Leaning against his staff, he waved the wooden magic wand and pointed it at himself and the axewoman, creating a couple of shimmering, white cupolas around them.

”I thank thee”, Kobierth whispered, concentrating. She managed to tweak the thread so that they could open the door without setting the trap off. ”There, that ought to do it.”

”- Nice, well done!”

The room behind the door was square, with a small elevation in the middle. There was an empty podium upon the elevation, with a small shaft of green, caverns’ light pouring down from the ceiling.

Kobierth’s warrior senses warned her of a danger, and she volunteered to go first. Taking the wooden buckler from a strap in her back and wielding it in her right hand, Kobierth continued onward and carefully crept inside. She was one of the few people whom Solfanes had ever seen fighting using a sword in her left hand and a shield in the right one.

Solfanes followed right after her, grasping a dried bone instead of the staff – he intended to weave weakening curses and not offensive spells.

A zealot charged from the shadows with a blood-freezing howl. Solfanes almost suffered a stroke but managed to hold himself together. Kobierth took the first blows with the buckler and slashed violently a couple of times with the axe’s blade to slow the crazed nephil a bit. One of the blows connected but the chainmail protected its' nephil wearer. The weapons swung and white-hot embers flew as the blades hit the stone walls and got deflected by shields. Finally a curse flew through the air, slowing the hapless zealot and despite her hissing and flailing her movement slowed down, allowing for Kobierth to bash her easily with a buckler. The desert’s warrior switched the axe so that she was swinging with the axe's butt. After the buckler connected she swung with the axe and broke through the nephil's small shield, cracking one of the zealot’s bones.

The nephil was smitten against one of the walls and dropped her dented bronze sword. The half of the small shield was still strapped to her broken arm, and with a shaking hand she reached for a bottle on her belt.

”Cease, please! You know of the rules, human shaman Solfanes! Allow me to drink a healing potion. I can’t get up the ladder otherwise!”, the zealot yelled across of the room, speaking with Nephilian.

The witch ignored the zealot’s bluffs and turned to Kobierth, speaking with the common tongue. ”She’s going to quaff a poison! Take the bottle off of her.” The woman did as instructed and put the bottle on her belt. She went across the room, gazing back at the nephil and made sure that a porticullis opposing the wooden door couldn’t be opened from this side. She saw a bunch of levers in the other room, and a single closed door.

Solfanes approached the struggling nephil and crouched in front of her. She nearly bit him out of disgust for him. ”You human trash! Morquor will have your heads! Then---”

”Just shut it, will you?”, the human replied coldly and waved a bone across of the nephil’s head, paralyzing her. He then weaved a minor heal, just enough to make sure that the wounds would close.

”The porticullis can not be opened from this side”, Kobierth walked up to the open door and grasped the live torch from the floor. ”It is propably for the best if we hath a look around. I am sure that the Rite has been created so that we must visit every room. There might be a key around here somewhere.”

Surely enough there was a nail in the wall, next to the gate of iron bars that the axewoman had just inspected. A small metal ring had a couple of keys hanging from itself. The magician pocketed the keys and they continued on with their merry way.

A locked door marked the end of the corridor. Kobierth inspected the surroundings and found nothing. The room after the door was like the one before, except that there weren’t any nephil zealots inside. An eerie silence hanged heavily in the air. Something wasn't quite right, and the both of the humans felt it all the way in their bones.

Far away from the maze, on the other side of the settlement, the last of Morquor's trusted warriors who weren't dead or assigned to the maze started a slow and arduous journey up the hillside to the Elders' Dome. Their pacing was slow and reluctant, and regretfully they paid respects to the ancestral spirits along the path. A responsibility of most horrid kind had been placed upon them, and while they knew they'd be eternally cursed for commiting such crimes they accepted it just the same, facing rather a damnation into unlife than Morquor's wrath.

 

* * *

 

Iríth and Philip slumbered by the fireplace, warmed by measly blankets. The short journey and the joy of being reunited with their friends and close ones had drained them completely of their energy. Greth and Syaren sat on the opposing side.

"Sss. Greth. What you think?", Syaren gazed at the human with his typical way of looking at things from underneath of his brow, tilting his head as he spoke.

"Ahh...", for the the first time in ten years Greth's face displayed the emotion of grief. For a moment he didn't say anything. The prospect of Syaren caring about his feelings and thoughts hadn't been within the list of things he expected of the slith, and now the shame of his opinions weighed upon his tongue. With some effort he uttered. "Kobierth, me love. It's the first time in a long time as I'm ... ", he rose to stand and paced around. "I'm worried about her. Her and the hex-man. I'm worried about them both, scurrying off somewhere without taking me with 'em. I ought to be there, keeping 'em safe."

The tall slith rose to his full height but stood still. "What... happen? I do not understand human tongue, goodly."

"Kobierth went off with Solfanes, the witch, to complete a rite of passage. By that act, they want to return Iríth to her clan", Greth explained, making gestures as he spoke, trying to make it easier for Syaren to understand. His unease caused him to shift and shuffle as though in constant pain, and so he walked across the hut, unable to find peace within his mind. "I feel like something ugly is coming", the human blurted and turned around to face the slith. "I've got a feeling... something... is about to happen."

Indeed, there was a loud racket by the door, and soon enough it was swung violently open.

Morquor was there, hissing at the sentries. The guards, understandably being loyal to Iríth and knowing of the weapons' master's stance, aroused into a loud and nearly violent arguement with the intruder. Greth and Syaren, not understanding a single word of the conversation outside, glanced at one another with mutually confused looks.

Iríth woke from her slumber and although she nearly fainted in doing so she fought bravely to get up. Greth was quickly by the priest's side, but understood enough of politics that he let her stand on her own: it would've harmed her image both in Morquor's and the nephilim's eyes if she had presented herself in a frail manner.

"That's Morquor", Iríth breathed heavily and didn't bother with any pleasantries. "Let's see what he has in his mind." She and Solfanes had indeed explained the situation to the others in a short manner earlier, driving all of the mots important points across. Greth and Syaren understood Morquor to be a dangerous nephil, especially to non-nephilim. The feline closed her eyes. She grasped the amulet and concentrated on healing herself. Ironically enough the healing drained her quite badly, and at the same time as her injured body mended, her strength waned. She figured she had enough energy left in her to confront the weapons' master and see what he had to say.

"Iríth'Maowr!", the weapons' master marched in to the hut. Greth and Syaren backed off behind their feline friend and let her do the talking. "I see that you fare quite well."

"Much to your dismay, I'd presume, mrrow?", Iríth replied and noticed that the guards had come to the hut and held their hands on the hilts of their weapons in case Morquor should try something potentially harmful.

"My designs are none of your concern, half-breed", Morquor replied with disgust visible on his face. His ears were flattened and his nose was all wrinkled. "I have come here to challenge you into an honorable duel for the chieftainship, mrr. The elders recognize you as a member of the clan and an admissible contestant for the rank."

"Wh... How is that possible?", Iríth felt blood drain from her face. Quietly she thanked the Gods for not being a human, as her paleness could've easily betrayed her. It took all of her self-control but she managed to hold her tail from twitching. Kobierth and Solfanes hadn't yet returned, nor did she believe they would've gone with the golden skull to the elders because they had mutually planned earlier that the band of six would hold on to the trophy until Iríth would be feeling better.

"- The two humans returned the golden skull to the elders, already. Now, let us not waste any time. The Proving Grounds await."

"It's ... not possible", Iríth thought to herself and turned to Greth and Syaren, with a terrifying realization striking through her mind; unless they hadn't specifically planned of this exact thing earlier, she would've propably fallen for Morquor's plot. She spoke with the common tongue that she knew Morquor not to be profient in. "The usurper must have taken the golden skull to the elders. Amang'Arrm, the Rite of Passage is meaningless! Kobierth and Solfanes have been lead into a trap! He's not going to stop until every last one of us is dead", Iríth could barely hear herself talking, she was so shocked.

Greth turned towards Morquor with a murderous gaze in his eyes. Iríth's hand on the human's chest ceased him before he managed to act.

The feline spoke with determination in her voice. "No, Greth. Don't. If you kill him now, which you no doubt could, you'd simply disgrace us all in the face of the clan. We can't risk getting us all exiled and having one of his lackeys taking up his place and attempting to rise to power.

"Listen to me, he doesn't understand what we're saying, mrr. We can use that. You three must break free from here. I'll ask of the sentries to come with me as an insurance so that Morquor can't murder me on the way to the Proving Grounds. I can't ensure that the replacement guards would be as loyal as these two are, and so you'll need to break through one of the walls. I'll have someone supply you with a hammer, mrr. Once you're free, make your way to the Elders' Dome and keep them safe. Morquor's madness and lust for power scares me. I fear he will go at any length to gain what he wants."

"What about Solfanes and Kobierth?", Greth queried. "We ain't... abandoning them to their fate, are we?"

Iríth closed her eyes and with a wavering voice she whispered. "We'll just need to place our trust in them. If the Elders die, this Clan might as well scatter to the winds. If that's what it takes I'll kill him and accept the consequences."

"- How is that any different from me severing his head right here and now? I doubt the sentries would mind, either, by the looks of them."

"It's different in the way that he dies on Proving Grounds and not here. That way it is obvious that it was me who killed him. While I'd be branded and exiled for good, Solfanes could still remain here and make certain that the Clan remains in Tyamhurr's control. This is about survival. My fate, or life ... matters little."

"I'd say that Solfanes himself might disagree about that", Greth shook his head but felt his heart swell as he gazed at the former chieftain before himself. "But know this. If ye' ask me, yer' a true monarch, as noble as the kings and queens of oor tribe that no longer exists. If it were for me and me word, you'd be the chieftain for this clan for the remainder of yer' life. ...anyway, do ye' think that Morquor will want to kill the elders? Is it sure we're needed there?"

"- Greth, I... thank you for those words, mrrr. And yes. As I said, it starts to feel like he's going to go at any length to attain the rank for himself. The chiefs normally don't have that much power at their command, but a clan that lacks elders usually tends to follow the highest lord available, blindly. Such is a nephil mind, always seeking and living by the hierarchy, mrrr. Besides, if he should kill me on the Proving Grounds, he'd be exiled by the elders. Thus, he'll need to eliminate them before his ascension to power could ascertained.

"Upon Grum'Gaor's death, Morquor's late father, dozens of their House's supporters shifted their opinions. I'd imagine there are but a very small bunch of the fanatics left, bent on fulfilling the mad son's every wish. I'm sure that at least some of them are at the maze, trying to kill Solfanes and Kobierth. Due to the Amang'Arrm's layout, however, I'd say that the advantage lies at our humans' feet. There are already a number of assassins dead and yet Morquor is accompanied by none... All this leads me to believe that his last zealots are on their way to kill the elders. As I said, they'd be the last thing standing between him and absolute power, should he manage to subdue me. Even if it comes to that... You three will be there to ensure that he won't get his wish fulfilled.

"Alas, we have wasted enough time as it is. We must move out so that you get to the Elders before the zealots do, mrr."

Greth was about to open his mouth but clasped it shut, and nodded. Instead, he simply embraced Iríth, whom stiffened a bit under his crushingly strong arms but purred slightly as a display of approval nonetheless. The warrior let go quite quickly and turned away. Syaren looked unsure on what to do and so he bowed ceremonially. Iríth felt amused and even empowered by the gestures, and replied to the bow.

"Greth", Iríth spoke quietly across of her shoulder, having already turned away. "If something should happen---"

"It won't come to that", the muscular wanderer replied before the former chieftain could finish her sentence. "We won't let it come to that. Now, go give him ... hard time. And... may the Gods watch over ye'."

"- You too, you both." With that, Iríth, Morquor and the sentries were gone, leaving the trio of imprisoned adventurers into deepening dark.

 

* * *

 

Meanwhile, the two humans within the maze of Walk of Amang'Arrm inspected their surroundings with a critically suspicious gaze.

”Do thou sense it, too?”, Kobierth turned towards the witch. ”It is like we art being watched...”

”- Yes, yes, I do. We’d propably best keep moving. It could be that the light we bear has awoken something in this place... Something that the nephilim have managed to avoid by traversing in the dark.”

Kobierth and Solfanes started to leave the room by stepping towards a door on their left, on the same wall as their entrance door. Alas, there was indeed evil within the same room. A palpable malice choked them, causing their hearts to pound hard and skins sweat. A figure emerged from the other side of the elevation on the far side of the room, appearing from a dark corner of the room where their torch's light hadn't quite reached. The creature had bluish, blotchy skin and its' mouth was wide open and it twitched unnaturally. Sometimes its’ head seemed to be upside down on its’ shoulders, but whether that was a trick of frightened mind or a real thing was beyond the humans' caring. Solfanes had already stuck two keys into the keyhole and panic caused him to stumble even more.

”Should we try to fight that... thing?”, Kobierth held the buckler raised and the axe at the ready.

”- NO! Absolutely not! That’s a spectre, and there is NO way we’re bringing that thing down without Iríth. Or, like. Generally you'd need a priest. I doubt that spectre is even a part of this test!”

”A spectre... Yeghek’ Anitsvatsnery yev herru gnal, gisherum urvakany”, Kobierth whispered quietly and put the axe away, making a gesture with her left hand that was supposed to ward against evil. She had but heard of such creatures, haunting crypts or ancient battlefields; now was the first time she saw one in real life, and wished that it'd be the last time, as well.

The door was opened and a long room with pillars stretched before the humans. The axewoman pushed the magician into the hallway and closed the door behind herself. The spectre had already started moving towards them, and while it did not pace with unnaturally fast speed, it did ... ripple, or shift through the air, leaving shadows of itself behind – if the terrified humans were ever to describe the situation to their loved ones, that’s how they’d describe it. Indeed, the spectre rippled or flowed through the air.

Even though Kobierth had locked the door again, the spectre struck its’ claws through the door’s wood. ”It’s coming through!”, she wailed.

”We’re dead... We’re so dead, by the...”, the witch breathed with his face completely pale and leaned heavily upon his staff. One could say that he looked like he had seen a ghost.

The erstwhile queen turned to look and saw that the entire hallway was riddled with pressure plates. They’d have to carefully navigate their way through, lest they’d be pierced by a hundred spears. The walls were lined with telltale holes and there were brown stains here and there, no doubt dried blood that nobody had wanted to wash off. On top of it all, there was a minor inconvenience of a spectre chasing them, one whom would catch them sooner or later.

”What do we do?”, Kobierth turned her dark eyes at the magician. ”It is obvious that we have to face this horrid undead, yea! What spells do thou have under thine command?”

”A host, few of which are useful here. Most of my curses are useless because that spectre is a cursed being itself. It’d be like blasting an efreet with fireblasts."

”- How about that sticky web? The one that I remember thou using during the fight in Dead Slith’s Valley?”

”What about it? I can cast it, yes, but... It’d only slow the spectre. The creature could claw itself free.”

”It might give us just enough time. Can thou...”, Kobierth glanced at the breaking door and took a defensive posture. ”Can thou cast it fast enough twice in a row, so that the spectre doesn’t break free?”

”I should be able to”, Solfanes nodded gravely and concentrated. He didn’t need to ask any more questions. All he needed to know was that Kobierth wanted him to cast the spell twice, and she’d do the rest. It was obvious to him that the warrior had an idea.

The door broke, and the spectre flowed through a hole in the middle. It twitched and raised one of its’ arms towards Kobierth and paced towards her. It didn’t scream or wail, cry or groan. It just approached quietly, which made it all the more horrid for the poor human at the other side of the buckler.

Solfanes unleashed the first spiders’ web and bound the creature against a wall. Kobierth swung the axe but the blade got stuck into the sticky goo. Even though the axewoman prided herself in having nerves of steel, even her confidence started to deteriorate. She'd need to hit the creature dead center and not hit the web. The witch immediately proceeded to weave another web, but the spectre was free already.

The warrior of the arid badlands danced around the undead and tried not to get hit by the spectre's claws. She had a hunch that getting cut by them would do more than just cause bleeding. The spectre's arm swung past crouched Kobierth's head. She straightened herself upright and decided to go for a bold move. The warrior swung her buckler towards the other arm that she knew would be coming. Fortunately, the human was faster than the undead but just as the creature's sharp claws and dry, lank hand smashed against the shield Kobierth felt a freezing cold as though whipping her entire body. The spectre's eyes widened with hunger and its' piercing stare feasted on the axewoman's memories. Reflexively the human slashed the axe from the left and finally managed to cleave the undead's rotten, frozen flesh.

Kobierth jumped back and heard Solfanes finishing up his spell -- his voice started to climb and the words got more pronounced. She shook her head, not feeling quite right. It felt as though the undead had taken a small bite off of her mind. Unfortunately, what made the whole thing even more horrid was that the draining touch seemed to have empowered the undead, as the opressive malice and aura of evil got thicker by the minute. Solfanes was affected by the aura, too, and nearly fumbled in his spellcasting. He needed to concentrate even harder and that slowed down the spell's creation severely.

The warrior steeled herself, took to her feet and jumped away from a leg sweep that she guessed to be coming - the undead was more clever and skilled in combat than she would've liked. She landed softly, rolled away from the spectre and positioned herself near a pressure plate. She glanced behind herself and noticed a patch of land she could land upon. The undead rushed towards her, twitching and clawing the air voraciously. The human stepped deliberately on the pressure plate and jumped backwards, landing behind the spears that had railed out of the wall. She then waited for the spectre to get close enough, and at the very last moment she surged onward, kicked herself into flight and jumped off of the trap-spears, fleeting over the spectre. She landed, twisted an ankle but was forced to ignore it, and turned around. Within the same instant as she set her eyes on the creature, she hit with all of her might.

For the first time during the whole fight the spectre moaned with a blood-freezing howl as the axe thwarted its' body. It retaliated against the tenacious human with blinding speed. Kobierth had barely enough time to raise the buckler into a defence; not that it was much of a use anyway as the measly buckler didn't provide adequate protection against the undead's sharp claws and unnatural strength.

Having successfully parried four blows the buckler gave in. The fifth blow was too much for the cavewooden planks and bronze reinforcements, and the buckler splintered into small pieces. The undead's claws came right through and embedded themselves into Kobierth's right shoulder. The human wailed like a banshee and chopped the spectre's arm off, utterly disgusted and shocked by the assault. She backed off and glanced at the witch. If the fight wouldn't reach a conclusion soon, she couldn't finish it. The warrior had hard time holding herself together, anymore. She had been cut, smashed, pierced and once even poisoned, but never had a single foe managed to land its' claws on her, much less attempted to devour her alive. The only thing that saved her head from being chewed into bits was the fact that she had managed to lop one of the horrid undead's arms off.

Solfanes finally finished his spell. He had struggled hard to maintain focus with the spectre's malice and aura of evil constantly meddling with his concentration. The web flew through the air and bound the undead so that it couldn't move. He started weaving immediately another one, encouraged both by actually finishing the spell as well as Kobierth's prowess and fearlessness.

The warrior approached the spectre carefully and performed a couple of diversions before swinging her axe at the undead's body again. Kobierth chopped accurately through the web into the undead and wounded its' body quite heavily. Soonafter in a gruesome display the spectre's severed head rolled about on the floor, its' mouth gaping open and teeth gritting.

"Behold! Cunning of the magi and the dexterity of axe-dancers beat brainless brawn!", the erstwhile queen yelled victoriously.

"Yes! Yes!", Solfanes joined in to the celebration and dared only now approach the heavily wounded undead. It had ceased from twitching and moving, and dangled grotesquely by the webs. Kobierth aimed a stomp at the head, while Sol turned his head away in disgust. He shuddered and fetched the torch, and rejoined the furious warrior who still attempted to recover from the fight.

The two humans proceeded through the hallway and after a short bit of time they reached the other end, coming face to face with a terrified and awe-struck nephil archer: he had been placed here to snipe at the humans as they'd be making their way across the traps, but the sight of a spectre and the humans' fight against it had left the zealot into an incoherent state of indecisiveness and fear. Obviously, if the nephil had started shooting at the humans he would've been left alone with a hungry spectre, and the outcome of that fight wouldn't have surprised anyone. Yet, he had his orders and his oath to Morquor had forced him to stand his ground.

The trio simply stared at one another until Kobierth pointed towards the ladder nearby, with green light bathing the dark maze upon this side of the trapped corridor. She didn't speak Nephilian but she made it clear by her body-language that she wanted no harm to him. After all, a bow was a very bad choice for a close range combat.

"Go ahead", Solfanes pointed at the ladder with his staff after he had disarmed the warrior of his potions. It seemed to them that Morquor had equipped all of his zealots with poison so that they could commit suicide upon defeat. It went to show how cunning the weapons' master was. While he wasn't propably well versed in magic himself, he knew enough that a poison was much more difficult to counter than simple wounds, even to a witch -- the witches were a bit different in their specialization than wizards and the like, meddling with exotic spells not normally taught in Empire's schools of magery. Examples of such exotic spells were cleansing and restoration, oftentimes slightly differing from their priestly counterparts in terms of effectiveness or casting: such effects were indeed more commonly associated with clerical rituals and Church services.

"- I can't go. You know that, mrrow. A death at your hands is much more pleasant destiny than what Morquor would do to me if he found out about me breaking my oath to him, hmrr."

"Maybe Morquor won't be there to judge you after all of this is over."

"- What do you mean, mrr?"

"If it was up to me I'd strangle him...", the witch thought quietly. "You are one of his zealots, aren't you?"

"- I am", the nephil squinted his eyes and flattened his ears. "What's it to you?"

"I simply wonder if ... He has told you about us, hasn't he? He has told you of what we're trying to achieve?"

"- You are weaklings meddling with business that they shouldn't concern themselves with", the nephil blurted, without any hostility in his voice. It was as though he had stated an obvious truth such as, 'The Sun doesn't shine in the caverns'.

"I figured that might be the case... Tyrants and their methods of the finest sort... And what do you think?"

The archer hesitated. Solfanes could see that his question had struck deep. The initial prejudices that had been embossed to the archer's mind had clearly worn off upon seeing the two humans take on a spectre and win the fight without clerical support, against all odds. The witch figured that this might have ignited a sufficient incredulity within the archer's mind at his master, Morquor, and his preachings.

After a while the nephil replied. "I think that maybe Morquor has been wrong. You have shown me that humans are worthy warriors, as opposed to what the weapons' master has told us. He told us that you are weaklings and cowards. You are aliens to me, yes, weird beings, and yet your prowess inspires me. It will be an honor to die by your hands, mrr."

"- You don't need to die, and much less we wish to kill you. Well, not unless you are plotting to become the next Morquor, bent on toppling Tyamhurr or Iríth, in which case I'll be more than glad to snatch that axe and thwart your limbs from your body and leave you to bleed to death."

"And yet, death is the penalty that one must pay for betraying master Morquor. Unless... You plan on killing him?"

"- How would it affect you?"

"I'd be one step closer to achieving the rank of a weapons' master."

The nephil's bluntness and lack of compassion for his master surprised Solfanes. "I thought that it is stated in the Ancestral Code that all manner of unnecessary bloodshed inside a clan is forbidden?"

"- And I thought that all humans are weaklings, hmrr. So, ... do you and your folk intend on displacing him from his rank?"

"It may come to that, albeit not by our hands. Tell me, what has Morquor done that has you so deeply devoted to him? What does he offer that we couldn't?"

"- I have followed Morquor as a primal hunter only because he promised us grandeur and glory in battle. With all due respect for chieftains Iríth and Tyamhurr, they've maintained rather lukewarm and passive stance so far. We warriors didn't train from our childhoods in the art of holding a knife while others learned to walk, just to stand idly by as war is being waged on our borders! Now, however, you humans seem violent enough to not be able to hold yourselves from the fight. Is it possible that you could bring about winds of change to this Clan?"

"Everything is possible, if one is prepared to sacrifice enough. And trust me when I say that we will not be content with just watching at the flames burning on the Boneriver's far side. My homeland has lost three Forts to this war already, a thousand souls in each one, if not more. I thirst for blood just as much as you do, only my desire is directed at the demons. Iríth wants to maintain good relations with humans because we stand a better chance at this war together, not divided."

"- Curious speech for a representative of a species such as yours. Are all humans like you two are?"

"Make no mistake, Taghtarus' Queendom is fulfilled with Morquors and Kobierths alike", the warrior of the deserts glanced at the witch, hearing her name mentioned in the conversation. Alas, she didn't have a clue about what the clan members were talking about, but quite justly she guessed that Solfanes would explain everything afterwards: he knew of her thirst for politics and intricacies such as this. "While us humans have a tendency of building huge societies, unlike you nephilim do with your small and isolated clans, we tend to be very much divided. But yes, we are all prepared to fight until the last heartbeat."

"- You make it sound like your Queendom is worthy enough to exist at Darkmoon's side, without the necessity for conflict, mrr. What if I told you I was ready to ... break my oath to Morquor? Provided that you hold to your word about the warfare against the demons? Could you, perhaps, give us the same promise that Morquor did? That we could take our revenge against the Triumvirate? I can trust in your honorability?"

"First, you can trust me. Second, I can't guarantee to fulfill your wishes about revenge on the Triumvirate for whatever reason; I'm not a chieftain nor an elder, I'm just a ... witch. Third, we're not going to win this war just by defending our homelands, but not by slaughtering each other mindlessly, either, as Morquor would have us do. We'll need to strike hard and fast behind the Infernal Legion's lines into their nests. I believe that it's the preferred style in which all nephilim fight, is it not?"

"Hit and run. That's how the ancient forefathers defended their lands against the Aizoan murderers", the zealot spat out the last two words and hissed for good measure.

"So... ?", Solfanes offered a hand at the nephil. "We don't need to fight; Darkmoon gets another of its' proud warriors back to its' ranks; and we make sure that Morquor doesn't bother anyone, nor continues his campaign of blood. Deal?"

"- I pray that we'll meet on the field of battle, felling foes worthy of songs for centuries to come", the nephil shook the human's hand.

"I do not pray, I know it'll happen. Now, go to the Elders' Dome and request for an audience with elder Thuir'M'Karr. Tell him that you've decided to leave Morquor to his schemes and if that's not enough, tell that we, Solfanes and Kobierth, spared you. He'll keep you safe from the rest of the goons."

The nephil nodded, hoisted his greatbow around his back and started to climb. The witch quipped after him. "Oh, hey! What's your name? You know ours, already."

"I am primal hunter Mirrim'Mmhrl", the nephil replied quickly and ascended up the ladder, disappearing into the cavern above.

"Another ally", Solfanes wiped his brow and glanced at Kobierth. "And one of Morquor's primal hunters, no less. Our fight against the spectre made a lasting impression upon him."

"What was that?", she spoke almost on top of the man. "What did thee talk about?"

Solfanes started to explain, but they also needed to move onward. Time was of the essence, and neither wanted to stay in the maze any longer than was necessary. After taking small breathers, clearing two rooms and disarming three more zealots Solfanes had finally managed to explain it all.

"Very commendable", Kobierth lauded. "A hunter such as him is sure to be advantageous in the future."

"Pffft", Solfanes waved his hand. "All I did was talk some sense into the lad, that's all I did. You did the fighting, and that's what really impressed him. Let's just be glad that it turned out this way."

"- Yea, we art in agreement."

They stood in front of a porticullis that lead back into the room where they had ran to their first opponent. There was a series of levers on the wall, and a small loose rock on an opposing wall. Kobierth pressed the small rock, and they heard echoes of stone scraping on stone. A wall had opened in the first room. They jogged back and found a small corridor with a small pedestal on the end. Instead of a golden skull that they needed to find in order to complete the Rite of Passage, they found that the pedestal was fulfilled with milky, white liquid. It smelled sweet, and wisps and mist emerged from the liquid's surface.

"Could you sip it, see if it's healing or otherwise?", Solfanes queried of the warrior and prepared a restorative spell. He held a dried withe of greyheath in one of his hands as a component for the spell. It was one of the rarer and more expensive herbs that he had managed to smuggle from the surface, and had travelled with him for nearly five years since his banishment. It was a herb that could be used either as a component for a powerful restoration -- such as the one he prepared to perform should Kobierth succumb to a poison -- or as one of the many components required for the creation of a legendary elixir called heroic brew. "In case it's something malevolent, I should be able to revert its' effects."

"Get ready, magus", Kobierth nodded and bent closer to the pool. She took a sip and felt the sweet, honey-like liquid fulfill her with a strange sensation. Everything looked sharper, clearer, and her thoughts traveled at a faster speed. "I feel... more cunning than ever! I feel enlightened! This water is similar to a pond of old legends, one that was said to bequeath the wisdom of the Gods for a short period of time for whoever drank from the spring. One of the kings who reign'd over three hundred years ago spent fortunes trying to find the pond, to no avail. It seems that the waters were not a myth, and that his searching was not in vain!"

Solfanes gave way for Kobierth. She glanced through the porticullis to the other side and somehow had a hunch on what to do. "I beseech thee, could thou stand thine ground for a while as I go and see if I could make any sense out of the lever puzzle on the other side? If the effect subsides before I reach the room there, thou should sip the water thineself and give me instructions on how to solve it. Already can I see a pattern in the levers!" Despite the painful throbbing in her ankle and her shoulder, she felt absolutely thrilled by the water's effect.

A brief time later Kobierth emerged to the other side of the porticullis but it was she had suspected: the effect had subsided already. While she was quick on her feet, she was nowhere nearly as agile as the nephilim, whom this maze was originally designed for. With a small bit of teamwork they managed to sort the levers' puzzle. As a result, both the porticullis as well as yet another wall of stone gave way for them, and they could proceed onwards. The corridor made some steep turns and wound up into a staircase that led deeper into the bedrock. At the bottom of the stairs they found an untrapped wooden door.

