Chapter 1-6 | Chapter 7-11 | Chapter 12-14 | Chapter 15-17 | Chapter 18-22
Ezra stepped into Ena's room. Its mistress lay still upon the only bed; her skin stretched taut in pain and fear was the only sign to argue her corpse like appearance. Marquay stood to the right of her bed, the prized ruby wand still glowing in his hand. Ezra knew he couldn't beat Marquay's magic, strained though it currently was; he had to outsmart him. He hadn't worked out the details of how to do that yet but surely he could come up with something. He hoped. "I'm surprised that Ena is willing to go so far, sacrifice her own life, to ensure the invasion," Ezra's words were as much a question as a statement.
"Actually," explained Marquay, "she wanted to run. She would have had us abandon our cause while on the cusp of victory. You know, I believe I'd rather face a dozen Imperial Grand Mages on my own than stand against them while allied with a mage who lacked the courage of her convictions." Marquay's assessment of Ena's faults dripped with disdain.
"So you decided to kill her slowly. Drain her very life to power your spell,' accused Ezra.
"There's a slim chance she might live, if Chaos favors her. Besides I gave her ample opportunity to provide as alternate plan. Alas, she was not up to the challenge." Marquay's mocking pity was made worse by the way he gently caressed Ena's pale, tear stained cheek.
"And if she does die," demanded Ezra, "what will fuel your spell then?"
"Well, there's always Garvey, Neal and Quillon." Marquay suggested his three other subordinate mages. "But I'm sure Ena will hold out long enough to provide entrance for most of the invasion force. Then it will be time for me to plan the next phase of the war," said Marquay conversationally.
"Next phase?" Ezra walked further into the room. But stopped at the foot of Ena's bed when Marquay lifted his wand warningly.
"The invasion has begun, but grand as Tsvala's army is it won't be enough to crush the combined Imperial forces. We're looking at months if not years of bloody warfare before the Ward Wall is brought down." Marquay smiled charismatically. "We still have a lot of work to do, Ezra."
"We?" asked Ezra. "Did you forget that I'm an Imperial spy? It's my job to hinder, not help you."
"A job you only took out of some misguided attempt to find a pittance of justice for your father's undeserved death." Marquay saw the tiny new flecks of Chaos fire flare in Ezra's eyes. He smiled, certain that the bait he was about to reveal would be too much for Ezra to resist. "But I can give you more than the Lord of Shadows can. Unlike the Empire, I actually know who murdered your father. It's been a good number of years and many have passed on from one cause or another. But I know for certain two of his executioners still live. You could reap true justice for your father, not this shallow imitation you currently pursue. Would you like me to tell you their names?"
Ezra had to swallow past his suddenly dry throat before he could speak, "And what blood price will you demand of me for this information?"
Marquay's smile grew larger, "I ask nothing of you Ezra." One eyebrow lifted. "Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I ask you to do nothing. It's too late to stop the invasion. Soon half of Tsvala's army will be through the breech. If you try to attack me directly my magic will end you before you get more than a few feet. Don't needlessly throw your life away for an Empire that sees you as little more than a pawn in its bid for domination. Just wait quietly while I finish my spell and I'll give you the identities of your father's murderers. Then we can go our separate ways, neither of us worse off than now." Marquay reveled in the silence that followed. He watched a dozen emotions struggle for control of Ezra. And as each second passed without sarcastic repartee, Marquay became more certain he'd managed to plant a seed of Chaos within Ezra's soul. Ezra turned away, his whole body tensing with its internal struggle. Then stillness overtook him and when he turned back to Marquay, the look on Ezra's face could only be described as calm defeat. Marquay did not even bother to hold back his chuckle of victory.
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Locke struggled to gain his footing after being knocked from Emerald Stallion's back. The green horse was already twenty feet away doing its best to stomp the two Hobs that had shown the unusual courage to charge them with spears. Locke didn't bother to call the stallion back. Three Storm demons had already surrounded him, and the song of clashing metal played in earnest. A well-placed volley of arrows killed one of his opponents and gave Locke a bit of breathing room. Locke made a quick mental note to thank his cousin Kit for the assist later. He severed the artery of his second assailant just in time to watch the third fall beneath Tyrchon's mythic blade.
Chancing a quick assessing glance across the battlefield Locke saw several contingents of Storm demons and another dozen Flame demons enter the rift in the Ward Wall. "We need to reseal that rift. What is the best way to disrupt their spell?" It was times like this that Locke really wished he understood magic better.
"Killing the mages won't be enough. They've already formed and cast the rending spell. The most effective way to slam the portal shut would be to eliminate the blood sacrifice." The Sunbird mage, Keith, motioned to the right where snug against the glass cliff laid a bound and bleeding assortment of creatures that made up the demons' share of the blood sacrifice.
Locke suppressed the revulsion that came with seeing so many majestic beasts struggle against a slow draining death. Though he bore no love for Chaos there were some agonies he'd wish on no enemy. Many had already gone hopelessly still but a few continued to battle with fate. Like the chained Shadow demon that, upon seeing the Lancers, let loose a defiant lion's roar.
"We have a lot of ground to cover before we can do any damage to the mages or their sacrifice," Tyrchon pointed out. "And this cliff ledge is about to get a lot more crowded."
It was then Locke noticed the group of Storms herding several dozen Hobs towards the embattled Lancers, the same Hobs that had fled from his advance just moments before. The few Hobs that tried lagging to the rear or avoiding the Imperials were efficiently beat and stabbed by their Storm minders. The poor mongrels where being forced to fight or die. And Locke was all too aware that few things were more dangerous then a trapped animal. Then again the same could be said for Locke's warriors. "Stand ready for the charge!" ordered Locke. "Remember, we fight today not for the glory of the Empire, but for the lives of our families, our children." The image of Locke's fiancée, Marija, hovered in his mind. "That's why we will not fail!"
The Lancers responded with a deafening howl. Tyrchon stepped to the front of the line, swinging his blade with easy skill, chuckling as the Hobs before him paled and began to gibber in fear. Locke recognized that by stepping to the fore of the battle, Tyrchon was committing not only his weapon but also its blessed curse. Seeing Locke's worried look, Tyrchon gave a snarling grin. "You said yourself, 'we will not fail!' My sword, Restraint, would not dare contradict Lachlan, of the Lancers." Locke could give no response because it was then that the wave of stinking, shrieking Hob flesh attacked.
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Buck watched Chris and Vin until they traveled beyond sight, ducking down the same passage as Ezra. The relief he felt seeing them cross the enemy Plaza unharmed was overshadowed be the possibility he might never see them alive again. His stand at the top of the stairs gave him a great view of the now continuous march of Hob and Storm demons. The parade of Chaos spawn flowed to the south end of the Plaza where they broke into smaller groups and followed their Black Church guides down various tunnels. Buck had long since lost count of how many hundreds of demons had passed through the cavern. Even the Storm demon War Queen had abandoned the Plaza to wreak havoc elsewhere within the unsuspecting Empire, though she'd be at least somewhat hampered by the nasty wound to her right breast, delivered there just moments before by Buck's arrow.
Buck had been forced to exchange his bow for his sword immediately after, as a good number of Churchers tried to charge the narrow stairs and overtake their position on the ledge. Buck controlled the high ground and he used that advantage to ruthlessly eviscerate anyone that challenged the reach of his blade. But Buck was very aware that it was only a matter of time before his sword strokes lost their strength. JD would run out of arrows and Nathan and Josiah's spells would eventually drain all of their energies. They'd chosen a fight from which there would be neither retreat nor surrender. While Buck continued to slash through opponents with bleak determination, the relentless flow of demons eroded the small hope that they could still save the Empire from the horrors of Chaos.
