Chapter 101


Chaos reigned beneath the glow of a new dawn. Two armies clashed once again for the third day in a row. Missiles flew, stones hurled across the sky and curses were thrown. Men clambered about at the base of the walls with ladders and ramps. Duke Malco's citadel, Sulunaerg, desperately fended off a force many times their own. Several thousand of Count Aaron's men—a majority of them mercenaries— laid siege and assaulted the walls relentlessly.

 

To the Duke's credit, and the dismay of the Count's men, the castle was well garrisoned. Malco had rallied twenty of his knights to his side. With them came their own retainers. Yet that meant there was just short of five-hundred men to garrison the castle. Everyone from servants, chefs to squires took up arms and shared shifts at the ramparts. They steeled their resolve as they watched ten times that number surround the castle and nearby countryside.

 

Sulunaerg —Death's End— crowned a hill which had but one slope. All other sides were sheer cliffs. Laying in the castle's shadow on the opposite side was Yaleria's capital, Mornurg. She had fallen on the first day and been promptly looted. Wooden structures were in the process of being violently disassembled to construct makeshift equipment to assail the citadel's walls.

 

Duke Malco stood atop the battlements adorned with his plate armor and wielding a mighty two-handed sword, Halazuel. So heavy was it that he only need drop it on the men about to peak their heads over the ramparts to split their helmets in two. His men cheered him on as he roared defiantly with every man he sent flying back to the ground. His howls and litany of crude insults reinforced the name de guerre, the Midnight Wolf. Malco completed the image with a mane of savagely disheveled night colored hair and cloak of wold pelts. A pair of fury filled hazel eyes stabbed into the hearts of his opponents. He kept the visor of his helm lifted and his men could spot him from a mile away due to the wolf pelt cloak billowing behind him.

 

     “My lord” A knight with his arm in a sling shouted as he threw himself up the stairs to the rampart. “They're approaching with the ram again!”

 

Malco clicked his tongue as he surveyed the situation at the main gate.

 

     “Get all those with the back and knees for it onto chiseling out more stones.”

 

He turned his attention to a page who was busy collecting and dumping bundles of retrieved arrows like firewood at the feet of the archers positioned along the walls. They had already used up their own supplies rebutting the vicious onslaught on the second day.

 

     “Boy! Run down to the cellar and get me an update on those listening for sappers. I haven't heard from them since midnight!”

 

Count Aaron's coin cast a net that went far and wide. A great deal of expertise had concentrated itself on his quaint little fortress. Reports told of specialized climbing equipment with mountain men advisers and dwarven miners readying their tools at Mornurg.

 

     “Are you certain we shouldn't fall back to the keep?” One of Malco's knight's advised, his voice nearly drowned out by the melee.

 

The walls of the keep were much higher than those of the bailey. Malco's man eyed the steep and fortified motte and thought they could hold out there for far longer.

 

     “And give them a position on the hill? If we let them establish their camp on the first level, the keep wont hold for long!”

 

And while retreating to the keep would be easier to defend with so few men, the fact remained that there was very little room for the enemy to maneuver below the walls of the bailey. They could position their ladders and drag a ram up the path, but nothing like a tower. A gaggle of siege engines at the base of the hill were nearing completion too. There was the mustering yards on the first level and then there was the bottom of the hill. Furthermore, the path exhausted the men as they climbed the steps to join the battle. They fought tired and exhausted men while they fought in leisure.

 

Malco knew he had no other option than to prolong the siege. He could not outlast it. Nor could he defeat it. All were impossible. Sulunaerg, built centuries ago by his forefathers, was not designed to last like others. It served as a lookout. The true line of defense was the Brightwall on the horizon.

 

Count Aaron's men had seized it with a dirty ploy three days ago. Then he sacked it and drug out all of its supplies. Within it were aquifers for an inexhaustible well of clean water. There were also previsions for more than a year. Its armories had more than Yaleria could ever use within a decade. Aaron afforded the wages of another thousand men on the savings alone through that plunder.

 

The only hope for Malco was that Count Aaron's treachery violated Imperial law. His majesty the Emperor, nor any the nobles on his ruling council, would recognize this act of aggression. Malco need only hold onto the last fistful of soil he could until an Imperial edict reached them. A fleet of carrier pigeons had been let loose and the Count could not have hoped to stop them all. Once the message of distress got received an summons for the Count would soon follow. He'd be commanded to Perrsolis and face and face justice.

 

Yet Malco was not naive enough to think the Empire would protest if it were only Count Aaron alive when his envoys arrived. Such is the sad state the Empire was in. So long as Yaleria fulfilled its duty, the land remained alower priority than the multitude of blood feuds and civil war looming elsewhere. The Empire would care for little else than the Brightwall's integrity and its contents safely sealed away.

 

With that thought deeply entrenched in his mind, the Duke swung the mighty sword of his down once more. A mighty roar emptied his lungs as he cleaved the top off the sturdy hardwood ladder in twain. It lost its integrity and splintered into bits which sent the next men scaling it back to the hard rocky cliffside.

