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Chapter 98

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 3 years, 5 months ago

Soldiers darted back and forth in a flurry all around me as the liberated Brightkeep Watch prepared themselves for battle. We freed them from their prison Sven had command over no more than a mere six score men. Another thirty or so men languished on makeshift beds. They were either banged up, or in coughing fits from the onset of disease. A handful of them were tenacious 'walking wounded' who struggled through the pain to be of use.

 

I felt a thin veneer of safety draped over my shoulders with these numbers, but it also came at the cost of their commander's pressure. Myself along with the girls' very existence is hardly tolerated, especially the girls. We were a ruffle in the current circumstance and it put us on separate but equal shit list. An eyesore that may have to be dealt with later, but ignored because of a more pressing concern loomed which loomed over them. They are forced to accept us begrudging as an ally. Magically enchanted iron bars as thick as my arm would still be between them and freedom if not for us.

 

Sven's knuckles were stained a pearly white as his right hand had a death grip on a kitchen knife. With that knife he so menacingly wielded, he was busy carving a series of shapes into the hardwood table. Besides the hussle all around us, and the scrapping between the two of us, the two of us remained deathly quiet. What I would appreciated is him dialing back on all the antagonism. Maybe a little less edge. I'd settle for being granted a head start after we do our business here in return for saving their damn lives! At the very least he could stop leaving me alone with my thoughts which grew more pessimistic by the minute.

 

Despite everything I wasn't that concerned for my personal well being. Minte stood guard behind me, and true to her shy nature, hid herself underneath a cloak. It's a strange feeling to feel her presence at all, let alone so forcefully. Thankfully it buttressed me against the commander's own forceful aura and the daggers in his eyes. He had his own small cadre of bodyguards composed of four knights, two flanking him on each side. Those men glared with the same apprehension and their fingers twitched nervously at their hips with no sword hilts to grasp. Minte remained virtually motionless, the only stirrings of life being the tips of her antenna which poked out from the hem of her hood.

 

To say the situation we were in was a little awkward would be a colossal understandable. And into this mess we six had appeared. Fresh from the underground and through a sealed door linked directly to the Shadeland catacombs. These glaring flaws in the keep's defenses have no doubt existed for centuries. Let's not forget to mention we had come on behest of that cursed land's ruler. A scion of an ancient and long lost royal line who is head over heels for the very man responsible for her destruction. You know, the very same man who were these knights' liege. The kind of loyalty for him that made one willing to charge headlong into odds that were four to one.

 

My head hurt whenever I thought about it for too long. But should Sven and his knights learn of the true reason we are here the result would be, in the most literal sense, a splitting headache. So rather than end up on the business end of an axe, the charade must continue. Crossing paths with the Silver Bannermen will no doubt be inevitable as we try to return this crystal artifact to its rightful place, so I'll just stick with the alibi on standby.

 

We are here to stop those adventurer types from lifting something precious from this keep's treasury, that's the official story. In reality my job was to return something which has been missing from this Duchy's collection for eons. Then —maybe— Hyria will have her hands unbound and put a stop to this madness. Failure on my part will cause needless bloodshed and a heap of chaos. I shudder to think about the nose dive our situation would take if Count Aaron, along with his hired goons, took control of these lands. That's one shit list I knew I was hovering at a close second. Behind only the Duke himself.

 

As I grimaced over the gears in my head grinding painfully against one another, Sven's expression was grave. His eyes were focused and full of defiance. He stood confidently with her shoulders squared across the table as he carved lines of a makeshift map into the wood with a kitchen knife. We hardly had this moment in time for a war-meeting at all. We'd soon be throwing ourselves toward the upper levels of the keep.

 

     “Our first advantage is that every man here knows the layout of this keep like the back of their hand,” Sven's declared with his gravely voice. “Our unwelcome guests have had about three days worth of getting lost in it.”

 

     “You can add getting lazy on top of that,” I said.

 

     “Even I wouldn't have believed you could manage to get past the bars of those cages so easily. It will take a lot of restore them, but I cannot complain with how things have turned out,” he replied before stabbing the dagger's tip into the table.

 

The sharp strip of embedded iron hummed briefly as it vibrated. Each sound-wave caused the marrow in my bones to quiver. I couldn't shake the feeling that on any other day, the commander would have rather buried that in my heart. His eyes slowly turned back up toward me. They radiated with suspicion and it was thick with his spittle as he spoke.

 

     “I too might have dropped my guard as low, considering how miraculous your infiltration was.”

 

And therein lied the root of his distrust. I could not be an agent of the Count because that would beg to ask why I would have freed him. If his imagination were strong enough, or his intuition potent enough, he may think I was in league with his mortal enemies... and he'd be right. But he could not prove it and could do nothing more but point to the monsters I traveled with. One had the proper papers to legally be in the mercenary trade and another loosely associated with an old friend. With that in mind—

 

     “I'll be keeping that one trade secret... For now,” I said with the best poker face I could muster.

 

Sven's eyes attempted to burrow holes into me, but his eyes darted back and forth between myself and Minte. Her disappearing and reappearing act outside the cell, which he himself had witnessed, put a damper on that suspicion. But just for the moment.

 

     “We did receive some basic intelligence on the situation, this place's layout and some magical guidance. That's everything I'm at liberty to say,” I said with a shrug. “You should instead be worried about how you plan to take on a force more armed, armored and with the numbers advantage. Shoshanah is hard at work getting more of your men on their feet, but her healing powers are limited.”

 

Nestled in the corner of the room was a makeshift infirmary. No proper beds, but some cloth for makeshift bedrolls. With her caduceus-like staff, the priestess made her rounds and clasped her paws over various injuries. The tattoos bordering her abdomen glowed a pale green as she did her best to mend whatever wounds she could. For the coughing fits from those with the onset of diphtheria and other diseases from being shoved into steerage like conditions for at least three days. Her staff glowed all the while and thoughts of Nightingale popped into my head... Perhaps that's a story from home she'd enjoy listening to the next time we have a moment.

