Patch 17 (realm of arkon.., p.6
Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1), p.6G. Akella
The royal palace—Vaedarr's chief structure—was built by the renowned Vel'cato during the reign of Erast the Great, who had used both sword and coin to unite the eight Great Princedoms under his banners. The palace's beauty was staggering, its tiniest detail materialized with the utmost love by the architect. Time appeared to stand still, and you could hardly resist the illusion that the warrior by the wall could step down off his pedestal, square his shoulders, shaking off the weight of fifteen centuries, and finally breathe in a chestful of air. It was here, at a graduation ball two hundred sixty years ago, that the master of flame, still young at the time, had met his Elsa.
Archmage Kyam Altus, Grandmaster of the four elements and one of Arkon's mightiest mages, chased away the somber memories. He looked around the small hall of the Royal Council, and the rulers of Erantia that had gathered there around an oval table. All were waiting for the king, and each was doing their own thing in the meantime. There was Count Calle, the commander of the Royal Guard, sitting right across and explaining something quietly to a portly bald fellow with the face of a street vendor. The latter's harmless appearance belied his station—a dirty trick played by fate, for the name of Count Gel'ta, head of the Secret Chancellery, was whispered by humans and other races residing in Erantia exclusively in hushed tones and with great trepidation. Sitting to the left of the throne, the head of treasury was writing something into his notepad; the first minister was listening to Archmage Stavus, nodding his agreement periodically, and only the fighters—Duke Grasse and an unfamiliar colonel—were sitting quietly.
He and Lars were clearly out of place. Altus had long retired from public life, and his friend, Champion of the Order of the Red Flame—a mercenary troop for all intents and purposes—were not among the royal advisers. And they wouldn't be here if not for what had happened…
"Lars, do you think it's some lord colluding with Darkaan? Or is this an independent initiative by one of the Covens? The dark emanations and astral traces left in the ransacked villages is clear evidence of necromantic activity, but the survivors speak of demons," Altus nodded at the papers. They hadn't had time to speak before the council assembled, as the archmage rushed here from the Great Forest in response to the highest appeal (not even the king could flat out summon him). Lars had been busy preparing the operation—working out the details with his Foxes, as the order's knights were unofficially called.
"Do me a favor and drop the emanations talk. It's enough to make my head swell, and I need it to eat," Lars looked up from his pile of papers. "On a serious note, I really don't care who's involved. Our job is to penetrate the portal blocked by those sanctimonious fools, destroy the scumbag who's causing all this shenanigans, and get the folks out of there. As to whether demons are involved or necromancers," he petted the hilt of his precious sword, "the Silver Tear doesn't care any more than I do."
"Quit acting like a dimwitted jarhead," Altus frowned. "Nobody knows what we're dealing with here. I get that two million is a fair price for the risk, but I propose we at least throw some ideas around. Especially since, as you well know, building a portal from the demons to us cannot be done without divine intervention."
"Fine, let's brainstorm," the master sighed. "We can probably rule out Ahriman—I doubt that a high mage would get mixed up with the dark ones. He's more likely to rip out the heart of any lord who did. They'll sooner come to terms with the Untainted."
"Then Untainted, then," Altus smile at the mental image of Father Sebastian whiling away an evening over a bottle of Arto with some demon overlord.
"However, should some lord or prince secure the support of anyone from the Great Essence… If I had to guess, I'd say one of them has colluded with the Twice Cursed."
King Ritar III Erast entered the Council hall at a brisk pace. Puckering his brow at the servant shouting out his arrival, he waved to the nobles as they leaped to their feet, bidding them to keep sitting, then went and took his own seat.
"You may proceed, earl," the king looked at his first minister. "But be brief, we're short for time."
Duke Galean opened the red folder on the table in front of him.
"In the past month there have been four attacks on villages in Borderlands. The nature of these raids is nearly identical. The attackers are presumably demons. Those who resist are butchered, the rest are abducted through a portal. Four peasant eyewitnesses claim that the attacking force is roughly one thousand strong." The minister took a sip of water from the glass before him. "On the portal site the crown mages have discovered trace emanations of dark magic—"
The king slammed his palm on the table:
"We are just beginning to recover from the war with the orcs. Squash those scum on the other side. The hermit has predicted the time and place of the next attack. This is great fortune, for he is unlikely to speak with my messenger again."