 

But Malco's bravado could not go unrewarded forever. A stray arrow pierced through the pauldron protecting his right shoulder. It sapped the strength from his arm and Halazuel's tip fell and dug into the stone. The force of the longbow arrow forced him to spin around completely. Only by keeping his feet firmly planted on the castle wall's scaffolding, the man's bulk was prevented from reeling out of control.

 

A scrum erupts as several of the Duke's loyal men shout in pain and rage and converge on the spot along the wall. They throw themselves to the front line where their liege had been before and desperately fight to drive off the emboldened mercenaries scaling the walls.

 

Malso protests and tries to shake the men off of him, so that he might rejoin the fight, but a torrent of blood has begun flowing down his arm and oozing out from between the chain links in his undercoat. Neither did he have the strength or control in his right arm to struggle. Three of his knights pulled the injured Duke inside the nearest tower. The three men tried to strip the armor off, but the flailing of the Duke prevented them from dressing his wound.

 

But as quickly as the knights had carried him inside, the men suddenly decided to leave all at once and return to the battle. Their quick departure managed to strike the furious Duke. That's when he noticed the sound of battle grew increasingly distant. A chill spread throughout his body and a primal terror filled his heart.

 

Your body is dying. That is what the Duke thought. His limbs grew numb and a hot pulsing pinched the nerves around the arrow wound. An artery must have been ruptured if he was fading out so fast and his vision became like that of a drunkard. He suffered through the sting as the hot poker sensation in his shoulder was suddenly replaced with an icy chill.

 

Terror gave way to bewilderment when he saw clouds of white puff forth in front of his face with every pained huff. His red blood had turned black and the sensation of pain turned quickly to a biting cold before it vanished altogether. Malco clawed at his right should with his left hand, but did not feel the arrow there at all.

 

     “Looking for this?” A woman's sensual voice cooed behind him.

 

The Duke's wide eyes swung to the voice's origin and he saw a pale woman sitting leisurely on a wooden crate behind him. She playfully kicked her feet while tumbling the arrow between her fingers. No, to call them her fingers would be a grave misunderstanding. She tumbled them over the knuckles of a large ethereal claw which wreathed her real petite and pearl white She grew quickly tired of the bloodstained arrow and incinerated it; her ghostly claws disintegrated and did not leave so much as ashes behind.

 

     “You—” Malco seethed.

 

A pair of blood red irises and eerily white pupils greeted Malco's furious glare.

 

     “The one and only. Hekati Fioina Hyria, Princess of Yaleria... At your service,” she said and sealed it with a seductress' smile.

 

     “Don't you dare sully this land with that odious claim of yours,” Malco spat.

 

His body convulsed as he tried to peel himself off the frostbit stone. A pain not unlike the bite of steel throbbed from his shoulder and cut the strength out from his knees.

 

     “My my,” Hyria said whilst coquettishly raising a hand to her cheek, “Don't go and try running around so soon. You'll need to give that would a few more minutes to heal.”

 

Malco was now privy to the painful sensation of frostbite seizing his wounded shoulder. It burned with all the same pain as moonshine poured into an open cut. Yet as time passed, the warm feeling of a spring thaw worked its magic to bring the shattered bone back together and cauterize the ripped muscle and flayed skin.

 

     Malco grit his teeth and bore the pain yet he could withhold his anger, “No one asked for your help, witch.”

 

     “I do not give help,” Hyria replied. “You make it sound as though I expect something in return. No. This is an act of love.”

 

Hyria raised the back of her hand to her forehead dramatically and leaned back in an exaggerated act of theater. Her whimsical voice was layered thin atop a stifled giggle. The good duke showcased the exact opposite. This time he forced himself back onto his feet, but a claw gripped his whole torso and slammed him back down onto the floor.

 

     “I said you'll need to give that wound a few minutes more,” Hyria commanded with a stern voice.

 

Her strength was unholy, the man could not fight back as she pinned him to the floor with one arm. Malco eyed Halazuel laying on the floor, but it was beyond his reach. Not that he had the strength to deal a fatal blow, even if the heirloom could cause the undead to experience pain they would otherwise remain oblivious to. Neither did he rage and curse, the man appeared as though this kind of exchange was not at all unfamiliar.

 

Hyria straddled the nobleman and locked her knees tightly against the plate and mail securely fastened to his sides. Her slender fingers were pressed firmly against the breastplate while the ghostly and monstrously sized claw shrouding it drove holes into the stone like rail spikes. Malco glared up at the woman with hate filled eyes, but he remained unflustered. A miraculous feat considering the woman's curves and seductive gaze.

 

     “I placed an enchantment on the entryway,” Hyria said as she drew circles on Malco's chest with her finger. “No one is going to wander in.”

 

     “Get off of me,” he said at last, his every word dripping with acidic venom.

 

     Hyria laughed, “I can read the mood. My love this day goes beyond this tender loving care.”

 

     “And when did your meddling ever do anything but cause me misery?”

 

Hyria's mirthful expression melted off her face.

 

     “I don't expect you to understand, but I do expect you will see it with your own eyes soon enough.”

 

     “You've had from my earliest memories to these which may be my last,” Malco said and flared his teeth in anger. “You've done nothing but haunt and torment me.”

