Chapter 7: Shadows of War
Erygan Dalrey had come to resent the Deshika in a new way. They could not take a hint. No matter how many times he raised the Storm Cloud banner of Torridesta, new Deshik armies poured in behind him and tore it back down. Fighting the same battles over and over again annoyed him, but what worried him more was that he continued to lose men he could not afford. And while in his heart, he longed to simply sweep along on horseback and cleave one terrible and bloody road, torching Deshik encampments and slaughtering any who might get in his way, he did not have the horses nor did he have the reinforcements behind him to leave his lands undefended. So he kept refighting the same battles over the same half dozen towns all within the same fifteen leagues. If it took him an eternity, he would carve a territory where the Deshika would not go because of how many of their kind had died within its bounds. But he did not have an eternity. At seven hundred and fifty-three, he was not an old man, many would say he was still in his prime, but he felt in his heart that he was slowing failing. It was time for someone else to lead, someone that the Merchant Clans did not yet control. The cost of smuggling a message to Makret Druoth asking him to get Eildar out of Shiabira, a small city in Storinea near the Armandan border, had been ridiculous, but Erygan could afford it. He had needed Eildar. And now, though he and Eildar disagreed about the best way to drive away the Deshika, they both detested the four-armed giants and wanted them gone.
Eildar sat on a hay bale on the other side of the second story of a barn in the most recent town that they had reconquered. He was rubbing his chest, a nervous tick that had become a habit since the Battle of the Cardor when he had been stabbed in the back. “Father, what if we send part of our force in a direction that the Deshika don’t expect? They’ll be forced to divide their soldiers to chase us, and then they’ll be easier to trick into a battle of our choosing.” “No, Eildar. We’ve paid a high price for these villages. I won’t see those sacrifices made needless by marching somewhere else. The Storm Cloud must fly free.”
“The Storm Cloud can’t fly free here, father. Most of the villagers from this area have already fled towards Toredo. They are protected only by our advance. Guinira isn’t sending her armies to fight a battle that she can’t control. She wants the fight to centre on Toredo, but she knows that we will simply sit here and wait, or keep marching. She knows that the only way of stopping you is to kill you. She can’t do that if you are choosing the battles.” “You’re saying that she’s massing an army that will march on this land here, because this is where I am.”
“I’m saying that she’s already sent it.”
“I believe that this land is important to the Deshika in some way. As long as we’re here, they can’t take control of it. I won’t hand it back to them.”
“Maybe they believe the same thing you do, father. What if, to them, this land means nothing, but they fight for it because you won’t give it up?”
Erygan had not considered that possibility before. As a Morschcoda, he had always acted on what he knew or believed his opponent’s logical motive was. But Eildar’s logic felt flawed to him. This was not the first land he had reclaimed from the Deshika. It had not been the most heavily guarded land he took. It had no strategic or economic importance to either side. Why had the Deshika fought so hard to retain this land, and why did they still? But maybe, that was the simple brilliance of Eildar’s reasoning. They had no leader with them, Devil, Deshik, or Morschen. Eildar had ridden north after Armanda’s Dothorin campaign, and because of his spying while in Storinea, he knew much of what there was to know about the ordering of the Deshik armies in Torridesta. Because there was no real military leader to make the decisions, the Deshik armies threw themselves at Erygan simply because he was there: because he was too stubborn to leave the land to the Deshika, and they were too stupid to understand that the land itself was not important to the Morschcoda.
“Eildar, do you know when Guinira’s reinforcements might be getting here?”
His son did not respond, but pulled out a telescope and pointed it southward. The telescope was an expensive artifact; it had been a gift from a powerful Merchant Prince to Erygan’s great-great-grandfather. Even one that was poorly crafted, so long as it worked, commanded prices of over one hundred gold paroes. One as well made as Eildar held would cost a small fortune to craft, and a much larger one to purchase. A gift of such extravagance could not be refused, not even with all of the implications and expectations that came along with it. Erygan had borne the telescope in his time, and now, so did Eildar.
