Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 30

Artemis Redsleeves’ mouth hung open, his eyes transfixed on the boy in the doorway.

No, he thought. It can’t be.

“You seem surprised,” the boy said with a smirk. “This form was useful, you could say. I’ll bet you couldn’t resist aiding some… poor defenseless victim of wanton violence, could you?” He had pantomimed waving his childish arms in a gesture of helplessness, and then laughed audibly. “You foolish heroes are so easily manipulated.”

Grash was shaking his head, his grip loosening on his axe. “But,” he began, a look of disbelief on his draconic face, “you’re just a child. How could you-“

“Oh,” he interrupted. “Yes, this form served its purpose. Perhaps you would like a different one?”

His body grew dark, like a cloud passing in front of the sun, and suddenly in his place stood Grash, in his ceremonial robes, his tiny spectacles sitting on the end of his snout.

“H-how…” Grash stammered.

But Artemis watched the Grash standing in the doorway, who smirked again, speaking in a perfect recreation of the Horselord’s voice. “Maybe this one.”

Once again darkness passed over him, and he was now Fru’al, stroking his long grey beard. “Or maybe this.” Then he was Sanna striking a seductive pose, and then Sir Tarrow. “As I said, it doesn’t take much to fool ones such as yourselves.”

Artemis’ hands were shaking. His breath was coming in shallow, his eyes twitching. The horror that rebirthed the orc scourge- the monster who had kidnapped Sibyla and who killed Vrell and somehow allowed the dead to walk upon the earth- was beside him all this time, watching them and learning their secrets?

HOW DARE YOU,” Artemis heard himself screaming, his sword pointed across the pit. “I… we… I TRUSTED YOU!

He dug his feet into the ground, preparing to launch himself across the pit, when suddenly, Sir Tarrow threw himself first, landing gracefully on the other side of the pit, his falchion raised with both hands.


He brought his falchion down as he screamed, but the mirror-image of himself vanished, and Sir Tarrow’s blade struck the floor, cleaving a deep rend into the stone surface. His head jerked up, and Artemis could see through the doorway a squad of orcs, weapons at the ready, waiting for this moment. They began to charge, roaring in their guttural tongue, at the trystborn standing in the doorway.

Two of Sanna’s arrows flew past Sir Tarrow’s head, planting themselves firmly into the chests of two of the charging orcs, but only slowed them down. Artemis and Grash both ran and jumped across the gap, Artemis rolling as he landed. With his shield arm, he pushed Sir Tarrow out of the way of the opening, where he stumbled slightly, his face a visage of utter disappointment at what he had just learned.

Artemis tried to move into the doorway to meet the first wave of orcs, but before he could, he saw for a moment in the corner of his eye the Dark One, still in Sir Tarrow’s form, with his hands outstretched. Artemis barely had time to raise his shield as a bolt of crackling black eldritch force came at him.

His shield did nothing- the energy passed through his shield like it were nothing, and the darkness struck his chest, burning him at his very core and causing his entire body to go limp. He tried to raise his shield at the orcs descending upon him, but the pain was too great.

Grash, however, jumped into the way, swinging his axe in a wide arc, slicing clean through the first of the orcs. The second caught his axe on its shield, and the third stabbed with a jagged blade, piercing straight through a gap in the plates of his armor. Grash let out a howl, and Artemis could see blood pouring down his side as the orc pulled the blade out, causing more damage to Grash’s flesh in the process.

“Grash, move! Sanna, Fru’al, FIRE!” Sir Tarrow pulled the draconian Paladin out of the doorway, pausing for a moment to let two more arrows and one of Fru’al’s fireballs to streak past him, taking down one of the orcs and setting another two alight. Sir Tarrow stepped in front of Grash, standing on top of one of the fallen orcs. “We have to create an opening! Artemis, get off the floor, already!”

Artemis could still feel the pain coursing through his body, his arms and legs aching like they did when Sir Tarrow first taught him to fight. But he pulled himself to his feet, and, his shield held out front, he charged into the space next to Sir Tarrow, stabbing through the orc that had injured Grash.

Grash held a hand to his side, and over the noise Artemis heard a prayer to his goddess. Two orcs swung their axes at the trystborn and the squire, but Artemis deflected one with his shield and stopped the other by stabbing its wielder in the stomach.

He saw the Dark One raise its hands again, its mouth twisted in a cruel grin, and let loose another arc of black lightning. Artemis dodged backwards to avoid it, but it wasn’t meant for him- it missed with a wide berth, and instead struck Sir Tarrow in the side, causing him to scream in pain. One of his arms went limp, and he narrowly avoided a blow from an orc by deflecting one-handed with his blade.

Suddenly, Sanna was standing on the other side of the orcs, having Stepped, as she called it, to the other side. She fired arrows at the Dark One, but he himself disappeared once again, immediately materializing behind the edhel, striking her with another blast of darkness at point-blank range.

Between parries, Artemis saw the force of the blast knock her backwards against a wooden door on the other side of the room, and he heard Grash scream in anger. The draconian pushed his way between him and the still-weakened Sir Tarrow, his axe glowing brighter than the sun, cleaving straight through another orc. He then charged through the crowd, getting stabbed by two swords in the process.