"My guys and Monsieur Altus' forty aces are ready," Lars said. "As long as the mages hold the portal on this end."
"Perhaps you could use more fighters?" the king asked. "Two and a half hundred sounds small to me!"
Lars shook his head.
"Monsieur Altus' mages can cover no more than two hundred at maximum effectiveness—any extras would only get in the way. Three years ago we destroyed Saart Dak with precisely these forces."
"Well, you will have six hours," the king looked expectantly at the realm's foremost mage. Upon getting his nod, he continued, "You will be accompanied by fifteen hundred swordsmen, reinforced by Colonel Morris' archers, and five hundred Silverwings under Calle's command. This is to ensure that the invading force in our lands is destroyed in its entirety." The colonel and the guard commander nodded in unison. "We will open twenty portals in three hours in Livedum. Colonel Morris will lead the assault. That's it for the Council, gentlemen. Time is of the essence."
Three miles from the city, on a training ground in Livedum that was the mages' favorite for honing their skills, the troops were immersed in pre-battle hustle. Putting their squads in formations, lieutenants scorched the air with obscenities, as staff officers scurried to and fro. Off to the side stood Silverwings—the finest cavalry in the realm, having yet to taste defeat, their armor shimmering silver. They were making minor adjustments, cool as cucumbers.
"Monsieur, champion. Greetings," Saverus, Kyam's right hand, walked up confidently to Altus and Lars. "We're ready to move out. The first four squads of eight will go with Champion Lars' troops, each covering fifty soldiers. I will be with you, monsieur, as part of Raena's eight," Lars shook his hand and started toward his fighters—to listen to reports and issue final orders.
"Another hot mess, why am I not surprised…" said Altus, for a moment the quintessential grumpy old man, when he and Saverus walked up to their assigned squads of eight. Seeing the brass, the commanders and their subordinates jumped up to their feet and, hastily fixing their mantles, tried taking up some semblance of a formation.
"Saverus, when are you going to teach these nitwits discipline?" the archmage groused in his typical fashion.
Saverus showed his subordinates a fist, and they responded with the customary fear and zeal on their faces. Nothing changes, Altus chuckled, surveying his students: the ever-dolorous Gerat, the beautiful Alsa, the twins, Gable and Ronan, the cold and contemplative Raena—once green academy graduates, now hardened battle mages.
"Nobody knows where the portal will lead us, so we had better be ready for anything. As always, we'll be coordinating everything with the Foxes. Maximum focus should be placed on protection from dark magic." Altus looked around everyone's faces sternly. "Do you even understand why we've been selected for this?"
"Because we're the best," Alsa replied vibrantly and without a second thought.
"And the most humble," Gerat looked at her sideways. "Will you be coming with us, monsieur?" he asked right away.
"Yes, I'm with you," he watched their faces light up. "And we were selected because, despite all your tomfoolery, we have the hi
"Monsieur Altus!" Colonel Morris addressed Kyam. Standing next to him were ten strangers, six of which wore distinct gray robes—the Untainted. Lars and his officers had approached as well. "We start in half an hour. You, the count's troops and Captain Arx's fifteen hundred," the colonel pointed at one of the people present, "will take the six furthest portals that we'll open here," he gestured toward the groups of mages bustling at a distance. "After the portal is captured, it is your job, Arx, to hold it and make sure not a cockroach escapes. As for you, Norris," he turned to one of the Untainted, "you know what to do. The Silverwings and I will cut the enemy off and destroy them. Good luck, gentlemen. See you after the operation."
They were late. The village was already burning, the gate was broken, and the palisade was breached in two places. Captives were streaming from the gate, prodded by the invaders toward the portal roughly three hundred yards away, glimmering red with black streaks. But the demons—for they were indeed the invaders—were likewise caught off-guard by the torrent of humans pouring out of twenty simultaneously opened portals and quickly getting into battle formations. Their defense corps—roughly six hundred redskins—was still turning toward the new threat, the demons hurrying into formation, when the first arrows began to pepper their ranks.
"Three hundred eighty yards to the goal, twenty six mages, around fifty soldiers, two giants and six gods know what," Saverus' dry voice sounded in the archmage's head.
