Joined: Wed Jul 31, 2002 5:00 pm
Location: Exeter, UK
[EotS] The High Queen's Revenge
The High Queen's Revenge
by Laurence J Sinclair
The forest, as far as the eyes of House Netheryn’s king could see, was churned, charnel soil. What few trees had avoided the devastation of the elven war magic, drank deeply from the blood that was pooled all around, the flesh and bones of the loyal legions that had fallen in the battle scattered about their roots. The spirits were free, though.
They were pulling themselves from their mortal remains at the will of the green-cloaked wraith that was even now advancing upon the Netheryn position. His gaunt frame shimmered with each step taken, only the hood retaining its solidity as it hid his face. Lord Netheryn did not need to see it to recognise him, however. As the shades of the dead coiled lovingly about the lumbering wretch, he knew him as well as any of the former elven court. He had seen him born, grow into his role and be senselessly slain. His death - five years almost to the day - was more significant than any of the scores that had happened since.
For King Feyd Rowan’s death had been the spark that drove High Queen Tepheroth’s retaliatory attack on the humans, and prompted her to draw power away from the council of kings, back to herself. Away from House Netheryn. Away from its rightful place.
Lord Netheryn gestured toward the closing horde of risen spirits, and the soldiers clustered beneath his banner were rapt as they listened to his words, rolled out with the same commanding, reassuring tone that the king had possessed through the centuries.
“Look! See how Calix treats its enemies? Paraded before their line in mockery, even our most respected heroes - nobles of pure blood - are stolen from their well-earned respite to shore up the crumbling regime! The High Queen has run out of lackeys to follow her willingly, and so must coerce those who abandoned her into returning to the fold! That, my friends, is desperation! She knows that she cannot stand before my might, and so makes one last play for dominance.”
Ichærus smiled, his glowing form hovering in the air above his troops as he spread his arms wide. “Our beloved monarch is free to try and kill me,” he announced, “but I’m afraid that she’ll have to cut her way through each and every one of my devoted followers first.”
The king’s personal guard cheered around him as the front line of their army surged into battle with Rowan and his ghosts. Where the Calix armies were composed of the dead, Netheryn utilised only those who wished they were. Wretched hordes of human slaves made up the first wave, their ungainly bodies sheathed in the best quality armour that could be scavenged. Their true purpose - one they fulfilled perfectly as Feyd and his fallen tore into them - was to provide a screen for the more valuable troops behind them, the half-breed nimbics that rushed onward with unholy glee. Slight though they may have been, their speed more than made up for it, and the ensorcelled daggers they had been gifted with allowed them to slice through the wisps they fought even as the humans choked and collapsed from the draining touch of the spectres. They weren't as fearsome without Raziel's strong leadership, but the recent loss of his entire mentalist cadre had been a blow to the war effort in so many ways.
Ichærus’ attention was drawn from the battle by the dry, whining voice below him. “Address me as High King, Treyik,” he said.
The cleric, stripped bare to the waist and almost challenging Feyd with his emaciated physique, rubbed his hands together as he corrected himself. “High King, perhaps it would be better for you if you descended. Our Tansiq scouts have reported Glyn snipers at large at the periphery of the battlefield.”
“Oh dear,” Ichærus said, glancing past the skirmish to Calix's banner, flying above Tepheroth’s honour guard at the rear of the enemy lines. “I do hope they’re not planning on assassinating any royalty today."
Ahdre sighted down the arrow. This was the perfect vantage point, high in the trees a goodly distance from the conflict. Tepheroth was so caught up in the business of directing war that she'd never think to look in his direction. He could kill her with one shot. A fellow elf. His queen, no less.
He realised that he'd been singing a calming melody at that moment, and silenced himself with an effort of will. Then the rasping breath of his companion reminded him what sound he was trying to drown out.
"You... hesitate?" Eirlas gasped, his ruined face flicking to look at his fellow elf. "But her death will bring you to the throne of Glyn, as Lord Netheryn promised! And he can remove this... disfigurement from me."
"I know, I know! It's just..." Ahdre composed quickly. "A moment like this? It needs to be savoured."