 

     But right now we had a battle to win, so I turned back to Sven and continued, “You cannot expect anything more than some healed fractures and stitched up wounds. Those men of yours with broken bones and joins, torn tendons and deep tissue injuries will be sitting this out... If they were more cooperative she might be able to do a little more.”

 

     “These are good Almighty fearing men I command, Laven,” Sven growled.

 

     “And apparently divine powers rely as much on faith as a spell relies on the right magic words.”

 

I don't think I would get anywhere telling Sven and his men to suck it up. But I still couldn't let go of my indignation. I had to tear myself away from the topic forcefully.

 

     “We can get you a handful of men back on their feet and provide a field medic's support once the operation begins, but we still have another big problem staring back at us.”

 

Sven didn't need to hear it from me.

 

     “We've done a cursory check of the supplies which have been stolen... And it is as I feared. Weapons, tools and dried medicinal herbs have been cleared out... Everything they could want and certainly everything they could find,” Sven said with the hint of a grin. “Fortune's wheel has a strange way of turning. During our incarceration, a couple of my men were —forthcoming— about a side job they had been engaging in for the past few years. Fortunately, the two of them weren't taken away for interrogation. It's rather hard to get a couple men whose jaws were savagely broken to talk.”

 

     “Smuggling,” I said, my intuition slipped out between pursed lips.

 

     “The Brightkeep is well supplied. A great deal of Yaleria's levied taxes go toward maintaining its structural integrity and its battle preparedness. Sometimes the warehouses are overstocked. It is not all too uncommon for certain items to vanish from inventory catalogs. Selling supplies off for personal profits is not something unknown to the chronicles of this Watch. But now, for the first time, it may save us rather than compromise it.”

 

     “And that's why you asked for the extra muscle from those two?”

 

I had Rose and Chris head off to assist Sven's men as a gesture of good faith. And on cue, A small train of men lugging large rolled bolts of wool and cloth entered the room. Carrying more than their fair share, Rose and Chris joined them in tossing their cargo into a pile on the floor. Rather than the thud of rolled fabric on stone, the sound of clanking steel echoed about the room. All the men stopped what they were doing and looked over with faces equal parts relived and excited.

 

Inside each roll were tightly bundled weapons. Swords, axes, maces and all sorts spearheads. It was a harvest of steel.

 

I also took note of the two lei of sausages hanging around Rose's neck. They didn't stay there for long as she ravaged them on the command of her insatiable hunger. She did burn a lot of fuel weakening those iron bars, so her pigging out wasn't too unexpected... But the sight of those teeth tearing into all that meat made the soldiers take a few steps back. Chris meandered her way over to Susan and offered the overwhelmed anubis a hand... Well, not a hand. She doesn't have those.

 

     “I may stay their execution,” Sven declared. “Or perhaps I'll merely remove their noses. I will make that judgment based on my mood should my men and I succeed.”

 

     I let out a long whistle, “If that's what's left over from hoarding a little away from the stockpile at a time... And you say these warehouses were full?”

 

     “To the brim,” Sven nodded.

 

     “And the Count figured he'd help himself.”

 

     And from behind Minte's soft voice rang, “Paid for by the Count.”

 

The conversation ground to a halt. Sven and I both glared at the shadow hiding Minte's face. Sven bit down hard on his teeth and I could feel the surprised expression take over my face.

 

     “Minte?” I called out, imploring her to continue.

 

     “Papers discovered at his manor are now in context. Accounts. Large numbers. Drained accounts. Missives, written with an angry hand,” came Minte's dry monotonous account from behind the hood.

 

     “Sven?” I turned my head toward the commander, now imploring him to come clean.

 

     “For months now... Duke Malco has gathered his personal knights and conducted training and maneuvers through his demesne. For a long time now, the Duke has suspected an uprising like this... But he lacked the proof to indite Count Aaron. There could be no other man in Yaleria with the motive or means to challenge the Duke's authority.”

 

     “And he sought to draw him out by proving a juicy target?”

 

     “I would assume so. Count Aaron's objections to Malco's fervor in defending and maintaining the Brightwall has been... More...” Sven fumbled to find the proper words to maintain discretion. “Robust.”

 

     “And expensive.”

 

I was beginning to understand Aaron's motives. If he was bank rolling the whole Duchy, and he felt those funds were being wasted chasing after ghouls and goblins that aren't there... Yet those ghosts certainly were there. And she's pining and stalking the duke... Who might take it as a pretext for her invasion... Things were now starting to add up. This whole affair is turning out to be comedy of errors. Ships passing in the night. Treachery, feelings of frustration, love sick maidens who care not for what trouble their fancies cause.

 

     “Yaleria has never been a wealthy part of the Empire,” Sven sighed. “It may have been, long ago, but it was also a decadent kingdom. Yet even before the Empire it has defended the wall. We have done so without fail for over two thousands years.”

 

     “And you haven't had to for about three hundred.”

 

Sven averted his eyes and stared uncomfortably at the ground. I pushed on.

 

     “And Count Aaron doesn't like seeing all his wealth wasted.”

 

     “It is not wasted!” He screamed and glared daggers at me.

 

All the soldiers at work stopped what they were doing and stared at us. Dozens of oppressive stares. Minte shifted her footing in response to the commander's aggression and the men flanking him squirmed. He flung his fist around and cursed at them all and ordered them to continue on. And so I dared pushed on some more.

 

     “I was at the ball he hosted... Pretty certain he meant it as a trap for the Duke. Had he shown up, the Count would have seized him there and held him hostage. Force him to abdicate and hand over Yaleria to him.”

 

     “Had I not been thrown into the dungeons... the same dungeons meant for the enemies I have sworn to give my last dying breath to slaying... I might have thought you'd deserve to be cut down for that... For as much a scoundrel as he is, the man is still a nobleman of Yaleria.”