"Elders, most likely. They can remain in combat form for a long time," said Altus. "Let's take a look."
In an instant, he teleported six hundred feet toward the red portal. Wasting no time, he struck at it with Icy Fan, then followed it up with Windfist.
The enormously powerful combo literally swept away the enemy soldiers and mages; one of the giants toppled onto the grass, his head severed by icy blades.
"Dang, grandpa got skills!" a young voice exclaimed in appreciation, as one of the Foxes was running up behind him. Altus only grunted in response. Whoever had started this, they were going to get their due when all was said and done!
Four hundred yards to the left, the Silverwings had already broken through the enemy ranks and were now trampling the demons into the ground. A massacre was ensuing. Prisoners yelled as they scattered; the elders were retreating, shielding themselves by magic shields. Dodging a massive club, Lars effortlessly chopped off the leg of another giant, and the Foxes following behind instantly finished him off.
"The portal is under control! You have six hours, no more!" one of the Untainted shouted to Altus. Kyam nodded and turned to Saverus.
"Report, but quickly," he demanded.
"Everyone's fine. Urkis got hit in the head, but he's all healed up now. There was a powerful caster among them," Saverus motioned toward the corpses. "No casualties among the Foxes either…"
"Except Champion Lars nearly paid a visit to the demons in the heat of battle," Raena remarked snidely.
"I heard that," said Lars as he walked up, smiling at the woman. "We're starting in five."
The first thing that Altus sensed after appearing in the palace yard, surrounded by gray walls, were dreadful emanations of death and a sickly sweet scent of freshly spilled blood percolating from above. He focused all his energy on the shields, covering those who were following behind, then struck at all the mantle-clad demons around him with the same Icy Fan, breaking and ripping their bodies to shreds. He sighted the portal keeper a moment later, as a ten-foot monster with a tail and curved horns atop a triangular snout appeared in view. The demon had apparently been trying to nix the teleportation spell, but its efforts were futile against the Untainted's magic. It took four blows to overwhelm the elder's shields, leaving its mangled body, skewered by an icy arrow, staring up at the crimson skies.
As each squad of fifty came out of the portal, covered by mages, it immediately engaged the demons, who were all around and boasted superior numbers. A gong reverberated frantically over the citadel. Running out from behind structures and the donjon, built in the shape of a massive pyramid, were men and women, wielding weapons and transforming into combat form on the run—at once a terrible and breathtaking sight.
But there was a reason Foxes were regarded as the finest mercenaries in the north, and they surpassed the defenders in just about every way. Shielded by magic, buffed to the max with defense and attack potions, they were tearing through the opposition.
"What in the seven hells is happening here, Kyam?" Lars' voice sounded in his head.
"Some kind of ritual at the top of the pyramid. Based on a sacrifice, but I can't sense any more."
Suddenly Altus felt an emission of enormous power nearby.
"Lars, looks like we've got company!"
In the middle of the inner courtyard, accompanied by a deafening din, a twelve-foot-tall demon emerged out of a cloud of smoke, alongside two slightly smaller companions. A shock wave knocked back everybody within a ten-yard radius. The demon raised its paws, bulging with muscles, and roared, releasing a barrage of fire all around. Its minions, in the meantime, had pounced on the disoriented Foxes and the archmage's troops. Human cries erupted as the flames consumed their bodies, the power of the element having overwhelmed certain shields. The demon charged a group of stunned warriors and literally ripped three of them to shreds with its paws and tail, which resembled a scorpion's stinger. But at that very moment, right into its side plunged the Silver Tear! Lars, who held the same rank among the realm's warriors as the archmage among the mages, had recovered instantly. Evading the counter strike, he bashed the monster with his shield, stunning it, and struck again with the Tear, aiming at the ligaments. The blade of his sword left a deep cut on the right leg, to which the demon roared and knocked the warrior back five yards with a powerful blow.
"Squads one and two, get on his minions! Three and four, finish off the rest, then switch to the main one! Focus heals on the champion!" the din of the battle was drowned out momentarily by the voice of Lars' assistant, Knight-Commander Kan Shyom.
