Dawn came blood-red.
Smoke floated lazily above the smashed city of Cirid. The high stone walls that had stood proudly around the city only the day before now lay crumbled by dark magic. The smell of ozone filled the air, accompanied by the coppery stink of spilled blood.
The corpses of Kingdom soldiers littered the streets, strewn alongside those of hideous monsters of the invading army and loyal townsfolk of Cirid. The few living that remained were in the process of hurriedly gathering anything of value they could salvage from their ransacked homes, trying not to see the dead faces of their neighbors and family.
At the edge of the city, Llith pulled his sword from the limp body of the dark soldier. He glanced about rapidly, ready for another attack, but saw only the backs of the last soldiers of Lwuatha retreating over the hill and into the relative safety of the nearby forest. Heart still racing, Llith turned and glared at the corpse of his slain adversary.
Poorly equipped, the soldier's best defense had been his iron helm, revealing only a hint of his eys through a small slit in the front. Llith's sword arm twitched as he directed his molten stare at the eyes of the soldier.
The hairs at the nape of his neck stood on end; the pupils of the dead soldier's eyes had clouded over and shrunken to the size of tiny pebbles. The dim orbs slowly receded into the hemlet, as if the eyes had come loose from their sockets and rolled back into the dead soldier's braincase.
Wary of foul magecraft, Llith roughly yanked the helm from the body's shoulders. With a half-gasp, the young knight recoiled. The body was headless, and the weight in the helm Llith held wasn't nearly enough to be a human head.
After the slaughter of the past night, Llith knew.
Ill at ease, Llith turned his gaze on the helm and flipped it right side up. A few ashes fell on to the red-stained grass and blended in with the ground as they soaked up blood. Otherwise, the helm was empty. Not knowing quite what to think, but unable to feel surprise after the events of the previous night, he dropped the helm with a feeling of repulsion.
Turning, Llith beheld the smoldering remains of Lwuatha Castle barely visible in the grey haze of the morning. In an attempt to beat back the sudden invasion, a group of knights, including himself, had formed a phalanx that had been steadily pushing the invaders out of the castle. Too late, they saw that they were being led into a trap. When they were far enough away from the castle, the entire group had been ambushed by soldiers who had already occupied the town.
The battle had been long and bloody, but eventually the ambush was foiled. Many of Llith's comrades in arms had been killed or maimed past mobility in the fight, and even more had suffered the same fate as they tried to fight their way back to the castle.
Now only Llith remained, though whether by luck or skill, the young Lwuathan was unwilling to guess.
Trying not to dwell on his aching joints and burning muscles, he stumbled towards the fortress, keeping most of the pressure off his gashed right leg, proof of the efficiency of the invading bandits.
He shook his head to banish the fatigue, waving a mane of chestnut brown hair. His grey eyes surveyed the area with marked dismay. Everywhere he looked, destruction greeted his eyes. Here he passed a defiled temple of Raor--King of the Eight Gods. There he winced as the heat of a burning common-house seared his face.
At intervals, he stopped and took deep gasps of breath. The sheer torture of moving after a full night of unremitting slaughter--and it had been a slaughter, not a battle--was enough to drive Llith to tears. Despite years of training and getting accustomed to the physical punishment that came with being a knight, Llith had to grit his teeth to keep from weeping like a boy.
He had been knighted only a day before, and truth to tell, he had been anxious for his first battle before this ordeal. Now he merely wished to return to his quarters and sleep for the rest of the day, and if he never had to lay eyes upon his sword again, he would be none the worse for it.
Gradually, Llith felt the pain in his leg ease, and he ventured a few steps without the limping gait he had adopted for the past few hours. Though it would hurt like Ghallon's own Hundred-Tailed Scourge, Llith would be able to walk.
That, he thought grimly, was far more than could be said for many of the knights who had fought alongside him. As he moved forward, he passed a makeshift barricade constructed of broken planks, dead bodies--anything that would block the dark-fletched arrows of the invaders. It had taken only one instance for Llith's group to discover that the arrowheads had been envenomed. Beomund, a young knight and friend of Llith's, had been the first to die in screaming fits of agony: struck down by the arrow's poison.
The broken rings on the sleeve of Llith's hauberk rubbed painfully on a small slash he had acquired on his shield arm. Too numb to curse, Llith merely glared listlessly at the source of irritation. In doing so, he found himself staring at a burned-out brothel.
This particular one had been a favorite among the soldiers of the castle. Although Llith, as a knight in training, was above such things, he had been with the common soldiers enough that he knew this brothel by reputation.
Llith wrinkled his nose in distaste. The door--indeed, almost the entire front wall--had been smashed in. The blackened bones of prostitutes lay strewn on the floor. From their positions, it seemed that the invaders had taken some time to indulge themselves in their vile pleasures before killing those within and setting the place to the torch.
Disgusted and hurting, Llith stumbled on.
Had they won? He certainly saw no sign of the invaders now, and except for the distant sounds of the remaining townsfolk fleeing the city, all was silent. Llith found it hard to imagine a winner in this situation. There were more dead littering the streets--struck down as they had tried to flee--than there were living people to escape.
For the thousandth time since the attack had begun, Llith asked himself why.
He nearly gagged as the stench of blood threatened to overwhelm him. The creatures had struck down everything and everybody in their path, from children to women to monks. Clearly, their purpose was not plunder; hoards of valuables across the city had been left untouched as the invading army swept through, killing without discrimination.
Now, anything that remained was easy prey for looters, but Llith could see no evidence of robbery by those who had so mercilessly thrown down the capital city of the Kingdom.
Partially at the thought of looters, and partially to distract himself, Llith took stock of what he still had with him.
He wore his now-beaten hauberk, reinforced with steel plates in several places, covered mostly by the royal blue surcoat of Lwuatha with a silver flacon emblazoned on it. Over the surcoat, Llith wore a grey cloak of wool, fastened by a pewter cloakpin, wrought finely and rune-graven. Both the surcoat and the grey cloak had been slashed during the night, but surprisingly, neither had been abused beyond usefulness.
Around his neck was a weathered old medallion. In a simple wod-and-leather scabbard rested his old sword, given to him by the Elf King himself, many years before Llith's ceremony of knighthood. Recipient of a finer sword than many a knight received at his ceremony, Llith had been the absolute envy of all the castle's squires--and not a few knights--when he received it.
Finally, almost as an afterthought, a simple six-holed flute was roped to his belt, miraculously unbroken despite his many fights this past night.
For years he had carried the flute around. It was his only link to a mother he had never remembered and of whom his father would never speak. Although he did not have the skill to play it as a true minstrel would, it comforted him to hear its reedy, melancholy voice when he was depressed. Ithlarr the sorcerer had even hinted that it had some magical qualities to it, though that had been when Llith was very young. The young knight suspected it was just a story fabricated to entertain a child hurting from the loss of his mother.
He had now reached the ring of buildings closest to the castle. Mostly they were the homes of rich merchants and a few minor nobles--great nobles had their own castles or estates in the country. Usually called the Gold Ring because of the gaudy opulence of the houses, the inner ring had suffered the worst damage.
Priceless gems and works of gold and silver had been left to either shatter or melt in the intense heat of the burning buildings. So hot were the flames, even after a full night, that Llith was sure they must have been augmented with spellcraft.
Here, unburned, lay a field of corpses just before the broken portcullis of the outer wall. Llith picked his way carefully among them, dismayed. Almost all of them were common soldiers dressed in the silver-and-blue of Lwuatha castle. Their spears and shields broken, they had been overwhelmed even more easily than the knights.
The peaceful dew of the early morning rolled down bodies, a hoard of minute jewels, beauty in sharp contrast to the grotesque corpses arranged in chaotic disarray. The scene was such a contradiction that it lent an unreal, nightmarish feel to the situation despite the recently risien sun.
For a moment, Llith was confused as disorientation washed over his nearly broken sanity. Relentlessly, the occurrences of the previous night played themselves over and over in his mind. He remembered the statues in the garden as they slowly started to move. Then, when the lightning bolt hit the east tower, all of them had changed from stone to flesh.
At first, Llith had thought it was one of Kijjan's practical jokes, but a quick glance at Mikan had negated the thought. Llith then stared in horror for a moment as he witnessed the ugliest creatures he had ever laid eyes on turn from statues to living terrors. Their grey skin, lumpy and diseased, gave the impression of a rotting tree stump come to life. Red, piggy eyes and a monstrous, boarlike face, with a grotesque snout and tusks invited a comparison between creature and pig. Great sprouts of black, twisted hair were visible on those heads not covered by small, rusted helmets.
Llith had read about them in Legends of the Great Knights, a gift from somebody to High King Ranill before either Llith or Mikan was born. Orcs were, according to legend, notorious throughout the Kingdom for being cheap, ruthless mercenaries. They would slit a throat for a single copper. Many held that they would do it for free, just because they liked bloodshed so much.
If one were to believe the bards and minstrels of the realm, orcs were creatures of pure evil, and to face one in battle was truly a test for even the most experienced warrior, though orcs were also famous for having little real skill in battle. Llith now wholeheartedly agreed with the legends.
