Sunday, May 24, 2015
Last of the King's Men, Chapter 24
Marquis Fru’al hefted his pack from his horse as they dismounted, readying his staff and recalling a choice spell or two from the back of his memory in case trouble found them. They could all smell it by now- a waft of burnt flesh, coming from around the next bend. Tarrow directed them all to advance on foot, signaling their steeds to find safe cover off the side of the path.
They took up standard formation, Fru’al walking in the center with Artemis to his left, Grash to his right, and Tarrow and Sanna in front and behind. All of them were on guard- Fru’al didn’t know what to expect, or even whether this had anything to do with their current quest or not. But as they came around another rocky hill, they saw it- what was once a covered wagon, overturned, mostly blackened with char, still smoking. Two burnt and mutilated horses, their seared flesh covered in hungry flies, lay in front of the wreckage amidst scattered piles of shattered pottery. Somewhere within the mage knew were the bodies of the wagon’s owners.
Tarrow gave a quick hand signal to approach with weapons ready. They spread out slowly, and Fru’al could tell that Sanna was focusing on the hills around them, watching for an impending attack. Grash and Artemis got close enough to the burnt hulk to get a better view while Tarrow squatted down to investigate some of the broken wares surrounding the carriage. Grash pushed aside a couple blackened boards wedged into the ground, and Fru’al heard Artemis groan. The exhausted young man, his face white as a sheet, covered his mouth with a hand, stumbled away from the wreckage, and promptly vomited onto the grass. The old sage, seeing the bodies what appeared to be a human family, shook his head sadly, saying a quiet prayer to the Ebony Raven.
Tarrow, ignoring Artemis’ sudden bout of nausea, gave a sharp, shrill whistle and pointed with his falchion towards a portion of the rear of the vehicle that had remained mostly undamaged. The trystborn kicked a burnt barrel out of the way, and behind it was a visible trap door, likely where a lockbox or precious valuables would have been kept. Everyone stood still, and a muffled whimper could be heard behind the door.
Sanna caught Sir Tarrow’s eye, who nodded. She inched towards the door, and with a swift arc of her foot, the trapdoor swung open and out tumbled a child. He screamed in terror and scrambled to his feet, bracing his back against the upturned floor of the carriage. In his hand, he held a knife- no, not a knife, a jagged shard of a broken plate- and through the boy’s dirty blonde hair Fru’al could see his blue eyes were bloodshot. Tears streamed down his face, and his filthy clothes were matted with dirt and blood.
The aged Marquis stepped forward, gestured for Tarrow to lower his weapon, motioned for everyone else to step back, and knelt down in front of the child.
“Don’t worry. We’re here to help.”
When Fru’al looked at this boy, he didn’t see the child standing in front of him; he saw his grandchildren, each and every one, slaughtered because of his own actions. He had spent night after night since then, wondering if the path he had set himself on would ever redeem himself from the bloodshed he and his companions had caused. He felt his own eyes growing wet as this broken, battered child stood before him, ready to attack after losing his own family. Whether anyone realized it or not, they were all kin.
The boy’s grip on his makeshift weapon tightened, and he feverishly glanced back and forth between all of the knights before him. His mouth quivered, and after they had all put away their weapons, he spoke.
“Th-they… they killed them… all of them…” he croaked.
Fru’al nodded, dropping his staff, his arms opening up in a gesture of welcome.
“They’re dead…” he repeated. “They’re all dead… THEY ARE ALL DEAD!”
With his last cry he dropped the shard from his hand and collapsed into the Marquis’ open arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
They split up, did a quick perimeter of the area, including onto the nearby hills and a short distance into the forest, and returned with no sightings. Fru’al had comforted the boy, who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, until he was ready to talk, and gathered the Horselords to listen.
“My name… m-my name is Kefir,” the boy began, his voice still wavering. “My family… my… my family and I were… looking for a new home. We heard there was a town up ahead where we might live in safety.”
The knights all looked at each other painfully. They knew that feeling; each of them knew it well. And what made the pain even worse, Fru’al realized, was the knowledge that this boy and his family had gotten so close to safety. So close, yet so far.
“Tell me,” said the wizened sage, taking a deep breath. “Tell me who did this. Tell me what happened, Kefir.”
Fru’al watched as Kefir tried to turn back to look at the wreckage of his family’s carriage, their bodies, and everything they owned, but he couldn’t. The tears poured down as his face as he recanted, “Orcs. Orcs came at us from every direction. There was nothing we could do. They… they killed everyone. My f-father… he… he told me to hide in the floor… he told me not to open it for anyone…”
Fru’al’s face was ashen. “How long were you in there, Kefir?”