Erygan watched as his son directed the glass southwards, sweeping it from west to east in a long, slow circle. What the piece’s range was, Erygan had never tested, but through it, he had beheld the stars and the moon like one who walked beside them, so he knew for himself its power. Eildar’s lips tightened in a grim frown as he gazed almost straight towards Airachni. Slowly and carefully, he placed the telescope back in its pouch on his belt. “I don’t think that they’ll take long, father. But something’s wrong. They aren’t The Kindler’s Deshika, and they aren’t Nasheem’s.” He withdrew the telescope and handed it to his father. “They bear the Whip of Vorteez as their standard. The Master of Pain has arrived in Anaria.” Erygan did not bother to raise the telescope to his eye. He could now see the Deshika without it, like ants, just barely visible, creeping over the horizon. He knew that his son would not mistake The Kindler’s Candle or even Nasheem’s Curling Feathers for the Whip of Vorteez. “Take two thousand men on horseback and ride hard for Rista. That might draw enough of them off.” “What about you?’
“If they’re here for me, then you’re right. They’ll have to divide their army …”
“Because they won’t know which force you’re leading.”
“I should warn you, I think that more will follow you than will stay here. Guinira thinks of me as a pawn of the Merchant Conclave, who will do everything possible to save his own skin. The harder you ride, the more will follow you.”
“I’ll drag them through the three hells if I must. I’ll ride for Agrista. The ruins are defensible.”
“You may find more than just ruins there. Marrdin has been busy throughout Rista, trying to avoid The Kindler’s eye.”
Eildar walked slowly to the stairs, but stopped at their head. “If none of the Deshika follow me, don’t stay here. This town may have held against small armies, but Vorteez’s soldiers won’t go out of their way to keep this village intact. They will burn it.”
“I have my own plans for them, Eildar. I’ve been waiting for this army for over one month now. I am prepared for them.” Eildar turned to go, but Erygan said one more thing. “If you make it to Marrdin, tell him that nightfall comes soon.”
Eildar stormed down the stairs and passed the guards at the large barn door. He called loudly for his commander, who appeared quickly. Almost too quickly, thought Eildar, but he shrugged it off. “The old man wants to wait for this army, and meet them in honest battle, as if there is such a thing. He has no strategy, no skill of command, nor depth of deception. I am not going to sit here and wait for death’s tide to roll over us. Gather as many men as you can, and all of the horses you can find in the next hour. I want to be gone before my father knows what’s happened.” “But sir, if there is to be a battle …”
“There will be no battle. Vorteez wouldn’t send a force that this army has any hope of defeating, and my father knows it. All he wants is some sort of heroic last stand, like Regath Encarthian. He was a lord such as the Morschen need now, but all my father will be doing is wasting lives. I ride for Rista. Any who want to not die are welcome, so long as they can keep the pace. With Vorteez’s hordes behind us, we won’t have the luxury of waiting for stragglers.” …
Months before, even before the betrayal of Makret Druoth and the discovery of Domrar Cadrick as a spy in her court, Guinira had decided that she no longer trusted non-Armandans. That decision, as well as her desire to find a replacement for Druoth, led her to make a controversial appointment. She had found a ninety-two-year-old Armandan pureblood named Hialed Volkure. He was a Ringlord who had chosen to remain loyal to her instead of following Xari into exile. He was inexperienced, he held neither rank nor office in the Armandan army, and most importantly, he was young. Ninety-two meant nothing to most Ringlords, or ordinary Morschen. It was not even a respectable age among the Deshika. But his age had an upside, and Guinira found that to be more important. She could mold him into the man she needed. He was not distinguished, so no one would follow him if he betrayed her. But she doubted that too. The man was a zealot. He was one of her Morschledu Hunters, willing to track down and kill even his own kin if they were traitors to the Armandan Throne. If he proved himself capable of command, and survived, then he would be named Guinira’s High General. If he was incompetent, he would likely not live long enough for her to learn of his failure. Nasheem had ‘borrowed’ forty-nine thousand warriors so that Volkure could have someone to command. The warriors that Nasheem took were those Vorteez normally sent to raid the Morieden warrior clans of northern Drogoda, or when hunting wild Mordak and Dragons. Vorteez did not trust Nasheem, a rift that had widened since the Dread Commander’s soldiers had failed to take Dothoro under Druoth’s command. But, Vorteez’s warriors needed a commander, and Hialed Volkure needed a test. Guinira could give him no advice about hunting down his quarry, for she had never marched against Torridesta itself, either as Queen of Anaria, or as Queen of Armanda. Hialed Volkure would have to discover a way of killing Morschcoda Erygan Dalrey on his own.
