Where have they got so many trained warriors from? Nermo wondered sitting in his tent. He hated sitting back during a battle but marshaling an entire front needed strategy. And for that he needed to see reports of everything that was happening on the field.
The bandits were fighting fiercely. The brutality and savagery he’d expected. What he hadn’t expected was the finesse and cohesion. The bandits struck like a well-oiled unit and even with the tricks from Lord Tremane, he was having a hard time fending off the attacks. The only thing that helped him hold his lines was that the bandits seemed more desperate to fell Ianthine than fight them.
A young but stout lad poked his head in. “High Commander, they’ve turned more archer ranks on the eastern chasm behind the pikemen. Captain says the men are dropping like flies.” He handed over a glass plate.
Nermo looked at it for a moment. “Tell him to use the flash powder. Screen the air above the heads. They can’t hit what they can’t see.”
The runner nodded and set off again. Nermo sighed. He’d expected their training to be advantageous against the bandits but they stood outmatched, both by numbers and military expertise. He was no slouch in managing wars, but the bandits had someone who knew battle strategies he’d never even heard of. Nermo only hoped that the front against Ianthine went better. If they could break the city before the bandits, it would give him more men and actual magic to crush the bandits.
A boom rang through the air. The youth staggered back into the tent, blackened with soot and the right side of his face streaming with crimson blood. Nermo lunged forward to catch the boy as he toppled over. He laid him on the ground and did a quick check on the pulse. The boy would live.
A blinding haze hung around outside the tent. Nermo crawled forward on his knees, shielding his eyes.
He couldn’t see much but an eerie feeling of horror crept up on him. There had been no blasts, no screams of pain and none of the cacophony associated with an attack which takes out thousands of men. Why is it so quiet?
The ground below him seemed to be covered with some kind of burnt powder. Nermo licked his fingertip.
Someone had detonated their entire stock of flash powder.
The white haze from the flash powder had faded out but visibility was still low. From what Caranne could see, the explosion had rendered the entire Northern Alliance army battling them inept. The men close to the explosion had been knocked out or worse; he could not tell. Others howled and moved around holding their eyes. The horses had been blinded as well and wrecked havoc among the enemy lines.
A few hundred of the bandits had been caught in the blast, but it could not have been helped. He could not have pulled back all his forces without raising suspicion.
Caranne called one of the men who had been a soldier before being taken hostage by Lord Luc. “Take command of those five hundred men and run through as many of the Alliance as you can. But do not get carried away. Our objective is capturing the city. Beating the Alliance is not a prerogative.”
The man nodded and walked off, shouting orders to others.
He shook his head. Mind-controlling an entire army still sat uncomfortably with him even though it proved to be incredibly effective.
He turned his attention towards the east. The fear of the looming tower of death overlooking the eastern gate had forced them to keep their army away. But Dah-Kun had taken about a thousand men and sent them ahead to attack the gates, which reports said had been magically sealed since the last feigned attack.
A plume of dust rose from where the men marched towards Ianthine. Caranne swung himself on his horse and rode towards the tent where Dah-Kun would be.
Fabius tapped his feet in anticipation. Mariam sat in the tent but well away from him in a separate chair. They hadn’t spoken to each other. He didn’t know what to say to her.
About a half hour later, guards entered to announce Darius’ arrival. His brother entered, decked in a royal blue robe, his hair still long but washed, but clean shaven. He looked much more like the brother he knew yet quite different. His face looked gaunt and pale.
Fabius ran up and pulled him into a hug again. “So, no beard this time, eh?”
Darius smiled but it did not reach his eyes. He looked towards Mariam and smiled again. Mariam came up and hugged him.
Fabius pulled him to the table, where food had been set up. Several courses of meals were laid out on the large rectangular table. “All yours.”
“No time for these trivialities, brother. A great evil has descended upon these lands. We must fight to rid of it. Afterwards, I’ll cook the feast of your life.”
“Great evil? What are you talking about?”
“Magic, Fabius. And from what I hear you have taken up the cause as well. Together we shall rid Quindor of this pestilence.” He clapped him on the shoulder and beamed a dazzling smile of pride. “I always knew my brother would stand for the right cause.”
Fabius frowned. “I’m not really against magic, Darius. Just that it shouldn’t be used to oppress the common people.”
Darius’ expression changed to a snarl in a flash. “Are you insane? Magic has to be weeded out from the land and culled from every person, animal and plant before it destroys us all.”
“That’s a bit extreme, right? You can’t kill everyone who has magic.” Mariam said, the goblet frozen in her hand just below her lips.
“That is exactly what I’m here to do.”
Fabius looked for signs that his brother was pulling a prank. But he never does. “You cannot be serious, brother! This is our land and these are our people. Magic or no magic, they are our responsibility.”