 

     “And who was it that caught that young boy when he foolishly climbed the ramparts on his own?” Hyria replied with a hint of incredulity. “Who graced your mother with the luck to find the exact herbs needed to treat that boy's pox the very next year? Which specter watched him grow and kept him safe from the wolves on his boar hunts?”

 

     “... I'd have been married long ago.”

 

     “None so fine as me,” Hyria said with a smile.

 

There were rumors, whispered in confidence only where the walls had no ears, that Malco may have been a sodomite. All the young and nubile supplicants fled from the household with faces stricken white with fear and a bevy of poor excuses. Hyria had hounded Malco's love life with endless fits of jealously ever since he was a boy. Yet that paled in comparison to the core of the Duke's hatred of the wight.

 

     “And who couldn't be bothered to spare the lives of that boy's own parents? Who drove every woman from this castle in a fit of jealousy? Which specter was it that watched that boy's sister wither away and die without so much as lifting a finger?!”

 

Hyria's expression twisted with pain. A dark cloud had descended across her radiant full-moon smile. Stone crumbled as she pulled her claws free from the floor. She pulled herself free from the embrace and walked unsteadily toward the arrow-slit window. Malco watched the orange glow of dawn splash against her pale white skin. Under the moonlight it shone like a gem atop a pristine still-water lake. Forced to weather the sun, it made her look sickly and gaunt. The red glow which hid much power behind it waned and her eyes became gray with unnatural points of ivory white within.

 

     “Those were beyond my control,” Hyria said, joy vacant from her words.

 

     “Don't lie to me,” Malco said as he rose to his feet.

 

Strength returned to him and Hyria dared not intervene this time. The wound had already healed over and the frost left behind by the wight's magic had faded away. She did not stir as the Duke retrieved the two-handed sword off the floor. Yet despite the anger woven betwixt each word, the man did not raise it. Malco let the tip sit calmly against the floor as he lifted the hilt up to his waist.

 

     “Don't think of me as ignorant. You may see the future, but that doesn't make you are a god and I am not.”

 

     “Ignorant? No. But perhaps a fool if you understood that much. Nonetheless, you accepted that challenge all those years ago.”

 

Secured within the Duke's private chamber was a table with a chessboard. Its pieces waited in suspended animation for the game to continue. The time between each move had reached months at time, but the ivory and ebony pieces suffered the grinding oppression of time and caked layers of dust like the soldiers they were.

 

They represented a struggle between the two. A duel in a stalemate as a battle waged beyond the safety of the tower's walls. Ivory embodied a man who prided himself on his martial prowess and keen tactical mind, both carved into him by his father and his father before him. A blood right which reached back over two thousand years. The ebony pieces represented the supernatural gift and guile of a soul which refused to depart. A woman who could see the future as clearly as ships traveling on the horizon or clouds as they billow and morph across the sky.

 

In the end, the activity spiraled toward futility. White was destined to lose. Black wanted nothing more than to win. The game's wager was for the loser to fulfill the one wish of the victor. One wished for the other to banish themselves, never to return. Another wished for acceptance.

 

     “You think our lives are ruled over by fate and everything is determined. I aimed to prove you wrong,” Malco said defiantly.

 

     “I find it amusing to hear that from a man who claims that it is by blood that men should rule,” retorted. “If only you had been more forthcoming with your true feelings. Did you truly need to wait until the end to confide in me?”

 

Malco pursed his lips together and glared back at the undead princess with nigh murderous eyes.

 

     “Did I not mention it before? Seeing the future and changing it are separate endeavors. Yes, I saw the death of your parents. I also witnessed the day of your grandfather's death, in the comfort of his bed, months before it came to pass. So too did I dream of his father before him; the mortal wound he would receive in a tournament. Could I have changed either? Can one change the course of a river by dropping a boulder large enough in its path? No, the river's flow will not be so easily stopped... This was also true of your sister.”

 

     “Liar!” Malco roared.

 

     “She was born weak and sickly. The poor girl was never meant to last. Beautiful, but transient.”

 

     “Lies!” Malco screamed and his hand on the hilt of his sword twitched.

 

     “Had I told you of it, you may have nursed her, but do you think the Count, her future husband, would have heeded my council?”

 

Malco nearly bit his tongue as he reeled back.

 

     “Would those final moments with that man have been better than when they were spent with you instead?”

 

Malco's rage wavered as his eyes sunk to the ground between his feet. The grip on his sword slackened and the tension in his sword arm relaxed completely.

 

     “A game of chess is a closed system with restrictive rules. There is a near infinite yet limited actions one may take. Foreseeing the one you take is child's play. In life there are so many possibilities, so much choice and free will, that altering one event can have disastrous consequences or be in vain to affect an ultimate outcome.”

 

     “Then why are you even here?” Malco's meek voice asked.

 

     “To do what I can. Choosing another outcome this day is beyond me. I despaired for years of this day. Knowing it would come to pass. You too knew it would as well. Yet you did not have the proof nor justification to stop the Count before he was ready to strike. Neither did he fall to any of your traps... But I have put into motion another actor.”

 

Hyria turned and faced Malco. Her somber expression melted and gave way to a somber smile.