Llith and Mikan had been in a pavilion to the west of the garden, taking shelter from the rainstorm when the statues broke free. Mikan had been almost too interested in the magical aspect of the invasion to be afraid. He had excitedly pointed out how some of the warriors just turned to flesh and jumped down off the pedestals while others broke free of the stones, sending shattered rock everywhere.
Llith had been exasperated, and even though terrified of the orcs and bandits, charged out into the rain and lightning to battle the invaders that ran amok around the castle. Before he had been swept away by the tide of battle, he had seen telltale flashes of light and heard strange sounds that meant Mikan had tried a few spells in self defense. Llith hoped that they had worked this time.
Whether Quilliar, goddess of magic, merely had a personal grudge against Mikan, or his abilities were just suited to another path of magic, somehow, his spells nearly always seemed to go awry.
Pain once again flared through the young knight's wounded leg as he staggered through the broken cobblestone streets of Cirid. Desperate to keep his mind on other matters, Llith trudged towards the castle. To distract himself, he thought of his best friend, Mikan.
The young sorcerer's story was a curious one. As an infant, he had been found in red velvet swaddling on the local cobbler's doorstep with a strange note that nobody could read. The language was unlike any ever seen in the Kingdom. Ranill, in his thirties then, decreed that those who proved most able to take care of the child would have him. During such time as he decided who would receive the baby, the cobbler and his wife would be responsible for him, but were warned not to get attached.
Llith didn't remember the rest of the story, but eventually, Kijjan, the court magician, had been granted custody of the infant.
Voices raised in anger alerted Llith to the presence of enemies a few meters away, behind one of the broken walls of the castle's outer curtain. They were human sounding, though rough. Llith brandished his sword and pressed himself against the crumbling wall.
In moments, the creatures came around the wall.
During the night, he had been engaged in combat with countless foes, but most of them had been human. The few monsters he had fought had been difficult to see in full because of the darkness. Now, however, the young knight could see every detail of the creatures.
Their skin was cracked and yellow, like old parchment. Heavy frown lines rested all about the murderous eyes and the downturned mouths. Black hair flowed free from under the round, open faced helmets they wore.
Llith was so repulsed he almost forgot to attack.
Remembering himself in the nick of time, Llith swung his sword with all the force he could muster, catching the first goblin under the point of his chin with the broadside of the blade. Black blood spurted from the breach of skin, and the creature only had time enough to gurgle something unintelligible before Llith desperately turned his sword around on the follow-through of his first swing and sliced wickedly downward with it to deliver the killing blow.
By now, the second goblin had freed its axe from its sheath. Llith narrowed his eyes and swung his sword one-handed at the goblin's side. As his adversary dropped the iron-reinforced haft of the axe down to block the obvious blow, Llith twisted his wrist and turned the his own blade's path over his head in a dangerous gamble. He could feel the swish of the sword as his hair was lifted momentarily.
Then the blade hit home. Bronze split like birch wood under the sword's blade, and shattered fragments of bone burst into the air. Llith turned his head so that he would not have to see the brains of the unfortunate creature slide to the ground. The goblin toppled sideways, his skull cleft in two.
Llith knelt and cleaned his sword in the grass, trying not to dwell on yet another two lives taken. It was strange to kill, and frightening. Elation he felt afterwards only served to frighten him more. He had been through months and years of training as a squire, learning just how to stab and when to hack. Ever since he was twelve, Llith had learned the art of defending his home and his Kingdom.
Why was it different now? Wasn't this what he had wanted?
Suddenly feeling sick and faint, Llith gripped his right leg, trying desperately to staunch the flow of blood from the rip where a bandit had gotten through his defense. The young knight smiled grimly in spite of himself. As the Knight-Marshal's son, he had always thought himself too skilled to need shield. Yet even with the aid of a large heater shield--long since hacked to pieces during the course of the chaotic night--Llith had been wounded.
Pushing the frivolous thoughts out of his mind, Llith looked for a strong weed, a length of cloth, or anything he could use to make a tourniquet so he could keep from bleeding to death. After that, he had to find Mikan.
* * * * *
A stray breeze lifted the hem of a blue robe, made grey-green by camouflaging spellcraft.
Green eyes gazed angrily from a face crowned by yellow hair across the wasted courtyard. Pale skin creased in an expression unfamiliar to it as the sorcerer's apprentice frowned.
Mikan swore softly as a sharp rock crumbled from a nearby tower and landed solidly on his toes. Afraid to reach down and move the rock, lest the creatures before him detect the motion and charge him, the young sorcerer lay deathly still.
Once in a while, he would slowly tense and relax his muscles to avoid cramping, a technique taught to him by Kijjan, his old teacher.
"Since you'll be sitting in one place for a long time with several of these spells," the magician had said, "You'll need to know how to keep yourself from cramping up into a statue!"
Mikan let the corners of his mouth turn slightly upward. How had Kijjan fared during the invasion? And what of his fellow mages? Mikan had only spoken to one of the castle's battle-trained mages since the beginning of the previous night, and she had been struck down by brigands soon after.
The enemy moved closer, sniffing the air. Mikan felt an icy hand suddenly clutch at his heart. For a moment, it seemed as if the orcs would turn and leave, but one of them squinted at Mikan's hiding place behind a large shrub, red eyes narrowing.
Mikan's spell of concealment was a quick glamory cobbled together that worked on the observer's disinterest in the environment around him. Evidently the falling rock and Mikan's soft expletive had aroused the orc's attention enough for it to be able to shrug away the effects of the spell.
"Mukk nodder!" it cried, hefting a long spear and heading for the shrub.
"Oh, bat dung," whispered Mikan, standing slowly and trying to back off as quietly as possible. If he moved slowly, the threads of the spell might still hold strong enough to confuse the orc again. Just as it seemed he would escape unnoticed, his heel hit a patch of slippery mud, and he fell, off balance, into the bushes behind, making a huge racket.
His robes flashed to their customary royal blue as Mikan lost his concentration. Muttering a sarcastic thanks to the skies, he scrambled to his feet.
The orcs charged.
* * * * *
Green fires raged across Llith's line of vision, and everywhere he looked he beheld a scene of slaughter and carnage. Bodies of both palace guards and invaders alike were strewn across the grass and cobblestone like toys of a young child who has lost interest in his play and gone somewhere else.
Weary of death, Llith resisted the urge to simply close his eyes. Hadn't he already seen all his peer knights brutally murdered? Dead could be mourned later; right now, it was to the living that Llith must attend.
If there are any living left, the young man thought darkly.
Llith scanned for any signs of life. Where was Mikan? Captured? Dead? He quickly brushed the thoughts from his mind. It would do no good to worry.
It seemed fairly obvious now that the defenders had lost. Llith gulped down the lump in his throat. It seemed a sin against all natural law that Cirid, the invincible heart of the Kingdom, had been totally overthrown in a single night. He would have to find the High King.
That would help.
Not even admitting to himself the possibility that Ranill might have died in the brutality, Llith marched onward.
Heading towards the north wall of the square keep, he quickly threw himself behind a pair of bushes as he spotted a group of orcs. They conversed in their guttural language, slobbering and snarling as they recounted their part in the raid to one another.
Llith, though unable to understand what they said, heard the triumphant tone of voice and the obvious contempt in which they held the subject of their conversation. Shivering, Llith forced himself to remain calm. These horrible things that had invaded his only home enraged him almost beyond rational thought.
For a second, he considered attacking the obscenities, but his thoughts were interrupted as he heard an orc yell and go running after somebody down the cobblestone walkway. Llith jumped up to see what it was the orcs were chasing and spotted a flash of royal blue and a glint of a crystal atop a staff.
"No!!" he cried, pulling his sword from his sheath and charging the orcs. The first died as it turned, Llith's blade catching it in the side on a rib and flipping the beast over as its bluish blood sprayed from the wound. Its lungs collapsed and it gave a strangled gasp as Llith kicked it viciously in the face as he ran for the second.
As he reached the next orc, he caught a glimpse of Mikan, waving his arms in a circular motion and chanting something in an ancient language. Llith prayed inwardly that this spell would work. Then he pushed all other thoughts aside as he prepared to fight the orc in front of him, who was already pulling a rusty cutlass and leering, its lips curling back over its nostrils.
Repulsed by the display, Llith stabbed viciously in a hasty attempt to impale his enemy. The orc sidestepped the clumsy lunge and snarled. Then it brought its blade to bear on Llith and made a quick swipe at his legs.
Llith jumped back, nearly tripping over his feet in his fatigue. He felt like a clumsy beginner again, barely able to wield a sword, a rapier's weight a force to be reckoned with. He needed to rest soon, or he would bleed to death.
He grimaced and came in low, bringing his blade up in a wicked arc just under the orc's nose. The tip of his sword caught the creature under its sternum, ripping a gaping hole through the padded leather armor the thing wore. Blue blood spat out of the orc, and it collapsed to its knees.
"Kull Mordill," it spat at Llith as it died. The young knight recognized the name of the god of death in the creature's dying curse.
Llith stopped to catch his breath and watched the remaining orc. Mikan finished his spell and pointed at the orc. For a moment the orc cringed back in fear: an unexpected display of intelligence. Then, as nothing happened, and seeing the expression of dismay on Mikan's face, the orc renewed its forward charge.