“As is the rest of the kingdom, Fabius. What do you do when a wound is infected? You chop the limb. This blighted land is of no use to us and its citizens have passed into the shadows of darkness, whether by choice or not. No, dear Fabius, we must purge magic to keep our lands safe. And if it means a few sacrifices, it is a small price to pay.”
“Magic isn’t an infection. It is something we don’t yet fully understand. Sure, it can be misused, but what power isn’t? Wielding of steel is much the same; it only depends on who wields it and for what purpose. Purging innocent people who have even lesser idea of what is happening to them and their kin is inhuman and if we go through with this, what right do we have left to be called princes?”
“You haven’t seen the horrors magic can unleash. I have; a thousand times. It keeps running over and over in my head.” Darius shook his head, as a look of pain and anguish passed over his face. “This isn’t the first time magic has come to these shores and it won’t be the last. But, the one thing common every single time magic has come to the lands is eternal war. Those with magic crushed the ones without and trust became a word known in legends. Friends turned on friends, brothers killed brothers, all for a measly throne- not for a kingdom, for a small fief. Right wasn’t claimed by ability, it was snatched by those with magic. Battles ensued for centuries spilling blood and creating feuds which lasted through generations till neither of the later folk remembered why they fought, only that they were meant to fight.”
“How do you know all this?”
A blank expression came upon his brother’s face and he stared at the tent roof. “I have many…No…I and Tarvus found a diary written by a King many ages ago.”
“Wait, Tarvus is also alive? Where is he?”
Darius nodded. “Yes, I sent him to go and warn fathers of what is happening.”
Fabius sighed. “Thank Sucellok. But fathers already know of the existence of magic. They have been following it since a long time.”
“Really?” The man’s face became even more wrinkled with frowns. “Then maybe they didn’t know how dangerous it is. The diary listed out the horrors magic can unleash upon Quindor. King Scipio called it the Corruption. It blights the land turning into a wasteland.”
“Darius, for all you know it can be a tale. Like the Broken Spears of Byculla.” Is this really my brother? “Since when have become so…”
Darius scoffed. “You think I didn’t think of that? But what do you say when you see innocent people burnt to ash, an entire village buried in lava, all because of magic? No, dear brother, you have been blind. Magic is corrupting the land and it has corrupted all those in that Arbok-touched black monstrosity.”
“And how do you know magic is the cause of that? There have been volcanoes in the past. Old Skaram taught us that. Heck, even I remember.”
Darius laughed but it was hoarse. “Did Skaram’s history lessons include a gorge which stretched for hundreds of leagues? Stemming from this city?”
“What?” Mariam exclaimed.
“Yes, Mariam. This gorge extends to the Wall of Green and even beyond.”
Fabius knew the gorge extended a fair way but he had no idea it’d gone through the Wall of Green. Dread filled him. “Wait, so are you telling me the Halans can get through the Wall now?”
Darius nodded. “But that Halans are not what we’ve to worry about. The King of Halans is actually an ally of the Throddens.”
“What?” Fabius felt his head spin.
“Yes, fathers played us. Both of us. They wanted me to go to Halaa to get over my hate for them and for you to learn responsibility by coming to the north. And look at you, commanding armies.” He clapped Fabius on the shoulders.
“Fathers put an old noble turned showman to watch over me. I know what they were trying to do with me. But are you sure we are safe from the Halans. If they attack now, we can’t hold off three armies.”
“Don’t worry, Fabius. I took care of those Halans who could.”
“What do you mean?”
Darius waved his hands. “We don’t need to worry about the Halans. There were a few thousand with magic bent on attacking the northern states, but I took care of it. What we need to do is eradicate this city.”
“What do you mean you took care of it? And how do you plan on destroying a city? Maybe you don’t know but the huge violet gems on top of the spires can kill hundreds of soldiers, maybe more, in one go. We have barely managed to breach one wall.”
Darius’ face lit up with joy. “I’m glad you asked brother. Sucellok blessed us with a way to counter this corruption. The very quake that plagued this land opened up a cavern below the Wall of Green and it houses beautiful creatures. Creatures who feed on magic and leech it away.”
“Creatures? What creatures?” The gleam in Darius’ eyes was manic.
“I call them bone-goths but they cannot really speak. I can somewhat hear their thoughts in my brain and that is how I can tell them where to go.”
Fabius got up. “Darius, what creatures are you talking about? Are you sure you are feeling well?”
Darius smiled. “I know how crazy this sounds. But you will see them soon, when they destroy the magic in this city and everywhere in Quindor. I feel all of them right now, pulsing, throbbing, so peaceful.” He snarled. “Nothing like this chaotic magic.”
He motioned towards Mariam to help him. “Very well, Darius. But every battle needs a strategy. And besides there is something you do not know. The Empress, the lady ruling that city, is Elena. My Elena.”
Darius jumped up and pushed him hard. “Your Elena, eh? Then why are you bedding my fiancé?”