JD launched a steady barrage of arrows. His quick movements nourished by the surge of adrenalin pulsing through his veins.
Nathan, by contrast, was almost calm as he alternated between throwing his daggers and lending energy to Josiah. It was a dangerous gambit, sacrificing his own magical resources to bolster Josiah's.
That Josiah didn't protest Nathan's actions was an ominous indication of just how precarious their situation had become. Josiah continued to attack sparingly, firing blasts at the mages while a small corner of his mind tracked the Ruby wand. He knew it was still close by. Ever since he'd first touched it with his magic, trying to pull it from Marquay's grasp, Josiah continued to hold a tenuous link to the wand. It was a strange mix of unknown and familiar which floated at the edge of his consciousness like a not quite recognized memory. Josiah could even feel the spells that Marquay was casting though the wand. Which would be a great advantage if the wand could be captured and he could undo Marquay's evil. Then Josiah felt something too familiar too familiar and too precious. Ezra. Marquay was using the wand to weave an unobtrusive blend of concealment and communication magic to cloud Ezra's judgment. "No!" Josiah overwhelmed his fragile link to the wand with a razor sharp focus aimed right at Ezra. Even as he prayed his young friend was not already lost.
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The first thing to grab Chris's attention was how quiet it was in the mage tunnel. A melee involving hundreds continued just a yard away, yet barely a whisper of its chaos entered the passage.
Next to him, Vin motioned to the second door down the hall. It hung half-open, revealing a bit of warm candlelight. Vin moved first, edging along the wall, taking great care to make a silent approach. Chris did his best to follow suit. When Vin halted beside the doorframe, Chris considered that perhaps some of Vin's stealthy skills were rubbing off on him. But no, it was more likely there was some enchantment that kept the corridor nearly silent. Vin tapped his ear and then jerked his head once towards the glow of the inner room.
Listening Chris quickly identified Ezra's voice. Which was good. It meant Ezra might actually be around long enough to have some sense beaten into him by Chris with likely assists from Buck, Vin and possibly Josiah. JD probably wouldn't join in, while Nathan would wait for the clean up. He had a habit of making his healing spells downright painful when someone had 'vexed' him. He claimed others were less likely to take foolish chances if they remembered the hurts that went with them.
Chris was willing to assume the other male voice was Marquay's. There was something so arrogant and grandiose about his tone that it immediately set Chris's jaw to clinch. Identifying what the two voices were saying seemed a much more challenging task. It appeared that whatever magic had aided their quiet approach also hindered their erstwhile eavesdropping. Should have known the noiseless approach wasn't his doing. Chris couldn't see much past Vin, just the foot of a bed and about half of Ezra's back. He strained again to decipher what was being said.
"Unlike the Empire, I actually know who murdered your father," appealed the voice.
Well shit, thought Chris, Marquay sure knew how to tempt a person. Chris didn't know much about Ezra's past. But it wasn't hard to image how many laws Chris would break, values he would sacrifice to have Sarah and Adam's killers in his grasp. To look the cowards in the eye as he dispensed justice or vengeance at his whim. The genius of Marquay's offer was that he wasn't even asking Ezra to break any laws. At worst his lack of action would be viewed as a dereliction of duty. It might cost him his job but little else. Such a small compromise to see ones family avenged. The silence following Marquay's overture grew oppressive. Chris wished he could see Ezra's face because his whole body seemed to sway with indecision.
Then Ezra turned as if in answer to Chris's thoughts. His face was a painful jumble of conflicting emotions. And his cloudy eyes . . . Son of a bitch! His cloudy eyes gave clear indication that Marquay was working a spell on Ezra. Probably something really subtle, just enough to make a bad choice seem like a good one. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut for a second as though trying to blink away his disorientation. Chris couldn't claim to know much about such spells. But as he understood it this type of magic corrupted one's mind, and even when overcome, they left behind a taint that could be later exploited. Chris settled a hand on Vin's shoulder. Their eyes met and an understanding was reached. They weren't going to let what was happening to Ezra continue.
Ezra's body stiffened, and the clouds in his eyes were replaced with sudden clarity. For three slow breaths Ezra stared at his companions in the hall. His eyes slowly slid to the bed and then back to Chris. Okay, Ezra had a plan. He didn't know what it was but Chris nodded his willingness to back Ezra's play. Then Ezra's hands signaled:
Chris hoped Ezra wasn't expecting the rest of the Seven to show up because if so they were in a load of trouble.
No. That was definitely a countdown. Ezra was letting them know when he was going to make his move.
Ezra remade his face into a mask of desolation, and then turned back to the sorcerer.
Vin lifted his bow and arrow, ready to fire in an instant.
Chris hefted his sword and shifted his weight, ready to do his own impression of 'the last charge of the Valiant Lancers'.
The softest hint of Marquay's triumphant chuckle murmured to the corridor.
Marquay had stopped speaking but Ezra was still hearing his words. "I actually know who murdered your father . . . reap true justice . . . I ask nothing of you . . . do nothing." The words were like a song in his head that refused to be forgotten. Marquay's eyes bore into Ezra's, as if to convince Ezra with his will alone.
Ezra wasn't entirely sure why he hadn't refused Marquay's offer outright. He couldn't seriously be thinking of going along with Marquay's plan. Could he? Then again what was the alternative: to die uselessly for a doomed Empire? Wait a moment, why was he thinking the Empire was doomed? This battle was far from decided. Marquay's continued stare seemed to surround Ezra like an oppressive haze. Why couldn't he think straight? He'd been so sure earlier that he'd be able to concoct a plan on the spur of the moment. A way to defeat Marquay, reclaim Josiah's wand and somehow not get hurt in the process. Where was his vaunted quick thinking now?
Ezra turned away from Marquay unable to bear the weight of his gaze any longer. It didn't help. He could feel those eyes on his back, raising the hairs on his neck. Trusting Marquay wasn't an option. Look what had happened to Ena, even now her body was trembling in agony. Marquay might be lying, there was no way to guarantee Ezra would be able to avenge his father. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and tried to force his thoughts into order. Think Ezra, before your inactions start costing lives, including your own.
No! The thought entered Ezra's mind carried by the familiar voice he had trusted as a child. Ignore Marquay's words. Your will is stronger than his. You can defeat him. Josiah's voice lifted the dark cloud that had encumbered his thoughts. Ezra found himself looking into the eyes of Chris and Vin, standing tense in the hallway just beyond Marquay's sight. And from the obvious worry on their faces, they'd been there more than a second or too.
In fact the two looked ready to charge into the room and attack Marquay, his magic be damned. There had to be something Ezra could do. Some way he could distract Marquay so his guard would be down. Of course! Ena!
Ezra signaled with his eyes. Chris's responding nod indicated that he was willing to follow Ezra's lead. Ezra started a silent countdown and forced his face into an image of surrender. The thought that he was likely sacrificing his last chance at giving justice to his father's memory brought an easy slump to his shoulders. He moved up the bed on the opposite side from Marquay, and Marquay didn't warn him back this time.
Ezra caressed Ena's cheek in an imitation of Marquay's earlier actions. Ena's eyes sought his pleadingly, though he honestly couldn't tell if she sought rescue or release. In the end it didn't matter what Ena wanted. Ezra knew what he needed to do. "Please, Marquay." Ezra was surprised by how weak and broken his voice sounded. He didn't bother to suppress the shudder that came with Marquay's careless laughter. Instead he let his fingers trail gently down the prone woman's slender neck.