The humans had a glance at one another and nodded. They knew they were closing in on the maze's end, and would propably face their last, and hardest, tribulation. Kobierth whispered prayers while Solfanes muttered the words necessary for a haste spell. Thinking his last warm thoughts of Iríth, Philip and the others, he prepared to open the door for Kobierth whom had snatched a beautiful small shield from one of the nephilim they had managed to subdue earlier. The warrior smiled and then steeled herself, raising the shield before her body and took a better grip of the axe.

There was one more room ahead of them, with a pedestal on top of a small prominence. The pedestal was empty and surrounded by three nephilim. One of them disappeared off into shadows, and a porticullis slammed shut behind the humans! They were trapped!

 

* * *

 

Iríth and Morquor traversed through the sleepy settlement. The half-blood, while still not feeling quite fully herself, was stronger than before. It'd still take days for her to recover fully but she could walk without taking breathers. It remained to be seen if she could fight and defend herself, hopefully long enough for the remainder of the adventurers to eliminate Morquor's goons and rush to her aid. On their way they she had seen but simple civilians and guards patrolling on their routes. No assassins, no thugs anywhere. Morquor's followers were apparently a small bunch, indeed.

The four nephilim passed by the Temple. "That nephil in the Temple's basement... Who was he, hmrr?", Iríth queried. She loathed having to talk to the waste of fur next to her but she wanted to know, for Philip's sake. Just before waking up, she had heard them talking, arguing. The young, innocent scholar had attempted his best at turning the former sailor back from the path of blood -- to no avail.

"He was a fool", Morquor waved his hand. "A recent arrival. He didn't have a burnmark, so the elders accepted him to the clan after he finished the Walk of Amang'Arrm without too much trouble. I heard he had a real passion for killing magical beings."

Iríth said nothing but could almost hear Morquor thinking: "An obvious choice to be sent after you." While she could never prove that, she couldn't but think that it had been a blessing for her rival -- a willing scapegoat ready to take the responsibility of killing a former and possibly an aspiring chieftain just out of hatred for magical beings. Had not Philip woken up and had Garrom succeeded, the people of Ymwar could've never known any better. She shuddered, and thought of the others to bring at least some comfort to her ailing mind.

"I wouldn't worry about them, if I were you", Morquor quipped after a moment of silence had ensued, almost as though reading the half-blood's thoughts. "You'll see them soon enough, mrr."

Iríth didn't dare even look at the nephil clad in ring mail and hard leather, but simply thought to herself. "Does he know that we know about his plot?! Or is he just trying to drive me into despair? That sentence did sound like a death-threat, however, of the kind that only I could understand... Clever bastard! The sentries can't use even such a sentence as evidence for the elders to accuse him of treason." Indeed, the beauty of Morquor's sentence lied in the fact that its' meaning changed with context. To a sentry it sounded like something that two rivals might say, mocking each other before an honorable duel; but to Iríth, with her suspecting the weapons' master's plan on killing them all, it sounded like a very real and ominous threat.

Quite frighteningly the madman's son started to feel more and more cunning and manipulative by the minute. Iríth's heart pounded quite hard. For the first time in long time she was well and truly afraid: not only for herself, but also for the five others whom she had been reunited with not two hours ago. She wondered if she'd ever see them again, ever hear their voices... She ceased herself before plunging any deeper into the despair. Grimacing and purring ever so slightly, she thought of how she had always mocked Solfanes about such melancholy and melodrama: and yet she had befallen to them herself.

Grasping her amulet, the former acolyte of the humans' Temple and self-proclaimed spiritist raised her soul to the divine realms and prayed for a miracle. It was something that they could all use right now.

 

* * *

 

"There's no golden skull here! What do we do now?! This is obviously a trap!", Solfanes cursed and glanced at the warrior by his side. It appeared she was as baffled as he was, if not even more. Gritting her teeth, the Kobierth raised the small shield into a defence and took steps onward. Whatever the situation was, she knew that she could at least fight.

"I will let thee consider the anwer!", the axe-dancer quipped as she went. "I have to worry about the warriors!" Off she went, raising her shield to deflect a blow from a battleaxe that one of the zealots wielded. As the two nephilim approached the intruders, the third one backed off. It seemed that he was a rogue shaman.

Solfanes glanced at the shaman with a wrinkled forehead and surveyed what kind of spell he might be weaving. The shaman seemed to be preparing an acid storm, with little care for his fellow warriors. The acidic fog was sure to bring an end to all four of them in the most gruesome manner imaginable, and this forced the witch to prepare a counter-spell; whether this was the shaman's intention or not was an open question. The fair-haired chap had several dispels at the ready, and even a spell called 'backfire', one that he hadn't honed or finished until very recently. His uncounted hours spent in (his and) Iríth's hut had finally borne fruit, and he was eager to test the results. He simply wondered if the spell's outcome would be too violent and actually kill the nephil shaman, which was ironically something that he didn't want to happen right now, but was also the spell's desired effect.

While her comrade in arms made certain that the hostile magician couldn't harm her, Kobierth dodged and ducked from the harm's way. Due to the haste spell that Solfanes had cast upon them both before entering the room, she was at a speed advantage over her adversaries. Yet she didn't have the time to give two blows for every two that she received, because the nephilim were surprisingly fast on their feet and their arms were quick. Obviously, such a step-up in the difficulty of fighting was to be expected as these warriors were Morquor's elite, his finest whom he still had bent to his will.

The witch switched the tactics and instead of remaining on the defensive he went for a quickened slowing spell, aiming the energy solely on the shaman on the far side of the room. He was moving at faster speed already, and the slowing effect only added an insult to injury. He nullified the nephil's ice lances by a counter-spell and weaved a ball of frost of his own, sending it at the shaman. The hostile spell was not intended to cause severe harm but simply throw the shaman off his balance and confidence a bit. Such small impairments were usually rather distracting for the receiving person in a pitched, prolongued battle -- as an experienced witch he knew this. He had defeated quite a few hostile magicians in his times on the surface, both witch-hunters from neighbouring villages and bandits alike.

After giving a proper jog for the warriors Kobierth proceeded to press an assault on the zealot with a longsword. The nephil warriors fought quite well as a pair, but that would be their eventual doom. The human warrior made a distraction, made herself look like she was commiting a grave mistake, but at the last moment raised the shield into a defence. She deflected the coming blow and struck true at the hostile warrior, the one who was armed with the longsword, as his weapon was out of position. The axe swung and hit the nephil upon his right arm and right side of his torso. The armor comprised of treated lizards' leather and chainmail, and would've been an excellent defence against a sword or a spear, but the impacting force that Kobierth wielded was a blunt weapon, and thus the blow went right through the armor without being mitigated by it. The strike caused severe fractures and the resulting pain knocked the warrior off from the fight for a long time.

Meanwhile Solfanes had overcome his fear of using his own spell, the 'backfire'. Having slowed the hostile shaman, the human magician had ample time to perform his own hex. Weaving the difficult patterns and elements' runes he spoke the words necessary for the spell's creation. It was by far the most powerful and hardest spell he had weaved, and as a result it had a very high chance of failing. After a couple of minutes of sweating the witch managed to complete the hex. The spell's difficulty came from the fact that its' components caused a violent warping when mana was transferred through a specific area -- that specified area being the shaman. In short, every time the shaman was about to perform a spell he would hurt himself proportionally to the energy consumption of his spell.

Indeed, the rogue shaman started the preparation of a haste, being unsure if the human's spell had worked. The nephil had of course no idea what had happened, and as far as he could tell the hex had either borne no effect or had failed. As soon as the mana started to flow a burning sensation burst from his within, and with each passing syllable the pain grew, eventually breaking his concentration and dissolving the spell.

"What is this devilry?! You human trash, birth-rightless monkey!", the shaman yelled across the skirmish. Kobierth and the warrior had locked each other into a steady exchange of blows, and their weapons' and shields' banging and clattering was at times nearly deafening.

"And yet you were beaten by a monkey! Just think about that! What does that make you?!", Solfanes replied in kind and prepared a paralyzing spell. He figured that the shaman should soon realize that they were on the losing side and would no doubt quaff a poison, just like the rest of them had attempted to just prior to defeat. While the nephil was fast enough to pull out a wand of fire as a last resort for offence, a magical rod that was engraved and enchanted to hold a specific number of charges of powerful bolts of fire, he couldn't quite escape the paralyzing hex that struck him like a bolt of lightning and fell him onto his back.

In that instant the remaining nephil warrior backed off slightly and commited herself to a flèche, a full-blown assault that necessitated extremely high-class dexterity from the assailant if she wanted to survive without being retaliated. Kobierth stepped to the side, holding her shield as close to her body as possible and her eyes keen for the nephil's movement. She readied the axe for a swing and was very mindful of the heavy battleaxe---

All that Kobierth heard was a 'whoom', as the nephil's blow struck right at the center of Kobierth's shielded body. While she had dodged the hostile zealot's assault, she had left herself into a position where she was out of balance. Fortunately at least she had been spared of having her head split. The stike felled the woman on her back, and on instinct she rolled away from the danger, jumping up on her feet. The nephil was between the two humans and jumped towards the witch, cleaving with her battleaxe. Unfortunately Solfanes was not the most agile of men, and although he did manage to parry successfully once using his enchanted staff to be spared of one blow, the following swing struck true.

Pain exploded in the witch's lower body and his concentration was utterly broken. Burning sensation spread to the left side of his body, and faintly he noticed himself limping away from the recovering nephil and towards Kobierth, who flashed by him like a whirlwind. His vision blurred and rippled, and he fell on his all fours next to the nephil who still laid on the floor, wounded by Kobierth's axe. His body still carried the scars from both Port Varib and Dead Slith's Valley, but the recent blow was more dangerous than all of the rest combined: the witch fell into a shock, laying his head on the cold stone floor, unable to move or scream.

Meanwhile the warriors met each other in an enraged skirmish, each empowered by their comrades' falls. The nephil had the advantage of being more agile, but Kobierth had more strength by comparison. The haste spell started to lose its' power, but that didn't matter. They were in a narrow corridor where the zealot had little room to use her superior speed and was forced into taking blows in a rapid succession. Eventually her arms couldn't take the constantly numbing hits anymore, and cast her shield away, pretending to surrender. The human knew better, however, plowed through the nephil's frail attempts to parry and knocked her unconscious.

Victorious, Kobierth fell to her knees and dropped the axe, her arms and hands shaking uncontrollably. She had a glance at her adversaries and made certain that she remembered correctly -- that they were all indeed incapacitated. Her ankle ached painfully, and her body felt quite weak altogether, but she still had to make sure Solfanes was all right. She was back on her feet and made her way to the human. She had seen his wounds and scars from the Dead Slith's Valley's fight but none of that compared to the sight before her. It was quite obvious that without some sort of aid he'd die of bloodloss, and even if he'd survive the wounds, he might not be able to walk properly. Fragments of bone were visible amidst the cleaved flesh.

Kobierth rose to her feet and turned away, with a disgusting feeling arising inside of her. She felt ashamed for doing so, but she couldn't hold back a vomit. A couple of moments later she felt more controlled, and considered the options. She still knew nothing about first aid or the art of healing, but she figured that there had to be healing wares close by; the nephilim had wanted to kill the humans and live, and only kill themselves if the odds seemed overwhelming -- such a plan required the nephilim to have some sort of healing items handy, available for everyone to use. She remembered the shaman, and rushed up to him. He was still paralyzed, and would be for a long time. Meanwhile the deserts' wanderer rummaged through his pockets and pouches, and instinctually pocketed the items as she found them: a magical wand, some copper coins, a piece of salted meat, some herbs and three vials that hadn't been broken nor quaffed quite yet. She rushed back to the witch and turned him on his back, raising him to a sitting position despite his attempts to resist.

"Here, drink these", Kobierth whispered after having tested the potions. She had recognized the poison and put it to her collection on her belt. The two remaining brews were possibly healing, but not understanding the Nephilian language she couldn't translate the runes on the bottles' sides. Thus, she could only hope.

"Kobierth... It's so good to see you", the witch mumbled with his eyes unfocused and wide open. He shook uncontrollably. The first potion he drank didn't seem to have any visible effect on him, and so its' original purpose remained unclear. The blood kept pooling underneath the human, soaking his clothes. His skin was visibly pale and felt cold, already.

"- Please, work..."

"Kob? You aren't going to leave me, are you?", Solfanes grasped the woman by her wrist.

"- Stayeth calm, I'll be by thine side. Here, this art for thou. Drink it."

The second potion seemed to aid, as the flow of blood calmed down, but the magician remained pale. A couple of moments later his eyes lost their glaze, but he continued shaking. A stroke of pain caused him to writhe, and he grimaced.

"Oww, where are we... Ah, I'm ... not dead", Solfanes came about to his wits. "Aaargh! This pain..."

"Can thou concentrate? Can thou hear my voice?", the axe-dancer queried and almost stuck her face to his'.

"- I ... it's flaming hard to concentrate on just about anything, it is!"

"Listen to me, Sol. Stay with me", Kobierth stuck a torn rag to the witch's wound. Not knowing anything about first aid, she hadn't really cleaned it. The ignorance about infections and wounds' cleansing was one of the most dangerous things in an adventurer's life, and second most common reason for dying in (or rather, after) a battle, being bested only by getting flanked and having one's armor penetrated from the side or from a weakspot. "Thou will need to---"

"D... Did you clean the rag? Oww..."

"- I... didn't. Should I have?"

"All right... Here's what we're going to do... While I try to gather enough energy to heal myself, you'll need to peel some mold off the walls. Argh..."

"- Just... ordinary mold?"

"Yes, plain common mold you find growing in moist, wet places. Please, hurry!"

The warrior did as instructed, and supplied Solfanes with the mold. Much to her surprise he rubbed the mold into his wounded parts. He grimaced, and tears rolled from his eyes. It didn't feel pleasant in the least, but it cleansed the wound and prevented a fever from killing him over the course of a couple of days. He proceeded to weave a healing spell, wielding mana to the best of his ability. The wound mended and covered itself with scar tissue, but wasn't quite enough to knit the broken bones underneath. It'd take a professional priest to undo the damage inflicted unto the body. However there were none available at the moment, and despite their fatigue the two humans struggled to get up.

Kobierth searched the walls and found a lever, both opening the porticullis as well as dropping a ladder to the middle of the room. With great pains the pair emerged to the cavern above. After the darkness and the artificial orange light from their trusty torch, the green twilight that reigned above Ymwar, Darkmoon's capital city, was beautiful beyond words. The lady surveyed the scenery and saw a sentry by the entrance. Amang'Arrm's maze and its' ladder-entrances were surrounded by a low stone wall, making sure that no onlookers could interfere with the Walk by a mistake. The sentry, standing guard as per the Ancestral Code and making sure that the Rite of Passage would proceed as required, approached the humans.

"Sol, it's thine turn to do the talking again", Kobierth whispered as she saw the nephil.

"All right", the witch nodded and leaned upon the staff as much as he leaned upon the warrior next to himself. He didn't care about how he looked in the eyes of the nephilim. "Kob, you do know what all of this means, don't you?"

"The golden skull not being there?", the warrior queried before the nephil reached them, receiving but a nod as an answer.

Now that the fight was over, and Kobierth had time to think and not worry about the next swing of her axe or the enemy's blow that needed to be parried, she realized. The golden skull, the token of success, was not in the maze because Morquor had sprung a trap for the humans with a sole purpose -- to kill them. The zealots were given poison vials and orders to kill themselves to uphold the facade of the Rite of Passage being meaningful and keeping the humans occupied while Morquor would challenge Iríth, kill her and murder everyone else in his way to the power, meaning the humans, the slith and quite possibly the elders, as well. Regretfully she realized that she'd need to ready herself for yet another fight, albeit an unfair one for it would be three on one.

Solfanes had explained the situation to the sentry, who seemed to be quite appalled and stood to the side, letting the human go. While the nephil still recovered, the witch had already marched off to lead the way towards the Proving Grounds not far from the Maze of Amang'Arrm.

 

* * *

 

Greth held on to the heavy axe that one of Iríth's nephilim had smuggled past the guards to the adventurers. The courier had arrived and left just in the nick of time, as the hut had been visited one last time by nephilim shortly after the courier's departure, the visitors being the sentries themselves as well as one of Morquor's sergeants. Greth's unleashed fury and Syaren's fearlessness to go into hand-to-hand combat had quickly resulted in the assassin's demise, granting the trio an easy exit into the cool cavern air.

The scholar had once more armed himself with a sturdy piece of wood that he intended to use as a club. Syaren was right behind the humans, wielding an iron retainer taken from a holder above a campfire. The retainer made for a good use as a makeshift spear -- the sliths' favoured weapon of choice.

Ymwar was asleep, and despite the nephilim sentries' sharp senses the three adventurers managed to sneak their way through the alleyways and empty clearings. It was a difficult and a slow task, but they managed to get all the way up the hill to where they figured the Elders' Dome to be situated. While none of the three men had ever set a foot to a nephil settlement before, they couldn't but marvel at the size of the place.

It was well known that nephilim clans didn't fare well at all alongside one another, a trait that had always prevented the feline folk from forming their own huge empires (with the exception of Ratbane on Pralgadian continent and Triumvirate in Taghtarus), but there was very little in the way of factual knowledge of a typical nephil clan's structure or economy. Philip glanced around at the number of huts and districts separated from one another by low stone walls. Ymwar alone housed at least half a thousand of Darkmoon nephilim, if not more, and according to Solfanes' tales that he had heard from Iríth, the Clan had smaller villages and outposts farther away in the caverns.

It occured to Philip that while the clans did not tolerate one another, a single clan could still comprise of a formidable amount of nephilim, nonetheless. In a way, it made sense that the nephilim in a single, large clan should be spread out -- lest their hermitious nature would incite the people into internal hostilities, exactly of the kind that the band of adventurers had managed to mingle themselves into.

The scholar nearly bumped into Greth who had pressed himself against a low stone wall. The warrior whispered excitedly. "Wise-man! Slith! Come see this! Yer' gotta be cautious, though!"

The three adventurers gazed in amazement at the sight before them. There was a nephil already up on the hill, standing before the Elders' Dome, wielding a greatbow and shouting something in Nephilian at the bunch of nephilim zealots halfway up the hill. The zealots, armed with short swords and axes, brandished their weapons back and replied with voices that carried both disdain and hatred.

"If I was a betting man, I'd wager that those lads halfway up the hill are the murderous nephil's goons. I can only imagine that the archer on the hill is one of Iríth's friends around here", Greth spoke excitedly.

"But what are they doing... ?", Philip concentrated his gaze at the zealots. It struck him as odd that the warriors hadn't rushed up the hill and swarm the lone archer, who was now accompanied by two guards. Instead, the zealots made their way slowly, as if paying respects to the statues and figurines scattered by the sides' of the pathway.

"Maybe, dark nephilim, are... respecting... statues?", Syaren suggested helpfully. "Slithzerikai respect statues above else. Except Goddess", he rose his head pridefully.

"Above everything else", Philip corrected, and earned a grateful hiss from his slith friend.

"- It might be. Whatever it is, oor' time to strike is now!"

"Wait!", Philip groaned. "I'm still not in a great shape... Shouldn't we---"

"Wise-man, we've got to move. I see honourless slimes slithering up the hill there and it's making me skin crawl. We can't allow those dungpies to live", the warrior replied. "Oh Syaren, don't get ... offended by the word 'slithering', I didn't... ah, well ye' know."

"Fine, then...", the sage replied, thinking about the last time he was in a fight. "Could you two handle the frontal assault? I could flank, like last time?", he unintentionally and without really thinking about it rubbed the crystal in his pocket. Warm shivers passed through him, revitalizing him, although he didn't exactly know it. He just dismissed it as the adrenaline making him feel stronger.

Syaren glanced at Philip questioningly and the lithe human was quick to explain the situation to the slith, using his limited knowledge of Slithzerikaiis to the fullest.

"Sss", Syaren nodded, approving of the plan. He grasped the makeshift spear harder and prepared to make his way up to the hill.

It wasn't difficult for the adventurers to approach the pathway of carved stairs but the last sprint across the open plains was sure to reveal their position to both the zealots as well as the nephilim uphill. While the former would react with utmost hostility, it was the latters' reaction that the trio was really concerned about. The zealots were under a hail of arrows and the fresh escapees didn't really wish to share their fate.

After a short run uphill the warriors and the scholar reached the strugglers, some of whom had already fallen to the arrows. The archers uphill had ceased their fire for now, watchful of what the newcomers might do. Greth went up front, swinging the woodchopper's axe with his both hands and managed to fell one nephil who was still out of balance, causing him to tumble down the hill. Syaren stayed further behind and climbed on the rough, jagged cave floor above the path. From the concealment of Greth's frenzied swinging he managed to poke at some of the zealots who had been wise enough to bring shields with them.

One of Morquor's lieutenants climbed up to challenge Syaren but was immediately pommeled by Philip's rocks. Since the beginning of the skirmish, he had abandoned the club and resorted to using rocks that were plentiful in the steep hills.

The nephil lieutenant shouted something angrily and the rest of the nephilim started to run uphill, with some of the zealots staying behind to hold off Greth. Immediately the atmosphere grew more oppressive, as though Morquor's goons would've angered something truly powerful.

Syaren and the lieutenant locked into a duel where both knew that a single misplaced step, a wrong swing or thrust would mean a quick end, either by falling and breaking something vital or by making oneself vulnerable to the enemy's blows. The slith was much taller, which put him at a disadvantage in such a difficult environment. The slith concentrated on keeping the nephil away with the reach of his weapon, and glanced at how Greth was doing.

The former king had claimed two more victims already, and he threatened a third one. He'd be the last one before Greth could run after the others and stop them from reaching the archers upon the hill. Whenever the warrior was out of balance or in some other kind of trouble, Philip's sharply aimed rocks held the adversary at bay until Greth could sort himself. The tan-skinned wanderer struck a blow through the nephil's defences, swung his axe again but deliberately aimed too high. As the nephil ducked, the muscular wildsman continued his swing around himself and aimed it at the nephil's central body. He knew that the axe, having such a speed, was going to either go through or knock the nephil badly off balance.

Meanwhile Syaren had managed to get himself to a more even footing with the lieutenant, who started to cast more and more worried glances at the statues. The slith knew well enough to keep himself ready for the nephil's oncoming blows, since he couldn't afford to make any mistakes. Equally the lieutenant knew that a single stroke from the spear was enough to knock him off from the slope, sending him for a fast and violent trip downhill. The initiative laid with him, however, for he was faster and more agile of them two.

Greth made his move, and the last zealot before him fell. The lieutenant glanced at the human below, and that was the mistake that Syaren had been waiting for. His eyes blazing with bright red, the slith surged towards his opponent and aimed a piercing strike at his leg, intending to topple the nephil, rather than trying to bruise him by hitting him in his sturdy mail armor. The blow struck true and despite not really being wounded, the zealot fell on the slopes, still managing to hold on. One swing from Syaren's iron shaft, and the nephil lieutenant was no longer.

Before the slith continued onward, he bowed his head in shame and asked for the Goddess' forgiveness. He prayed that She would take the nephil's soul unto Her arms and teach him about the virtues of peace, rather than punishing him for the evil deeds he had committed in his life. Syaren raised his head and saw Philip's pained expression reflecting that of his own.

"Come, Philip. We pray for dead, later!" The slith continued uphill, running quickly after Greth. Philip clenched his jaw and tried not to look at the bodies. Some of the zealots hadn't quite died yet, and... The scholar's mind froze and he could hear nothing but the thrumming of his heart; see nothing but plain stone stairs with unidentified lumps here and there.

As the short but violent fight reached its' conclusion, the nephilim uphill walked down to the ragtag gang and escorted them downhill, yelling something in Nephilian at the gathering, sleepy crowd. The sight of the nephilim surrounding them and their purring voices created an almost surreal atmosphere. The escapees stuck closely together, and accounted for their wounds. Not one of them had received anything worse than some scratches and bruises.

"What now?", Philip turned to look at Greth. "Shouldn't... we... the zealots? Some of the weren't..."

"The sentries are on the job", Greth put his hand on the sage's shoulder and glanced at the crowd of nephilim. The sounds of the fight had woken up quite a lot of the surrounding huts' residents and the nephil whom had been at the top of the hill had quite a task in placating the curious felines.

Syaren kept quiet but stuck close, as well. Even though Greth had bore his own reservations about the slith, the past few days had slowly warmed him to the idea of Syaren not being such a bad person, after all. The sight of the slith bowing himself before the dying zealots on their way down from the stone stairs had sent chills down his spine. Indeed, he accounted himself as being honorable but he had never gone as far as to pray for his opponents. Despite all that however, it'd take quite some time for him to come to accept the thought of fighting and living alongside a traitor, even if the traitor had left the path of evil. After all, had they not all been cleaning up the mess of a betrayer for the past few hours?

A thought surged through Syaren's mind, out of the blue. "Where's rakshasa? Where are others?"

 

* * *

 

The Proving Grounds were fulfilled with thick smoke, with three figures laying upon the cold, smooth stone floor. The sentries were gone, having hurried away with their important task. Green twilight painted the scenery with its' beautiful hues; stalagmites glimmering off in the darkness.

Solfanes rose to his feet, leaning upon his staff and put the wooden magic wand to hang by his belt. His left thigh could support practically no weight due to his hipbone being shattered by the zealot's battleaxe down in the Amang'Arrm's maze, and thus he was forced to limp up to Iríth. He fell to his knees and crouched over the drained feline.

Meanwhile, Kobierth rose and wished that she hadn't. The whole right side of her body was numb and quite powerless, for she had been almost completely on the defensive for the entirety of the fight. The steel shield that she had taken from one of the zealots in the maze was close by, and she crawled up to it on all fours. Down here, where she had seen quite a many poor quality weapons, she felt very glad to have a wall at arms' length of such craftsmanship. Truly, it was worth a fortune and a half. The axe, however, was several yards away broken into small splinters.

"Hey, can you hear me?", the witch whispered, and poked at Iríth's cheek. She bore no visible wounds, but it wasn't the physical health that he was concerned about; a prolonged fight in her state might have been a fatal one for her due to the mental stress and handling of large amounts of mana.

"Better than that, I see you", Iríth opened her left eye and the emerald-green gaze sharpened upon the battered human's face above.

"Kob?!", Solfanes yelled and let himself descend limply upon the half-blood. "She's all right! Her old, witty self...", the witch added the last words with a lowered voice.

"- That art a wonderful thing to hear!"

After a short while they all three stood closely together, supporting one another to stay upright. Even though Kobierth had taken a heavy battering in the word's fullest meaning, she was the first to open her mouth.

"Iríth, how fare thee?", the warrior glanced closely at the feline, with her typical compassion and slight, askew smile decorating her noble features. "Thou hath to stand against Morquor's assaults for a long time alone, yea?"

"I'm ...", the half-blood lowered her head. "Well, to be honest... I wouldn't want to, hmrr... talk about it anymore. I'm just glad it's over. I'm fine, now that we're all here again."

"It's quite all right", Solfanes nodded gravely with a mix of a deep frown and a smile.

"How did you two find your way here, anyway?", Iríth glanced at the humans. "And mister, don't even consider of giving me some greasy boasts."

The witch shook his head and grinned. "No, well, you see... We went through the Maze as thoroughly as we could and we didn't find the golden skull. Reaching the final room really upped our suspicions. Are we far off in our theory when we say that the Walk was just a distraction, to keep us all separated, or were you just as in the dark as we were?"

"The moment when Morquor came to the hut, and said that you had already delivered the golden skull, I realized what his game was. I sent Greth, Philip and Syaren to the Elders' Dome to make sure...", Iríth replied and her gaze unfocused. "The elders..."

"There is not much any of us could do", Kobierth enforced a look on the priestess. "I am not in a shape to fight, and Solfanes is not in a shape to even travel the distance there. I'd imagine that thou do not have much energy left in thineself, either."

"Even if the ...", Solfanes started but let the sentence vanish into the thin air, for he knew very well that if something had happened, it should mean Thuir's death as well. "We've stopped Morquor, and that's what counts. The Clan will remain under either your or Tyamhurr's rule. ...Actually, you know what, girl? We've indeed stopped Morquor from steering this Clan into a path of blood, and I've got a feeling that the elders are all right. Have a look over there. Look."

Behold, they saw a very welcome sight cresting the ridge. Greth, Philip and Syaren were escorted by Mirrim, one of the defected lieutenants. The nephil turned away, and left the band of six to reunite in peace. Kobierth left the magicians and rushed off to be embraced firmly by her husband.

"This can't ... be true", Iríth stammered, and glanced at the witch. "No. No. This isn't true. I can't believe this to be true. You're telling me that we've stopped Morquor; I've been accepted back into the clan; the Elders are safe; not one of us have died; and all of this done in six hours? Is this heaven? This must be heaven. Please, pinch me, angel", she asked with a genuine tone in her voice. "I must be dead. How did I die? Was it a nice, heroic death, mrrr? I hope I didn't die alone."

"I...", Solfanes couldn't quite invent anything to say. He glanced at Iríth with a look of disturbed disbelief on his face, his mouth gaping open.

Iríth couldn't hold herself much longer. She succumbed to a purring laughter. "You should've seen the look on your face, mrrhrr!" The priestess leaned against the witch, nearly doubling over from the laughter and spirit-lifting relief.

"Oh, you little...", the human shook his head. "I thought you had lost your mind, I really did. Funny thing that, because I feel like I'm losing mine."

"- Oh? How so?"

"Because of your anecdotes, that's why."

"- Shh, come now. You're just happy to be here, mrr."

"Yeah, yeah I am... Now, hey, girl. Let's get out of here. We all need to get some rest, you not least of all."

For the first time in a long time they could all smile, purr and hiss happily without having to think about some dark cloud on the horizon. For the first time in a long time they slept tightly, all around one bonfire, their resting watched over by the elder's very best sentries.

