Joined: Wed Jul 31, 2002 5:00 pm
Location: Exeter, UK
[L&S] The Isles of Light and Shadow
The Isles of Light and Shadow-
by Jonathan Sherefkin
“To think! We, men of wealth and taste, so terribly misused and maltreated! Misfortune heaped upon misfortune as we strive only to do that which comes most easily to us- pleasing our superiors. Such talent, wasted in feeble and futile-”
“Alright, that’s enough.”
Zevil Adinerach sighed. He ran a hand through the loose strands of dirty white hair that hung across his brow and let his fingers linger on his temple. He could feel a migraine lurking not far off, building strength to assault with redoubled force. “You are, I hope, the bearer of good news, my friend? A change of assignment, perhaps? Bone allowing, maybe even a target, at long last?”
“Good news indeed,” Skrim Spindlespleen replied, grinning from under his worn and weathered hood, tusks glinting in the bare candlelight of their shadow-draped dwelling. “All the sun out here has given your sickly skin a healthy bronze hue.”
Zevil was unamused. “You know, I kill you and then do things with your blood.”
“So you keep telling me. You’d write a song about it afterwards, I don’t doubt. ‘Clean’ rhymes with ‘spleen,’ if it helps.”
Oh yes, the migraine had marshaled powerful allies to its cause, Zevil mused, his fingertips massaging the bridge of his nose.
“I do, actually, have new orders, if you’d like to hear them,” Skrim offered in a conciliatory tone. “Not a Target, exactly. Not yet, anyway. Simple and brief: ‘Interlopers on the islands. Ark’s sanctity in danger. Watch the treasure hunter. If they near the Ark, leave no survivors. They cannot succeed.’ ”
“I don’t have overmuch love for the Ironface, I’ll admit, but when we get vague orders like these…” Zevil wiped a tear from his eye, “why, it makes me want to pen an epic in his name. So much room for… interpretation.” His toothy grin reflected Skrim’s.
“I see the wheels within wheels have already begun to spin away in your head. Nothing but the strictest diplomacy, I trust?” Skrim asked, his mind wandering to the catalogue of tools at his disposal.
“The very best diplomacy the shadows can provide, I assure you,” Zevil shot back, feigning offense at the remark. He could feel the migraine losing ground and falling back to a fortified position.
“Bad season to visit the Isles,” Skrim snickered.
The blind elven witch stood away from her troops, basking in the warmth of the setting sun in the west. The dull red silk of her robes billowed around the bone lattice of her tabard as the wind off the sea rushed through the island’s overgrown, stone ruins. The bandage around her dead eyes was already stained by the fluid that leaked from them, but such a trivial thing could not dim her pleasure at the thick heat that clung to the jungle, despite the constant breeze.
“My Lady Calix.” Her attention turned to the soldier who invoked her. “We are making excellent progress rounding up the others. It seems the natives were on some sort of hunt, though we are unsure what they were pursuing.”
“I would like to speak to one. Bring him forth,” she said, her voice melodious and warm.
The prisoner was dragged in front of the elven lady, his eyes darting to and from the strangers’ faces, lingering on the bones they wore and the ridges above their eyes. “Speak with me,” the lady offered to the man, “my name is Serolia. Do not be afraid.”
“What… what are you people?”
“Surely you have elves, even on these islands?” she replied, her hand haltingly reaching forward to find the man’s face.
“Elves? They’re just legends. Fiends who capture wicked children!”
“And have you been wicked?” Serolia asked, finding the man and letting her fingers trace over his forehead and down his cheekbones.
“I…” he stammered. He could now smell the powerful perfume she wore that the wind had previously blown away. “That smell…”
“I’m afraid the legends are right, my dear. I’ve come to snatch you quite away. Your friends as well. It is the will of my Queen.” Her hands wrapped gently around his head and cupped his lower jaw, drawing his gaze to her beautiful smile.
The flames that poured from her hands rushed over the man’s skin and into his mouth and nostrils as he gasped. The fire flooded his lungs and washed over his body like a second skin. He didn’t even have time to jerk back before his muscles and organs liquefied at the intensity of her magic. Even the bones became like slag, sloughing from one another onto the charred ground and sparking tiny fires in the undergrowth.
The smell of the remaining ashes clung to her, refreshing her perfume.
“What I saw of this man’s past was illuminating, but I’ll require more to get a complete picture of the island,” Serolia remarked to the soldiers who’d all taken a step backwards for safety. “Gather the rest of them and we’ll see if Queen Tepheroth can’t add another crown to her throne.” She accepted the shoulder of an armored elf who helped her away from the clearing, toward the bulk of the elven troops.
Lilika leaned backwards from her vantage point and breathed a deep gasp she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Your elven buddies just don’t come in nice flavors, do they?”
Fiore snickered, caught herself, and coughed. “In fairness, if the natives had caught us, we’d already be dead. He got what he deserved.” She turned to the green skinned man who crouched next to them. “Speaking of which, we owe you a debt, Ker’zath.”
“Hey! I was the one who actually found this place!” Lilika protested, petulantly. “With all the armor you two wear, I’d have sworn the whole isle would’ve known where we were going!”
“Never the less, Ker’zath lead the natives into my people, so I’d thank you to give credit where it’s due,” Fiore stubbornly insisted.
Ker’zath shook his head at the squabbling humans. “It’s fine, really. There’s strength in numbers and I was fresh out of allies.”
“Ah yes,” Lilika turned an accusatory finger on the Nothrog. “Your berserker rage consumed your sight and in your blood lust, you cut down friend and foe alike, indiscriminately! Only after you regained your senses did you see the woe you had wrought and, in despair, you now seek out the helpless and victimized to atone for your sins! A very sad story.”
