Patch 17 (realm of arkon.., p.15
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       Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1), p.15

           G. Akella
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  The cold rain kept pouring. Cymon wrapped his uniform cloak—bearing the punisher's badge—tight around his torso. If water got under the armor, it wouldn't be pleasant. It wasn't fun being encased in all that metal, but the master's orders were to be obeyed, not questioned. He didn't want to go home to change in the rain; besides, it was pretty far. He adjusted the blades at his waist, which he'd inherited from his grandfather, and continued on.

  Come morning the weather seemed to improve—the rain had stopped, and the sun was starting to peek out from behind the clouds. The streets of Nittal immediately flooded with citizens weary of the foul weather. The shops' doors opened invitingly and the backyards' rang out with childish laughter, but the downpour returned shortly after lunch and sent everyone back to their homes.

  In the evening dusk, the magical lamplight barely illuminated the road leading to the west wing of the palace complex; the pavement was covered with rain puddles that squelched merrily under the punisher's boots.

  This year's summer was turning out awfully showery, as the eastern wind had brought cold and rainclouds to Nittal. It had been two decades since he'd last seen a truly pleasant day. I wonder how the boys on the Rualt border are doing? thought the tifling as he walked.

  The war with Rualt over Jarus Province had begun several months prior, and the lord had taken the legions southwest. Success seemed to follow the Ashtareans—rumors from the border had it that the province's capture was only a matter of days. The city, however, with only half of the city guard and a quarter of the Gray Tunics left to keep the peace, was showing signs of unrest, with thieves of every stripe, killers and saboteurs crawling out from their shadowy holes. A week ago they finally tracked down a necromancer in the suburbs who had turned a small village into a graveyard. They destroyed the monster, but with considerable difficulty. Cymon frowned at the memory of the devastation witnessed in that village. It was that achievement that had earned him his punisher's badge, which the master had put on him personally.

  In their magistrate, "punisher" was roughly equivalent to the rank of centurion in a legion. For the forty-year-old Cymon—now the youngest punisher on the force—the promotion was yet another milestone in a very promising career. He was exhausted—the chronic lack of sleep over the past several months was taking its toll—but sleep would have to wait. After all, Cymon had promised his old college buddy to drop by and celebrate his latest success.

  He had met Kert in their sophomore year. After flopping yet another alchemy project, Cymon was sitting in the campus park, unsure of what to do next. The workbook lying on his knees was filled from end to end with Master Akat's red ink. It was hard to admit failure, but to say that the young tifling was struggling with alchemy would be a gross understatement. Deliquation, amalgamation and other albification processes were hopelessly tangled up in his head, erecting an impassable wall of chaos.

  He was distracted from his dark thoughts by a young man in a yellow student's mantle sitting on the bench a few feet away. Cymon shot an annoyed glance at the uninvited neighbor and immediately realized that his own problems probably weren't the worst thing that could happen in life.

  The youth was panting while holding a bloodied handkerchief to his nose, trying to stem the bleeding. His lip was broken, and the bruise under his left eye seemed to be swelling across his cheek in real time. Realizing that Cymon was looking, he turned in his direction and, glaring with his surviving eye, hissed vehemently, the handkerchief still in his face.

  "What are you looking at?"

  "I was just sitting here, actually," the tifling chuckled.

  "Whatever," the words came hard for him. "Feel free to sit somewhere else." The kid was clearly asking for it, but Cymon wasn't going to take the bait.

  "Whatever is right," he shrugged. Really, why would he—the finest swordsman in his sophomore class—bother with this shorty?

  Tiflings were taught the art of combat from diapers, and by twenty years of age each of them was head and shoulders above ordinary demons. Possessing a tail as yet another extremity for use in battle, coupled with the finest fighting and magic skills inherited from their fraction of true blood, magnified the noble demons' combat qualities several times over. Other than that, however, the tiflings enjoyed no special privileges, save for perhaps the title of "Dar." Sure, tiflings boasted abilities far beyond those of ordinary demons, but the effort required to actualize them was equally great.