The boy sobbed for a few moments, and then shook his head. “I d-don’t know,” he cried. “It felt like forever. But… I remember it was almost sunrise when they came.” He contorted his face into a terrified frown. “They left… chanting something.”
Everyone’s eyes shot open.
“Tell me what they were chanting, Kefir,” said Fru’al.
Kefir began to cry once more, and then he spoke. “Adar Kinosh,” he said, looking as if the words physically pained him to say.
Fru’al insisted that Kefir ride with him as they mounted their steeds. As little as any of them wanted to bring along a civilian to wherever it was they were going, the attack must have happened early that morning- there simply wasn’t time if they wanted to catch up. Sanna easily found the tracks leading to and from the site, and in no time the Horselords were racing along, following the footprints as they left the path and journeyed into the forest.
It wasn’t long before they reached a steep incline, where a rocky outcropping above hid the entrance to a cave. The Horselords once again dismounted, and Tarrow gave the steeds the trained signal to leave for Kellonville if the knights hadn’t returned in an hour. The knights began to ascend the mountain, weapons drawn, ready for anything.
As the cave entrance came into view, Fru’al could see the young Kefir was trembling. The sage tried to comfort him, but the knights watched as two orcs wandered out of the opening, and the boy let out a yelp which he immediately tried to stifle. But the damage was done- the two orcs spotted the Horselords, and called out for reinforcements.
Sanna let loose with two arrows, striking true only moments too late. The first two went down as the arrows buried themselves in their chests, but four more came running out from inside the hideout. Fru’al watched as Artemis and Grash rushed forward to meet them, Artemis knocking one down to the ground and Grash splitting its chest open with his axe. Fru’al, holding Kefir behind him with one hand, raised his staff to the sky. He brought one of his daily spells to the front of his mind, envisioning the last few lines of text from his spellbook floating in the air in front of him. With his staff, he stirred up the word fragments, forming them into a glowing ball of light. He then swung the staff in a wide arc, and the glowing nimbus split apart into three pieces, each rocketing towards one of the orcs, exploding on impact. Tarrow and Artemis, in unison, stabbed two of the orcs struck by the magic missiles, and they collapsed onto the hillside.
The remaining orc turned and ran, but another of Sanna’s arrows found its mark before it could cross the threshold. It fell, its neck impaled, into a crumpled heap near its brethren. Before anyone could relax, the edhel walked around to each and every orc and, drawing her dagger from its sheath, she stabbed each one straight through the heart.
Fru’al placed a hand on Kefir’s shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to see that, son,” said the old man. “But it had to be done.”
Kefir looked up at him, his blue eyes piercing straight through Fru’al.
“Good,” he said, completely expressionless.
Satisfied that the orcs were all dead, Sanna returned her bow to her hands and led the group into the mouth of the cave. Tarrow motioned for everyone to follow. Fru’al knew, of course, that the noise would likely have attracted the attention of the cave’s inhabitants- he ran through his memory for spells that might aid in their defense. Unfortunately, he had prepared his spells this morning primarily for gathering information and coercing unwilling individuals into parting with secrets- so any combat aid he was going to be able to provide would be minimal. But if nothing else, he would protect this poor boy Kefir.
After a short walk into the darkness of the cave, lit by Fru’al’s conjured floating lanterns, they came to a wide open room, completely empty, save for a thick layer or white dust on the floor. From their vantage point, they were unable to see the opposite end of the room without a better light source. They stood at the entrance to the room, peering around for an unseen attacker, waiting in perfect silence.
Nothing. Nothing happened, nobody charged in to attack, nobody raised an alarm. Everyone looked at each other, and then back to the empty room. Fru’al was certainly disconcerted by the lack of attention, and felt it unlikely that this wasn’t some sort of a trap. An illusion, perhaps? Or is it possible that the orcs were guarding an empty cave?
They slowly walked into the room, keeping standard formation, except Fru’al and Kefir remained in the back, and Sanna took up center.
“Careful, men,” said Tarrow, prodding into the air with his sword as he stepped out into the room, pausing after each step. “Watch out for a-“
His words were cut short, however, when a tall humanoid figure arose instantly out of the dust on the ground, wrapping its tendril-like arms around the trystborn. Tarrow lost grip on his sword, and where it landed, more tendrils formed out of the dust and grabbed onto it.
Fru’al watched Artemis and Grash rush to either side of Tarrow, taking careful blows against the dust-creature, trying not to hit their ally. Sanna readied a shot, but with Tarrow struggling against the figure, she wasn’t able to get a clear target. The dust creature’s grip slackened on the trystborn with each blow against it- however, as Artemis and Grash stood attacking, Fru’al could see the dust on the ground creeping up their legs, getting ready to bind them.