Just as it was about to reach the fear-paralyzed Mikan, the orc found itself smothered in flowers. Thousands of thorny roses and brightly colored daisies fell on the hapless creature, and it choked as thorns tore its flesh and grew into its eyes. It thrashed around violently, trying in vain to rid itself of the onslaught of flora around it.
Llith, holding his grim mirth barely in check, quickly stepped forward and stabbed the creature through its heart. Batting down the urge to repeatedly stab the body in a most unchivalrous manner, Llith sheathed his sword. After the dying body finished the last of its death spasms, Llith turned to Mikan, whose face was red with embarrassment.
He still stood tall, but, Llith noticed, there was no pride left in the green eyes. His hands were gripped tightly around his staff, the knuckles of his fingers white. His blue robes were slashed in from enemy sword and knife-strokes. Coagulated blood stained the royal blue fabric brown in several spots. Llith could see, as the young sorcerer relaxed his clenched fists, that his fingertips were reddened from the release of destructive forces and even bleeding in some places.
"Flowers," the young sorcerer spat, "I tried to think of the most devastating spell I know, and instead of hitting the bastard with lightning, I smothered it with a bunch of damned flowers!"
At this last word, he kicked the dirt, his boot toe scuffing roughly and bringing up dust in small clouds. "Gods, Llith, I'm so drained. What use am I if I can't even use magecraft to defend--?" Breaking off, he made a face and turned from Llith. Taking a moment to regain control, he turned back.
"How many of us are left?" asked Llith, not wishing to dwell on either his own or his friend's discomfort.
Mikan shrugged. "Ranill, a few soldiers, the whole king's army . . . who knows?"
"Any idea who invaded us? All I got was a quick look at the statues before they started the slaughter, and they didn't seem to be wearing the colors of any lord's house."
A chill ran up Mikan's spine. He stepped closer to Llith.
"Kijjan made me study many languages before I was apprenticed to Ithlarr. One of them was Northling." He stopped, as if pausing for emphasis. Northling was the language spoken by most of the denizens of the North Lands, goblins included. "I heard some of things the goblins said. Now I'm not exactly fluent in Northling, but I believe what they said was something like 'Three thousand I'm paid for service to Dark Lord.'"
Llith stared, uncomprehending.
"Llith, if I'm correct, this army is in the service of one they believe to be the Dark Lord!" Mikan's lip trembled a bit, but he collected himself. "One thing is for sure. That was no low caliber magic we saw in the garden, and if I'm to believe some of the servants who were fleeing the keep this morning, the paintings in the library came alive as well. It would take someone with half a century's experience to pull a trick like this off."
Llith's eyes widened in disbelief. "Are you trying to tell me that this castle was invaded by the Dark Lord? Mikan, we read those stories when we were children! Children, Mikan! Are you saying that an old illumination from one of our story books jumped out and said, 'I feel like taking over Lwuatha castle today'?"
"After seeing what happened to the statues, I wouldn't doubt it," Mikan responded wryly. Then his expression darkened. "I don't know. It's entirely possible. The Great Knights, the Wizards of Hyrakk, the Dark Lord . . . after yesterday, I'll believe that anything is possible. That was Wizard caliber magic we saw back there, Llith. For all I know, a bunch of warriors in golden armor might come charging through the gates any minute telling us that they're a detachment of Fire Knights from Syroc, come to battle the Dark Lord for the capital of the Cluster Kingdom!"
Llith breathed deeply. "No need to beat it to death--" He stopped and blushed at his unfortunate choice of words. "I mean--I see your point." He unconsciously straightened his surcoat. "I suppose we'd better get out of here and into a safe part of the castle. That mess we made won't be ignored for long."
Mikan glanced at the grey sky, still threatening. Then he did a double take, staring back at Llith. "The castle? Are you crazy?! Every bandit and pirate around the place will be swarming in there right now!"
Llith looked tired. "I know," he confessed, "But beyond Cirid, what is there? We've hardly ever been outside the walls of the city before, save for riding lessons and a few jaunts with my father and that swordmaster in training." Mikan caught a bitter note in Llith's voice. It had always been assumed that Llith would be the next swordmaster of the keep, but his father had chosen a young man named Collin, saying Llith would go crazy having to stay in the castle all his life.
Mikan finally nodded. "At least it will give us a chance to see how bad the damage is."
Llith pulled his brown boots up as he and Mikan began walking towards the smashed gates of the castle swinging on their broken hinges. As they drew closer, Llith gasped. Only yesterday, the oaken doors were strong and looked as if they were new. Now, as if by some evil magic, they were rotted and growing through with moss and lichen. The brass hinges which he had seen as bright and shiny only the day before now bore the signs of age as rust corrupted their structure.
Mikan moved closer to Llith, and the young swordsman saw him making a sign to ward off evil directed at the doors out of the corner of his eyes. As they passed through the doors, Llith felt a slight chill. Mikan gripped his midsection and stumbled.
Llith caught his friend in alarm.
"Is something wrong?" he asked. Mikan gulped, his face as white as a sheet.
"You felt it too, didn't you?" Mikan gasped through clenched teeth.
"The cold? I felt it."
Mikan shook his head. "It wasn't just a breeze, although to you, it would seem like just a cold wind. Since I'm much more magic sensitive, I can tell you what it was. We just passed through a field of evil magic so strong . . ." The young sorcerer trembled, at a loss for words.
"Can you still walk?" asked Llith, trying to prop Mikan up on his feet.
Mikan nodded. "I'll be okay. It was just the shock of it . . . "
After a few moments, Llith let go of Mikan's arm, satisfied. "We'd better find whatever still lives in this mudhole," he said, turning a corner.
What met his eyes defied anything he'd ever experienced before.
"Mikan?" he called softly. He heard the sound of velvet robes sweeping against the stone floor and turned. His eyes were round and he gestured helplessly at the scene that lay before them.
All around, the royal blue tabards and surcoats of castle guards and soldiers were marred by sickly reddish-brown stains and broad slashes that cut across the mangled bodies. Llith forced down the bile that threatened to rise from his throat.
Mikan wrinkled his nose at the smell, and tried to direct his attention to something other than the hundreds of dead bodies littering the room where High King Ranill usually held court.
Both scanned the room for signs of their High King. Llith searched frantically, hoping against all expectations that he would not find his father Mollar's body, while Mikan made sure that Kijjan and Ithlarr were not among the dead.
Satisfied, at least for the moment, Mikan raised his head and looked around the room, searching for any sign of how the slaughter had taken place. His eyes fixed on a patch of silver on one of the tapestries.
Llith heard Mikan's gasp. Straightening quickly and letting his hand reflexively drop to his sword's hilt to loose the blade in its sheath, he turned.
"What is it?" he whispered, trying to hold still lest an enemy should be looking for Mikan or him. Mikan raised a shaking hand and pointed to a tapestry in the corner. Llith found his thoughts strangely jumbled as he looked to the source of Mikan's consternation.
He remembered the tapestry well. It depicted a man named Kirtion from the story book, Legends of the Great Knights. The motto at the bottom translated roughly to "Might Valor Wisdom". Hours he had spent picking out every detail of the picture.
The hair on the nape of Llith's neck prickled.
Instead of the beloved depiction of the legendary Knight of Fire, a patch of silver hung in space.
At least, it looked silver. If he could have thought of the words for it, Llith would have said that it gave the impression of being silver. Patches of color and not-quite-color flashed into and out of existence so quickly that Llith could not be sure that he had even seen them. Before he could even identify the hues, they would vanish, indistinguishable from the almost reflective surface of the thing. There was such an alien, undeniable wrongness to the very existence of it that Llith found himself at a loss of terms to describe it, even to himself. Mists seemed to swirl around the indefinite edges of the phenomenon.
Frustrated, Llith tried to focus his eyes directly on the center of the phenomenon, but found that it was like trying to look directly at a single snowflake during a blizzard. Like the elusive colors within, no sooner had Llith picked a spot than it seemed to be gone, and he had lost track of what he was doing.
Just as the thing gave the impression of existence, he also heard what might have been described as the idea of sounds emanating from the rift in reality. It sounded something like the echo of an echo, but whispered in a small room. Eventually giving up on trying to understand what lay before him, Llith shivered.
"What is it?" he asked. Next to him, he heard Mikan's robe shift.
"A Gate," he answered, "I've heard of them. Only a magic user of the highest degree can make them."
"What does it do?" Llith wondered aloud.
"I forget exactly how it's supposed to work," Mikan responded, "but the basic principle is that if you step in one side, you come out the other, be it ten feet away or ten miles away. I don't know how this was done, but we are definitely dealing with a magic user whose powers rival a Wizard's."
Llith let the information sink in. Before he had a chance to ask anything, Mikan hissed, and the two threw themselves behind the wreckage of what had once been Ranill's throne.
The Gate wavered.
As if watching a stone thrown into the middle of a pond while the ripples spread outward and then back in upon themselves, Llith struggled with the conflict of reason against perception as he looked on. The air around the Gate grew hazy and the sounds from within merged into a seamless muddle of noise. Within the ripples of reality that spread outward from the gate, Llith thought he could see yellow dust and dark clouds. An unfamiliar odor of dryness coupled with the now-familiar stench of orc sweat floated out of the Gate.