The defense and regeneration of the lord and elder demons that had appeared with him was astounding. Spells of all the elements merely glanced off their hides, with only the champion's sword leaving deep cuts, which then skinned over almost instantly. Altus viewed the battle with Truesight and immediately cursed himself for his stupidity. Braids overflowing with energy were drawing from the top of the pyramid to the demons.
"Raena, get your squad and follow me, quickly!" The archmage teleported to the upper steps of the pyramid.
The smell of fresh blood and death stupefied the mages. The sight unfolding before their eyes was truly terrifying. The donjon was built in the form of a pyramid with its top sliced off, and the upper platform was strewn with hundreds of bodies (if those could even be referred to as bodies). A hexagram at the platform's center was drawn into a gigantic hexagon, each side at least ten yards long, its corners bursting with gray, blood-spattered shapes weaving and twisting in some kind of a mad dance. Thick braids of power emanating from them reconvened at a small cubic altar at the center of the drawing. Hoisted on the altar was a golden chalice, gushing torrents of power downward, toward the overlord and his minions.
Gorhies—vile creatures with puckered simian faces and gray hairless bodies—around fifty in all, lounged in pools of blood all around, woozy from the feast.
"The disavowed," Raena hissed to his side. "What do we do, monsieur?"
"You handle the gorhies," he motioned at the beasts, who had already spotted them and were leaping back to their feet. "I'll deal with the altar."
Altus knew that attacking necromancers was futile; like the demons below, they were invulnerable for the time being. But the altar with the chalice… The archmage amplified Truesight to the limit and looked closer. If the altar still overflowed with dark magic, the chalice had to be an enormou
All right, calm down, he snapped at himself, bringing his thoughts in order. They're pumping energy into the chalice, and tossing a portion of it below. It wasn't long before it would fill completely. Were he to meddle by destroying the altar, he would throw off the fragile balance of the ritual, and not a stone would remain of the entire stronghold. However…
The archmage paid no attention to his surroundings, his hearing only sporadically registering the wailing and wheezing of gorhies being massacred by Raena's eight. His team was going to be fine, so he decided to put an end to the necromantic ritual. The scientist in him shouted that whatever it was that had compelled the lord to make a deal with the disavowed—abominations who worshiped only Vill and Syrat, cursed by even the majority of the dark gods—had to be extraordinarily valuable indeed.
He was capable of working with all sorts of dark magic, but death energy was his favorite. His mind focused, the archmage drew from the billowing power around him, and poured a generous portion of it into the chalice. A loathsome feeling overwhelmed him, and Altus dropped to his knees, retching his guts out. Just then came a soft clapping sound to the right of the altar.
"Monsieur, monsieur Altus," Raena was shaking him by the shoulder.
The archmage shook his head, his body awash in the cool of cleansing magic. He struggled to his feet.
"I'm all right, girl," he wheezed. "Did I miss something?"
"We…" the sorceress flushed, "I know we were supposed to capture one of those alive," she cast a vicious glance in the direction of the dead necromancers. "But after seeing all this…"
"It's all right," he gave her a reassuring smile. "Go on down and help the others, I'll linger here a moment," he nodded and started toward the alter, his feet sticking to the slabs awash in human and gorh blood.
Resting in the chalice was a ring, black as coal, with a large emerald that shimmered slightly from the power that was spilling out of it. The stronghold shuddered suddenly; wasting no time, the mage produced a case of truesilver, shook the ring into it and closed it shut. He then threw the chalice into his bag and hurried downstairs.
Lars was supine, his right arm outstretched at his side and his helm lying nearby. The warrior's blue eyes were looking up at the crimson sky. It seemed as if any second now he would get up and give a familiar wink at Raena—her cheeks glistening from streaking tears, her slacked jaw covered by her hand—then bark at the warriors and mages crowding him to fall in… If not for the ghastly, molten wound on his chest… Some ten feet away lay his finest and final trophy—the twelve-foot carcass of the lord, its eye socket filled to the hilt by the Silver Tear.
Kan Shyom's voice brought the archmage back to reality.
"Towards the end, the beast went berserk, and we lost a lot of men," he stopped short. "I don't know how the champion managed to do it, but if it weren't for him, none of us would be alive now." The knight sighed. "It was a worthy death," the commander said quietly, looking down. "Here," he offered Altus a signet ring with an elaborate token of flame. "No one can wear it until the Order's council—you should hold on to it until then."