"Please what?" insisted Marquay. The need to hear Ezra beg for his favors overwhelmed the sorcerer.
Ezra looked up, meeting Marquay's eyes for the first time since he'd regained his mental faculties. But he didn't respond to Marquay's demand. Instead he flicked his wrist and triggered the arm rig that launched a small dagger into his hand. With a quick jerking thrust he severed the flow of blood to Ena's brain. The odd mixture of anger and fear on Marquay's face might have been amusing if Ezra hadn't known what would follow.
"Betrayer!" Marquay bellowed. The glowing wand swung in his direction.
Ezra didn't know what spell he was hit with. He just knew that he was across the room in a crumpled heap, kept upright only by the wall. Every tissue in his body screamed in agony and it seemed that his lungs no longer worked. But his eyes did. And with them he saw Chris's bloody blade slice through the flank of a shocked Marquay. A smile flitted across Ezra's lips. Perhaps his death wouldn't be meaningless after all.
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JD had long since lost track of how many arrows he'd fired, how many monsters he'd killed. Because that's what they were, monsters. It didn't matter if they were Storm demons, Humans, Hobs, Elves, or Dwarves. They all wanted to destroy his home, his way of life and that made them monsters. JD watched his arrow catch in the throat of a Storm before reaching back for another. It took him several seconds of fruitless grasping before he realized his quiver was empty. JD shook his head in disgust knowing he should have been keeping a running count of his arrows. At least he still had the arrows Vin had left. But he couldn't help but wonder if they'd be enough. Despite all of the killing that had already occurred the enemies' numbers just kept growing. Josiah's attempts to seal the rift had produced nothing more than a bit of flashing light. The enemy mages had stayed well under cover since their first attack.
A sudden flash of red near the cauldron pulled JD's gaze. A split second later howls of pain filled the chamber. JD located the source to be several Hobs writhing on the ground with various limbs missing. It took JD a moment to realize that it was the Ward Wall that had produced their injuries. The rift still existed, but where it had opened over three large tunnels, now only one still granted access. And it fluctuated first shrinking and then dilating like a pupil in changing light. JD looked to Josiah for an explanation.
Josiah met JD's mystified look with a sparkling grin. "It looks like our boys have destroyed Marquay's major power source for the spell."
"Any chance they destroyed Marquay along with it?" asked Nathan hopefully.
Before Josiah could answer three serpent like strands of red light shot out of the cauldron, attaching themselves to the now panicking Black Church mages. "I doubt Marquay is dead yet. And even if he is, it's clear he had a backup plan if his spells primary source was interrupted. On the up side those Black Churchers are no longer in a position to avoid our attacks." Josiah couldn't be more right. The dark mages were prisoners to the strands, looking just like puppets held aloft by their strings.
"What if we kill the mages and the strands just find another source of power, like you or me?" Nathan was afraid that the wrong course of action now would only make matters worse.
"We don't have a choice," Josiah insisted. "The spell is already using their energies to again widen the rift. The second tunnel on the left was already open, allowing the influx of demons to start again. The third tunnel on the right was also starting to open. Looking at JD Josiah ordered, "Take aim, Son. If ever there was a time to shoot straight and true, this is it."
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Watching Ezra fly across the room and slam roughly into the wall made a single thought crystallize in Vin's mind: That had to hurt. He hoped Ezra's actions were worth the price he was paying.
Chris was already on top of Marquay, slamming him hard into the small stand next to the bed. With Marquay so off balance it was easy for Chris to score a hit in the side. But Marquay recovered quickly, spelling a bright blue magic shield about two feet across to block Chris's second blow. Vin hoped that meant Marquay was too weak and wounded to form the full body shield he'd employed earlier. Either way, Vin was going to hold back until he could take a clear shot with minimal risk of hitting Chris.
A twitch from the dying woman on the bed caught Vin's eye. He recognized her as the attractive Black Church mage that had been teaching Imperial magic to the two Storm demons and the allied Flame demon. It looked like her loyalties had turned on her. It was kind of pitiful the way she'd dedicated her life to a cause that saw her as nothing more than a power source, and a disposable one at that.
Stepping closer Vin noted the gruesome yet effective cut to her neck, which left a spreading stain of red on the blankets and mattress. He even saw the last flicker of life leave her milky Chaos eyes. Vin's lips sealed in a grim line. He'd say no words for this woman's passing. Her life's goal had been nothing less than to bring misery on others. Hopefully her death would help end the evil she'd wrought.
A quick glance at Ezra showed the spy still unconscious. A few feet away Marquay was clearly on the defensive. Blood was soaking the side of his cloak. And Chris was so persistently raining blows upon his shield that the mage had no time to focus an offensive spell. Chris shifted right as he looked for an opening in Marquay's defense. When Marquay moved to match him, Vin finally got the clear shot he'd been waiting for. But just as Vin released the string of his bow Marquay stepped back, letting the arrow sail inches from his nose. Marquay hurriedly tried to adjust his stance to accommodate two opponents.
"Was wondering when you planned to join the fight," commented Chris.
"Had to make sure the Churcher witch was dead first," explained Vin.
"Sounds like your big rending spell just lost its main source of juice," Chris taunted. Chris acknowledged that Marquay was physically fit for one of his age, and he obviously knew a lot about defensive fighting. But, he lacked the endurance of a trained warrior. Each move Marquay made was a little slower than the last. In a few more sword strokes Marquay's ability to block would fail.
"I've planned for every contingency," bragged Marquay. "By now my spell has already found others to draw its energy from." Marquay's boasts couldn't hide the way he was gasping for air.
"Not a problem," countered Chris, "we'll just kill them too." Chris grinned slyly as he stabbed his sword just beneath Marquay's shield to cut deep into his leg.
Marquay couldn't hold in his cry but he did manage to launch a blast spell. Unfortunately, the same spell that had earlier knocked Ezra across the room only made Chris and Vin stumble back a few feet. Marquay's personal energy reserves were almost depleted. Vin steadied himself and fired another arrow; this one was deflected enough by Marquay's cloak to only score a bit of flesh. As Vin reloaded his bow, Chris dove forward to continue their attack. Marquay knocked over the bed stand, forcing Chris to jump back to avoid having his legs knocked out from under him. Realizing he could no longer sustain the combat Marquay seized his last second of reprieve to aim the wand at Chris.
Vin fired his arrow and another scream was heard. Seconds later it was followed by the clatter of the ruby wand falling to the floor. Chris scrambled for the wand pulling it beyond the sorcerer's reach.
Marquay stood clutching his right hand, staring in shock at the arrow protruding from his palm. Looking over at Vin with hatred in his eyes he muttered, "Doras ealaithe."
Cursing himself for relenting his attack for even a second, Vin grasped for another arrow. A long oval portal appeared beside Marquay. Throwing a grim smile to the Chaos Riders before him, Marquay sidestepped into the portal. Vin's arrow chased the sorcerer through the magical gateway as it closed. But Vin doubted he'd done much damage.
"At least we got the wand before he vanished," said Chris, awkwardly holding the magic device.
A groan from the far wall reminded Chris and Vin there was still a third person in the room.
"Sounds like you're still alive, after all," noted Vin as he offered the spy a hand up.
"Alive?" wheezed Ezra. "I would bet emeralds I was on the fourth tier of the underworld." He wobbled on his feet before steadying himself.
