The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Seven

Part II

Three months later, after a brief whirlwind of a courtship, the two of them had received dire news while on a day long visit to Brenhel. They’d been sizing up the reconstruction efforts when a runner had come pounding down the castle road on a tired horse, waving a scroll and shouting for the man in gold’s attention. Immediately employing his magic, Atolibus readied a teleport that would take him directly to the castle.

“I cannot wait the time it takes to return on horseback,” he said to the messenger. “Therefore I ask you to remain here and keep watch for me, while Kristina and I return to the castle by my own ways.” He looked into her eyes, and at once she could read the pain behind them, and the clawing worry. The messenger nodded and headed to the makeshift stables that had been put up to house the many horses that were being used to bring in supplies to the rapidly growing town. “I’m going to put us down outside the city gates – I don’t wish to hurt anyone and I want a chance to see how far the damage has spread.” And time to collect my wits - why was I not alerted as soon as the first Magus entered the city? Are not my wards as strong as ever, stronger even? Kristina nodded and he took her hand, bearing them directly to the city.

Even at its outer edge the damage was immediate and apparent – fires were burning in half the structures in town and those that weren’t lying on the ground, dead or worse, were working desperately to put them out. A large garrison of soldiers was moving throughout the city working with the townsfolk to get the situation under control, but the extent of the damage hit Atolibus like a sledgehammer. He sank to his knees, unable to speak. Kristina sighed heavily – this was as clear a sign as any that Elvina had spoken true. This was war, and that it had struck so close to home, in a place so powerful and seemingly unassailable chilled her to the marrow.

“Gods’ eyes...” he muttered, hands shaking. “How could this happen? I went to so much trouble... took so much care with the wards... what power could have brought this about?”

“Whatever it was we can’t do anything about it from here,” she said, trying to get through his shock to the inside. “Come on, we need to see deeper than this. What about the castle? What of the men and women there? What of the king?” Atolibus’ mind reeled in horror – that thought had not yet registered. Without speaking he rose and took her hand, teleporting straight to the castle gates. The experience was thoroughly wrenching, as usual, and this time she had to step aside and heave up her earlier meal. Gateways, while uncommon, were relatively easy to traverse if a touch unnerving. Two trips through his strange magic, on the other hand, were definitely taxing to the system, she decided. Soldiers patrolling the area came rushing to meet their leader as he suddenly appeared out of thin air with a lovely albeit ill young woman at his side.

“What happened here?” was all he asked. Not a single one of them could speak but their faces said it all – disaster, complete and utter disaster. Before he had time to shout one of them down for being silent when he most needed words Fantus came striding through the gates, bedraggled as if he’d been fighting a furious battle. His once proud robes were torn and soiled, and more than half of his hair looked as if it had been singed off of his head. “Fantus, my friend. What disaster befell us in my absence? I need to know.” Fantus bowed his head.

“It is too much for me to speak of... you must see for yourself,” he said, taking Atolibus by the arm and leading him forward. “Aye, and your lady friend too.” Atolibus shuddered visibly and, for once, allowed himself to be lead forward. Kristina followed briskly at his side, not wanting to be left behind.

Everywhere there were signs of a massive attack. Soldiers were streaming in and out of rooms and hallways, expensive and ancient tapestries had been burned off of the walls and floors, and the dead lie everywhere. Some of them were different, however, as Kristina observed. They looked as if they were asleep, peacefully... but this horrified her even more, for she knew what this was. Fallen. The lingering death. She had never before seen it firsthand, but she had heard enough tales to frighten her as a child, tales that were more often than not true.

“We don’t know how they got in,” Fantus said as they walked towards the throne room, “but somehow, they slipped past our guards and began slaughtering everyone in sight. They slashed and burned their way through the city and eventually broke through our defenses at the gate and began killing everyone they could find. Or worse... as you can see, there are more cases of the lingering death here than in all of the long years of this kingdom combined. Thousands, throughout the city, inside the castle, sleeping, never to wake.” He sighed heavily.

“You look as if you’ve seen your share of battle – how did the fight go?” Atolibus asked, trying to shake himself from his stupor. Fantus sighed again.

“We turned them aside, but at a heavy cost. Half the city garrison was destroyed outright and over two thirds of the mages died on their feet,” he said. His voice sunk to a whisper. “Even the younglings. They were smart about this, the Magus, I have to give them credit for that. As to how they got past all of the wardings and warning systems we’d laid in place, that remains to be seen. And this is not the worst of it.” Atolibus looked at him intently, head cocked slightly to the side. “No, my friend, this is the least of our concerns. Look.” He pointed forwards, to where the doors to the throne room should have been. In their place was a pile of rubble and charnel that turned Kristina’s stomach and would have had her heaving again had she not lost her meal outside minutes before. This seemed to send Atolibus into a blind rage, and he extended his right hand as coruscating bolts of light ripped the grisly heap to pieces. Not a scrap of vileness remained when he lowered his hand and released the blinding light he’d been using, but the damage was done.