  Such an unexpected retort appeared to mollify the kid. Noticing the notebook with a sea of red on Cymon's knees, he asked in a normal tone:

  "Alchemy? I think I recognize that ugly handwriting—Master Akat, yes? Let me take a look."

  Cymon handed over the notebook, noting that the sleeve on his neighbor's yellow mantle was singed in several places—likely the result of failed experiments.

  "There's the problem," the youth stuck his finger with a gnawed-off nail into the notebook. "This is where you should have done a repeat distillation, then let it sit for two hours before heating it up and finally purifying."

  "Could you say it in plain language now?" the tifling inquired somewhat sheepishly.

  "Sure! I can explain it if you need me to. I'm Kert, by the way," the kid spread his swollen lips in a smile.

  "Cymon," the tifling shook the offered hand.

  "Look, Cymon," Kert moved closer, "this is where you—"

  "Aww, that's sweet," a jeering voice came from the bench across. Cymon looked up and saw that it belonged to one of the three students sitting there. "You've found yourself another nerd to pal around with!"

  As the trio walked over, the tifling checked out the runes on their mantles. All were seniors—one noble and the other two apparently his lackeys. Totally at ease, they clearly didn't expect any opposition since Cymon's tail was hidden from view. Well, well, gentlemen, let's see how this plays out.

  "We thought that you've had enough at first, but then we changed our minds," said the biggest of the three, scowling at Kert while lashing his bootleg with his tail.

  Good on you, little buddy! thought the tifling, noticing the shiner on the mugs of one the aggressors.

  Kert was about to respond, but Cymon stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

  "Scram, shitbirds," the tifling leaned back on the bench, breaking up the distance between them a bit.

  "Oh, this one's got a mouth on him!" The beefcake at the center leaned in and threw a jab aimed at the head without even bothering to swing.

  Dodging sharply to the left, Cymon slid forward and whipped the one on the left square in the mug with his tail. At the same time, adding inertia to his body's movement, he threw an uppercut-like kick at the attacking tifling that landed at his jaw. Two more strikes at the torso and the head, and the stunned beefcake was flat on the ground. Pouncing on the third, he kicked him in the stomach, interrupting his cast. Another powerful blow had the mage's apprentice doubled over and went out of action. Cymon looked over his foes and, with a derisive snort, walked over casually to the tifling, still wheezing on the ground. He crouched over him and spoke in a tone dripping with scorn:

  "Next time, I will cut off your tail and stuff it down your throat. Better you don't give me a reason to do it."

  Still sitting on the bench with his mouth wide open, Kert was shifting his gaze from the bullies to his protector and back again.

  "That was really something," he shook his head.

  "Let's get out of here," the tifling waved. "These fellows have a lot of recovering to do."

  After graduation, Cymon joined a legion and, like all his ancestors, rose to the rank of captain before being noticed by one of Master Ritter's punishers.

  As for Kert, who had been drawn to sciences and the arcane since childhood, he stayed behind to work at the research lab, eventually attaining the degree of Master of Fire.

  In time meantime, it had become completely dark. The magic lanterns grew brighter, casting peculiar shadows on the pavement. The wind was pick
ing up; there was a flash in the sky, followed by a peal of thunder several seconds later. Great, now this, thought the punisher as he picked up the pace. A few minutes later he was at the western palace extensions, pushing open the massive front door of the research center.

  "Greetings, Cymon," the gray gatekeeper behind the desk welcomed him with a warm smile.

  "Greetings, Allet," said the demon, shaking water off his cloak. "Is Master Kert still around?"

  "Almost no one has left yet," the gatekeeper groused. "Those science folk can get mighty obsessive. Today they've got some kind of speriments."

  "Experiments," Cymon corrected the old-timer with a smile.