"Let's get moving," marshaled Chris. "We can rest when our mission is done." With that he headed out the door, leaving the other two men to follow him.
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Locke struggled to contain his frustration at their lack of forward progress. His Lancers had lived up to their name, valiantly standing against the charging Hob swarm. It had cost them nearly a fifth of their number, but they'd held their ground. Unfortunately, the Storm warriors that had replaced the slaughtered Hobs surrendered only a dozen feet to the Lancers advance. The targeted mages and sacrifice were closer than before but still not close enough. And Kit had just passed word that a mass of demons was moving up from behind which would leave his Lancers flanked and without an escape route. The only small success he could claim was that they'd managed to limit the number of invading demons to about a thousand.
"We need to find a way to break this stalemate," Tyrchon gave voice to Locke's own thoughts.
"I'm open to suggestions." Every idea that Locke considered was eliminated by either a lack of warriors or a lack of supplies.
Tyrchon looked ready to speak, then turned his head toward the tunnels to Imperium. Half a dozen demons were writhing in pain. Still it took several seconds to realize the Ward Wall had injured them. The rift that had encompassed three large passages had shrunk until only one was still navigable by the demons.
"The rift is sealing," shouted Kayla to Locke's left. And cheers went up throughout the Lancers. Buoyed by the news, the Lancers began to beat back the shocked demons. Stealing foot after foot in a steady march forward.
Then just as suddenly the shrunken rift began to grow again. "It's found another power source," declared Keith, his voice a mixture of anger and defeat.
"What?" demanded Tyrchon.
"I felt the force powering the rift spell get suddenly cut off, probably by the Seven. When it began to grow again its . . . flavor had changed indicating . . ."
"A new force was powering the spell," finished Nagrendra, lashing a nearby demon with his reptilian tail. "We know the blood sacrifice," he pointed to the chained creatures, "is fueling this part of the rift spell. But destroying it will likely only shrink the rift by one-third. The power sources on both sides of the Ward Wall will have to be destroyed before the rift will seal."
"Shrinking it by one-third is better than nothing," decided Locke. "Are we close enough for you to start attacking with your magic?" Locke flinched beneath the pelting of marble sized hail from the Storm mages.
Nagrendra studied the battlefield critically. "With the help of my staff I can." He raised the diamond-capped instrument. "But the Storm mages will quickly move to block me."
"We'll keep the mages busy," assured Kit. The other archers took their cue from Kit and aimed at the magic wielding demons.
Nagrendra began to chant, his staff glowing with power. Next to him, Keith spelled a barrier that would hopefully protect Nagrendra from most attacks. It was an unintentional reminder to Nagrendra that Keith, as a third level mage, outranked him. Yet it wasn't just Nagrendra's powerful staff that caused Keith to defer to him. He had much more experience in Chaos than the young Sun Bird priest. In truth he knew he had grown beyond his rank two standing some time ago. He just hadn't taken the time to return to the City of Sorcerers and issue the challenge that would earn him a higher rank.
"Fire!" shouted Kit and a volley of arrows sailed high through the sky. The perfectly aimed missiles were blown awry just shy of their targets by a fierce cyclone. The still deadly weapons struck several nearby demons but left the mages untouched. Disappointed but not surprised by his results, Kit continued his commands. "Second ranks, fire! First ranks, fire when ready." Kit knew there was a limit to how long a mage could maintain a defensive spell. He just had to hope that they ran out of strength before he ran out of arrows.
Nagrendra released a deeply held breath and launched a giant fireball at the tortured creatures that made up the blood sacrifice. Not unlike Kit's attack, this one was unsuccessful. The fireball was absorbed by a shield that flickered for a few seconds beneath its attack. A quick calculation determined that Nagrendra would need to deliver four more direct hits before he could expect to get past the shield. Drawing another cleansing breath he focused his magic again, even as the battle raged around him.
Marquay stepped out of the portal to Chaos chased by the cursed archer's arrow. But it seemed Chaos was with him as it soared harmlessly over his shoulder to land in the dirt some distance away.
The mage stood on an empty plateau about a mile from the Glass Cliffs. He could hear a fair bit of noise from the battle since sound bounced easily off the glass valley. But a thick, hazy mix of dust and wind blocked his view, letting him see only the occasional flash of lightening or flame near the area of the Ward Wall rift.
The throbbing aches in his hand, leg and side drew his attention to more immediate concerns. A slow, limping shuffle moved him to a low shallow. He pulled a rock from his cloak with his uninjured hand and then awkwardly bent to fit the stone into a groove in the earth at his feet. After a moment a low rumble was heard and then the ground reshaped to form a stairwell leading down into the mesa.
Once Marquay was in his safe haven the entrance resealed to hide its existence. The large chamber held only a few basic furnishings. The main difference between this place and his room in the Black Church caverns were the cabinets containing food stores and the enormous bookcase holding books, potions and arcane artifacts.
Stopping at the bottom of the stairs, Marquay leaned back against the wall and steeled his resolve. Then he grabbed the feathered end of the arrow sticking out his hand and painfully snapped it off. A quick jerk removed the short end of the arrow from his palm. A rush of blood accompanied an intense burning sensation. Marquay used his cloak to try and stem the flow of blood as he stumbled over to the bookcase that dominated the room.
Taking a blue potion from one of the shelves he uncorked it and then downed the liquid in one swallow. If he thought the pain couldn't get any worse he immediately realized his mistake. Yet within seconds the bleeding in his hand, side and leg had stopped. Painful though it was, he could feel his muscles and flesh knitting back together.
Marquay let himself fall tiredly back upon his bed. Closing his eyes under the weight of his exhaustion, he took a moment to consider gains and losses of the last few hours. Overall, the discovery of the Black Church coven in the caverns was irrelevant. He'd drawn them together to prepare the way for the invasion. Now that the invasion had occurred they were superfluous. The wand on the other hand was a damaging loss. He seriously doubted another such powerful and versatile device existed in Chaos or the Empire. Then there was Ezra, son of Standish. Marquay had been so sure that his spell had been working, absolutely certain that he held the key to bending the young spy's mind. He didn't know what had caused the spell to fail, but Ezra remained a challenge he could not leave unanswered. He believed that he could yet see Ezra's will shatter beneath his own, just as reality had shattered beneath Chaos so many hundreds of years ago.
As for the invasion, Marquay was fairly certain that at least half of the Tsvala's army had made it through the rift. That meant about 1500 demons running free within the Empire. Even assuming that half were killed by the various Chaos Riders and Imperial forces alerted to their presence, that still left a gorilla army of several hundred. The Hobs were destructive but stupid and most likely would be easily hunted down. The Flame demons were so destructively high-profile that they were destined to become a prime target for local law looking to appease the populace. It would fall upon the Storm demons to sow the unrest Marquay so desired. It was why he'd arranged to have all the best guides lead the Storm groups. They would fight with intelligence, choosing the most vulnerable targets, slaying the unfit without mercy and then retreating into darkness to wait for their next kill. The Empire would not be easily rid of them.
There were still plans to organize, ways he could aid his fugitive allies as they made war with his enemy. But as lethargy grew within him, he decided to wait until tomorrow to devise such schemes. After such a satisfying day's work, he was ready for a well-deserved rest.
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JD took several seconds to be sure of his aim before releasing the string. The arrow aimed for the vulnerable lead mage instead struck a demon that ran before it. JD reached down to load another shot. There were six arrows left and he was determined to make each one count. JD silently aimed again and then fired Vin's arrow. Just the hint of a satisfied smile appeared when the arrow struck and killed his target.