 

     “And recently at that... In the grand scheme of things, that is. His grandfather was born a commoner. Struck it big with silver veins in the mountains bordering the Duchy. I'm not sure how he got control of it, but it made him rich and the Duchy too. And it had been handed to him as a fief because he managed it well... Yet that wasn't enough.”

 

     “He planned on marrying the Duke's sister. Tie the families together... Before she became ill and passed away.”

 

Did the Count's plan to seize control of Yaleria fail there? Was he planning on taking over at all back then? There's too much missing information to know for sure. I had a better grasp of the situation and things were quickly falling into place. Yet I could not pick out a peaceful solution out of the mess. Things have been failing for years. Long before I had ever been dropped into this mess of a world. All that's left now is the fight.

 

     “That's one problem and a mystery resolved... Would I be pushing my luck to assume you have some sort of plan on how we make good use of all this?”

 

I think I used the incorrect word there. 'We' caused Sven's face to contort once more with anger. He barely contained the snarl which about tore that stoic upper lip of his.

 

     “My men and I are too few to retake the Brightkeep. It is well beyond our means... And no paltry band of mercenaries will make a difference in that. But we can disrupt the Count's mercenaries and open a path for reinforcements,” Sven grunted as he scratched the tip of the kitchen knife over three locations of his crude drawing.

 

The image was in the crude shape of a rectangle. That shape was then supported by two longer and more squat rectangles which I assumed were walls. A trio of separate circles had been etched into the wood at the two locations where the tower met the wall and a third about three-quarters up the main tower.

 

     “If we can manage to secure these three locations, we stand a chance of retaking the keep, provided we hold out until reinforcements to arrive. Here and here,” he said while jabbing the knife into the two areas by the walls, “are the choke-point leading onto the Brightwall's ramparts. We'll send two small teams to make their way to these locations and secure them. Once secured, they will fight till the last to keep these gates opened. If the other stations along the Brightwall have yet to fall, the whole garrison from peak to peak can flood into the Brightkeep and secure it. Meanwhile, I will lead the larger formation into the main gatehouse. From here we shall close and bar the main inner gate. That should isolate the fortress from any of the Count Aaron's men from reinforcing their position here.”

 

     “That's a plan relying a lot on chance.”

 

     “While you keep your faith in heathen ways I shall have faith in the Almighty's providence. Count Aaron has no claim, nor divine right to rebel against the Duke and the man who I have sworn my loyalty to.

 

     “While we are talking about heathen ways,” I said while turning around to look back at Ba'el.

 

She sat atop a box located behind Minte and I. The demon had been quiet for quite some time now. And that is certainly newsworthy in and of itself. Her legs were crossed while pointing one paw up into the air and another down below the floor. A meditative pose she had told me. But there was something about it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Ba'el was doing her best to sense the current of magic and try to have any of those Silver Bannerman show up as a blip on her radar.

 

     “Yeah, I can feel her alright,” she said with her eyes still closed.

 

I'm not sure how she knew to speak up after she had become the center of attention... Let alone sense what I was thinking and about to ask.

 

     “There's another two small fries. Hardly worth worrying about... But this one chick is for sure is not covering her tracks. Letting all that mana spill all over the place. Sloppy. What a disgrace. You're in war zone, darling.”

 

I turned back toward Sven and gave him a weak attempt at a smile, “And with that, I suspect they still don't know what's in store for them.”

 

The look of disgust was palpable on his face.

 

     “Regardless if the element of surprise will be ours... I am confident reinforcements will come. Assuming we manage to hold our positions. One of my men informed me that three days ago that he manged to let loose a fleet of carrier pigeons with a message of distress to the other towers along the wall. Surely, they have fortified their own positions and await orders.”

 

     “Assuming you can signal em,” Rose said as she slid up toward the table.

 

Her decorum left something to be desired as she held an intact sausage, width wise, in her mouth before tearing it to shreds in seconds and swallowing it all at once. Wagging behind her happily was her tail and flickered which had returned to letting off stray embers. Sven did not appear to take it well.

 

Rose waltzed up beside me and her gaze waltz over the etching on the table. A spark seemed to ignite in the corner of her eye.

 

     “Oh, splitting up into three groups when you're outnumbered? You trying to get yourselves surrounded?”

 

There was a merry chastisement in her voice, but its criticism toward Sven nonetheless. I was more impressed that she managed to make sense of Sven's scrawling after looking at it for a couple seconds. If only she didn't focus all that energy on one thing, we'd have fewer problems with her common sense. Sven, however, didn't appreciate Rose's quick assessment. He couldn't brush it off as critique. His pride wouldn't allow it and his loathing of the inhuman demanded him to lash back.

 

     “We're in no condition to fight a forward battle,” Sven seethed. “A battle of attrition is in their favor unless we get rid of their reinforcements and lock ourselves in here with them.”

 

Rose took a second look around the room at all Sven's men.

 

     “Hmm, guess that's the best you can hope for with this lot as they are.”

 

Oh boy. She could have put that better. And Sven looked ready to explode with anger, but I felt something off directly behind me. My sudden spinning about to check on Minte caught the Knight Commander's attention. I sensed something off and discovered that Minte had actually turned her head off to the side. Her antenna had also become animated and were writhing about.

 

     “Minte?” I whispered.

 

She raised a finger to her lips to hush me as she turned moved her head as if trying to triangulate on something distant and unseen. No more than twenty seconds passed silently until her antenna stopped moving and she decided to speak.

 

     “Out of time,” she softly replied.

 

A pair of Sven's soldiers burst into the warehouse and each of them were visibly frazzled and bloodied. But that wasn't their blood on them.

 

     “Commander Sven!” One of them shrieked. “We ambushed a patrol.”

 

That's all the first one could say before having to catch his breath. That's when the other one continued the report.

 

     “On the level above us. Eight of them.”

 

     “Changing of the guard,” Minte said softly. “They'll be on alert when the relieved fail to return.”