The colors within the silver patch resolved into streaks of lambent green, and circled in a spiraling pattern until they met at the center, condensed into a single brilliant point of light. The point of light cycled from green to gold, and then to flaming red, all the while growing in proportions until it was man-sized.
Partially hypnotized by both fear and the alien beauty of the display, Llith was jolted to awareness by a high-pitched shriek and a sound like water rushing over stones. The image of yellow dirt and dark clouds was etched in painstaking clarity upon the waving smoke of reality upon the surface of the Gate.
Then it collapsed back in upon itself again, so quickly that it all might have been a dream. The multicolored-silver non-reality of the Gate seemed suddenly commonplace in comparison to the otherworldly turmoil of a few seconds before.
Llith turned to speak to Mikan, but was warned by a sixth sense.
His precognizance was rewarded. Not a second later, two orcs stepped out of the Gate, laughing--Llith supposed it must be laughter--and waving large flasks of some indeterminate liquid around flamboyantly. Mikan leaned forward beside Llith, probably trying to pick out scraps of the creatures' conversation.
"Inuu jenef tei gonemaenamaju emnir nagamu," said one, tongue tripping over the words. Recognizing the Northling language, however butchered by a tongue never meant to pronounce the sounds, Mikan blinked. For a moment he puzzled, uncomprehending. Then he broke out in a cold sweat.
Turning to Llith as the orcs shambled out of the large doorway, Mikan breathed heavily.
"Sick bastards." His voice trembled with a mix of fear, anger and indignation.
Llith glared after the orcs' backs. "Did you understand what he said?"
Mikan nodded. "They were laughing about the raid. The tall one was saying that the Dark Lord never told the army not to burn the city . . ."
"So they did it for spite," Llith finished grimly. "And what was that about the Dark Lord? Maybe you mistranslated . . ."
"No," snapped Mikan, "I know that much Northling. Inuu means 'great.' Jenef equates roughly to master or lord. The orc said inuu jenef, and the only one who has ever been granted that title by orcs was the Black Wizard." He paused, then said darkly, "Draw your own conclusions."
"All right!" Llith held up his hands, hoping Mikan's outburst hadn't drawn any undesirable visitors. After a brief check, he turned back to Mikan. "Let's find anybody we can," he sighed, sorrowfully shaking his head, "and get the hell out of here."
Mikan grunted in resigned approval. The two walked past the glittering Gate, keeping a wary eye on the silver patch of nothingness. More than once Llith found himself reaching for his sword as he heard the sound of a lone rat scurrying across the floor, looking for a bit of food or carrion.
The two kept moving through hallway after deserted hallway, carefully stepping over bodies and avoiding doorways as best as possible. At last, after about half an hour of wandering, Mikan put a halting hand on Llith's shoulder.
"Where are we going?" he asked. Llith motioned with his only hand that wasn't clutching a sword hilt to a stairway at the end of the grey stone hall.
Mikan looked for a moment before his mind registered fully the importance of the stairway. "The dungeon?" The young sorcerer made a face, and Llith found himself almost smiling at the display, in spite of all that he had to worry about.
Then he explained, "It's fairly obvious that our forces lost the battle, isn't it?"
Mikan dropped his arm from Llith's shoulder. "You don't know that."
"Come on, Mikan! Look around you! Orcs! Goblins! Some Raor-forsaken hole floating in mid-air and spitting monsters into the Great Hall! If Ranill had won the battle, do you think that we'd see any of that?" Seeing that the magic user made no answer, Llith made a bitter sound. "We lost Mikan. It's as simple as that."
"You don't know that!" Mikan shouted, "You don't know!"
"Do you think I like it?" Llith whispered harshly, "I'm a Knight of Lwuatha Castle. I'm sworn to defend the king and castle with my life--and look! Nothing either one of us could have done would have made spit's worth of difference. The battle is over and done with; the best we can do is try to find anybody alive and go somewhere else to regroup!"
Mikan's shoulders sagged. "This is the only home I ever knew," he said softly. Llith said nothing, just nodded sympathetically. After a few moments, he gestured to the gaping maw that was the dungeon stairwell.
"Shall we?" he asked, making a mock bow.
Mikan grimaced as an unidentifiable smell wafted to his nose. Then he followed as Llith started down the stairs. The way was dark and dank. Green, slippery moss covered everything as far as Mikan could see, and more than once he lost his footing on the treacherous steps and began to stumble, his fall only checked as he fell against Llith.
The smell grew stronger and stronger. "What is that?" Mikan asked in annoyance, rubbing his irritated nose. Llith was strangely silent. "Llith?"
"I heard you," answered Llith. Mikan caught revulsion in his voice. "I've only smelled that once before, when the pantry door got stuck with King Ranill's prize deer inside. A week later, when we finally got the door open, we found the deer half-rotted."
"So . . ."
"That is the smell of rotting flesh."
"After only a day?" Mikan's voice was shaky. "Impossible."
"It was impossible for the gate to have rotted like that too," Llith answered. He could tell, even without looking, that Mikan wanted to throw up. He understood. Try as he might, Llith could not stop thinking about what the rotting corpses must look like by now. Even as he started to think of happy, cheerful things, he heard the buzzing of flies and imagined thousands of the miserable little insects flying, bloated, around a rotted body they were feeding on.
Finally banishing the thoughts, Llith heard Mikan gulp and turned to see his friend's face pale. He couldn't blame him. Inside he was feeling the same way. But right now, the only thought in his mind was first to find the survivors of the onslaught, and second to find and kill the villain who had done this.
He turned and began to walk back down the stairs. Llith could see a faint light now at the bottom of the stairs, flickering as a torch would. Both neared the end of the staircase, and both could hear an evil cackling.
Mikan looked at Llith and their eyes met. Both understood. Whoever had done this was down there. Llith loosened his sword in his sheath and began to quietly slide the blade out. The pair rounded the last bend in the stairs, and Llith's mind reeled at what he saw.
Mikan heard him whisper something through stiff lips.
* * * * *
The Dark Lord sneered at Ranill cedLluah.
The High King hung, manacled, in his own dungeon. Dirt and grime covered his face from where he had been repeatedly knocked to the ground by the Dark Lord's soldiers, and dried blood caked his face, the wounds from which it had flown too multitudinous to separate from one another.
His hair hung in filthy, matted, limp curls, and the rusty cuffs which held his hands cut through his flesh, biting like a steel trap that the rangers of the forests used. His once regal countenance now bore the look of a cornered animal, and raw hatred shone through the king's eyes.
The Dark Lord looked at the tortured monarch. "I see you have forgotten your manners again," he spat, drawing closer, "It is customary to tremble when you are addressed by the ruler of the world!"
Ranill raised his head and snarled. "You're mad. If you think that overrunning my castle with monsters will paralyze my Viceroys, you're sadly mistaken." The Dark Lord began to laugh. Ranill struggled against his chains, ignoring the flashes of pain coming from his wrists. Not being able to reach the Dark Lord, he spat viciously in dark-robed mage's face.
The evil magic user hissed. "I will see you die in pain for that," he said, his voice venomous. Ranill only sneered defiantly. The Dark Lord's face grew twisted in rage.
"You will die! Do you hear me? Die!!" he screamed, and Ranill was thrown roughly against the wall as the Dark Lord hit him again and again with well-remembered lightning. Each place the lightning touched a new and different feeling of agony exploded upon the king's chest. His eyes erupted with light, and the he began to smell smoke. The king lolled in his chains, and the lightning became a distant thudding. Pain was the only thing in the world now, and Ranill began to drift farther and farther away.
Then the lightning suddenly stopped, and the king was jerked to full consciousness again. The inside of his chest erupted with fire, and he screamed in agony. He saw through a dim red haze the Dark Lord, holding his shriveled hands high, finger nails extending out like black scimitars.
Quick as a snake's strike, the fingernails shot out and rent Ranill's flesh, pulling away and leaving jagged streaks of red across his face. After a final slap in the face--the kind given merely to provoke, the black-garbed mage turned. "You will die," he whispered. He stepped away, making a mock bow.
"But," he purred, "We can't have you dying on us just yet, can we?" The Dark Lord grinned maniacally, and then turned around. His voice was low. "You still have a part to play," he said the last words heavily laden with mocking cruelty, "Your Majesty!"
Ranill winced as he felt his face burn with the pain of newly inflicted wounds. Struggling against exhaustion, he tried to stay awake so as to see some hint of what else was going on around him. Eventually though, he fell into a tortured sleep as black as the Dark Lord's robes, and the last thing he was aware of was the evil mage laughing.
* * * * *
Llith watched in agony as the evil man in black struck out at the High King, cutting huge gashes in his face with his fingernails. Then he made a few snide comments of which Llith could only guess the meaning, not being able to hear anything but the tone of the magic user's voice. One thing rang crystal clear in Llith's head, though. He had unmistakably heard the man say, "You will die."
Unconsciously, Llith was gripping his sword tighter and moving forward, but Mikan's hand restrained him. "Stay," Mikan whispered in his ear, "It will do you no good to rush to your death. If this man could destroy the entire king's army and personal guard in one night, he will have no trouble dealing with one knight."
Llith gritted his teeth and waited, sure that the enraged pounding of his own heart would give him away to the black-clad skeleton of a man before him. If nothing else, he would live to see this man die on the point of his sword. He silently vowed that he would one day see the demon's head on a spear.
