The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)


We're coming up fast on the end! Well, let's hope that the site stays up long enough for some of you to read this. :(

* * * * *

Chapter 76


Dar could barely keep his eyes open as he made his way down the quiet corridor toward his chamber in the castle at Highbluff. With his rank he and Allera merited a private room in the upper level of the castle keep, despite the fact that the place was crowded almost beyond capacity with visiting warriors, priests, and mages, along with their entourages, apprentices, guards, and followers. The town outside the fortress was packed as well, sprawling out into the war camp beyond. A full six cohorts of the Second Legion were present, with more columns of men arriving by the day.

Dar’s main interest at the moment was in his bed, but he could not quiet his thoughts of the tumult of the meeting that he’d just left. He could not tell what was worse, the reaction to the ideas that Amurru had shared with him and Allera, or the ultimate trust that Camar’s leaders had placed in him, finally accepting the plan that he and his wife had put forward. He had seen reflected in their eyes the same thing that the lich had told them, a realization that a failure here would likely result in an end to everything.

Orcus was fairly straightforward, compared to this, he thought, as he reached his door, and shouldered it open. The room beyond was draped in deep shadows, the only light coming from a banked lamp set on the small table near the bed. Thick curtains covered the slit windows, and the fire in the hearth was long dead, leaving the room noticeably colder than the passage.

In his distracted state, he sensed too late the sudden chill down his back that warned of danger.

He reached for his sword, but before he could draw Justice a shadowed figure stepped into the light of the lamp. Even as the fitful glow illuminated his pale features, and their eyes met, a familiar voice stabbed through him.

“Release your sword, and come forward. Don’t cry out or make any sudden maneuvers.”

Dar’s hands dropped, and he stepped forward into the room. “Talen,” he said, his lips tightening.

“I suppose we both knew that this day would come. That’s far enough; remain there.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not here for you personally, although believe me, there were times when I was tempted. I just want to talk.”

“I have nothing to say to you.”

“Dar, you haven’t changed.” Talen came a step closer, more fully into the light. He was clad in a breastplate of faded blacksteel under his flowing cloak, and the hilt of a sword jutted out from his left hip. A amulet fashioned of a twisted weave of platinum shone at his throat. “I have left you with the ability to think, as a courtesy, but do not believe that I will not get what I want, one way or another.” He nodded toward the darkness across the room, on the other side of the bed. “Shay, the door, if you please.”

Another shadow detached itself from the wall, and moved silently through the darkness toward the door. But as it passed Dar, the fighter suddenly moved in a blur, slicing Justice out from its scabbard in a sudden motion. Talen lunged forward, hissing a command, but Dar ignored him, stopping the sword with its edge less than an inch from the vampire scout’s throat.

Shay merely laughed. “Well now, aren’t you just full of surprises,” she said. She kept her hands at her sides, but her body was slightly tensed, as if ready to spring into motion.

Dar’s hand was rock-steady, his attention split between Shay and Talen. The latter had halted his charge by the foot of the bed, just out of Dar’s reach. “You’re right,” he said to Talen. “I did expect that this meeting would happen someday.”

“An amulet of protection from evil?” Talen asked. He waved a hand, dismissing his own question. “No matter. As I said, we are here only to talk. If you want to take this encounter in another direction, that is up to you, but I would suggest that you not test my patience.”

Dar barked a curt laugh. “Being dead hasn’t improved your hearing. I said that I have nothing to say to...”

He didn’t get a chance to finish, as Talen made a slight motion with his left hand. Dar tensed, expecting an attack, but the vampire lord merely rested his hand on the knobby post at the foot of the bed. The movement had drawn Dar’s eyes only for an instant, but it was enough for Shay to sweep her arm up in a blur. She was obviously wearing a bracer under her sleeve, for metal tinged loudly on metal as Justice was knocked roughly aside. Dar fell back, recovering his guard, but the vampires formed up on his flanks, all show of companionability gone now, the danger no longer hooded in their eyes.

“I told you not to test me,” Talen said. “Now, are you going to listen, or am I going to have to...”