 

She's right. And if there's an expert on enemy patrols, it'd be the one who's an expert in infiltration.

 

     “Men!” Sven yelled and caused the room itself to rumble. “Form ranks and prepare to storm the upper levels. Report to your commanding sub-officer and await the order to move out.” He turned to the four men flanking him. “Larsson and Hogh, gather twelve men each. You two will be storming the west and east gatehouses. Sachs, you'll remain here with six fighting men and guard the wounded. Barricade yourselves and resist should we not distract all their forces. Busemann, you are with me and will serve as second in command. We shall take the remainder of the men and secure the Brightkeep's main gatehouse—” Sven turned again and called out, “Godek!”

 

Those three men dashed off to assemble the men another emerged from the throng of bodies which were now moving about the room like water. Fluid, chaotic, but all of it toward one downstream goal.

 

     “Yes sir! We have prepared the signal. One is the best we could manage. Everything has been plundered, but we happened to rig this one together.”

 

Sven took the cylinder tube and stashed it away in his inside jacket pocket. It looked like a roman candle, if I had to hazard a guess. It had the appearance of a roman candle, so I figured it must be some type of flare. Fire that up into the sky and the guard towers along the wall might take notice. That's what Sven appeared to be relying on.

 

     “Come now, men of the Brightwatch! Now is not the time for men of words. Now is the time for men of action!”

 

It sounded as if it was directed at me. But as I let that insult strew Rose wrapped a claw around my shoulder and jumped for joy. A beaming smile had been plastered on her face as her eyes looked forward into the battle there would soon be.

 

     “A battle against insurmountable odds. Almost a dozen to one. Out armed, out armored!”

 

Those were things that usually left someone in despair. However, the tracks underneath Rose's train of thought were twisted and completely alien to anyone sane.

 

     “Stay out of our way!” Sven commanded. “This is our responsibility. You will not be paid or your services recognized. I'll look the other way for releasing my men, but you deal with those Bannerman as you see fit and leave the Counts men to me.”

 

Unwilling to bend a knee or compromise his pride, the command snarled while he stormed away and threw out orders lightning fast to the knights scurrying around him. Rose's expression did not change at all. I don't think she even heard him.

 

     “Should this all come to its worst possible conclusion—” I heard Susan say, “we shall take that as an invitation to abandon the field.”

 

She had a resigned expression on her face. It could also be exhaustion. Healing as many wounds and stabilizing many others must have been taxing on her.

 

     “Abandon the field?” Ba'el quipped as she leaped off her perch. “When we're this close to the Yalerian node? I think you greatly underestimate their chances.”

 

     “If they refuse our assistance from here on, then we cannot be at fault for any failure on their part.”

 

     “Oh, I'll agree with you for once there. But we're getting Laven-boy here to that throne room,” Ba'el said, slapping my backside.

 

Then she grabbed hold of my sleeve and suddenly pulled me off balance. I nearly fell flat on my face, but stopped myself with my head bowed and looking right down the Demon's face. Her expression was uncharacteristically serious for once.

 

     “You do that for me and I'll rock your god damned world,” she said with a droll voice.

 

Ba'el's paws locked onto the sides of my head and rooted me in place with her vice-like grip. She stared up at me long and hard at me with those deep green eyes and unusual pupils. I kept waiting for her to spring the punchline. This always ends as some kind of prank. But no. She appeared be pleading. Dare I say, begging?

 

The puppy dog eyes treatment didn't last long though. A hook from stage left took a firm grasp of her twin-tailed hair and yanked her back. A mouse-like squeak escaped her lips and her face scrunched in surprise. Minte was the one responsible. Ba'el appeared as flabbergasted as I was. The assassin wore a very subtle, yet cross, expression. Once Ba'el realized it wasn't Susan bullying her, as usual, the tirade of profanities came flowing out.

 

     “If Sven is a friend of the good Sir Rissler, then I for one cannot abandon the old friend of an ally!” Chris bellowed and drowned out the vile string of curses coming out of the demon behind me. “Oaths broken, sacred sights defile. Thievery. Banditry. A whole mess of honorless curs. I could nary stomach the thought of letting JUSTICE'S name be tarnished!”

 

After rattling off several orders, the commander himself stomped his way back toward our group. His thrust a finger in my face and rattled off another.

 

     “We're heading out now. And you, Laven, will be sticking with me.”

 

     “...Come again?” I replied after a couple dumbfounded blinks.

 

     “Consider it insurance,” Sven menaced. “If you and your lot think you can use us as mere distractions, you are terribly mistaken.”

 

     “Way to go, your holiness~” Ba'el said, sardonically, all while still having her hair tugged at by Minte.

 

     “These are not acceptable terms!” Susan protested.

 

     “If you want access to the old Throne Room, you'll have to go through me first. And its either the privilege I bestow, or over my dead body. Take care of those Silver Bannerman, and I'll consider the situation stable enough to grant it sooner.”

 

     “Aha~ Scared of a few adventurers, huh? Can't blame ya,” Rose smirked, rubbing her chin and nursing the smug expression on her face.

 

A passing soldier handed a hand-axe over to Sven, and he almost looked ready to use it, but relented and swallowed his anger. He also didn't give Rose an answer. The commander turned red, fumed and turned around without a word and stormed off. Rose hit him right on the nose with that one. If it were not for the Silver Bannerman, the man wouldn't be tolerating our presence at all. He was terrified of them, yet would not speak about them.

 

Perhaps it was with those adventurers that this keep fell so easily to begin with. And that worry quickly became contagious. I had seen them with my own eyes before and we had survived them... That's because we ran away from them. They were magically enhanced and pruned till only the elite remain in their ranks. Their rank and file were not much more than the standard mercenary, but their lieutenants were monsters all their own. I peered into the eyes of their leader at the ball and that's the feeling the discharge of his seething aura.

