fore hooves crashed into the chest of a foul, twisted creature
bedecked in black mail, sending it flying backwards with a harsh
muttered curse coming from its lips. The song of steel screamed
around Atolibus and he flung himself into it headfirst, Elysdeon
drawn and flashing, golden plate reflecting firelight. He circled the
flames in the town square, lashing out with his blade and taking a
few heads in the process.
His suspicions had been confirmed from almost the minute he arrived. The town had fallen under attack from men wearing black armor and wielding raw Shadow magic from the world around them, untempered by the slightest thread of any of the other five Elements of Magic – the hallmark of the Society of the Magus. Men and women touching raw Elemental power with no regard to their safety or sanity, a group that had risen scores of times as a threat to the Ten Realms of Syreal.
Fires burned in every direction, testament to the depredations of the Magus left to their own devices. He could see bodies littering the streets and alleys, some that had clear signs of trauma alongside other that appeared to be sleeping peacefully. The dead and bloody caused him grief, but the sleepers set his blood boiling with rage, dangerous light dancing in his quicksilver eyes. A spell of sorts, a perversion of the natural flow of Shadow throughout the world that left someone in a deep sleep, never to awaken. The lingering death, as it was known to the citizens of the Ten Realms of Syreal, was one of the Magus' most potent weapons, and it had caused no end of grief for centuries. The only known cure was a merciful death.
He had a brief moment to wonder what had happened to the regiment posted in the city before an arrow came whistling through the air towards him. Whirling, a field of solid Light sprang to life around him as he charged in its direction. He snarled, leveling the four foot white blade before him as a lance of green light flashed towards the sniper foolish enough to draw a bead on him. The man was dead before he knew what hit him, a two foot hole erupting in his chest for his troubles. It never ends, gods' eyes. The man asks me to go slow. Take the day for yourself, he says. So much for that holiday.
“To me, to me, rally,” he said, leaping off of Nightmare. The black mare snorted, stomping and crashing into more black armored soldiers before whinnying and backing away from a monstrosity with a ten foot black wingspan that blotted out the light from the fires around it. Words in a harsh language that was never spoken in places of light and laughter rolled from its leathery lips, but Atolibus understood them just as well as the common tongue of Syreal.
“Sandrin,” it hissed. “We know your face, champion.” Atolibus stood stock still, sword raised before him as he shot it a grin. Skyriders. They didn't have any aims here if they sent Skyriders, the creatures are too stupid for their own good. It had the general shape of a man and it wore the same black plate and mail that the foot soldiers of the Magus were typically armed with. The similarities ended there – their faces were grotesque mockeries of humanity, a patchwork of exposed bone and rotting flesh. In place of a sword they wielded massive steel claws, bonded directly to the bones in their arm with the aid of the Gifted members of the Society, a select few able to wield more than just the raw Shadow that laced the world of Syreal.
“I should hope you do,” he said. “Know it well. It's the last thing you're going to see, you and all of the rest of those foolish enough to set foot in these lands.” It lunged for him, massive claws raking for purchase. He whirled aside, dancing away from its reach even as Elysdeon began to glow bright red. Flames lashed forward from both blade and man, flames that wrapped around the hideous ruin before him. The effect was both direct and somewhat grotesque – it screamed even as the flesh ran from its face and hands. Atolibus' boots fell heavily in the grass beneath his feet as he charged forward, spinning and slashing mightily. The screams stopped and the winged creature quite suddenly found itself a foot shorter.
“Lord Sandrin,” a voice called from behind him. He put the fingers of his left hand to his lips and whistled shrilly. Sure enough, Nightmare came pounding forward a few seconds later. He vaulted astride her and forced his way out of the square and into the cobblestone path of the main avenue that ran through the small town. Fire danced from building to building, and he scooped the owner of the voice that had called to him into the saddle behind him. A heavyset man of late middle years yelped and held on to the golden armored man for dear life as they pounded down the lane.
“Master Atell, fancy meeting you here,” Atolibus said, mirth in his tones. He hadn't had the opportunity to hear the music of steel in some time and found himself relishing every last moment. “I don't suppose you can tell me how this started?” The rumpled brown robed mayor shook, stammering violently.
“Don't know,” he said. “One moment I was sitting down to a nice dinner, the next, well, this. Flames, madness, the lot of it.” Atolibus nodded as he drew rein. They'd reached the end of the street.
“Do you know how many of your people still live?” he asked. The mayor shrugged his shoulders.