As they stepped into the throne room proper Atolibus shouted, a piercing, wailing sound that put Kristina on her knees in pain. Not far from where they stood lie the body of the King. Lothane Lothanis the Fourteenth was sleeping peacefully, never to wake, a victim of the lingering death. Atolibus knelt at his side, and Kristina could see pulses of light that forced her to turn her head lest she go blind. Nothing availed. No magical spell that he knew, no power he possessed could reverse the lingering death once someone was stricken with it. He had come too late. Atolibus screamed aloud again. She could see tears running down his face, and when he stopped screaming he sunk to the ground, weeping for all to see. She walked over to him and knelt beside him, hugging him tightly.

There they knelt, alone in their grief – Fantus had made a hasty retreat when he heard Atolibus scream.

“My friend,” Atolibus whispered, shaking even as he grasped the king’s unmoving hand. “Last of my line... you were special to me like none before you.” He rose slowly, blade clenched tightly in both fists. “The Magus shall pay for this in blood.” His aura of power seemed to grow in Kristina’s eyes, until it was almost unbearable to look at. Last of your line? A voice broke her thoughts, a voice filled with scorn and smug humor.

“Then I suppose you are speaking of me,” he called to them. Atolibus whipped around, blade in hand, staring down the intruder. “For I am called Gaerlin, and I am the one who lead this battle. Indeed, bringing down your precious king was my solemn duty, as a Magus and as a servant of the Grand Magus.” Atolibus growled in his throat and raised his sword.

“A new face and a new name are not enough to deceive me,” he said, voice riddled with death, face speaking volumes without a word. “I know you, Gregor Solara. A thousand times my life could I live and I would not forget you.” Kristina felt her insides twist – that was a name not spoken of outside of whispers. A man going by that name had led the Magus a thousand years ago before their advance was ground to a halt by the arrival of the True King.

“You’re sharp, Lord Regent, I’ll grant you that,” he said. “I haven’t gone by that name in centuries. Too much history attached to it, you might say.” He laughed aloud. “But it is as true now as it was then. I am indeed Gregor Solara.” He bowed low in mockery of the customs of lords and kings. “I brought your king down for duty, but I am here to take your pretty for pure spite.” Even as he laughed Atolibus sprang into action. A field of pure white energy hummed into life around Kristina as Atolibus charged forward with blinding speed, sword flashing through the air. Gregor met his stroke immediately, his sword out of his sheath and in his hands faster than Kristina could blink.

The man in gold clashed blades with the man in black, and the satisfaction that he derived from forcing the man slowly backwards was both merciless and glorious. He forced thoughts of that aside as he threw himself headfirst into battle, forgetting all else save the sweet music of steel that rang throughout the throne room. He was clearly the better swordsman, chasing Gregor around in a great circle, ever backwards and away from Kristina. He rained blows upon him from every direction, utilizing every ounce of knowledge and skill that he had to beat his opponent into utter submission. Gregor fought with savage resolve, spinning and slashing where least expected, flowing like liquid between blows. Even as he fought back he found himself being pressed closer and closer to the wall. Raising his sword before him and blocking a savage hammer blow from Elysdeon he spoke.

“You can chase me around all you’d like, it doesn’t change a thing,” he said, catching his breath. “Your king will still be lying there, unable to rouse himself for all of eternity if this castle stands that long.”

“Perhaps that is so,” Atolibus said, voice deep and filled with rage. “Or perhaps I will best you here and now and kill you again. That would please me greatly.” Gregor cocked his head to the side for a moment, perplexed. He knew of the Regent through his recent contact with the Society, of course, but beyond that, nothing.

“Fool,” he said, voice flattening as his eyes narrowed to dangerous slits dancing with the light of the Gift. “I merely stand here as an object lesson for you and yours. We are coming.” With that he disappeared, just as Atolibus’ sword closed the gap and nearly ended his life. The man in gold shouted aloud in fruitless rage and frustration. He sheathed his blade, mastering himself, and released the shield around Kristina.

“Are you all right?” she said.

“I suppose I am, at that,” he said. Looking to where Lothane lie, he sighed to himself. “Or at least I will be, once I can figure out how to undo what has never before been undone.” He walked over to her, wrapping his arm around her waist, sighing heavily. He looked her in the eye. “And I think I know where to start. Let me borrow your staff for a moment.” Not precisely what she’d expected to hear, but she handed it to him regardless. He produced the small, oaken box that he had been asked to retrieve months ago, the very thing that had brought them together in the first place. “If this holds what I think it does it may be the beginning of the road that will take us there.” He stepped away from her and the shield of light sprang back to life around her. “Just playing it safe. I don’t know what’s in here, and if I’m wrong I wouldn’t want you to suffer because of it.” With that, he aligned the raised sigil on her staff with the engraved image on the box, and the lid popped open. Much to Kristina’s surprise a wave of pure Shadow did not erupt from it.

Lying inside the small box set atop a velvety cloth was what appeared to be a small shard of opaque white glass that rippled with the colors of the rainbow. It was no wider than perhaps three fingers placed together and no longer than the middle knuckle of that same finger to the very tip, but all the same she could sense a resonance of great power, and she knew that somehow this tiny thing was more important than all the armies and all the magic in the world. She heard a sharp intake of breath from Atolibus’ direction and she stepped next to him, the shield around her disappearing.