 

Not that it fazed Rose one bit. Sven's orders were to stay out of his fight, but such words were nonsense to her. They glanced off the girl;s thick skull like water on a duck's back... Or by it vaporizing instantaneously on that tail of hers. No one else seemed particularly worried about Sven's mental state besides Susan. Her eyes narrowed as she peered deep into the man's soul.

 

     She spoke quietly, but not directly to me to avoid suspicion, “He is a man to whom words of good men are as gold... But he chases ghosts.”

 

     “Past, present or future?” I asked, half joking.

 

     “That the title he bears has been bestowed onto heroes of the past. He feels unworthy and puts himself and others at risk to climb out from their shadows.”

 

     “Another captain Ahab it is then. Great. At the very least he doesn't want to kill us?”

 

     “He may be foolishly brave, but not moronic.” she replied with a sigh.

 

     “Good enough for me. We're off to a better start than we usual.”

 

I stepped out in front and the girls all turned their attention toward me.

 

     “Whether Sven likes it or not, he's going to need us to help him break through and secure that gatehouse. Once we do that, we'll be free to push to the Throne Room.” I took out the void crystal which quivered with the absence of power in my hand and continued, “The princess says that this can turn the tide of the battle... And it seems Ba'el agrees. We uncork this node on the ley line, and we're in a position to turn the tables on the Count.”

 

     “I could stand to get a little more reckless if there were that amount of mana fluttering about,” Ba'el nodded. “I'm eating into my own life force if I push it... Add to that the naked wizard and the floozy princess... Consider you, Laven, getting your job done would unshackle those broads.”

 

Figures she'd reserve getting fired up when it's something in her best interests. And then the clarion call to war was sounded. A low and low note on an ornate horn quivered the insides as the sound bounced off the walls of the warehouse. Sven's arms moved like a maestro conducting a sympathy. His arm signals gathering the ranks of the men together. Three separate groups, now armed and ready for combat, gathered and began their march. The two smaller groups formed the two prongs of the vanguard which would break off on their own a few levels up. The girls and I took our place near the rear of the third column, within arms reach of Sven himself.

 

We would be quite a few ranks and file behind the spearhead where the action would take place. Sven wasn't taking command at the front either. One of the lieutenants from before took that position. I had to wonder for a moment if it were cowardice, but Rose whispered to me, a spear needs a study heft as much as it needs a sharp point. That was strangely poignant for her, but she does manage to surprise when the situation calls for it. At least when the situation heads south and when the fighting starts.

 

Through winding stairwells wide enough for three men shoulder to shoulder, Sven and his men lunged up the ancient steps. With nothing but prisoners' clothes on their backs and iron gripped soundly in their hands. They would have to strike hard and fast and use the element of surprise. Rose told me as we marched, with no lack of excitement, that we'd likely enjoy one ambush and a brief moment of chaos. Everyone's eyes were on the battlements and staring far off to the horizon where the duke's castle grew out from the hills and were surrounded by marsh and old growth forest. They would soon have their attention rudely torn away and forced inward.

 

The convoy pressed on one floor after another. We bypassed seven levels and I began to wonder when I'd get a chance to see the outside world again. It had been nearly a week since I last saw the sky. I'd settle for the darkness of night with those creepy twin moons and alien stars. This fortress offered no favors. Built as solid as the mountains themselves and just as uncompromising. Not a single arrow slit could be found.

 

And it's on that thought that a pulse of discord washed over the column. Something had shocked the front and the message passed down the line.

 

     “Enemy contact!” the signal runner screeched.

 

Sven pushed the men in front of him aside as he charged forward commanding the men to push onward.

 

     “Wall groups, break off! We'll run the diversion now!”

 

     “We got further than I thought,” Rose mused and then chased after Sven.

 

I had no other choice but to follow her and the girls formed rank behind me. Two dozen men broke rank and filtered out of the stairwell and vanished into the keep's labyrinth. They left without fanfare and left behind nothing more than hope. We could only pray they manage to slither their way through the gaps and seize the gates leading to the walls. Those are the sole avenues which would send us reinforcements.

 

It wasn't long before the smell of iron began to mingle with the scent of raw fire from Rose's tail. The sound of battle did not take long after, but had to contend with the thump of my heart and hoarseness of breath as I ran. To keep up with Rose took everything I had since I also had to worm my way through the asteroid field of soldiers also trying to make their way to the fight.

 

On the heels of Sven and Rose we came to a doorway at the end of a long hall. I peaked inside and gleaned that we had stumbled into a mess hall of sorts. The sound of clashing steel, splintering wood and the shouts of men rang from within. A scene of the count's mercenaries peacefully assembled and eating their meals being rudely interrupted by a band of furious, armed and half-naked knights played out in my mind. This melee had been going on for about a minute now and showed no signs of abating. Flipped tables and a makeshift defense held steadfast as the mercenaries relied on instinct to survive.

 

     “Put your spines into it!” Sven bellowed as he leaped in to join the fray.

 

Rose was hot on his heels, but got set on her heels after he pushed her away by the shoulder. He glared back at her and with his eyes threatened her to stay put. Not when the situation had descended into the thick of battle did he relent and submit to our help. I grabbed Rose by the wrist to anchor her in place and offer some semblance of comfort. She responded by pouting, but playing it cute wouldn't convince anymore. Sven had already rushed into the fray.

 

     “Not yet,” I whispered into Rose's ear-fin.

 

Her eyes locked forward onto the battle while mine looked back over my shoulder as the other girls finally arrived.

 

     “This is bad,” Chris said, the tone in her voice higher then usual.

 

If she was speaking normally... That's more than enough to convince me things were not under control. As strange as she is, the mask does come off when it needs to. My mind drifted onto thoughts of the Count's men managing to send off a couple of runners to raise the alarm across the entire Brightkeep... Our first order of business would be dealing with that.

 

     “Minte,” I called out and watched her stand to attention. “Do what you do best.”

 

I pointed beyond the mess hall and motioned my hand in the general vicinity of an escape route from it. We exchanged glances and she nodded in confirmation. No words were needed to convey intent.