  "They can play bridge with Hart himself for all I care, as long as they do it at home!" the gatekeeper declared with discontent. "All grownups too, probably have wives waiting at home. Now old Allet doesn't need much: let me close the gate for the night and have a drink in peace before bed… But no, not with these scientists. Instead I'm waiting up half the night until they're all done with their experiments. Watch, one of these days I'll retire, and you lot will have to post your own people to stand guard. Don't think there are many fools willing to waste their nights here," the old demon threw up his arms. "Just… go! Master Kert is inside—today is his shift at the main accumulator."

  Cymon thanked the gatekeeper and proceeded along a familiar route: down one flight of stairs, then straight down a poorly-lit corridor, past a row of closed doors and an absurd construction—a box of light-colored metal attached to a wall with matte glass at the center. After another forty steps he turned right and pushed open a wooden door with the symbol of fire carved on it.

  "Finally! I was getting tired of waiting," Kert jumped out of his armchair, walked briskly over to Cymon and shook his hand. "Come quickly or we'll miss the best part."

  "Come where?" exclaimed the punisher, taken aback by his friend's persistence.

  "I'll tell you on the way," Kert shot back as he dragged Cymon with him.

  They complemented each other very well. Where Cymon exuded utter calm and confidence, his friend—ever slovenly with a mop of hair that had never known a brush—was literally bursting with energy. All the shady and dubious ventures the duo had gotten themselves into—and out of, albeit with great difficulty—back in their college years had been on Kert's initiative. Little had changed since then: like a ball of mercury, he scurried along in front in a direction only he knew.

  "How's Lita and Kert?" he asked as he walked, without turning around.

  "Kert is almost talking, and Lita is good," the tifling smiled. "But you're going to get it for missing her birthday."

  "Bah! I sent a basket! I didn't forget her—"

  "Exactly! That same basket is what she's going to put on your head when she sees you. She's keeping it safe especially for the occasion."

  "I couldn't make it. Honest. It was all hands on deck here."

  "Uh huh, I know all your excuses. Your lab mouse died or some such nonsense."

  They went down one flight, walked some twenty yards and ended up before a massive mithril door leading to the holy of holies—the space containing the main magic accumulator. Kert put his palm to a hand-shaped recess on the door, turned it slightly and whispered a few obscure words. The door shuddered and began sliding to the side.

  "Come in," the mage made an inviting gesture, but was the first to step inside.

  Cymon followed him in and took a look around the large, well-lit space with a high ceiling. The walls were lined with racks and stands bursting with devices of ambiguous function, and metal cabinets with tubes connecting them to the center of the room where, on a pedestal of truesilver, perched a gigantic elongated crystal—three feet wide at least—and sparkling with every color imaginable. The tifling shivered from the magic emanations filling the room.

  "Don't just stand there like a statue, come closer," Kert motioned at a small table with three chairs leaning against it, covered with a greenish material that resembled silk to the touch. "But watch it! I know how rowdy you get when you've had a few."

  "Look who's talking!" Cymon nearly choked on his outrage. "There was only that one time, and all I did was knock over a shelf of vials. Accidentally! Besides, it was you who'd dragged me into that shop."

  "Not so much a shelf as a whole stand," Kert shook his head. "And those weren't vials but reagents. And you didn't just knock it over, but rammed it through the shop window, which also broke, in case you forgot. Master Yrkan still hasn't regrown his hair."

  "That's because you spilled that green gloop on his head! And it was you who picked a fight with the guards, as usual."

  "I was standing up for a friend who was called a clumsy ass!" Kert couldn't hold out any longer and roared with laughter. "I'll get the glasses. What are we drinking today?"

  "As if you really don't know," grinning, Cymon fished out a bottle of Lakian brandy.

  "Punishers sure are swimming in dough nowadays," the mage clicked his tongue. "By the way, why are you dressed in plate all of a sudden, like a statue in the lord's palace? Where is your signature gray jacket?"

  "Tunic, not jacket," the tifling corrected his friend. "The master's orders. There are too few of us in the city—we lost three brothers just last week. The master must have thought we'd be better protected in plate."