“A shard of the Soul Egg,” he said, eyes glassy, wonder and marvel in his tones. “More precious than all the gold and all the gems in the land, more precious than the crown of Lothanis itself.”

While Atolibus was taking the shard of the Soul Egg in hand a small band of desperate troops was doing battle barely a hundred miles north of the castle, just outside of Brenhel. They had been hounding the lines of a large group of Magus for unending leagues, but for once the dark soldiers before them had turned and given battle. Instead of picking them off one by one in a manner of their choosing, they’d found themselves giving pitched battle in unfamiliar territory. Inside of one of many hastily erected tents was their leader, a hard faced woman nearing her late middle years wearing damaged silver plate and mail. She was at the head of a small circle of her most trusted Generals and advisers, standing around a large table with a crudely done relief map of the area they were fighting in. Pegs were set in the table to represent groups of troops and supplies, and from the looks of things the Magus had the distinct advantage.

“They press us from here, and here,” she said, pointing to different spots on the map with her sword, her voice gravelly and fatigued, “and our lines will fall. If that happens, expect wholesale slaughter.” Every ounce of humor or good will she’d had been flayed from her one agonizing strip at a time, leaving little other than a bleached skeleton behind. Things had come down to the wire and she expected death to be waiting for her around the corner at any time. “To prevent this we need swords and food, here and here.” She marked two other spots on the map, close to where her lines were the weakest. She ran her fingers nervously through her shorn blond locks, cut short at the nape of the neck so as not to encumber her in battle. This battle was drawing to a close, she knew, but nevertheless she would press on until she fell and the long sleep of death took her into its embrace.

“We have neither,” the man across the table from her said, a short, dark eyed man by the name of Thorvald. He was her chief Lieutenant and seldom had his council been in error. “This land is unfamiliar to us, milady. We’re losing more and more men in ambush than ever before. Lacking magical support we should consider retreat.” She shook her head. Would that that were even an option as it stands, she thought to herself, too many Magus around, too many prying eyes to see what isn’t meant to be seen. I’ll be damned if I give the bastards gateways as the prize alongside my death.

“I will not give ground,” she growled. “I will not fall back, I will not retreat, we will stand here, or fall. Too many times have we given way to the Magus, too many times have they slain our men and walked away laughing. Not this time. We will destroy them all, and I think I might have a plan if luck is on our side.”

“Milady...” he muttered, but she brooked no dissent. Sighing, he continued. “Very well then, my Lord General. What’s the plan?” She smiled – a few tricks were still hidden up the sleeve of Lord General Schala Winn. Even though they were painfully outnumbered the way was still before them, the path to victory, if she could but convince her men to follow her once more to the brink of doom.

“Ready a horse and find someone with enough courage to stare death in the face and not blink,” she said, eyes distant. “Castle Lothanis is not far and from there lies our salvation.”

Elvina was listening to Gaerlin’s report from her throne with great interest. If the man spoke true, they had succeeded in something she did not think possible – a direct assault on Castle Lothanis itself. Indeed, her Master’s power was formidable, if it had been able to hide their movements from Atolibus’ watchful eye. She tried time and again to ferret out his identity, but holding the thought of him in the front of her mind was nigh on impossible for some reason.

“I would chance to say you are pleased, my liege,” he said, still kneeling.

“Yes, my young Magus,” she said, standing from her throne and walking slowly towards him, hips swaying lightly as she moved, “Very much so. You have carried out my orders with startling alacrity, and I think some reward is due, no?” He smiled, stepping forward into her embrace. After a moment she pulled away from him. “But it will have to wait for tonight, my sweet. There is a battle raging even now that I must join.”

“And what makes this one more important than the last?” he asked her. “You put a lot on the line a few months ago when you entered the Castle, is this safe?” She laughed lightly, running her fingers through his hair.

“It’s a minor enough thing,” she replied. “Just the matter of a certain little bird that I’ve always wanted to wrap my fingers around. Today she made the mistake of giving open battle, and when opportunity knocks...”

Atolibus strode out of the throne room with a heavy heart. He was loath to leave the body of his friend but there was work to be done, and a new king to be named in Lothane’s place while he slept, he told himself. He knew without having to speak to anyone what the result would be, and the thought darkened his heart even further. Retaking the throne of Lothanis. I had never thought to have to shoulder that duty again, but I am not surprised. He smiled ruefully to himself. I suppose the only thing that genuinely surprises me is that it took this long for it to happen. He sighed greatly and wrapped his arm around Kristina, who was walking at his side. When they reached the massive archway of the entrance to the keep they found the entire High Council gathered in a large semi circle. Standing in the center of the group was Fantus, holding the crown of Lothanis in his hands.