 

* * *

 

Far on a hillside, a figure breathed heavily after a tough climb. He saw as two nephil sentries led a third person deep into the undulating hills, far away from Ymwar.

"Sss, Morquor, your fate is far too soft for the mistake that you did. You betrayed the Prophecy. Well, not that it mattersss. I'll make sure that they fall by my hand. I swear it by your spilled blood."

Away in the distance, a cavebat's squeak could be heard, ascending into the darkness above.

 

* * *

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 12: Reflections, End of Book 1, Part 1

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

* * *

Reflections

End of Book One, Part 1

* * *

 

6th of Frost, year 769

Darkmoon Clan's capital settlement Ymwar, central wastelands

 

It had been nine days since House Gaor’s precipitous decline in status and Morquor’s disappearance from Ymwar. There were very few nephilim who had expressed their resentment in the former weapons’ master’s evanescence, but even so the elders took no chances and had ordered the guards to hold a strict watch over their capital. While the adventurers were still resting and recovering from their wounds and fatigue, Ymwar’s sentries repelled two demoniacs’ assaults: both of which resulted in heavy losses to both sides, but always leaving Darkmoon victorious.

Despite the Clan’s valiance, there was damage that could not be staved off with sharpness of aim or thickness of defensive walls. While Iríth’s wounds had been healed immediately after the fight in Dead Slith’s Valley, it had left her body badly scarred, and the late stress of the fight against Morquor had only exacerbated her condition. She suffered severe strokes every now and then, especially after heavy exertion. Solfanes had spent uncounted hours with his cousin, memorizing every little detail that they had learned about humanoid anatomy. They had come to a conclusion that Iríth was suffering of some kind of lingering lung-damage. Regardless of Solfanes’ attempts to treat Iríth’s ailing body he hadn’t succeded, and he was starting to run out of ideas. Fortunately the strokes weren’t life-threatening, but did lower the quality of her life nonetheless.

The cousins hadn’t exactly pulled through without lasting injuries, themselves. Philip, being prone to sicknesses for the entirety of his life, had received almost half of the time in bed, resting. His wound he had received in the Dead Slith's Valley had been slow to heal, and while Greth's call to burn the wound close had been a right one and had prevented the sage from receiving a fatal infection, he had succumbed into two fevers nonetheless. The unified efforts from the healers and Solfanes had managed to cure him, but he had decided to stay inside for the time being until he’d feel better. The witch himself had been examined and theorized to have a permanent fracture to his pelvis. His left thigh didn’t properly support his weight, but while he did manage to live an almost normal life, he had to rely on his carved, wooden staff on longer journeys and walks.

The erstwhile monarchs, Greth and Kobierth, alongside the former dark slith, Syaren, had been spared of serious injuries so far -- those suffered by Kobierth in the Maze were mostly flesh wounds and had healed rather easily. As a result, while they didn’t feel cozy enough to settle down to wait for their compatriots to fully heal, they had volunteered to join up to Ymwar’s defence. They had even participated to some daring raids at the demons’ nests to the northern wastes. The nephilim had been suspicious and uneasy about outsiders joining them in the war efforts, at first, but the clan’s chieftain Tyamhurr had dictated that the newcomers should be treated as any warrior, regardless that they weren’t members of the clan. The chieftain had received some unexpected support from one of Morquor’s former lieutenants, Mirrim, who had witnessed two humans destroying a spectre on their own without the help of a priest or a spiritist. He had preached about the humans' prowess in combat and managed to soothe the anxiety slightly.

It was afternoon by Ymwar’s chronology. Bats flocked in bewildered packs, snatching lethargic bugs and competing for tasty moths. The air was cold, with a very rare phenomenon gracing the caverns by its’ presence – a wind. It was breezing from the west, unexplored caverns where even the nephilim scouts hadn’t dared to go.

”Soon we’ll be out there, again”, Philip spoke quietly, with his lips curving down. He gazed at the cold and barren yard outside, with a very few nephilim sentries struggling against the freezing wind. Some of them had frost on their whiskers.

”What makes you say that?”, Solfanes reciprocated and leaned forward against the table he and the sage were sitting around. He continued with a lowered voice, his eyes half-closed. ”Besides, it’s almost like back home, isn’t it? Back in Silverwater Valley, Halvcrone’s village. Those cloudy winter nights... Cradle of melancholy. Such harsh beauty, like Winter’s Lady lulling a freezing wanderer into eternal sleep...”

”- Greth spoke something of the kind before he and the others left for another raid. I think our friends and the nephilim have gained an upper hand in the fight against the demoniacs. It seems that chieftain Tyamhurr has ordered the newly appointed weapons’ master to plan one of the clan’s lost settlements’ retaking and fortifying. Seems like an offensive move to me, and you bet our warriors can’t hold themselves out of the action.”

”Ah, well, fair enough. I guess the serenity had to come to an end at some point... It’ll be nice to spend some time in the wilds again. How about you, do you think you’ll be able to travel, soon? The fever has lowered, yeah? Oh and did the elixir help that I gave you?”

”- Yep, it did, thankyou very much. Well, my throat’s a little sore and I keep coughing, so that’s a little bit dismal. But at least it’s nothing that’d kill me.”

”That’s good, that’s really good.”

”I’m going to miss being able to spend the time indoors, as I’ve finally had a chance to jot down some notes about Slithzerikaiis. I’ve already started translating the words between that and Imperial Standard”, Philip gabbed. The work on the languages had eased in taking his mind off of the dreary memories that the last couple of fights had embossed to his consciousness. Unlike Greth and Kobierth, he wasn’t a big drinker, and certainly not bloodthirsty.

"- What about that weapon-idea that you had? Have you had time to work on it?"

"Sure I have!", Philip chimed excitedly. "It was an idea that I've had for a long time, now. I've been thinking about the past and despite the fact that I'm not a warrior, trouble seems to have a tendency of finding its' way to me. The Underworld seems really hostile, much more so than I had feared in my worst nightmares."

"- Doesn't help that we have two angry assassins chasing you... well, us all, really."

"Thanks for reminding, I really appreciate it."

"- You're welcome."

"Well, anyway. Unlike my father, I'm not blessed with stout body or good constitution. But my aim is sharp", the sage remembered the days when he'd spend hours on the Silverwater Valley's mountain slopes, making pine cones fall from the pine trees by throwing small rocks at them. "So I thought to myself, how can I utilize my sleight of hand, while I'm not strong enough to pull even a bowstring? The answer was quite simple, and surprising, really. I'll give you a three chances to guess."

"- A... Umhh. You bought a ... sling? You started to take rapier lessons with the nephilim? You came up with a light-weight crossbow?"

"None of those. The answer is a frying pan."

"- F... frying pan?"

"Yes", Philip couldn't hold back a grin as he saw Solfanes' confused smile. "I went to a smithy a couple of days ago, and I asked him to .. or her? How do you recognize which is which, anyway?"

"- Umm, by bodybuild? Sleek or sturdy facial features.. and like, in the same way you'd recognize any human, really. You've spent time around Iríth and other nephilim."

"Well... are nephilim feminine and masculine in the way humans are? It's a bit hard to tell because I haven't actually interacted with these people before. Besides I... Nevermind. I just wouldn't want to insult anyone by referring to them by wrong pronoun."

"- Of course they are. Well, unlike sliths, humans and nephilim give birth to live infants... so, use your wits..." Solfanes gestured towards above his midsection. "Anyway, the smith's a man... So you asked him to do something to your frying pan?"

"Yes, to remove the brims from the thing. I paid.. him to engrave small welts to the surface and to create a small hole in the middle. I asked him to also strengthen the handle so I could tie a rope woven from spider's silk into it."

"- You know, if you had just given me a fourth chance, I could've guessed that."

Philip dismissed his cousin's mumbling with a grin. "The weapon's idea is that it acts like a heavy flail, but instead of a blunt gob, there's a sharp plate with a hole in the middle. If I have enough time before we have to leave for yet another adventure, I could mould a glass container that could hold poisons or acid inside. Upon impact, the glassen contraption would streak the substance through the welts to coat the entire blade."

"- I wouldn't like to be a storm crow, but how could you make certain that the glass doesn't break as you flail the weapon around?"

"You'd do well to remember that I was a Librarian of Third Circle in Solaria's Imperial College. I had a lot of time while not attending classes and a pair of enchanted slippers that someone sent me..."

"So that's what they were for? So you could sneak about silently, reseaching illegal subjects that were beyond your specialization? You cheeky little... Very commendable, yes indeed!" Solfanes laughed with a rumbling voice.

"How do you think I got the hold of this artefact?", Philip smirked and flashed the concealed pocket inside his shirt. "Well, anyway, I happened to run to a couple of books about alchemical reseach. Contrary to what a few people might think, alchemy is not just about healing potions and heroic brews. There were some seriously interesting topics there. It's a shame I couldn't smuggle it for you: you always liked mixing liquids, didn't you?"

"- Yes, yes, and I still do. It was my profession back in Port Varib, actually, as well as Crossplank Cove before that. I had to earn the honest money somehow, seeing as how the Bureau wouldn't exactly shower me with currency."

"You do? That's nice. Sadly there haven't been too many chances for alchemy just yet, right? We're too busy saving the world from destroying itself. Yes, about those alchemical topics... there were things about soporific brews and even powder that explodes when subjected to fire! One of the things I picked up were the creation of sturdy glass. If I should manage to form a sphere out of such glass, it'd very hard to break. Ideal for my weapon."

"- That's actually one of the more interesting things I've heard in a long time. It'd be a long and arduous practice to master that weapon though, wouldn't it?"

"Certainly, but I'm willing to dedicate myself into it. And I figure that you'd ask me about it anyway, so... I know I would be much safer within Black Tower, having given up the artefact to one of you lot until the archwizard could figure out what to do with it, and until the assassins' threat was removed. I'd be able to continue reseaching the Slithzerikaiis by either asking Syaren to come for visits or maybe I could even wander about and find out about the slithzerikai as a people, help out the Queendom that way.

"But the simple truth is that ... I've spent far too much time alone with the books. Nearly twelve years. Now that I've finally found a group of like-minded individuals, as fond of freedom, knowledge and justice in varying amounts as I am, I wouldn't want to embrace the cold solitude of libraries again -- not even if it places me at a mortal peril upon each and every day."

Solfanes but nodded, gazing outside over the cold courtyard. A cozy fire crackled in the firepit, and a rat squeaked somewhere in the distance.

After a moment of silence, the sage continued. ”Oh yes, Kobierth adjured me to ask of you how the visit to Crathsalt went. Did you meet with the archwizard? Zefaynas, wasn't it?”

Indeed, on the first day of the month of Frost, the nephilim watchers had spotted and intercepted yet another human, clad in flowing grey robes. As the mage had been escorted to Ymwar to be questioned, it was found out that he was one of the mages sent by Black Tower of Isenkrun. Soonafter that Iríth used her influence to free him. The mage sought out the trio who were still recovering; the three warriors had been away from town. He had queried if the situation in Darkmoon’s clan had been pacified, although he could almost figure it out by himself. He had then proceeded to warn Iríth, Solfanes and Philip that neither the slith assassin, Ssstoch the One-Eyed, nor the Queendom’s betrayer had been apprehended just yet, and it was very likely that both were still holding a keen eye at Philip and the artefact that he carried.

Finally, the Black Tower’s mage had erected a pillar close by to the Elder’s Dome, and carved teleportation coordinates into it, embedding a crystal on top of the pylon. He had instructed the adventurers on how to use the pylon, and asked of Iríth to inform the elders that only she and her companions were allowed to approach or operate the teleportation pillar. The mage had also asked that at least one of them would come with him to Crathsalt to report their progress to archwizard Zefaynas, and receive new instructions. Solfanes had volunteered to go.

Once in Crathsalt, the witch had explained that the threat of war breaking between the Queendom and Darkmoon had been averted, and that the nephilim were not only holding their ground but also pushing the fight farther north. Zefaynas had entrusted the witch with a hefty pouch of silver to be distributed to the adventuring band, given him a precious amulet to be passed on to Philip, and finishing the entire meeting with orders.

First, Zefaynas had wanted that the band would avoid human lands for the time being: there was a bounty for bringing Solfanes’ severed head to any City Hall, and a bounty for bringing Philip, Greth and Kobierth alive to stand trial for abandoning their posts during a time war. The archwizard explained that the latters' reputation could be restored with application of some political play and putting the right word into the right place, but regretfully announced that Solfanes had been too much of a maverick before, and there was hardly anything that could be done. From that day onward, the witch would do best to keep himself away from the heartlands for good, and remaining constantly on his guard.

Second, the archwizard had expressed his interest in a place that both the nephilim and the Infernal Legion seemed to have avoided so far. From what the early scouting reports could tell, dating to the years prior to Darkmoon Clan's land seizure, it seemed that there was a chasm to the far northern end of the westernmost gallery, and a dark tunnel at the end of it. Isenkrun's scholars and geologists had theorized that the grotto could be used to pass through to the demon controlled lands. Such a bold move could allow for a backstab deep into the enemy territory. Zefaynas had underlined the directive that their band should explore the cavern and find out why the demons hadn't used that passage; and if the nephilim and humans could use it to perform a joint offensive. They'd have to proceed cautiously, because in the grand scheme of things they had only two experienced people whom were familiar with the ways of the war -- Kobierth and Greth.

Last but not least, the archwizard had nearly whispered that the best way to deal with the assassins was to set a trap for them. The Black Tower had managed to scry and eavesdrop at the demons' exchanges about Ssstoch's progress. It seemed that the slith assassin believed to be closing in on the prey, whom he boasted to not know of their impending doom. It seemed that Ssstoch had fallen for the false sense of superiority, and was believed to already be on Darkmoon soil.

Solfanes explained the nature of this journey to his cousin and added a few more tidbits of gossip that he deemed to be interesting. Remembering the archwizard's trinket, he started to search for it.

"Oh, yes, sorry. You know me, I'm always so absent-minded", the fair-haired man explored the multitudes of pockets in his brown, woolly shirt. Eventually he found what he had been looking for. He handed over a glittering silver charm. There was a non-descript silver pommel hanging at the end of the charm, with a beautiful quartz-crystal embossed into it. "The archwizard either wouldn't want to tell me what the charm's idea was, or he forgot about it."

"Is it a requirement to be absent-minded if you want to become a magician?", Philip quipped dryly.

"Yes", Solfanes laughed. "But I figure that a sage of your abilities should be able to figure it out, you should. How do you do it, anyway?"

"- Do what? Oh, identification? There are a couple of ways to go about it, really. Some sages choose to be sorcerers, themselves, practicing the arcane arts and creating spells of identification, while others pray to Chance, god of luck; Indicioth, god of knowledge... And finally, some like me, scrutinize and ponder what has the item been created for. Some items bear no runic enchantments, which is the most common and easiest of methods in enchanting a mundane item. It is not impossible to find out the enchantment with just pure reason, however. Each and every magical non-runic enchantment changes, moulds the item, and even the material differences matter. There's a lot of intricacies that'd take days to explain. Oh, and this charm has been most likely been created to shield its' wearer. Such potency, nonetheless!"

"Well, I've learned a lot of new things today", Solfanes leaned back, sucking in every word and little detail and imprinting them into his memory. He had been always prone for that, being a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Coincidentally Philip had always been the exact opposite, concentrating on one subject intensively until he'd be sick of it and then move on to the next one. The mathematics, runes and languages had stayed with him throughout his life, though.

"I, well...", Philip glanced at the charm. "I don't, you know..."

"- Yeah, I know. But the archwizard stressed that I should give it to you. So, there we are."

"Not only do I feel like I'm not worthy of this powerful bauble, but it's not soothing my nerves in the least when I think about that Zefaynas propably gave this to you to be brought to me because of the assassins on the loose."

The door opened, letting a breeze of cold air surge inside. Iríth stepped in and pushed the door close, enjoying the warmth of the hut. She took off her poncho, had a glance at the cousins and saw Philip putting on a silver charm.

"Hi, you", Solfanes turned in his chair to greet the freezing journeyer.

"Well met, lads... I'm not interrupting something, I hope?", the aspiring spiritist purred. Solfanes could see the wily, amused look on Iríth's face and knew what was coming. Still, he couldn't stop himself from feeding the proverbial flames.

"It's not what it looks like, Iríth. I brought it for Philip from archwizard Zefaynas. It's--- Philip, tell her", Solfanes held a hand pointed at the charm.

"Funny that you didn't mention it when you came back from Crathsalt, mrr", Iríth replied before neither of the humans could say anything. She walked by and casually dropped her poncho on top of the witch.

"I'm absent-minded, for crying out loud! You know I am!", Solfanes' muffled voice could be heard, emanating from inside of the mountain of cloth.

"What did you say?", Iríth quipped across of the hut, going about her business. "Did you say absinthe? First this utterly shocking revelation, and then you start talking about your cravings for alcohol? Oh my goodness, mrr."

"- I swear, one of these days I'll lose my mind... I'm NOT... having a... flipping romance with Philip, or the other way around! Iríth, how can you even suggest that?!"

"I'm sorry but I didn't quite catch that. Nevermind, it must have been something dirty. I should've realized in the very moment when we all met that there was something else going on, mrr. Goodness gracious, you two are hasty, indeed!"

"- Why am I even taking this seriously... ? Gods, please grant me strength to withstand her..."

Philip had been quiet so far and didn't know how to react. Certainly, upon leaving his home for the first he had learned quickly that some parts of the Aizoan Empire weren't as strict in pairings of the same sex as his home realms had been, those residing within the Silverwater Valley; it was very much looked down upon, but only some churches and political parties or specific mayors actually enforced a law which dictated that only men and women could lawfully marry one another. This, however, was the first time he had considered the fact that he was accused of not being exactly straight: which, to be fair, was of course false.

It was at this point that Philip rose up and cleared his throat, with his face blazing bright red. He was equally amused as well as confused by the whole absurdity of the situation. The gaunt sage had of course acquainted with Iríth over the days spent within Ymwar and had learned her to be slightly mischievous, in a light-hearted manner, but this was the first time when the half-blood had directed a part of her humour unto him, as well.

"I...", the son of Danar cleared his throat. "I think I'll have to be going then. I have to, uhh... keep working on the Slithzerikaiis. There are some words that, uhh, are really giving me hard time."

"Philip, don't be offended. I'm just kidding", Iríth purred. "I simply enjoy the sight of that man squirming like a little mouse, sometimes", she continued and glanced at the seething pile of cloth.

"You're not kidding; you're kitten...", Solfanes mumbled quietly, but loudly enough for Iríth to hear it; earning a devilish grin from her. She felt quite proud because finally some of her savvy had started to rub off on him.

It was in that instant when a disaster stroke. Right as the striped nephil had been in the progress of carrying some firewood nearer to the firepit, the basket of wood slipped from her fingers onto the coarse ground, and she grasped her chest, collapsing against a wall. At first Philip thought it to be just a continuation of the light-hearted badinage, but soon realized that it actually wasn't. The humans were quick to prom the wheezing priestess to the chairs that were perched around the sturdy, stone table. Without a giving it a second thought Solfanes fetched a cup of warm water. Breathing the vapours and sipping at the water helped ease Iríth's condition, but didn't exactly cure the fit.

"Is there anything... ?", Philip started, standing stiffly at the side, twisting his hands.

Solfanes simply shook his head and fetched a pouch of dried mold. The room was immediately fulfilled with bitter stench. "Well, there's one thing, there is. If you ever find this sort of mold on marshes...", the witch gauged a particular amount of the mold into the water. "...or on, well, bony remains, pick it up. The name is reothmold. I would advice against eating it, since it can cause powerful stimulating and toxic effects---"

"And yet you keep feeding it to me", Iríth glanced up at Solfanes, still bearing a jocular look on her eyes.

"--- if overdosed. Girl, notice the second last word", the witch took the pouch away, bringing more hot water for Iríth. He knew that she was only joking but couldn't help himself. She had always been like that, defiantly cheerful and exuberant even in the face of grave matters; and he had always been a bit cynical and serious. While nothing could ever change them, they had actually come to expect the jarring banter from one another.

After some time and a small chat Philip took his waistcoat and made his way to the door. Just prior to bidding farewell at his companions, he glanced at his cousin with a peculiar look on his face. There was an unspoken question within the air that they both shared: just how well could they fare on a quest, if they were in such a bad shape as they were? The last thing that the scholar heard as he closed the squeaking door was Iríth's coughing and wheezing.

 

* * *

 

Around the same time...

Forty miles north of Ymwar

 

The landscape was barren and rocky. There were hardly any fungal trees anywhere close by, and stalagmites jutted towards the cavern's ceiling, forming deadly but beautiful mazes. The cavebed was riddled with gorges and huge boulders alike, with a thin layer of white salt covering everything that didn't grow. Cave bats squeaked somewhere afar, and a pair of giant lizards bickered over a scrap of moldy meat on an old haunch.

Syaren pierced the last struggling imp to the point of his spear, and glanced around to see if there were any more adversaries around. He wriggled the spear to shed the ash and tar that the demoniacs had reduced to upon death, and decided to give his spear a thorough cleaning later. The slith swung the heavy spear -- one that weighed nearly 40 pounds, or 3 stones -- with relative ease to the scabbard and a holder strapped behind his back. He proceeded to quickly loot the fallen dark sliths, most of whom had been still resting and warming by the campfires as the alarm had been raised. He found very little, as did the nephilim and the two humans, for the dark sliths would usually lead ascetic lives.

The sculptor felt grateful for the warm clothing that the nephilim had sold him. Despite the layered tabards he still shivered, and glanced desperately around for any scraps that he could apply to his collection of clothes. Fortunately, it seemed that some of the darklings were rich in drakestones. He broke one and closed his eyes out of pleasure, and pocketed the rest that he found.

"Oi, spear-man!--", Greth started but got interrupted immediately by Kobierth. Syaren glanced at the arguing humans and hissed in an amused manner.

"- My pig, I have hath enough of thou calling our friends with such names. It is really degrading. Please, useth their proper names."

"But me love, I'm so bad at remembering names..."

"- It's Syaren. And from this day onward, thou hath better to remember them all."

"Oi, Syaren. Find anything?", the man walked closer, swiping the longsword's blade with his spare hand. The muscular, tan-skinned man underneath a hard leather-armor and a shoddy chainshirt had started to soften up a little bit in his attitude towards Syaren. Albeit the memories still haunted Greth, he started to finally feel more comfortable with the defector. More than a couple of times they had defended a flank, back to back.

"Ssss, not much", the slith replied, not still feeling profient in the humans' tongue but he had indeed made some progress. He was quite brilliant person concerning his wits, and a very quick learner. "How.. about you?"

"- No luck. But then again, the victory o'er this encampment brings me more joy than any sack of gold ever could, ha-haa!"

Syaren chuckled slightly at Greth's sparkling personality. "Ssss, I concur. The magogs of this camp were frighteningly cunning", the former darkling nodded and gazed at the scenery around them, tilting his head to the side. All of the surrounding slopes had been extremely jagged and rocky, making it incredibly tough to assault the demons' nest at the peak. Not only that but there were also crude platforms made of natural stones, allowing for maintaining a sharp vigil over the surrounding gallery. Before he had managed to turn back to his human companion, Greth had already wandered off and rummaged through the peculiar nests that the demoniacs seemed to have favored.

The nests, serving as sleeping quarters for the imps and hordlings alike, were made of all kinds of junk and debris one could find from the surrounding caverns: scraps of fungal cavewood, smooth stones, bones of unfortunate animals and giant lizards' broken eggs' shells, with the list going on.

Syaren climbed inside one of such nests and found a telltale pile of ash and a broken arrow. Amidst the rubble, there were curious-looking three-bladed disks. Syaren dug a little bit deeper and accidentally cut one of his fingers to one of the blades' edges. He managed to pry the item out and exclaimed equally both with joy and pain. There were four more scattered about, and a broken ring. It appeared that this nest had belonged to a hordling or a magog, having used their influence to hoard a bunch of shiny items.

"Are thou all right?", Kobierth rushed up to the slith and climbed to the side of the nest. "What art those?"

"Ssss, I have no idea", the spearman confessed. "If I have to guess, I would sssay that these are throwing weapons. But these are too delicate for someone of my strength. I can... could imagine that whoever wielded these, was more nimble than strong."

Kobierth took one of the offered bladed disks and tested their weight and balance. While she was oftentimes cool and controlled, a visible look of amazement decorated her face. "They art... I almost can't believe it myself, but these discuses are perfectly balanced. Alas, they art not useful for me either, since I wield a blade as well as a shield, but Greth might be able to swing these around during a skirmish."

The erstwhile wanderer of the unforgiving deserts took the razordisks -- as she and the slith had dubbed them -- to her husband, whom accepted them gladly. The muscular human almost couldn't wait until the next morning as he'd get to try the throwing weapons.

The taghtarians looted the surrounding nests, found very little, and moved onward. After a couple of hours of searching and going through the entire demons' redoubt, the nephilim's primal hunter Rummurth ordered the warriors to make camp for the night, following the pack's shaman's guidance. Soon enough the warband had a couple of bonfires, and the guards were set. The primal hunter Rhea'Mmurth had heard of the humans' and the slith's prowess before, and had now witnessed it himself, but still regarded his own warriors to be better suited for the task of keeping watch -- after all, the nephilim were known for their ability to see in the dark and for their extremely sharp hearing.

The three outsiders sat around a campfire of their own, and amidst their eating and drinking, they polished their weapons and lifted stones to keep themselves fit.

"So, me mates", Greth boomed out. "What's the final count for today? I got a dozen of those nasty imps, and seven dark sliths."

"I banish'd eleven imps, and six darklings", Kobierth replied. "They were all worthy warriors", she added in her diplomatic way, so as to keep from offending her slith friend.

"That's not necessary", Syaren intoned with a voice that enunciated understanding and calm acceptance. "Would you feel regret killing a human bandit if he was trying to rob you?"

"Fair enough", Kobierth chimed. "What about thee? How many did thou fell?"

"Sixteen sliths fell by my hand, and three imps", Syaren professed. "Sss, I will honour their memory by remembering each one upon the day when I die. Even though I am not a warrior, I live by the teachings of our sacred priestsss. As the verses of the chants describe, we must do killing without hatred in our hearts, and remember those who have fallen with dignity. Lest we are not really that different from the demons who enslaved us."

Indeed, the erstwhile monarchs had always considered themselves as people of honour, and yet Syaren's almost monk-like serenity left them awestruck. "Syaren... I hope thou doth not mind, but I can't help but notice that thou keep speaking using word 'us', instead of 'me'. Art there any of thy people left? I remember that thou hath told Philip that thou came from a village far to the north from here."

Syaren's face sclerotised for a spell, as the memories flashed before his eyes. "Half of our village managed to flee", he blurted. "It was two... maybe three monthsss ago as the demoniacs finally found our hidden city, Voossin's House. I was originally a smith... No... a... a statue maker?"

"A sculptor", Greth nodded. "That's an honest profession, I respect that. Just like wise-ma... I mean, Philip."

"Yesss", Syaren hissed a commendation at the warrior and continued. "I was a sculptor. One of the most revered professions within a slithzerikai society, even amidst the darklings. When I defected from the Infernal Legion, I did so with many othersss. We were all mutually driven by a voice whom I believe to be a prophet for our kin, one who will lead us to Lost Bahssikava some day...", the spearman dreamed with his eyes half-closed -- conveying joy and pleasure with the sliths' body language. "We followed our appointed priestsss, and they led us through cold marshes that were riddled with dangers: asps, salamanders, giant spiders and even cave slimes. Through our priests' faith, we survived where so many warbandsss had fallen before, certain of the fact that the demons nor their slavesss could easily follow us.

"We found a distant cavern, cleansed it of the cave slimesss and established ourselves. We declared the first settlement, Voossin's House, as our capital, and established a couple of smaller towns, like Ahssen-Sylaan. For nearly twenty years our presence went unnoticed, and volunteers would scour the demon lands from time to time, searching for more people who had chosen to leave the path of blood behind."

"Excuse me for interrupting, but, thou and thine people have lived here for ... how long exactly? I doth not believe thou have ever mentioned it", Kobierth leaned closer and ceased from polishing her shortsword.

"Our fathers came here to these lowly caverns from far above nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. According to the darklings' chants that were used to pass down knowledge of old events and past history, they found a powerful haakai lord whom they swore to serve", Syaren explained.

"What did they get out of the bargain?", Greth grumbled, cleaning and repairing his chainshirt but kept listening to the stories as well. "No soul ever binds themselves to serve another without a good reason: whether it's gold or pure devotion."

"Warmth", Syaren scoffed. "Warmth, and numbersss to back them up against the monsters that roam these caverns. A chance to live a while longer by selling their souls. They wished to worship the demons, seeing them as their true masters. Just like the Fallen One, Sss-Thoss did so long ago..." The slith's disgust in his voice was easily recognizable.

"I wouldn't say it was all bad", Greth countered. "That decision lead myself and me wife to meeting a fine warrior." He glanced unvoluntarily at Kobierth, who beamed with pride at her husband's decision to finally give up the prejudices.

"Sss", Syaren hissed in a disspirited manner. "I wouldn't be so sure about that."

"At least now thou art here, with us, making certain that thy forefathers art not forgott'n. By passing on the legend of Taghtarus' slithzerikai, thou ensure that the future generations should not assume their foreparents' role, nor repeat the same mistakes they did", Kobierth orated and continued polishing her equipment.

The slith considered the humans' words, rose up to stand and bowed his head. "How come I couldn't see the truth, sss? I am ashamed to confess that I have tarnished the memory of my foreparents by thinking so lowly of them. I ... thank you, both. Please, excuse me. I wish to pray for the Goddess' forgiveness." He shuffled off to pray, and to be alone with his thoughts.