The woman sat atop a throne, borne aloft by a quartet of animated skeletons. The wind was favourable, nothing obstructed his view, and the arrow he selected had been cursed by necromancers to end life quickly. The target would be dead within seconds.
So, he asked himself, what was the real reason for his hesitance?
Allowing a small snake to coil itself about her fingers, Bronwen of House Tansiq was too caught up in her own thoughts to pay attention to the tedious battle. It was taking far too long, and was nowhere near as elegant as she had first pictured it in her mind's eye. Where she had seen dramatic duels between evenly-matched knights, instead there was a great scuffle in the mud and burnt trees, between human slaves and the undead.
The two assassins at her side were to keep her informed if anything of import transpired, leaving her to instead dwell upon the future, and her glorious reign once Tepheroth was dead.
The black-clad woman on her left spoke. "The nimbics are dying too quickly, and the humans provide them with no support, while Tepheroth’s ghouls rise again and again."
"Amatria is right," the second, lightly dressed woman muttered. "Perhaps it is time the fleshers of Tansiq entered the fray. Choosing a side optional, of course."
“No, Beia,” Bronwen snapped, closing her hand on the snake and near choking it. “Until I am certain of my beloved’s inevitable triumph, I shall not risk our exposure so soon.”
“And what will it take to convince you?” Amatria asked.
The small cracking noise was all the indication of the snake’s skull breaking. “Tepheroth’s death.”
High Queen Tepheroth looked down at the slim, red-robed figure at her side. The familiarity of his face still spooked her on occasion, she who had conversed with lichs and demons beyond counting.
“The fight goes well,” she ventured, “but that is no indication. How much of the Netheryn force has been committed, General Osud? How many still lie in reserve?”
Smirking, the summoner returned her gaze, his maddening, ancient eyes sparkling. “My queen, the spies, my darling wings and eyes, scattered far and wide and - Ichærus has many more resources to draw upon, my queen."
Lekar Osud's dramatic swings in mood, often mid-sentence, were even more worrying to Tepheroth than his appearance. Now, as she fought for her kingdom itself, she needed generals that she could trust, capable of winning the day. If only Rathe had returned in time, Umbala had not disappeared, or Beradah had not abandoned her cause, House Dythanus following his lead to remain neutral through the civil war.
At times like this, she feared that she was surrounded by traitors on all sides, no one that she could rely upon. The moment that Osud demonstrated a total loss of sanity, she would have to make an example of him.
Ahead, a line of bowmen loosed their arrows, dropping them down amongst the combatants, where the shafts passed harmlessly through the ethereal forms of Feyd's ghosts. The nimbics were not so fortunate, many pierced all over by the violent shower, adding their flesh to the forest's feast.
Tepheroth smiled. No, she could always, always trust House Glyn.
Blood take her, she was staring right at him!
Ahdre found his aim beginning to waver, but there was no denying the High Queen's gaze. Even across the impossible distance, somehow she had sensed him. Now her eyes stabbed him more surely than any arrow he could shoot.
But there was nothing she could do to him! His was the power, drawn back by his arm, able to see her dead in a moment! A fitting end for the woman that had denied him his rightful reward!
She'd be dead. He'd have killed her. A title won through blood, a treachery rewarded. An elf killed to honour a bargain with a demon. A demon capable of...
"What's the delay?" Eirlas snapped, his ruined face intruding at the edge of peripheral vision.
That face was a reminder of just what Ichærus was capable of. Cruel intimidation, false promises. And even if the king was true to his word, what worth was a throne won through betrayal and murder? He would have to serve under Netheryn, one who would know perfectly well the lengths that Ahdre had gone to.
Tepheroth turned her attentions away from him.
Ahdre lowered his bow.
"My lord!" Eirlas said. "What are you doing?"
Ichærus cursed under his breath at Ahdre's words, having witnessed the whole exchange through the spirit link he had placed within Eirlas. So, the boy had failed him. The mortals always failed him. In three hundred years, he really should have learned that lesson by now. If he wanted something done right...
A slight gesture, and the Netheryn king soared forward, ahead of his guards. Treyik's frantic shouting was ignored, as were the fleeing mobs of humans before him. They were nothing, an inconsequential loss. He was too close to victory to let the annihilation of his armies stop him. They could be replaced.