“All ready you come to me with this,” he said. “Your king lies yonder and all ready you bring me the crown.” He swept his gaze across the lot of them, finding contempt difficult to swallow despite the fact that they were doing the very duty they’d been sworn to do barely a few months past. “Very well, then. But let’s skip the ceremony and the coronation – I rather imagine the people will know soon enough what has transpired here, if they do not all ready.” A gleam he caught from Fantus’ eye said as much. “But I will not kneel before you in supplication – I will take it from you here and now, by my own hands.” Fantus nodded – he’d expected as much – and Atolibus took the wrought golden wreathe gently from him with both hands. The white stone set in the center of it shone brightly when he held it aloft, raising it to his head. “For it was ever thus that with my own hands I bring about my own destiny. You will regret this day, I think. You and I, all of us will regret this day.” The white stone shone brighter than ever before, seeming to accept its new owner, and then all was silent. The convened council went to one knee. “Oh, for love of the gods, get up.

“My King, this part of the ceremony, at least, must be held to,” one of the kneeling men said, a grizzled old soldier by the name of Bergin. He had seen many battles and doubtless would see many more before he laid down his charge of Councilor of War. Atolibus would be the third king he had served and he was proud to call him his King, a man he had fought beside during the Skirmishes decades before, a man he had gotten piss drunk with when he was younger and had more hair atop his head. Atolibus sighed heavily. The men before him rose and saluted him in proper fashion of soldier to General. Fantus broke the silence.

“By right of Law, I pronounce you the one and only king and the beginning of a new line, one which will carry honor and respect to the end of days,” he said, his voice low and grave. The Council nodded in unison. He paused for a moment, looking from the man in gold to the woman at his side, smiling and chuckling. “I suppose that’s enough royal nonsense from us then, milord Commander.”

“Indeed,” Atolibus said. “And well that you remember that. Let this be my first royal decree – henceforth no man shall refer to me as ‘your majesty’, ‘your grace’, ‘my liege’, or any other official title that I am now saddled with.” Fantus chuckled lightly to himself. “I’d rather be known as I am, Atolibus Sandrin, Supreme Lord Commander of the Armies and Regent to the throne. For whatever you might say, I am still performing the duties of the Regency. Lothane is not dead, not yet, not if I have anything to say about it.” They bowed once, and he added, “Make a note that I’m not particularly fond of bowing or kneeling, either.” He turned with Kristina and walked into the castle, drawing stares and all manners of attention as they walked.

“You didn’t tell them about the Soul Egg,” she whispered. He nodded.

“I didn’t think they needed to know,” he said. “As I said it is more precious than this wretched crown which sits on my head, and with it I may have the way to restore those that have been lost to the lingering death.” He glanced about furtively, making certain no one was listening openly. “If those silly sods in there knew of it we would surely be assailed from without, for I have no doubt now that Elvina has spies in the castle.” Kristina looked at him sideways when he said this. “It had to have been recently, and undoubtedly it’s someone I would never expect.” Right now you are the only person I trust, my love. Take care that you never repeat a word of what was said here. He smiled to himself with a sigh. “Come, my love. We have a kingdom to set to rights, and a lot of work to do.”

As they entered the throne room a horse came galloping down the corridor, stopping just behind Atolibus. He whirled around at the sound of hoof beats, sword flashing into his hands. He sheathed the weapon when he saw the messenger sitting bedraggled in the saddle, his mount blowing hard and winded as if she’d just run a marathon.

“Lord Commander, sir,” the young man said, leaping from the saddle and leaning against her for support. He was at the end of his strength and was almost certain he wouldn’t make it back in time if he tried. “Brenhel is under siege, Lord General Winn’s brigade is being pressed and pressed hard. Things are going ill – I was barely able to break through the lines with my message.”

“What of the mages in her retinue?” the man in gold said, eyes narrow. The young man shook his head.

“Dead to a man,” he said. Atolibus sighed with eyes closed – he wasn’t surprised but it was a blow none the less. I expected as much. Damn. Their timing couldn’t be any worse. He spent a moment grinding his teeth and working his jaw silently before turning to Kristina.

“I need you here,” he said. “The Council and the garrison must be alerted.”

“And you?” she said.

“I’m going in person,” he said quietly. The messenger eyed him with something in between awe and horror, he wasn’t certain which. “Get the city moving and get preparations underway, I’m going to take any mages we can spare and try to put some distance between us as best as possible.” He looked to the messenger again. “Why didn’t she open a gateway for you directly? She’s Gifted, and reasonably powerful at that.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t think to ask.” Atolibus nodded absently. Damnable state secrets.

“Get some rest,” the man in gold said. “You’re going to need it.”

“No one moves,” Schala said, hands flashing signals to her men as she stood.

“Here we are, face to face at long last,” Elvina said, sitting astride a black-mailed monster of a mount, black hair flowing behind her shoulders as light danced off of the black plate encasing most of her body. They’d been at opposite ends of the battlefield before, never having had the chance to meet directly. Triumph curved her lips in a vicious smile, the taste of victory both sweet and savory.

