Chapter 18: Fall of the Warship
Taren walked slowly through the now deserted city of Agrista. Only hours ago, it had been full of the twanging of bow strings, the clash of swords, the sound of rushing water as Taren called his elemental powers to bear on the Deshika. Now, a drop of water falling from a fountain to hit the paving stones of a street on the northern edge of the city carried its sound clearly to Taren’s ears. He knew well what had to be done, and it was not fear that held him off. He knew that of the two of them, Makret and himself, he was the deadlier when it came to the blade. No, it was something else. A sense of impending doom had settled on him, as though this one act that he alone could accomplish would decide the course of the future. Even with that sense, he could not help but believe that the future could only go one way. Agrista, one way or another, would be his grave. He thought that fitting. The Garrenin line, though of Drogodan blood, had strong ties to the northern country. It was thought to have died out in Rista with the fall of Garisha and the High Kings and Queens. And now, with Anyana dead, Elich would soon be the last Drog Trueblood Garrenin. ‘No, he won’t be.’ Taren did not know why he kept forgetting about his brother’s death. Elich had defied his orders and marched against El Darnen, tired of how the Serpent kept raiding his lands in Morieden Province. Elich was almost two years dead. And now, Taren was finally ready for the same thing. Marching to the gate, he readied himself for what would be his last fight.
“Makret!” His voice echoed through the deserted city behind him, and the rocky, ice covered landscape in front of him reverberated with the force of his yell. Mere sound had not shaken that foreboding tundra in centuries. One voice had never done it alone. He yelled Makret’s name once more, to be sure his once friend had heard him. “Makret, come and fight me yourself. We both know what must be. I will wait for you in the throne room of the palace of Agrista. If you have not come in two days, I will come for you.”
Makret sat in his tent. He knew that he could not turn down the challenge. Nor could he deny hearing it, not when every warrior still living had rushed out of their tents, hurriedly donning armour, at the sound, the unbridled power, of Taren’s voice. He had known all along that the battle for Agrista would come down to him and Taren. And if he did refuse to fight, Taren would enter the camp. The Deshik army was still many thousands strong, but the powers Taren would unleash upon the camp once in range of it, not even Makret could fully comprehend. That was why his camp was almost three miles from the walls of Agrista. It was why opposing camps of Morschen armies had to be almost four miles apart. Ringlords could rip their enemies apart before the battle even started if they were within that three mile range. Even a strong Ringlord like Taren had a limit of three miles or maybe a little more, for most powers at least. If Makret was willing to risk killing himself, he thought he might be able to stretch his powers from where he sat to perhaps two roads into the city. “That would be a half of a league. Three miles exactly. And it would still not kill him, though it would be pushing my strength.”
Almost an hour later, Makret still had not prepared to face Taren. But he was making his plan. And then something went wrong. Makret felt it before any of his senses could warn him. He could feel the way that Black Power gathered wherever The Kindler went. Almost as soon as he felt it start to pool behind him, he turned and fell on his left knee. He almost exclusively bowed with his right knee, because the only person he ever bowed to, and even then infrequently, was Taren, who before his treachery, he would never have drawn a sword on. He bowed with his left to The Kindler because, even though he would die slowly and painfully, his left leg would then not be in the way of drawing his sword if he decided to attack his new master.
“Rise, Morschledu.” The Kindler’s voice was as black as the magic he wielded.
Makret, though bidden to rise, did not yet stand. “My master, I did not expect your return so soon.”
“Clearly, otherwise the city would already be mine.”
“There were five thousand Morschen to deal with when we got here, and more that were not expected. A large number of the Black Guard came to support the city, and though we took the Dragon Hearted by surprise, their name is well earned, and many times over.”
“I do not want excuses. Especially excuses almost a week old. I know that only one man stands between me and the capture of this city.”
“My lord, how can you? It was hidden even from the War Chiefs here until only earlier today that the few who were with him had departed the city, and we are barely half a league from the gates.”
“I have other spies among your race, Makret Druoth. And I have other means of gathering information. I am most … displeased, at your lack of progress here.” Makret knew better than to try to defend himself. “Over ten thousand killed and wounded, and two of the original seven War Chiefs killed with them, by three hundred, only one of which they actually saw. Explain yourself.”