The archmage took the signet ring carefully and put it away in his bag.
"Gather all the dead. Kan, I will lead the ritual."
"Consider it done," the knight raised his eyes at Altus. "And another thing…" he hemmed and hawed, and finally said, "you should take the Tear. It was very precious to him, and I'm sure he would have wanted his friend to have it." The commander spun around, military like, and left to give out orders.
"We've lost seventeen," said Saverus, walking up to the archmage from the side; the news caused his heart to shrink even further with pain, "the Foxes are down to a hundred at the most."
"How! Who?" the archmage exclaimed.
"The twins and their squad, and Alsa. She covered the champion at the last moment, but…" Saverus gave a heavy sigh. "That beast," he glanced bitterly at the vanquished demon, "its rage was beyond anything we could imagine."
"How much time do we have?" Altus asked his deputy. There would be time to grieve, but now they needed to complete this raid, in which they had already suffered more casualties than in the previous fifty years combined. The damned plan with those damned beasts!
"It took us an hour and a half, monsieur, and we've got at least four more. There are no surviving enemies. It is strange that we haven't encountered a single child, worker or servant at the citadel, but only warriors and mages. It also smells of Death," he looked up at the pyramid. "Raena told me what happened there… It's like this castle was visited by one of the twice cursed.
Continuing their conversation, they walked up to the lord's body. In one smooth motion, Altus pulled the sword from its eye-socket, and shuddered from a powerful mental blow. The Tear looked nothing like itself, as tongues of dark mist streamed down the silvery blade with crimson glyphwork. The mage whispered a few words, and the mist was gone.
"What's with it?" Saverus motioned at the sword.
"We'll figure that out later," the archmage responded grimly. "I would guess that the weapon has consumed that thing's soul," Altus pointed the blade at the lord's corpse, then sighed. "I'd told Lars there was something wicked about that barrow… What now?" He gave his deputy a weary look.
"We've located the vault. Haven't touched anything yet, we'll wait till after the ritual," Saverus looked up at the sky. "I don't like it here. Our business shouldn't take more than a few hours."
Then there was flame—the Red Flame—elevating their fallen brothers-in-arms to the gods of light, to the solemn song of the Foxes drumming on their shields. The mages stood to the side gloomily.
As Altus watched the flames, he contemplated whether it was time to retire. The rector of the Magic Academy in Rovendum—his good friend and former classmate—had long been tempting him with ample promises: a cushy job as his deputy and several labs for research. He also thought about how much he was going to miss Lars, this being his second irreplaceable loss in the past fifty years. His woeful thoughts darted from the twins, Ronan and Gable, to the red-haired beauty Alsa, his finest analyst and caster.
When the flames died down, leaving not a single grain of ash on the slabs, the archmage stepped forward and said:
"We've got two hours, no more," he amplified his voice with magic, "to turn this whole castle inside out. Standard procedure—we take anything that's valuable, then destroy the fortress and leave. Let's move."
At that very moment, a series of powerful tremors shook the castle. The red portal window to the lands of humans rattled shut, and the tower over the gate exploded as several fireballs crashed into it, splashing rock fragments all around. There came another series of quakes, causing the wall to the right of the main gate to sink, then collapse, kicking up a cloud of dust. Bewildered, the mages hurriedly put up their shields, as the first screams of the wounded filled the air.
"Helms! Helms! Quickly, you sons of bitches! Battle formation!" Kan Shyom's shout drowned out the moans of the wounded and cries of surprise. "Healers, in the back!"
The Foxes rushed to get back in battle formations.
The gate shuddered from a mighty blow, but stayed intact. Three more blobs of fire flew over the walls and crashed into the donjon's masonry, splashing red-hot splinters and flooding the gray stone with liquid fire.
As the dust settled, the stunned humans saw a veritable army of demons advancing on the castle: four squares of heavy infantry under black banner, heavy cavalry on bipedal lizards on the right flank, six colossal creatures resembling steppe rhinos (if rhinos could be blown up five times in size and covered with a turtle shell), and sixteen tall figures marching in between the infantry squares.