The mage aimed his staff, loosing another volley of bolts of energy at the tendrils forming on the floor. It may not have done much damage, but the explosions at their feet got the message across- don’t stand in still.
Tarrow managed to break free of the dust creature’s grasp, and rolled across the floor, wrenching his falchion from the tentacles hungrily lapping at his feet. With her ally now out of the way, Sanna let loose two arrows, which pierced straight through the dust creature’s form. It crumbled back to dust- whether from Sanna’s assault or not, Fru’al wasn’t sure, because it formed once again right behind the trystborn, who spun around and slashed through it with his wide blade. Artemis and Grash danced around it, trading blow after blow. With each slash of Grash’s axe, there was a burst of radiant energy, which seemed to be especially effective. Several times it crumbled; each time it reformed, ready to grab anyone who stood in one place.
Fru’al, having a sudden moment of clarity, realized a spell that could prove invaluable. He ushered Kefir out of the way of the entrance, held closely to his staff, and envisioned once again the last few lines from the spell’s incantation. He imagined himself flying, outside in the sky, high above the surface of the world. He felt himself being pulled, from every direction, and channeled downward here, into this cave. He was suddenly rushing at breakneck speed through the corridor, until he collided with his own body, at which point he regained control of his senses. The gust of wind continued, blowing with gale force through the room, sweeping all of the dust away and beating it against the wall, leaving it all in a neat pile opposite the entrance.
As everyone was catching their breath, Artemis asked, “What was that thing?”
Fru’al knelt down near the dust, peering at it under the light of one of his lanterns. Kefir watched over his shoulder, silent.
“I don’t know what attacked you,” he said, scooping up a tiny portion of it and depositing it into an empty pouch. “But this powder is bonemeal. Powdered bones. The real questions are, ‘what could turn bones into such fine powder, and where did that many bones come from’.”
Now that they could move about the room, Sanna pointed out another hallway leading deeper into the cave. As the Horselords tried to take a moment to rest, they all heard a loud scream- a woman’s scream, a scream of pain- coming from further in. Without missing a beat, they ran.
They came to a tall set of wooden double-doors, reinforced with steel. Grash and Artemis ran headlong into it, ramming their shoulders into the thick timbers, but it didn’t give.
“It’s barred,” said the draconian, readying his huge axe. He swung in a powerful overhead strike, and the axe buried itself in the wooden barrier. The logs split and splintered, but the door remained whole. Artemis and Tarrow both gripped their weapons, ready to speed up the process.
“Stand aside,” said Fru’al, gathering his thoughts for the perfect spell for the occasion. He had prepared this spell in case it was necessary to break into Fondin Dermar’s home- luckily, it had not been necessary. But now, it was perfect.
Fru’al held his staff tightly, once again feeling the remnants of an incantation leaving his mind. As he began to cast the spell, he could see pinpoints in the air- the magic the suffuses all things, which he attuned himself to when he became a wizard so many years ago- and he could see the connections between each pinpoint, connecting all things living and unliving. By feeling through the door, he could see that the other side was blocked by a giant wooden beam. With this spell, he could force the door to open itself. Then again, if he pushed just a bit harder… and if he added a small amount of illusion to go with it…
There was a loud “click” sound, and the double doors exploded outward, leaving a cloud of smoke in their wake.
The knights charged into the room. Beyond the smoke stood almost a dozen draconians. And behind them, lying on the stone floor, was an extremely pregnant human girl writhing in pain.
Fru’al could tell that she was deep in the throes of labor. And if Oakenspring’s story was to be believed, this woman would die- as had her mother, and grandmother, and so on- after birthing a daughter, who would go on to do the same.
The biggest and meanest-looking of the draconians, a tall white-scaled specimen wielding an axe almost as large and cruel as himself, pointed a clawed hand at the Horselords during their brief moment of assessing the situation.
“Halt, intruders,” he bellowed in a heavily-accented Common tongue. “Move one step closer and the girl dies.”
Fru’al watched the brute’s face as he spoke, however- his eyes were quivering. He was terrified. The mage didn’t think he was terrified of them, but rather…
He slowly lowered one hand, and made a quick gesture he hoped none of the kidnappers would notice. He watched as small ethereal words left his mind and floated towards Tarrow and Grash, where the words burst in a silent puff of smoke.
“He doesn’t want the girl to die,” Fru’al said through his magical message. “We have to help her.”