 

* * *

 

The following night...

Ymwar's residential district, Stone Terrace

 

The wind whistled and howled, whipping the caverns with its' cold prickled lash. All of the cavern's animals and monstrosities had fled to their nests or secluded places to find shelter from the freezing cold. The few sentries who walked Ymwar's walls wore cloaks and robes made of ratskin, and held their weapons hilted and hoisted around their backs, keeping their hands inside the clothing.

While the hostile atmosphere was much more punishing in the western parts of the Lower Exile's caverns than in the other areas, it did ease the Darkmoon's situation slightly. As a result of being subjected to even colder air, the dark sliths were having hard time leaving the camps they shared with the demoniacs. The sliths, being reptilian humanoids, were cold-blooded creatures and required constant warmth to be able to keep their metabolism working. Even though they had drakestones, peculiar rocks that spread intense heat upon breaking, they wouldn't dare to move out. This ensured some much desired breathing space for Darkmoon and Queendom alike.

Solfanes sat by the fireplace and browsed through his spellbook to keep himself awake, sipping at bitter tea brewed from the mosses found on the slopes of the caverns. He glanced over at Iríth and listened to her breathing intently -- the feline appeared to be in sweet, steady sleep. The quiet crackling of the fire and the tranquility were more than nourishing for his soul, and while he was fond of Iríth and always delighted to spend time with his cousin, Philip, he did need to spend time alone. It was this desire that had driven him to be both nocturnal and hermitious from the start of his life, as too much noise and too many people would upset and even on worst days irritate him. He breathed a content sigh and set his gaze onto the pages.

"Offensive spells. Elemental arrow, acidic mist, icy rain, dark tempest... Perhaps it'd be possible to create a searing rain? That'd require the switching of words as well as components... Drakestones? Foxglove flowers? Remember those... blast it, we don't have foxglove down here", the witch mumbled quietly, and continued thinking inside his head so as to not wake the half-blood. "Functional spells. Silence, spiders' web... I could really do with a summoning, I really could. But the summons work so much more differently here. Unlike Iríth's divine magic, my summons become violently warped by the raw energies that course here. Instead of a cave slime, I might wind up summoning a demon. That'd be really fun... If only I had a ... say, crystal, where I could preserve creatures' essences and summon forth copies of them, like simulacrums. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of something like that?"

Normally a summoning spell would find a number of creatures within a certain radius around the caster, weak enough for the magician to control them, and depending on the nature of the spell it would either summon a copy of one or multitudes of such creatures, but within the Lower Exile that was not always the case. The first banished human wizards, who hadn't died immediately in the war between the Queendom of Taghtarus and Angunn Triumvirate, realized quite fast that summoning magic didn't behave in a normal way. The same went for teleportation, divination and telepathy. Zefaynas, archwizard of Black Tower, had been the first one to subdue an accidentally summoned horde of imps and placed them in a stasis field to the east of Bloodrock. The imps still stood there, to the very day upon which Solfanes drew breath, as a grim reminder of the incredibly bloody and very violent Queendom-Triumvirate War and the depths to which the war had driven the desperate people. As a result, in the following years the queen Gråvrede the First had dictated that only the Black Tower's senior mages and wizards who were members of the Archon Council were allowed to apply summoning and teleportation magic, or authorize the use of such.

The magician's thoughts were interrupted as Iríth tossed and turned, as though seeing a dream. At first the human didn't react and simply tried to concentrate on coming up with a method to have a reliable way to increase their numbers during a skirmish, but soon he pulled his socks up, feeling worried for her welfare.

"Hey", Solfanes asked, and cleared his throat. "Bad dream, or what?"

The tossing and turning slowed and ceased.

"Mi'lady, are you all right?", the man rose up, sensing that something wasn't quite right. He walked up to the bedside and glanced at the pitcher, making sure that the recovering patient had enough clean water for herself whenever she'd feel thirsty or a fit of coughing would surprise her.

All of a sudden Iríth jumped up, scaring Solfanes and nearly giving him a stroke. Just as the witch was about to start snarling at her for spooking him, he realized that her expression was that of pure fear. It didn't seem like she knew him to be there; it didn't seem like she was awake at all, but her eyes were wide open.

Solfanes felt cold shivers running down his spine and the sole fact that Iríth was there kept him pinned in place, as opposed to running right out of the door.

Something was very, very wrong. This something was close, and it drew nearer, still.

A noise in the distance, almost like something dripping.

"Come inside", Iríth whispered quietly. Her head jerked slightly. Solfanes turned to look at her and his heart skipped a beat. There was an empty look in her eyes, something that had replaced the usual gleam and will to live.

The door squeaked a bit, and the freezing wind ripped it right open. With one fell swoop the fire in the pit was quenched. As quickly as the door had been swung open, so it was closed shut.

Something was very wrong, and that something had now entered their home.

A noise, water dripping on the floor.

It was pitch black, and on instinct Solfanes climbed upon the mattress, his childhood's fears of monsters hiding under the bed surging to his mind. He tried to remain calm, but unlike his cousin he wasn't nearly as capable of holding his cool.

It occurred to the witch that he had left his catalyst onto the side table. He cursed quietly inside his mind, as he figured that whatever the intruder was, it wasn't corporeal nor living. He and Iríth were helpless, unless he could muster the courage to run up to the side-table and grasp the catalyst, weaving a ball of fire and directing it at the intruder. That is, if the intruder wouldn't devour him first, or something equally horrible.

The malice grew stronger, and while the human was sweating like a bed-hopper in Sunday's sermon at the temple, Iríth remained frozen solid. He had to make his move now. Just as he was about to set foot to the floor, he saw it. His eyes had started to adjust into the dark, enough to see the outlines of things; yet he wished that they hadn't.

A tall human figure, apparently clad in leather and torn tabard, stood in the middle of the hut. He had long hair, dripping wet, and gaunt features. The worst part about the whole hideous being was its' face. The skin was pale, but not the kind of a pale that the exiled humans had when they had spent three years in the Lower Exile. The creature's skin was pallid like on those who had been dead for a long time, having drowned and never been recovered... The eyes and mouth were misshapen gaps with interiors that lacked color entirely. Even black would've been a bright color compared to the emptiness that the creature bore inside itself.

Solfanes' mouth felt dry. He felt Iríth's whiskers prickling against his cheek, and the blanket's rough cloth abrasing his skin. Never before had he experienced life in such a sharp manner, almost as though everything receiving a new polish to itself. He knew that the creature knew. It knew of his plan to grab the catalyst. The creature simply stared at him ... almost sadly?

The witch wasted no time. The tricks of the undead were not unknown to him: many undead beings had a way of affecting their prey by radiating overwhelming grief or fear: banshees as an example. The unholy one would just have to suffocate the quarry with grief and sorrow, wait for the hapless spoil of hunt to literally die of woe and feast on the prey's flesh. Solfanes raised his catalyst and unleashed the magical fire, wreathing the figure into flames.

Two, misshapen eyes gazed at the human from behind of the veil of flames. He couldn't shake the feeling that he had done a mistake.

Were the eyes truly regretful? The sound of dripping water... or blood.

Iríth woke up, as though released from some kind of charm, and glanced around her with a curious look, apparently not remembering anything from the horrid incident. "Sol, mrr ... What's going on? And why's the fire out? Unless you're planning on being reasonable and getting some sleep?" She silenced after noticing Solfanes' expression and the catalyst that he pinched in his right hand.

"- I... It's for the best if you don't know. Until morning, that is."

"What happened?"

"- There... there was an intruder."

"Is... he gone?", Iríth sharpened and handled her amulet that she had always hanging by the bed's cleat.

"- Yes, yes ... I ... scared him away. He just ... popped his head in. Nothing serious. I'll just make sure the door's locked. Try to have some sleep, Iríth, you're still recovering."

"What about you?"

"- I ... I don't think I can sleep. I'll keep watch, read something."

"Right", Iríth took a flint and lit a lantern on the side table, wore a white, silky tunic and rose out of bed.

"- Hey, it's enough if one of us won't be sleeping tonight."

"Sleeping is overrated. And while you're at it, could you bring me some shingles, please? It's getting cold already."

Solfanes complied, understanding that he couldn't win her. Even after an hour of staying up together, relaxing chat and the warmth of the fire he couldn't help but feel the emptiness staring at him from the dark corners of the hut. He wondered if he could ever captivate that horrifying look by words alone.

 

* * *

 

The following morning...

Nephilim expeditionary force's forward camp

 

Kobierth jumped up and felt sweat trickle at her forehead despite the cold atmosphere. Her hands shook and the usual calm of mind was gone. She could've sworn that there had been a soaking wet human clad in beautifully crafted leather armor and red tabard in front of her, standing on a rock, with ashen face and dripping hair... She didn't want to think about it anymore. The woman reached for her husband and woke him up, very quickly. It was still early in the morning by Ymwar's chronology and the shaman was just preparing to wake everyone up.

"Greth... Please", Kobierth stammered. She didn't dare to look anywhere else but at Greth's tanned, weather-beaten skin and robust features. Albeit she did have faith in the Gods that her people had always worshipped, she didn't have their favours to be summoned on a whim like Iríth did. Thus she was very cautious of the evil things in the world, and was a tad bit more superstitious than her husband.

While the muscular fellow had never been too much of a tender person, he was quick to react to his wife's distress. Within a blink of an eye he was well and wide awake, reaching for a rough stone shiv that the nephilim primal hunters were eager to distribute to their warriors, humans and nephilim alike -- wielding even a crude weapon trumped being empty handed. "What is it? Are ye' all right?!"

"Yes... yes...", the frightened woman babbled. "I just... don't feel well. I feel like I'm losing my mind."

"- Kob, what is it? Was it a nightmare? Hey, come over here, come on."

"No... I... I wish it was. Or maybe it was? I... it felt real", the woman held her eyes closed, as she didn't want see that horrid being in front of her again.

Syaren had woken up as well. Even a nephil watcher glanced at the trio from her position up on a rock but returned to keep a sharp vigil at the surrounding caverns. "Sss, what is happening?"

"Kob had a bad dream", Greth glanced at the slith.

"If it was a dream, at all", Kobierth countered sharply and turned away from the man, her hair lashing with contempt. She rose up and walked up to one of the nephilim's campfires, warming her hands next to one of the awoken hunters.

"To be fair", Greth gazed after the woman. "I haven't been sleeping so well lately, either. Last night was the worst..."

"You too?", Syaren opened up and shifted closer, throwing a piece of nethersalt into the flames. He looked at the beautiful and enchanting dance of the red embers and found solace from the nightmares' grip. "As I told you before, I was a sculptor. I often see dreamsss of statues. Ideas, inspirations... Lately, I've found that the statues in my dreams are travestiesss. The stone doesn't answer my call. It malforms. Sometimes hands and heads sprout out of the statues' chests and point with their fingers towards the north."

Greth said nothing and just listened. He had experienced similar occurences himself, but wanted to think of it all as just nonesense and tush. Uncharacteristically to himself, he started talking only long after Syaren had silenced.

"- Maybe it's just oor' imaginations just going wild out here. We know how the hex... I mean, Solfanes came back from Crathsalt, carrying orders from the Black Tower. He had met with that arch-magus, Zefanas or... whoever he was. That arch-magus had expressed his interest in a cavern to the north. He seemed to think of it as a chance to go for a backstab at our enemies. Maybe it's just all inside the head."

Kobierth turned around and joined her companions, having cooled down slightly, but still feeling offended. "Or maybe it is someone summoning us", she continued as soon as Greth's voice had died down. "The archwizard obviously suspects that the 'cavern' that we have been ordered to investigate is somehow special. Why else would the nephilim and the demons avoid it?"

"I see ye' harboring suspicions of something, or someone, being there. Now, I'm afraid of no dark nor a blade concealed within, but I see a dilemma arising here", Greth warmed up to the conversation. "That problem's name would be Philip. I understand he carries a weapon that's crucial concerning the outcome of this war, and I'm pretty sure it goes without saying that taking him, and the weapon, to an expedition such as the one we are considering would be utterly reckless. We've no way of telling what we're up against---"

"--- And leaving him behind would separate him from our aid. With all due respect for Ymwar and the nephilim, their sharpness alone isn't enough to keep an assassin from getting his hands on our friend. As archwizard Zefaynas lectured us in Crathsalt, the best course of action for now is to keep ourselves as unified as possible."

"- And aren't we separated from them, even at this very moment?"

"Philip isn't alone, remember? Iríth told me that during their flight from Port Varib, their former residence, they had an element of surprise which they used to assault Ssstoch and almost kill him. This, no doubt, has anger'd the assassin, but also causes him to remain wary of them. He doesn't know of their exact strength -- or ours for that matter -- and one mistake is all they need to bring him down one last time. I'm quite certain that the assassin also understands this."

"I'm sorry to interrupt but... they managed to injure Ssstoch the Haakai-blade?", Syaren wedged himself into the exchange.

"Thou know of the assassin?", Kobierth queried and leaned closer.

Greth gazed deep into the campfire. He winced, being reminded of Syaren's dark and dishonorable past.

"Yesss. Ssstoch the Haakai-Blade was one of the most successful and feared assassins in the Dark Swarm. One could not evade his wrath no more than one could her own shadow. He wasn't physically imposing, but he could remain unseen if he so wished, and he was driven by cruel bloodlust. Ssstoch, not intelligent, but cunning as a pack of nagas", Syaren shivered. "I can only imagine that Iríth and Solfanesss must have been blessed by the Gods that day. Lest they would have met their cruel ends then and there."

After a moment of silence, Kobierth continued. "Even though we stand against such a hunter, we have to stay strong. He is alone, and when we art united, there art six of us! Indeed, not only are we going to explore a region where our new lord has commanded us to go, but also we shalt set a trap for the assassin! So far we have but heard of him and his progenies, yea, but soon we shalt meet him in glorious battle!

"According to my understanding, there art but one way in and out to this cavern. We could easily set a camp and maintain watch from concealment when not exploring farther ahead."

Greth grumbled. "Me love, I'm not trying to be difficult here, but I'm simply wondering if one of the assassins is setting an ambush for us, summoning us to a place---"

"---That is not very likely", Kobierth countered immediately. "I could assume that neither of the assassins have any direct way to gather intelligence from inside of the Queendom. One is a slith and one is a human that no doubt everyone hates. And besides, I thought thou didn't believe in someone summoning us or invading our dreams somehow. I thought it was just our minds playing tricks on us?" Greth simply waved his hand as an approval and glanced at the slith.

Syaren cut in again. "Who is the human assassin, exactly? Philip has told me only small bits. Why is he after us?"

Kobierth chimed. "From what I remember from our first and last encounter with archwizard Zefaynas, it seems that the human betray'd the Queendom, sold the knowledge of its' weaknesses and strengths to the demons and was rewarded somehow.

"Ssstoch, the slith whom you mentioned, was ordered to find and kill Philip and anyone travelling with him -- myself and Grethenward. He was ordered to kill the betrayer as well, who hath outlived his usefulness to the Infernal Legion.

"The twist here is that just prior to being banished, Philip hath somehow laid his hands on an artefact that he shouldn't have touched. He managed to smuggle that artefact with him down here, and it seems that the demons want to get their hands on the article, which is why Ssstoch was ordered to murder Philip and steal the object. The betrayer learn'd of the demons' plot and now seeks Philip and his possession as an insurance against the demoniacs."

"I see", Syaren pondered on the revelations that were indeed new to him.

"Concerning what yer' telling us, Kob... If neither of the assassins know of our plans, that either leaves us with someone completely different, or that oor wits are finally giving in to the constant dark and danger", Greth reasoned. "But I'd say that we ask of the veterans, Iríth and Sol. They know more of how things run around down here, in Lower Exile."

"Marry", Kobierth nodded. "I hath no idea of doing it otherwise."

 

* * *

 

9th of Frost, afternoon, year 769

Ymwar's residential district, Stone Terrace

 

The witch slammed the door shut behind himself and nearly broke mentally -- he was back home again. The day had been bleak enough with one of the Black Tower’s mages visiting Ymwar and bringing bad news and gathering diplomatic intelligence from the Elders as a correspondence.

Queendom of Taghtarus had lost one Stronghold, with one other Fort being severely battered. Losses were counted in thousands, with more soldiers dying each day. The province of Sloughbrim had received the worst beating, and Wesvynia’s borders were threatened. The Queendom had lost practically all of its’ waterways and supplies had to be pulled across dry land, making fortifying the frontlines much slower.

After listening to the horrid news and descending from the Elders' Dome, Solfanes had been forced to trudge through a crowd gathered to view a public flogging, which had only pushed him even more over the edge. Now, back home, he didn’t need to hold himself together anymore.

”How did it go?”, Iríth queried, feeling wearied herself. She had visited the Bazaar earlier and consequently had been met by one of the more irritable salesmen, and had suffered violent fits throughout the day.

”- Please, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not in the mood.”

”Fine, I was just concerned about you, mrr”, the cooking spiritist continued, glancing up at the human. ”You look like you’d witnessed your cousin’s murder.”

”Barbaric ways”, the witch grumbled with anguished voice and leaned against the table. ”Not that the Queendom is doing any better. At least we don’t have public beheadings here. Now that’d be really something...”

”Just cheer up, would you, mister...”, Iríth sighed dismissively without really thinking about it. She concentrated on gauging chunks of lizardmeat into the stew.

”- How about you just shut up, would you? I’m not like you! I just can't close my eyes, pretend that I don’t know what’s going on over there and grin it all away! I HATE torture! What's even worse, there are mothers crying for their dead sons on the other side of the river and here we are, whipping someone for a petty theft! Each day somebody's sister dies; someone's father; entire families: DEAD!”

”Sol, I’m sorry but it’s necessary to run a nephil Clan, even amidst a horrid war such as the one we have on our hands!”, Iríth rose to her feet, genuinely surprised by the man's outburst. She had rarely witnessed him behaving like this, and even in her company when he was the most relaxed, it was very uncommon. ”We can’t afford to have dissent or people bending the Code! For crying out loud, you have a permanent injury in your bones! Everytime you wake up and rise to have a drink of water I listen to you grit your teeth so you wouldn't groan aloud, no doubt to keep me from waking up, which is quite ironic when you think about it. And why is that? Because someone wanted a little bit more power and sought to break the ancient rules!"

”Are you that blind? Lords, woman, are you that naïve?”, Solfanes stared outside the window, his voice cold and low. ”Did not your---”, he bit himself in his tongue before he could proceed. He had intended to ask if her childhood had not taught her that people didn’t need proper reasons for cruelty, but thought for the better of it.

Still, Iríth's woman's instinct caused a question to spring into her mind. She stood by the fire, paralyzed. ”What were you going to say?”

”Not---”

”- WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO SAY?!”

”NOTHING! All right?! I’m sorry! I’m ... just a flawed, weak piece of---”

”- By the divine flames, give me a break from that melodrama!”

”Please, Iríth”, the witch turned to the half-blood. His face was streaked with tears. He walked up to her, taking her hands into his. ”Just kill me.”

”- Sol, what ... What? Stop! That’s ... that’s just plain WRONG!”

”I can’t handle it anymore... Blood, death... Just kill me---”

It was in that moment when Solfanes’ world blackened. He screeched as he really thought that his life had come to an end, and recoiled back. Iríth had slammed him on his cheek, her eyes blazing with righteous fury and grief. As quickly as a greased stroke of lightning she grasped him and forced the man to stare at herself.

”You will stop that. You hear me, mister?", Iríth hissed. "No matter what happens, we’ll make through this mess. We’ll make it through, together.”

”- Iríth, I---”

”Just shut up, will you? Say after me”, the feline continued.

”- Wh... ok...ay.”

”Say after me: there is always hope.”

”- There... there is always... hope.”

”So long as we don't stop from believing in one another.”

The witch repeated.

”So long as our hearts remain pure.”

The human corresponded.

”And finally I want you to say...”

This time the man waited.

”...that you are a silly sweet-cheeks.”

”- That I am a sill.. sweet.. What?!”

Iríth gazed at the human and purred slightly. His face bore an extremely baffled expression, and while he tried his best to hide the hint of a smile -- just out of light-hearted spite -- she noticed his mood lifting anyway, even if ever so slightly.

"Oh you little Gods' forsaken---", Solfanes closed his eyes and smirked like an idiot, drawing a wavering sigh.

"Got you to cheer up", the feline's ears perked up. She poked at the human's side and went to check on the stew so that the food wouldn't parch, and kept gazing at the man. "But... On a more serious note, you should know."

"- Yeah?"

"I know that the cruelty doesn't need a proper reason, mrrow", Iríth spoke, as though having read Solfanes' mind. "And so do the elders. But they also know that a society can only exist if we allow for everyone to experience being at a higher ground from time to time. That keeps the commoners from aspiring to power. Morquor was an example of that: an example of just how badly things may turn out if one wills to take the matters into one's own hands."

"So that... poor sod out there?", Sol grimaced. He had hard time holding himself steady, even when just thinking about it. "He's there, just to serve for the mob's thirst for blood, after all?"

"Partly, hmrr", the feline replied with her ears leveled and gaze lowered into the soup. "He's also there to serve his punishment. He was caught... well, he forcefully slept with a female."

Solfanes said nothing and just stood there, not knowing what to say.

"It's not like I enjoy the prospect of harsh punishments either, but it's the elders' call. And they've been alive for at least double the age that you or I have been breathing. So... we can sit by the table and stare at it, or we could wait for the food to cook and play Stens' Trinity -- while you're telling me of the news from Queendom."

The game Stens' Trinity was a simple game which had been developed from one of the card-games that the exiles had played on the surface. In absence of paper, the banished folk had come up with a game that could be played with stones, pieces of leather that had inscriptions scrawled on them with lizard's blood, and at least two players. It was a social game rather than a gambling game, allowing for an exchange of words amidst the players.

"- Iríth, I told you, I don't want... The news were too horrid even to be listened."

"I know that look, mrr. It's guilt. You think that if you hadn't abandoned your post, things might be different. You blame yourself for letting the betrayer sell out the Queendom. A part of you wants to be punished, just like that nephil out there. A part of you wants your blood to be spilled, just like the blood of those on the other side is being spilled."

The man stood at the side, having turned away from Iríth, and didn't say anything. Not that she really expected him to say anything, either. She knew she had hit home -- hard.

"Hence, I shall take the position of a judge", the feline raised her chin up, whiskers sleekly at the sides. "I judge thee, Solfanes Darkenheart, a man whom art namesake, to a sentence of playing Stens' Trinity with me and thy cousin, whom we shalt fetch from his hut, and thou shalt explain everything that happen'd at Elders' Dome. Mrrrr. I shalt think of a harder punishment later this evening, should I deem it necessary", she imitated Kobierth's manner of speech, almost impeccably.

Finally the reserved man turned around once more and grinned timidly. "I surrender myself to your judgement."

 

* * *

 

The stone hall was cold and alight with numerous blue flames. Pillars carved of the brightest marble lined the hall's sides, with deep niches housing suits of armor that looked like simple statues. Some of the suits bore a thin layer of frost, giving them a deathly beautiful appearance. An aisle lead up from the main gate to the throne at the far end of the parlour, lined by a peculiar rug. Upon closer inspection, the long carpet wasn't weaven, but stitched together from old and worn tabards, tunics and cloaks, resulting in chaotic and disturbing patchwork.

A single throne at the end of the hall was situated upon a small elevation jutting from a moat of magical ice that froze anything that touched it. Intricately carved runes surrounded the moat, and vampires and obsidian gargoyles could be seen in the dark corners of the parlour, maintaining watch.

A lich sat upon the surprisingly blank and featureless throne. His eyes gleamed with black light, and his hair descended onto his shoulders as white and dry. One of his bony hands held a skull with an age old candle on top of it, with a rather ceremonial magical sprite flickering on top of the long-since burnt stub. His garments were still faintly red, bearing a golden crown of the Empire.

"Dervish Moore", the lich's jaws opened, and misty air flowed with each passing word. "What news of the world of the living?" His voice was like a whisper, yet carried easily across the entire hall.

"Ill news, my lord", a vampire called out as he walked closer, emerging from one of the empty halls. His polished plate armor clattered as he paced; a stark contrast to the deep silence within the Throne Room. "It seems that the band of six is on their way to our Palace, your highness. The messengers couldn't deliver our warning."

"So be it", the lich breathed. "I'm sending you."

"What would be my lord's message?", the dervish queried, stopping before the moat.

"- The same as was for the messengers."

"It shall be done, my lord", the vampire offered a sharp bow, turned around and walked off, but stopped as he heard the lich's voice once more.

"- Dervish Moore. You may have to fight your way back. Dervish Verennan still bears loyalty to Thralni, Karzoth and the Empire. He will do his all to prevent you from carrying out your task. He has not peered into the beyond as I have. He has not seen the Glowing Ones and the wisdom that their crystals speak about."

"Acknowledged, my lord."

With that, the long-dead dervish walked out of the Throne Room and stepped through the lightless pathways all the way to the Divided Room. Once there, the vampire wreathed a cloak from the darkness for himself and slipped outside, pacing tirelessly towards the south where the elusive band journeyed towards the north, haplessly unaware of the fate that'd await them.

Within the cold Throne Room the lich sat quietly. "Finally, the downfall shall be fulfilled."

 

* * *

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 13: Interlude

 

 

 

Chapter 13

* * *

Interlude

* * *

 

Almost a month earlier... 23rd of Icefall, year 769

Eastern Queendom of Taghtarus, Isenkrun

 

The adept-major walked to his quarters, having fulfilled the tasks for the archwizard Zefaynas. He closed the door shut, held his hand on the door-handle and considered the events today. Something was amiss. The sorcerer rushed up to his diaries upon his desk, mumbled some brief spells that countered the protective spells placed there to hold any nosy intruders from reading his secrets and flipped furiously through the pages.

"So... the Protegé wasn't just any human. Why didn't I see this earlier?", the adept-major rose up to pace around angrily. "It matters little", the sorcerer slammed a fist to his palm. He walked up to the wardrobe and opened it. Inside the cabinet laid a beautifully crafted exotic armor, made from an ancient sea-monster's chitinous plates and bones. The armor's surfaces had runes carved into them, unlike anything the human had ever seen before. His face twisted into a impertinent expression of pride. "How ironic that the armor they gifted to me will aid me in snatching their greatest prize before their very jaws." He ran his fingers upon the armor's surfaces, and couldn't but wonder the efreetis' craftsmanship.

The sorcerer locked the door and started to prepare for a long journey. He heard Isenkrun's multitudes of church-bells tolling throughout the night, but paid little attention to the passage of time otherwise. When he was finally ready, it was morning by the Queendom's chronology.

"Crathsalt awaits", the sorcerer mumbled as he closed the door one last time. The room behind was empty, and there was but a faint smell of sandalwood.

 

* * *

 

9th of Frost, year 769

Darkmoon Clan's capital settlement Ymwar, Elders' Dome

 

The sorcerer paced towards the teleportation pylon, wearing one of the required amulets that allowed interacting with the pylons. He touched the bottom rune first and glanced around to see if the nephilim sentries paid any attention -- they didn't. He weaved an invisibility spell and cast a sphere of silence upon himself, and made his way down from the outcrop. He reached the Stone Terrace, the nephilim's residential district, quite quickly and waited for the nightfall.

The meeting with the witch had gone well, better than expected: he had brought news from the Queendom and pretended to be interested in how the Darkmoon was doing, and not one of the people in the meeting had a clue as to who he truly was. While Solfanes Darkenheart had previously confirmed the suspicions harbored by the Bureau of Royal Intelligence of a betrayer's existence, neither had ever managed to pin anyone to be responsible with certainty. Now, with the chaos of the war; the former spymaster Darkenheart's desertion; and the fortunate event of colonel Ironhand's death, the Bureau was in a severe state of panic. The hunt for the supposed betrayer wouldn't continue but long after the war would be over. The only worry that the adept-major had now was the Black Tower and its' frighteningly paranoid Archon Council.

It was fortunate for the adept-major, however, that he was the queen's son. Indeed, Ulv Gråvrede Isenkrun the First was his mother, and Annika Gråvrede Isenkrun was his sister, both leading the Queendom of Taghtarus with an iron will and wolves' ferocity. This was the only thing that the Black Tower knew, and the only thing that the commoners knew to rumour about the royal family. Only the Cabinet knew of the royalty's internal struggle for power, and of Egilhard Gråvrede's vengeful grudge at the powerful women of his family; the two humans whom had sworn that the youngest child could never rise to power. Now Egilhard knew that even Solfanes, whose nets he had eluded, hadn't recognized him -- how could he have, anyway?

Speaking of which, Egilhard had never felt so satisfied in his life. He had seen the pitiful state in which one of his adversaries were, for the witch Solfanes had been forced to lean upon a staff to be able to walk, and didn't seem to be in all that healthy a condition in the first place. Still, the prince could feel the power radiating from him, and figured that he'd need further preparations to strike against so many.

In the dark corners of the cavern, the betrayer waited, patiently, poised to strike like an asp.

 

* * *

 

18th of Frost, year 769

Darkmoon territory, northern Arriyth Wastes

 

Egilhard stood upon a salient and gazed at a pile of rocks, barely jumbled together to form a grave. There was a nephil laying underneath, clad in hard leather armor and chainmail, bearing a necklace of a weapons' master. The human wondered what kind of dark fate had met this unfortunate soul, and thought no more of the matter.

"It is a world of the strong. The fools, the weak and the meek must be purged", the prince of Taghtarus quipped coldly into the emptiness and let his stare pierce the green twilight. It was then when he saw his quarry, and went to the ground. The enchanted, exotic armor gave way and caused no noise as he hid behind a struggling patch of mushrooms. A bat flew quietly upon his shoulder, and with a flick of a finger it turned into ash.