 

     “Something in the fortunes changed. What seemed certain this day was suddenly thrown into chaos. An unexpected variable revealed itself. Nothing heralded its arrival. I could not have foreseen it. Nearly two months ago to this day, the man materialized as if from the aether itself.”

 

A shift in the shouting outside occurred. Battle cries, screams of pain, taunts and curses gave way to cheering. Malco's eyes twitched and his heart fluttered. They were voices he knew which had gathered into a chorus. Hyria extended her arm toward the door and invited the duke to go see what had occurred with his own eyes. He looked toward the doorway, but when he looked back toward the princess, she had already vanished.

 

When Malco stepped past the threshold, the spell which had subconsciously barred his fellows from intruding on himself and Hyria shattered. A knight errant stumbled toward him and grabbed hold of the Malco by the shoulders. He could not contain his excitement.

 

     “Sir! The Count's flag has been thrown from the Brightkeep gates!”

 

Malco was not sure how to begin processing that information. Neither could those currently assailing his castle's walls. His began celebrating and raising their weapons into the air. Taunts followed retreat of the Count's men. They were forced to withdraw and regroup back at the forward siege camp while being harried by a hail of arrows and slings.

 

Another lesser knight ran up to the duke and thrust a spyglass into his hands. Given the circumstances, the nobleman chose to ignore the uncouth act from a man of lower status. Through it he saw for himself his family colors flying on the horizon. The Count's banners had been tossed from the ramparts above the gatehouse of the Brightkeep.

 

A smolder of hope burned in the cockles of his heart. Without access to the Brightkeep, the count's logistics would be severely compromised. He would need to spread his forces thinner to forage and loot elsewhere. Such desperation and barbarity would leave him susceptible to his own nonlevied loyalists throughout Yaleria. That may buy the time necessary for an Imperial envoy to arrive.

 

He could never have known what else this turn of fortune would buy time for.

 

***

 

I thought days spent in the swamps of Yaleria would have deadened me to the scent of death, but I underestimated that fearful force of nature. Being immersed in the stench of rot left me ill prepared for the disturbing sensation of burnt flesh and hair which assaulted me. My body sat here paralyzed by fatigue, blood loss and fractured bone. I suppose I could be doing worse. My body coursing with lactic acid could be that black husk in front of me which had once been a man.

 

Vee stepped over the remains of Nerick as if it were nothing but a turd left in the middle of a park path. His face, the very definition of the uncanny valley, gleamed with a smile that simply didn't belong. A wide toothless crescent of the lips was slapped onto a face. It's so unremarkable that you'd be hard pressed to describe it properly to the best facial composite expert. I began to have my suspicions he may have somehow, for some reason, mutilated himself to achieve this very end.

 

I wouldn't put it beyond the typical fanfare of secret societies and nutbars.

 

The noontime sun began to shine through the stained glass windows above which painted the chrome dome of his with a kaleidoscope of colors. Everywhere else the true extent of the damage caused by Nerick and I's fight became apparent. Vee navigated the shattered remains and parked himself about eight meters away, the very limit of my currently strained comfort zone. He gave one very polite, deep and gracious bow.

 

     “Professor Vee at your service, Mr. Laven,” the white lab coat clad man said as he slowly raised his head.

 

     “A bit too hands on... for being a mere observer,” I muttered defiantly between coughing fits.

 

     “You are the experimental variable, good sir. Intervention was necessary. Although I will admit I underestimated the resiliency of our dearly departed friend, Mr. Nerick.”

 

     “Underestimated? When did you ever estimate—”

 

I stopped dead in my tracks as the realization hit me. My intuition leaped up and struck another blow right in the chest.

 

     “You son of a bitch,” I cursed through grinding teeth.

 

     “As quick on the uptake as I had hoped for,” Vee said with that sickening smile. “This gives me hope that our conversation will be both fruitful and expedient.”

 

     “You're the one who told Nerick to be here... But how? How could you have possibly known—”

 

     “A simple deduction with the correct data,” Vee said in a very matter of fact manner. “Allow me to elucidate. You've taken great pains to minimize your movement and activities since we last met, but you did leave behind one very important clue. After Prince Deron's demise, and shortly before I took on Count Aaron's contract, I was struck with an insatiable curiosity.”

 

And here I thought the man said he wanted to be brief. Now he began pacing back and forth in front of me. It's very irritating. It stung like hell to move my neck. Even my eyes felt sore.

 

     “ I returned to what you may say was 'the scene of the crime'. What I found in the ruins of my laboratory in the Prince's stronghold challenged every preconceived notion I've taken for granted in all my years of research.”

 

Vee stopped. He slowly turned his gaze back upon me and my stomach churned at the sight of a pair of fish wide eyes plastered above his smile.

 

     “I combed over the combat data of my Mk. V and could hardly believe my own eyes. Its power core had been torn free of its chest. What more, by your very own hands. Your very own bare hands.”

 

The Mk. V. My memory filled with visions of that Talos sized living suit of armor. That ten foot tall monstrosity that Chris and I battled with. Remembering that this man built that thing which was in a long series of things which has almost killed me of the past two months did not help my blood pressure which continued to elevate every passing second I had to look at the man.