A captain of the Ianthine army ran into the room. Elena looked up from the reports of the battles. “Lord Nimlock calls for aid on the Eastern Gate.”
“Eastern gate? The bandits are attacking again?” The gate had been sealed with the same gems that she’d used to board up Katak.
“Yes and they have some huge magic shield over them. And the magic sealing the gate is also gone.”
“What? What do you mean gone?”
“I didn’t see it, but Lord Nimlock said it just vanished and said that the bandits are using some serious magic. He says their attacks have no effect on the army approaching. They need the death-light urgently, otherwise the eastern gate will be lost.”
Elena stood up. Androl had forbidden her from using the death light again. But there was no way she could reach him in time for advice while he was leading a charge against the breach in the south.
“Fine, send word to Lord Nimlock to pull away all men from near the gate. The bandits will feel the power of Ianthine.”
Fabius stood stunned. “You know?”
“That is the first thing your men told me about. That even in war, Prince Fabius has found love.” Darius’ words dripped with venom.
“Darius…please.” Mariam approached him.
Darius glared at her. “You dare justify what you did? What he did? I love you…I LOVE YOU.”
“And there is no one sorrier than me, Darius. It was wrong and stupid of me. I was weak and she gave me support.”
“You are my brother, mine. My blood. We may not share mothers but they died the same day. I have always known you to be a part of me. Not anymore. You have been as corrupted by magic as the magic-wielders.”
“Calm down, brother. Things can still work between you and Mariam. I will move far away from you after the war. Forgive her this one time and you can still have the perfect life you are destined for.”
Darius barked out a laugh. “Perfect life? With this horrible curse plaguing the lands? With who knows how many men, women and children afflicted by it? No, Fabius, I’m afraid my life will be spent culling this threat till I have wiped out ever last trace of magic from the lands. I already have too much blood on my hands to ever have a peaceful life. And whatever peace I had in my heart is now gone.”
“Darius, listen to me.” Mariam held his face. “I love you. And…I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. I thought you were dead and Fabius reminded me of you.”
Darius pulled her away. How can I have ever loved this beast? He punched her in the face. Mariam crumpled on the floor and fell unconscious.
“No…” Fabius bent down over the prone figure. “Have you gone crazy, Darius?”
Darius seethed. The man in front of him was not his brother. Arbok’s blood. He doesn’t even look the same. “My brother wouldn’t have betrayed me and slept with my girl, even if she had tried advancing on him.”
The drawl in his head indicated that this entire exercise was futile and that these fools were not worth his time. No, this is an abomination I need to cure.
Pests like these allow magic to grow. The worst men are those who sit by and let evil spread. Darius slipped out his knife from under his shawl and rammed it into Fabius’ throat. Blood gushed out of the man who looked like his brother.
He sat down and closed his eyes. The calmness of the bond with the bone-goths engulfed him. They understood him much better than any human on Quindor.
Dah-Kun stood in front of him, seeped in concentration, the staff in his hand glowing silver.
Caranne stood with his sword out alongside fifty other bandits. He was supposed to be guarding the bandit lord but the sight in front of him left him completely distracted.
A pale blue sheet hung over the entire advancing army of bandits, which held off the multitude of attacks from the defenders of the city. Flaming fireballs fizzled out mid air and even a volley of arrows did not penetrate the shield.
The gate opened on its own accord and the bandit army charge towards the gates. What he feared was beginning to happen. The large crystal on top of the eastern spire began glowing. Caranne looked towards the bandit lord who was no longer on his knees. The man gave him a smile before raising his staff and plunging it in the ground.
The gem began glowing brighter. Caranne stepped back. They were not too far from the gate. From what he’d heard, the light could hit over a quarter of a league away. He looked towards Dah-Kun again but the bandit lord looked relaxed. “Look,” he pointed towards the city.
The gem turned a brilliant violet, so bright that Caranne had to turn his eyes away. An almighty boom followed. As he looked up, he saw that the gem on top of the spire had exploded.
“You destroyed the gem? From out here?”
The man smiled and shrugged. “I told you. With this staff, there’s no one who can match me in magical prowess.”
Caranne laughed. For a while he’d wondered if he’d made the wise choice siding with the bandit lord. Not anymore.
But even as he watched, the tent around them was snatched up by a white hand. Caranne fell back in fear. In front of him stood an eight foot creature which looked like a man encased in bone. The eye sockets and nose were hollow.
Behind it stood many more of the creatures. Before he could move, the creature placed its hand on Dah-Kun’s head completely encasing within its bony palm. The bandit lord flailed around but couldn’t move. A few of the bandits tried attacking the monsters but their swords bounced off and the monsters kept moving forward.
A loud scream rent the air as Dah-Kun’s body shook violently and the staff glowed brighter than even before.
Caranne picked up his sword and ran.