“What?” Ker’zath asked, confused. “No. Nothing like that.” He turned to Fiore. “What is she talking about?”
Fiore shrugged. “She’s a bard. I think she needs to feed on tragic back-stories or something.”
“Excuse me, Ms. Bride of Behemoth!” Lilika cut in. “Your legend is crazy enough for six companions, thank you very much. I was just trying to test our new friend here. After the second portal, I’ve been having very serious trust issues.” She sniffed, her eyes closed with injury. “Fine. In your own words, then, what’s the deal, Ker? You make a habit of befriending strange women in jungles?”
“Uh… look. I’m not a native to these parts either. Krun sent us to the Islands to enlist the aid of a powerful Vo’Taurr sorcerer. To replace that Mek’kiah guy, I suppose. Well, the negotiations didn’t go as well as we would’ve liked.”
“Nothrog negotiations, huh?” She elbowed Fiore. “No wonder he ran out of allies, eh Fi?”
“Anyway, I got separated from my unit and when I finally found their encampment, they’d already moved on. Took me for dead, I guess. I’ve been looking for a boat since then. I don’t know if they’ve gone to a different isle or just gone home.”
“Who was the Vo’Taurr?” Fiore asked, feeling increasingly exposed on the strange island.
“He is called DerRist, and it is said he has strange powers over dawn. When we found his people, they told us he would not see us right away and that we needed to ask again at each sunrise. The first day, a Vo’Taurr warrior challenged the strongest of us to a contest of strength. The bull was huge, perhaps twelve feet tall. Horns longer than my arms. Nothrog love a challenge, but this one… The first man we sent against him lasted minutes. After breaking our champion’s neck, he laughed and told us to try again the next day. We did, but the next man was gored through the lungs and died horribly. By the third dawn, no one raised their hand to volunteer.”
Lilika leaned forward, her eyes wide with rapt attention. Fiore sighed and sat down, letting the story take its course.
“I’m not the biggest or the strongest of my people, but I have never stood down from a duel. And while the VoTaurr was three times my mass, I had an advantage. I’d seen him in combat twice already and he had never seen me fight. I challenged him on the third day. When he saw me, he laughed and threw down his weapon, sure of his brute strength.”
“Always be the third guy to accept a quest,” Lilika whispered to Fiore with a wink.
“He came at me as he had the others but I, being smaller and swifter, evaded his reach and scored a few blows on his thick flank with my axe. He rushed me again and this time, I was not so lucky. When he punched me, I could feel my bones breaking. My rage,” he glanced sidelong at Lilika, “was the only thing that kept me from collapsing in a heap right there. I cut in at him, but he blocked the worst of my strikes with forearms harder than trees. He snorted a hot blast of air in my eyes and used my distraction to duck back and lunge head-first at me. His horn went through me right,” he gestured under his heart, “here. I was wounded, but lucky. Nothing vital had been pierced and while I can still hold my axe, the duel’s not over.”
“Too stubborn to die!” Lilika whispered, jabbing Fiore in the ribs with a finger. The elf shot the bard a dirty look.
“It was the strangest thing. Even though I was losing blood rapidly, I felt renewed. Invigorated. He’d pierced me, but was off-balance. Holding the horn in one hand, I jerked to the side and pulled his feet out from under him. I grasped my weapon-”
“Only to find that the Vo’Taurr at your mercy was, in fact, DerRist himself, who accepted your demonstration of strength after you spared him!” Lilika interjected, excitedly.
Ker’zath stared at her. “No… I killed him. DerRist is a mage, remember?” Lilika visibly deflated. “Um. Sorry? We met with DerRist the morning after and spent days in negotiations while my wounds healed. I guess he didn’t like the idea of a master, though, because his power turned on us. Night became day in an instant and bolts of ice struck down our ambassadors. I was still a little weak from the duel and by the time I found my weapon, fighting had broken out. In the confusion, I got separated.”
“Narrative notwithstanding,” Lilika commented, still feeling cheated out of a perfect story, “that’s pretty impressive stuff. I guess you can tag along.”
“We’re trying to get back to the mainland,” Fiore explained, “so we’ll need a boat first and foremost. Where did your people dock when they first landed?”
“There’s a relatively calm bay a ways south of here. If we can move quickly enough, we might be able to get there before sun down.”
Lilika was staring at a small blue and white bird-of-paradise that had landed nearby and was singing a slow, fading song at the setting sun. “Why before night?”
Ker’zath shuddered. “You’ll see.”
Skrim turned and took seven paces south eastward. He turned west and stepped toward the closest tree. His deft fingers traced the trunk carefully until he found a slight gap, just wide enough for a fingernail. Prying the gap open, the assassin pulled the cover from the tree to expose the cache within. Blades of all sorts and sizes filled the hollow, glittering darkly with thick, viscous poisons. He tapped a finger on his lips as he weighed his options.
“Do you really need four daggers?” Zevil asked, stepping up behind Skrim.
The nothrog kept his eyes on the cache, still debating. “I like having extras. Just in case.”
“You’ve got throwing daggers, swords, knives, and- is that a poisoned garrote?” Zevil protested. “And this is what, one of thirty such stockpiles you’ve set up around the isles?” The elf folded his arms across his chest. “One of these days, we’re going to have a talk about this pack-rat problem you Nothrog have.”
“Did you actually find anything, or have you just come to bother me?” Skrim asked, plucking a barbed dagger from the pile and considering carefully.