Schala took a single step back, silver breastplate cracked and dented, the wings of her helm shorn off by sword strokes and her lavender cloak torn and shredded, snarling to the last. She dropped the bow in her hands, picked up off of a dead Magus after she’d lost her own in the heat of battle, drawing the two foot length of steel at her left hip. It was a futile gesture, likely her last, but even staring at all of the might of the Shadow eye to eye did not cause her to waver in the slightest. Sharp black met stern blue and for a moment both women paused in curiosity – their wills were both great indeed, but each could feel an odd sense of familiarity coming from the other. Veiled power that lie waiting, hungering for release. Schala blinked, shaking off the unbidden thought and letting it pass.

“Kill me here and now, then,” she said with a growl. “Go ahead and do it, bitch. You’ll get no satisfaction from me or mine, I can promise you that.” Elvina smiled again, making to speak before the blade of a sword nearly took her head. She cantered backwards in the saddle even as her own weapon came up to block. A look of panic crossed her features when she found herself eye to eye with the man in gold, sitting atop his prized black mare.

“You never learned to keep your mouth shut for your own good,” he said as the two traded blows, horses dancing and frothing at the noses as each attempted to intimidate the other into submission. He pressed the attack again, leaping from his mount and bringing both of them crashing to the ground. Elvina was on her feet in half a heartbeat, stepping backwards and planting her feet as sword blows came raining down upon her. Each stroke she met with sharp precision, a black flame dancing in her eyes. This isn’t right. That’s borrowed power.

“Not today, old man,” she snarled. Atolibus found himself swinging at empty air as she disappeared in a twist of teleportation. He paused for a moment to gather himself, sword sheathed once more.

“How many do you have left?” he said as his eyes scanned the crowd. It sickened him to consider what must have happened for so few to be standing when they had initially numbered in the thousands.

“A hundred if I’m lucky,” she said. She took a moment to glance to the south, where horses were coming towards them. “Is that all you brought, those eight?”

“It’s all I could spare,” he said with a sigh. “The castle has all ready been assaulted once today and our strength is stretched dangerously thin.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers I guess,” she said. She called her men to her with a two fingered whistle even as Atolibus was opening a gateway. “State secrets, old man, what the hell?”

“No time for that,” he said, motioning for the remainder of her men to move and move quickly. They limped through the open gate and he closed it as the last of them went through – before the two of them or the eight in his retinue could go through, she noted.

“We aren’t taking our own gateway, I take it?” she said.

“We are,” he said quietly. “But not with the others. Our goal is somewhere in between. Grab Elvina’s mount, we need to be moving quickly.” Chills ran up Schala’s spine – if she remembered her geography correctly she knew that a line of ancient towers circled the nation, their mightiest members nearest to both her location and the castle.

“Anmost and Lemmost,” she said, voice flat. “You’re taking us to the fucking tower line, aren’t you?” She grimaced even as eight men on horseback drew rein behind their commander. “Are you completely mad, old man?” Though the mighty black edifices had long since been empty men and women still spoke of them in hushed tones and nervous glances.

“You’ve been away,” he said. “A few things have changed in that time, and none of them good. Aye, we make for the Towers.” He opened another gateway as she swung into the saddle, speaking soft words to soothe the frightened mount. In a moment she seemed to have the beast calmed and stepped through with him.

A great battle had taken place on the very field where they stood, almost a thousand years ago. The towers had stood as ominously as they’d done for countless millenia prior. The True King had ridden plated in shimmering white at the van of a massive host of the men of Lothanis, riding to turn back the tide of the Magus in the days of its highest glory. Less than a week later the True King had disappeared and Atolibus Sandrin had strode into the castle, bearing with him a broken jewel of the King’s crown, evidence that he had indeed met his end. Where he had gotten the gem Atolibus would never speak of, not even to the royal line of Lothanis, direct blood of the True King himself.

“Like to be a pleasant evening, milord,” a younger member of the High Mages, a brown haired rustic by the name of Dorath said, a smile crossing his face. Rare was the day they were able to openly wield all of their power in battle, and each of them relished it as best they could.

“Aye, Dorath, tonight will be – but for how long?” Fantus said, stepping beside him and Atolibus astride Nightmare. His fury had been stirred – he was waiting for the moment when Atolibus would give him the order to unleash his wrath upon their enemy.

“Set defensive webs between both towers,” Atolibus said, pointing first to Anmost and then Lemmost. “I want this place bound up with so much magic that if so much as a single Magus sets foot in it, he will die slowly and painfully, and others behind him shall know our wrath. Emmoth, Dorath, Talos and Fantus – I want the four of you here, behind the towers, holding the lines against the coming of the Enemy. For all that you hold dear keep your Sight closed, lest this place consume you. Dantos, Wren, Traylor and Willard – you four are with me.” Each man hurried to his appointed place, though Fantus wore a pained expression on his face. All of them knew, of course, how the Towers functioned and what was required to call upon their dread power. Not a man ever spoke of it willingly or without a vast sensation of impending dread.

“How long do we have?” Dorath said, sighing. He’d hoped to have the opportunity to go with the men heading for the front; he wished even harder that there had been time to gather more of his brethren. Those that hadn’t died in the repeated assaults on the castle were spread all across the land putting out fires both figurative and literal.