Hialed Volkure’s eyes burned as he stared at each of the War Chiefs in turn. Each of the seven War Chiefs stared back, not quite sure what they should think about their ‘General.’ They had never served under an Anarian, though they had killed many of them. But, despite the boy’s young age, they could see that fire burning. He wanted power, and now, he had it. Nobody before him had managed to win a battle against Erygan Dalrey. Few had managed to find him to fight one, but now, Hialed Volkure had found the old Torridestan. Within a few hours, he was confident he would claim victory over Torridesta as well. Just as he withdrew his gaze from the last War Chief and was about to start giving orders, a Torridestan slipped into the tent and bowed his head.
“General. Your arrival is unexpected, but welcome.”
Volkure ran his eyes over the Torridestan. He didn’t seem impressed with what he saw. “Guinira did not tell me that she had spy in Torridesta’s army. What is your report?”
The man would have answered, but he looked horrified at the mention of Guinira’s name.
“You said her majesty’s name? But … How dare …?”
Volkure’s red eyes flashed with fire at the challenge, and flames began to dance around his fingertips as he prepared to answer. “I am in command here. I do as I wish. Now, do you have a report or not?”
The man was shaken, but answered. “Yes, my lord. Um, Morschcoda Dalrey is intending to make a stand where he is.”
“Is that it?”
“No sir. Eildar Dalrey has denounced the Morschcoda as an old man with no military skill. The land that he intends to hold has no value, economically or strategically, so Eildar Dalrey has taken as many men as could find a horse and fled the camp, riding hard towards Rista. Apparently, Morschcoda Redernin has returned to his homeland and has begun fortifying it. Two thousand Torridestan Knights would be a significant aid in holding that country.” Hialed did not think long. “I was ordered to find Erygan Dalrey, engage him in battle, and end the threat to Guinira’s northern borders. The son does not figure in to those orders. All troops will prepare for immediate head on assault. I want Dalrey’s head before the day is finished.”
“General—” The oldest War Chief and the Torridestan spy both tried speaking at once. Hialed held up his hand, and the Torridestan went silent. A glance from his fire-filled eyes was enough to silence the War Chief.
“I take that to mean that you both oppose.”
“If Eildar Dalrey is riding towards a fortified Rista, then we cannot allow him to reach the border. If your orders were to end the threat to Armanda’s northern bounds, then that is at least as significant as Morschcoda Dalrey. Possibly even more so, now, due to how many soldiers he has taken with him eastward.” Hialed took in the spy’s words in quiet. “And why do you think I should not crush Dalrey now?”
“We do not know if the Torridestan King is in the camp anymore. This may be a trick, and he could have disguised himself, leaving a lesser lord in charge.”
“That is not a pitifully, hopelessly moronic suggestion, War Chief.” Hialed stood up and walked over to the spy. “Is Dalrey still in the camp?”
“With the Morschcoda’s powers, not even I could be certain.” Hialed nodded once and turned around. Then, he drew his sword in one swift motion and cut off the spy’s head. It fell to the floor, followed a half second later by its body.
“Guinira did not tell me that she had a spy in Dalrey’s camp, because there was no spy in Dalrey’s camp. This was an attempt to divide our forces, to push us in the wrong direction. And it almost worked.” He turned towards his War Chiefs. “If any one of you hears any Morschen even say the word ‘Morschcoda’ you are to kill him or her on sight as a traitor. Now, prepare the men. We march as soon as possible, with everything. Also, one of you, collect that head and take it to my tent. It’s my eighteenth. I need to preserve it with the others so that I can present them all to my lady.” Erygan watched as the forty-nine thousand Deshik warriors assembled in ranks along the brow of the hill south of the village. With his horses gone, he could not counter attack before his enemies were ready, but it also meant that he could not run. Even with the small protection offered by the village’s buildings, he doubted that he could hold the village for any length of time against so many Deshika.
When his scout did not return, and the Deshik ranks were still forming, Erygan knew that something had gone wrong. Eildar had not been able to tell him which, if any, of Guinira’s Morschen Generals would be leading the renewed invasion of Torridesta, but Erygan suspected a new leader; most likely Armandan, and judging from the head-on tactic, a young one. From the aggressive nature of the offensive, he guessed that whoever it was would end up being a man, one that he knew sooner or later, he would meet face to face.
Eildar stopped just out of sight of the village. He knew the plan, but he doubted that a head-on charge would have the effect that his father wanted. He turned towards his commanders and gave orders.
“The Deshika look as though they are going to march head on through the village. If they reach the houses before we attack, we will die, our brothers in the village will die, and Torridesta will fall.”
“What if we rode back, charged through the roads, and attacked them head on.”
“No. They have the advantage in size, even with our horses. Their four arms will let them kill us before we are even close enough to do any damage.”