 

     “I could not make sense of the numbers any other way —you— by your own hands came into contact with pure abyssal energy... And survived. After that, I knew I simply had to meet you once more.”

 

     “What do you mean by pure?” I asked.

 

     “A short lived state of all abyssal energy. Surely you saw the results of my experiments back in Domdracveria. The Mk. III's and IV's. I attempted to create an interface between the material and abyssal energy. A type of golem, if you will. Yet not long after completion and activation, the forms changed into that of shapely and beautiful women. They became living suits of armor. Inhabited by cursed and lustful ghosts. It took a great deal of effort to keep their consciousnesses subdued. We lost a few, and some of Deron's men, when they assaulted them. Had to put a dozen or so pairs down.”

 

My face scrunched up in anger at the very thought of what came out of his mouth. I had a personal grudge against the Prince since he nearly caved my chest in with a mace and threw me down some stairs, but what I just heard made my lingering hatred primal. That extended to Vee as well, the callousness of his words...

 

     “That, my good sir, is the intervention of the Monster Lord. She, the being who has nigh complete jurisdiction over abyssal energy. And such a licentious being has deigned for all abyssal energy to serve that single-minded purpose. I've spent nearly all my life studying it.”

 

     “And you want to control it for yourself,” I said.

 

     “Control? A poor choice of words. I do not doubt my various clients have been seduced by the idea, but I am merely a philosopher, and alchemist. I desire only to understand. To learn. After all, gods no longer walk among us. The closest to creation man will ever achieve shall be found in its sister.”

 

     “What the hell are you—”

 

     “Let there be light; and there was light. They saw that the light was good; and so the gods separated the light from the darkness. Well, my friend, the abyss is but another type of light. That the Monster Lord, given power over it, can create a world all her own should stand as a testament to that.”

 

A raving madman. It may be because of the pain, probably the anger mostly, but I couldn't make sense of anything he said.

 

     I could not hide my contempt when I barked back, “Friend? A little speech and running off in order to leave me with your machine of death hardly seems to be a first meeting.”

 

     “An unfortunate encounter. Purely business. I hope as a contractor yourself that you we can reconcile a professional reset in our relations.”

 

     “I doubt it.”

 

     “Doubt is healthy. It shows flexibility and room for inquiry and growth,” Vee said and show glinting teeth of an expanding smile.

 

Well, it seems I'll have to put aside sarcasm for remainder of this conversation.

 

     “I've been studying abyssal energy for three decades, ever since my apprenticeship under my old mentor. It has been an off and on project. For you see, it requires a substantial investment of resources and capital.”

 

     “And contractor work in making a good ol' war machine does better than the alternatives?” I quipped. “You talk about creation, and you've never made it past the destroying part.”

 

     “Precisely. It is not as theoretical or far reaching in utility as I would prefer, but men such as myself have little other recourse. Such are the times,” he sighed. “Oh, to be born too late for the golden age of the Empire, but live so far ahead of my times that I must struggle through the dark out of the Church's sight. A true man of natural philosophy lament.”

 

     “Yeah, what a shame. But that doesn't answer my question.”

 

Hmm, yes I suppose it does not,” Vee's smile faded away, thankfully, as he descended deep into pensive thought. “I should correct my earlier statement, however. It's not through you, or the data you left behind. Rather, it was one of your companions.”

 

My heart thumped violently in my chest. My train of thought was obliterated and the contents thrown up into the air to settle back down where they please. In what pattern? Vee would soon elucidate.

 

     “In the Royal Libraries of Zern, the dust had been disturbed. Certain indexes accessed. You and your companions accessed those hallowed grounds as part of your fee for assisting the Violetta loyalists during their civil war. Very peculiar, the selection was. Many were historical. Not too surprising for a being out of time and space. It would be a jarring change from the fourth age immediately into the sixth... But it was those documenting the archeological finds of The Third which interested me.”

 

Susan spent a little more than a week going through that library, that's true. A sense of relief washed over me that no one I knew, or cared about, ratted me out to this incarnation of autistic ghoulishness. That concern was replaced by the glaring oversight in our attempts to cover our tracks.

 

But those concerns did not press down on me as heavily as the confusion of talking about ages. He wasn't talking about how old those books were. Nor was he talking about the age of things which those books talked about.

 

     “Third age of what?”

 

     “The third age,” Vee said, complete with a tinge of disappointment that I had to ask a question to receive an answer he suspected was obvious. “Do you mean to tell me you don't know?”

 

Answering that honestly would put me in a bad spot. I was already on my ass, motionless and paralyzed. I didn't need to make that worse by undercutting myself in terms of status as it relates to knowledge. That would be giving up the last card I had.

 

     “A rhetorical question,” I replied with sweat pooling on my forehead.

 

Vee stared at me blankly, but blinked twice and continued as if he had never been interrupted at all.

 

     “An ancient temple complex long across the southern sea, behind the great white cliffs of Xerez and beyond countless leagues of jungle and marsh tributaries. Not since the late Karl Galowtiz's Great south exploration expedition five centuries prior has this place been recorded by man... For it is Amazonian territory now. Nothing short of an ultimately doomed crusade could reach its stone steps.”