"What kind of magic is he using?" he quietly asked of Mikan. The young sorcerer shook his head.
"This man fits the description of a necromancer to the smallest detail but for one. If he's responsible for everything we've seen, then he's much more powerful than anything I've ever even heard of, save Wizards or," he shot Llith a meaningful glance, "the Dark Lord of ancient lore."
Llith pounded a leather gauntleted fist against his palm. "Will you let it drop!?" he hissed, "It's just a very powerful necromancer who has convinced the orcs that he's the reincarnation of a legendary magic user! In case you don't remember, Mikan, the Dark Lord died following the Conflict! We read the book enough times to know that."
Mikan was silent for a moment. Then he whispered, "Look; he's leaving!"
Llith saw that, indeed, the necromancer was leaving. For the first time since they'd entered the dungeon, Llith looked around at something other than the man in black. What he saw staggered him.
In every single cell, a patch of dull silver hung in space, its edges fuzzy and insubstantial. White specks of light seemed to dance in each of them, and out of each poured the same mist that Llith had seen in the previous Gate.
Trying to count the mass of Gates, Llith's mind screamed protest. Nearly everywhere he looked, a Gate opened. There wasn't a space he could look without five uninterrupted feet of wall without seeing a patch of silver. It was impossible to try to count them anyway; he'd get started and lose track of which Gate he was on. Damn these things!
There was, at least, one thing about the Gates that Llith was able to discern. Though each was laced with lights of differing hues, every one of them reeked of orc. Every one of them bore the telltale grunting and snorting of orc speech.
"By Quilliar's Loom," Mikan whispered, staring awestruck at the spectacle.
"Come on," Llith whispered, tearing his eyes away from the scene, "we've got to free His Majesty!"
Mikan nodded, and the two rapidly descended the remaining steps to the dungeon floor. Once there, Llith ran to his lord, barely keeping his footing in his haste to reach him. Then, he gently shook his sovereign.
"My lord," he whispered, "Awake! We are here to rescue you!"
Ranill's eyelids fluttered, then snapped open. Reflexively he jumped forward, rattling his chains. Llith winced as he saw the manacles cut deeper into his king's wrists. For a moment, the king struggled against his chains, then he looked at Llith, as if waking from a fever dream.
"Llith?" he croaked. The knight nodded, his eyes tearing over as he heard the hoarseness in the king's voice, bearing the telltale strain of repeated beatings and suffering. "Llith, is that really you?"
"It is," Llith said, trying to comfort his sovereign, "Mikan is here as well, Your Majesty."
Mikan stepped out of the shadows, and his long wooden staff clicked, barely audible, on the stone floor. The jewel at the top of it glowed brighter in the gloom.
Ranill coughed heavily, a rattling sound that made Llith wonder if the abuse the High King had suffered was more than could be seen on the outside, if that was possible.
"You make your king proud. . ." the king began, but again coughed, bringing up blood. Mikan drew closer, feeling that he couldn't just stand by and watch.
"My lord," he said, touching Ranill on the head with one index finger. He concentrated every fiber of his being into healing the hurts that had been inflicted on his sovereign, reaching deep within himself for power.
And Quilliar smiled. Mikan heard himself say something in a language long forgotten, and Ranill sighed peacefully. Broken ribs grew back together, and once splintered pieces of bone dissolved by magic. Ranill's blood began to flow through parts of his body which had lain cold and broken only moments before.
Llith watched in awe. No matter how many times Mikan's spells misfired, there was always a rare gleaming success.
Ranill opened his eyes and felt as if he were waking from a nightmare. "I always knew . . ." he grinned. Then his expression suddenly turned serious.
"You must flee," he said firmly, "You are in great danger. If you stay in the castle, you will die."
Llith shook his head. "Sire, we've come to rescue you."
Ranill's eyes turned hard. "You can't. Nothing can rescue me."
"What of Ithlarr and Kijjan?" Mikan asked. "And Mollar?"
Ranill swallowed. "I know not. Heed me, and go! Get out before all is lost."
Now it was Llith's turn to become angry. "All is already lost. I have failed in my promise to protect you and the kingdom. If you think for one minute that I'll stand here and watch as ten thousand grey-skinned monsters invade the castle while the High King is chained in his own dungeon and tortured by evil necromancers, then I'm a four headed basilisk . . . Your Majesty."
Ranill could not help but laugh at the automatic addition at the end of the angry outburst. "Damn your stubbornness--just like your father. All right Llith; if you're so bent on saving the kingdom, that's just what I'm going to order you to do."
Llith straightened his shoulders, ready to receive detailed instructions on troop placement and secret plans to be carried to the Viceroys.
"Find the descendants of the Great Knights and unite them," Ranill ordered. "Only with their help can we save the kingdom."
Llith's jaw dropped. "You're joking." He immediately bit his tongue in chagrin. "I mean . . . the Great Knights, Sire? Surely you jest! I could ride to the port and sail to Semondar or Krysst, and the Viceroys--"
Ranill was shaking his head. "You don't understand. Nobody but the Great Knights can free us. The Great Evil rises again."
Llith's face turned white as Mikan nudged him in the ribs. The Great Evil? Surely the High King didn't believe this nonsense, too? He dimly remembered answering, "Yes, My Liege," as if in a dream, but beyond that, he was lost in his own turmoil of thoughts.
He was being told to find a legendary group of knights from a legendary group of half-immortals from a story book he'd read, to save the kingdom from a legendary Dark Lord. Idiocy!
"But, supposing I fail to find them," he began, "I could still head for Krysst or Semondar; the Viceroys must be made aware--"
Ranill exploded, his royal wrath impressive even while he was chained. "Aren't you listening? This is it!! This is the attack of the Dark Lord! Yes, Llith! The Dark Lord from the children's tales! The Great Evil has risen once again, and unless you find all of the sects of Great Knights, the fall of the Cirid will be the least of the Kingdom's problems!"
Dark Lord. Dark Prince. Winter King. Black Wizard.
Every culture in the world had a name for the evil necromancer-Wizard that had nearly destroyed civilization and the Council of Wizards millenia ago. So powerful were his black arts, that it had eventually taken the Great Knights themselves to destroy him.
And now Ranill had invoked the monster's name in conjunction with the invasion of Lwuatha Castle and Cirid. Llith stammered. "But--but Your Majesty . . . The Dark Lord?"
"Yes," Ranill hissed, "The necromancer! Do you think your father told you those stories as a child just for your enjoyment? That was a history lesson! We knew this day would come! Now accept this: the Dark Lord has attacked. Lwuatha is lost. Go find the Great Knights to put an end to this before the Kingdom and the rest of the world are lost to the powers of evil. Then raise the alarm to my Viceroys and bring back an army. Do you understand your orders, Sir Llith?"
At the mention of his title, Llith snapped to attention. "Yes, My Liege," he said.
"Good," Ranill answered, "Go to the land of Krysst. Somewhere, you will find one of the descendants of the Great Knights."
"We should free you," Llith protested.
"I'm held by spellcraft not even Mikan could break," Ranill answered. "Listen to me, and go find the Great Knights. That's an order on your vow of knighthood, Sir Llith cidLenn!"
Llith nodded, dazed. We knew this day would come. The thought frightened him almost as much as the invasion had.
While Llith struggled to reconcile this new information with the rest of his life, Mikan pressed the High King for details. "Where will we find the Great Knight? What will he look like? Will we find Wizards?" Ranill just hung his head, tired. Then he snapped it back up again, suddenly alert.
Llith heard the sound at the same time: steel tipped boots clanking against stone. He pulled his sword out of his sheath, and Mikan shifted his staff into a ready position.
"Go!" Ranill hissed, "Find the descendants of the Great Knights! They are our only hope!"
Llith started to run for the stairway, but a shout from Mikan stopped him. He turned around just in time to see several orcs emerge from the Gate closest to the door. At the sight of Mikan and Llith, one of the orcs ran into another Gate while the others drew their weapons.
Mikan started to back off, trying to look menacing, but finding it more than just a bit difficult wearing his blue robe and tripping over his leather boots as he backed up.
Llith grabbed Mikan and pulled him back towards the stairwell, his sword still pointed at the orcs. Then, as he felt the first step under his heel, he heard war drums from inside the Gates. Rhythmically pounding in time with his heart beats, the war drums grew louder, more violent. Half-hypnotized by the sound, Llith scrambled backwards.
Suddenly the drums stopped. The dungeon was filled with an eerie silence. As the sea comes in, waves of orcs burst from the Gates, and the sound of war drums was deafening. Mikan's face twisted into a mask of horror as more orcs streamed out of every Gate, closing in on the two friends. It seemed as if thousands of the grey-skinned creatures were in the dungeon now, their black chain mail clicking menacingly.
Llith and Mikan turned in unison and bolted up the spiral staircase, hearing the eager war cries of the orcs as they thundered towards the top of the staircase. Wave after wave of the monsters dashed after the two friends, and once again Mikan was reminded of the sea during a storm.