The magical string of energy that had bound the mage, leaving him so vulnerable, was now disconnected and flailing about like an injured snake. Then the string wrapped around a Flame demon just as it ran through the rift. The rift fluctuated, a bit like before, but quickly stabilized.
"Josiah," called JD uncertain what to do next.
"I saw. It looks like you guessed right, Nathan. Marquay designed the spell to seek out its own power supply." Josiah contemplated a moment. "But perhaps I can misdirect the strands; weaken the spell by limiting its energy sources. JD, aim for the Flame demon."
JD did as he was told, glad that someone seemed to understand how this magic stuff worked. Another of Vin's arrows sailed across the cavern, burying itself deep in the chest of the demonic inferno.
When the strand uncoiled seeking more energy, Josiah cast his spell guiding it to a small four-armed Hob. This time when the rift stabilized it had shrunk a bit, cutting off half of one of the three tunnels. Josiah let out a small sigh of relief. Perhaps his earlier spells to seal the rift had failed but at least now he had a way to make it smaller. "JD let's take out that green shirted mage on the left next." Josiah instructed.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Nagrendra's nose was twitching from the stink of ozone, dirt and burned flesh. The shield guarding the demon's blood sacrifice was destroyed, as were many of the creatures bound within it.
The demon mages weren't faring much better. One of the Storm demons lay dead from Kit's continuous air attacks. The Flame mage had fled through the rift. This left the sole Storm demon mage fighting a losing battle against Sorcha and the half dozen Chaos Riders she had surrounding him.
"Kit," shouted Locke, "have your archers move to cover our rear. We'll deal with the rest of the demons here and secure the tunnel entrances." What had been hundreds of demons a few minutes ago were now less than fifty. But any pleasure Locke took from their successful advance was erased by the sight of countless demons running through the rift at top speed. Though he continued the press the fight forward, a small corner of his soul was praying to all things holy that the Chaos Riders left behind in Corners would be enough to protect at least some of the many innocents who unknowingly slept in Chaos's path.
A glimpse of white hair drew Locke's eyes to Tyrchon. The scout was raising his sword to deliver a mighty blow. The thunderous clang that followed dwarfed much of the battle noise. Locke sucked in a shocked breath when the Shadow demon at Tyrchon's feet, part of the captured blood sacrifice, rose to its clawed paws, free of chains. Tyrchon stepped back and seemed to be speaking to the Chademon. Locke couldn't hear him but he could see Tyrchon gesture to the Storm mage. The Shadow roared and launched itself at Sorcha's group.
"Sorcha, drop!" warned Tyrchon. Sorcha did so without hesitation, long used to heeding the warnings of her fellow warriors. The lion-like Shadow sailed over the Chaos Rider in a single leap, landing easily on the Storm mage to rip out his throat. "Get back, the rest of you!" The other Riders that had helped Sorcha corner the mage all backed off, letting the Shadow viciously gut the Storm. Finished with its kill the Shadow looked back at Tyrchon, snarled once and dipped its feline head in what Locke wanted to insist couldn't possibly be a bow. Then the Shadow turned and leapt straight up the cliff. It steadily clawed its way up, as though cats climbing glass walls was something that happened everyday. And perhaps, in Chaos, it did.
With the Chaos mages dead and the blood sacrifice destroyed or freed, the rift had shrunk again. It constricted first down to two tunnels and then after a few more seconds to only one, telling Locke that the Seven were pounding away at the problem from their side. He moved forward to help his comrades slay the last dozen demons that had failed to escape through the rift.
The precipice was theirs but Locke was sickened to realize the battle had dwindled his numbers to a mere twenty-five or so fighters. He struggled against the impulse to put names to the dead and dying. Instead he began to shout orders that would ensure the Lancers held the precipice as long as it took to seal the rift.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Under different circumstances, the incongruity of walking down a near silent hallway while viewing a tidal wave of Chaos in the cavern ahead might have intrigued Chris. However, his current circumstances dictated that he find a way to cross said cavern, a cavern hosting a legion of charging Storm, Hob and even Flame demons. His and Vin's earlier passage was a relaxing Sunday stroll compared to what they'd have to get through now.
"I suppose it was too much to assume that our fortunes were improving," Ezra commented dryly.
"Do you figure those stringy things are what Marquay meant about his spell finding new power?" asked Vin.
"Could be," replied Chris.
An arrow flew into view killing a Black Church mage bound to one of the magical strings. The string twisted about for several seconds before latching onto a Hob that began to squeal and squirm in distress.
"Good shot, JD," Vin murmured mostly to himself. Then he started grinning. "Give me that wand Chris, I've got an idea."
Having no plan of his own, Chris turned the wand over easily. But the doubts started quickly when he saw Vin try to line up the wand like an arrow on his bow.
"You can't seriously want to shoot the wand to Josiah," Ezra sputtered. "It's too heavy to cross even half that distance and not the least bit aerodynamic."
"Don't need it to go that far," Vin explained as he tested the wand's weight and tried to decide the best angle to fire it at. "Once it's in the air, Josiah can do that floaty thing that he tried earlier, and with no other mages to interfere he'll have it easy."
"That will only work if Josiah sees it coming," concluded Chris. "We need to get his attention first."
"Allow me," insisted Ezra. "If there's one thing I'm good at, it's drawing attention. If you would be so kind as to cover me." The last he directed at Chris since Vin would be occupied trying to launch his unlikely missile. Ezra readied his sword and stepped out of the quieted hallway. The immediate assault to Ezra's senses was not easily adjusted to. The noise was most overwhelming, magnified as it was by the shape and make-up of the cave. The smells were nauseating. And even the hairs on Ezra's skin stood on end from the remnant magical charge lingering in the air. He was wielding his sword as much from instinct as thought. But he was hampered by the absence of a second weapon. The main gauche that usually armed his right hand was still in its small scabbard. He knew he'd need one hand free to get Josiah's attention. Looking to his allies on the opposing wall, Ezra missed the Storm demon coming at him with her saber raised high. Chris stepped forward to intercept the demon as well as the two clan-sisters that followed her. Ezra thanked the Mistress of Luck, slipped two fingers between his lips, took a deep breath and blew a piercing whistle just as he'd learned as a child. Josiah's eyes instantly swung in their direction, as he'd hoped they would. Vin fired the awkward projectile up towards the center of the Plaza ceiling. It only just started to descend when Josiah grasped it with his conveyance magic.
"Pull back!" ordered Chris, enforcing his command by pushing Ezra back into the hall entrance. Ezra found himself somehow behind Chris and Vin as they held the entrance against the demons that ventured too close. Looking past them he noticed for the first time that only one of the three tunnels was still accessible through the rift. The other two were once again safely curtained by the Ward Wall. The flood of demons slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether leaving the Plaza empty except for the Seven and the bodies of the dead and dying.
Vin cautiously edged towards the still open rift at the center tunnel. He looked through and then turned back to the others. "The Lancers have the precipice. We're safe for the moment."
The instant the wand touched Josiah's hand his mind dove at it with intense focus. He found the weave component seeking new power sources and began to unravel it. The magical threads, currently draining the life of several squirming Hobs, shifted their color from red to blue. They shrank until they were no thicker than a thread of silk and then snapped. They were sucked back into the caldron, causing it to rock a bit but no more strands of light reached out.
With one job finished, Josiah gathered his clairvoyant magic while trying to push aside his fatigue so that he could uncover Marquay's methods and reverse his spells without permanently damaging the Ward Wall in the process.
