Strike your enemy where he least expects it.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
The city was wracked in the throes of battle and rebellion. In many parts of the city groups of Malaweians who had wavered between supporting their old baron or in entering the camp of the Hartooth was decided with a sudden ferocity. The news of Juris Malawei’s death swept through the city like a summer’s grass fire in the endless steppes. Hundreds of Malaweians who wished to remain neutral in the conflict now took up arms and began fighting both the troops loyal to Eldeware of Malagna and any Hartooth warrior they could find. In the bitter cold night the curved war horns of Dragon war bands lifted into the darkness soon blended with the clash of steel and the screams of Dragon war cries.
Through these narrow and dangerous streets I made my way to the west gate. Several times I had to detour from my route due to running into warring factions filling the snow packed streets with dragon blood and falling bodies. With each detour I noted the increasing numbers of red and black clad Hartooth warriors who seemed to be joining in on the fighting. Aukman Hartooth was sending reinforcements to aid his new ally. Silently, in the darkness and hidden from view in my Cloak of Invisibility, I smiled in grim pleasure. The more Hartooth who entered the city meant less foes I would have to face later when I assaulted the Hartooth camp itself.
At precisely a quarter to midnight I entered the massive keep of Malagna’s western gate just as the first promised explosion of the night erupted with fire smoke and destruction. The thunderous roar of the mixture I had hurriedly brewed and then packed into a wooden barrel was loud enough to shatter windows and collapse stone walls within a twenty foot radius of the explosion’s center. A brilliant white and yellow fireball rose above the city and then faded away just as a rain of rock and debris descended from the blackened heavens.
The city momentarily fell silent in the explosion’s aftermath. The whole city seemed to reel back in stunned disbelief. But seconds later, on the opposite side of the city, the second massive explosion ripped through the night. An explosion in louder and more devastating than the first! The entire city glowed an eerie red as the massive fireball rose in the night air before fading away. But this time the silence of the city afterwards was shattered by the roar of hundreds of Dragons screaming at the top of their lungs the Malaweian war cry.
From the direction of the Inn of the Brown Pig Ankor Mauk was leading his followers in a mass attack down the main street which led toward the western gate. The roar of battle increased as those loyal to the Hartooth and to the new Malaweian baron rushed to stop the Mauk and his men from escaping.
As for me I entered the stone keep of the gate expecting to find it filled with warriors loyal to Jaxtra Malawei. Much to my surprise I found it barely manned with twenty warriors. Most, fourteen in all, I found in the keep’s main armory hurriedly donning mail, plate armor and helm. They knew an assault was coming and they were preparing themselves for the coming fight. Hidden in the Cloak of Invisibility I entered the weapons cluttered room and strode to the center of the room. With a whip of my wrist I threw the cloak from me and revealed myself to one and all. My sudden and dramatic appearance made stout hearted warriors shout in fear and surprise as they jumped away from me. With faces filled with fear and consternation they ceased arming themselves and stood gawking at me like helpless sheep.
Several warriors recovered their senses and made a dash for the nearest exit. But I lifted a hand up and pointed to the massively reinforced wooden door. An unseen force slammed the door closed with a powerful thrust just as the stout iron bar used to bar it shut from within flew through the air and settled into its assigned place with a thudding finality.
Warriors gasped and stepped back even further from me. No one seemed brave enough to unsheathe a blade. I smiled and nodded. Closing my uplifted hand into a fist momentarily I opened it again almost immediately. All eyes stared at my hand in unblemished terror. In the palm of my hand was a grayish black ball about the size of a southern orange.
No one moved. No one seemed capable of moving. All within the armorer stared at the thing lying in the palm of my hand. Nodding, I closed fingers around the hard ball and threw it with a mighty force to the wooden flooring at my feet. There was a soft explosion and then a hissing sound as a gray, foul smelling smoke began to fill the room. Warriors began coughing. Their eyes began to burn and tear. Their throats became rough and they could not speak. And then, one by one, each of the fourteen warriors fell rattling to the floor as if an unseen hand had used a massive cudgel to knock them senseless.
Through the smoke I stepped over the slumbering bodies and flicked my hand toward the door. Iron bar flew from it and the door opened swiftly. Exiting, I half turned to look at the door and noted it flew shut again and slammed home with a stout bang. Smiling, I began making my way through the keep toward the upper reaches of the gate where the chain winches and opening mechanism of the gate was housed.
In a spiraling stone staircase I heard the noise of battle approaching. The Mauk and his followers would soon make their appearance. I had to reach the upper floors of the gate house and open the massive gate just as they appeared. To open it too soon meant I might face overwhelming odds as reinforcements hurried to secure the gate keep. To open it too late meant certain death for the valiant Anktooth paladin and his Malaweian followers.