They ran as fast as they could, terrified that they would never find refuge, that some monster would jump out at the next turn and slash them up for the pleasure of another scalp gained in a bloody invasion. As tired as they were, they didn't stop for fear that they would never find safety. Every second that passed, each felt an itching between his shoulder blades as he imagined the sharp pain in his back as would accompany a fatal shot by an orcish archer.
After what seemed an eternity, the two burst out of the stairwell, and Llith slammed the door, barring it as fast as he could. Then the pair ran down the hall, tripping over the numerous bodies in their haste, trying in vain to return to the Great Hall. The young knight felt a sense of doubt as they approached the entrance.
Rounding a corner, Llith knew he had made a mistake. As soon as he and Mikan ran into the room, they saw orcs and some new orange-skinned type of creature pouring out of yet another rift-gate. Llith caught a glimpse of the creatures and tried desperately to identify them as he turned around and began to run again.
Goblins, he surmised, though he'd never heard of goblins serving under the Dark Lord. It had been a different type of goblin than the two he had slain earlier. Did this mean that the Dark Lord had somehow united the Northern Clans? Overwhelmed by the idea, Llith shook his head. Probably they were just mercenaries. Goblins were slightly on the immoral side, but many weren't all that bad as far as keeping their word.
Llith quickly looked for the nearest window. From here, his only route of escape was out through one. He was trapped in a hallway full of locked doors with an army of orcs at one end and an army of both orcs and goblins at another. Frantically, searching for a window bigger than an arrow slit, Llith cursed the castle's architect.
Finally, he found a small one, barely sufficient for either of them to squeeze through, and threw a backward glance over his shoulder. The orcs from the dungeon were beginning to break the iron reinforced door, and at the other end of the hall, a few goblins were just noticing them trying to escape.
"Gol gül krudd nodder!" shouted a goblin down the hall. Probably a signal to the orcs, Llith thought, grimacing.
Llith pushed himself up onto the narrow ledge of the window. "Well," he said to Mikan, "here we go!" Then he hurled himself out the opening, hoping to Raor that there was nothing sharp or hard to land on below, and that any bodies he might land on were devoid of armor or weapons. The drop had looked like about three stories just before he jumped, and Llith suddenly doubted the wisdom of leaping, fearing he might have had a better chance of survival fighting the brigades of orcs upstairs.
He hit the ground with bone-jarring impact, and hurriedly pulled himself out of the way of Mikan, whom he expected to see tumbling after him. Instead, as he looked up, he saw Mikan floating gently down on a massive oak leaf. About to congratulate him on two spells in a row that had worked, Llith winced as the leaf tore and Mikan fell roughly to the ground.
"Wonderful escape," the sorcerer gasped as he forced himself to stand. "I'm lucky not to have broken every bone in my body."
"You look fine," Llith replied. "Now let's get to the main gate!" The young knight took off at a dead run.
Mikan groaned. "Next time," he panted, following the billowing grey cloak in front of him, "I get to plan the escape." That elicited a breathless laugh from Llith. Mikan kept his eyes on the ground, intent on staying upright. The spell he had used to heal the High King was now taking its toll upon him, and the sorcerer was hard pressed to keep from passing out.
An explosive blasphemy from Llith snapped Mikan back to attention.
"Raor's Bloody Stones!" Llith swore. "They closed the damn gate while we were inside!"
Mikan stared stupidly at the obstacle before them.
The main gate stood mostly undisturbed from the effects of the raid, as all the attacks had been from inside the castle and the attackers had spread out afterwards. The huge oaken doors were reinforced with steel and iron, and majestic silver inlays decorated the surface. Behind it, Llith knew, was a drawbridge that spanned the wide moat. After that was the main road leading through the ruined city of Cirid, and then to the King's Highway and beyond all Llith had ever known. To the side stood the gate tower.
Llith turned to Mikan. "We need to get out fast. Do you think that you can work a spell--any spell--to get us out?
Mikan pursed his lips and pondered for a moment. Then he shook his head. "Short of blasting the door down with sheer force, which I'm not sure I could do under ideal conditions, no." He took the moment of respite to gulp several deep breaths, and was irritated to find that his throat burned with the exertion. "The only way I see is to lower the drawbridge and escape out the other side of the tower so we can cross the moat." He folded his arms across his chest and looked pensively at the gate tower.
"I suppose the most direct route would be to just head for the stairs and start climbing, but they might be expecting that. What do you think, Llith?" Mikan waited for a response and then turned in annoyance to his friend. About to ask again, his question died in his throat.
Llith hadn't heard Mikan's question at all; his gaze as riveted upon the almost certain death which approached. Coming out of the main door of the castle was the army of orcs, headed by an incredibly tall goblin. He was dressed in heavy plate armor studded with short spikes.
For a moment, Llith found his mind wandering and telling himself that the armor was the most impractical he'd ever seen. It was similar to the type favored by the warriors from the country of Clathiss for their ceremonial dress, but this looked more like a weapon clamped onto the body than a suit of armor.
The goblin pulled a strangely curved sword from his scabbard. It was like a scimitar, but the curve was slighter, the blade thicker. Catching the irregular reflection on the edge of the sword, Llith suddenly saw that it was serrated. On slightly closer inspection, he observed that the sword refused to reflect light off the main blade. Chilled, he realized that the sword's dull color was not because of rust, but because of long dried blood.
Mikan saw too, and began to back away. The jewel at the top of his staff was glowing blood red now, and the goblin caught sight of it and pointed towards the pair, yelling something in orcish. The army behind him broke into a run, eager for slaughter.
"Run!!" Llith cried, and the pair turned from the main gate and dashed left for the entrance to the gate tower, desperate to escape certain death as it followed on their heels, snarling and swinging wicked-looking, rusted weaponry.
Llith felt as if he were in a nightmare. With each step he took, he felt an eternity pass; the orcs seemed to take ten steps to his one. The ground spread out before him, an endless journey to the gate tower. Each breath burned in his lungs, powerless to keep him from gasping.
Suddenly, he was there, hitting hard against the wooden planking of the entrance. He yanked Mikan inside by his arm and slamming the door, barring it and looking for something to prop against it. Finding nothing, he began to rush down the hall.
"What's the plan now?" asked Mikan breathlessly as they pounded down the hall. "Jump out another window?"
Between gasps, Llith explained, "To the stables. If we can find even one horse, I think I can remember a secret way out of the castle that father used to forbid me to use after I discovered it while playing hide and seek."
"Why not just lower the drawbridge and run out the main gate?"
"Gods, Mikan! Do you seriously think we'll have time enough to lower the bridge and open the gate before they split our gizzards?"
Mikan shook his head. Llith realized with a flush that Mikan didn't even know his way around the castle well enough to know where the stables even were, much less in relation to where he was right now. In retrospect, the young sorcerer had spent far too much time locked up in his tower.
As they passed hallway after hallway, the grey of the stone walls and the faded brown of the wooden doors the only impression Mikan could take in of his surroundings as he ran for his life.
Llith concentrated on where they were going. If he remembered, the gate tower connected to the stables by way of a stone path along the top of the barracks. If they stayed low enough behind the walls, they probably wouldn't be seen from below by the remaining forces that hadn't come in.
He nearly laughed at himself. It had been sheer stupidity to think the orcs and goblins wouldn't break the door down and follow them into the gate tower! He could only hope that he'd taken enough twists and turns to lose the bulk of the force in the maze of rooms that made up the building.
After climbing a set of stairs, Llith burst out onto the roof of the barracks where he could see the door that led to the stairs down the stable. For a moment, he was so relieved that he stopped to catch his breath. He could hear Mikan doing the same behind him. He knew that this must all be terribly taxing on the sorcerer, for while Llith had been subjected to rigorous physical activity while training in swordplay, Mikan had only to read and think to master his profession.
He was about to turn and ask if Mikan was all right, when a shout from the courtyard below brought him back to the situation at hand. Llith cursed himself as he saw the goblin leader pointing at him with his sword and shouting several orders. In all his carelessness he had forgotten to stay down!
"Come on!" he said to Mikan, bolting for the door. He reached it and pulled the brass ring with all his might. The door creaked open and caught an arrow which would have hit Llith's head with a thunk.
Swearing and scared out of his wits, Llith made sure that the nearly-collapsed Mikan was behind him and ran down the stairs, mindful of the storm of arrows and bolts above. He shuddered thinking of the arrow which had very nearly been his death. If it hadn't hit his head, he probably would have died anyway: of that, he was sure. First, the arrow had been stuck almost halfway through the door, confirming his fears that the orcs were using heavy crossbows. A bolt shot by a heavy crossbow, let alone an arrow, would do enough damage to leaving him writhing in pain on the floor until the rest of the army found him.
Second, the arrows were probably poisoned with a substance known among mercenaries and soldiers (although Kingdom soldiers were never allowed to use it) as "Mordill's Bane". It was a particularly effective and lethal poison which would leave the victim dead after about an hour of slow agony; something which Llith had personally witnessed during the past night. A drop of the stuff could kill a full grown dragon, it was said. Nobody would ever know, Llith noted with grim humor, since dragons were about as legendary as faeries.
The ripe smell of horse manure alerted Llith that they had nearly reached the stables. Although he couldn't see into the dark doorway, he knew this was the place; he had spent half of his waking life here. Wrinkling his nose, he plunged into the darkness. After a moment, he felt Mikan bump into his back.