Once the spell was cast Josiah held the ruby wand with a mixture of relief, concern and irritation. His clairvoyant magic had shown him how Marquay had used the wand to rend the Ward Wall, just as it had provided a vision that would heal the wound. Unfortunately, to do so meant breaking not only one of the Empire's highest laws but also the oath he'd made when he became a Sunbird priest. In Josiah's mind, there was no question; he would do whatever was necessary to seal the Ward Wall again. He just wasn't looking forward to the fallout his actions would likely bring.
On the other side of the Plaza, Chris and Ezra cautiously picked their way across the floor of bodies. Vin was standing in the opening of what remained of the rift. Too small to host an army it still remained large enough for demons to walk through in groups of two or three. Locke and Nagrendra appeared at Vin's side and followed him into the Plaza. Josiah trailed the others down off the ledge, Buck in the lead, carelessly kicking the bodies out of their path.
"I just don't get it!" exclaimed a tired JD. "We killed everything that spell was drawing power from. You stopped it from latching onto anything else. The Lancers must have done the same on their side, so why hasn't the rift closed?"
"As I said in the Saloon before we left, Marquay might use his magic to make the rift much more difficult to close. The large rift needed a great deal of energy to power it. But this small rift is almost self-sustaining. It could be months before it closed on its own," explained Josiah.
"Kit and Tyrchon are organizing a defensive stand against the remaining half of the demon army," informed Locke, "but with less than thirty warriors against more than a thousand, we won't last for long." He set his eyes on Josiah. "Please tell me you can close the rift."
"I believe I can, though it's going to require some unusual actions." Josiah hesitated. "It took both Chaos and Imperial magic to create the rift, and it's going to take both to dissolve the rift."
Any arguments Locke may have wished to offer were quickly suppressed by the sound of renewed battle. Face suddenly grim, Locke conceded, "Do whatever you have to," and ran to join his Lancers.
Nagrendra didn't follow. "Do you have the energy left to work such complex magic?" The reptilian head tilted sideways in question.
"Not nearly enough," admitted Josiah, "but I seem to recall a legend about the ancient sorcerer Jasonan drawing power from another's Phoenix Feather to entomb the Taran devil."
"You're balancing the future of the Empire on the use of Chaos magic and a thousand year old legend?" Nagrendra's tail twitched nervously.
"I know of no other way to heal the damage Marquay caused. We could use construction magic to block the rift. But that would only delay them a bit while they broke their way through, and we don't have the mage force to keep up such tactics for long. Without the aid of the City of Sorcerers this is our only option," Josiah assessed calmly.
"So whose feather you planning on tapping into to get this done?" asked Vin. He glanced over his shoulder clearly torn by his inability to aid the Lancers. Only Xoayya's dire warnings of what might happen if Fialchar were to notice him amongst the Chaos battle kept him in the Plaza.
"To guarantee success I'd like to 'tap into' all Seven, but I need your consent. Touching another's Phoenix Feather is tantamount to touching their soul."
"Well, 'strengthened by the bonds of blood and soul'," quoted Buck. "Ain't that just what that pretty little sorceress said at Sanctuary? Sounds to me like you're on the right track."
"You mean, you were actually paying attention to her words?" sniped JD as the continuous stress began to wear on him.
Buck just smiled in response. "Kid, I always pay attention to everything a beautiful woman says to me."
Ignoring their byplay, Josiah looked to Chris for his decision, certain the others would follow his lead.
"Let's finish this," Chris ordered.
When no one else voiced objections, Josiah spoke to Nagrendra, "We'll be vulnerable while I cast the magics."
"I'll protect you as long as I can," promised Nagrendra, and then he moved to stand guard at the rift.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Locke raced past Kit's archers towards the focal point of the battle. Tyrchon had ordered the remaining Lancers to form a line at the narrowest point of the cliff trail. In fact, the trail seemed to be getting even narrower by the minute. Then Locke spotted Keith and Sorcha combining their construction magic to build a twelve-foot high rock wall to block the trail. Locke moved up to take the place of a wounded Rider. His movements quickly became an instinctive dance of slash, parry, block and thrust, as all thought converged on standing firm against the enemy. Locke was knocked into Tyrchon by several rushing Storm warriors, but was able to force them back when Keith moved to bolster his flank.
A flash of sparkling green pulled Locke's gaze further down the trail, where his stallion, followed by several other mounts, continued to cause problems for the demons trying to join the advance. Locke took a deep breath and whistled, calling his stallion across the battlefield. The Emerald horse waited just long enough to make it clear that he was joining Locke because he wanted to and not because he was ordered. Then he trumpeted to his loyal herd and led a stampede up the trail to the Lancers.
"Look out," was all the warning Locke had time to give before mounts of all shapes and sizes trampled through their opponents and joined the Riders. Sorcha and Keith used the short lull in the fighting to finish their rock barrier and halt the demon advance. Sorcha promptly fell to her knees in exhaustion. Many of the other Riders were binding wounds and moving the most gravely wounded back towards the cavern.
Already the stone wall was trembling as demons assaulted it with lightening, hail and fire from the other side.
"How long will it hold?" wondered Tyrchon over the deafening staccato of the demon's magical attack.
"A few minutes at best," admitted Keith. Fatigue had the twenty-seven year old priest looking like he'd aged a decade in the last couple hours. Sorcha looked even worse cuts and scrapes marring every patch of bare skin. It seemed to be taking everything she had left, just to keep breathing. Yet her eyes held a defiant mix of Chaos fire and determination. Keith shared her willingness to fight on to any end, but he felt responsible to provide several pertinent details to his leaders. "Sorcha is spent." The witch shot Keith a dirty look but couldn't deny his assessment. "On my own, I maybe have enough strength to build another wall one-third its size when this one gives." He left unsaid how ineffective a four-foot wall would be compared to the current twelve foot one.
"My archers are just about out of arrows," Kit reported of their dwindling resources.
"Pull the wounded back into the cavern, the same with the horses," ordered Locke. "Keith, I don't want you to build a wall. I want a trench. Deep enough to trip them when they charge, and hidden by concealment magic. Can you manage all that?" Locke knew he was asking quite a bit of the tired mage.
Keith nodded wordlessly as he tried to find his focus. As the shallow trench began to form in an arch around the Riders, Keith decided that if he somehow managed to live through this he was going to challenge for the fourth rank badge in magic. There was no way the test could be any more extreme then the trials he'd faced this day. With the trench finished Keith spread a blanket of concealment magic over it, just before his eyes rolled back in his head. He never felt Tyrchon catch him before he hit the ground, or pass him to the Rider helping the wounded into the cavern. Never heard the obsidian barricade he and Sorcha fashioned crack and shatter beneath the demon onslaught. Never saw the dwindling Lancers move, to stand again, against the demon hoards.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
JD was trying really, really hard not to panic. There were cascades of blue magic and red magic whirling about the room like a hundred thousand glowing mayflies. JD tried not to flinch every time a red sparkle danced near him, but all his life he'd been taught that red magic meant Chaos, and Chaos was evil. And now here he was willingly taking part in a ritual involving Chaos magic. He tried to convince himself, that surely, if what they were doing was wrong, the Reptiad mage would have objected more. But then the terrified corner of JD's mind remembered that the Reptiad had objected; he just hadn't been able to present a better option. Besides, desperate times called for desperate measures. Which reminded JD how bad things were and ratcheted the panic up another notch.