"Worms! How dare you crawl onto my lands!" a menacing roar sounded in Altus' head, with
"Mental shields to the max!" he shouted, adding Barbs of Reason to Mental Canopy that was already enveloping the humans.
"What's happening? What is that?" Kan Shyom yelled, running up to him. He hadn't yet recovered from the mental blow, wincing at every explosion.
"That's Ahriman, the overlord. That blue circle with the pentagram in the center on the banners is his symbol. And those," Altus motioned at the figures of demons unleashing firebals at the fortress, "are the Throne Attendants. And judging by the distance and potency of their attacks, they're every bit as good as I am," he declared darkly.
"Monsieur, we won't hold out long," Saverus' voice sounded overly calm. "We can't feed both mental and elemental shields at this rate; people will start passing out in ten minutes, tops."
Cool and collected on the outside, inside Altus was scrambling for a solution. The portal was destroyed, so retreat wasn't an option. Stay and fight? The option was too ludicrous to even consider. The demons were about half a mile away; even if the cavalry were to lead an assault through the breach, they had maybe ten-fifteen minutes to work with.
"This will be a glorious battle…" Kan scowled.
"There will be no battle. Quick, get everyone into the vault." Consummate officer that he was, Kan Shyom simply nodded and hurried to carry out the order.
"What are you thinking?" shouted Saverus and Raena, running up to the archmage, as the junior officers were ushering the Foxes and Altus' people to the donjon's gate. The last several minutes were clearly hard on the two: the master of two elements was limping on his left foot, his mantle soiled with dark blots in several places, and the blue-brown pattern on it—the image of water and earth—had grown dim; the sorcesses' hair was disheveled, with blood oozing from a deep scratch on her forehead.
"I will lock you in the vault with Oblivion, the Seal of Bel," Altus winced from a nearby explosion. "I will leave and return later, and we'll figure out what to do next."
"Where did you get the seal of the God of Thieves?" the master marveled, adjusting his sling with the staff on the go.
"Doesn't matter—the important thing is that I do," Altus glanced at Raena, her face full of resolve, and preempted her protest. "No! I will go alone. I'm sorry, icicle, but you would only get in the way." The young woman kept a glum silence.
The castle's great vault was shaped like a triangle. Racks of weapons and armor, food supplies, crates and barrels and rolls of materials, and components of two disassembled ballistas by the far wall.
"Warriors," the archmage called attention to himself, standing in the vault's doorway. He waited until all the voices died down and all eyes turned to him, then continued. "I will cast Oblivion on everybody here and seal the doors with the Seal of Bel. No one—not demons, not even gods—will be able to see through the seal of the God of Thieves. The seal can only be applied from the outside, so I will have to leave you. I will return when the demons withdraw from the castle and lift the spell. Even if the overlord's troops raze this whole castle to the ground, you will not be harmed." Altus turned to the commander. "I will cast the spell on the Champion of the Order's signet ring. Here," he handed Kan Shyom Lars' sword and a jewelry case of truesilver, wrapped in runecloth. "You'll give it back to me when I return. Or…" the archmage locked eyes with the knight, "to whoever comes in my stead."
"Farewell," Altus stepped toward the doors, turned around, eyeing a morose Kan, pensive Saverus and weeping Raena, and activated Oblivion. Casting a brief glance at the bodies settling on the slabs, Altus walked out of the vault, slamming shut the massive metal doors, brought the Champion of the Order of the Red Flame's signet to the crack between the doors and whispered several long phrases in a strange hissing tongue. A cool air washed over his face, as intricate weavings ran along the edges of the doors, closely resembling cobweb patterns of frost spiders. The archmage pocketed the signet ring, now radiating a small amount of heat, and rushed toward the exit.
By the time Altus reached the open doors of the donjon, the lizard riders were already entering the fortress. He struck a quick combo of Icy Fan and Chain Lightning, and followed up by raising the rock shards littering the courtyard into the air and hurling them at the already thinning throng of riders. He considered the results of his efforts momentarily, noting with satisfaction that roughly twenty attackers, along with their dreadful mounts, were now lying motionless in the courtyard or blocking the breach in the wall. Easily repelling a pair of ice spears, the archmage slipped behind the wall and fled from the citadel via a random portal, covering his tracks with a dozen decoys.
Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1) by G. Akella / Fantasy have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on19 votes