“What about a southern charge. The ridge of the hill will hide our movements, and if we travel slowly enough, the Deshika will not feel our charge until we are cutting into their backs.”
Eildar thought. “If we ride too slowly, they will have reached the houses. We have to keep as many as possible outside of the village.”
“What about an illusion?” All of the commanders looked at the young man who spoke. “Place shadows in front of the village, make our force seem stronger. It might keep them back from the village long enough, especially if they aren’t sure what they are truly fighting.”
Eildar knew that he did not have the time to waste, but he could not make up his mind. He kept repeating one word that his commander had said. “Shadows … Shadows?” Finally, he understood. “We don’t have the strength as we are to fight the Deshika head on. But … You all know what it is I am suggesting?” His men nodded. “I want them to be volunteers. They know as well as we do that no one who stands in front of the Deshika, whether we win or we lose this fight, will not be coming back.” “My lord, all Morschledu know what it means to channel their Elemental Forms. I will not be surprised if they all volunteer.”
Hialed watched as three hundred horsemen rode back to stand between his advancing Deshika and the worthless village that hid Erygan Dalrey. To his Morschen sight, they were inconsequential. Three hundred, even on horseback, was no challenge for Vorteez’s First Battalion. He had heard other Morschen call them the Whip Crackers. He did not know if there was a Deshik phrase to match, but he doubted it. The Deshika were a very serious and traditional sort of people. He liked that about them. They did not see the need to take erroneous titles. He gave the order to attack.
As the Deshika drew closer to the line of houses, Hialed looked closer at the three hundred horsemen. They bothered him, and he thought he knew why. The spy had told him that two thousand had abandoned Erygan. Obviously these three hundred had a collective backbone, as well as some measure of loyalty to their soon to be dead Morschcoda. Not even before the return of the Seven would Hialed Volkure have acknowledged Erygan Dalrey as a King.
Volkure was about to order the Deshika to charge when something happened that even he considered interesting. The three hundred Torridestans each grew in size, but lost any defining features. Their armour did not shine in the midday sun, their drawn swords no longer mirrored the grass and huts and sky like his own blade did. He could not explain it, until, even from over half a league away, he saw one of the Torridestans turn sideways and disappear. “By all the gods …” He knew what was coming, and a part of him wanted to run as far away as he could, but it was too late. He could not even get the order to retreat out of his mouth. Three hundred Living Shadows charged the advancing Deshik line.
Erygan watched with wary interest as the three hundred horsemen took up a position about two hundred yards from the southernmost house. ‘Eildar, what are you doing?’ He could not bring himself to voice the question, dreading that one of his commanders might have an answer for him. What he dreaded more, though, was that the answer might make sense.
He did not have to wait long for the answer that he did not want. He felt the surge of magic. He knew what they had done. The Pure Elemental State was one that any Morschledu could reach. It involved transforming one’s body into a being of pure elemental energy, bound together by magic. Erygan bowed his head at the sacrifice his men were making. The Pure Elemental State ended exclusively with death.
The three hundred Living Shadows were weapons of a kind the Deshika had never faced before. Their prowess was unmatched, but they did not need swords, or any other weapon. The Living Shadows wielded mystery and terror, and being shadows, no Deshik weapon could truly harm them. All the Whip Cracker’s swords did was slow the Shadows down, and maybe quicken the rate of magical exhaustion. When Morschledu transformed themselves into pure energy, they died when that energy ran out. There was no return to the flesh-bound world.
Hialed had never seen anyone so devoted to a cause that they would transform themselves into living energy to fight on its behalf. ‘And they call me a zealot?’ It was his only thought. The devotion of the Living Shadows, he knew, went far beyond what he would do for his Queen. But now, all he could do was watch as the finest Deshik warriors in all of Anaria, possibly even the world, were slaughtered.
Occasionally, one of the Shadows would die, but he knew that nobody could take any credit for it. The Shadows, though, had carved a long and strangely bloodless swath out of his first ranks, and many of the rearmost Deshika were turning away from the battle so that they did not join their comrades in death. It was bloodless because the Shadows did not bleed, and because while they used their swords, they had a weapon even faster. Living Shadows possessed the power to reach inside of a being and rip out their soul. Some Demosira argued that by ripping out another’s soul, the Living Shadow gained more energy or power, and could survive longer. Hialed watched in silent horror as rank after rank of Vorteez’s finest fell over lifeless without a scratch. He finally got the word out in one loud screech. “RETREAT!”