With renewed energy I raced up the winding steps to the upper keep. At the top of the spiraling stairs was a stout wooden sealed shut. Pointing to it I felt it was locked from within and then felt the auras of six dragon warriors ready and anticipating my entrance. Closing my out stretched hand into a fist I used magic to tear away the door completely and then hurl it into the stone wall of the stairwell with such force it punched a hole through stone and mortar. Unsheathing Helshvingar I leapt through the door expecting all six warriors to attack at once.
But no attack came. Instead the six Malaweian Dragons loyal to Eldeware of Malagna stood as if transformed into stone. They stood motionless, barely gripping their weapons, their complexions as white as ghosts. Eyes stared off to their right and into the gloomy darkness of the large room. It was as if they were totally unaware of my presence as I entered the room. It took only a moment to understand their rigidity. I felt the sudden, swift sensation of all my Netherworld powers being silenced and then saw movement from the corner of my eye. Turning swiftly, raising the blade of Helshvingar, two forms moved out of the darkness on the far side of the room. Two masked, faceless forms with swords drawn, dressed in the distinctive blood red robes of Shoga assassins.
The private clan of hereditary assassins the Hartooth claimed as their own. Within all of Dragonkind there were no assassin’s cult more feared, more dreaded, or with a more bloody reputation than the Shoga. Their distinctively colored dark red robes hung loosely from their frames and allowed full movement. The blood red mask covering their features only revealed dark Dragon eyes staring at me filled with hatred and wrath. Rumors by the hundreds were whispered among the Dragon about the mystical powers of the Shoga. But nothing of their talents as a powerful Null Stone had ever been recorded. The complete and total absence of my Inner Eye and Netherworld power was a surprise.
They began circling me–one to my right and one to my left. Each were slung low in a fighting stance, swords ready, waiting until their partner was in position before making the first strike. I moved as well–seeking a position somewhere in the room which would naturally block the one trying to circle behind me. At the same time I tried to move toward the large pulley and capstan mechanism of chains and gears which would lift the gate below. Yet my efforts were blocked by the red clad assassins. They knew my intent and the one behind me decided to take up position directly in front of the mechanism and face me while his partner silently began circling round to my rear.
In all the years the Hartooth controlled and bred the Shoga no human had ever survived facing a pair sent out to remove an intended victim. Most of the time the team struck suddenly and viciously. No creature ever lived to tell the tale of what they had witnessed. No one knew what style of fighting the Shoga used in open combat. No one knew exactly what forms of killing techniques they were trained in. This absence of knowledge clearly did not bode well for me. I knew not what to expect. I knew not what form of attack they might implement. But I had to open the gate. I had to get past at least one of the assassins in order to reach the gate’s mechanism.
Outside in the streets the sounds of battle suddenly spilled into the wide mouth of the street leading up to the gate. The shouts of Dragons fighting desperately, the clang of steel hammering against steel, the general roar of battle told me I no longer could wait. I had to move!
Sometimes, Pilgrim, the best form of an offense is to momentarily retreat. The appearance of retreating sends a false message to the one who is the more aggressive. Walking to the middle of the room I lowered the tip of Helshvingar to the floor and, with both hands on the sword’s pommel, waited for the assassins to move. Closing my eyes I controlled my breathing. I began to wait. Wait for the first assassin to move.
Magic, Pilgrim sometimes is not magic at all. But a ruse. A slight of hand performed in front of an audience in such a deceptive manner it completely takes the onlookers unawares. Stepping to the middle of the room and lowering the tip of the ancient sword in my hand toward the floor surprised the Shoga. They circled warily around me, hands gripping their swords, their reptilian eyes behind their masks burning brightly in the dim light of a lantern.
But as they moved to take up new positions in front and behind me one of the hooded assassins stepped onto the spot where I had stood moments before. As soon as the assassin stepped into that space there was a bright flash of light–several bright flashes–and gray-black smoke began to fill the room. The smoke, foul smelling and bitter, filled the lungs of the assassins. One began coughing violently. His eyes watered and he staggered back a step. A fatal move.
Into the thick smoke I moved and disappeared completely from view. Helshvingar’s sharp edge sang its deadly song. Deep it bit into the large chains which held the western gate’s iron-reinforced doors closed. The loud cacaphony of massive chains unwinding furiously filled the gate room. Helshvingar sang out again–but this time biting deep into the leg of one of the assassins. The masked foe screamed out in pain and struck out blindly with his sword. His blind fury in striking out viciously adding to the horror by his sword sinking deep into the chest of his fellow assassin rushing to his aid.
I left the dead and the wounded and hurried down the spiraling stone steps of the gate house to the streets below. Joining the Mauk we fought off those who wished to destroy us as the gates behind us slowly opened. Our escape was complete! Several hundred Malaweian warriors and citizenry fled through the open gates and into the frigid night. We, stout Mauk warrior and I, along with a dozen other warriors, waited until the last moment before we too fled into the night.
Destiny . . . again . . . decided to take a sudden and dramatic twist in the lives of those
who fought with us that night.