 

Those were the pyramids which held the constellation maps. They were eerily exact, a perfect replica to the heavens back home. There was no way it could be a mere coincidence. But I couldn't begin to imagine what he found so interesting.

 

     “As impressive as they were, the mountains of stone were but foundations to something larger,” Vee made the claim with confidence. “A great tower. A mighty tower which scraped the sky. One of many. A Pillar of Babel.”

 

     “Babel? That Babel?” I gasped, then groaned as I forget myself after trying to stand up.

 

     “Not that Babel, nor the Babel... I see... Perhaps I got ahead of myself. Scriptures do describe Babel as a single structure. That old story serves little historic significance. The moral is more important to The Church of the Almighty, and within the shrines and temples belonging to a myriad of religions past and present. You are familiar with the story, are you not?” Vee asked with a cocked eyebrow.

 

There were similarities between this world and my own, and this one was but another. On one count it would be the lingua franca which was identical to English in vernacular. Yet it wrote itself similar to old Norse runes. Certain places looked as though they had shunted off from ones I've read about before... Now it seemed that scripture might be the same but I could not know for sure until I asked.

 

     “Mankind tries building a tower to heaven and is punished for it. The peoples of the world are shattered and begins the birth of nations,” I recanted the brief Sunday school summery.

 

     “Yes, that would be correct. Although, if you do not fear looking into past histories that many would wish were forgotten, the real story is much more stunning.”

 

     “And that's what Oroborus is about,” I said with stab in the dark.

 

Vee's eyes lit up again.

 

     “So you remember?”

 

     “I doubt this has to do with your little Free Brewers club.”

 

     “Alchemists haven't always been seen in a favorable light.”

 

     “Oroborous, the serpent eating its own tail.”

 

     “To symbolize the never ending quest for knowledge. An answer to one question inevitably leads to the asking of another. A self defeating and self perpetuating endeavor. We are few, but our disciplines are varied. We rarely meet in person, but we exchange knowledge freely. Invitation only, I'm afraid. And only at the cost of your name.”

 

Which would mean that Vee

 

     “Yes. Membership is restricted and limited. I am V. My old name is of little importance. All you need know is that names have a great magic all of their own. To sacrifice it, to put it in the hands of others, there is no greater gesture of devotion to the cause of Oroborous... And that rogue members can have that name recall... And destroyed in a ritual, no matter where they hide, in the most horrific ways. But that, among others, is a story for later. What you need to know for now is that uur world has seen six ages. At first there was chaos. All children know this. And at Genesis that chaos was split into the light, and the darkness. And thus began the first age, Eden: Garden of the Gods.”

 

Yes. This was beginning to get a bit disturbing. These similarities were getting to be bit much. They are too coincidental.

 

     “Next would be Canaan: Land of Gods and Men. But neither of those are of any importance,” Vee said dismissively.

 

I would have challenged him on how such auspiciously named eras of history would be brushed again, but he carried while I was busy coughing and swallowing another lung back down.

 

     “And thus came the third. With it came a force none at all like Gods or nature,” he paused and slowly leveled his eyes one me and waited for me to answer.

 

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and thought on it for a few seconds. There was only one thing which came to mind.

 

     “Magic.”

 

     “And so magic came to our world!” Vee nodded, pleased. “The Great Weaving. And lo, mankind was freed from the shackles of the gods. A higher force at their beck and call. A means to turn will into power. And on those hallowed grounds, where magic manifested itself the strongest in our world, the people of Canaan turned their backs on the gods. Babel rose as monuments to the power of man. And the gods could do not but watch.”

 

     “But not forever,” I muttered.

 

     “No,” Vee shook his head. “Have you ever heard how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? So too does it apply to Babel. Yet the siren call could not be ignored. Babel became so strong that it unleashed the Abyss upon this world. Destruction came from below as monsterkind crossed the threshold that Babel created. Demonkind soon followed and Mankind was nearly destroyed. Such came the fourth age. The Sundering. Mankind divided, into the nations and races that populated the world. Divided, so that they may never again create another Babel. Because that is what the gods demanded and only by intervention of the gods had man been spared... And after throwing themselves onto the abandoned altars they had spurned in favor of their own marvels after all the wonders they created, they cast it all aside in their time of need. In return for a single miracle. They left behind the ability to control the weather, provide infinite energy, let life take hold and make it grow... To gain insight into far off lands.”

 

My heart had been running a good ten beats per minute faster than normal. Now it started beating ten or fifteen beyond what was comfortable. I became aware of the taste of iron in my mouth. No doubt my eyes were bulging as my mouth was agape.

 

It couldn't be... Could it?

 

The strange sights of Yaleria came to mind. The Brightwall. That magic barrier separating a land of undeath. I held the key to this tower in my hands. A green crystal. To gain insight into far off lands, the constellations etched onto those notes from that faraway temple. A step beyond star gazing: gazing into alien skies... My minded wandered back North. At that giant gash in the earth. Let life take hold, he said. I remembered the river I dreamed of. There's that man I met there too. A kingdom which died when it lost its precious treasure... A blue gemstone...