Tarrow hesitated, but Grash dropped his axe to the ground, where it landed with a loud clang. Artemis, picking up on the cue, dropped his sword as well, his shield still strapped to his arm. Sanna tossed her bow in with the lot, and the three of them stepped forward, hands raised. Tarrow remained back, his sword still drawn, but he lowered the blade slightly.
“We only care about the girl’s safety,” said Grash in his native tongue. “She will die without medical aid. Please, let us tend to her.”
Fru’al then noticed that behind the white-scaled leader floated a diminutive, orange-skinned creature, resembling a tiny misshapen human with wings, who appeared to be whispering into the draconian’s ear. At the winged creature’s insistence, the draconian, an uneasy look in his eyes, nodded- at which point the tiny being vanished. He barked an order to his men, and they parted- at which point Fru’al realized one of them was a young blue-scaled individual with a large bloody field dressing on his left arm.
Grash, Artemis and Sanna walked at an even pace across the room, between the two groups of draconians, and knelt down with the girl. Fru’al could hear Grash giving commands to Artemis and Sanna, and Tarrow backed up and whispered to the Marquis.
“I don’t like this, Fru’al. I don’t like this one bit. I sincerely hope you know what you’re doing.”
Fru’al simply nodded. He glanced down at Kefir, who was still hiding behind the aged wizard, but he seemed mesmerized by what was happening across the room.
Grash was yelling. Fru’al could hear him speaking to his goddess Detroia, in between giving orders to his two companions. Artemis looked like he was going to be sick again. Sanna carried out Grash’s orders diligently without a word.
The draconians all stood and watched, growing more and more restless by the minute. Every now and then, Fru’al would catch a glimpse of the orange winged creature. Its appearance brought tiny flashes of memory- passages from ancient texts- but in the moment the sage couldn’t quite place what it was or where he had heard of it. He would certainly need to consult his deity for guidance once this was all over.
There was more yelling- some Grash, some Artemis, some the draconian leader. Tarrow paced back and forth, not wanting to get closer to the mob of restless enemies, and not wanting to abandon his allies. He kept readjusting the grip on his wide blade, his hands undoubtedly getting tired.
And then, above all of the yelling, there was one more piercing shriek from the woman, and everyone went quiet. Then, another sound- a sound which, to his surprise, made Fru’al’s eyes begin to water with nostalgia: The sound of a newborn baby crying for the first time. Without realizing what he was doing, he rushed forward to see it- Grash held up the child, covered in blood, wrapped up in the lining of Artemis’ cloak. Fru’al felt himself back in Eodon, with his wife on the day of his son’s birth, and every birth in the family since. His heart felt tight with the pangs of regret once again.
But then he came back to the present and realized something- the child Grash held was a boy, not a girl. Fru’al watched as he went to close the dead mother’s eyes, when he paused. His eyes opened wide, and he gently handed the child to Sanna, who took it without expression.
Grash placed a hand on Sibyla’s chest, and spoke a prayer to his goddess. His hand began to glow, and the glow transferred to her body, where it spread and dissipated. Her chest began to rise and fall- she was alive. Critical, but alive.
Fru’al watched as the draconians began to close the gap between them, blocking Grash, Artemis, Sanna, and Sibyla into the corner.
“Very good,” said the white-scaled leader. “You have proven useful. Now hand over the babe or you shall be killed.”
“Over my dead body,” shouted Grash, and he belched a gout of flame at the encroaching mob. It engulfed the leader, but the flames merely left his scales blackened. He hefted his axe with both hands, and prepared to swing.
One draconian stepped in the way. “No, Trask,” he said, holding up a blue-scaled hand against the leader’s chest. “I won’t let you. I… I can’t let you do this!”
Trask, his grip still on the brutal axe, turned his eyes to the blue-scale. “Vrell, how dare you! When I let you join the Scaled Fist, you knew what you were getting yourself into. You came to me, and now you claim power over me? The Dark One will feast on your soul when I am done with you!”
He swung his large weapon down, but before he could connect, Vrell tackled him, knocking him to the ground. The rest of the draconians, finally snapping to attention, raised their weapons and advanced.
Fru’al gripped his staff, bringing forth a few spells from his mind. It was now or never, and he wasn’t going to need the rest of his utility spells for the day, so he mentally tore the incantations apart and re-formed them into something more destructive. They would be at reduced power, but at least it was something. He watched as the words floated from the page in his mind, and caught fire in front of his eyes. He swung his staff through the blaze, and a ball of flame rocketed into the group of draconians- he spoke a silent prayer to his goddess to watch over Vrell, who was caught in the middle- and the flames exploded, knocking some of the assailants back.
Tarrow charged forward, skewering one of the draconians through the back. He yelled over the crowd, “Sanna! Get the baby to safety!”