  Kert produced two glasses from somewhere and shoved one into Cymon's hands, who then poured the dark liquid into both. A pleasant aroma filled the air.

  "Congrats on your promotion, buddy!" The mage clinked his glass with Cymon's, and they drank. "Fill 'em up right away before the drink airs out," said Kert, squinting blissfully.

  The tifling poured another round, and they finally sat down at the table.

  "Why did you drag me here?"

  "Hart take me!" Kert smacked his forehead, nearly spilling the brandy from the glass in his other hand. "I almost forgot because of you. Master Varkas has decoded the runes on the artifact from the Zorn excavation site. Turns out it's another accumulator, and a powerful one at that. And filled to the brim with dark energy, which we're always short on! Everybody's in the testing hall now, getting ready to transfer the energy from the artifact into our own accumulator. The center will finally be able to run a whole lot of interesting studies!" Kert upended his glass and set it back on the table, then ran over to one of the metal cabinets and flung open its doors, revealing a screen that looked like a large oval mirror.

  "This is the visor," the mage explained to Cymon when the latter walked over. "Literally devours energy, which is why it can only function without excessive losses near the main accumulator. We're going to calibrate it now."

  "Won't you get chewed out by your superiors?" Cymon inquired. He'd heard of visors—devices that transmitted images over a distance—but he'd never seen them first-hand. It kind of resembled a magic eye, only much larger and causing far less disturbance.

  "Ain't no one left to do the chewing out," Kert grunted, twisting and turning the myriad bolts and gears. "All the big bananas are with the main host. Master Varkas is in charge, and he's currently in the testing hall two floors down."

  The visor's screen showed the image of a large semicircular space with a central platform and rows of tables branching outward. The transmission was from a back row, so the view wasn't great—only the central section was visible, where several demons in mantles of varying colors scurried to and fro. The number of spectators was hard to calculate, but the safe assumption would be thirty or fewer.

  "Well?" Kert nodded at the screen.

  "Reminds me of the circus," the punisher shrugged his shoulders. Then clarified in response to his friend's puzzled look, "the tribunes are similarly enclosed with a transparent shield."

  "Right, same thing!" the mage said indignantly. "This shield is a thousand times stronger than in any circus! See the one in a blue mantle, to the right of the compensator?" Kert indicated one of the five mages setting up various equipment on the central platform. "That's Master Varkas. He's cali
brating the main accumulator as we speak."

  "So?" Cymon grunted.

  "So?! The energy from the artifact will pass through four converters—the yellow crystals on the corner stands, and then—"

  "How about another round?" the tifling interrupted his friend.

  "You don't find this interesting?"

  "Not really," Cymon admitted. "I cannot fathom what could be so fascinating about transferring energy from one accumulator to another. You're all mad here!" he shook his head. "Trading sleep for this madness!"

  "Oh, what do you know! The paltry fourteen percent loss when transferring energy makes this method truly revolutionary!" Seeing his friend's ironic gaze, Kert gave a loud sigh and waved his hand. "Pour it! I can see I'm wasting my breath."

  In the meantime, the mages in the testing hall had apparently completed their preparations and had dispersed to different corners. The one Kert had identified as Varkas held up his staff slowly, squeezing it with both hands, and shouted something. The visor didn't transmit sound, but it didn't need to—everything was clear enough. At his command, the pitch-black artifact—looking like the claw of some monstrous river crab hoisted on a small cubic altar—sprouted barely visible whitish lines that stretched toward the four crystals-converters on special stands, shaped like the main accumulator but at one third its size. The crystals were set at the top of the quadrant that was roughly ten feet wide, with the altar at the center, and the lines of power emanating from them interlocked at the dark body of the accumulator, which floated several feet above the altar.

  "It's working," there were notes of awe in Kert's voice. "Varkas really is a genius. All right, let's get back to the table—we've got another two hours, at least," he nodded at the visor.

  "Was Lita very upset?" asked the mage when they returned to their seats.

  "Nah," Cymon smiled. "She's known you a long time."