"So, the fabled slith assassin is here, as well. Maybe I'll let him distract the fools, first. With a bit luck and careful timing, I can get everything I want", Egilhard handled a small soul crystal strapped to his belt. Indeed, he was a sorcerer of no small power, and had always been adept at summoning, evocation and manipulation: the soul crystal had a sickly gleam to it, as opposed to a beautiful brilliance one might expect to see when handling such a crystal.

It was as though the wind had still carried the age-old words.

"The hunt is on."

 

* * *

 

 

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 14: The Good, The Bad and The Undead, End of Book 1, Part 2

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

* * *

The Good, the Bad and the Undead

End of Book One, Part 2

* * *

 

18th of Frost, year 769

Darkmoon territory, northern Merriyth Wastes

 

It was morning, and the chilly wind had started to cease. Philip and Syaren gazed at the cold and desolate scenery. About half a mile to the north there was a deep chasm that gaped ahead of them, disappearing into the depths of the earth. A narrow path lead around the right side, hugging the cavern wall that extended towards the patchwork of dark shadows and green-bluish luminescence far above their heads.

"Do you ever think about your home?", Syaren asked all of a sudden, keeping his voice silent, knowing fully well that they were being watched. With the entirety of his life spent in the darkness of the caverns had honed his senses to be sharp enough to catch such things right out of the breeze. The slith glanced around, more often to the west than anywhere else.

"I try not to, as much as I can help it", Philip grimaced. His mood had been quite sour lately, as he hadn't easily embraced the prospect of coming out to the caverns again and leaving the tranquility behind. Despite the fact that the serenity had been served by a nephil village with its' feline residents and their customs; constant smell of fish and frying rodents; occasional brawls between the territorial residents; and the bustling, tribal style of living, he had felt safe and content to a degree. Still, he wasn't going to complain, for he had always enjoyed some fresh air and open sceneries. "Everytime... No. I can't even...", he choked unto the words. "How about you? I know I haven't been forthcoming about the surface, either but... Where is your true home, anyway?"

"Funny thing that", Syaren breathed a small sigh. "I was born near Seciis-Sssereg, one of the darklings' fishing colonies to the north-east. It's perched on a slope of a river, opposing the Angunn Triumvirate. And yet... I can't bear myself to consider it as my true home. There were but vast fields of blackened mud, ash, dust and molten rock. Sickly fungal trees eked out an existence in the bleak soil.

"I am like the creature from your fellow humans' stories: a phoenix. I have arisen from the ashesss, and yet I fly towards the darkness, not knowing where I will wind up. Mayhap, to answer your question, friend Philip, I would have to say Lost Bahssikava."

"- The fabled colony that the remorseful darklings built after being exiled?"

"Not a colony, but a city", Syaren half-closed his eyes, lost in pleasant fantasies of the Bahssikava's beauty. "It is one of the first and the last larger cities that the war-chants of old know to tell about. We sliths have never been great builders, but rather we take a cavern and carve it, expanding it to our needs.

"It is a place we had planned to seek out. Nearly ten years ago our chieftain ordered us to get prepared to leave on a moment's notice, but never gave the command to leave. Recently, however, he started to talk about the Lost Bahssikava of yore again, dictating that we would leave within a year; we were delayed only by our desire to free as many of our brethren from the clutches of the demons as we could. Now, with the raging war, it hasss been nigh impossible to save anyone without risking more than we'd gain."

"You ... wouldn't you want to have a vengeance on your former masters?", Philip inquired. He got the idea that Syaren was implying that he nor his kin would take part to the planned war against the demons. He had not known the slith for long, but felt more at home with the quiet reptile than with the bursting and sparkling nomads -- all due respect to them of course.

"You wouldn't understand it, friend Philip", Syaren sighed sadly, hissing with a deeply regretful voice. "To repay the demons' vile designsss with hatred and blood would be to become one step closer to them, still. Our kin has spent enough time with them already, and we are a brood of less than a thousand. We weren't that numerous to begin with, but the demons' surprise attack didn't help in the least.

"It hasss not erased our sense of justice nor our spirits, and while I'd love nothing more than to see their kin scoured from the face of this land, the high priests constantly kept reminding us of the virtues of patience and peace. To charge into battle so as to avenge our spilled blood would not be peaceful. Every loss would be devastating, and to bring justice into the world in such a fashion would not be patient either. We'll do best to retreat, regroup and see if we can't bring some of the wicked beings to judgment... in a fifty years or so."

"- Fifty years?!"

"We slithzerikai are a long-lived race. While I may have seemed like a lively individual to you, as a people we are slow to warm to new ideasss and it takes time to fully commit ourselves to a cause, even if is a noble one. Bearing witness to great evil for ten years and serving justice on the eleventh is better than planning a revenge for ten days and rushing to certain death on the eleventh. Such is the wisdom of our priestsss."

"- This war might be over in a bit more than a year. All the news that Sol has brought from the meetings have been bad or worse. I can't really speak for everyone, but I'm sure that your help would be appreciated. Besides, I doubt you could birth enough warriors, as a brood, as you'd have on your side now in the form of us humans and nephilim", Philip laid some cold facts into the exchange, surprising even himself a little bit by his bluntness.

"That may well be, but it just as well might not", Syaren mumbled vaguely, not really desiring to continue the talk about the war or the future of the brood he belonged in. "We should head back. While we're not that far away, I wouldn't want to take any unnecessary risks."

Truly, the two had been tasked with but keeping the camp secure throughout the night, taking turns in watching over the fire and maintaining vigil. Between Syaren's knowledge of the caverns and Philip's jumpy nature not even a flock of bats far above in the darkness had managed to go unnoticed. They had been relieved by Greth who had woken up quite early. The watchers had decided to take a small walk farther north to have a look around and plan for their coming day.

A blue spark, emitted by the luminescent moss in the caverns' ceiling, jumped from one stalactite to another and eventually disappeared into the pitch black heights. Syaren mumbled an ancient prayer in his own language. "Spirit of Teuffoos. Luminous serpent, may you find your way to the frozen caverns of Gass-Tammoth." Philip glanced at the very same peculiarity and wondered what the slith had just mumbled, having understood only bits and pieces.

The scholar's face melted into something that resembled a smile: he had witnessed a strange moment of beauty, and felt quite enriched by the experience.

 

* * *

 

Reaching the camp, Philip and Syaren met the rest of the pack of adventurers well and wide awake. They had an ascetic breakfast and cooked their meager meals over a campfire. Having their aching hunger satiated, they sat in a ring around the fire, warming their hands to stave off the cold.

"What did thou find?", Kobierth queried and garnered everyone's attention, silencing the idle chatter. "Philip and Syaren, I mean."

"Very little", Philip replied. "Syaren found two sets of tracks belonging to a pair of ice lizards, but nothing more." The sage lowered his voice, and everyone leaned closer. "Nevertheless, we felt like we were constantly being watched. Something stalks us."

”More than one being watches us”, Syaren added quietly.

”It is to be expected, hmrrmrr”, Iríth replied with an uncharacteristically serious tone in her voice. ”It is two days since I last sensed one of my kin’s hunting bands. We’re on our own now, and the enemy knows it.”

They all had an uneasy, self-conscious glance around themselves. Kobierth was the next one to speak up. "I doth not think that the Infernal Legion's swarms could be here, watching us. Doth they not avoid the cavern to the north?"

Syaren nodded in agreement. "Yesss. The only thing that we gruntsss were told was that we should steer well enough clear of the Darkmoon's northernmost territory. There were rumours of a nameless fear prowling through the land, consuming all in its' path. Not even the mung demons dared to go there."

"How nice", Greth grumbled and gazed into the fire, his forehead wrinkled. "Let's just listen to what the demon-expert has to say, shall we? Anything else equally cheery ye' want to share before ye' and yer' kin scuttle away like little cockroaches?"

"Greth, what---", Kobierth started but got rolled over.

"Shut it, woman, or I'll shut yer' gob meself. I'm speaking now", Greth banged his hands together. "I should've known better! Once a turncoat, always a turncoat! First ye' abandon yer' brothers-in-arms to the mercy of the demons, instead of putting up an open revolt against yer' former masters. Then when yer' little fairy kingdom of Vosun's Temple or whatever took an ill turn, ye' just pack it up and leave the rest of us here to rot while you go searching off for yer' Bassikaaf of old. Cowards the lot of ye'!

"I could've understood runnin' away from a fight once, to regain strength to try and free the others from the demons grasp. But a decision to leave these caverns for good? No, that's dishonorable to me eyes. I can't condone it."

Solfanes had arisen and held a hand calmingly towards the warrior. "Greth, calm down, please." The rocks surrounding the campsite echoed their voices in a nasty way and the witch wasn't the only one with his fears that their bickering might reveal their place of solace to more intelligent hunters than just giant lizards or a pack of hellhounds.

"- Nah, me hex-man, I'm sorry but I can't calm down. I should've never listened to Kob in Dead Slith's Valley, when she said that she wouldn't turn down a potential ally. A spineless asp, is what we've here in oor' midst", the weather-beaten man continued and turned away from the rest of them.

"Greth, please, just explain. We're all more than a little bit confused here", the witch continued placating, his orange-irised eyes blazing with worry and confusion.

"Ask the slith. I heard him talk when I was ... answering the nature's call. Nah, botch this! I'm ... I'm done talking!" The warrior wandered off, muttering to himself angrily.

"I would've thought that you of all people should understand that discretion is the better part of valor, Grethenward!", Philip exclaimed and stood up, silencing his cousin with his outburst. While Solfanes had always been reserved and composed, Philip had been even more so. "Are you and your lovely wife not down here at this very moment, exiled from the surface because you chose to fight the Empire instead of swallowing your pride?!"

Once again, Philip noticed himself to have spoken before he had considered the ramifications of doing so. He just didn't care the least bit about Greth's uneasiness about the slith nor their fore-planned exodus from these caverns; he understood the fact that the sliths weren't going to have a huge impact to the outcome of the war, especially not while being unprepared for such a huge offensive after having their numbers severely thinned. The scholar had overcome his own emotional attachment to his slith friend and accepted that one day their paths would part, and couldn't help but feel that Greth was being childish to say the least.

Greth turned back one last time, his eyes flashing with feral rage and doom. Kobierth extended an arm towards her husband -- to no avail. With a lash of a tabard the warrior was gone, having disappeared into the thin mist that ever afflicted the Lower Exile caverns.

While the rest of the band turned to look at one another, Syaren rose his head up and looked at them, one after another. "I apologize, both on my own and Greth's behalf", the slith started. "It is true. When I joined up with you five after you freed me in Dead Slith's Valley, I didn't do so to commit myself to joining in waging war against the Dark Swarm or the Infernal Legion."

"But...", Kobierth started but silenced seeing Syaren's raised hand.

The slith continued. "Almost ten years ago our high priestsss and advisors came up with a decision to leave these caverns. This war hasn't changed anything. At best we'd risk falling to yet another civil war, reminded of the the old bloody traditionsss that are so familiar to us; at worst we'd risk losing our entire brood to a pointless war where we have very little to gain. This is not our fight."

"Doth thou not feel at least partially responsible for it, and by extension compelled to take up arms to cleanse this world free of their reign? And yet I do acknowledge that it is thy forefathers who decided to worship the demons, yea, not thou or thine brood", the dark-haired woman countered, with her jerkin's beads glittering in the flames' brightness. Right from the moment when she had seen Syaren bound by the cruel shackles, she had pondered the possibility of forming a truce or a peace with these sliths whom appeared to be at bad terms with their darkling brethren -- she wasn't very fond of letting that scheme slide.

"Do you remember what you said to me about a week ago?", Syaren half-closed his eyes and tilted his head. "That I would do well to respect my forefathers' and foremothers' choice to serve the demons even if I wouldn't accept it; that I would carry forth the wisdom of their mistakes, to ensure that Voossin's Brood's hatchlingsss would not befall for the same decisions they did. If we were to join the war---"

"Thou would risk losing it all. Thus would endeth a noble line, where even the sculptors are blessed with understanding. I understand, it is a fair enough point", Kobierth concluded.

"Especially the sculptors", Philip cut in. "I'm not sure if Syaren has told you but sliths value sculptors and statues almost as much as their priests. Just thought that I'd toss that out there..."

"You don't need to resort to such diplomacy, Kobierth", Syaren continued, looking off into the shadows. "Like humans and nephilim, our folk have our share of simpletonsss, as well; our line is not any more noble than that of Darkmoon or Queendom. Even today there are farmers who can barely speak Slithzerikaiis, let alone Classical Slith; their speech being but simple grunts. And yet they, too, are my brothers and sisters. I would mourn greatly their deaths." The reptilian humanoid gazed off into the darkness for a good while, not showing his unease and embarrasment about the whole hassle but feeling it just the same.

"Perhaps we might find a common ground?", Solfanes wedged himself to the exchange, with a suggestive tone in his voice.

"I think I know where you're going with this...", Iríth purred slightly and cast a piece of real, dry cavewood into the flames; instead of the usual nethersalt.

"L-Look at us, look", the witch stammered as four pairs of eyes were all of a sudden set upon him; he wasn't a good public speaker, nor did he enjoy one bit being in the center of attention. He waved around with his hand in a wide circle, almost hitting Iríth to the face (of which she wasn't too happy about). "Well, don't look at Greth because he's off.. moping. But imagine. Six adventurers. The three of you were raiding the demoniacs' nests around these parts when me, Iríth and Philip were still recovering. You gained a small victory here and another one there. Sure, you didn't fell any haakai lords but you prevented the brunt of the force from reaching settlements like Ymwar, Pumar'Rr and Neyth'Amf. Small victories.

"And now we're more or less united again. We have magic, small numbers, and we can move fast if need be. Sure, even if you leave our merry band whenever you please -- it's certainly your right in my humble opinion -- we will keep attaining small victories, clearing a nest here and maybe capturing one of their ports there. Small trickles that turn into large rivers, you know?"

"I think I understand the point you're driving across", Syaren nodded slowly. "But you'd do well to remember that I am but a sculptor, and my word doesn't carry much weight when the chieftain and his advisorsss think about the craft of war. Yesss, I was a warrior during the days I was forced to be in the Dark Swarm, but spilling blood has never been my true calling.

"The thought of a small, well armed band of warriors does sound good, however", Syaren considered. He nodded, but ever so slowly. He was like any other slith, and was slow to warm up to new ideas. "But that is a matter to be considered in the days to come."

"So be it", Kobierth rose up. "Now, if you will excuse me, I shalt see if I can't find...", her voice trailed off. Multitudes of names came on top of her tongue, but none of them were polite enough to be used in the presence of a priestess. "I and ... him will agree to whatever plan you shall come up with. We will need to get moving as soon as possible."

"Kob", Philip took a step closer and cleared his throat, having blushed bright red. "Tell him..."

The woman simply gazed at the ground, nodded slowly and paced after the warrior, determined to bring him back by whatever means necessary. The sage himself sat down and rested his chin on his hands, and fell into a marsh of self-accusations.

"Well, that was quite something", Solfanes broke the ice and glanced at the others. "So... Syaren, you said that you sensed more than just one entity out there?"

"That isss right", the slith nodded and warmed himself by the fire, wearing his long-sleeved, purple cloak and bound it around himself. "I am certain that at least Ssstoch is somewhere close. But whatever else there is, it could just be wild animalsss. I did pick up the tracks of two ice lizardsss." He took a drakestone, had a glance at the remaining bunch and crumbled it in his hands, with the stone's warmth spreading to his body.

Iríth and Sol glanced at one another: supposedly the betrayer had been never seen before, but something told them that now that his prey -- Philip and the others -- were this deep in the wilderness, far from any civilization, he just might make his move.

"Then we'll have to remain constantly on our guard", Iríth said. "We'll need to rotate you, Syaren, myself and Solfanes as night-watchers, because that's the most likely time when our assassins would hit."

"What about the rest of us?", Philip glanced up at the feline.

"You'll sleep to the best of your ability, mrr. Syaren's knowledge about the caverns is unparallered; my ears are sharper than anyone's, and Solfanes has spells that he can use to buy us time to wake up, should we be ambushed", Iríth replied. "Finally, I can complete a ritual of sanctuary that should keep us from harm's way throughout the night. I couldn't perform it each night, mind you, since it's quite draining."

"That sounds a bit...", Philip warmed up, and left out the word 'daft', even though it wasn't an offensive word. He felt really cautious now that he had angered one of the band's members, albeit involuntarily. "You and Sol are magicians. I would've thought that your minds require rest more than ours combined."

"We have something for that", Solfanes placated the sage. "During our time in Ymwar, I had time to brew some energy potions."

"Is it ... healthy?", the thin scholar asked.

Solfanes glanced at Iríth. "Not sleeping and quaffing such potions might not be the best idea, but... Each of us will sleep at least once in two nights. It shouldn't be impossible."

Syaren had a thought. "I may have told you already but... Ssstoch was, and still is, known for his cunning and patience. What if he expects us to set night-watchers and strikes at our waking hours? Whatever we do, whichever battle we wind up fighting, we'd have to have at least one of us constantly watching our backs", the slith reasoned.

"Holy Gods...", Solfanes sighed deeply. "As if things weren't fun enough just yet..."

Thus the band continued weaving their plans, drawing crude maps based on what little scouting they had achieved, and decided that they'd start marching as soon as Kobierth would find Greth and could bring him back from his trip to unknown. By the end of the day they had reached the chasm and the narrow sidepath that laid upon the chasm. Alas, little did they know that their quarreling in the morning had attracted the attention of more than just one intelligent traveller...

 

* * *

 

By nightfall the band of six had managed to make their way to the chasm. They had been beleagured by a pack of marauding goblins, but the pests were easy enough to be rid of. They had set camp near to a thicket of stalagmites where the ceiling was closer to the cavern floor than anywhere else. Victory over the goblins and their cave wolves still warmed everybody's mind, and they marveled at a necklace of small beads of amber they had looted from the stupid creatures. Philip had identified it to be unenchanted, and purely ornamental. Still, it was beautiful enough to raise their spirits and get the band to fool around with each other for a while. Indeed, Iríth had worn the charm and made masculine grunts, proposing to Kobierth jokingly; as just one example of the follies that they descended into.

All of a sudden the camp went completely silent, as everyone sensed that someone drew close to their hidey hole. There was a tall man standing close by, clad in plate armor; faintly red, flowing tabard; and equally colored cloak. The scrapes of tabard that covered the plate armor were emblazoned with the coat of arms of the Empire: a golden crown. The lich's messenger had found the camp by following the racket that Grethenward and the others had caused in ther morning.

"What is this new devilry?" Even though the plains' warrior had been at guard, he hadn't noticed the intruder but at the very last seconds. He alerted the rest of the band who were just finishing their pastimes and getting ready to go to sleep, drawing his longsword. While he entertained the notion of casting an angry glance at Syaren, he dismissed the thought quite fast. He had never encountered a slithzerikai on the surface and had first learned of their existence down here in the Lower Exile. Thus he figured that the sliths couldn't have had any kind of affiliation with the Empire, none whatsoever. This was something different.

"It's that being from my nightmares!", Kobierth shrieked. While she recognized that the creature was infact different, it didn't calm her one bit.

Iríth and Solfanes also recoiled, with the familiar feeling of something being wrong surged back -- this time into all of their minds.

"Who are you?!", Solfanes was the first one to ask. "What do you want?! Speak!" The tall magician stepped forward, despite Syaren's attempt to stop him. He was familiar with undead beings through his study of them, and wasn't as afraid of them as the others were -- that was not to say that he wasn't afraid: his heart raced, but he wasn't panicked.

"I have been sent by his majesty, lieutenant Saelen of the First Expedition, formerly under the command of his highness Thralni", the vampire's voice was somehow sarcastic, as though something had amused him greatly. "He has seen fit to summon you to his halls as guests. The palace lies beyond that winding tunnel, across a lake, miles below our feet."

Greth said nothing, and just kept the sword pointed at the vampire. He cast a glance at the others, who were further away from the undead being.

"You still didn't answer the second question!", Solfanes croaked. "And why would we want to answer your master's call? From the sound of his name, you're inviting us to a belly of a beast!"

"What doth thou mean?", Kobierth turned slightly towards the fair-haired magician but kept her eyes at the messenger, alongside with her short sword.

"He means that it's the Empire", Philip replied quickly. "The First Expedition is the reason how Empire found these caverns, both Exile proper and Lower Exile, Avernum and Taghtarus respectively!"

"I remember, too!", Syaren exclaimed. "The war-chants of old describe our ancestors ambushing iron-clad humanoids whom carried artefacts of wondrous power!"

Before anyone had managed to react, Greth surged towards the messenger, swinging his sword violently. Kobierth was the first to rush after him but the vampire was more than capable of defending himself. An estoc, a sword meant both for piercing as well as sharp slashing, appeared to the vampire's hands and he parried the first few blows easily. After a while, he jumped up to air, and vanished... only to appear on a rock on the other side of the camp. The creature's next words caused the adventurers to go limp with disbelief.

"You mortals may call me dervish Moore, but you'd also do wisely to know that I and my paltry companions in arms hate the Empire, even more than the rest of your reigns combined! It is by lieutenant Saelen's rage and hatred for the Empire alone, that we have survived thus far; that we have survived at all", the vampire spoke. "In that regard, my lord wishes to discuss a matter that might interest us all. That is all that I have been allowed to say."

"What sayeth thee?", Kobierth stepped closer, glancing at her husband with a scolding look. "How shalt we answer?"

"Well... asking for the Black Tower for instructions might take days", Solfanes replied.

"Alas, that is true. Ymwar is at least three days' of walk from here", Iríth accompanied.

"Not that it matters!", Syaren warned. "Dervish Moore! Behind you!"

The slith assassin, Ssstoch, had finally decided to make his move. He had been shadowing the band for the past few days, and seen that the situation was growing worse. The slith hadn't heard the conversation between the lich's messenger nor the adventurers, but got the feeling that they were coming to a mutual agreement about something, considering how they had drawn their weapons but then mildened their stance. The assassin dashed through the air like an arrow, his grey and white clothes flashing in a deathly beautiful dance around him as he pierced and struck with his spear that glinted with a hint of red -- the enchanted ruby at the point of his spear heralding doom and drawn blood.

Dervish Moore had been dead for more than twenty years, true, but his days of undeath had been fulfilled with weapons' training and practice of the craft of war. He pulled out easily a shield that had been strapped to his back and blended it to his dance flawlessly, all the while at the same time using the estoc's full range to the best of his ability. The shield was no ordinary shield, however, and instead of being completely defensive piece of equipment, it had a peculiar design of the shield's bottom forming a shallow incline towards the middle of the shield, forming two slates with sharp points to the shield's sides at the bottom. More often than not the dervish struck directly at the assassin's spear and forced it away, using the shield's shape to create openings for himself to use.

By the time a few heartbeats had passed, Greth and Kobierth had been already hard at work to climb uphill to aid the vampire, whom they had quickly judged to be the lesser of the two evils.

Iríth, on the other hand, was very much uncertain on how to proceed. A rage burst inside her as she saw the murderer whom was responsible for the death of one of the novices she had come to care about and train as her student. Fair enough, she had talked about her guilt and horrible feelings with Sol, but had never managed to get past the desire for vengeance. In fairness, she hadn't really thought about the assassin for a long time. It had been but a dark stain in her memories, something she had repressed and refused to think about: a power beyond her control. Now, the epitomization for the whole invasion and the threat to the one thing that could end this stupid war -- Philip's artefact -- danced upon a cliff, not thirty feet away from her. The spiritist flexed her entire body, ready to pounce at a moment's notice at the assassin's throat. She wielded the amulet and sent a prayer... no, a demand to the divine realms for a holy lance that'd burn her adversary to ashes.

Greth and Kobierth climbed up towards the whirlwind of blades and shields, cloaks and scales. The former king glanced at the duo, Syaren and Philip, and despite his juvenile feelings of mistrust and resentment at them he waved them off. His eyes told a clear message: their skills in the craft of war were not anywhere close to what was required in the fight against the assassin. Certainly, the sage and the sculptor had stood against brigands, goblins, dark sliths, imps and even a cave slime, but none of that came even close to what the slith appeared to be.

Soon Ssstoch the One-Eyed stood alone against three. He whirled in the air, deflecting blows with his heavy cloak and even though some of the hits seemed to connect, they didn't appear to have any visible effect on him. The two humans faced off against this rageful assassin for the first time in their lives, and took their time to blend in to his style of fighting. Ssstoch was no fool, of course, and realized this. He switched the stance to passively agressive and kept his opponents guessing as to what his next move might be.

"Your pain shall be unspeakable!", the slith hissed from the darkness of the hood, with his singular eye glowing bright red with passion. He rushed towards Kobierth who backed off, raising a shield to her defence, but at the last moment he switched his momentum towards Greth. The muscular man had the reflexes to dodge the thrust but lost his balance -- a price he paid avidly to be spared of finding out just how tough his ringmail was. Solfanes' orb of darkness that he had flung, timing it perfectly, forced the slith to back off and leave Greth well enough alone for the time being.

"Ye' actually speak common tongue?", Greth taunted and pointed a finger at the creature. "I was surprised you had it in ye' to talk at all, barbarian!"

"Ssspeak for yourself, maggot! You hit just like you talk: a wimp!", the slith swirled like a whirlwind again, slashing with the tip of his spear, forcing the tan-skinned man to back off, while Kobierth approached in equal measure, looking for an opportunity to strike.

The unholy dervish rushed onward, practically floating above the ground. "You know nothing of pain, uncivilized scum!" Despite vampire Moore being an undead, there was an awe-inspiring aura of majestic posture within his movement. He approached holding his sword ready, but that was just the diversion. He swirled a full swing in the air and extended his shield to catch and break the spear... only to be met with thin air. The vampire understood his mistake and continued the swing, slashing with his sword to his right where he guessed the slippery assassin to be. He felt a sharp scratch in his left thigh, and continued his move to face off against the agent of death whom had dodged behind himself. The poison that the spear seemed to be constantly dripping had practically no effect on the undead, since his body wasn't alive in the usual, natural way. The dervish shook his head, almost like an instructor teaching a young soldier the basics of a swordfight.

"Come here, coward, and fight like a real man!", the deserts' man called out and took a better grip of the longsword. The handle was a bit awkward as it had been originally crafted for creatures of smaller stature: nephilim. Yet the sword was of fine quality, and suited Greth's style of fighting well.

"Says the man who lets a hundred years old corpse do the fighting for himself! Ss-ss-ss-ss!" Ssstoch replied wryly.

This only inspired the former king, who frenzied into a blistering speed, screaming profanities that made the combatants feel almost surreal as they listened to the stream of curses and swear-words, some more imaginative than they had ever heard before. The most disturbing thing about Greth's ranting was that whenever he wasn't yelling words that would've caused even the most lewdly unattractive and disreputable person blush, was that he constantly laughed in an almost maniacal way. Even Ssstoch the One-Eyed felt slightly rustled around the edges, and he had, after all, stood before haakai lords, receiving barks and orders from infernal demi-gods.

On the contrary Kobierth wasted no words and made a steady progress towards the assassin, like she had done from the beginning of their fight. She gazed at the slith in an almost admiring manner, trying to memorize the tricks that the agile shadowwalker employed in his movement through the battlefield.

"To be entirely accurate---", the dervish grimaced as he pressed the slith towards Kobierth, having intended to correct the slith about his years being dead.

"I measure accuracy only by the point at which my spears enters my victim, not wordsss", the slith hissed back and struck through a gap in the dervish's defences -- the gap being a calculated opening and an invitation for Kobierth to make use of Ssstoch's preoccupation to strike a critical blow to the assassin's back. Right before commiting herself to an assault, she had a glance downhill and wondered why Iríth hadn't blessed any of them with divine shields or prayers. The priestess crouched on the ground, on her knees, and clutched the amulet as though in pain. The sword-dancer didn't have any more time for the matter, and pounced onward the final step, her sword scraping through the assassin's cloak, all the way into the scalemail. The sword didn't cleave deep into Ssstoch's flesh, but was enough to cause a small wound. The human was well beyond the slith's range by the time he swinged himself around to face her; even so his spear reached her and cut her through one of her leather bracers.

The skirmish continued for about five minutes as all of the four combatants took turns in flailing violently at one another: evading, dodging, missing, hitting and even wounding. At one point, all of the four combatants ceased to take a breather and glanced at one another.

Kobierth was in the best shape, boasting only one deep cut to her left arm; while Greth had suffered a couple of scratches and managed to bruise himself badly in the rocky terrain. The dervish, while being a powerful undead in his own right, did show some signs of being slightly injured. He had a couple of wounds here and there, but nothing that'd kill him quite yet. He eyed hungrily at the three living beings close by, starting to slip into the bloodlust that had plagued him since the day he had been bit by a vampire that his former commanding officer had managed to subdue to his bidding more than twenty years ago.

Syaren had climbed stubbornly closer, while Philip remained with the magicians, both staying safer near them and buying them time to cast harmful spells if the need should arise. Ssstoch had a glance at the new challenger and dismissed him as non-threatening. The assassin knew he could take the slith down easily. Then, seeing a chance presenting itself, he set himself into motion. Yet, he wasn't fast enough.

Dervish Moore was quick on his feet, wreathing a cloak of invisibility around himself so that the assassin couldn't see where he was. The invisibility was the only spell he had ever cared to learn, concentrating more on the swordplay, as he had done in life. He bashed the assassin's blind pokes aside and closed in fearlessly, determined to sink his teeth into the creature's warm flesh. For a moment the assassin hesitated, knowing quite well that the humans were on their way to him, too. He couldn't see them with his head's left side being covered by the intricately decorated helm he had been granted after the incident in Port Varib, but knew of experience that it wouldn't take them long to reach him and start piercing his side.