“The Elves are looking for some artifact, not the Ark. They’re way off though. Without help from the locals, they’re never going to get anywhere.”
“Good, good. The Nothrog have already given up and left. They were trying to marshal DerRist, but someone interfered and killed the ambassadors. The Nothrog saw magic, assumed DerRist turned on them and fighting broke out. I guess we owe somebody our thanks?”
“Tch,” Zevil sniffed, “magic assassinations. How crude. My agents tell me there are two more incursions worth investigating. If you can find something to stab people with, we can get to the nearest one as they make landfall.”
Skrim waved his hand dismissively at the Elf and retrieved a long, thin blade of worked steel that rippled with a red sheen even in the last, dying rays of the fallen sun. He nodded appreciatively and replaced the cover. “Alright. Let’s go.”
Zevil raised an eyebrow. “Nothing for me?”
“Let me check.” Skrim looked critically at his partner. He seemed to be pondering something. Finally, he shrugged and turned away, towards the bay. “Nope, you’re definitely not a Nothrog,” he explained, holding up his hand. “Too many fingers, you see? Dead give away.”
The ships anchored in the bay were black and tall, the wear of their ocean crossing barely noticeable. Grim-faced men moved with dull purpose as they loaded a smaller landing craft and rowed toward the pale white beach. The placid waves of the bay concealed jagged, tooth-like rocks that jutted upwards and threatened to capsize unwary vessels. The long ship was obligated to weave through the stones like a half-visible maze. At length, they reached the shore and found the darkened island no more inviting than its waters. The sands concealed the bones of those who had come before and the trees loomed dark and thick, concealing any number of unfriendly eyes.
Dorath Sa’dul stood amongst his men, sneering openly at their surroundings. “A poor imitation of the Plane,” he muttered. Stretching his emaciated frame, the mercenary leader gestured at the tree line. “My men may lack some insight into places such as these, but I am well acquainted with puzzles and have many years of experience in… taking them apart. Come forward and save your island the damage of my curiosity.”
To Dorath’s men, it seemed as though a line of hulking soldiers stepped out of the shadows themselves. They were bestial things with scales and jaws and tails that flicked back and forth in anticipation. The largest of them was a frightful monster who seemed to warp the island around himself. Long fangs grinned with wet glee. “Sssa’dul,” it rasped.
“Kevrosh Dathar,” Dorath replied evenly. “Master of the Island of Secrets. Tell me, what can The Blades of War do for you?”
“I require mercenariesss for my purposesss. The Isle of Ice hasss long withssstood my agentsss and I tire of the game.”
Dorath smiled darkly. “Understandable. But come, surely the island has more comfortable accommodations where we can conduct our business.”
Jussst ssso,” the beast replied.
His men formed a circle around him and Dorath stepped forward. Kevrosh’s pets parted before him. The two groups moved into the labyrinthine forest and were gone from sight in an instant, swallowed up by the island.
Zevil swung down from the branch in which he’d been perched to Skrim who waited below. “For a moment there, I’d thought Sa’dul had spotted me,” he admitted. “I don’t like that guy. Gives me the creeps.”
Skrim started, as if awoken. “Hrm? Well, don’t let that color your behavior next time we need to hire his Blades on Malrog’s behalf. It’s not like the Dark Horsemen will work for us.”
“More inner-island fighting,” Zevil continued, frowning. “I’m beginning to think we won’t get to kill anyone at all.”
Skrim patted his friend’s shoulder. “Now, now. We have one more group to check out. This might be the treasure hunter the Ironface mentioned.”
“I suppose,” Zevil sighed, rubbing his temples. “You want to take these long boats?”
“Steal from Sa’dul?” Skrim asked incredulously. “Who’d be… that… dumb…” he trailed off, his attention riveted to the beach.
Zevil followed Skrim’s gaze to find three figures making their way down the beach, toward the boats. “One born every minute,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“Want to kill them?” Skrim offered.
Zevil thought about it. “Nah. Let the creepy mercenary swim,” he smirked.
“Remind me why we aren’t headed for the main-land?” Lilika asked, rowing toward the glittering white island a short distance from the beach.
“The Isles of Light and Shadow are further from Andover’s harbors than you might think,” Ker’zath replied. “We’d need more than a glorified canoe to cross the sea, to say nothing of provisions. Our best chance is to hope Krun’s embassy moved to other isles, looking for allies.”
“How likely is that?” Fiore asked, doubtfully.
“Well, no one likes going back to Krun empty-handed,” the warrior offered as the boat slid among ice flows that groaned in protest.
“There’s nothing like a vacation in the tropics,” Lilika mused, poking the bobbing ice. “So, people actually live here?”
“I don’t know,” Ker’zath answered as their boat screeched to a solid halt and they carefully got out, testing the ground with doubtful steps. “We hadn’t visited this one. Ice isn’t great, but one of the isles sets itself on fire every night.”
“Ill take ice over fire any day,” Fiore muttered, stepping lightly. Ker’zath, whose armor was considerably heavier, did his best just to keep his footing.
“Yeah, well, you’re also cold-blooded, so no surprise there,” Lilika offered, shivering. Slowly, the three moved deeper onto the island. The land was encased in ice, a jagged and shimmering frost that filled the air with cracking as a bitter wind threatened to shatter the intricate lattice the tees and vegetation had been frozen into.
“Wait,” Fiore said, shielding her face from the icy wind with a hand and casting her gaze about them. “Not everything here is dead.”
The roar of the wind over the ice was split by an abrupt and echoing bellow that seemed to come from under the travelers’ feet. They scrambled backwards as best they could and the rocky hill they’d been standing on detached itself from the frozen ground and rose on four legs.