A brilliant light erupted around Dar, and the vampires stepped back, shielding their eyes. Allera pushed open the door and stepped into the room, her own body glowing with the same bright holy aura that surrounded her husband. Flickers of blue energy danced around her hands.

“I think you just got your answer, vampire,” Dar said. “Good timing, angel,” he added in an undertone.

“Why did you come here?” Allera asked.

Talen straightened, still shading his eyes from the light of the twin auras. “I wanted to know why you idiots released the Ravager,” he said, his lips twisting back into a snarl, revealing his pointed teeth.

“We did not unleash the creature,” Allera said. “Stay where you are, Shay,” the healer said, extending a finger toward the scout, who’d sidled a few inches to her left, toward Allera’s flank. “I tried my best to save the both of you, but do not think that my feelings toward you back then will cause me to hesitate now, if you force me to act.”

“You cannot save us from what we are,” Shay said, but she stopped her subtle movement.

“You were involved in what happened,” Talen said. “You had the keys, and my agents have reported that you went to Rappan Athuk, before the monstrosity was freed.”

“To try to stop the bastards who did it,” Dar growled.

“Unsuccessfully, it would seem,” Talen said.

“We only had one of the keys, and that was stolen from the temple of Soleus,” Allera returned. “It was an evil cleric of some destruction-cult that completed the task. He had otherplanar aid, and allies that included Zafir Navev.”

“Don’t tell him anything,” Dar said, but Talen laughed. “So. Old Navev finally got the better of you, did he? Well, that alone almost makes it worth it. Almost. But your failure has threatened my realm, Dar, and that I cannot accept.”

“I don’t give a rat’s flying fart for your ‘realm’. Do you think we didn’t know what had happened to you, ‘Nightlord’? You can go back into your hole and rot there for the rest of time, for all I care.”

Anger flashed in Talen’s eyes for a moment, but he mastered it quickly. “Eloquent as always, Dar. But the problem of the Ravager remains. For all the havoc that it is wreaking in my world at the moment, we both know that sooner or later it will come up again into yours, and when that happens, Camar is finished.”

“I had thought that you no longer gave a crap about us surface-dwellers,” Dar said.

“To be quite honest, I don’t. But the creature must be stopped, and I’d rather it be done with the blood of your fools than of mine. I know you are planning something; you can taste it in the air here. And I have not forgotten how you and those others think. So tell me your plans, and perhaps the lords of the darkness can help you servants of the light.”

Dar laughed. “You seriously expect me to trust you? Maybe you do want the creature dead. But if you expect me to think that you will not take advantage of the situation when and how it suits you, then death has addled your mind.”

“Don’t be a fool...”

“No,” Allera said. “He’s right. That bridge has been crossed, Talen. Now, if you want my help, I will do what I can to bring you back, both of you. You have fallen far, but maybe, with the gods’ blessing...”

“The gods!” Talen spat. “No, keep your gods, and keep your pity. I see now that it was a mistake to come here. But you will come to regret your decision, both of you. You will see soon, when it is too late.”

“Sometimes it is better to die with one’s principles, than to lose oneself in compromising them,” Dar said quietly. “A friend of mine once told me that.”

Talen’s expression twisted into a dark sneer. He and Shay fell back out of the light, and as the shadows embraced them again, they dissolved into twin wafts of gaseous mist. They slid past the curtains through the open windows, and then they were gone.

“Are you all right?” Allera asked, coming over to Dar. At his nod, she took his hand in both of hers, watching the curtains as they shifted slightly in the breeze that made it though the deep slits in the fortress wall.

log in or register to remove this ad


Chapter 77


A cold evening breeze blew hard over the battlements of the South Tower, yanking at the cloaks of the small cluster of men and women gathered there. The tower was the highest point in Highbluff, and had been ever since one of the ravager spawn had destroyed the old North Tower, twelve years ago. That part of the castle had never been rebuilt, and even though the walls had been rebuilt, there was still a gap there that hinted at the loss.