One draconian, however, holding a long two-handed sword, charged at her. Artemis, however, stepped in the way, knocking the sword blow back with his shield. Sanna, holding the baby still, vanished, and reappeared behind Fru’al.
“Keep the baby safe,” the Marquis told her. “That’s an order.” Hearing this, Sanna nodded, and took off running out of the room.
Artemis put all of his weight behind his shield and ran headlong into the mob in front of him, keeping his center of gravity low. He knocked several of the draconians backwards, but then he retreated back to Sibyla, refusing to leave the woman’s side.
Fru’al, preoccupied with what was happening, realized a moment too late that Kefir was no longer behind him- he was, in fact, grabbing Grash’s axe from the ground.
“Grash,” he yelled, heaving the axe with surprising strength and accuracy. “Catch!”
The red-scaled Horselord caught the axe in mid-air, and used it to immediately chop down an advancing draconian. Kefir grabbed Artemis’ shield and tossed it as well, right into Artemis’ open palm.
But Fru’al could tell Artemis and Grash were getting winded. One blow against Artemis’ shield almost knocked him down, and each slash of his sword seemed to have less force behind it than the one before. Grash stood stalwartly in front of the unconscious Sibyla, but his red blood was seeping out from between the plates of his armor. Tarrow narrow avoided getting his head severed by a rogue sword slash, but in doing so fell directly on top of Vrell and Trask, who were biting and clawing at each other. Trask threw both of them off, opened his mouth, and unleashed a blast of freezing air at the two of them, blowing Tarrow’s Falchion out of his hands.
Artemis collided with the tall white brute, knocking him back. In retribution, Trask grabbed an axe from a nearby draconian and brought it against Artemis with full force. Doing so knocked his shield out of the way, and the force behind it knocked Artemis to the ground.
Tarrow caught him, however, and while Trask was reeling from the swing, Vrell, covered in frost, brought his own axe against Trask’s chest. Blood poured through the cracks in his scaly hide, and the white draconian fell to his knees.
Grash cut down two more of his kin, leaving only Vrell, who was on his knees clutching at the gaping wound on his chest, and one other- a green-scale who had been burnt badly by Fru’al’s fireball.
For the briefest of moments, Fru’al saw the tiny orange creature appear once more near Trask’s shoulder. It whispered something to him, and then disappeared- as if he were never there. The Marquis could see Trask’s expression change- first anger, then suddenly immense fear. He began to cough up blood, and Vrell stepped up in front of him.
“I regret ever joining you, Trask,” said the blue-scaled draconian. “I hope the gods have mercy on you… and me.”
With that, he opened his mouth, and a blast of lightning engulfed the white-scaled leader, who fell flat, dead.
Grash and Artemis rushed to Sibyla’s side. The only remaining draconian fell to his knees, holding his hands up in a sign of surrender. Tarrow walked up to him, his falchion in his hands, pointed at the man’s chest.
Fru’al formed some incantations in his mind, and sent a silent message back through the hallway towards the cave entrance, hoping it could find Sanna to let her know of their victory. He noticed Kefir, his face red and tears streaming down his still-dirty face, was slowly pacing towards the surrendering draconian.
“Please,” the green-scale said, “have mercy. I… I will tell you everything! I’ve been with Trask from the beginning- I will tell you everything I know, please don’t kill me!”
Kefir’s hands were balled into fists. Fru’al could sense something, an energy, coming from the boy.
Tarrow moved his blade a bit closer to the draconian’s chest, poking him just a bit harder than was necessary. “Then start talking. Tell me who the ‘Dark One’ is. Your life depends on it.”
The green-scale, his hands still in a position of complete surrender, nodded and gulped. “Yes. My… my name is Bernne. The Dark One, he- he was-“
It was Kefir. He was standing just a few paces now from Bernne, his hands clenching so tightly Fru’al could see them bleeding.
“YOU MURDERED MY FAMILY! YOU… YOU KILLED THEM ALL!”
Bernne tried to shake his head, to protest. Tarrow’s grip on his blade slackened slightly.
Fru’al could see energy, like black lightning, coming from the child’s fists- the energy in the air was palpable.
“YOU WILL GET NO MERCY! I WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!”
Fru’al tried to speak. “Kefir, wait-“
Bernne tried to scramble to his feet, his look one of absolute terror. “No, y-you don’t understand, I-“
But his words were cut short. Kefir pointed his hands at the draconian, and a blast of crackling black energy struck him square in the chest, leaving a hole the size of a man’s fist. Bernne’s lifeless body hit the ground.
All of the Horselords looked at each other. Kefir fell to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. After a few moments, Fru’al moved to comfort him.