The crystalline stone raised a bulky, hound-like head and leveled cold, white eyes on the three. It was a massive creature, at least twice as large as the boat they’d left at the water’s edge. From deep within its rime-etched chest, a rumble like the grinding sea ice echoed out, forming a single word. “Intruders.”
“Ah ha ha,” Lilika nervously laughed as her companions drew their steel. “No, this is just a misunderstanding, you see? We got separated from this embassy,” she tried to explain; uncertain if the monster could even understand her.
It was silent for a moment, and then shifted its ponderous bulk to turn away from them. “Come,” it rumbled and their surroundings exploded with movement as dozens of the guardians shifted from their hoary camouflage. They formed a small procession around the youths and inexorably drove them deeper into the island.
“I can’t believe that ‘misunderstanding’ bit finally worked,” the bard marveled. She glanced at her escort. “Er, it did work, didn’t it?”
“Oh yes, yer very accommodating,” Berlian complained, drawing his thick fur mantle closer to himself. “Wait for a meeting until the night time, when your whole island becomes fit fer neither man nor dog.” He gave a dark look at some of the four-legged gargoyles around him in the audience hall.
“Chosen for your diplomacy, I see,” rumbled Aridun, a stone hand rubbing his long, square jaw. “My enemies are many and my domain is impenetrable during the night,” the colossus explained slowly. “Your mistress will understand if more pressing matters hold my attention while the sun is high and we are most vulnerable.”
“But that’s the point, ain’t it,” Berlian insisted, his chest out as he stepped toward the towering lord. “An alliance be a sword with two edges, an as ye help us, we could help ye. Solvin’ problems is me specialty.” The dwarf gave the gargoyle a long, hard squint.
“Your allies are too few,” Aridun replied coldly, “and we are strong enough to endure by ourselves.” His tone was imperial and he regarded the angry dwarf before him like an unwelcome guest.
“By yerselves?” Berlian shouted. “What of Hember’s pact? Yer kind an mine share a fate for good or ill!”
Aridun was unmoved. “The Abyss is sealed, Sjonegaard is no more. We now move with choice. I will not vacate my home for your errand.”
Berlian’s ears turned red and he tugged at his beard as he opened his mouth to let fly a choice opinion of Aridun’s people when a procession of crystalline gargoyles led three young strangers into the chamber. “Embassy,” they rasped, turning and leaving as abruptly as they came.
“Humans and Nothrog to bend my ear for you, Dwarf? Or merely spies too foolish to dread their fates?” Aridun asked with undisguised contempt.
Berlian looked at the three carefully. The girl in leathers waved and grinned, nodding her head enthusiastically. The human dressed as an elf shot a defiant glare then turned her glower on the massive lord of the isle. The Nothrog, at least, had the sense to look abashed and kept his gaze cast down- though his hands never left his axe. The Dwarf turned back to his ungracious host. “Of course they’re with me, ye mindless block!” he spat. “An if ye’ll forget promises made of old, may ye long enjoy yer icy tomb!”
Storming away, he gestured at the three strangers. “Come along, ye lot. Kara ill needs a friend such as this!”
“Actually, I could have used him a great deal,” she sighed. Kara Wadreth was a lean, tall woman with jet black hair that reminded one of a predatory animal, even when she was uncomfortably behind a table filled with maps, charts, and documents. She regarded her Dwarven compatriot with resignation. “I thank you, Berlian, for your efforts. We will just have to find another ally on these Islands.”
The dwarf gave her an encouraging nod. “Ye’ll find the right guide, lass. Yer a sharp girl.” Taking his leave, the three companions were left with the brooding ranger who didn’t seem to take much note of them. Gingerly, she plucked a quill from its ink well and drew a large ‘X’ through an island on the largest map of the archipelago. She dropped the pen and looked up at the three.
The bard was grinning at her with a smile that nearly split her face and bobbed excitedly up and down on the balls of her feet. The Nothrog was critically assessing the command tent they were standing in, occasionally sniffing in disapproval or chuckling in self-satisfied superiority. The elf…
“I know you,” Kara said coldly. “Truce or no, I’d just as soon not share my tent with a traitor and a murderer, Fiore.” She pronounced the name as if it were a curse. Fiore said nothing, but turned and left the tent. Ker’zath watched her go in confusion but Lilika hardly noticed.
“Ms. Wadreth,” she began too quickly, stumbling over her words. She took a deep breath and pushed on. “It’s such an honor to meet you in person. I’ve heard every tale about your adventures. My brother has too, but he’s not here with me because the portal only took me to the Plane of Secrets and I saved a girl from an Elven god but there were illusions and a murder and more portals and this is Ker’zath but he’s not important, and I’m so happy to meet you!” She took another breath. Ker’zath looked hurt.
Kara managed a feeble smile. “Uh, thank you? I wasn’t aware my… adventures… were a matter of public record.”
“Not really public, exactly, but I’ve been writing poems about your travels and eventually everyone will respect you as much as I do! Like now! I bet King Dukat sent you to these islands to recruit them all to the Free Kingdoms, right?”
Another voice responded. “Nay, nothing so grand, I am afraid. Merely to seek in vain for a bauble that Deverenia misplaced in times of greater glory.” The speaker was a tall, graceful man who, despite his robes and noble bearing, was thick limbed and heavily muscled. He rubbed calloused hands together, as if for heat. “The Free King seeks only for the Crown of Command, to avert the doom that looms above us all. I see thou hast taken a squire, Lady Wadreth,” the Deverenian said, glancing at Lilika. “Very appropriate for one of your station.”