His nimbics, loyal kin and yet not kin, refused to fall back, even in the face of an enemy that rose anew each time it was put down.
Their sacrifice would be remembered. Fire cascaded from Ichærus' hands, indiscriminately exploding across both battle lines, scorching nimbics to ash and searing the ghosts back to their realm.
One spirit remained steadfast in the face of the assault. Feyd Rowan's cloak had been burnt off him, but all that meant was that his hate-filled face was revealed. There was rage there, anger not only at his enemy, but at the necromancer that forced him to serve against his will.
"Worry not," Ichærus intoned, "I shall free you from your bondage, as I shall liberate our entire nation."
Bringing his hands together, Ichærus called upon Spirit itself, channeling the element's energies through him. Its hunger lashed out, seizing upon the glowing morsel of Feyd's ghost for its repast. The former king of Rowan made no sound as his entire being was devoured.
Revealed, a figure in full bone-plate stood against Lord Netheryn, holding a holy symbol before him in warding. He trembled amid the corpses, but Ichærus paid him no heed. "You'll keep, Elestra. I have more important lives to end."
"Indeed." The imperious voice carried easily in the silence that followed the explosive demonstration of both arcane and divine magic. Both armies had paused to regroup, allowing Tepheroth to stand upon her palanquin and face her adversary directly. Her guard held their halberds ready, for all the good they would do against Ichærus.
"It's such a shame that you must have expended most of your energy in that futile gesture. I believe that it places you at my mercy, in fact. Prostrate thyself traitor, and I may be lenient."
"You think this enough to defeat me? Such arrogance is an aberration in a ruler! You seek to confront your enemies head-on, when perhaps you should be watching your back..."
The dull scrape of a bone knife drew Tepheroth's attention behind her. Her loyal retainer Ilvion was casting his robe to the ground, revealing a face that was not his, one twisted in a sadistic smile that accentuated its harsh features.
"Meet Cairbre," Ichærus said. "He's an assassin. Now bear witness to an act truly befitting a wise monarch: I shall not waste time by asking you to beg. Kill her, Cairbre."
The assassin achieved the impossible by widening his grin, raising his knife to slide its blade down Tepheroth's bare leg.
"What are you waiting for?" Ichærus snarled. "Remember your place in the new order!"
"I'm sorry, 'my lord'," Cairbre said, a sarcastic frown forming. "I got a better offer."
"Kill him," Tepheroth said, a delicate hand running through the assassin's long black hair.
"Your blade cannot harm me!" Ichærus laughed. "Kill her now or you will be joining her in death."
"My blade? Oh, I wasn't planning on using this little thing. Don't you remember that toast we had to victory, last night? A good vintage of blood wine, I think you'll agree."
"No... You dared to poison me?"
Cairbre snorted. "Of course not. I just wanted you to have a happy memory in mind when I killed you."
The lord of Netheryn began chanting a spell, but the assassin was faster. His second hand rose, a gnarled ivory scepter clutched tight. The beam of scintiliating ice and fire struck Ichærus on his chest, blasting straight through his magical wards and armour, through his flesh and bone to burst out the other side.
Ichærus fell from the air, landing amongst the charred remains of his victims. "No..." he choked. "My vengeance! Her vengeance... Netheryn..."
"I hear it takes you wizards years to do this," Cairbre said, sparing a cynical glance for the artefact in his hand before winking at the queen. "What a colossal waste of time."
"You have done well," Tepheroth said, climbing down to the ground. "King Netheryn."
Cairbre bowed deeply, still smiling. The High Queen walked away from him to where Ichærus' body lay, noting the retreat of the traitor's remaining forces in the distance as she knelt beside it.
Blood and spirit both leaked from Ichærus' mouth as he fought against death to the very last. "This isn't over!"
"Oh," Tepheroth said, leaning in close, "I rather think it is."
"My love has failed," Bronwen said, looking up abruptly. "The High Queen has had her revenge. But House Tansiq yet exists, and Flesh will have its day."
Laurence J Sinclair