 

     “Stay safe."

 

A faint smile peeled back the corners of her lips and her white skin became a light hue of pink around the cheeks. And as sudden and fleeting was that smile had been, so too was her presence. A flicker of her form left behind nothing more than an after-image. She vanished from sight in the brief moment a single knight rushed past in front of us.

 

     “Where has Rose gotten to?” I heard Susan say.

 

The answer to the question should be painfully obvious, but since she had to ask, it filled me with dread. I swung my pointing hand back to where Rose and her wrist should have been and the girl had already vanished.

 

     “Monster!” came the panicked cries from within.

 

I pushed my own way into the room immediately after and I watched Rose in the last few strides of her charge. Her laughter is loud, clear and mirthful. She drew the sword from her back and bent her sword arm back like the string of a bow. The cry of monster was less a warning to the other and more like a call of: red rover, red rover, send Rose over. And the scarlet missile charged in, veering off slightly from a full head-on collision. It was a heat seeking missile, directed at what she no doubt presumed as the weak point in the line.

 

Rose used a wooden table as a boost to leap up into the air and bring her sword down while laughing at the top of her lungs. The steel crashed down on a raised shield. Her body slipped through a bramble of sword and spear points. They glanced off the scraps of leather she not call a swimsuit considered armor. They ricocheted off her boney red scales and she paid no mind when they nicked her skin. She ignored all pain and danger as she brought down, single-handed, her sword and splintered the round wooden shield in two. The tip of her sword bit into the mercenary's shoulder and he howled in pain and was sent to the ground.

 

Upon landing, she grabbed a thrust spear by the haft. She couched it under her arm pit and locked it secured against her waist. She spun and pulled the man behind the pike and dragged him off balance. As the man's teeth met the ground, the wood snapped and she used the broken off tip, and it's short length, to stab and leave it in another close enough to try tackling her.

 

She broke through the line, but before she could be surrounded, the knights of the Brightwall poured in behind her. The shield wall, the line of defense, was shattered. A scrum had now descended into a true melee. Enemies and allies no matter where you looked. In front, behind and all around. Men who had finished tying their bowstrings no longer had a block of unarmored men to fire down upon. They scanned the room and had to hesitate before letting their bowstring twang.

 

Chris squeezed into the room behind me. Her entry was greeted with renewed cries of monster. Panic and confusion were renewed. These men were not paid to be fighting this kind of threat. I couldn't spy a single brooch or fluttering banner of silver. The wyvern provided an enticing target since she stood a head higher then the roiling mass of fighting men. But those arrowheads were not made of stuff sturdy enough to puncture those scales and pale skin backed by something like them underneath. She kicked off the ground and sent a gust of wind which unbalanced those fighting around her; some even fell to the ground.

 

A iron wrought chandelier hanging high up in the room groaned as its chains embedded into the ceiling creaked under her weight. Chris clung to it with her talons and took a deep breath. A jet of liquid fire washed over the balconies of the mess hall where the missile slingers had taken position. Many were to late to take cover by the time they realized what was in store. They were too busy leaving minor cuts and bruises on Chris with their basic iron tipped arrows, rather than fall back. The napalm-like substance engulfed the first couple and the others threw themselves to the ground and rolled about in pain with patches of fire growing all over their bodies. The first couple were luckier, they simply crumpled on the spot and stopped moving.

 

They could no longer hold their ground after the onslaught of flame, both living and not. The mercenaries tried to flee, but turning their backs in the cramped quarters lead to them being quickly brought down. Chris dropped down from the ceiling and slammed her wings into two below her, rending them unmoving on the floor. Rose slammed her pommel into the skullcap of another and the dented steel thud viciously into the skull and sent him tumbling into a broken wood table.

 

     “Don't let them get far!” Sven roared. “Everyone else, form up. Those of you that can still walk, follow me!”

 

The meaning behind those words hit me soon enough. Two to three dozen bodies were scattered about the room. Most of them were motionless and bleeding out onto the floor. Arrows and crossbow bolts sticking out from them, open wounds and wrenched limbs twisting the bodies of others. A fair number of them, but far from most, were the rag wearing prisoners themselves. A few could be helped back onto their feet, but the others remained motionless. One young man in particular, our eyes crossed paths. He wore the dregs of prison clothes and sat upright against the wall. He held his stomach as the patch of red soaked the dusty beige cloth and stained the floor. Our eyes parted as his head slowly rolled down and his eyes half shut. He kept breathing in vain.

 

Battles with magic children, thundering footsteps of fantastical living suits of armor, high speed chases and fairy tale clashes seemed rather distant now. This bloody brawl had all the hallmarks of real conflict. A cold dose of reality which chilled my blood. Yet everyone carried on. Those that could not walk were left behind and enemies who appeared they could, were finished off without mercy.

 

     “Sir... You'll need to look at this,” I heard one of Sven's lieutenants say.

 

A few meters behind me was the man himself, bloody and covered in fresh cuts and minor wounds. He paid them no mind as he followed his subordinate outside the room and into another adjacent hallway. I followed closely behind and saw what may have been the source of the lieutenant's concern. To me it's a miracle, a ray of light from a small window. A reddish hue of either dawn or dusk. A few motes of dust dancing gaily in the sun beam.

 

     “Dammit. Why today of all times?” Sven growled.

 

He turned and noticed I was present. His eyes diverted for a moment in thought, but quickly swung back around. He reached to his belt and untied the firework from its loop. Without a word he thrust it into my chest.

 

     “What?” I said, too taken aback to muster any more meaningful response.

 

     “Fog. We've got fog blowing in from the Ufilreen swamps up-wind. If we fire this thing off here, the gatehouses along the wall will never see it. We need to launch it from up higher.”

 

     “Okay...” I said dubiously, still not following.