“She’s not-” Kara sighed, her palm over her eyes. “Kalten, what did you find out? Who rules the Isle of Sorrow, and will they help us?”
“Ah hah, most interesting. Tis actually amidst a struggle for power, my Lady. The locals war twixt a savage named Eladric and, ahem, Madriga.”
“That should be a short fight,” Kara muttered, then looked up, startled. “Oh, you’re serious?”
“Not THE Madriga, of course,” Kalten explained, his pale, almost blue skin steaming in the heat of the enclosed space. “But the memories of some linger on times of past glories. Indeed, Madriga and her vassals are of Deverenian descent, their line from a time when these isles rightly recognized the Empire as their master. She will aid us with aught but your promise to disperse Eladric’s rabble and, in turn, aid her unification of the islands. A paltry task, I am sure.”
“Only the islands, Kalten? Why not the rest of Larisnar, while we’re at it? We’re not here to play island politics if we can help it, and we’ve hardly got an army at our backs. I’ll meet with Eladric and see if we can’t negotiate a lower price for his service.”
The Deverenian did not seem surprised by the decision and took Kara’s orders with fatalistic good humor. “As thou wish, so I must act. The beast-taming rebel with be brought to you anon and the wrathful army of lost Deverenian sons and daughters will be left to our unguarded flanks. I am sure the trifle your King fancies will rest upon his throne ere we are all swallowed in death. Your pardon,” his smile never flagged for a moment, “my Lady.”
After he left, Lilika cupped a hand over her mouth and whispered too loudly, “say the word and I will stab him like he’s never been stabbed before.”
“Thank you, no. Such are my lieutenants. Listen, your story seems far fetched, but if you don’t mind sticking around and helping out, I’ll make sure the three of you get back to the mainland safely. None of you particularly look like natives, so you’re going to need friends to last on these islands.”
Lilika thanked the older woman gratefully and left, already composing new lines about her idol in her head. Ker’zath lingered, something on his mind troubling him. Eventually, his resolve hardened and he vocalized his question.
“Why do you hate Fiore so?” he asked. “I have not been with her for long, but she does not seem as cold-blooded as you said.”
Kara turned away from him. She answered. “Fiore was put in an impossible situation and she chose the worst possible path. She betrayed and let her friends die, one by one, and their blood is on her hands. Even now, she is human and yet also a monster far worse than any you are likely to know.”
Ker’zath listened in disbelief. “I- I see. I’m sorry.” He ducked out of the tent, his mind swimming with doubts.
“No, I insist.”
“Fine. The truth is, I don’t think you’re a very good assassin.”
From their concealment, Skrim and Zevil could see the encampment and could feel the tension that thrummed through it. Beastmaster Eladric was meeting with the expedition’s leader and the honor guard he’d brought left the foreigners with a creeping feeling down their spines.
“Explain yourself,” Zevil insisted.
“You take pleasure in killing.”
“I think it’s important to love what you do. Besides, death is a thing of beauty. It’s like the end to a story- you dread the termination, but finishing that last sentence is cathartic.”
The two brought their blades to their hands as a patrol walked close by. Squinting, Zevil let a knife fly as Skrim lunged from cover. The knife took a man in the throat and he gurgled as his hands reactively clutched at his neck, as if he could stop the crimson torrent that ran down his chest by wishing it were so. Skrim’s sword twisted ever so slightly and slid cleanly through the second man’s ribs, into his lungs. He gasped and suffocated on his own blood.
The remaining guard was a fair-skinned woman with auburn hair who, to her credit, opened her mouth as she drew her weapon. Zevil sprang like a snake and had an iron hand clenching her tongue and jaw. With his other hand, he snapped her wrist and the sword fell from the dead limb.
Locked by his debilitating embrace, the elf leaned in closely and whispered into the woman’s ear. She nodded her head as much as his grip allowed. He whispered again, his voice a smooth and musical wind in the tense night air. The guard answered his questions silently and when he was finished, he released his grapple and drew back.
“Run along now, dear. Quietly, if you please.”
Shaking, she took a step toward her camp and froze. She fell to the ground and Skrim withdrew his steel from her spine.
“That’s what I mean,” he continued, quite undisturbed by the corpses around them. “A killer should be methodical. Your enjoyment in a kill doesn’t make them any more dead.”
“I just can’t understand that mind-set,” Zevil commented as he retrieved his thrown knife. “If I couldn’t find joy in the little things around me, I’d do my best to swallow a crossbow bolt.”
Skrim shook his head and shrugged. “If you please,” he urged, looking doubtfully at the sky.
“Yes, yes. They don’t know about Malrog’s treasure, but they’re likely headed in that direction anyway. I wouldn’t feel safe unless we followed them to make sure.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Another island?” Fiore complained. “How many of these must we endure?”
Their boat was a simple, plain device, clearly only meant for travel from island to island. Kara’s meeting with Eladric had apparently gone well, though Ker’zath intensely distrusted the man the moment he laid eyes on the ragged Beastmaster. Leaving the main fleet on the isle of Sorrows, along with the polite-yet-displeased Kalten the Bleak, the others had boarded the rickety vessels Eladric provided.
“With any luck, the Beast-man knows what he’s talking about and this will be our last stop before you commander heads back to the mainland,” he grumbled to Lilika.
For her own part, the rogue was unfazed by the weariness that had overtaken her friends. She stood, threatening the balance of the boat, and marveled as the dawn’s rays poured across the silhouette of the isle and crested off the golden dome of a mighty castle nestled high in the rocky center of the island. Dazzling lights refracted through gargantuan windows and threw a ghostly shadow of many hues across the land and sea. Even as the sun rose, the patterns of light cavorted in a symphony too complex to follow.