JD tried again to reign in his nearly overwhelming fear. His circular thoughts were clearly making things worse, not better. None of the others were panicking. Josiah was the picture of calm confidence as he chanted a bewitching cadence. Nathan's voice wove steadily around Josiah's as he lent his aid. Vin was leaning back against the cave wall, eyes closed, apparently napping. Buck's eyes were open, darting left and right as he enjoyed the lights show Josiah was putting on for him. Chris couldn't seem to care less about the potent magic swirling around them. Instead, his gaze was locked on the rift as though he was trying to glare it into submission. Then JD noticed Ezra and the way he frowned a bit and pulled back when a concentration of Chaos magic spun past him. It was enough for JD realize he wasn't the only one uncomfortable with what was happening. Somehow just knowing that made JD feel much better. Seconds later green eyes met his as Ezra passed him a reassuring nod. Finally, JD's concentration moved away from what was happening around him to what was happening within him.
JD felt a strange heat in his middle. It wasn't painful, yet it burned with an intensity he couldn't define. As the fire within him began to glow and take shape JD recognized the Phoenix Feather Xoayya had shown them earlier. That was another thing JD was still trying to wrap his mind around. That he'd somehow been 'marked by the Gods'. After all, he was just JD, son of a Human maid and an Elvin Chaos Rider who'd died before he was ten. A stable boy who'd run off to make a name for himself after his mother died. He wasn't a legend or a hero. Most days he had a hard time getting others just to concede he was a man. Yet there the feather burned within him. Was it possible the Gods had made a mistake?
A bit of sparkling blue that had been floating by took a sudden turn into JD's burning feather diving out the other side.
Before him towered a tall, cool, perfectly coifed blonde staring down in disapproval. "Really Ezra, I taught you better than that. Do you want to end up like your father? A loser, beaten to death for dealing the wrong cards."
He wanted to challenge her lie, even as he recognized those thoughts and feelings weren't his own. A shimmer of red dove for JD's Phoenix flame.
"He's so small. What if I drop him?" Musical laughter answered, "Are you telling me that Christopher, son of Larabee, Chaos Rider extraordinaire is afraid to hold his own son?" Before he could rally a response a warm, wriggly mass was deposited neatly in his arms. Meeting the solemn eyes of his child he was overcome with the need to verify each of the babe's fingers and toes. As his hand slid across the tiny palm, Adam grasped his finger and squeezed it tight. His chest tightened and his heart raced in response. How could this a tiny person possess such strength? "He's your son," Sarah answered the unasked question.
With painful clarity JD understood why Chris couldn't move past his family's deaths.
The light was dim in the sick room, but it didn't hide how pale, fevered and weak the woman in the bed was. "Listen to me," she insisted, her voice little more than a whisper. "You're Vin, son of Tanner. Don't you ever forget who you are."
"I won't, Mama," JD heard himself echoing the child's reply. The Imperial blue and Chaotic red braded together, as both magics reached out for the power of the Phoenix Feathers and drew with them the very essence of the Seven.
A dark skinned man in worn cloths entered a small hut. "Look Daddy, Doctor Myrna gave me a mortar and pestle. She says I've got the healing touch." He proclaimed with childish pride. "That's fine, Nathan," said the man barely listening. "Now I need you to pack your things. We're moving on to the next farm." "When's Mama coming?" he asked. "She's not!" was the harsh answer. "What? We can't go without Mama," he cried. The man suddenly grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "It's too late. Your Mama is already gone. Now stop arguing and pack your things."
He raced across the room. Soft fingers tousled his hair and caressed his cheeks as he passed. "Here's your ribbon, Mama," he offered his prize to the black haired saint who smelled of roses. "Thank you, Bucklin. You can go play now if you want." "Na, I'd rather stay here with you and the Ladies." "That's our Buck, five years old and he already prefers the company of beautiful women." A chorus of laughter filled the room.
"Hannah, calm down. Tell me what's frightened you." "Demons, Josiah, can't you see them?" came his little sister's hysterical reply. "Don't cry, Hannah, I'll protect you. If any demon comes close I'll kill it, I swear I will."
The visions kept coming, too numerous to be categorized, too quick to be understood. They should have bewildered him but instead he felt infused with a feeling of solidarity. JD was a part of the Seven, and they were a part of him. Josiah's chant of the ancient tongue was now easy to comprehend. Looking to the Ward Wall, JD could actually see the individual spells woven into it. The small snag that was the rift was so easily repaired JD could only wonder why he hadn't recognized it before. His voice joined Josiah and Nathan's. In fact, all of the Seven spoke with power and purpose. A thread of blue and another of red unraveled from the braid that united the Seven. Both shoot forward slamming into the Ward Wall in a cascade of light. The threads wove back and forth across the rift sewing it back together. As the rift was finally sealed the remnant magical energies slowly dissipated. The magical understanding that had been so clear just seconds ago silently slipped from JD's mind.
Seconds later the last of the Lancers backed through the Ward Wall into the Plaza, surrendering the precipice to a frustrated demon swarm.
"Well, now that that's done," stated Buck as he cleaned the blood off his sword, "I could go for an ale."
Tyrchon tossed a weary grin in the rogue's direction. "Since you're buying, I'm drinking."
A slightly dazed JD was somewhat surprised to find himself releasing a rusty chuckle, as it finally sunk in: The battle was over and they were still alive.
The combined group of Lancers and Seven rode down the forest road at a subdued trot. The adrenaline rush that peeked with their hard-won victory and surprising survival ebbed away as the weary fighters set about finding their way out of the tunnels. Josiah and Nathan, who had been surprisingly rejuvenated by their success in sealing the rift, worked quickly to heal the numerous Lancers. Everyone was eager to leave the Plaza and its overwhelming odor of death.
Ezra was leading them to the closest of the surface exits when they encountered another group of Riders led by Raphael, whom Chris knew from past campaigns. Raphael had given them a quick update of what had been happening on the surface since daybreak. It was sobering to hear of the destroyed ranches and farms. According to Raphael most of Purgatory was gone because when a group of Hobs attacked the town, instead of fighting the populace started a panicked riot that left no building untouched. Raphael had been passing near the area and witnessed the devastation first hand as he tried to help a few families flee the battle zone. Fergus had taken command of the Chaos Riders and the local volunteers, making warning and protecting civilians the top priority, with killing demons a close secondary objective. Those families closest to town had been encouraged to seek its relative safety while others tried to brazen it out, gathering at the most defensible homesteads and sharing resources. Fergus had set up a forward command center at Nettie's ranch declaring it to be the most defendable location in the entire province of Menal. Ezra was especially relieved to hear the continuous presence of Chaos Riders would make the children he'd sent to Nettie as safe as possible under the current circumstances.
Chris and Locke made the easy decision to head for Nettie's. Both leaders were convinced that the end of their last battle was already leading to another much longer and, in some ways, more challenging struggle. Raphael and his group stayed behind to explore the tunnels and hopefully identify all of its widely spread exits. Since reaching the surface the Seven and the Lancers had passed too many skirmish sites littered with the bodies of demons and numerous Imperials. When the Riders finally neared Nettie's they quickened their pace at the sight of warriors and militia mixing with civilians and children. All were busy cooking and eating, repairing and fashioning weapons, guarding the perimeter and tending the many horses.
Ezra was swamped by children as soon as he dismounted, something that brought welcome smiles to many.
"So there were survivors from The Battle of the Wall after all," noted Fergus as he stepped out to Nettie's wide porch. "That's good. We'll be needing all of you to help root out our current demon infestation. Especially since we still can't seem to reach any authorities beyond Kasha."