 

     “Get your ass to the Old Throne. Now. I have to lead the men to the gatehouse and hold the line there. Get above the fog bank and send out that signal. I honestly don't care whatever it is you plan to do up there, but the ass of every one of my men relies on getting this signal off! We already lost good deal — too many good men— getting this far.”

 

     “You're gonna lose a lot more of those men soon if you'll don't move it,” I heard Ba'el's voice chime in from behind.

 

It appears she had followed me and I hadn't noticed.

 

     “That wizard had a big spike in emotion and then went silent. I can vaguely pick out her aura and its on the warpath now,” she said with a shrug.

 

Sven could hear her, but didn't ask any questions or react in the demon's general direction. Dozens of options and plans of attack were competing against one another, I could see that conflict in his eyes.

 

     “Ba'el... “ I called out the demon's name, but failed to go further as my conviction faltered.

 

     “Yeah yeah yeah,” she rambled and brushed me aside. “I'll take care of that. You do your business and get that flare back to its proper home. I'll stick with seven layers of inferiority complex here and keep that gatehouse secure.”

 

     “Take Chris with you,” Rose said as she came around the corner.

 

She was joined with Susan and Chris, the latter thumping her wing talon against her chest.

 

     “I shall be the bulwark!” she declared proudly.

 

     “Suzie and I will get Laven to this throne room place. The three of us can slip through more easily and her little light doohicky can get us to— ”

 

     “Do not call me—“ Susan barked, but cut herself off quickly. “And it is not a doohicky!.. Tis the Celestial Guide of—”

 

Before she could correct Rose, the commander butted in and gave his last orders.

 

     “Do as you wish! We've let the situation has deteriorated enough as is. We move. NOW!”

 

Chris patted me on the shoulder and wished me luck and Ba'el gave me a sly wink before the two of them set off along with Sven. That left Rose, Susan and I alone and isolated in the Keep. There was no time for words, the doohicky manifested itself from the priestess' golden staff and quickly sprung to life.

 

     Susan offered a prayer, “To the high seat of this castle. Please, wise light of the Sun God, lead the way.”

 

Dancing about in the air for a few seconds, the light shot off down the hall, around the corner, and then returned. It ebbed back and forth as if to beckon us and so we followed. Through the twisting corridors this pattern repeated itself. At times Rose and Susan's ears would twitch and we'd take refuge as a gang of mercenaries screaming and shouting orders would run past another corridor further down.

 

We sneaked our way up one level and then the next. Dashing between cover to cover. Stepping silently up toward the crown of the Brightkeep itself. We saw only mercenaries and not a single Bannerman. I know Ba'el had mentioned she could sense one of their leaders, but Sven and his men must have done their work in drawing the whole ire of the garrison towards them. Yet I could do nothing more than put blind faith in their ability to reach the gatehouse and lock this whole structure down.

 

Two of three objectives done, at the very least.

 

The hallway was quite wide here; an artery compared to all the winding capillaries we had been sneaking through. We came around a corner and discovered a slew of bodies on the ground. They wore prisoner's rags, but not all of them were easily recognizable. Limbs were detached, but there wasn't a drop of blood to be seen. I had to look twice, and sometimes thrice, to make sure they were not merely discarded mannequins. Even their weapons were cleaved into pieces, the solid lumps of iron and sturdy wood that they were.

 

I felt compelled to inspect them further. If only to see for certain that my eyes were not playing tricks on me... But Rose grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back. She took the lead and swiveled her head like a radar dish before homing in on a pillar far in the distance.

 

     “He hasn't left,” Rose said menacingly.

 

Steel tipped jack boots on stone. That is what echoed from the far side, the lone man walked out from behind the pillar. A skirt of lamellar armor encased his legs and hips, but besides the wife beater of a white top, kept his chest bare. A tachi hung horizontally against his hip. His lamellar gauntlet never let of the hilt's tip. Despite the eastern looking origins of the sword, his face bore no foreign appearance to it. Regardless, he wore his raven black hair in a long top knot. A pair of sickly albino red eyes glared out from beneath his brow when he turned to face us and began to walk toward us like the body ridden carpet were his personal catwalk.

 

     “Not enough,” he mumbled. “Their hearts beat with determination... So full of life and brimming with purpose. But it's not enough to sate it.”

 

That's when I saw it, now that he was close enough. A single thin chain necklace with an amulet at its center. So simple and plain. Yet it held a lot of meaning to it. It's a wavy panel, a small cast metal shape of a flag fluttering in the wind. Made of pure radiant silver.

 

     “Now now now,” he said now with a creepy smile on his face. “Now here is some blood. Full of life, but also of fire. How exquisite and quaint.”

 

Rose drew the sword out from the sheath on her back and took a defensive stance.

 

     “Laven. Hannah. Go,” she said with her eyes fixed forward.

 

The tone in her voice and the expression on her face were serious. Deadly serious.

 

     “Go. He wont do anything.”

 

Shoshanah didn't even flinch or protest at being called that one. And she always finds the heart to do that. But now is certainly not the time. Both of us could feel it. Her tanned skin turned a lighter shade and almost white when she looked upon the man. Her face contorted with both confusion and disgust. I had never seen an expression on her face like that, not even when Ba'el was acting at her worst. And she didn't need to explain it to me. I could feel the same down to my bones.

 

This man was demented. A truly disturbed man.

 

We were hesitant to move, but we picked the right side of the all and moved forward at Rose's behest. The man's eyes did not pull away from Rose for an instant. He came to a stop about 10 meters away from Rose and remained motionless after that. A couple bangs of hair hanging down in front of his cheeks were the only thing that danced in the drafty hall. Susan and I took that opportunity to leave that chilled earth at once. Our mission drove us on, but I could not stop myself from looking over my shoulder one last time before we turned another corner and left the hall.

 

     “Dammit,” I cursed through clenched teeth.

 

     “Move forward, Laven. If we are to have any hope of victory here today, we shall accomplish our goal... Lives here depend on it. The future of this realm depends on it... A mystery you must solve lays beyond it.”