  "I really do feel bad," Kert said guiltily. "And I haven't seen my namesake in a month."

  Suddenly the room shook. The multicolor indicators on the metal cabinets started blinking their alarm, and an ominous buzzing sounded from the accumulator's direction.

  "What the…" Kert looked around alarmingly, and his eyes stopped on the visor. "Gods!" he exclaimed, rushing over to the screen, with the tifling following closely behind.

  Something inconceivable was happening in the testing hall: in place of the construction erected by the mages now gaped the black mirror of a portal, out of which poured giant insect-like creatures resembling wingless flies the size of dogs. Wearing a shroud of grayish haze, the beasts dispersed quickly throughout the hall, leaving a trail of brown-green tracks. To the right of the portal, a dark disgusting mass rolled in a putrid pool, shuffling a dozen six-foot-long tentacles. The monster's eyes stared unblinkingly into the hall, its jaws moving slowly, masticating what was left of Master Varkas. The other participants of this experiment were lying nearby—still alive, but not for long by the look of things. Their bodies were decomposing in real time, twitching in the pool of that abominable liquid.

  The protective canopy covering the central section of the hall had vanished, and all hell had broken loose in the tribunes: some of the mages were convulsing in agony, others were still fighting off the fiends, but most were already lifeless.

  Out of the entire hall, only six could be seen working together. Having put up their shields, they were unleashing the full arsenal of their respective schools upon the gray beast.

  "What the Hart is going on?!" Cymon pulled on the sleeve of his flabbergasted friend.

  "Death," Kert whispered, his face ashen. "Death has come to Nittal."

  "Snap out of it!" The tifling shook the mage roughly. "You're talking gibberish!"

  "That is the Agent of Death, and its minions carrying the plague. There's nobody left in Nittal who can oppose the monster—all the powerful necromancers and healers have gone off with the legions. Varkas was the only one left who could… but…" Kert nodded at the screen.

  The monster in the testing hall began to quake—hard enough that a gnawed-off arm stuck halfway out of its maw—then jumped back fifteen feet. A wave of rot spread from it in all directions, covering the hall with a brownish taint. One of the attacking mages' shield popped, and he crumpled to the floor. One of the corpses in the pool of ooze twitched, his ribcage parted and a bloody abomination rose from the remains—identical to those pouring out of the black portal.

  "There must be something we can do" the punisher bellowed and shook his friend by the scruff of his shirt. "You're smart, god damnit, think of something!"

  The demon's head dangled helplessly, and his eyes stopped on the main accumulator.

  "Wait," Kert's hand pushed the tifling in the chest. "I know!" he shouted, his voice back to normal.

  "Spit it out."

  "We're already dead, you and I. But we can still save the city," the mage spoke quickly. He bolted to the front door and began opening it. "There's no way we're surviving this, anyway…"

  "Cut to the point!" Cymon broke in, following right behind.

  "I will blow up the accumulator and let the fire burn out the blight, but I will need about ten minutes. There's a box hanging on the wall in the first floor hallway—you passed it on the way here. Break the glass and turn the lever. In three minutes, the hallway will put up an invisible screen that the Agent of Death won't be able to pass through so easily." The short demon in a wrinkled brown mantle looked his friend in the eye. "Cymon, if even one of those beasts escapes, all of Nittal will turn into a necropolis by nightfall. With the damp weather, the plague will spread almost instantly. That's it," Kert gave the tifling a quick impulsive hug. "Farewell, my friend! Run!"

  Cymon rushed out of the room and, unsheathing his swords and shifting into combat form on the go, zipped down the dark corridor. Out of the corner of his ear he heard the mithril door slam shut behind him. The tifling didn't give a damn about anyone—and especially not about himself—but up there in the sleeping city he had a wife and a young son. He could not afford to die without completing his task.

  He was at the metal block in twenty seconds. The glass shattered from the strike with the butt end of his sword, and the tifling turned the sandpapery lever after the indicated arrow. There was a soft buzzing sound. Now all he had to do was hold the line for three minutes. Cymon moved another ten yards toward the entrance to the passageway, where the plague carriers were most likely to emerge, and froze, his form relaxed.