 

Vee smiled wider and wider till it I could count every one of his teeth. An oppressive terror descended upon me. I began to feel that same primal fear when I caught sight of Vee back at the Count's ball.

 

     “I offer my sincere apologies that you experienced any inconvenience this day on my account. But the opportunity to study one mechanism of immense power. It was part of a system powerful enough to bring Abyssal energy to this material plane... Perhaps it is the key needed to tame it? Naught but a theory, but one which must be pursued. Until now there has been no other means to bring it about. I daresay it needn't have been this difficult. If only you were not so overcome with irrational reluctance.”

 

I shook my head and drove away the daze. His comment struck me right in the nerve and I could not help but lash out.

 

     “You tried to kill me!” I screamed, but sent myself into coughing fit

 

     “As I said, merely business. Prince Deron made that decision I personally had no desire in seeing Mk. V end your life. How about we start anew and let bygones be bygones. After all, you did destroy it. I wont bore nor shock you on that unit's cost...”

 

Vee took my coughing and pained silence afterward as consent. He seemed obvious to the hate filled stare I shot back at him.

 

     “In fact I could not be happier that you survived. I was overjoyed to see you in the flesh at the Count's ball... And when I heard of your meeting with the mystery lady after the ball... I absolutely knew this meeting had to be arranged... No matter the cost.”

 

     “That doesn't explain how you knew we'd be here! And—”

 

Wait. How did he know about that meeting?

 

Vee could see it on my face this time. He grinned and answered with a smirk.

 

     “The dead do not sleep and one can achieve much with the right assistance.”

 

That Frankenstein monster... I think he called her Patches. If it were undead like Hyria, then of course it wouldn't knock her out of commission as well.

 

     “You had Patches spy on us,” I hissed.

 

     “Correct. She told me what she heard... And about that crystal you exchanged,” he said pointing toward the bag sitting limp at my waist.

 

     “The Void crystal,” I said while I —in vain— put myself between Vee and the bag.

 

     “A key,” Vee claimed. “A very dangerous key.”

 

     “Null magic,” I said, reciting what had been mentioned to me earlier by Hyria and her lich.

 

     “Direct contact by anything, living or dead, would result in destruction. It is as much anti-existence as it is anti-magic. However, if someone could manage to insert it into a particularly powerful magic seal...”

 

     “It would be destroyed.”

 

     “And thereby unleash?”

 

He isn't suggesting?— He must be...

 

     “A Pillar,” I said with trembling lips.

 

Vee literally glowed with that creepy smile on his face.

 

     “Precisely... And that is why I had to insure you did not fail. You appear to me as some sort of aberration. An unexpected exception to a rule that prevails over all life... And undead... But at the same time I had to make sure you came alone. So I had Nerick and his Bannerman bar the way. Everything worked out as per my calculations. Barring Nerick being within this Throne room, that is. I suppose he was more lucid than I gave him credit for. He must have sensed I had an interest in this room and staked it out. A glaring oversight on my part

 

Vee returned to pacing once again.

 

     “An interesting specimen to be sure. All those years with a dependency on that weed and he had yet to go brain dead. Let alone use it to his advantage and perform great feats of strength... Oh, now I regret killing him. The things I could have learned from an autopsy... Oh well, such is life,” he said and shrugged away the heinous words and actions of his once again.

 

I could never hope to remain so blasé. My anger boiled and spiller over.

 

     “You risked the life of me, my friends, and all the others just so you could get us alone!?”

 

     “Man to man,” Vee responded apathetic to my fury. “Had any, god's forbid all, of your companions been here, why, my safety would be at peril. Patches is currently indisposed and I would not stand a chance.”

 

     “Says the man with bottled lightning!”

 

     “Had you not so thoroughly destroyed Nerick's body, I doubt my tether would have hit its mark. Had he been much better, I could foresee a significant risk of him dislodging the pins after impact, or shortly after the initialization... So do not sell yourself short on your contributions today, Mr. Laven.”

 

     “My job was to follow this through. You didn't need to butt in at all!”

 

     “But will you?”

 

Vee's expression threw me for a loop. He was genuinely posing that question. I stumbled over my own anger and clammed up.

 

     “I have my suspicions. Perhaps you will cease once you understand what is to transpire here. That is why I am here and here alone. I have meditated on this question all week. Every fiber of my being and every waking moment weighing the options and imagining the consequences... I have concluded that you must succeed.”

 

     “What the hell are you talking about?”

 

     “You, your friends, and all your allies will not survive should you fail.”

 

He's being sincere. I could read that on his face... No... The man's being sincere the whole time. It's that this one moment seemed heavier than all the others so far. He knew something else that he wasn't telling me.

 

     “Bannermen or no, come hell or high water, the girls and I along with the captured knights are going to hold this tower. When help arrives from the rest of the Brightwall, the Count's offensive will fail. It will become a stalemate. The Empire will catch wind of the aggression and—”

 

     “When the Count hears of these troubles, and how dire his situation is, the man will step in himself... I am sure he would have preferred to choose when and how he takes the stage, but as you saw at the ball, the man has a thing for theater... But let us not worry about that for now. We have work to do. And fear not for we shall have some time for us to discuss many things, so long as we begin now.”