Ssstoch saw that a hand-to-hand skirmish with the dervish was inevitable, and lowered his spear, preparing to use his helm's abilities to the fullest. He unsheathed a long, cruel-bladed dagger and made a diversion, as though looking vulnerable: seeing quite well that the vampire had descended into bloodlust. He hissed the required word, and his helm started to glow ever so faintly, right before the vampire's bared fangs were on him. His scaly skin grew stiff and spikes started to protrude through his armor, rendering it into a very bad shape. He'd have to end this fight quickly.

Kobierth ceased in her tracks, utterly disgusted at the sight. She had but heard of tales of vampires and vampire-bats, sucking at their victims' blood, but now for the first time she saw it happening in real life. The hood had flewn off from the assassin's head a long time ago, revealing his malformed head. Now, however, his face bore an expression of unspeakable agony as the vampire kept his jaws embedded at the slith's throat, despite the assassin's armor of thorns and desperate hammering to the vampire's torso. For a moment, her mind froze, mercifully sparing her from remembering the horrid sight in the days to come.

The hammering continued, with Ssstoch piercing the dervish's plate armor through the side. He made use of the opening and struck three times more into the cold body that the metal hid behind itself. Then he started to wriggle himself, the thorns scraping against both the platemail and the vampire's flesh alike, causing heavy bleeding. By the time the former Haakai-blade had managed to free himself, his vision was grey and his body felt numb. The feeder hadn't survived without lasting wounds, himself, but wiped his mouth with his hand. Dervish Moore was fast as a lightning and approached the assassin once again with an estoc trained at the reptilian humanoid's chest.

A bolt of grey and white cloth surged past the undead, evading his swinging blade. Ssstoch locked himself into a short duel with Greth, whom had noticed Solfanes' supporting spell coming right at them within a moment's notice. The plains' man pranced backwards out of harms way just as the splash of pale red substance flew towards them. A wave of acid splashed to the rocks and sprayed the assassin, burning his clothes and armor but never reaching his tough natural scales. Angered, Ssstoch danced to Kobierth and struck her down to the ground with the blunt end of his spear, turning to face the enraged king.

"HOW DARE YE'?! That's the last mistake yer' ever going to do!", Greth bellowed. Blinded by his rage, he stumbled directly into the assassin's trap! His roaring was cut short as Ssstoch's spear pierced his ringmail.

Anguish: burning, crippling, disarming, excruciating.

The time stopped in everyone's eyes.

Greth glanced at the assassin whose singular eye blazed wildly, nothing but a gurgle leaving his lips. He barely heard the cold noise of the sword clattering onto the cold cavern floor, and felt his legs giving way underneath his weight. The slith walked closer, placed a leather booted foot to the man's chest and wringed the spear free from the fallen warrior's body. The caverns darkened in the human's eyes, his mind descending into merciful chaos that prevented him from feeling anything. He just gazed at the luminous fungi in the ceiling and thought of how he'd be back in the surface, looking at the Sun shining through cracks in a volume of clouds.

While Ssstoch flashed towards the callous dervish, Kobierth screeched and clawed her way up on her feet, breaking her leather gloves and bloodying her fingers. She barely managed to reach Greth, and even when she did, she couldn't bear to look at him. She just held her mouth closed and touched lightly at the man. After a while she rose up like a spirit of vengeance, her eyes heralding death. Unlike Iríth who resembled a lioness defending her cubs whenever she'd get enraged, Kobierth was as cold, perfectly controlled and ruthlessly cunning as a pagan god of the north, Jäärouva.

The world ceased in Iríth's eyes. She groveled in the ground, thrashing in pain as she pleaded for the Gods to forgive her. Ever since the start of the fight, she hadn't felt the Gods' presence nor the spirits' soothing thoughts. In her anger and rage she had demanded something from them: a divine retribution to quake the earth and swallow the filthy assassin; to grind his bones to dust, to burn his flesh to ash, to banish his soul into the darkest pit. While the celestial beings had always held Iríth in high regard, they couldn't tolerate such inane fits of blind rage from their servants. Rather, they had decided to make her pay for her mistake. She understood this, but wouldn't accept it. She refused to believe it to be true. She refused to believe. Her breathing was halting and wheezing, with a pain tearing her guts on the inside. She saw Solfanes approaching her and gazing at her sympathetically. He crouched down to surround her with his arms and lifted her upright. The worst part about his presence was that she knew that he knew, and yet he didn't judge her. With shaky hands she managed to take a pinch of reothmold and restore some of her halting breathing.

Dervish Moore and Ssstoch the One-Eyed locked into a duel once more, this time with an air of doom hanging heavily upon the battlefield. There'd be one more death, and then silence would ensue. This much was certain. The undead staved off a couple of harmless pokes and chopped in a wide arc, hoping to force the slith into defence. On the contrary, the reptilian humanoid cracked a drakestone while recovering from the assault and gained new vigor to his movement. He realized that the sword-dancing woman approached, with determination in her eyes unseen even on those of the highest of haakai lords. It was time to act.

The darkling did something completely unexpected. He rushed onward, directly into one of the dervish's blows and suffered a grievous injury to his right arm and side, receiving a wound that started to bleed profusely. Still, he had got to where he had wanted: a striking distance away from the vampire. He thrusted, aiming a blow at the former blademaster's abdomen where the armor linked and was at its' weakest. A similar wound had brought down Greth, but the undead was unfamiliar to pain the way that the living beings were, right up to the point where the dying man's blood entered his body. While the vampires weren't vulnerable to wooden stakes or ornamental crosses, as opposed to the belief amidst the common folk; they were very vulnerable to a dead man's blood. Even though Greth wasn't exactly dead just yet, it was enough to give halt to the dervish. His movement slowed down and he struggled for control. The spear's toxin enchantment and the wounding capabilities went to work within the dervish's body, loosening the horizon between the unnatural state of being and natural death he ought to have received for nearly twenty two years ago.

A memory flashed before the dervish's eyes.

As a cruel twist of fate Saelen had managed to use the raw, unpredictable energies to send a telepathic projection to the surface. Not needing the brooches to communicate, he had called for the Empire mages and scholars to aid him, explaining the horrid fate that had met the First Expedition. Alas, the wizards upon the surface had scried and realized that should they open a portal to the depths, they'd risk allowing for demons to pour through. Instead, they nulled the telepathic communication with Saelen and sealed away the records of the First Expedition for good, hoping to conceal the horrid fate that had met the elite soldiers and explorers.

An unholy scream emerged from Moore's throat as he struggled to keep fighting against the creeping death, with its' cold fingers finally finding its' way through the unholy designs that the lich and his underlings had weaved upon the dervish to grant him immortality. Indeed, before turning into a lich, the former lieutenant Saelen of the First Expedition had managed to summon a vampire and had bent it to his will, unleashing the horror unto himself and his men. The lieutenant had been driven by vengeance and madness, and had gladly embraced undeath as it allowed him to continue his existence, plotting a revenge against the wizards above who had refused to open a portal to the depths in order to save Saelen and his men.

The moment of the realization flashed before dervish Moore's eyes. Saelen turned to them, his face blank and pale. They were doomed. Yet, the desperation turned into anger, denial, rage, lust for revenge. The battle mage weaved a summoning spell, knowing fully well the risk of accidentally pulling a demon to their midst. The mist coalesced into a vampire... The dervish hallucinated those final moments of his life before he fell on his back, his plate armor clattering and shield breaking into small splinters.

Kobierth stood alone on top of the hill, listening to the acid eating away at solid rock, with the substance silencing gradually as its' potency declined. The assassin, Ssstoch the One-Eyed, had fled having whittled down his prey to a smaller, more manageable amount. He had sustained grievous wounds to be sure, but they were nothing compared to what the adventurers had suffered. The sword-dancer sheathed her sword, had a cold glance around at the caverns and wielded a knife, slitting her hand.

As the woman's blood soaked the soil along with that of Greth's and the unholy dervish's cold vital fluid, she whispered to the emptiness: "Get thyself away from me! Take heed to thyself and see my face no more! For in the day thou see my face, thou shalt die!" A single tear rolled on her cheek and down on her chin as she returned to her husband and pressed her head against the cold, blood-smeared chainmail. She didn't notice as the three men bustled about, with Iríth sitting on a nearby rock, her hears drooping and an empty look on her eyes -- the amulet laying close by on the grey cavern floor.

There were a few rare phenomena within the caverns, one of them being a wind. Sometimes, even rarer still, when a warm enough breeze brushed through the Lower Exile, the frozen pockets of water within the ceiling would drizzle down into the floor far below.

The day, 18th of Frost, upon the Queen's Year 769 was marked to the annals throughout the Lower Exile as a day when a warm rain graced the galleries with its' presence, washing away blood, mud, ashes and memories of ancient battles alike.

 

* * *

 

The night following the disastrous skirmish against the darkling assassin Ssstoch the One-Eyed had been a chaotic and restless for them all. Not one of them had managed to sleep as they had kept a nervous guard up in case the the slith would appear once again, while Solfanes had spent the entire time performing rituals to uphold Greth's life.

Suspecting the worst and giving his own valuable input, Philip had pointed out that despite neutralizing the poison the warrior hadn't started to mend. The former spymaster Darkenheart had remembered his second encounter with the assassin within the Bureau of Royal Intelligence, and had managed to describe the weapon's features to the sage. Indeed, the assassin's weapon hadn't been of the normal variety, and Philip had managed to identify the symptoms that plagued the fatally injured warrior. The weapon had been enchanted to create lasting wounds that couldn't be reversed without a direct celestial intervention, the sage had explained. In other words, they'd have needed an archbishop or an elder shaman. Alas, they were in the wilds, far away from any potential help.

Regardless of the bad news that Philip had divulged and despite she hadn't still come to terms with the Gods nor spirits, Iríth had used her knowledge of healing crafts, in tandem with those of the witch, in order to mend Greth's fatal injuries. Having given her all, the feline spiritist accompanied the dark-haired woman who gazed at her husband from afar, offering quiet support. As she sat there, casting pieces of nethersalt into the fire, the days of her chieftainship surged into her mind. The weight of responsibility, the horrid task of ruling over other people's lives... She thought that she was more than partly responsible for the accident, but nobody else seemed to realize it, with the exception of Sol, whom still wouldn't judge or incriminate her. The wheezing had remained, as had the constant hacking cough.

On the other end of the smooth rock, Kobierth sat devastated, having silenced completely. She simply waited, biding her time. She didn't liven up even when the fair-haired, brown-robed magician approached the quiet pair of women. What had appeared like a mask of stone to anyone else was as easily readable to Iríth as an open book: he didn't like the message he had been forced to bear.

"Kobierth", the man coughed, breaking his voice.

"Yes, or no", the plains' woman replied with a blank face.

"- E...excuse me?"

"Will he survive?"

"- Well, you see... that's the reason I came to talk with you. I don't know that just yet."

"Then what in the blasted oblivion's name art thou doing here?! Go and heal him! Both of thee!", Kobierth commanded, her former queenhood resurfacing.

"- It's not that simple, your highness", Solfanes snapped back, sharper than he had intended.

Kobierth rose to her feet and paced away from the magicians. "Thou came for a reason, yes?"

"I...", Solfanes licked his drying lips. "There is a way to 'save' him."

Iríth knew of the witch's past, as he had dabbled with some of the dark arts -- having since relinquished them. Now she realized. "No", she rose and walked up to the human, her ears reared.

"What is it? Talk to me!", Kobierth swung around, barely holding back a bestial scream of pain and frustration. She wasn't still sure if she believed her husband to be in such a bad shape. The whole incident felt like a bad nightmare.

Solfanes glanced at the emerald-green eyes before him and whispered apologetic words. Then he raised his gaze and said it. "Necromancy. Kobierth, hear me out before you strike me down."

Iríth would have none of that, and spoke again before the plains' woman had any time to reply. "We don't need to resort to such desperate measures! If I can just... somehow, pray and get the Gods to forgive my arrogance, I might have a chance at using their celestial aid in bringing him back from the brink!" A hacking cough forced her to double over.

"Girl, that's a whole lot of assumptions you're making. And you know as well as I do that it's highly propable that Greth...", the magician let the sentence hang in the air.

"But it's blasphemy, mrrow!", the feline countered as soon as she recovered from the fit, with her nose wrinkled in disgust, crossing her arms across the white half-tunic she wore on top of her priest's robe.

"- Iríth, I'm sorry to make the comparison but most people regard rakshasi as unnatural abominations. And yet you aren't; in fact you are completely the opposite. Life... it's about shades of grey and not black and white. Nine necromancers out of ten would raise Greth as a thrall to their will, but I'm the one exception who doesn't."

"I suppose...", the half-blood gazed off into infinity and glanced at Kobierth who had approached the arguing couple. "How would you go about it, if we were to allow it? More than anything, it's up to Kobierth." She took a pinch of the reothmold and inhaled the spores.

"If it was up to himself...", the tan-skinned lady mumbled and looked at the shallowly breathing warrior. "He always wanted to die in glorious battle, having fell'd numerous worthy warriors in an honorful manner. And in the end, his fall wound up being a miserable skirmish in some dank, dark cave far away from everyone against a lowly, worthless, evil, spineless assassin", she continued quietly. "More on the matter, what is this talk of Iríth not being able to heal him normally? Art the wounds too grievous, or art thou drained of thy reserves of energy?"

Iríth glanced desperately at Solfanes. Her conviction prevented her from lying, especially when she wasn't entirely innocent to begin with (or so she thought, if it would've been up to Greth. He would've admitted that it was his own mistake that caused the entire ruckus, not lack of divine shields or blessings).

"It's a bit more complicated than that...", the witch answered to Kobierth on the priestess' behalf. "It is a matter that's between her and the Gods. Iríth has done all that she could, that she has. And, well, she met her own limits. After all, she's a mortal, like the rest of us."

"Doth not be too hard on thineself, my friend", Kobierth glanced at Iríth, forcing something of a smile on her face. "Now then, it seems that we must think about the dark arts, even if it aches my heart to sayeth it aloud. If thou were to succeed, would he be... Would he be himself? Would he be... alive?"

"It depends entirely on how healthy he is when I start the ritual. I can't restore him to what he was, but I can prevent death from taking him", the witch explained. He couldn't bear to look at the two anymore and turned away in shame.

"Wait, thou could prevent him from dying, correct?", Kobierth grasped the witch's shoulder and forced him to turn around. "Could it be possible to ... reverse the dark spell and heal him later on?"

"No, hmrr", Iríth shook her head. The magicians weren't sure how to break the truth for the erstwhile queen.

Solfanes steeled himself and blurted the truth. "The bottom line is that Greth would become an undead. He wouldn't be dead but he wouldn't be alive either, no. The wounds are irreversible with the power that we possess, and he'd die before we could get him to Ymwar to be tended to by the elder shaman there."

"Dying for nothing or trapped in a limbo between the Upper and Underlying", Kobierth's face turned nearly grey. "Would he be in... pain? If... when he'd be... un...alive?"

"If he ingests a specific concoction once or twice a day, he shouldn't feel anything", the tall man replied grimly.

"And... what of his soul?", Kobierth turned to Iríth, with tears welling in her eyes. The understanding started to finally sink in.

"Mrrrr, his soul shall find its' way to the Halls of the Sun once his undead form finally gives in, if I've understood your beliefs correctly", Iríth purred. "From what I've heard from you, he has lead a righteous life so far, and being turned into an undead is not a sin in itself."

"- What about Solfanes? Is he not commiting a sin against the Gods by creating an undead being?"

"Mrr... The Gods are wise. They will understand that his hand is forced; we don't have any other choice."

"- Thou speak so very differently from the Empire's preachers whom would visit our villages prior to their invasion, Iríth. Thou art a true priest, never doubt that", Kobierth said and turned to the human, mustering all of her strength. "Now, Solfanes, I prithee to do all that thou can to...", she would have wanted to continue but choked upon the words, and went off to maintain vigil with Philip.

Iríth glanced at the witch with a painful look in her eyes. His eyes replied, promising that things would turn out well. Then the man was gone, thinking back into the painful memories. The tall magician glanced at the vampire's body close by, and lit candles to form a pentagram around the warrior. As he prepared the dark ritual further, he kept gazing at the former dervish and felt the lingering aura of magic. An idea sparked in his mind, something that helped alleviate the shame of commencing such an unholy ritual.

 

* * *

 

20th of Frost, year 796

Darkmoon territory, northern Merriyth Wastes

 

"Kobierth? Gairjel Beger? Dügyr?", Grethenward mumbled names out loud. Philip twitched wide awake from his nap and leaned over to look at how the warrior was doing. It appeared that the patient, whom they had barely managed to haul to the safety of the long and winding cavern on the other side of the whistling chasm, had fallen down under again. It was a sign for the better, though, because he had been (dead) silent for the past day. Solfanes' dark ritual had been effective, but draining.

The sage leaned his head against his elbow and felt a strange rush of nostalgia washing over him. A vivid memory swept him back more than a month's worth of time.

Philip felt confused and had a glance at the large, deeply tanned man next to him. Slowly he realized that the barkeep must have had mistaken them to be traveling together. The large warrior didn't seem to be bothered at all and shrugged at Philip. He rumbled a grunt at the barkeep. "We ain't acquainted but he looks all right to me. Much rather I'd sleep with an honest face than a room full of smelly brigands. Me, him and me wife will take the room. There are several beds in one room, aye? I'll pay for one night, son."

Philip's jaw dropped and he rolled his eyes back and forth between of the barkeep and the warrior as copper coins were exchanged for the rent of a key. He wasn't quite sure on how to react to this situation, and so he stood there agape for a moment. He knew, of course, that a tavern in a place like this -- Bloodrock -- would be cramped, but the fact that the barkeep stuffed unacquainted people to mutual rooms was appalling, at the very least. The last time he had experienced such treatment had been in Angel's Rest near Sharimik, all the way back in Valorim.

"A'right, young man", the large tribesman turned to Philip. "I hope you won't mind that we'll be sharing a room tonight between the three of us. As I said, much rather I'd share a room with someone of your kind than some filthy thief. You fair, mate, I can see it in your eyes. Now, me and me wife'll be staying up for a while longer, so why don't you join us, get to know each other a bit better as there's hardly anything better to do, aye? I'll buy you something if you're still thirsty."

That's how they had met: Philip, Greth and Kobierth. The sage couldn't still quite believe what a fortune, or misery, it had been that they had fancied the services of the barkeep at the same time. If Philip had been a minute faster or slower, he might have wound up stuck into some dusty tower to care for portal coordinates, casualty lists and commercial trade reports. Chances were that either Ssstoch the One-Eyed or the nameless betrayer would've eventually found a way to him and carved him open like a ripe mushroom, stealing his celestial artefact. He shuddered heavily and decided to pay no further mind to such things.

Grethenward's arm jerked. That was enough to send the nervous librarian running. Solfanes was on night watch and jumped up, alarmed.

"It's Greth", Philip quipped and crouched to wake Kobierth. Quickly the sage and the warrior made their way to Greth, who rested in a slight incline, as opposed to the rest of the band who had been forced to make a camp to the shelter of a bunch of narrow stalagmites.

"Has he said anything?", Kobierth queried and leaned close to her husband.

"- Only your name, and a couple of others I couldn't quite understand."

"He has moved, yes?"

"- His arm jerked slightly and he moaned before I rushed to get you. It's the most he's done so far."

"Grethenward... Can thou heareth me? Thy time is not over quite yet, my king. Come hither, sire."

"Mngggghh", the warrior moaned. For a moment Philip started to wonder the exact nature of the spell that Solfanes had cast upon the plains' man, and his face grew pale. Greth still had more or less healthy color in his skin, mind you, but he didn't quite look the same as before. Upon closer inspection, he looked a lot thinner.

"Philip!", Kobierth exclaimed and grasped his hand. "His... hands... he's not warm."

"What?", the sage gasped and touched the warrior's flesh. Indeed, he wasn't as warm as he had been in life, but wasn't cold either.

"Mnngrrh, why... Why are you fiddling with me?", Greth intoned with his usual accent, still keeping his eyes closed. He looked like he was about to say something more but instead he rapidly rose to his elbows and threw up to the side. They didn't have so much as a towel to wipe some of the substance so they just had to live with the smell for the time being.

"Doth not talk", Kobierth fondled the man's forehead soothingly and dared to lift the blanket from his chest. Much to her surprise the man didn't have gaping wounds visible, nor the ringmail that he had bargained for in Ymwar, but a polished and stylished breastplate that still bore the Empire's insignia of golden crown.

"That's the dervish's armor!", Philip pointed out.

Solfanes approached slowly, having woken Syaren to maintain the guard for him for the short time while he would be away. "That's the best I could do", he grimaced and could hardly look at the trio crouched in the notch. His gaze crept into the darkness. "How could I explain?"

"Short and simple, I'd suggest", Greth rumbled from the depths of the bedroll. "A king like me ain't have had time to consider the finer details of hexing or praying. Driving a hard bargain, severing enemies' heads---"

"He is all right", Kobierth rested her head against the cold stone and covered her face with her hands, with a broad, relieved smile spreading underneath. "Solfanes, please. Do explain, for he is not going to shut before thou speak, yea."

Philip remained quiet, gazing at the warrior and his weird breastplate. It had been completely new knowledge to him that his cousin had engaged to such dark and disreputable crafts. He could only figure that it must've happened in his youth before he joined the much more gallant coven of witches. And yet he felt uneasy about sitting next to Greth as well, for he had insulted his honor right before the horrid incident; and the sage knew the plains' man well enough to know that he was quick to anger and slow to forget.

"I... It's not a pleasant truth", the fair-haired hunk mumbled.

"- Hex-man. I'm alive, and I've got the feeling that it hasn't been an easy thing to ascertain that. Now talk to me 'bout this spell ye' have put on me before I lose me patience."

"I bound your vitae, your life-force, into that breastplate", Solfanes groaned. "It belonged to the dervish, and bore heavy enchantments against death. I ... tried to keep you as alive as possible, with you still being an undead. It was the only way to keep you from dying to those enchanted wounds."

A heavy silence befell on the camp. Even Iríth had awoken. For the first time, they all understood that they had an undead in their midst -- a man they had come to rely upon for his childishly rigid sense of honor and extreme loyalty.

"So... what's it mean?", Greth continued, having arisen on his elbows again. It was as much as he could do for now, but he felt his strength returning slowly but surely.

"It means that your will keeps you alive", the witch replied. "Alas, you cannot enter holy ground, and Iríth will have hard time blessing or aiding you. In theory I could use some of my hexes to grant you strength, but not heal you directly; undead beings feed off negative energy and regenerate at a monstrous rate when hibernating, while only in some rare occasions the undead feature vampiric regeneration. Last but not least, you'll be invulnerable to ice and cold. The soul remains untouched, pure", he directed his last words at the more spiritually inclined Kobierth.

"What of himself?", Kobierth rose up, with a mixture of shock and relief clouting her entire being into a patchwork of uncertainty. "Will ... he able to sleep, read, feel emotions? To...", she wanted to ask if he could still be a husband to her, but the words got stuck to her throat.

"That.. that.. umm... that depends, it depends on his willpower", the hexer turned to look at Iríth, expressing his desire for support. He had hard time keeping himself composed as it was. The memories of malformed bodies and failed experiments haunted his mind; to be fair to him, that had been the point where he had drawn the line and stormed off from the necromancers' manor, having his thirst for knowledge more than satiated.

With the half-blood by his side, the witch continued. "The undeath... tends to have a different effect on everyone. It'll try to grip him every day, trying to reduce him to a husk if he lets it. Some can resist it indefinitely. Vampires are a good example of that. Most live almost normal lives, feeding off only from occasional victims or sometimes even cattle. Some choose more grim paths; and finally some poor souls lose their identity, unable to help themselves..."

"And... Greth?", Kobierth asked tenderly, afraid of hearing the answer.

"He, well, you Greth, should have a lot easier time. You're a lot less undead than you could be, if that makes any sense", Solfanes concluded.

"After all, he has a will of steel", Philip rose to his feet. "He and Kobierth stood against the Empire, and lived to tell the tale. If that doesn't scare off the death itself, then I don't know what will!"

With one of their own brought back from the brink of death, they rested slightly better. In the morning they packed up and left for the deeper caverns, exploring every nook and cranny since the one-eyed assassin had taken away their only guide, the former dervish. Facing the darkness that reigned in these narrow tunnels with nothing but spells of light, torches and their bravery, they couldn't but wonder: just what were they walking into -- a trap, or a parley?

 

* * *

 

21st of Frost, afternoon, year 769

Deep beneath the Lower Exile...

 

The suspicious band of six came to the long and winding gallery's end. There was a lake, deep underneath the Boneriver. Perhaps the river had once flowed to this exact body of water, but a cavequake had then changed the scenery and blocked the river's passage, cutting this huge and eerily serene bay off from the rest of the waters that flowed through Lower Exile.

"What's over there?", Iríth's ears perked and she pointed at something in the distance. Instead of finding a fortress perched on the side of the underground sea, they saw a dock. There were no people around, no boats nor fishing nets drying on the slopes, nothing. It was eerily quiet. She couldn't help but feel slightly predatory as she heard the rustling of crabs or cave rats underneath the docks, her eyes widening to resemble salvers.

"All... right", Greth said quietly. "We've done as the archwizard asked us to do. Let's double back and report that there ain't an easy way through to the northern lands."

Syaren hissed in a disspirited manner. He didn't say it aloud because he didn't long for any further quarreling with the snappy human, but he was disappointed when faced by such a sight. The way back to his fellow slithzerikai wasn't going to be easy.

"Agreed. I didn't find any passageways from the dark tunnelsss above us, either", the sculptor concluded, earning a nod from the muscular nomad. Syaren had scouted ahead quite a bit during their wandering in the dark gallery and found naught but twisting passages that ended up either into chimneys too steep to climb or chasms too slippery to descend. Now that they were here, with a sea of water ahead of them, he just wanted to exploit that to get them to return to the Darkmoon lands. In fairness, he just wanted to be reunited with his kin, for he missed them greatly.

"What of the dervish's message?", Philip countered.

The tanned warrior simply waved his hand dismissively and grouched. "I'm guessing 'ts just a trick to get us to walk to a lich's ambush. I say we don't go poking any further, while we are still alive." No-one wanted to make a joke out of Greth's undeath, for the atmosphere of mortality hanged still heavily above them, constantly reminding them of life's frailty.

"- I doubt that the dervish would've escorted us to an ambush. His story seemed plausible enough, and his.. your armor's insignia acts as a proof for it."

"Eh, could be any kind of enchantment to get our heads messed up. There... Err, Solfanes? Ain't there some spells that he could've weaved, to make us trust him? Give us something familiar to relate to?"

The witch joined the talk. "Well, there are such spells... but I don't see the point---"

"There ye' hear it. Listen to yer' cousin", Greth spoke. "We're better off staying out of harm's way. I wouldn't want any of you folk suffering the same fate as me."

"Grethenward of Kthre-Manur. Art thou afraid of whatever might be out there?", Kobierth cut in with a scathing voice, like sharpened steel that slashed through rotting flesh.

"My lilac of the valley, I am most definitely not afraid. But that doesn't mean that I want to set these four people to harm's way just because I long for glory", Greth replied. "The vampire's story seemed a bit out of place, is all."

"- I for one believe the dervish to have been once of the surface. Have thou forgott'n our heritage? Did thou not judge his heart? I did, and I saw his words to be of truthful origin, and I wish to hear what his master might have to say. After all, the dervish did mention the war against the demons and a matter that might interest us all."

"And what if this master that ye' seem so excited about turns out to be just another greedy, spineless slime after Wise-man's trinket? The weapon that everyone feels so obsessed over", Greth countered. The rest grew silent and uneasy as the quarreling went on. There was a heavy presence in the air, almost like the atmosphere itself didn't wish to be disturbed.

"Would he have sent a messenger to warn us beforehand? Would he not have sent an army of horrible creatures to slay us where we laid?", Kobierth reasoned. "Thou know it to be true, but I feel that thy... experiences have rendered thee cautious and deliberately blind. I can understand---"

"- Don't ye' patronize me, mi'lady. I love ye', but I don't love ye' nearly enough to allow ye' to start lecturing me about---"

"I will lecture thee if the national security is at risk. I will not allow us to pass a potential ally based on thy gut feelings about this not being a wise choice."

"- You and yer' national security... Ye' still think of this whole thing as a way of finding reconciliation for what happened to oor' Tribe That Nay Longer Exists? That by winning this war and defending this Queendom ye' will find yer' peace?"

"This is hardly about me and what I want. If we lose this war, we art all dead. I am simply using whatever methods I have in my command to increase the odds."

"Who gave you the authority to lead us, anyway? I feel that we're overextending our health and experience here", Greth ranted, casting a look at Philip. "Wise-man, he's held a weapon in his hand for a month. That's less than what most initiates trained with wooden swords, Kobierth! I'm quite sure ye' remember that, too! Not to even mention that he ain't fighting against instructors or wooden mock-ups, but live and very angry enemies!

"Oor' slith friend", the warrior continued with a look at Syaren, still feeling mixed emotions about the sliths' brood's decision to leave the caverns. While the plan had been set into motion almost ten years ago already, and Syaren had barely had any impact on its' conceivement; the poor sculptor had been the one to break it for the others and thus received the brunt of Greth's resentment. "He's wielded a chisel and a hammer for his profession, and now he's forced to carry arms against his own enslaved kin! Sol can't walk properly and Irith's got hard time breathing. What if we run to yet another ambush? From what I know there's still at least one other vermin out there, if we trust that the bygone dervish beat Ssstoch so well that he's licking his wounds for the next three weeks."