The young sorcerer mumbled a breathless apology, and, quickly recovering his balance, he looked around, trying to pick out shapes in the scant light.
"Do you see any horses?" asked Mikan.
Llith shushed him, listening for any sounds. For a moment, all was still. Then the explosive whinny of a horse right next to them made the young magic user leap into the air and shout.
As the sorcerer calmed his pounding heart, Llith beamed and moved closer in the gloom. Searching the horse, he found it already saddled and bridled. It had been tied to a nearby post, so it had not been able to escape during the chaos of the night. Praising Crillshar, the Goddess of Fortune, Llith pulled Mikan up onto the saddle with his free hand that wasn't gripping the pommel of the saddle.
"Which way now?" asked Mikan. Llith didn't answer. He turned the horse to the right and started moving forward. Llith and Mikan had just enough time to glimpse a stable wall before it turned on some hidden hinge with a loud creaking sound. Then they were in inky blackness, darker than even before in the stables.
* * * * *
Luthnigg, High Commander of the Goblin Forces of the Gothidon swore. His arrow had just barely missed the mark. No matter. They could not hide forever.
Taking off his fearsome helmet, he set it on the ground next to him, making sure not to poke his hands on the spikes protruding from his armor. Its basic design that of a close-fitting bascinet, the helm had been cunningly designed so that it looked like nothing so much as a black steel dragon's head.
Likewise, the rest of the suit of armor had been crafted to strike terror into those who saw Luthnigg wearing it. Indeed, it was barely functional, and Luthnigg much preferred his normal mail and leather; that was good, simple killing armor. However, the Black Wizard had ordered the High Commander to wear this armor during the siege, and the goblin knew better than to argue, regardless of how little foolish it seemed.
At least the Black Wizard had shown good sense in appointing Luthnigg to the position of High Commander. After all, wasn't he the one who united the Ogres of Skith against the Cluster Kingdom before the Battle of Burnwater? Wasn't he the one who had unified the goblin tribes of the north against the Army of Semondar only a few years before? Anything he got was only his just reward.
Although he had sworn allegiance to the Black Wizard, the man still made Luthnigg nervous. The man was obviously insane, although powerful. Those were two things that must never be combined. The goblin sighed. After the world was conquered by the mage, he would have to kill the necromancer and take his rightful place as ruler of the world.
As for the two survivors who had eluded him, he almost pitied them if they actually escaped the castle. To suffer the Black Woizard's wrath later would be a fate worse than to die on the end of an orc's spear.
Luthnigg chuckled grimly. After a moment of consideration, he made a quick gesture.
"You, orc!" he snapped.
The nearest of the grey-skinned abominations stepped forward. "You have question. Speak." The orc spoke in rough, broken Common. Luthnigg frowned in disgust. Stupid, idiotic creatures! Why the Black Wizard employed such fools when all the goblins of the Northlands would have flocked to his banner under Luthnigg, the High Commander had yet to understand.
In orcish, Luthnigg commanded, "Take your unit and catch those thrice-damned fools. You remember the orders; if even one survives and leaves to tell about our attack, you will be severely punished."
"Yes sir," responded the orc, and left to carry out Luthnigg's order.
Luthnigg frowned. Why in the name of the Great Klatkus had the two humans run to the top of the castle when they might have opened the gates and made their way out through another part of the gatehouse?
Ah, well. Who could fathom how a panicked animal in flight would react?
Unless . . .
"Sergeant," Luthnigg snapped. A leather-armored goblin stepped forward and knelt quickly. On his arms were newly-scavenged iron bracers, looted from one of the Kingdomers' corpses. Luthnigg felt himself almost grinning in approval.
"Your will, my lord?" the goblin sergeant asked.
"Open the gate," Luthnigg ordered. "Take some of your men and patrol outside. Look for some sort of hidden exit. A rabbit usually has more than one way out of its warren."
"Yes, my lord," the sergeant answered. "Victory to the Gothidon."
Luthnigg grunted agreement and glanced down at his sword. It was still stuck point-down in the dirt from when he had hastily grabbed a crossbow from one of his soldiers. Unlike the Kingdom dogs, he did not clean the blood of his victims off of the blade after a battle. Each darkened, coagulated spot of blood on the blade stood for another unfortunate foe bested by Luthnigg; it was a sign of his prowess that his sword was so dark from the blood of others.
Weary of the siege, Luthnigg sheathed his blade and rolled his shoulders, longing to shuck the uncomfortable armor he wore. As soon as he had captured these last two defenders, he could go off duty and find a house in the abandoned city to claim for his own.
For several minutes, Luthnigg waited in impatience. If not for this damnable armor, he could have led the search party himself. The warm summer sun shone brightly, making the armor doubly uncomfortable. Luthingg was almost at the limit of his patience when the sergeant reappeared and knelt.
As he gave his report, Luthnigg's scowl became a grin.
"Excellent work, sergeant. Let me know when it's done."
* * * * *
Mikan opened his eyes. He had dozed off in the saddle behind Llith, and had nearly fallen off the horse. "Wha . . . ?"
Llith shifted uncomfortably. "I'm lost. Can you summon a light or something?"
"Mm, sure. Pyras." The jewel at the end of Mikan's staff flared to life with a pale blue light, throwing shadows across the tunnel and illuminating jagged rock formations. Mikan sat up straighter, interested despite his fatigue. "Where are we?"
"Deep below the castle by now," Llith answered. "I had no idea these tunnels were so extensive. We must have been riding for hours, don't you think?"
"Why didn't you tell me that these tunnels were down here?" Mikan asked.
"I told you, my father forbid me to come down here after he knew I'd found them. He also promised a royal thrashing if I ever told anybody about it. He said it had to do with the safety of the castle." Llith's tone of voice indicated that he thought this explained everything.
Mikan's brow furrowed. "You mean you don't really know whether these tunnels lead out or if they just go in mazes forever down here? What if we've gotten lost in some ancient barrow?"
Llith was silent. After a moment, Mikan spoke again. "Well, I suppose if it had to do with the safety of the castle, that probably means that it's a possible invasion route, so it must lead outside."
"My thinking also," Llith replied. "The only problem now is finding our way out to the surface."
"Should've brought some food," Mikan said with a rueful smile.
"Can't you magic some out of the air for us?"
Mikan snorted. "I'm a newly-sealed sorcerer, Llith, not a bloody Wizard. Magic is about manipulation of things, not creation."
Llith frowned, nettled. "What about that silver chalice Kijjan made out of thin air to give Duchess cidBrigh?"
"Kijjan's been studying for years," Mikan answered. "Besides, he just rearranged the air so that it would form into silver, he didn't create it out of nothing."
"Well at any rate," Llith observed, "it won't do us any good to sit here and discuss the academics of sorcery when we're still lost and probably being pursued. He nearly got thrown out of the League for that little stunt, too."
Mikan nodded assent. "All right, then. I think I can do something to help." He closed his eyes and muttered several phrases. After a moment, a blazing blue point of light appeared before Llith. The horse reared back with a loud whinny, dumping Mikan on the ground. The sound of the frightened animal echoed down the tunnel.
The light dropped straight into the ground and vanished without a trace.
"Well, that's done it," Llith snapped. "If we weren't being followed, we probably are now."
"Oh, shut up," Mikan returned in ill temper. "I'm trying my best." He repeated the procedure, and the light reappeared. This time, it was several feet away from the horse, and slightly dimmer.
As Mikan remounted the nervous animal, he said, "In a moment, the light will start moving. Just follow it. It should be heading for the nearest exit; that spell homes in on fresh air."
Llith nodded. "Good work. I just hope it doesn't lead us back to the stables."
"Couldn't be much worse than starving to death in these tunnels with an ill-tempered dragon for a horse," Mikan said with an uncharacteristically sharp laugh. "Just follow the light and we'll be fine."
Llith grunted in halfhearted agreement. "I trust you to get it right," he said.
"You sound real sure," Mikan replied sardonically. Llith made no answer.
It was slow going.
The horse was nervous enough as it was, and shied at every shadow thrown by the witch-light that floated eerily and noiselessly ahead. It kept pulling at its bit, and Llith was hard pressed to keep it from bolting and bashing his and Mikan's heads against the low ceiling and stalactites.
Mikan clenched his jaw sourly. Llith had spent literally years in the saddle, but Mikan was a poor rider at best, and it discomforted him more than he cared to admit just to stay astride the restive beast.
To give himself something else to think about, he asked, "Why is it nobody ever would have found these tunnels? It seems to me that the release for the secret door was fairly easy to trip." Not allowing Llith time to answer, he blurted his next thought. "And why aren't these tunnels in use? Being right under the castle, it seems to me that they'd be useful for storage."
Llith shushed Mikan, straining forward.
Mikan bit his tongue and held his breath. After a few tense moments, Llith relaxed again and let his breath out in a rush. "I thought I heard something . . . but it must have been my imagination," he explained. "Come to think of it, I don't know why we'd be hearing voices from ahead anyway."
"Oh!" Mikan exclaimed suddenly. Llith jumped slightly, and his free hand flew to his sword hilt. "No," Mikan apologized. "I just realized something, that's all."