 

I think I figured out what Vee insinuated. There's nothing else to do than ask him directly.

 

     “Vee... What contract were you working on with the Count?”

 

He smiled. It was a gentle smile unlike the other.

 

     “Why, the continuation of my last decade's work, of course.”

 

Yet that smile made me feel an even greater sense of dread.

 

     “The Mk. VI.”

 

***

 

Malco had returned to the wall and organized the defense atop the wall with his lieutenants. As the noon sun hung overhead, the air was tepid and humid. That made the path extra muddy for their enemies and would make the defense a much easier task till the weather changed to something drier.

 

Not that it's likely. They were in the marshlands of Yaleria after all.

 

Not that everything was looking up for the Duke and his loyal retainers. The Count had spared no expense hiring the best engineers money could muster. These professionals were not only good at their job, but quick. At the bottom of the hill were a trio of trebuchets which had been cobbled together from timber looted from the capital. More were being constructed. One saving grace was that they were so far down, and the wood too moist, that their range is limited. He and his men had dodged a few trial shots already. Luckily, the walls of Sulunaerg were thick. It would take weeks to make a serious breech.

 

Neither could they reach the keep its surrounding wall.

 

No one appeared to question how quickly Malco had recovered from his wound. His men thought it was perfectly in line with the kind of iron will they had come to expect of their liege. Each man shared a quiet and deep respect for the pain they thought he bared with to continue fighting for them. Their hearts would no doubt shatter if they learned the truth, but an avoidance of that lie would lead to their defeat and likely their deaths.

 

Upon the strike of twelve the assault began in earnest once more. The threat of falling boulders added another danger, but they held the high ground with highly motivated and skilled warriors. They would fight to the death, not till the bottom of their coin purses.

 

     “Ram at the gates!” One of the men atop the walls cried.

 

Malco left the men at the ramparts to drive away the ladders and grappling hooks and descended toward so he could aid in holding the line. Dozens of men were busy gathering up broken furniture and stones to prop up the gates. They put all their weight against it. It all buckled under the relentless thudding of the ram's head on the other side, but the door refused to splinter. Malco rushed into the fray and threw his shoulder into the mix

 

A stray thought of a certain someone who could help by freezing the gap between them with magic entered his mind, but he quickly banished it.

 

     “Duke!?” A knight above the gatehouse yelled nervously.

 

     “What now?” Malco screamed above the din of the door being bashed and other sounds of battle.

 

     “I got a bad feeling,” he shouted back down.

 

     “I got one in my shoulder! What of it?”

 

     “Someone its approaching alone. I've not seen these colors before. Nor any suit of armor like—”

 

His voice trailed off, but quickly rose back with a terrified screech.

 

     “Fire! Focus everything there!”

 

Malco remained blind to everything with the side of his place planted against the door, but he to felt something off. The hairs on his skin began to stand on end. An irritating grinding whine rung in his ears. Next he nearly went deaf along with the rest of his men when something hit the barricade especially hard. It struck two more times which threw some of his men backwards. On the third stike the door itself began to splinter. By the fourth it was too late. Many of his men at the gate tried to pull back, but caught in the explosion of wood and pulverized stone all the same. Malco got thrown from his feet and splinter shrapnel cut up his face.

 

He watched the gate fly away in the opposite direction. By the time he hit the ground and came to a stop, the Duke rolled about the ground about fifteen meters back from the gate. Others around him were knocked out cold or were trying in vain to get back on their feet like himself.

 

Emerging through the dust was a single entity. Over two meters tall and clad in a suit of armor made from pitch-black iron. Yet it's too smooth to be mere iron. It had the appearance of obsidian, but soles of its boots clanked like steel and its joints made the sound of clockwork. An incessant ticking and clacking of gears could be heard, even more so as it moved. It's overlapping plates were thick, imposing and sinister in appearance. A black knight taken straight from the bardic tales.

 

A bascinet crowned the armor's torso, but had no holes in spare the visor. Its contents were obscured by darkness. From that inky depth a single orb of red light quivered and crisscrossed from side to side of the visor's eye slit. Malco could feel it in his heart which nearly leaped out of its chest when it settled on him.

 

     “A shame we had to wait so long to meet again,” came a man's voice from with, complete with an inhuman metallic ring to it

 

Yet Malco recognized it immediately.

 

     “Count Aaron,” the duke spat while picking his mighty sword off the ground.

 

Even the Count's own men were hesitant about entering the breech which had been made. That did not stop Aaron. He slowly marched forward, unarmed, toward Malco. The Duke could hardly believe it, but the voice could belong to no one else. Yet he could not understand how the portly old man could have fit into such a lithe suit of armor so tall.

 

Aaron lifted his right gauntlet up and inspected it with great detail. He rotated it slowly at the wrist and flexed its fingers. From the knuckles smoke rose, but the metal remained unharmed. No dent. No scratches. All he had to do was shake off the dust and splinters. The whole while the mechanical whirls continued with each move of his body.

 

     “As I have always told you, boy. There's no obstacle insurmountable to gold and silver.”