Makret now stood up. He was playing a dangerous game already, so if he had to, he wanted to be able to move freely. “My lord, one of the War Chiefs made the mistake of referring to that one man as a human. He holds humans in almost as much contempt as he does the Deshika, he is powerful like no Morschledu has been for many thousands of years, and he was a Morschcoda, and now he is King of most of Anaria. That one man, who stood alone in the gate against our forces day after day, is Taren Garrenin the Second. If I have displeased you, lord, then by any god there ever has been, I have an excuse no being can dispute.”
“You are arrogant, puny mortal, to think to tell me what I can and cannot argue.”
“Then kill me and find another general.”
For the first time, Makret looked The Kindler in the eyes. They were black, even where they should have been white, and the only sign of a pupil was a small ring around it: a ring of blood red that burned like fire. The eyes tried to crush him, to blot him out of existence by sheer force of will, but Makret refused to let them. In every way as stubborn and arrogant as Taren was, Makret refused to be pushed around, even by one of the Seven Devils.
“I see you are stubborn as well as arrogant, but your arrogance, at least, is well founded. Keep your life.” Makret said nothing, swaying slightly as the eyes released him, knowing he had just cheated death. He was not confident of duplicating the feat. “The lesson of silence is learned,” The Kindler mocked him. “Now, tell me your plan, if you have one.”
Makret was not of the same caliber as Taren where drinking was concerned, but he had understood Taren’s need for the fortification of alcohol, on occasion. He felt that this would have been one of the times where a retreat to the bottle could be excused, but unlike Taren, he had never kept a flask on his person. So he simply answered The Kindler. “Garrenin has challenged me to single combat inside the city. I am choosing to accept.”
“And if you fail?”
“Then you will owe Taren Garrenin a favor for ridding you of me.” Before The Kindler could respond, Makret went on. “The palace should be surrounded, then if Garrenin does kill me, he will not escape the city alive.”
“Why do I not just have Deshik archers kill him while he is fighting you?”
“I don’t trust Deshik archers to hit what they aim for. They are poorly supplied with crude weapons, and those that seem to understand how to use a bow lack the skills to hit a stationary target outside of one hundred paces more than five times out of twenty.”
“So you will fight … What did you say his name was?”
“Garrenin. Taren Garrenin.” The Kindler tensed, and turned back towards Makret. His dark eyes flashed red for a moment. His nostrils flared as a horse’s. Something close to fear, and far beyond hatred, entered those same eyes that had just tried to end Makret’s existence.
“So it is true.” It came out as a whisper; a terrifying, dark whisper that barely escaped The Kindler’s too white teeth.
“My lord, what is it?”
“The same man cannot still walk in the circles of the world. I killed him long ago.”
“Taren Garrenin. The Torridestan whelp may have been the last to stand, and the one who struck the blow that banished me from the world, but it was the Garrenin that caused my defeat.”
“My lord?” Makret’s voice continued to be ignored.
“Curse Lasheed for all of eternity for that final act. He created you, the Morschen, as nothing more than weapons to use against my brethren and me. We were winning that war, and we would have won fully and completely, had not Lasheed created your kin. I remember Garrenin, bursting into existence fully formed, already a deadly sword master, bearing one of those cursed rings and a blue blade that he wielded with all the wrath of the oceans themselves. Two of the Seven fell that day to his sword, which Lasheed himself soon named Donkar-Hesta.”
“Death to Hell.” The Kindler noticed his voice that time.
“The name was well earned. That blade claimed four of the Seven, and it tasted my blood more than once. We retreated to regroup. When we attacked again, there were far more; weapons, all of them, and nothing more. Not all men either. Women fought us, often more dangerous than any two of their male kindred, except for Garrenin.”
“Then the sooner Garrenin is dead, the sooner we can win this war.”
The Kindler’s black eyes with their rings of flaming blood took hold of Makret’s one more time. “Though that is truly spoken, I do not wish to reveal myself to our enemy. Not yet.”
Makret was silent. “I can defeat Garrenin. Outright victory with him dead is unlikely, he is more skillful, but I can better him when it matters.”
“What do you need?”
“I need the War Chiefs to secure the city. Not our whole force, but enough to ensure that no one can get in and Garrenin cannot get out.”
“You will have that, at least, Morschledu.”
Taren sat for the first time in days. The throne of Rista was not overly comfortable, and extremely cold, being nothing more than a carved block of ice with a seat covered with the white fur of some ice loving animal, but at that moment, to simply sit was a wonderful sensation. He heard the horns, the sound of Deshik shouts, War Chiefs yelling orders in their grotesque language. None of that mattered. “Only one thing matters now, for one way or another, Taren Garrenin the Second dies this day,” he thought out loud, his voice echoing in the lofty hall, as he considered the long, unbroken lineage of House Garrenin, starting and now ending with a warrior king named Taren. He stayed sitting as Makret marched into the throne room, flanked by four War Chiefs. He did not move or otherwise acknowledge them until the five stopped halfway to the throne where he sat.