“It’s so beautiful. What is the name of that island?” she asked Ker’zath.
“The Isle of Madness. Supposedly, it’s ruled by ‘He Who is a Man and Not a Man.’ The Nothrog embassy never landed there, but I am glad, at least, that we’re approaching in the day.”
Fiore shuddered, but it went unnoticed. Slowly, the boats pulled up to the coast and their occupants disembarked. Eladric, a golden bird perched upon his shoulder, led the way toward the citadel.
The Elven assassin carefully studied the expedition as it made slow progress through the island. Eladric’s involvement was bothersome, but not wholly unexpected. What captured Zevil’s attention the most was the raven-haired leader. ”For a human…” Zevil exhaled deeply.
Skrim came skulking up to his partner and the elf blinked away the vision of Kara that had filled his eyes. “Took you long enough to catch up,” he reprimanded, covering his own distraction. “What was your errand, anyway?”
“Turn-about,” the Nothrog replied, his tusks glinting in the light filtering through the trees. Gesturing to the humans in the distance, he looked questioningly at Zevil.
“As we surmised, they’re headed to the citadel. Bran might not know he’s been working for the cohorts, but he’ll still do his best to drive off what appears to be an invasion from Eladric’s minions.”
“As long as we make sure Eladric approaches with hostile intent,” Skrim finished with a smirk.
“What’s happening?” Kara demanded, her blades drawn and her head whipping about, looking for the attackers.
“I am not sure,” Eladric replied. “My people have long walked this place without fear.”
A volley of arrows and darts came from the wilderness around them and felled more men before they could even raise their shields. At a word from the Beastmaster, his men abandoned their humanity to shift into wolves and leopards and hawks. They rushed the concealed attackers and the sounds of struggle echoed around Kara’s convoy. Bloody minutes passed and finally the jungle fell quiet. Eladric’s men did not return.
“Segula will pay for this aggression,” the Beastmaster vowed, his eyes glowing like coals. Pointing at the citadel that loomed before them, many miles away, Eladric spoke again. “He is a master of the woods and wilderness enough to match my power with his guile. We must make for the fortress with all speed to give your soldiers and equal footing.”
Their remaining progress was swift and unchallenged until they reached the gates of the bastion itself. The guards cried out but Eladric’s response was swifter. A violent gale swept the men from the ground and cast them off of the cliff side, screaming. “Two,” Eladric tallied, grimly.
Lilika shrugged the pack of supplies she carried over one shoulder and nudged Fiore. “I think this guy’s lost it,” she whispered. Ker’zath shot them a glance, as if to say he’d told them so.
Dusk fell on the island as the group entered the suspiciously unbarred gates. The light outside faded but the castle’s interior stayed as bright as high noon, the stained glass casting its colors through the grand hall in disjointed confusion. A multitude of doors lined the colored stone walls and each bore a different sigil. The doors were thick and reinforced with steel.
“Now what,” Kara muttered and her voice bounced from wall to wall and off the distant ceiling. Her conviction solidified. “Alright, we’ll send small scouting parties through the doors. Turn back if you encounter any resistance. The master of the citadel-”
“Has returned.” Bran Segula said, his voice booming angrily as he strolled into the foyer, dozens of dark-eyed soldiers behind him. “You’ve killed my men and I cannot imagine what madness would bring you here, but nothing in these halls must see the light of day.” His wild hair fell around his mismatched armor and his expression was set in deadly resolution. Fiore took a step backwards as she gazed at him in fright.
“Your toll has not yet been repaid!” Eladric shouted and cast his arms wide as a swarm of insects poured from his robe on hungry wings. The soldiers tore at their faces as vermin overtook them and the Free Kingdoms men charged the disabled line.
Segula slid from the swarm with astonishing speed and was upon Eladric the next moment, his sword slicing into the druid’s flank with brutal force. His follow-up stroke rushed to the Beastmaster’s neck, but connected instead with Kara’s crossed blades as she stepped between the men. Bran drew back and regarded the woman for a moment before pressing the attack once more with a sudden cut. Kara stopped the thrust, but was shocked by the man’s strength. He was barely taller than her and his face was still smooth from youth, but she knew Nothrog who didn’t have a fraction of his force. “Man and Not a Man indeed,” she commented as the two circled each other.
A black portal lined with cold white opened up in a corner of the room and the pale, blue-tinged Kalten strode out of it, murmuring to himself. “Ah, here thou art,” he said, spying Kara who traded heavy blows with the master of the island. “I bring ill tidings- we are under attack.”
“I can see that,” Kara grunted as she parried a blow, only to have her off-weapon torn from her grasp. “Don’t suppose you’d like to help while we talk?”
Kalten the Bleak sighed theatrically and a bolt of ice flew from his hand to strike a guard circling around Kara’s back. The man grabbed at his throat, gasping, and found that his whole neck was frozen solid. He pounded at the ice until, at last, it shattered and his head rolled from its shoulders. The mage turned back to Kara.
“You misunderstand, my Lady. Our base camp is under assault by the Lady Madriga, who thou spurned in thy wisdom. A beast of his,” the Deverenian pointed at the bleeding druid, “attacked them.”
“None of my chargers would do such a thing unprovoked, even to a war-monger like Madriga,” Eladric spat, his wound slowly closing as his magic poured into it.
“Sadly, the rest of us lack the fangs needed to match the wounds upon her fallen brethren, Beastmaster,” he replied, dryly. “My Lady, if I can beg your leave, I needs must return to the two-front battle we are now faced with.” He turned and stepped through another portal.