Most of those present stared toward the south, but Corath Dar’s eyes drifted to the west, where the last rays of the setting sun were just visible over the distant horizon. The wind was coming from that direction, dragging long wisps of cloud that hung over them like cobwebs.

Allera came up to him, pressed her body into the crook of his. “It’s beautiful,” she said, staring at the sunset.

Dar didn’t say anything, just held her there in the gathering twilight as the day faded. There was no conversation; it just seemed wrong to sully the moment. And everyone present had already made their views clear, very clear indeed, Dar thought grimly. As if sensing the tumult of his thoughts, Allera’s grip on him tightened slightly.

He glanced back at the others, their backs to him as they watched the south. Letellia had removed the cloth mask that she used to obscure her face, but Dar knew that her expression would be just as unreadable as in their first meeting, or rather, the reunion that had come at Rappan Athuk just a few short weeks before.

Contrasted to her, Sultheros was an open book. The elven archmage had only just returned from the elven kingdom of Aelvenmarr a few hours ago. He’d spent the intervening time coordinating with the elven high council on how to deal with the threat posed by the Ravager, although he had left his apprentice, Callyse, here in his absence as a representative to keep him informed of developments in Camar. He looked smaller than he was, standing between General Darius and Kiron, the two humans given added bulk with their weight of their heavy armor and weapons about them. Maricela stood a short distance back, although she added to Kiron’s presence in much the same way that Allera added to Dar’s. He found himself thinking more and more of them together of late, joined together with more strength as a whole than as individuals apart.

“There,” Sultheros said, indicating a spot on the southern horizon with nod of his staff. The others stared out into the darkening sky, but it took a good minute before any of the humans could match what the elf’s keen eyes had detected. The tiny speck in the distance grew rapidly, however, coming straight toward them as though fired from a crossbow.

Dar and Allera came over to the battlement, and the line of people there parted for him. “You take a grave risk, general,” Letellia said, stepping back to make space. Darius opened his mouth to say something, but bit down on what it was, expressing himself only through a curt shake of his head.

We’ve come so far, Dar said, musing again on the respective changes in their positions. So much had been dumped on him, a role that he’d never asked for and never expected. Allera was like a buttress at his side, holding him up and allowing him to keep everything together, for an hour at a time. He felt old. His hand fell to the hilt of Justice as they watched the approaching form.

It was a surprise to finally be able to identify it, even though they’d expected something of its sort. The flyer was a skeletal thing, obviously undead, held together by threads of necromancy. Its wings beat in a constant, never-tiring progression, the bone struts connected by tattered spreads of dead flesh that barely seemed able to catch the air enough to keep it aloft. As it drew nearer, they could see that it was carrying something in its talons, a long shaft of wood or bone or metal. A few cries of alarm rose from the lower battlements below, but those on guard had been warned, and no arrows or bolts rose to greet the intruder. It came straight on toward those gathered atop the South Tower, who drew back to give the thing room to land.

It slowed as it approached the tower top, its wings spreading to catch the air. Close up, they could identify it as some sort of bird, perhaps a giant eagle or similar species in life. It caught the edge of the battlement and landed awkwardly on one gaunt talon, balancing with its wings as it extended its prize with its other.

Sultheros let out a soft exhalation. “One of the five staves of power,” he said. “Crafted of ancient magic in the time of Druse-Tharon, the first of all empires.”

“A staff of the magi,” Letellia said, her tone more neutral, even reserved. “I know its kind, too well.”

The others hesitated, but it was Dar who finally walked forward, and grasped the staff with a gloved fist. The skeletal thing released it at his touch, and seemed to just come apart, decaying before their eyes into small bits of bone and wafts of dust that were quickly borne away on the evening breeze. There was something fastened to the shaft, a thick parchment tied with a golden thread. Dar left it there, and extended the staff to Sultheros. “Can you do it, elf?”

The archmage nodded. “I believe so.” He took the staff gingerly, cradling it in his hands as though it would decay as had the skeletal messenger.

Dar turned to Darius. “Have the orders been issued to the Legions?”