“So you came, Makret.”
“I came.” The response was cold, though Taren was not surprised by that. It merely saddened him. “Will you surrender?”
“Would you, were you in my place? Oh wait. You already did.” Taren poured as much hatred and contempt into those three words as he possibly could.
“You had your chance to choose the winning side, Taren.”
“Yes, and I did. You lost how many thousands trying to take this city from me alone? And how many more cities, how many more last stands of the Morschen must you face before Anaria lies at The Kindler’s feet? And what will you get from it? The rule of Drogoda? You were promised that many times before this, Makret Druoth.”
“My reasons are my own, Taren, as they ever have been. I paid my debts to you long ago, and now, I alone have the pleasure of ending the line of House Garrenin. Too long has its reign been.”
Taren stood, and walked down the short steps of the dais. Makret did not move, and even then only to shift to a more battle ready position, until Taren stood a bare ten feet from him.
Taren stopped, and looked his enemy up and down. Makret still wore the armour of Drogoda, the silver spear broach still pinned to his shoulder. “This meeting was always destined. I chose my own worst enemy the day I saved your head from the gallows, Makret.”
“You trust people too much. Loyalties are being tested everywhere. Will your empire hold itself together when I kill you today?”
“Your replacement is as much a match for you as you are for me. In a way, I am glad the two of you never liked each other. It will make it much easier for her to kill you, traitor. That is, if you survive me.”
“You chose Reeshnar to take my place?” Makret laughed, loudly. “I once respected your judgement, but now I see that you are nothing more than an old man losing your hold on your wits.”
Taren chose that moment to begin the fight. Driving forward with his left foot, he drew Mishdonkar with all the speed and strength born from centuries of practice. A lesser man would have died under that stroke, without even the chance to defend himself, but Makret Druoth was no lesser man. His speed and skill were the equal of Taren’s, if not his better, for all the strength that the old Morschcoda had expended during the previous few days. The swords met with a resounding crash that shattered glass all through the room. The War Chiefs backed as far away as they could, to feel safer if nothing else. Taren and Makret fought.
Time lengthened out of all reckoning for Taren. Long days of fighting in the pale northern sun had taken their toll on him, and now he was engaged in a battle with a man as close to his equal as was possible. Much as it pained Taren to admit it, Makret had the advantage. He was well rested and well fed, whereas Taren had had his fill of neither since before arriving at Agrista. ‘At least I did not exhaust my powers during this bloody campaign.’ Taren’s magical strength was the one thing left to him that was not battered and exhausted, aside from Mishdonkar.
Makret wondered from a moment how long their fight had dragged on already. Surely there had been a time before it began, but he did not try to remember any times before The Kindler had returned to Anaria. Such distractions could mean his death in a battle, and certainly would against one such as Taren. Instead, he thought only of the names of the forms he used. Mordak’s Pounce drove him forward, only to be met by Taren’s Dragon’s Spiral, which led into Diving Eagle that Makret struggled to block with Upswept Wings. Taren scored the first hit, bending away from Lion’s Paw to deliver an awkward stab that bounced of Makret’s armour.
The touch unsettled Makret, Taren could clearly see, but he could not take advantage of it. Makret almost instantly drove back with and unusual combination. Dragon’s Tail turned into Rain of Blades, which Taren countered awkwardly only to be forced to stumble backwards due to Mordak’s Pounce. Taren went to counter Mordak’s Pounce with Dragon’s Spiral as he had before, but before the blades met, Makret pulled his back, causing Taren’s block to miss completely. Executioner’s Axe nearly split Taren’s head, but he pulled sideways and received only a glancing blow on his left arm. Dropping his sword with his hit arm, he turned sideways and let his right hand slide down Mishdonkar’s hilt, giving him an advantage in reach when he whipped the blade downwards at Makret, which resulted with only a prick on Makret’s left wrist that did no real damage.