Kara, barely managing to hold off Bran through the diatribe, cursed as her second weapon was wrenched from her hands by the mercenary’s unnatural might. Kicking out, she brought her boot against his knee. Though she didn’t get the satisfying crack she’d been expecting, the maneuver at least knocked him back and gave her the time to dart to the side and seize the sword she’d dropped.
In the meantime, Lilika stalked amid the struggle, looking for opportunities to help. Here and there, her knives found an unguarded flank and she did what she could, but most of the soldiers were killers far above her modest battle prowess and she didn’t dare strike out unless she wanted to lose her head in the exchange.
From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Fiore, slipping through an open door, deeper into the Bastion. “Hey!” she yelled, but the din of battle overwhelmed her voice. “I’m supposed to be the sneaky one,” she complained to herself. “Now where is Ker’zath?”
The halls of the castle were long and as garishly bright as its entrance. The stones were a vibrant, pulsing red and its doorways were brass polished to mirror sheen. It was difficult to adjust to, after the darkness of the Temple of Lore and the Plane of Secrets but what disturbed Lilika most was that the light didn’t have a clear source.
The rogue and the warrior listened for some sign of their missing companion but heard only the echoing sounds of the battle behind them. The doors around them were tall, thick, and windowless but something kept Lilika from testing them. She chewed her lip nervously.
Ker’zath was uncomfortable. Kara had said some damning things about Fiore and running from your commander’s side in battle went against everything he’d been taught. He was about to express his dissatisfaction when he noticed something on the doors around them. “These… these are all locked from the outside,” he said slowly, pointing out the mechanisms that blended into the wild shapes of the handles.
It struck Lilika. “This isn’t a fortress,” she realized. “This is a prison.” She turned to the Nothrog as a horrible noise echoed down the corridor from a great distance. It swelled as it approached and gained monstrous complexity before she noticed that it was many voices screaming as one. “The inmates?” she wondered, grimacing. “Something horrible has happened.” Her gut became an icy pit.
They ran toward the origin of the shrieking. The hall twisted and dived downward, but it did not branch out and at last, the rows of cell doors ended to reveal a large amphitheater. The sunken floor was tiled in a wild mosaic of the islands. Above, the domed ceiling was painted with an eternal sun. The walls were freshly marred with runes that hummed and pulsed a slowing heartbeat as their blood ebbed away. The room was strewn with fresh corpses, men and women in identical robes and vestments, all dead and mutilated. Fiore stood close at hand, staring blankly.
“Fi,” Lilika started. “What did you do?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, hurriedly. “It wasn’t me. I ran from… from Segula. He’s a child of Behemoth and I knew he’d sense me if I stayed, but these,” she gestured, “this cult… I don’t know what happened.” She looked at her companions, desperate to be believed.
Ker’zath avoided her gaze and instead looked upward. “Why is the sun white?” he wondered aloud, forgetting himself.
“That’s not supposed to be the sun,” Fiore said. “That’s the Banshee Moon.”
“Bascaron?” Lilika asked, incredulously. “This place is filled with Bascarites?”
There was a whisper of steel sliding through the thin gaps in plate armor and a cruel voice responded. “Yes. At least, they used to be Bascarites. Now, they’re so much more.”
His axe dropped from Ker’zath’s hand as he felt a long, thin razor’s edge rest tensely at his jugular. Lilika pulled her sword from its scabbard and looked helplessly at her friends. Fiore gasped and her fingers twitched as Zevil withdrew his knife from her back. Slowly, she sunk to the ground. “I told you we should’ve been baby sitting the Cohorts,” the Elven assassin mused, looking at the slaughtered cultists.
“You said no such thing,” Skrim shot back, his eyes fixed on the other Nothrog. “Anyway, we both knew they’d kill themselves sooner or later. The Ark’s too much for lowly sycophants.”
“Fair enough. I suppose our Master will have to kill the prisoners that couldn’t be turned. Ah, actually, we’ll likely be the ones doing it. What a waste.”
Lilika stood, mouth agape. The two had just ruthlessly killed Fiore and were amicably chatting as if they had just sat down for lunch. She looked at the fallen Elven hero who already lay still and she felt oddly numb. She had no words.
“Might as well take care of Bran while we’re cleaning house, eh?” Skrim offered.
“Oh, certainly,” Zevil agreed, brushing hair from his face. “No need for a warden when all the inmates are working for us, right?” He paused. “Would you like a moment alone with your dance partner there, or were you going to actually kill him today?”
Skrim managed to sound wounded. “Yeah, yeah, it’s just… well, you didn’t see this kid fight. It was a thing of beauty, to use your expression. I was thinking we could recruit him.”
“What is this, racial loyalty?” Zevil demanded. “I killed the elf, didn’t I?”
“She wasn’t really an elf,” Skrim pointed out.
“What? Really? Then why… Oooohhh. I remember. The human that turned Elven. Won some big battle for the Houses. The name escapes me.”
“Fiore!” Lilika screamed, furious tears in her eyes. “Her name was Fiore, you wretched monster. She was a hero to your people and you cut her down because she saw your stupid cult kill itself? I’m sick of murdering psychos and I’m sick of portals and I’m sick to death of not understanding what’s going on!”
The Elf and the Nothrog exchanged glances.
“To death?” Zevil prompted.
The screams of the captives died suddenly, surprising the assassins as much as Lilika. A sensation of crawling heat flooded the chamber, stifling them and drawing the breath from their throats. Steam rose from the floor as the glass in the mosaic melted and boiled away. Shadow and heat sprung in a growing whorl and the air thickened. In the next moment, the nearly empty vastness of the chamber was filled with wings, fire, and scales. A large, toothy grin sparkled through the steam.