 

The void crystal. It will unlock something I must see. That's the carrot Hyria held in front of me. Despite everything that happens here, some ancient secret lays hidden here. One similar to the etching of the temple far to the south, beyond the equator and thousands of kilometers away. Something tied to these ley lines and their nodes.

 

But those were mysteries that appeared to have a life all their own. And they did not want to be easily discovered, if revealed at all. As Susan and I came around another corner, we came within thirty meters of another group. Less menacing then the man himself, but two out of nine wore the same chain necklaces as the deranged swordsman. Their senses were more attune than the others as well. Their heads swiveled toward Susan and I immediately. They had gathered silently, professionally, and waited patiently. The first sound either of us heard was the drawing of the weapons from their sheaths.

 

     “Run!” Susan yelled.

 

One of them notched an arrow to her bow and let a missile fly. Susan waved her staff and created a brief flash of gold light. A kinetic blast timed to knock the arrowhead away.

 

     “Monster!” The other bannerman yelled. “You three, get reinforcements. Go!”

 

Three of the mercenaries nodded and had no complaints taking orders from the man. The other adventurer woman readied another arrow while Susan and I bolted across the hallway into another narrow capillary.

 

We'd have a bunch of them hot on our heels soon. The glowing light became more animated and panicked as it quickly zipped down one hallway and then back again to search down another. Our path become increasingly winding as we evaded our pursuers and had to avoid checkpoints and further ambushes. We climbed higher and higher till the guiding light returned more excited than before. It chimed happily and zipped off in a straight line. It fizzled off right into a wall and did not return. Susan and I followed its path down the proper corridors and came to one last hallway. It was like the other artery from a number of floors down, but this time had a very official and ornate decoration.

 

     “That might just be fancy enough to be the place,” I sighed.

 

Clang

 

Susan slammed her staff into the ground and let it free from her grip. It stood rigid and unmoving.

 

     “Susan?”

 

     “Shh,” she hushed me rather rudely.

 

And only so that she could concentrate. A brilliant light filled the room from the staff at the strange ritualistic words spoken in a whole other language from Susan's lips. I watched as the light collected into brilliant orbs and flew off in all directions. They gathered at the doorway we came from and turned into a wall of solid stone. They flew off in all directions and formed wall after wall. They were for a time see-through, but gradually turned opaque. Shimmering illusions. Mirages.

 

     “This shall fool them for a time. Should they discover they are false and in reality barriers, I will hold them for as long as I am able. In that meantime, do what you must do.”

 

     “We've split the party more than enough,” I protested.

 

     “Fire the signal. Return the crystal, Laven. Too many have perished and too many have yet to bleed. But they need not. If only you have the courage to step forward... I can offer nothing more than this... And one other thing.”

 

     “And that would—“

 

Quick and sudden. Unexpected, but not unwelcome. Susan hesitated for a second, but grabbed my hands in her paws. She pulled them down so they could not defend myself. Her lips pressed up against mine as she stood on the tips of her claws. A soft and brief peck of her soft lips on mine. She pulled away and sighed through her nose and smiled.

 

     “Good luck.”

 

And a dirty trick. One last flash of light blinded me as it sprung up in the short distance between Susan and I. I rubbed the pain from my eyes and saw that dull gray stone had replaced the space where she had been a moment ago. I reached out and touched the illusion. It looked real, but did not feel like stone at all. It felt like glass instead and had no smell. I took a step back and took in my new surroundings. A claustrophobic array of walls hemmed me in with the tall ornate doors crowning one last set of stairs. A red velvet carpet welcomed me.

 

I could not refuse its invitation and ascended. The wooden doors were surprisingly warm to the touch and receptive to force. One might expect to lock such a place up, but they opened without issue. A long and groaning creak of settling oak reverberated off the stone keep and ushered me into a room flushed with light.

 

That red through the slit far below had turned to many brilliant shades. Day had come to Yaleria and the skylights far above. White light from the midday sun and many spots on the floor were littered with rainbow patterns. Stained glass murals coated across the ground and depicted heroes, saints, monsters defeated and a proud history of this nation. A balcony circled the walls below the dome which made up the ceiling. A pair of twin staircases at the far side of the room spiraled up toward the heavens to meet them.

 

Scattered about the room was a museum. Armored mannequins waited motionless and on eternal guard duty. Displays of jewels and chests filled with documents and other finery were gathered about. Marble statues from long gone eras and half a library in tall shelves loaded with literal tons upon tons of dusty old tombs waited, unread for who knows how long. It definitely looked like a treasure store. Yet it still had the elevated plateau above the main floor where the throne itself waited. A seat for a king. For a kingdom that existed long ago. A throne which had not served its true purpose for— There is someone sitting on it already.

 

A man covered in scars. At least, what wasn't covered in armor. His arms a mess of scar tissue like a tribal tattoo is black. His chest encased in a shining silver breastplate. Legs encased in plates of metal and a kettle helm resting on the arm of the throne. A bald head, scarred as badly as his arms and housing a pair of furious hate filled eyes. He had watched me the whole time I stared in wonder at the room surrounding me. Now that I noticed him, the crushing presence of his rage weighed down heavily on me.

 

Something twirled round and round in his left index finger. An orbiting flash of gold reflected the sunlight into my eyes with every pass. A crown. Peaks of jeweled radiant gold, fit for a king. He let it slip from his fingers without a care and let it tumbled down the steps from the throne and roll its way to my feet. I saw now that its finely crafted peaks had been dented and crushed. What was once magnificent had been callously destroyed for no good reason at all.

 

His bare hand now grabbed a great-axe resting against the throne and rose to his feet. He stomped his boots onto the ground and a loud click gave way beneath his feet. The doors slammed shut behind me and another click of metal sealed them shut. Metal plates in his armor clanked as lumbered down the stairs. Eyes set straight ahead.

 

     Nerick's voice was level, stern and laconic, “The dream is over. Time to die.”

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