Neither man could truly control the fight, but both started to become more cautious with their attacks. Both men had fought to kill before, but never against each other or any other men considered their equals. Makret struck twice in quick succession, the first with Upswept Wings, with which he scored a large scratch on Taren’s breastplate, the second with Lion’s Paw, taking Taren in his right hip. It was then that Taren let go of his caution. Makret swept his sword up to counter Rain of Blades, only to have to fight off Diving Eagle. Before Diving Eagle struck, Taren pulled Mishdonkar back and swung the blade sideways, landing a much harder blow on Makret’s hip than Makret had on him. Makret jumped backwards, out of Taren’s reach, but Taren waded in, fully committed to the assault he had begun.
When the two of them finally broke apart what seemed like hours later, Makret struggled to remain upright. His right leg nearly failed him as he tried to walk back to the War Chiefs, but he willed it to hold. He refused to appear weak before the War Chiefs, not that they mattered. If he lost, he was dead. If he won, no one would dispute his strength.
Taren collapsed onto the steps of the dais. The blow to his hip was painful, perhaps more so because it came from a sword wielded by a man he had always known and trusted than because it had done any damage. As for the scratch on his breastplate, Makret had no idea how close he had been to ripping it in half and killing Taren then and there. Taren refused to let him get that close again.
When the two closed for the second time, Taren opened his attack with Rushing Waters, a series of low, fast, and powerful attacks whose main purpose was to keep one’s enemy’s focused on their feet. From Rushing Waters, he fell to one knee, and swung Mishdonkar in a complete circle, instead of the traditional Dragon’s Tail, which was only a more powerful form of Lion’s Paw. Makret blocked, but Taren transitioned into Upswept Wings, and then almost immediately into Executioner’s Axe. Makret stepped backwards, and then attempted to run Taren through with Mordak’s Pounce. Taren batted the sword aside and slammed Makret’s chest with Roaring Tide, a magical attack that sent Makret to the other end of the throne room in a torrent of white water. Makret noticed distractedly that one of the War Chiefs went down underneath the water. Makret dropped his sword as he rolled to his feet and threw several balls of water, compressed to the point of being almost solid, at Taren, who threw up Wall of Water as a hasty defence. It partially worked. Two of the balls stopped completely, another two made it through, but changed angle and missed. The fifth struck home, throwing Taren a good twenty feet and causing him to land both heavily and awkwardly on his back, sliding up to the base of the dais steps. Makret had picked up his sword and started to charge as soon as he had released the fifth ball and was almost to Taren when he hit another of his enemy’s hasty defences. Hidden Reef tangled his feet, causing him to fall forward and cut his cheek and forehead on sharp coral. Swinging his sword to cut himself free, he had to react quickly to block Taren’s sword as it descended toward him. Rolling backward with his sword braced against his shoulder, Makret blocked Mishdonkar, and then hit Taren with several magical attacks in quick succession. Taren stood firm against Roaring Tide, cutting it in two with Jagged Rocks, which was only the same kind of power that was used to condense the spheres of water into such deadly projectiles, but Swift Current carried him into the tangle of Makret’s own Hidden Reef. It was at this moment that several things went horribly wrong. First, the Deshik Chiefs decided that Makret did not need the credit for killing Taren, and the three still standing started to charge him. Second, Makret twisted his right hip too far, causing the traumatized joint which Taren had nearly destroyed to fail him, sending him down on his back with his leg at an awkward angle. And third, Taren began summoning superheated groundwater, creating geysers all throughout the throne room, and all too likely the city which Makret had ordered occupied. One geyser erupted under the three Chiefs, instantly cooking one of them, and sending the other two, badly burned, to the roof, one hundred feet up, and then dropping them. One landed on a balcony, breaking it and sending it crashing to the floor. The other merely fell to the floor, landing barely ten feet from Makret. As he got to his feet, Makret felt a geyser forming underneath him. Instead of moving, he channeled its raw power as it erupted underneath him. Instead of it sending him to the roof as one had the War Chiefs, he sent it from his hands straight at Taren. Taren was pushed back several feet, but he maintained his footing, holding Mishdonkar, braced by both hands, in front of him to push against the massive force of the water.
Both Makret and Taren felt it at the same time. The land that the city stood on shifted. The heat from the geysers, the large amount of water suddenly not frozen underneath the city, and the force of the geysers themselves, had already destroyed much of the city. Parts of Agrista were collapsing into the ground, which was caving in because of the melting ice. Some of the city’s larger houses, towers, and grander buildings were not made entirely of stone, but were held together with a good deal of Rista’s magical element. The city had been built where it was because of the ice caves and the natural formations of rock. The ice that held those formations together was now melting rapidly.
“Taren, do you have any idea of what you have done?”