“At the rate they’re covering ground?” Schala said, drawing rein next to the others waiting with Atolibus. “A few hours at best. Never underestimate how fast those sons of bitches can move; even without gateways they’re capable of frightening speed.” She paused for a moment in reflection before looking to Atolibus. “I recognize some of these faces. Cream of the crop if I’ve the right of it.” He nodded.

“They are at that,” he said. “Would that we’d been able to gather more. It will have to be enough.” He looked to the sky, sitting in silence as his men set about the tasks he’d given to them. Before they knew it they could hear the wails and screams of thousands of black-clad soldiers growing ever nearer. “Looks like it’s time, then. Back behind the line with the others, Lord General Winn, and whatever you do keep your distance.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” she said with a shudder. “Good luck, old man.” He spurred Nightmare with a cry, the four mages he’d chosen streaking behind him as they attempted to put as much distance between themselves and the Towers as possible. He was riddled with dread and uncertainty – himself and four of the most powerful mages Lothanis had to offer should have been more than enough to handle a few thousand soldiers, even Magus, but something about the day gnawed at him. Within minutes they drew near their enemy and he raised Elysdeon into the air, the blade shining bright white even as the sun dipped below the horizon and clouds began to mass overhead.

“So what are we going to do with them?” a middle aged, balding mage by the name of Dantos called to him over the noise of the wind. Atolibus’ countenance had hardened as he steeled his resolve.

“Slay them,” he said. “Every last one of them. I can only hope Elvina or Gregor is with them and we can kill two birds with one stone.”

The dire peril of their situation slammed home as they drew closer to their foe. There were countless numbers of troops arrayed in black lines – tens of thousands, at least. This much strength in one place... how many garrisons and holdings has she emptied out to set this against us? Or is this but a drop in the pond?

His mind drifted back to the Towers even as his heart twisted on him – he knew the men posted there would do what needed to be done if it came down to it. The towers of Anmost and Lemmost had not gained their reputation by myth – nearly every story that spoke of blood and betrayal was true, much to his chagrin. But they were bound up in old magic, magic that stretched back even farther than Atolibus himself did. Whatever their original purpose had been was lost to the mists of time, but they had been used in his lifetime to defend the realm. Their potency had been depleted over the years, true, but that could be restored with the lives of the four wizards he had left behind. And again more valuable men have to die, and for what? The safety of his men and his nation weighed heavily on his shoulders, for if the army they faced managed to pass them they had a straight shot at the capitol. With the state it was in the end would be swift and brutal.

“Forward,” he cried, voice booming and resonant on currents of Air whipping through the air. And with that, they met their enemy in a rain of fire and death.

Schala kept her eyes trained on the field ahead. Even though they were separated by a few miles, the sight of black swarming over green filled her with a dread she had never before experienced. She looked at the four mages Atolibus had left to hold the tower – Fantus, grizzled and battle-hardened, Dorath, young and handsome in a homely sort of way, Emmoth dark and mysterious, and Talos with his ever ready smile. They are a suicide line. If Atolibus fails they will give their lives, and I imagine these towers will become more than just symbols of power. She itched to view them with her Sight and understand them better, but Atolibus’ admonition rang in her mind and she decided to err on the side of restraint.

“Milady,” Fantus said softly, pulling her from her thoughts. “This place might become rather lively before long. I suggest finding higher ground somewhere safer – back in the castle, preferably.” She gave him a level look that spoke volumes, drawing rein next to him and speaking in low tones.

“Atolibus all ready risked more than we should have, taking my men to safety,” she said. “And I know what you lot are about.” His face never betrayed his inner thoughts even for a moment, she had to give him credit for that. He was well disciplined, whatever the outcome. “That was a cold thing that he did, placing the four of you back here, knowing what you must do if it comes to it.”

“It is best,” he said, “if we do not speak of it, milady. I know what I am about, and they understand their duty. The full potency of a mage’s strength is at its greatest when one is young and hale, as my compatriots are, and if our deaths are necessary to buy time for the capitol then I will gladly burn.” Schala looked him hard in the eye – she had a lot of respect for this man that she hardly knew. He was aware that he might not see the sun rise again and yet he faced his destiny calmly, without fear or regret. She willed that she might face her own in such a manner.

“I envy you, Master Fantus,” she said with a sigh, watching the distant horizon. Atolibus and his chosen men had finally clashed with their enemies and fire rained down from the skies above.

“To me, to me,” Atolibus said, laying about with Elysdeon and slaying Magus and mount alike. Dantos and Traylor were somewhere in the distance behind him, as he could see by the large swaths of Light blended with a touch of Shadow and Fire that slew every Magus in their path. Willard was tailing Wren’s mount, perhaps twenty yards ahead – he couldn’t make out if the man was on it or not, in the confusion. The latter man had disappeared somewhere in the melee for a time and Atolibus feared him dead. He had thought that any of their deaths would have alerted him like a signal beacon, but with the torrent of power and emotion flooding through him with every moment he could barely hear himself think. There was no time to think – the Magus simply kept coming. If they were inferior in terms of magical skill they had numbers to rely on and those numbers were great. For a moment he caught a flash of the back of Wren’s head, just before it was split open by a tremendous blow from a Magus ax. Atolibus let loose a wordless cry and heeled his mount in that direction, unleashing a massive burst of Fire in a circle around him. The man was still alive somehow – he could feel it – and he had to get to him as fast as possible.