  For about one minute nothing was happening, but then he heard scratching noises coming from the staircase leading down. The first two beasts, who were even more repulsive in person than on the screen, died instantly. Cymon shoved their corpses—chopped in half and oozing green goo—aside and to the wall, trying to conserve his breath. Three more carriers emerged from the stairs, scurrying, and then a few more. Cymon became a three-handed vortex of steel, with the mithril tip at the end of his tail striking down the plague spreaders with just as much precision as the blades in his hands. But the fiends poured forth faster than he could kill them, and there came a point when the tifling realized that in another twenty-thirty seconds the torrent would become too much, and one of the carriers would surely slip by him. The punisher howled with despair at the thought.

  The help came unexpectedly. There was a shuffling of feet at his back, and suddenly a wall of fire went up before Cymon, burning alive the stream of monsters rushing him. The tifling turned around. He was struggling to breathe, having inhaled too many toxic fumes. Despite all his defenses, he didn't have long to live.

  "Allet?" he wheezed.

  The old gatekeeper had transformed. Maintaining the spell with arms raised to shoulder level, his eyes glaring bright yellow beneath the massive arcs of those bushy brows. In his combat form, the demon looked nothing like the old grouch Cymon used to know.

  "Master Allet, if you will," the old gatekeeper hissed, coming up to the tifling. "This shield," he nodded at the box buzzing on the wall, "is not going
to hold the Agent of Death," he stated grimly.

  "Kert will blow up the accumulator soon, and the fire will burn out all this filth…" the tifling doubled over in a fit of coughing. Despite the draft coming in from the street, the stench in the hallway was unbearable.

  "You and your friend Master Kert have done well," the old demon smiled weakly—he was using all his strength to keep up the spell. "Sure, the lord will need to rebuild half the palace, but it's a fair price to pay for saving the city."

  "Master, but why are you—"

  "I've got family up there, too. Three granddaughters…" A translucent screen went up with a swoosh behind them, blocking passage. "There we go," the old mage sighed wearily. "I'm happy to have met you and Master Kert. I'll hold out another three minutes or so. The rest is up to the two of you."

  "Thank you, Allet," the tifling just remembered that he'd forgotten to thank the old demon…

  When the wall of fire died down, and the old mage collapsed onto the tiles, having given his all to the cause, Cymon leaped on top of the heap of scorched corpses and bellowed his legion's war cry.

  The tifling became death incarnate. His two swords and tail were pure lightning, slicing through the darkness and monsters' bodies as if through butter. His armor—buffed to the max with all resistances—endured their bites with ease, as he no longer needed to hold the line or preserve his strength. He began to feel pain somewhere on the outskirts of his consciousness, but he could not stop. He had to keep a step ahead lest it swept over him.

  How long did he have left? The tifling dodged a plague carrier that had leaped at his chest, cutting down the fiend in midair. What if Kert were to fail? Cymon slipped on the tiles, but kept his balance. Three more beasts materialized before him. He chopped down twice and leaped to the side, whipping the third target with his edged mithril tip, knocking it down. A quick step forward and his blade pierced right through the disoriented foe.

  There were squelching sounds from the staircase, as the Agent of Death himself crawled into the hallway. The quaggy, sponge-like mass and the trail of brown-green slime underneath now blocked nearly the entire space. A set of unblinking yellow eyes bored into now-still Cymon. What the hell is happening with Kert? The tifling noticed the monster start to shake and, remembering what usually followed, covered the twenty-yard distance between him and the Agent of Death with a single leap. Cymon kicked with his metallic boot, interrupting the monster's cast, then drove both of his heirloom blades into the beast's unblinking eyes.

  The floor beneath him gave way. Paying no mind to the bloodcurdling wail of the wounded monster, Cymon gazed into the mouth of the volcano bearing down on them. Smiling, as if to an old friend…
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