“You caused this Makret. Your betrayal did this to Agrista.”
Taren started to laugh. It was not normal laughter. It was the laughter of a man who wanted to die. Who not only wanted to die, but who wanted a spectacular death: a death that would be remembered, a death that would take his enemy with him. Taren would have that and far more. The ruin of Agrista would become a monument to him; a monument to the Stand of the Last Garrenin. ‘Insane’ sprang to the turncoat general’s mind, but Makret admired Taren’s audacity. And then he ran.
Geysers erupted all around him as Taren expended ever more of his magical power, but still Makret ran through the palace. The sight that greeted him as he escaped the massive building was almost beautiful in his mind. A massive lake, filled with Deshika, living, dead, and dying, filled the ruins of what had been Agrista south of the palace, where the ground was lower. Makret did not even slow his stride. At the edge of the water he pushed off with both feet and dove into the new lake of Agrista. He stayed under until he reached the other side, not daring to swim to low, because of the geysers that were still erupting, filling the city with ever more water, but refusing to surface and see the true extent of the destruction. He finally made it to the other side and tried to haul himself out, only to be grabbed by two Deshika, supposedly intent on helping him and any others who made it out of the water that had suddenly stolen their victory from them.
The Kindler did not like being interrupted. Three charred Deshik warriors could attest to that. The third one had convinced The Kindler that something was wrong, however. The Kindler had killed him anyway, but only as a matter of principle. If he had known what he was being interrupted for, half the camp would have felt his displeasure. Instead, he held his anger in check, pacing along the water that had passed where the walls of the city had once stood at their southernmost point. Sections of the wall still stood, looking out of place in the strange new landscape, but that was not what occupied the mind of The Kindler. There had been almost fifteen thousand Deshika, not to mention all of the living War Chiefs, inside the city when the geysers started erupting, cooking those they hit directly, burning anything they touched, melting the ground around them. Of all of the soldiers inside the city, maybe seven hundred had escaped, and one War Chief. And then he saw a Morschen hand grab the shore. He instructed two of his guards to go ‘help’ Makret out of the lake. The Kindler continued to look at the destruction to the city as one of his guards stabbed Makret through his stomach. The other guard pulled him over to The Kindler and threw him at his feet.
The Kindler did not even look at the mess of a man that was his general. “I lost fifteen thousand soldiers because of your mistake, Makret Druoth. You must have known that Taren Garrenin was capable of such feats.”
Makret’s response was weak, but proud. “Knew? Of course I knew. I bear his Brother Ring. I am his equal in everything. And you knew what he was capable of as well as I did. You fought him, long ago. He is Taren Garrenin sent back down to Anaria. He was. He bore his Ring, maybe. He probably had the same sword.”
The Kindler turned his dark eyes to the Morschen lord at his feet. He watched as his guard kicked Makret in the face. The other pulled the beaten, bleeding Morschen up by his hair until he stood under his own power. “You are a stubborn man, Makret Druoth.” He had meant to continue, but Makret spat at his feet.
“You mean I refuse to die easily. You fought our kind at the dawn of time. You should know that it will take more than you pathetic servants to end me.” Blood poured from his shattered nose as he spoke.
The Kindler grabbed Makret’s throat and started to squeeze. He forced the smaller being’s face upwards until the two met eyes once again. The Kindler’s eyes were black, merciless, knowing neither pity nor compassion. Makret’s eyes were blue, cold as ice, with the strength of the endless seas, and the stubbornness of a man who had tamed them all. The Kindler released the Morschen man, letting him fall to the ground, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He turned and started to leave, but Makret, struggling to his knees, called after him, not begging for the mercy that he knew did not exist.
“I fought Garrenin because you were too great a coward to reveal your presence, even when he knew you were already here. He is dead. His blood still dries on my blade. Is this what I receive for doing what you cannot, Kindler, Tyrant of the Third Hell, Lord of the Seven Devils?”
The Kindler continued to walk away.
“What will you do if somehow, Garrenin survives this?” The Kindler stopped. “How will you find Dishmo Kornara? No one among the Ringless can take you there.” Makret’s voice was reaching a fevered pitch. He was on the brink of death. The Kindler turned and pointed to a Deshik Shaman. “Heal him.”
Almost an entire day passed. Seven Shamans had formed a circle around him, all muttering incantations, all pouring energy from their body into his to keep him alive. Finally, Makret stirred. He opened his eyes, and forced himself to his feet.
“Taren Garrenin is dead, my lord Kindler. What is your command?”