“Atolibus,” Willard called. He had managed to catch up with Wren just as the man fell from his horse. Atolibus felt both of their deaths a moment later when a massive burst of pure Shadow erupted directly in their path, and he screamed with bestial fury. The light from Traylor and Dantos’ magic died out as both men were beset on all sides. He knew in that instant that it had been a mistake, that he had painfully underestimated the effort needed to bring such a vast number of Magus down. They had slain five thousand men or more but it was never enough; they simply kept coming. He felt Traylor’s death and Dantos’ shortly afterwards, and then rational thought was driven out of his mind as he vaulted high into the air, rising and howling on currents of magic powerful enough to level mountains.

Fantus sighed. Though distance separated them he felt the deaths of his fellow mages as he watched the milling mass of men dying miles ahead of them. He knew that the time was drawing near when they would have to do what they were meant to do at the last and give their lives to restore the Towers of Dread. For that was their name. Anmost, the Tower of Grief, and Lemmost, the Tower of Despair, would glow once more with their harsh light, shining once again to defend the realm even as they slew anyone who came within a hundred yards of them. Ripples of power would travel down the line and within minutes the entire range of towers would be activated. The Kingdom of Lothanis would have some respite, for a time – gateways and other forms of teleportation would be nigh impossible within the boundary of the Tower line.

“Lord General Winn, you need to leave,” he said quietly. “You know what is about to happen, and...” He fell silent as he witnessed something unlike anything he had ever seen, not in the heaviest fighting during the Skirmishes, not even when he was eight and witnessed the brutal killing of his own mother as he hid in a cupboard in their small, dusty home.

Atolibus rose higher and higher, his roar gaining volume as he gained altitude. The sound coming from his chest, which could no longer rightfully be defined in words, was audible for miles on end. All of the grief and despair that he had experienced that day – the loss of his king, the attack on his city and his people and finally the loss of his most trusted and beloved mages, all of it grew inside him, gaining strength rapidly until he finally could not contain it any longer. In a burst of Light that outshone the noonday sun he unleashed his power uncontrollably in every direction.

Schala’s jaw dropped when she saw, or rather heard, Atolibus screaming high in the air. A massive sphere of light and fire exploded outwards from him, arcing in every direction, raining down death to every Magus on the field. For over a minute straight the light of a thousand suns burned in the sky, and she had to cover her eyes with her arm lest she be blinded permanently. Fantus and his men were silent – it was clear that this was something new to them, too. Simple words could not describe the sheer amount of magical power that was flooding their vision. She could not look at the chaos before her but she could feel the effects of it inside, threatening to break her boundaries and cause an uncontrollable burst of her own power to come raging forth. She struggled to master herself even as the light grew brighter. She heard Fantus scream “FLEE, FLEE FOR YOUR LIFE!” Not willing to test fate she took his advice, booting her mount hard and fleeing in whatever direction the horse chose to run, away from the Towers and the archaic power she felt humming to life from their direction.

Kristina’s breath caught in her throat along with everyone else in the city when suddenly from the north the sky seemed to burst into flames. The world was soon lit brighter than day, and she could feel power swelling within herself. Worry swiftly overrode wonder as she started running for the stables. I can make that distance in an hour on a good mount. She hoped there was a steed sure footed enough to make the ride in the night, as the sky was once again beginning to grow dark.

When the light finally cleared and night took hold once more Schala gazed in abject horror at a crater that had to be at least a thousand yards wide. Smoke rose from the field, but not a trace of a single Magus soldier remained. She sped to the edge on her mount and could see a figure curled on the ground in the center of the crater. From what she could see it had to be Atolibus, but something about him looked different. A black mare, worn and dusty, sidled up next to her and nuzzled her hand softly. Nightmare. She patted the mare’s nose gently. At least you made it out of... that, whatever it was.

“Atolibus,” she said. Nothing. The man was either fast asleep or unconscious. Judging from what had just happened, she was inclined to think the latter. Even for a man of his power, she thought, there had to be a limit somewhere to how much one could take. She herself was Gifted, she had seen and worked magic in ways both wondrous and terrible, but she had never seen this. She trotted her mount slowly into the crater, the beast placing its steps carefully. Nightmare dutifully trotted along with her. She dismounted quickly as she drew next to Atolibus and knelt at his side. “Dammit man wake up.” She slapped him, hard, and nothing happened. It took her mind a moment to recognize what she was seeing but when she finally understood, wonder and awe overrode everything.

His plate had gone completely white, the pattern distinct from his own. The face of the man she was looking at was Atolibus, but it was not the same man she had seen earlier that day or dealt with in the past. No, this face was harder, sharper, crueler and yet more magnificent somehow. The sword lying next to him was also different, longer and narrower, the white of the blade having given way to pure gold.