“Half, maybe less,” he said. “I think you did for most of our attackers but those fires are going to bring the town down regardless, they've grown too big to be controlled.” And indeed, Atolibus noted, the man was correct. He turned Nightmare to face the town, blade still in hand, and watched as more and more fires sprang to life. “I don't suppose you can do anything about it, Lord Commander?”
“I can,” Atolibus said. He sheathed Elysdeon, sliding off the saddle as he motioned for the mayor to stay put. Stepping forward a few paces he closed his eyes and drew upon his magic.
Light began glowing around his hands as he let them fall to his side, a roiling mixture of blue and white that was soon brighter than the flames before them. Glowing threads of power, pulled seemingly from the air around them, began to swirl and coalesce in a violent fashion before the both of them. Master Atell watched as a wall of turbulent water formed before them, growing and gaining volume until it at last stood ten feet high and thirty feet wide. He found himself taking a few involuntary steps backwards, away from the maelstrom. As the wall grew and threatened to crush them both Atolibus kept his hands moving, glowing threads of emerald hued Air magic dancing from his fingertips that forced the column to stand in place. He could see flashes of green light where the emerald energy worked its way through one side of the column and out the other, before snaking through it back towards them once more. Power surged wildly out of control for a moment, a bright golden glow blazing to life. Down, damn you. He gritted his teeth as he forced it back under control, forced the torrent to slow to a manageable pace.
With a shout Atolibus opened his eyes and released the thread restraining the wall on the side opposite where they stood. The massive wave charged forward with a tremendous roar, seeking its polar opposite in the fires that raged all around them. Within minutes none remained burning. Of the town there was little left standing – what hadn't burned had been smashed flat by the passing wave. What people that had been alive beforehand had remained so due to his foresight – the emerald threads of Air that he had blended with the column before releasing it had sought human flesh, acting as a barrier and a cushion and reducing the potential number of casualties by several orders of magnitude. Fortunate there. That volatility is something to watch, old man.
“Better?” he said, turning back around to face the mayor. The heavyset man trembled lightly as he shook his head. “Do you have what I came for, Master Atell?” Again, he nodded, withdrawing a small wooden box from the soot covered folds of his robe. He slid off of the saddle and handed it to Atolibus. It was small, no more than five inches on any side, and it had a delicate pattern carved into its surface, a pattern that seemed to spark something deep within Atolibus' memory. He took it from the mayor and it disappeared in a flash of light.
“Thank you, Lord Commander,” he said, finally shaking off some of his terror. “Buildings can be rebuilt. Lives cannot. The town of Merritt isn't far, perhaps ten miles to the east. We can be there in a few hours with whatever we can carry. I'm sorry to tell you that the young mage that was stationed here was one of the first killed when the Skyriders descended on us.” Atolibus nodded, eyes closed.
“I expected that,” he said as he sighed. “I'll be returning to the castle shortly, I'll inform the king myself. I'll have a detail of engineers shuffled up this way in short enough order. You'll be in Merritt, you said?” The jowly mayor nodded. “Good. Assuming that it hasn't befallen the same fate as Brenhel they should have enough room to put you up, the barracks there are seldom in use. It won't be terribly comfortable but at least you'll have beds to sleep in and a roof over your head. Let their mayor know you've my authorization to use any necessary facilities and resources, I'll make sure he's accounted for in short order.” The mayor saluted Atolibus with a fist to heart in the manner of the Lothanis Army, and the man in gold returned the gesture with a nod. He watched the mayor walk away and remounted, cantering around the southern edge of the ruined town back towards the castle road.
Atolibus reasoned that the Magus had known of the mayor's charge, somehow. He wasn't certain how that was possible, and any explanation that came to mind was grim. Spies or worse. He shook his head briskly – that was a thought for another day. The fact that they'd sent a small platoon with a Skyrider also confused him – though the winged perversions were powerful, they very rarely accomplished much beyond simple chaos. Magus, striking this close to home. They mock me. He'd been traveling south for a few moments when Nightmare slowed to a stop of her own accord.
“Everything all right there, girl?” he said, scratching behind her ears. She whinnied softly and he dismounted, kneeling before her. “What have we got? Something caught in a hoof, perhaps? Have you thrown a shoe?” A brief inspection of her hooves showed nothing amiss. Nothing, that is, until one of them came flashing towards his chest, knocking him forcefully on his back with a grunt. A face swam into his vision above, a young woman wearing a curious expression.