Kobierth countered. "Thou art entirely correct about our current state of health and strength of arms. However, the lich's presence might be enough to give a halt to the betrayer's advance. Speaking of the devil, it is as likely that we shall run into him if we continue onwards as if we should backtrack and visit the Black Tower!"

"If you wouldn't mind, both of you?", Solfanes raised his voice. While he hadn't arisen to the shouting that the former monarchs had ascended to, his tone made it quite clear that he had lost his patience. "Fact is that these undead beings had every advantage over us, but they chose to send one of their higher lords, a dervish, to parley with us!

"Don't get me wrong, Greth, I don't trust this lich Saelen one little bit, but I do know that he wants something. That's why he has approached us. We could always see what he wants, see if it's a price we could pay, and relay the information to archwizard Zefaynas. I'm sure that the Black Tower would know what to do, and I'm quite certain that the lich is aware of this as well. He must know that we are just pieces on a proverbial board. He'd win nothing by killing us, a handful of explorers, scouts. On the contrary, he'd risk angering the Queendom to send even more raiding parties to find out what happened to them.

"And yet, I find myself agreeing with Grethenward here, Kobierth. We are jumping to conclusions and wishful thinking way too enthusiastically here. What your husband said is true: there aren't many in this band who could withstand yet another fight. The next one, I fear, will cost us lives if we aren't cautious. We all need to rest and recover. We simply cannot trust the lich to be on good intentions. He has been dead for nearly fifteen years. He is propably quite unpredictable."

"Above all else", Syaren voiced, "we must keep calm. The more dissent we have amidst usss, the more likely it will be that we get caught off guard." He breathed a sigh, ready to embrace a cold journey across the dark waters to see this through. He entertained the notion of leaving the band here and now and swimming across the waters, burning his drakestones; but quickly abandoned the plan. His honour to his saviours demanded no less.

"Thee are correct, both of thee", Kobierth nodded and calmed down. "I simply feel like it'd be molten insanity to pass this kind of opportunity by. Not only could we increase our chances in winning the war against the Infernal Legion but clean our names, as well.

"From the news what you, Solfanes, have told us of the visits to Crathsalt and Black Tower's meetings, we aren't all that well regarded back at home. Syaren is no doubt missed in his brood, having been a prisoner of war to the darklings; Iríth is regarded as a heroine back in her clan, and while I can imagine Solfanes could find his place there as well; myself, Philip and Greth would have to eventually find a way to live within the Queendom. I for one would not desire to start my existence during the time of peace, rotting away in a dungeon at the bottom of some cramped Fort."

"I give up", Greth waved his hand. "So long as we stay safe, I'm content."

Slightly to the side, a third of a mile to the north, there was a long and run-down pier, with a boathouse at the end; one that Iríth had spotted earlier already. It looked like uninhabited, but the pack decided to investigate anyway. The structure was old and archaic in style, with the familiar fungal cavewood featuring a thick layer of slime and algae. The wharf's planks were slippery and many of them completely rotten, more than a few giving out under the heaviest members of the party; Solfanes and Syaren both tumbling at least once. Reaching the end of the pier and getting to the boathouse, Kobierth drew her sword and placed her hand on the doorknob. They knew that whatever kind of being was nestled up in the structure propably knew of their coming by now; and yet they couldn't resist the instinct of drawing their weapons either.

Greth took the point and heard Solfanes' arms flailing behind him, weaving an orb of light silently. He heard as a ball of light chimed and floated gently above his head. The door opened and the warrior made his way inside, finding not much else but a boat bound with a couple of ropes to the supporting pillars. He gazed at the interior with a critically analytic gaze and motioned for the rest to follow silently. Soon enough the whole band was inside.

The paint inside the boathouse wasn't in much better shape than it was on the outside. There were two boarded windows on the walls to the sides, and the third wall behind them was completely solid, supporting a couple of rotten fishing nets and an old, bent grappling hitch. The water beneath them was murky and serene, giving off a nasty draft of cold. Moist tabards hanged by the walls, alongside pieces of amber and gutted fish.

"Almost like back in the Port, remember?", Iríth glanced at Solfanes. The man nodded back with a misty, nostalgic look upon his eyes.

"Port Revven", the witch sighed. "One day, you shall be rebuilt."

Iríth simply purred and had an amused look at Solfanes. "Come on, give me a dramatic sigh on top of it all", she smirked in a humaine way.

"Revven?", Syaren gazed at the duo. "I thought that Philip said to me that it wasss Port Varib, from whence you came?"

"Well, it was called by two names. The honorable people, such as us -- of course --", Iríth gave the slith a slight bow, "called it Port Varib. The brigands and smugglers called it Port Revven because of the Undertown that the port housed. It was one of the larger nests of banditry in Crathsalt. They were like rats... squirming masses of filth in need of a bite to the neck."

"The more you know", Syaren spoke, using the common tongue's idioms quite fluidly. His time spent with Philip, learning the language, had truly paid off. "Reminds me of the town where I was hatched. Makesss me wonder if it still standsss, or if the internal power-struggles inside the Infernal Legion have got it razed to the ground."

"How was it?", Iríth leaned against a wall while the others explored the place, searching for anything to eat or loot. Solfanes remained by her side, resting his legs and leaning against his staff.

At first Syaren had an uneasy glance at the feline and the human, tilting his head to the side, but then he opened up. "Bloody. We were raised from youth to contribute to the cause. As soon as we arose from the hatching pools to walk upon the dry ground, almost everything we did was somehow related to killing or death. The statuesss, creations of stone that I wanted to learn to craft, often depicted our greatest warlords. Sometimes the dark blood-priests and blood-shamans wanted the occasional demonic statue.

"I killed my first victim when I was only fourteen... Food was scarce, so...", Syaren left the sentence to ripple in the air. "We didn't eat just fish."

"I can relate to that", Iríth closed her eyes. Her ears leveled and cheeks wrinkled as the memories fulfilled her mind. "In my birthplace, a rakshasa colony on the surface, assassinations were daily and horrible blood-rituals weren't uncommon. Hmrrmrr. Unlike in your case... The life there didn't really necessitate it. We lived a life of luxury. Even I did, although I was considered a lesser being." She turned her head away.

Greth and the others had ceased in their tracks, listening. They didn't pretend not to be listening, they just couldn't help themselves. The erstwhile king felt hollow, finally coming to a true understanding how why Syaren and the other sliths wanted to flee. He cleared his throat and let his gaze stray away.

"I... Syaren", Greth coughed. "I can... I understand why ye' ran. It may have been dishonorable... But I understand. Leaving the caverns... leaving the fight... Had I been your king after living to see such times, I would've propably wanted to leave, too. I just... feel like I'm not the only when I say this but yer' contribution to this demon war, it'd be greatly appreciated."

Syaren was quiet for a moment and nodded. "We did talk about it earlier. I will not lie. It is propable that I'll leave this band after we return to the upper cavernsss, but once I reach my kin, I will make a suggestion to our chieftain and priests about forming a Pike. Our brood may leave these caverns in search of the Lost Bahssikava, but our Pike should remain to help clean our ancestors' mistakesss." He stepped closer and said finally. "More."

"What...?", Greth turned to look.

"It is a greeting, bid of farewell and an agreement amidst our brood. One could never know if one would see a friend or a loved one for the last time, so we say 'more'. I love you 'more' than you love me, I agree with you 'more' than you agree with me..." Once again the slith left the rest of the sentence rippling in the air, having meant to say that he appreciated the gesture that Greth had made, 'more' than Greth himself could've understood. He didn't intend to say 'I forgive you' or anything of the kind. The slith was more than subtle and tactful to know how to leave the former king's dignity intact. Grinning, the undead warrior grasped the slith's hand and shared a handshake.

"Yer' full of surprises... mate", the warrior nodded. "More so everyday."

 

* * *

 

The party of six had decided to take a small break and eat some of their sparse provisions and rest their legs before examining the dry-docked boat's condition any further. It was a welcome change of pace to the constant stress of staying on guard, and had helped to calm Iríth's wheezing breath.

Kobierth, being the first to have finished her meal, rose to examine the interiors of the boat. However, something caught her attention, causing her to startle back.

"Iríth...", the plains' woman whispered with a trembling voice. Even the smallest of noises seemed very much out of place and highly invasive; the adventurers felt as though the atmosphere itself was thicker here, not wishing to be disturbed. "Were thou not the last to come through? Where was the door?"

The striped priestess turned to have a look and one of her ears perked up in disbelief. "The door... it was right there!", she pointed at a spot in a wall. There was no door, just solid wooden planks like everywhere else.

The rest of the band rushed up to have a look, realizing that they had been trapped inside. Greth's warrior instincts urged him to keep their backs covered and turned to guard their rear, just in case something would try to climb out of the water to surprise them.

"Hex.. I mean, Sol?", Greth grumbled. "You didn't untie the ropes, did you?"

With the pack's attention distracted into searching and observing their surroundings, the boat seemed to have detached itself on its' own. The craft was old, but in a surprisingly good condition. It floated gently and steadily in the water below, and while there were barnackles and seaweeds on the vessel's sides, it didn't seem rotten nor rickety. It remained stationary... almost as if it was held.

"No... I didn't", the witch replied, with his mask of stone starting to crumble with the growing paranoia that they all equally shared.

"What ... what is going in here?", Philip was paler than he had ever been, and shivered. He wouldn't even want to lean against a wall out of the fear for being swallowed by an invisible doorway or something equally unpredictable.

"This is a bad place. Cursed, bewitched, something. We should've never came here", Greth glanced around like a cornered animal. The panic was arising, and not even the warrior's focus could help against that which appeared to surround them ever so subtly -- something, or someone. "My strength of arm can stave off vampires and dervishes of yore alike, but I ain't good for resisting black magic!"

The darkness shifted. Philip thought he saw something at the corner of his eye, a shadowy figure. As he turned to look, it was gone. Iríth could feel something brushing behind her. Syaren felt a warm breath on his ankles.

Kobierth walked from a companion to companion, looking them in the eye, encouraging each to stay calm. She made a constant stream of gestures that warded off evil. "On the contrary, it seems that the boat is our way onward. Stay calm, my husband. Dervish Moore spoke of the lich having summon'd us, and it looks to me that he inteded for us to use this boat as a means to reach him."

"If I may", Syaren suggested. "We could use this boat to paddle around the sea and explore if we couldn't reach the northern lands through some gallery."

The whole of the pack had a quick talk and eventually agreed mutually that they'd get on the boat. Solfanes volunteered to be the last one to jump in. Just as he made his way into the boat, blood escaped from his face. The world went grey in his eyes and he leaned heavily upon Iríth for support so as to not topple over into the water.

"What is it?", the feline asked and held the human steady. "Are you all right, mrr?"

Solfanes merely shook his head and glanced at the priestess and the others. It took him quite some time to manage to whisper a couple of words, just barely audible so that Iríth could hear them with her sharp ears. She, in turn, closed her eyes and held her amulet with her spare hand.

"He said...", Iríth swallowed. "... that he saw 'rotten hands holding the boat still'. There... there are... things under us, at this very moment."

Syaren had picked a grappling hitch from the wall and took great pains to not look into the water. He pushed the craft out of the boathouse and was about to ask of the others for directions or ideas but got interrupted as someone coughed. He nearly dropped the pole and had a glance at the others. There was a seventh person, somewhere close. This someone coughed again and uttered something.

Greth, despite his deep tan, was starting to look slightly green, and gripped the bench that he sat upon. His knuckles had lost color. Kobierth searched the floor, with Philip giving way, and found a bucket from underneath of her bench. The container had a lid, and it sounded like someone was inside. At this point Philip fainted, with the plains' man not doing much better, either. Those who still had their wits more or less about themselves had to constantly remind themselves that they had indeed hiked through a couple of dark tunnels, descending through a net of caverns and wound up in this eerie bay. They had to constantly reassure themselves that they were awake, and not in some horrid, mutually shared nightmare.

"Open it", Syaren whispered almost coldly. Deep inside his mind he prayed for the Goddess' strength and guiding light to soothe his ailing heart and mind.

Iríth waved a pattern that warded off evil as soon as Kobierth had mustered the strength to pry the bucket open. She dropped the container to the bottom of the craft, and refused to look at it anymore. Solfanes, despite his cold fingers and racing mind, forced himself to have a glance at the being. There was a mass of blackened bones and tendrils, all squirming and slithering under a severed human head inside the bucket. The creature gazed up at him. Its' face was covered in... That's as much as the witch could achieve with one try. He recoiled back and buried his face upon Iríth's shoulder, taking deep breaths and fighting back a vomit. Kobierth held a hand across her face and gazed at the ceiling.

"So, me master's guests 'ave finally arrived, 'ave they?", a voice echoed from the bucket. "Just so ye' lot know, I'm the skipper o' this boat. Now, ensign, set course for the rocky waters to the southwest. We'll sail right towards it. Prince's orders."

Syaren did as was commanded and put away the hook, taking on a paddle.

Kobierth glanced over at Iríth for support and cleared her throat. "H... how do thou... know who we are?"

"Well, master Moore told me, 'f'course. Said that 'is gonna' fetch some people to meet with the Ice Prince." The voice groaned and spat.

"I... I see", Kobierth held back a desire to pick up the bucket and cast it overboard. "D...doth thou mind if I ask thou something?"

"- Since ye' asked so nicely, no I don't mind. What's on yer' mind?"

"Where are we going, exactly? And is there possibly a way to enter the lands to the north through here?"

"- Ach, to meet the Lich. But we 'lowly' servants call 'im Ice Prince of Kylmheert's Fortress. Lowly... get it? I'm on the floor... nevermind. And don'ye ask, is kind of our undeads' own thing. As for the caverns to the north, aye, ye' can get 'ere, but ye' must pass through a river to the south, then take a west, and then north. Then ye' can strand, and make yer' way north from there."

"Great!", Kobierth breathed a relieved sigh. "Syaren, did thou hear that?"

"Oi, need I remind that I'm the skipper? Besides, Ice Prince is very interested in meeting the lot o' ye'. He's got plans for the war ye' mortals seem to 'ave struck with the demons."

"- We doth not really have much of a choice, do we?"

"The prince would've found 'is way to ye' sooner or later, like it or not. Less hassle this way."

"And I also suppose that thou can not tell us what his dealings with us art about, can thee?", Kobierth almost leaned onward, curious about the creature's non-threatening manner. Infact, as she thought about it, both this weird ferryman and the vampire had appeared as ... haughty, yes, but also quite innocuous.

"- Nah-ah. Sorry, ma'am."

"I... Art thou or thy kin going to harm us?", the companions' spokeswoman asked on all of their behalf.

"- And why would we do that? Because we're cursed into unlife?"

"One might be forgiven for thinking so."

"- Mi'lady, no offence but we don't care about you or the catheads, or these weird lizardheads either. We care 'bout one thing, and one thing only -- vengeance. Well, we used to, last time I heard. Dunno'bout Dervish Verennan and her grunts. Always seemed a bit... well, nevermind that. I know I'd like ta' see the Emperor's head from the inside. I could feast on 'is flesh!"

Kobierth was quiet for a good, long time as she gazed both at the magicians in front of her, sitting across on the other bench. "Vengeance... against the Empire?"

"- I've said too much. I always ramble... Ice Prince'll explain it all." That's as much as the weird ferryhead spoke for the half an hour it took for Syaren to paddle the heavy boat to the jagged reefs they had borne witness to from afar.

The journey was uneventful but more and more terrifying with each passing moment. The black and serene water appeared to be bottomless, and the oppressive gloom of the lake started to sap the adventurers' mental fortitude. As soon as any of the band, those who were still conscious, had a glance at the underground sea, they couldn't help but having their gaze drifting and sinking closer to the boat, where the water's surface didn't glimmer so harshly with the luminescent, sickly light that the ceiling's flora gave off. Syaren thought that he felt something touching slightly at the tip of his paddle but didn't care to look.

Iríth, on the other end of the boat, saw something moving in the water, a pale being. It came closer. By the point where the abomination was thirty feet away, Iríth managed to turn her gaze away. She had been looking at it, as though in hypnosis, until she had seen the eyes... She refused to think of it any further. The boat jolted. The priestess knew that the abhorrent being was now swimming by the boat's side, looking at her from the watery grave.

"Don't look. Just... don't", Solfanes enforced a gaze at the feline.

"Did you honestly think that I was going to?!", Iríth hissed louder than she had intended. "...sorry, I didn't mean it."

"- No, no, it's all right. But just so you know, sometimes... creatures, such as undead, have innate magical properties, not all of them obvious before the damage is done. I have faith in you, girl, but I don't have faith in these... horrors. No offence, Greth, I mean..." The warrior threw a blank stare from the other end of the boat and waved dismissively.

Iríth understood the words' meaning and took extra caution to keep herself mindful of not looking at the water.

The 'serenity' was abruptly broken by the ferryhead's cawing.

"- Oi, somebody, let me out. There's a beggar underneath us. 'is sure to lure a seamonster right on top o' us!"

"What doth thou want us to do?!", Kobierth broke from her paralyzed state and gazed at the container.

"- Throw me to the water!"

"With pleasure!" The plains' woman grasped the bucket and cast the contents overboard, keeping her eyes closed.

A couple of moments passed as the creature on the boat's side wriggled and soon disappeared into the depths of the underground sea. They all startled as the boat's side scraped, with the ferryhead climbing back up. Pale, translucent tendrils that appeared to have once been hands appeared to the boat's flange. Greth had got enough and, despite him being an undead, hugged the boat's side and threw up for a couple of times. The blackened mass with a head crawled back into the bucket.

"'ave a look to the south. Ye'll see something ye' ain't seen before, I'd reckon!", the voice groaned. "Get yer' mind off the horror of seeing an oldtimer like me, too."

Iríth experienced sadistic thoughts rushing to her head. The longer the journey would last, the more likely it was that they'd all lose their minds. "You have to admit one thing, Sol", she purred. "That ferryhead at least has a sense of humour. Maybe I should take him with us... so I could wake you up by throwing him on you sometimes, mrrrrhrr."

The witch replied nothing and just gazed at his hands, almost as if awaiting them to burst open and seeing maggots sprout forth from his flesh. He raised his gaze to the horizon and saw something that blanked his mind -- all of their minds for a while. A colossal aquatic creature emerged to the surface about a mile away. They couldn't see much else but that the being had spikes running alongside its' back, and huge gills, which it used to breathe air until another deep plunge, located around its' neck. The creature graced the adventurers' presence for quite a long time by its' majesty before disappearing into the murky waters once more, emerging for another breath within a hundred years or so.

"Ye don't want to 'ave one of those interested in ye'. Speaking from experience, 'ere", the ferryhead chuckled with a watery laughter. "But that's enough of that. Now we'll go for a dive. Sit down everyone!", their horrible sea-captain instructed.

At this point Philip had arisen, too, being mercifully spared of many of the horrors of the journey. Panic ensued to almost everyone. Iríth was the only one remaining calm and steady, partly because bearing witness to the abominations had shaken her mind; despite the continuous stream of prayers she had recited in her mind during the journey.

"What do you mean?!", Greth rose up. "I heard ye' saying to me wife that ye' ain't harming us! That yer' master wants to have a talk about the weather and politics!", the man yelped.

"- And a chat ye' will 'ave. T'is is the only way to the Lich's lands. 'ave a look around, there ain't sailing through the forest o' these stalagmites and jagged rocks. But there is one passage... down below."

"We can not survive in the water!", Kobierth screeched in turn.

"What is going on?", Philip muttered and rose up. His mind was ripped well and wide awake as he noticed the boat to be sinking on its' own.

"Ye' must 'ave faith! Nothing can harm those whom I choose to ferry across", the captain yelled with a commanding voice. The water's edge was now at the boat's rim, and the vessel sipped water.

A cacophony of six voices rose into a terrified choir as the ferryman's enchantment held them still so they couldn't try to swim to the surface. Slowly, gently: the water engulfed them into its' cold and dark embrace...

 

* * *

 

A remnant of Three Years' Massacre -- lasting from 763 to 766 -- an unfortunate lance corporal and a healer had gone mad during the chaotic days when the continually victorious Angunn Triumvirate of the nephilim to the north and the desperate humans' Queendom of Taghtarus to the south had thrown thousands of souls against each other upon the small sliver of rock that had been ever since named Dark Province, with Bloodrock standing as a testament to the living nightmare. There, people arriving straight out of the portal had been bound into a mindless bloodbath where the fresh exiles had assailed each other with rocks, claws and fists, with sorcerers struggling to control the demonic energies that coursed through the caverns; Zefaynas being one of the first proper wizards to be sent through by some vengeful imperial bureaucrat and had managed to subdue large swathes of the raging battlefield into stasis, putting a halt to the nephilim's onslaught.

The mad monk, dressed into crimson gown, stood upon a small island far away from the Kylmheert's Fortress, a mighty necropolis that lieutenant Saelen and his undead thralls had shaped almost fifteen years before the disastrous Nephilim Portal's opening into the Lower Exile that had been preceded by the coronation of Emperor Hawthorne II.

Having lost his mind, the mad monk had travelled through the untamed lands, eating small pebbles, mold and rotting carcasses, barely surviving with his life intact. He had found his way across both Mirkriver and Boneriver, lured by the darkness and serenity that he sensed in these caverns. The former lance corporal had turned into something less than a human long before ever reaching the undead lands, and had managed to avoid the horrors at the bottom of the sea by climbing within the caverns' ceiling, settling to a small, unclaimed island far away from anyone. There, his faith was perverted and his command of divine forces twisted, and he came to experience the last moments of all those who died within the Lower Exile. Thus the mad monk spent his days, feeding off pale, slimy cave fish and uttering the names of the dying -- rocking back and forth on a shore far away from anyone.

"Rrggh... Sir Beringar, a brigand, from city of Wesvynia. Mggh... gghh... Ioval, a carpenter from Port Varib... Janet... Heathrey... Pauline from Rudyval Warren, High diviner Ssschah from Voossin's House, Heyass-ssoh. Murrhum from Pumar'Rr, Femhýrr, hunter Aorrum'Mrr from Naur'Gath'Rr. Admiral Bongo Ventress... ", the names poured out of his dry mouth, his blind eyes seeing their final moments.

All of a sudden, the crimson monk's gaze was fixed into infinity, and he ceased from breathing, digging his fingernails into the gravel beneath his feet. He watched as a man called Egilhard Gråvrede the Third fought against a slith with a name Ssstoch the One-Eyed. He witnessed their desperate struggle, with the human's summoned imps doing their best in surrounding the slippery slith and clawing him to the ground by superior numbers alone. For a moment neither of the combatants had the upper hand, but then the sorcerer's strength came into play, and he soared into the air, far away from the slith's reach. He extended an arm, striking with an arcane blow; another, third, fourth. Two of the blasts had connected and forced the assassin to use one of his most precious artefacts that he had preserved for fatally dangerous situations. Within a blink of an eye the slith was gone, having disappeared into the darkness of the tunnels and on his way to the infernal nests of Spira'T'Aardulu, former Fort Frejath.

The human in exotic armor flicked a wrist and the lesser demons turned into ash, leaving behind little more than tarry smudges to the darkness of the lightless tunnel. The crimson monk spelled out their true names, each at a time, watching as the sorcerer soared high above the waters and flew towards the necropolis...

 

* * *

 

After a distressing journey through the water, where the party members had one by one finally mustered the strength and courage to draw breath under the water as their captain had instructed, the adventurers laid both on the slimy wharf as well as the shore formed of coarse gravel. Despite being submerged for an extended period of time, they weren't wet -- not that such a trivial matter felt anyhow significant next to the fact that they had spent five whole minutes swallowing water and still not being drowned. Syaren had been the fastest to cope with the terror of being submerged, for all slithzerikai hatched in a pool of water and would bathe very frequently to keep their scaly skins flexible and healthy.

The pack managed to gather their composure and continued inland, following a road roughly mortared together from cobblestones and large slabs. The island itself was perched in the middle of the subterranean lake, and was quite flat. The landmass featured a massive, half a mile wide pillar of solid rock from the cavebed to the ceiling above, located right in the middle of the island.

The adventurers made their way towards the pillar that looked like it had been subjected to a large amount of magic at some point. Sharp, bony stalagmites rose from the ground around the thick natural formation, and imposing walls surrounded the front part of the spire. Black, lightless windows stared at the surrounding caverns, daring anyone to enter and lose their sanity. Torn, red clothes hanged from various poles embedded to the spire's walls, as though heralding some long-forgotten message or idea.

Approaching a rocky field the Taghtarian explorers saw a rusty gate in the distance, with a stone hovel on the side. The gate's support pillars, as well as the hovel, bore the threadbare red flags they had seen from afar. The hut was empty for the most part, save for an old and rotten chair and a skeleton laying on the ground, its' armor and weapon long since rusted into being completely useless.

"Eh, should we introduce ourselves?", Greth broke the ice and walked closer. There wasn't anything of interest or value within the shack.

"Let's keep moving", Iríth suggested and the party made their way inside the walls, pushing the rusty metal gates wide open. They weren't still quite convinced about being summoned by an old undead being to its' fortress, but their orders had been to explore this cavern to its' fullest. Duty pressed them onward, as their compatriots bled, killed and died at that very moment far away from them to keep the lands safe.

Upon entering the wide and desolate courtyard, the band of six gazed around, wary for some kind of ambush. A solitary figure shifted within the shadows, well out of their way, with an exotic armor crafted from monstrous creatures' chitin and bones gleaming in the green light. Other than that, nothing else of interest could be seen or heard. There were no squeaks of bats; shrieks of giant lizards or humanoids; trickling of water; nothing. Silence hanged oppressively in the air.

The journey across the courtyard was uneventful and quick. Trudging through a pair of heavy gates that two massive golems opened for them, the adventurers arrived to a partly collapsed entrance hall. More golems lined the dead spaces between the imposing support pillars, with white wall hangings bringing some colour into the bluish atmosphere. Cold, blue fires flickered silently on torch sconces, laying an eerily beautiful twilight into the hall.

"Would you look at that", Greth whispered quietly, keeping his voice low for the first time in years.

"Truly a sight to behold", Syaren agreed. His people had, as he had explained before, never been too experienced in building massive constructions; not the broods in the Lower Exile anyway. Still, his knowledge of the stone granted him an experience wholly different from those of his companions. He gazed at the walls and could almost hear the rocks' strained wailing. The masonry was impossible, with seven-sided blocks of stone fitting well together, and colored crystals creating captivatingly colorless textures. Syaren knew enough of his craft to be able to tell that this place wasn't as much formed with an intention as it had shaped on its' own because of the unholy nature of the Fortress' denizens.

Meanwhile Philip gazed around with a sharp gaze, memorizing the mathematical impossibilities taking place all around him. While the architechture here wasn't natural, it did pale in certain respects when compared to the Empire's largest contrivances and tallest towers. The rest of the band remained quiet, their mouths agape with amazement. This would be a tale worthy of a large sack of coins, Kobierth thought greedily, a slightly derailed gleam sparkling in her eyes: the toils of the journey started to wear them all down, mentally even more than physically.

The grandeur, desolation and gloom only underlined the looming atmosphere of something ugly headed the adventurers' way. They could all feel it, some more than others, but all equally denying what their senses and instincts yelled at them. For a moment they all just marveled at the wondrous majesty that the undead beings had managed to carve into this eerily serene and massive place.

A single heartbeat passed, and the silence was broken.

Greth had unsheathed his dented longsword immediately, with Kobierth falling to the rear of the pack to keep them safe from both directions. The rest were slower to reach for their weapons, but the erstwhile monarchs' indefatigable prowess strenghtened their resolve.

"Sol?", Iríth whispered with a languid voice. She brushed close to avoid the others from overhearing her.

"What is it?", the witch replied back in kind, holding his runic staff at the ready. An orb of light floated gently on top of the staff, illuminating their surroundings. He had, quite rightly, figured that their presence had been noticed, and it wouldn't serve their cause in the least to shuffle about in the dark like rats hiding from an owl.

"I ... can't perform prayers", Iríth lamented.

"Uhh, it's two days now. And... still nothing?", Solfanes asked with as calm voice as was possible.

The priestess' ears and whiskers drooped as an answer.

"- It's ... it's all right. I can still draw upon the nature's strength to grant healing and aid to our friends, I mean, I... I think so.. This place's unnatural... well, unnatural nature is making it hard, though... You, girl, use your heritage. No, don't look like that. Create illusions. And there are plenty of rocks about. Make each one count."

"One of them isss coming from the main corridor, dead ahead", Syaren used his stone-cunning to detect the hostiles. "A group of them ... approaching from behind."

There was a keening, slow and blood-freezing squeal echoing through halls and balconies above. There were five corridors leading away from the main hall, two of them near to the front entrance but both of them had been long since blocked off with iron bars. One of the sidepaths opposing the front gates was caved in, leaving the widest and tallest hallway and a sidepath to the left only ones currently open.

Greth growled like a bear and cast a furious glance at Kobierth. The man's undeath had stretched his consciousness thin under the stress of the coming skirmish. He knew in his heart that not all of them would walk away from this fight.

"I doth not understand!", the former queen exclaimed with a pitched voice. Thoughts, fears and scenarios ran rampant through her head. Why hadn't the undead assailed them before if they had been indeed in such intent? Why go through the trouble to ferry the victims all the way to the fortress. Unless they, she specifically, had been naïve and they had been brought to a dinner table: like lambs to a slaughter...

Yet another dervish emerged from the the main hallway, clad in platemail and a freely flowing, faintly red tabard with the familiar crown insignia of the Empire. Behind her shuffled mindless thralls. There were skeletal beings with rusted armor, ghouls with their claws bared and bluish bodies visible from underneath their scalemails, and finally even quickghasts, some of the more vicious undead beings in existence. Some skeletal warriors appeared to the barred corridors, sticking their weapons and bony arms through the gates of iron, waiting for the gates to be lifted.