Skrim released his hold on Ker’zath and moved with Zevil to flank the new arrival. Ker’zath grabbed Lilika and dragged her to the far end of the room. The two ducked down behind a huge, gold chest that was wrought with angelic symbols and figures. The Nothrog looked at his companion with alarm.
“I think,” she whispered, shaken, “this is the ‘Not a Man’ half of Segula.”
“I thought I smelt your soul, Fiore,” Bran Segula gloated, his voice booming and yet somehow distant. “The last of your line with no heir to play scapegoat to your destiny.”
Zevil and Skrim leapt like twin blurs, their weapons at opposite sides of Segula’s long, thick neck. Stabbing in, they didn’t break their strides and ran toward one another, meeting in the middle to draw a bloody line through the underside of his throat.
A lazy swipe was all it took to knock the two away. Segula fingered the cut with a claw. “Your draconic anatomy is a little off.”
“You were supposed to be fighting the treasure hunter!” Skrim cried, clutching at a broken rib.
“I am. It turns out that just because I am half-dragon, both halves don’t have to occupy the same body.” He turned away from the injured pair to focus on the dead girl before him. “Enough of this. Arise, Fiore. You have a brand new life ahead of you.”
The woman’s form shuddered and one arm drew itself up, to brace against the ground. Then, the other. Slowly, she rose, her head downcast and her face obscured by her long hair. “Yes,” she said. “I do.”
The bodies of the cultists around the room lurched upward, violently, the repose of death stolen from them. Hungry, empty eyes stared out at the dragon as, shuffling, the undead advanced.
“But not with Behemoth,” Fiore finished, standing and revealing the icy white of her face. Her eye sockets were black pits and within each, pinpricks of light managed to burn with the heat of bonfires.
“What?” Segula demanded, angrily. “The Elves interfered? Twisting Behemoth’s ancient pact into this… mockery?” He swung his gaze on Zevil. “Reverse this, Elf.” His wrath boiled on the edge of fury.
Zevil held his hands out helplessly. “Sorry, Bran, I don’t know what’s happening either. I’m an Adinerach- we don’t really keep close ties to the community.” The dragon roared, shaking the Bastion’s roots. Sighing, Zevil started to massage his temples. The migraine was back and it had brought dragon-sized artillery.
Ghoulish claws dug into Segula’s body and tore scales and flesh from his sides in fist-full chunks as the reanimated dead swarmed over him. Enraged, the dragon thrashed at his attackers, but they were too numerous and kept rising even after being clawed or crushed.
“Enough!” he bellowed, drawing a great breath into his gargantuan lungs. With cataclysmic intensity, Bran Segula filled the room with a fire so fierce it obliterated the far wall, revealing the ocean beyond. Avenging scorn reigned and the hungry dead became bone, then ash, then nothing.
Of their mistress, there was no sign.
In the unending blue of the sea, a huge chest bobbed up and down as it rode the fickle will of the waves. The chest had been small once, little more than a coffer carried by the faithful. It had been revered- its surface lined with precious gems and elaborate reliefs of gold. It had been wrought from a single stone- hollowed and hallowed and worked with spells of preservation and dominion. Over long years, it had been filled with tokens of conquests and trophies of shadow wars. And as it swelled with the glut of its master’s victims, its stone body had grown like a living thing. The bones of fallen enemies fueled its subtle engine and, with careful rituals, it could warp the minds and bodies of even those blasted by the gaze of the Banshee Moon. The slightest imbalance could turn such a ritual into a death sentence for those who dared to tap the power of Malrog’s Ark.
All this was lost on the human and Nothrog who, with disgust, shoveled armfuls of bones and molding relics from its hollow. “Who stores this junk in a box like this, anyway?” Lilika complained eager to make more room in their impromptu boat.
“I’m just glad it was stone on the inside,” Ker’zath added, looking at the ruin of molten gold that Segula’s breath had made of the ark’s once-beautiful shell. With a final heave, the last of the grim innards sunk, bubbling, into the trackless sea. The two sighed and settled into the now spacious vessel. The Island of Madness was now too distant to see, but Lilika imagined she could still make out the gaping hole Segula’s rage had cut from the cliff-side and through which their hiding place had been thrown by his fiery rancor.
The last of the Isles of Light and Shadow vanished over the horizon and stars lit up the night sky. Lilika shrugged off the pack of supplies she’d been carrying for Kara and listlessly rummaged through the preserved food. A silence brooded between her and the young Nothrog.
“Fiore…” Ker’zath said, and then stopped, letting the thought trail off.
“Yeah,” Lilika agreed to the unspoken sentiment. “There are some stories you just know aren’t going to end happily. At least,” she shook her head with a rueful smile, “at least she finally gets to stop running.”
Ker’zath nodded, staring up at the moon. “What do you think happened to the assassins?”
Lilika waved dismissively. “Dead, hopefully. They talked too much.”
“So,” the warrior said, turning his attention to the lithe bard, “this kind of stuff happens to you a lot?”
“Yep,” she replied. “Recently,” she added after a brief pause.
“Huh,” he said, casting down his gaze. “Pretty exciting life.”
“It’s good to be the Queen,” she agreed, her eyes lit in the moonlight with a mischievous glint. “Just wait, though. This is where it gets really interesting.”
Alone, the Ark of the Cohorts floated serenely on the darkened ocean, at the mercy of fate.
Laurence J Sinclair