“That is the image of Atolibus as he once was, long ago,” a voice called to her from behind, smooth and confident. She whipped her head around to see a man in silver armor and a crimson cloak, clad in the fashion of the Armies of Lothanis, come walking up behind her. He was handsome in a rough-spun sort of way, in his middle years, and walked as if he’d carried a sword his entire life. She could feel no ill will coming from him, and none of her intuitions said otherwise at the moment.

“Who are you?” she said, perplexed. Surely he hadn’t been anywhere near when Atolibus had done... whatever it was that he had done.

“My name isn’t important right now,” he said, kneeling next to Atolibus. He stroked the side of the master swordsman’s face gently, almost tenderly, like a brother to a brother or a father to a son. “What’s important is that we get him away from here, and quickly.”

“Is he in any danger?” she said. The silver armored man shook his head.

“Physically, no,” he said, “but the people of this land are not yet meant to see what you are seeing now. You must swear to me, Schala Winn, that you will never reveal what you have witnessed here today.” Her opinion of him changed a bit – there was magic at work here, she was certain. “Not the magic he used, not the towers, nor the armor you see him wearing. Especially the latter.” The man sighed softly. “My poor, lost child, I promised you peace and all I delivered was chaos. For that I am sorry... but there had to be someone.” He looked around uneasily, eying the crater around them. He chanted a few strange words in a tongue that Schala did not understand and suddenly Atolibus’ face and armor were normal once more. Elysdeon too returned to normal form. “I’ve the strength to get us through the Tower line, but I’ll be needing to deal with them shortly. Having them lit is too dangerous – to do so is to court disaster. We need to get him out of here. He’s still weakened right now, and not ready should you be beset by more enemies.”

Schala hesitated – even in broad daylight the ride to the castle was at least an hour from where they stood, and she was riding two to a mount on an unfamiliar horse in the night.

“We’ll need magic to keep him in the saddle as he is,” she said. “Getting back to the castle might take a few hours at the very least.” The silver-armored man shook his head.

“Not back to the castle, not yet,” he said. “Not until his strength returns.”

“That won’t be necessary,” another voice called to them. Both of them rose to their feet to see a man standing before them in black armor. He bore no visible sigils but Schala knew him for a Magus the moment she laid eyes on him. “I think he’d make a nice gift to my Master in the state he’s in right now. Who knows what wonderful things she could think of.”

“You won’t be going anywhere if I have anything to say about it, Gregor Solara,” the silver-armored man growled, blade rasping from its scabbard. Gregor glared hard at the man in the darkness and blinked a moment later, taken aback.

“Sarcodus Arcadia,” he said. “Why, it’s been so long. It’s a shame, I haven’t seen you in a few centuries. Where have you been skulking all of this time?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Sarcodus said. His stance spoke of nothing but business, and Schala resolved to help him as she drew her own sword – any enemy of a Magus had to be a friend.

“I know what happened here,” Gregor said, looking around in distaste. “Anybody with the Gift had to have felt it from at least a hundred miles away.” Awe was in his voice as he said that – for all his power, he couldn’t match the kind of destructive energy that had been unleashed not long ago.

“Bugger the fuck off and I won’t end you here and now,” Sarcodus said, unmoving. Gregor sighed.

“I’m injured,” he said. “I truly am. You wound me, Arcadia. It’s almost as if you want me to leave without my prize. I suppose I’ll just have to kill you both, then. Such a shame, really.”

“You aren’t going to kill anyone, Solara,” a gravelly voice called from behind Sarcodus. Atolibus was awake and slowly rising to his feet, sword in hand. Schala could swear the weight of the blade was bearing him down, but he seemed to master himself after a moment and regained his normal fluid stance. “You’re going to tuck your tail between your legs and go running back to your masters, or I’m going to strike your head off once and for all.” Gregor took a cautious step backwards.

“After the amount of magic you just expended you should be a corpse,” he said, awe filling his voice once more against his own will. He laughed then, a sonorous thing both pleasant and cruel. “Well then, another time perhaps?” In a twist of teleportation he disappeared, and Atolibus sank back to his knees. Sarcodus knelt to catch him from falling along with Schala, and the two finally looked each other in the eye.

“Sarcodus Arcadia,” he said, shaking his head. “I lose track of you for a few decades, and here you are. I should have known you’d show yourself now, of all times.” The man in silver extended his right hand to his side and a gateway swirled open next to them.

“You should have, my friend,” he said, smiling lightly. Each of them stepped through it with the horses in tow and it closed of its own accord behind them. “That puts us safely inside the line. What possessed you to light the Towers, old man? How desperate have things grown in my absence?”

“Bad enough,” Atolibus said. He stopped speaking then – a woman’s voice, young and vibrant, was calling his name from a distance. After a few moments Schala and Sarcodus could hear the voice as well.

“Your lady love?” Sarcodus said. Atolibus nodded, sheathing his blade. He wavered on his feet for a moment and then held steady. And so it came to pass that when Kristina finally caught up with Atolibus, racing through the night to beat the oncoming storm, she found him standing with a woman in armor and a man with a crimson cloak, standing and waiting for her.

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