But he had made an opening.

“Go, Artemis,” called Sir Tarrow, trying desperately to avoid getting killed while his arm hung lifelessly at his side. “Forget about me!”

Artemis looked at him for the briefest of moments, trying to decide what to do, and taking his master’s advice, he rammed his shield into one of the orcs, knocking him back, and waded into the opening Grash had made. Blows came at him from every direction, he could feel his body shaking with fear and adrenaline, but he had to get to the Dark One. He took some blunt blows to the back, his shield got a deep gouge in it from a double-handed axe, and he stabbed one more orc through the chest, but-

He turned back for an instant, and saw one orc slam his axe into the trystborn, as hard as he could, knocking Sir Tarrow’s falchion out of his hand. A second blow hit him square in the side, lifting him off his feet and sending him flying backwards through the door where he landed, unmoving, at the edge of the pit.

Artemis stared in horror as one of the orcs, seeing its opportunity, advanced on him, ready to cleave Sir Tarrow’s body in two. Artemis pushed back the rest of the orcs surrounding him, and charged, stabbing straight through the brute’s neck. Its last breath gurgled before him, and with a swift kick from his boot, Artemis pulled his sword from the creature, and sent its body toppling over Sir Tarrow’s into the pit.

Across the gap, Fru’al was on his knees, holding his staff in front of him. “I am sorry, Artemis,” he said, shaking his head. “I have only one spell remaining. I can only-“

“Just do it,” said Artemis said, cutting him off. “Sir Tarrow is still breathing. Watch over him while I-“

A thrown axe struck Artemis in the back, slicing through the scales of his armor and almost knocking him into the pit. Keeping his balance, he spun around, raised his shield, and stabbed its user through the chest, dropping him to the ground. Only two more orcs, and the Dark One, remained.

Artemis heard Grash screaming. He swung his massive axe, still glowing with the holy rage of Detroia, at the Dark One, but with each swing the Sir Tarrow-doppelganger would simply vanish and reappear somewhere else.

YOU WILL PAY FOR YOUR SINS,” screamed Grash, who swung like Artemis had never seen him swing. He cleaved straight through the space the Dark One had just occupied, his axe burying itself deep into the stone, stuck fast.

The Dark One, now standing a mere two paces to the side, grinned, his hands outstretched. He blasted the draconian Paladin, who stumbled back, his body wrapped with black energy. As he stumbled, one of the few remaining orcs charged, its sword piercing straight through Grash’s heart.

Artemis screamed, watching as Grash fell to his knees, and then to the floor. Artemis ran at the orc, his shield out ahead, his blade a wide arc of steel separating the orc’s head from its body. Its body fell beside the draconian’s, two pools of blood forming under them.

YOU… I WILL KILL YOU!” Artemis charged at the Dark One, tensing the muscles in his arm to ready for a strike. The last orc tried to step in the way, but two arrows flew from across the room and planted themselves in the orc’s face, dropping it to the ground.

Sanna, bracing herself against the floor with her bow in hand still beside the closed wooden door, had blood dripping from her eyes, nose, and mouth. She had two more arrows in her hand in an instant.

We can do this, thought Artemis. Sanna and me. Just him. We can finish this. I have to finish this.

He slashed at the Dark One, who vanished and appeared just a few paces away, that ridiculous grin still on his disguised face. With barely a muscle moved, he threw another blast of eldritch darkness into Artemis Redsleeves, knocking him to his knees.

The pain was indescribable. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t feel anything but pain. Within an instant he could see again, but his vision was blurry.

I cannot fail, he thought. I cannot fail.

He fought against the pain and pulled himself to his feet. The Dark One, still grinning, shook his head and raised his hands to fire once more.

The tiniest of movement came from Sanna’s face- a nod. She fired her two arrows, which the Dark One avoided by vanishing.

Anticipating his arrival, Artemis stabbed into thin air.

Suddenly, the Dark One reappeared, Artemis’ sword stabbing straight through his stomach. For the briefest of moments, his image waivered, and he was no longer Sir Tarrow, but a different man, dressed in a long black robe, his features distorted by Artemis’ blurred vision. Artemis twisted the sword as he pulled it out, causing a gout of blood from the Dark One’s stomach and mouth.

Without a word, the Dark One vanished again, materializing behind Sanna. He kicked the back of her head hard with his foot, and grabbed the wooden door, pulling it open and throwing himself through it, closing the door behind him.

Artemis, his entire body still numb but for the pain, his hands and legs shaking, chased after him. Time slowed as the blurry door got closer and closer and closer with each excruciating step.

I cannot fail.

He saw himself brace his shield against his shoulder. He readied himself for the impact, his sword arm tight and ready to strike.

I cannot fail.

His weight collided with the door, sending wooden boards and splinters in every direction. Pain shot through his body, from his shoulder, from his feet on the floor, from his fingers gripping his sword.

I cannot fail.

The Dark One stood against the wall, his hands extended.

I cannot fail.

Artemis swung his sword. A flash of darkness.

I cannot

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