"Sounds like Marquay's communication spell is still up," decided Josiah. "We'll have to track down the locations of its corner stones to break it." Josiah looked ready to leave that minute.
"Belay that," interrupted Chris. "You're not going anywhere until you've eaten and rested. There are too many demons around to have you wandering about at anything less than top form."
"Agreed," seconded Locke when Josiah looked ready to protest. "And that goes for every one of my Lancers, too. I want you to eat, get a couple hours of rest, meditate; whatever you need to recharge and get back into fighting form." No one argued once the orders had been laid out.
As the Riders began to scatter in all directions Chris decided now was as good a time as any to address Ezra's earlier desertion. He stepped close to Ezra, moving into his personal space. "Don't ever run out on me again." Chris ordered in a low growl. "I don't care if you were going after the wand. You disappeared without telling us, forced us to divide our numbers, and we wouldn't even have gotten the wand if Vin and I hadn't followed you. Solo heroics might have worked for a Shadow Agent but in a fighting unit they just get others killed."
Ezra dropped his eyes as every excuse he could have offered was efficiently cut off. He realized he'd been too focused on achieving his goal to clearly see the danger he was putting the others in. Ezra silently nodded his promise to do better and Chris let him pass.
When Chris turned around he found Josiah watching him. "Problem?"
Josiah offered a sly grin. "Just thinking how relieved I am that it's not my job to keep this crew in line."
"Wonderful," Chris rolled his eyes and tried not to consider how many ways the less experienced members of his new team could get into trouble. He headed into Nettie's house where he found the retired Rider sharpening blades while Fergus informed Locke of the arrangements he'd made to protect civilians and track demons.
"You're saying you've only engaged a few dozen Storm demons?" Locke asked incredulously.
"Yes," answered Fergus. "The majority of our reported contacts involve Hob demons, with only a few Storm or Flame Demons."
"I saw the demons traveling through the rift. There were twice as many Storms as Hob demons." Chris added to the conversation. "The only way your reports make sense is if the Storms are going to ground."
"They quietly dig in at several safe locations, learn the lay of the land, while we're chasing Hobs. Then they can attack us when we least expect it," assessed Locke.
"The face of the war we're fighting just changed dramatically," was Chris's grim epitaph.
JD rushed in the door. "Hurry guys, you've got to come see this!" Then he ran back outside. Those within emptied to the porch, quickly spotting the large twenty-foot portal forming in Nettie's Yard. Despite its blue shading, many warriors took a defensive stand surrounding the vortex. Only when uniformed Imperial Guards, Mages and Chaos Riders marched out did they relax, some even applauding the arrival of reinforcements.
At the end of the column came a smaller contingent of Palace Guards with the nineteen-year-old Emperor in their midst. Thetys V strode purposely towards the ranch house where the Riders gathered, bowed in respect. "Please rise," the ruler urged. "We have more important issues than court etiquette to deal with." Zeroing in on Nettie he extended his hand. "I understand this is your home, Ms. Nettie. You've been very gracious to offer a resting place to our Imperial forces during this time of strife. Your nation is indebted to you."
"Nonsense," countered Nettie. "No one is in debt to me; I was just doing what was right. My home isn't very grand but you're welcome to use it however you see fit. Just give me a minute to clear the children out." She led them into the main room of her ranch.
"It's true, the children shouldn't hear our discussion. But I hope you'll stay and add your experience and wisdom to our plans," came Thetys politely worded but no less sincere request. Nettie nodded with a smile. She'd seen more action in the past twelve hours than she had in the previous fifteen years, and damned if she wasn't having the time of her life despite the circumstances.
"It's good to see you, Your Majesty," welcomed Locke. "We didn't think any of our calls for help had made it past Kasha."
"They didn't," admitted Thetys. "Grandmaster Quinn had a clairvoyant vision that showed him what had passed here. Though it unfortunately came too late to prevent the worst of the conflict. Still, we're here now and ready to hunt down the demons until every last one is eradicated. My people deserve all the strength and protection I can offer." There was a hint of shame in his tone, as though he'd already decided he'd somehow failed in his responsibilities.
Before the Emperor could continue Josiah and Nathan entered the room, followed by Buck, Ezra and Vin. Josiah spoke first. "I was informed you wished to speak to the mages that sealed the rift."
"Yes," confirmed Thetys. "The Grand mages back at the capitol told me that Chaos magic had been used to help seal the rift. Since working such magic is usually considered an execution able offense, I'm going to issue you a Royal Pardon. I certainly can't allow you to be executed for actions you took to save my kingdom."
"Thank you, your Majesty," murmured Josiah and Nathan, bowing again.
"I also have a proposal for you. It's going to take a lot of time and effort to find all of the demons running loose in our realm. During that time, I'm stationing units of warriors at each community to help protect the local populace. Corners, being so close to the heart of the invasion will need a great deal of protection. In the Black Church caves you seven showed an ability to work together against overwhelming odds. Would you be willing to consider accepting the Corners' post?" Thetys watched the unusual mix of warriors grin and nod at each other.
Chris could see that the others all liked the idea, and it would work to their advantage. They'd be able hone their battle skills, especially JD, and learn to fight as a team, especially Ezra, without the danger of drawing Fialchar's attention, as they would if they campaigned in Chaos. Noticing that the others were all looking at him, waiting, giving him the final say, Chris sighed, "I have a feeling I'm going to regret this."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
"Seven protecting Corners," tallied Thetys. "Excellent. Now how far have we gotten in mapping the Black Church tunnel complex?" Xoayya blinked and vision faded from her mind. She ruthlessly quelled the flicker of hope burning within her. It was too soon to hope. She had yet to see the Seven defeat Fialchar in a vision. There'd been hints. Scraps of imagery that indicated they could beat Old Lord Disaster, but nothing definite. The aid she could offer them was severely limited. Fialchar kept his apprentice under tight rein. She'd already risked a great deal just contacting them. Future aid would have to come in the form of background support. She would continue to distract Fialchar from their existence and when the final conflict came eliminate Fialchar's escape routes. The rest would be up to the Seven.
The door squeaked open and Fialchar entered the conservatory. "I want to hear you recite the body spells I told you to memorize."
"Draiocht leigheas, draiocht bacach, draiocht cosain, draiocht diothaigh . . ."
Fialchar smiled at his apprentice's immediate obedience. Not that he was fooled into thinking he had her loyalty. He was well aware she'd snuck off to Len's Sanctuary at the same time Tyrchon was there. That warrior's unwavering devotion to Xoayya despite her current employ was starting to irritate Fialchar. She'd be much easier to control if she felt more isolated and vulnerable. He definitely needed to arrange for Tyrchon's painful, and preferably humiliating, death. Still he wasn't inclined to punish her deception. It was the first bit of deviousness and dishonesty she'd shown since he'd manipulated her into her apprenticeship. And he believed such vices should be encouraged. Though she was not aware of it, she was one of the Empire's purest hearts. And he was quite enjoying being the one to design the silent, sliding corruption of that purity. Yes, over all, life was proceeding just as he wanted. The recent strife had weakened several of his enemies. His own position was strengthening as a result. One of the Empire's most talented mages was his to command. And no force in the entire world could hope to stand against him. It was good indeed, to be Chaos's King.
(#1) A Hero Born, Michael A. Stackpole, page 173
(#2) A Hero Born, Michael A. Stackpole, pages 173-174
(#3) A Hero Born, Michael A. Stackpole