"Mortals!", a shrill voice echoed from the dervish's mouth. She drew a massive glaive from a rack in her back and trained it at the intruders. "You have come to seek the heretic Saelen, have you not?! Why else would a platoon of warm-blooded brigands make their way all the way to these lowly caverns? And with the accursed nephilim and the bloodthirsty lizard-men, no less! You fools have an inexplicable taste in companions, indeed."

"Why doth thou wish to know what our business here is?", Kobierth yelled across the hallway, gazing at the dead eyes, making a holy gesture with her hand.

"It will be written on your gravestones", the dervish grimaced with an ugly grin.

"We thought that Saelen wanted to see us?!", Philip glanced at Solfanes and Iríth, wondering if they'd be soon ready to start blasting at their enemies.

"I know nothing of that, nor do I really care. On the contrary, you'd do well to know that I am dervish Verennan, and I shall eradicate your kind in the name of the Empire! Minions! Claw these accursed prisoners and misfits into pieces! They aren't worthy of the air that they breathe!"

"Can't really blame me for this kind of setback, Greth!", Kobierth yelled at her husband before the chaos of the fight engulfed them. They remained wedged between two massive support pillars in a shield formation, each covering one flank. Philip took the most space due to his style of fighting, holding his enemies far away from himself by swinging his invention with deadly velocity. He hadn't quite yet achieved the finesse that his weapon required, but it did keep him from harm's way as the skeletal warriors weren't exactly agile nor intelligent enough to duck.

Iríth flung smooth rocks at the unshielded enemies, keeping her companions' flanks clean to the best of her ability. Instead of the tranquility that had always wreathed her into a soft shell was gone -- lost with the absence of the Gods -- fear strengthened her blows. Moreover, her illusions that she managed to command distracted some of the undead beings, causing them to claw at thin air and hitting a good portion of their blows into their fellow undead and stone walls.

The undeads' ranks dwindled quickly, but the remaining monstrosities were stronger for it. Kobierth pierced one of the quickghasts three times and severed its' head, being forced to hide behind her shield for a good long while as the creature's arms still flailed aimlessly.

The fight had raged for a sixth of an hour as the dervish raised her hand and the few remaining undead beings stepped back. Solfanes quaffed an energy potion, with one more remaining on his person and two more on Iríth. His mental energy was instantly revitalized and he had to resist an urge of casting a splash of acid at a pair of ghouls just a few feet away, their claws red with Philip's and Syaren's blood.

"Inferior rats! Enjoy your fleeting victory while you can!", dervish Verennan called out and paced closer. Albeit the adventurers had met only about two dozens of undead, they had been strong and skilled, even in undeath. They had, after all, been a part of the First Expedition and the Empire's elite soldiers. "And one of you even carries dervish Moore's breastplate. Killing a dervish is a sin in my eyes, even though he was my rival. I cannot commend your victory, but rather, I must punish you...", she raised a hand and her eyes blackened. However, Solfanes was quick to answer and flung a storm of acid to burn the creature.

"Honourless misfits and thieves the lot of you!", the dervish screamed as she lunged onward.

"I've sullied and discarded my honor long ago, fallen one!", Solfanes yelled. He had surprisingly strong voice for being someone who half-whispered most of the time. "Do not mistake your pitiful insults to have an effect on my soul, miserable servant!"

"KILL THEM! KILL THEM ALL! SET A FIRE TO THEIR ROTTEN FLESH!", Greth bellowed and the rest of the undead beings responded in kind. The fight continued with more of Iríth's illusions fulfilling the air, this time with half a dozen nepharim engaging a couple of the skeletal warriors. The massive warrior surged onward and sent a bone soldier flying, shattering its' unholy body and armor with ease.

All of a sudden, disaster stroke! The dervish managed to use her willpower to awake one of the ancient golems into motion. The granite golem cut the band in half. Iríth and Philip were stranded nearer to the front gate with very few undead beings to pester them, while the rest fought for their lives on the far side, struggling against the raging dervish.

Solfanes jumped to the middle of the three warriors and aimed a slowing curse at the golem, understanding that the new adversary was practically impervious to their meager weapons and limited supply of spells. "Stand fast, you two!", he roared, his eyes blazing with zealous anger.

Syaren jumped towards the golem boldly, knowing that he couldn't join Greth and Kobierth as their movement required all the space they could get -- he would've been only in the way. His height worked to his advantage as he could pace around a lot easier, dodging the golem's massive strides. He gave a slight poke at the creature's form, chiseling off an insignificant amount of stone, and nodded approvingly. The golem replied with a massive blow and swung its' arm above crouched Syaren, crushing a skeletal warrior between its' hand and the support pillar. The ceiling above quaked mightily as the creature flailed around, ready to give in at any moment.

"The roof!", Syaren exclaimed as he pierced a ghoul to the point of his spear and pressed it into the ground, evading yet another blow from the golem. Solfanes' acid storm splashed the granite being and ate away at the stone ever so slowly but surely.

It seemed that the fate had decided to soil their day properly. While Philip and Iríth had managed to fell the few undead on their end of the hall, albeit with some injuries to themselves, they noticed another danger. Iríth pulled the sage against a wall, hiding behind a pillar. She had heard noises from the outside, and noticed how heavy footsteps approached the gates. They were indeed opening, but not with the power of the golems outside, but by the power of a bound demon. A black and spiked hand smashed through the massive gate of bronze and stone. Two more golems activated nearby, this time to fight the intruding infernal monster. Although none of the combatants had time to consider why a demon had appeared outside, they knew that it'd blast them all into ashes if they'd let it do so. Dervish Verennan used some of her strength to command the golems into action, with one of the granite beings crushing into dust under the demon's blasts.

Meanwhile, Greth sped up his attacks while Kobierth used her shield to parry the dervish's blows aside. The former elite soldier flashed a nasty grin at the Taghtarians, who now danced on the crunched ghouls' and skeletal warriors' corpses.

"You are doomed, all of you!", Verennan wailed. "If you kill me, the golems stop! And that means the demon will burn you all with its' fire!"

"YOU GOAT-FACE, HAHAH! You think I care?! At least I've snuffed out one servant of the so called Empire! I'm going to paint these walls with your guts, and smile!", Greth laughed maniacally and surged onward, slashing a cut from below upwards and swinged around to use the velocity for another blow. Kobierth flanked to the side and dared a look at the front gate. The demon and one of the remaining golems had locked into a duel, with the latter having the advantage. The bound monster had already destroyed three granite golems, and its' power waned fast. One more strike, and the demon recoiled back, evanescencing into a smoking pile of tarry ash.

Syaren had managed to force his golem its' back against Solfanes, whom bombarded the construct with acid and entropic darkness, causing it to slow down and crumble but not collapse entirely. The creation was too powerful for them. The slith dodged, rolled under an extended arm and poked at the softened golem's side... but couldn't get out of harm's way in time. The golem still had one of its' arms ready to swing and it hit with the full strength that it had. The slith realized that he flew through the air and landed on top of a dead ghoul, softening the fall slightly. The world blackened, his hand still grasping the spear he had asked one of Ymwar's blacksmiths to craft for him. Distantly he could hear Solfanes' yells and felt a tingling sensation as one of the witch's healing rituals restored some of his broken body's vitality. Still, inside his mind he knew that he was out of the fight for now. He just hadn't been skilled enough...

The golem at the gate had crumbled into small chunks, being hit by a scintillating sphere of lightning, spreading dust and rocks everywhere. A human paced through the rubble and destruction like an angel of death, his armor gleaming within the bluish light.

Iríth had doubled over, caught by yet another fit. It was bad this time. Her hands felt numb, and she had hard time breathing. Philip loomed over her, searching her bag for the pouch of reothmold he knew to be of vital importance to her health. The sage had but a slight glance at the new threat, and did his best to hide behind a chunk of rock that had once been a part of one of the golems.

There were still four combatants, three humans and a former dervish, none of whom could afford a single glance at the newcomer. There were no sounds save for the chinks of weapons and shields, splashes of acid and arcane noises of curses flung through the air. It was as though the wizard by the obliterated gates was in no hurry, but rather enjoyed the sight before him.

The plains' man had entered a state of frenzy, and had suffered at least two blows that would've killed a human being. Greth, being an undead, experienced life quite differently. While a living being was driven by the body's health, undead creatures were empowered by will and supernatural health alike. His breastplate had a nasty cleft at the side, with the dervish's blow having gone all the way to the warrior's ribcage. This had only served to anger the erstwhile king, and his swings started to threaten even Kobierth. The dervish, recognizing a lost cause when faced by one, released the command of the last golem that was about to crush Solfanes and swung like a whirlwind, holding the glaive out. She made her all the way to one of the sidepassages, but as soon as she realized that her massive weapon couldn't fit to the narrow and half-collapsed hallway, she abandoned the weapon and fled into the darkness of the Fortress, cursing her enemies as she went.

For a moment, everyone stood still, and no one spoke anything. Kobierth and Greth had paced to the middle of the hall, with Solfanes limping behind them, his old wounds aching and joints hurting. They eyed at Syaren, Iríth and Philip with worried look on their faces. The three wounded members of the party were more than halfway across the journey to the wizard, and the three healthier members couldn't reach them in time, even if they had tried.

"Who the bark are you?! One of the demons' goons just like the One-Eyed slith?", Greth bellowed immediately.

The wizard scoffed slightly. "The demons' goons? How ironic would that be. No, quite the opposite. I have no reason to concern myself to be acquainted with the infernal monsters. That'll be all that you need to know about me."

"- Oh, by the sounds of ye', yer' a slimy backstabber!"

"Such hostility", the wizard took off his helm and revealed quite noble features. His brown hair was long and wavy, and his face was noble, with cold eyes glittering behind a hook nose. "I came here to congratulate you on a job well done and this is how you reply? After all, you did what most haven't even dreamed of considering: faced Kylmheert's defenders without flinching."

Kobierth realized that something wasn't quite right. Either the wizard was playing time to gather strength for another round of hostile spells or he was wrong in the head, and by the sound and look of his stature he was very sharp and intellect person.

"Besides", the wizard continued. "Would you not rather face your elusive quarry weak and scattered, as opposed to united and strong, or within the safety of a nephilim capital? Behold, you are no match for me, not in the state that you are right now. Before this little skirmish? It would've been a much more interesting battle, but if you are even half as cunning as I am, you will understand that picking risky fights gains you nothing, and shortens life expectancy."

Now Solfanes noticed something, too. Those facial features... He had seen them somewhere, and yet he couldn't quite put his finger on where exactly. He crept towards Iríth and Philip ever so slowly, worrying for their safety.

"What is thy agenda? What doth thou want from us?", Kobierth asked directly, stepping instinctually closer, in case she'd need to start running to cover Syaren with her shield.

"Give to me what I want, and I'll let you go", the wizard in chitinous armor spoke coldly. The cloak that descended from his shoulders bore the familiar colours of the Queendom, but his armor was unique like none of them had ever seen before.

"Is there any reason we should do that? No, wait, I could give ye' something -- a quick and painless death by leaving you to bleed here!", Greth strengthened his grip of his sword.

"A barbarian turned undead", the tall and darkly handsome wizard spoke and touched lightly at his chin, refusing to answer the question. "Poetic. A true herald to death. But I digress, and I grow tired of flapping my tongue with you. Where is it?"

"What art thou speaking about, exactly? Answer us!", Kobierth held the shield at the ready, feeling that the tension would soon break.

"- The artefact. I know one of you has it. A pale man, fresh from the surface. The sooner I get what I want, the less blood needs to be shed."

"Never!", Philip screeched before he had thought about the matter any further, and rose to his feet, defiantly gazing at the wizard.

"BETRAYER!", Solfanes screamed from the top of his lungs and flung an orb of darkness at the wizard, all of the guilt and self-doubt pouring out of his mind and into the blast. As soon as he heard the word, he realized who this man was. This wizard was the one whom had sold out the Queendom's secrets and gaps in defences; he was the one whom the Bureau of Royal Intelligence had theorized to exist and whom Solfanes had suspected to have silenced his networks of spies just prior to the attack. He had been rewarded by the demons, and later ordered to be silenced by one of their assassins.

The betrayer -- Egilhard Gråvrede the Third -- cast a cold glance at the witch and raised a hand, shielding himself from the entropic blast. He weaved a fireblast, and followed it up with two cones of cold. "I would've thought that you of all people would understand! The thirst for knowledge... It can never be satiated, it only gets worse!", the wizard's eyes flashed.

Despite being faced by the one person whom had played him a fool, Solfanes hadn't lost his wits, and immediately rushed onward as quickly as his decrepit joints allowed him to, wielding the staff and creating a globe of shield that absorbed the anticipated counter-offensive. After the elemental blasts, an arcane blow struck the witch's defences and drained him quite badly, but only the second one broke his concentration.

"Impressive", the wizard called out and flicked a wrist. A storm of energy blasted the three humans across the floor, paralyzing them for a long while. "... but not nearly impressive enough. If you don't mind, I'll take my prize and be gone. I expect us to part with no hard feelings." The betrayer of the Queendom reached for a crystal at his belt and raised it towards the covering sage.

"NOOOO!", Philip whimpered pitifully as a colourless stream of energy bolted towards him, wreathing both him and Iríth. They tried to struggle against the current that shrunk and rendered them translucent, drawing them towards the corrupted soul crystal.

"Two for the cost of one", the wizard said coldly.

Solfanes' body felt like it was burning, but he managed to struggle upright, leaning against the staff. He couldn't hear his own voice anymore, nor did he see anything but the three figures blurring into one. Syaren had turned on his belly and rose his head to see what was happening, realizing immediately the course of events.

"IRÍTH! PHILIP! Irí.. Aaaargh!" The witch's voice echoed in the halls. He fell to his knees, crawling onward, holding an arm extended towards the trio in the distance...

The wizard looked at the two misty figures struggling ahead of himself before he raised the soul crystal over his head, victorious.

"This could've ended much more peacebly, had you agreed to give the artefact to me freely", the wizard Egilhard called out across the empty hall. "I suggest you learn to accept it: it's a world of the strong. The meek have to submit, or die. Yet, I have spared your lives, for now. Do not come after me, because I cannot guarantee that I would show mercy for a second time, nor can I guarantee that I will allow the hostages to live if you try to dabble with my business."

The four remaining adventurers could do nothing but watch helplessly as the wizard slowly disappeared from view, having stolen Iríth and Philip from them. There they laid, broken and battered, one of them unable to rise up and one unwilling to do so; one having lost her faith and confidence and one aching with a desire to see the world burn.

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 15: Epilogue of Book 1

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15

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Epilogue

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The lich sat upon a featureless throne, gazing at the four broken people before him. He had explained the nature of his offer, which the woman worn into a studded leather jerkin had promised to relay back to the Black Tower, their superiors. Content that he might unleash his undead hordes without having to worry about a backlash from the Queendom and the nephil clan to the south, the lich felt ecstatic.

Saelen of the First Expedition proceeded to do something he had not done in years -- he rose from his throne and floated gently before the party of four. He simply motioned for them to follow and paced quietly past gargoyles and doom guards into one of the brightly lit halls on the side.

The hall was different to everything the visitors had seen, so far. The floor was formed of bright cyan tiles and the walls were of almost light blue stone. There were green, wavy mosaic patterns on the walls in very peculiar angles and alien designs decorated the roof. Impossibly bright crystals at all four corners of the hall served for lumination, with a huge, absolutely stunningly large blue crystal standing in the middle of the hall. The lich walked up to the crystal while the four adventurers cowered by the entrance in case something would go horribly wrong and the room would go up in flames, or something equally unpredictable.

A wave of a hand and a muttered word was all that was needed for the crystal to project a soft voice. At first it was impossible to understand, but as Saelen proceeded to utter yet another word, the speech turned into comprehensible Common Tongue.

"From the above, to the depths. A kingdom of old, fire and basalt. A band shall descend, driven by need. A bond in blood, hearts dark in kind. From the surface, to the depths. A queendom of youth, iron and stone. A band shall appear, driven by war. Artefact so divine, not of our craft. Both a bless, as well as a curse. The wielder, in the end, shall bring the Downfall of old."

 

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The Downfall - Chapter 16: Prologue of Book 2

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

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Prologue, Book 2

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29th of Frost, year 769

Wesvynia docks, Province of Sloughbrim, Central Queendom

 

The bows of the drydocked vessels glimmered with colours of red and orange, painted by the raging fires in the city. Wesvynia was surrounded, besieged by aquatic creatures and swarms of imps alike. The supply lines from the western provinces and rural areas were cut off because of the complete destruction of the great bridges that united the Queendom's provinces to one another across the Mirkriver. Indeed, the province capital was perched on the eastern side of river, and no captain was mad enough to risk the dark waters with the Infernal Legion's monsters lurking in the depths.

There was a cacophony of noises and yells all across the city, with the Royal Guard jousting back and forth between reported enemy sightings, slaying the demoniacs by dozens per hour. Groups of commoners ran around, pulling carts fulfilled with bucketloads of water, putting out fires as they were set by the marauding imps. The ramparts high above the docks and arcing, wavy roofs echoed with singing of the heavy crossbows and ricocheting javelins flung from far below.

The Queendom sported a unique kind of land army handling, with men divided into three infantry classes. The first class was light infantry, armed either with a shortsword and a shield, or a spear. The second class was heavy infantry, protected by a large towershield and a long dagger. The third and last class was crossbow infantry, wielding a heavy crossbow, requiring immense strength to handle. Two light infantry and one crossbow infantry formed 'a lance'; while two heavy infantry, one light infantry and one crossbow infantry formed 'a bulwark'; and finally three light infantries forming 'a patrol'. Mages and priests formed their own groups, and were assigned to each lance, bulwark or patrol as was necessary.

During castle siege all light infantries were ordered to city streets to maintain order and hold breaches while shield- and crossbow soldiers were ordered to the city walls. It was this technique that had allowed for the Queendom of Taghtarus to stand against the constant pounding, with the shielded heavy infantry defending the crossbow soldiers behind their thick bulwarks, minimizing risk of a warrior being pierced by a javelin or blasted by a bolt of fire. Still, the humans weren't without losses either, and each fallen warrior brought their defeat closer and closer.

A bearded, long-haired man in his early thirties stood by a window, gazing over the city from his residence. He was a lieutenant commander and an advisor to the Magroos & Ironhand Admiralty, and had enjoyed a life of luxury, albeit a lonely one at that. Many a times he had participated to the various events of the society’s cream in hopes of finding a companion for himself, alas to no avail. He gazed outside through the old glass panes and wondered how his correspondents were doing, and practised his skills with a sword, humming an old song from his sailor's days. He longed for a chance to be on the ramparts, by the docks and gates, spilling blood, casting throwing axes and devilwork urns; clay jugs that exploded violently upon breaking.

There was a loud banging on the door, and the lieutenant commander grunted a word. ”Enter.” He sheathed the long rapier with an overly dramatic display of skill and turned to face the visitor. It was one of the warrant officers, Samuel if he remembered correctly.

”Permission to enter cabin, lt. commander Darío Gathow!”, second class warrant officer Samuel "Face-First" Karthlag gave a sharp salute, ever so eager and professional.

”Granted”, the lt. commander turned back to gaze across the rooftops without really thinking about the answer. ”State your business, officer.”

”Sir!”, the career sailor spoke enthusiastically. ”The Admiralty Board has called forth a meeting, sir! I have been tasked to announce that you are needed within that meeting!! Here are the necessary documents!! That is my ring! (I'll put it back to my finger!) And here is a lunch from the mess, I thought you might want to have a snack before the meeting! It’s a bit cold and it someone ate half of it! Nothing I could do about it, sir!”

”- How long do I have until the meeting?”

”About twelve and half minutes, sir! That's not counting the time you'll be spending trying to get rid of old mrs. North, the cleaner! She'll be haunting the hallway, waiting for someone to pass by!! Is there anything else, or can I return to maintain vigil and make sure the Admiralty runs as smoothly as a ship on the surface waters, sir?!”

”Play a violin for me while I eat”, lt. commander Gathow commanded and dug in to the cold lunch while leaning against the table, inspecting the reports and documents with an experienced eye.

High advisor Darío immediately regretted the decision to ask the eager soldier to produce music as his skills with the instrument was proportional to his method of working in every other task he was given – his enthusiasm and energy overriding finesse and care. The resulting noise that could be barely called ’music’ was ear-wounding, at best. Still, he was polite enough to not take his word back and withstood the squall until he had managed to eat his lunch and walk out of the door to the admirals’ meeting.

 

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By the time the middle-aged lt. commander had managed reach the Chart Room, the meeting was already underway. He flashed his Red Clearance, second highest of the four, to the steel-armored guards wielding massive glaives and trudged into the room, flinging the door shut behind himself with eccentric moves, puffing himself up and giving a salute at the fleet admiral H. Jones and commodore R. Joséphine Dumoulin. He proceeded to look at the rear admiral V. Bismark but narrowed his eyes at the pompous, eye-patched prig.

"Lt. commander", fleet admiral H. Jones nodded and beckoned him to join them by the table, making the gesture with a smoking pipe.

"Arr, late. As usual", the rear admiral mocked and proceeded to turn away from the young officer, leaning over the chart, as though afraid that one of the other officers would try to steal the chart for themselves.

"That's something that your wife will never say", the lt. commander quipped quietly and smirked at his own joke, receiving a slight chuckle from the commodore Dumoulin.

"As I was saying", the fleet admiral continued with a remarking look on his eyes, touching lightly at his vice officer's shoulder both comradely and soothingly to refrain the old officer from resorting to violence. "The Hierarchy of Royal Steel has coordinated their patrols quite well with our officers, and their scouting has revealed that our previous beliefs of the aquatic monsters to be wrong."

"I told you, Gathow, they must be snake-like beings, as opposed to the reptilian monstrosities that you proposed. If we can invent a device that will incise the head, the flowing, hot blood will surely---", the quick-mouthed commodore Dumoulin managed to quip before the fleet admiral could continue. Her rational and fast mind had an unnerving tendency to come up with brutally bloody and messy execution devices: prototypes which she had attempted to have installed on some of the Queendom's ships in case of pirate attacks or similar shenanigans.

"Mngrrr, arrr. Commendable enthusiasm, young officer", the rear admiral grumbled and threw a frighteningly broad smile at the commodore's direction. "But it's not about what they are. It's about how many there are."

"That's right", the fleet admiral continued. "At the start of the war we suffered immense losses in terms of sailors and vessels. Our reports indicate that we lost about thirty fishing boats and two frigates by Boneriver, and one frigate and ten haulers by Mirkriver. Frigate MSV Sojourner was sunk at Magroos Lakes. The flagship, HMS Dark Incarnate has been drydocked on my orders to prevent it from being sunk."

"How many lost?", the lt. commander asked with a wrinkled forehead, his morbid curiosity remaining insatiably intense despite the gravity of the news. Indeed, the number of the casualties hadn't been affirmed but very recently.

"More than two hundred in Crathsalt and one-fifty in Sloughbrim, mngrrr, arr. Twenty in other regions or covert operations", the rear admiral squinted his remaining left eye.

"Sacré bleu", the commodore swore and turned off to make a gesture across her chest.

"Such numbers warranted the suspicion of at least a dozen and a half of aquatic monsters", the fleet admiral continued, drawing long drags from the pipe and fulfilling the entire room with thick, bitter smoke. The lanterns flickering all around created quite an atmosphere. "And yet the scouting has revealed that there are actually but five of the buggers."

The two younger officers recoiled back, stunned by the revelation. The rear admiral improved the position of his eyepatch -- that little move being the only sign of him sharing his younger colleagues' amazement.

The fleet admiral H. Jones continued. "The good news do not end there. One of my associates in Black Tower has informed me that the Archon Council's chairman, archwizard Zefaynas managed to scrape together a patrol of voluunteers to scout the far cavern that has ever been a mystery to us. The scouting indicates that there is a vast sea with navigable path to the northern lands, with some old, cursed cage rotting in the middle." The sailors' jargon had forts called as cages.

"Arr, are we planning on using that as a route to backstab the Legion, admiral?", the eye-patched career sailor grumbled.

"How could we reach the northern lands? Was there a boat that the scouting party managed to use?", commodore Joséphine Dumoulin asked right after her superior officer.

Darío remained quiet, content to simply observe the situation and listen to what the fleet admiral had to say.

"To answer your question, Viktor", H. Jones cast a slow glance at his compatriot. "Yes." He turned to the younger officers and took a drag from his pipe. "As for your question, commodore... Yes, the scouts managed to find a boat. Alas, my associate's report states that the boat was somehow cursed according to the explorers, but that they managed to use it. They heavily doubt that it could be used again, or that it'd be practical for our needs. Hence, we'd need a frigate down there to haul men back and forth between our end of the underground sea and the shore on the demons' side."

"Building a shipyard and a frigate would take months!", Darío Gathow countered, leaning across the table and pointed his finger at various points upon the chart. "Hauling the necessary materials from Woodgate, Kallwater, Rasil'Al Nequiel and Gartock is going to take time, not to mention that we'd need to break through either south of Fort Frejath or north of Connor's Watch."

"And getting the materials to the other side of the river, all that without upsetting the Darkmoon Clan. We have do have a truce with them, admiral, but you know how volatile the nephilim are", commodore Dumoulin accompanied her friend.

"For once, I agree with Four-Beers", the rear admiral used one of the more derogatory monikers that Darío had received during his service for the Admiralty. The fat-bellied prig never ceased from grasping any and all opportunities to insult the young upstart, even when agreeing with him on a subject: which was an occasion worthy of mentioning in itself whenever it happened.

"I figured there might be some problems with that", admiral H. Jones took a drag of the tobacco and ran his fingers through the balding, silvery hair. "Guards! Let the mage in!"

A lithe man, dressed in grey robes with golden ornaments stepped inside through the opened door and nodded slightly, his copper-colored hair bobbing alongside his head. The mage paced up to the table and had a glance at all four officers and remained to look at the painting behind the admiral. "Magister-exemptus Boris Djordjevic", were the only words that the mage blurted. He had a tendency of pacing around and looking at everything else but the people around him.

"Magister, I believe your task has been explained to you?", the fleet admiral asked and puffed a plume of smoke.

"Yes, yes. Yes. You had some problem you wanted to talk about?", the magister drew his attention to the painting and glanced over it with a critical eye. "Very luxurious... Very good."

"We'll get to that within a minute", admiral H. Jones nodded and continued with his briefing. "We have now established that there is a way to strike a blow at the Legion's back, but we need a frigate to the underground sea. We have the resources, as of yet, but we don't have the time. The demons could win us by war of attrition if they wanted to, so our hand is forced. All of the top brass from the Bureau, Hierarchy and Tower agree that we must perform a powerful counter-offensive, and the sooner it will happen the better for all of us."

"Arrr, now I like the sound of that!", rear admiral Bismark chuckled. "Can't wait to get to strangle something with my bare hands! Mmm! Already can I smell the stench of burning wood!"

"There will be the time for that", the pipe-dragging admiral smiled slightly. "Sooner than you may realize, old friend. Have a look at this... chart", he pulled up a new chart, this time describing the entirety of the Queendom. There was a path marked on top of it that extended from Wesvynia to the mouth of Mirkriver, crested Gremlins' Peninsula and extended above the Contested Swamp, all the way to Fort Frejath.

A heavy silence befell to the room. Everyone stared at the suicidal plan which they quite fully understood to be a chart for the counter-offensive that the fleet admiral had spoken about not two minutes ago. Darío realized that there were other, thinner lines extending from small places like Fort Harqen, Gartock and even the province capital Crathsalt, to Fort Frejath.

"You've got to be kidding", the lt. commander blurted, his jaw dangling by its' hinges. On one hand the prospect of such direct assault intrigued him greatly, but on the other he was strategically skilled enough to know that it would be very unhealthy for the Queendom should they fail.

"I am not", the fleet admiral gazed at his underlings, drawing breaths of smoke into his lungs. "Obviously, we'd need to lure the aquatic monsters into a trap, first. We'll need to sacrifice the few haulers we have left to do so, so that our flagship and the one other frigate may sail to Fort Frejath's northern side and give our mages a nice view of the Fort's walls.

"First we have to break through the siege. That won't be easy, but Hierarchy assures me that it is doable. Then we will send the haulers off with one skeleton crew, two bulwarks and one battle mage assigned to each ship. The ships will sail northbound, appearing to bring emergency relief supplies and reinforcements to the troops at the front. The aquatic monsters are sure to be sicced on them, and the haulers will take the rapids to the east, appearing to attempt to perform emergency landings to the northwest of Fort Roc. By that time a patrol of battle mages will monitor the situation and wait until the boats land on the southern shore.

"Once the aquatic monsters are about to decimate the haulers that have been ran aground, the mages blast the nearby stalactite formations and a pillar of rock to block the river so that the creatures can't pass through again. With any luck, they'll tire of swimming against the current and plunge into the chasm that Fort Roc ever so vigilantly guards. When the coast is clear, if you pardon the pun, our two only remaining battleships will sail all the way to Fort Frejath and help in liberating it from the demons' clutches. That will be only the first step."

"Those are some leaps of an angry cave giant we are talking about", Darío mumbled, earning a controlled burst of laughter from the commodore and the mage.

The fleet admiral continued unhindered. "After we have liberated Fort Frejath -- and the Hierarchy's top brass do not have optimistic expectations from that battle concerning our losses, mind you -- we'll proceed to the next phase of our plan, which will be moving MSV God's Hammer to the underground lake that the Black Tower's scouting revealed."

"How could we achieve that?", commodore Dumoulin queried, her mind already working on a weird contraption that would allow for lifting the boat up the steep hills that lined Boneriver on both sides. "The tunnel entrance has been described as small. We'd need to dismantle the ship... ?"

"That would be where our f