"Ithlarr told me that the name 'Lwuatha' comes from a very old word meaning 'labyrinth.' I suppose that Lwuatha Castle was named for these caverns beneath it. That means that at least the original architects knew about them."
Llith shrugged. "Well, there's one mystery solved."
"Hardly," Mikan muttered, but he could tell that Llith wasn't in the mood to pursue the subject. Truthfully, Mikan wasn't either; he just wanted something--anything--to distract him from the combination of terror, fatigue and soreness that pervaded his entire being.
"Wind!" Llith said, blinking. The unmistakable caress of breezy fingers on his face spoke of fresh air nearby. "We must be close!"
Mikan was about to speak, but he felt a strange tremor shake him. The jewel atop his staff changed from pale blue to bloody, blazing red. A high-pitched whine needled at his ears, and he pressed his hands against his temples.
"Mikan?" Llith turned, concerned. "What in Mordill's Twelve Hells--"
Lost in a sea of noise, Mikan gritted his teeth. He'd heard of this; sometimes when a sorcerer overreached his magical abilities, he would suffer backlash. It could happen anytime, ranging from right after the spell had been cast until days later. The veil between the true realm and the astral realm, from whence a sorcerer drew his powers, was temporarily rent in such instances.
"Ungh . . . not . . . now." The blue-robed sorcerer shook his head, as if to banish the whine, which only increased in volume. Just when it seemed that he could stand no more, it stopped. Mikan thought he felt something pass through him, as though his blood turned to wind for the briefest of moments.
No! Go away!
Mikan was sure the thought did not belong to him, but he was too grateful for the surcease of pain and confusion to question it further. Something deep inside him told him that he should be alarmed if not openly terrified, but he batted it down.
The color of the jewel affixed to Mikan's staff faded back to its customary pale blue.
When Mikan came back to himself, Llith was staring at him, a mixture of fear and concern plain on his face.
"Are you all right?" the young knight asked.
"Fine," Mikan answered. "I just cast a few too many spells last night. I was lucky this time; I could have been killed."
Llith's features paled. Then he laughed nervously. "You never stop surprising me, Mikan."
"Just follow the light," Mikan replied. "The sooner we get out of here, the sooner I'll have a chance to recuperate." The rest of the what had just happened would have to be dealt with later, he decided.
"Right." Llith nudged the horse into a slow trot. Several muted curses erupted from Mikan, and Llith inwardly decided that as soon as they escaped, it would be well worth his time and effort to teach Mikan how to ride properly. He gazed steadily ahead, keeping alert for any movement from ahead.
The silent light continued to glide forward. From time to time, it would flicker briefly, as a candle flame in the wind. However, its flickering apparently had little or nothing to do with the intermittent breeze that Llith felt.
Ill at ease with the mysterious light, he almost didn't hear the sounds before it was too late.
With a quick jerking motion, he signaled Mikan to extinguish the magic light. The floating wisp of illumination disappeared, and the pyradax crystal at the top of Mikan's staff went dark instantly. He could feel the sorcerer's questioning gaze burning into his back, so he half turned and whispered a single word in explanation.
It seemed to Llith that he saw Mikan nod. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized that the tunnel was now faintly illuminated by natural light.
"We're near the exit." Mikan's voice was barely a whisper, but Llith heard it very clearly. "Don't reply; my voice is hidden by sorcery, but I can't do the same for you."
Llith nodded his understanding.
"If we slowly dismount, do you think we can sneak up and get a good look at them?" Mikan's voice, augmented by magic or not, contained a barely perceptible tremor of fear.
Llith nodded once more, and slowly slide from the saddle. Mikan followed suit with surprising ease for one not accustomed to riding.
As if reading his friend's thoughts, Mikan smiled wryly in the dimness. "Getting off of the horse is never my problem."
Llith leaned as close as he could to Mikan. "Let's go." he whispered, loosing his sword in its sheath and slowly, deliberately drawing it out. The scrape of his blade against the iron throat of his scabbard seemed to fill the natural corridor. Llith winced at the necessity of it.
The pair moved forward as silently as they could, each picking his own way carefully over the jagged shards of flint and rough, sharp chunks of sandstone. Llith saw Mikan shaking his head, and frowned. After what seemed hours, they finally drew close enough to clearly hear the voices from the end of the tunnel.
"I don't know much about it, either," one said. It was a deep, male voice accented thickly with the speech patterns of the far South. It could have been either goblin or human for all Llith knew. He was at least sure that it was not an orc.
"Well," answered a second voice, "all I've heard is that from here on, the rest of the job should be easy. Truth to tell, I was looking forward to more of a fight than this."
A few more voices grunted agreement. The first man spoke again. "Well, after we spit these two running rabbits over a fire, we can go back to the city proper and find ourselves some houses."
"Aye! Imagine me, living in a noble's mansion--and to think me mum never thought I'd amount to anything!"
A chorus of rough chuckles met this remark. Llith could feel his grip involuntarily tightening on the hilt of his sword, until it was almost painful. That these brutes should mock the fall of Cirid was inexcusable, no matter what race they be of.
He took a step forward.
"No!" It was Mikan's voice, still whisper-soft but painfully clear. "There are two many of them, Llith! You'll never be able to fight off six soldiers all by yourself!"
Llith clenched his jaw grimly and took another step.
"Gods! Have you lost your mind? At least wait a moment so I can get a spell ready!" From Mikan's direction came hurried muttering. Llith dimly perceived movement as the sorcerer wove his hands in complex patterns.
From the front of the corridor, one of the voices shouted. At first it was a wordless cry of anger tinged with an edge of animal panic.
"My eyes! I can't see a thing!"
Llith didn't hesitate. As quietly and swiftly as possible, he was around the bend of the corridor and upon his assailants.
Four goblins and two human men scrabbled blindly for their weapons and screamed terrified blasphemies into the spell-induced darkness that clung to their eyes. Llith drove his sword up to the hilt through the first of the goblins. Propelled by the strength of Llith's rage, the blade slid through the hardened leather hide that the goblin wore as if it had been hot wax.
The goblin fell, gurgling and clutching the gaping hole in its chest as Llith yanking his blade free. Then he was on the next. The sword's long blade described a silver-red streak in the air before it slashed three-quarters of the way through the next goblin's neck.
Fountaining dark blood, the creature collapsed wordlessly.
By now, the remaining four had had ample time to draw their weapons and hack blindly around them in panic. A wild swing with a crude but well-kept dirk nearly blinded Llith. Had he not been stepping back to avoid the falling body of his last victim, the blade would have taken both his eyes.
His sword still moving from his last strike, Llith gripped the handle with his free hand and used the momentum of the previous swing to add to the force of his next. Pushing downwards with all the strength he could muster, Llith severed his enemy's right arm and split his skull right through his iron helmet with a brutal two-handed chop.
The man screamed loudly as he fell, and his legs kicked spasmodically for several seconds. Llith ducked a wild stab by a spear-wielding goblin. Noting with uncontrolled hatred that the goblin wore looted iron bracers on his forearms, Llith stepped too close for the spear's range and drove his sword into the spearman's side.
The goblin screamed like a wounded wildcat and dropped his spear, clutching for a knife on his belt. Llith tore his sword from the wound and bisected his enemy's head with a roar of anger.
When he turned, the other two were already dead. The first had been felled by his own comrade's wild swing from a battle-axe. The one with the battle axe was a human man who lay face-up on the grass. His features were blue-grey and his tongue was sticking out. Blood seeped from the corners of his eyes.
Llith let the battle-fury drain from him and turned and see how Mikan fared.
The sorcerer looked almost as grey as the man on the ground. Bent nearly double and clutching his staff, Mikan panted heavily.
"You . . . damn . . . fool!" Mikan rasped. "I can't believe you charged them like that! Did it ever occur to you that maybe I had only been able to blind one?"
Llith blinked. "Oh . . . no. I just assumed that--"
"You broke my concentration when you bolted like that," Mikan wheezed. He slowly pulled himself up until he was standing more or less erect. "I nearly lost control of the blinding spell on three of them. The one with the axe was so berserk that I had to choke him to death."
Llith's eyes darted back to the dead man whose tongue lolled on his chin, and then to Mikan's hands. The sorcerer's fingertips were an angry red, as if burned by the sun. "You can . . . do that?"
Mikan nodded. "I hate doing it. It makes me feel like a damned creeping murderer, and it very nearly makes me pass out every time I do it."
Llith's shoulders droop. "Sorry, Mikan. I just thought that since the one yelled that he was blind . . . "
"Let's just get out of here," Mikan suggested. "If they were waiting for us here . . ."
Llith finished the thought, "Then more will come soon to see why we haven't been captured or killed yet."
Mikan visibly shuddered. "I think that after this is all over, I'm going to sleep for a month. I'm dead on my feet."
Llith nodded and turned back into the tunnel. Emerging a moment later atop the frightened horse, he motioned for Mikan to mount. The sorcerer shook his head grimly and swung himself up by the stirrups.
"Hyah!" Llith shouted, kicking the horse with his heels and flicking the reins.
The pair soon vanished deep into the surrounding forest. Shadows obscured their trail ahead, and it was not long before the afternoon sun, shrouded by somber grey clouds, vanished completely behind the dark boughs of the wood, leaving the pair with only the gloom of their surroundings and their own thoughts.