“They have, General. The men don’t understand, but they’re happy enough to obey, in this case. I suspect you may have more trouble with the people from the town...”

“Deal with it. I expect those orders to be obeyed to the letter.”

The old soldier inclined his head deeply. “It shall be as you say, General.”

Dar turned to Letellia. “And your friends, they will be ready?”

“Lyllalya and Dra Mak Mor will be here, with whatever other aid the Mind’s Eye can muster.”

“Only as we agreed, under the plan,” Dar said.

“We know what is at stake, Corath Dar.”

Dar held her eyes for a moment later—that wasn’t an agreement—but the sorceress did not flinch from his gaze. Finally he looked back at Sultheros. “How long?”

The archmage held the staff close against his body, protecting it—and the ancient scroll—from the wind. “I will not know for certain until I have had a chance to examine the scroll in detail, but from what you told us earlier... two days, maybe three. I will need to bring reagents and support from Aelvenmarr, and it may behoove us to utilize some of the resources of Camar’s Guild, and the church of Soleus, as well. I don’t have to say that we will need to be as prepared as we can possibly be.”

Dar nodded, and turned to Kiron and Maricela. “Let Jaduran know. In three days, we will engage the Ravager.” And this time, there will be an end, one way or another, he didn’t have to add.


Chapter 78


The morning after Dar and his companions received their special delivery, the town of Highbluff was a beehive of activity. The temporary legion camp outside of the town echoed with shouted orders and the clash of metal on metal as legionaries gathered into their units. Columns of men headed into the town. They encountered sullen resistance and eager compliance to their orders in roughly equal measure. By the time that the sun had risen fully above the horizon to the east, the entire town was in a stir of chaos that was only barely contained by tight strings of organization.

Those guards at the castle had slightly easier duty, but the sights they encountered were far more uncanny. The baron’s guardsmen had gotten used to seeing unusual sights. Groups of men suddenly disappeared or reappeared in the roped-off area in the back of the castle court near the keep. Streaking clouds descended from above to take on the form of other men clad in the raiment of the clergy of the Shining Father. Elves and dwarves and other men and women of faraway lands came to the keep by these and other means, sometimes coming and leaving within the course of a single hour.

But both groups of men, soldiers, and guards, were all too aware of what it was that they faced. A ravager spawn had torn a swath through Highbluff years ago, and while the town and keep had been rebuilt, there were plenty of residents who still remembered clearly the violence of that day. And word had spread from the survivors of the desperate battle at Rappan Athuk, stories that made that remembered engagement seem trivial by contrast.

The soldiers of Camar knew enough to know that they were but small pieces on the gameboard, and that the outcome of this contest, including the fate of their land, their livelihoods, and their very lives resided in the hands of those leaders who took counsel in the private chambers within the castle keep. That was enough, for most of them. They remembered another time when the dead rose and walked the earth, and when dark powers stalked the land. Heroes had risen to face those threats, the same heroes that provided hope for them now.

It was true that there were those that deserted, slipping away out of the town as night fell, nowhere to be found with the coming of the morning. But the orders that Dar had issued earlier had undercut the inevitable stirrings of panic. Men did their jobs, and worked to get ready.

The leader of the castle garrison was a man in his late thirties named Captain Karic Garsen. He had not been in Highbluff when the ravager spawn struck, but he’d served at Janaris with the Second Legion against the ghoul horde, and in the aftermath of the victory over Orcus he’d spent a season with the patrols that had scoured the southern lands for straggling survivors of the undead legions raised against the people of Camar. He’d spent the last ten years here at Highbluff, and had a wife and two children. The latter he had already sent on to Camar with his wife’s kin, leaving just him and Tamara in small house situated on the edge of town within bowshot of the castle walls.

The sun had already set as Garsen made his way home. He felt bone-weary after a long day coordinating the implementation of General Dar’s orders in the castle. The baron had thrown his full support behind the General, but Garsen had been surprised at how much resistance there had been to a course of action that seemed completely sensible, to Garsen’s thinking. But then again, he’d seen more than most of the people of Highbluff, even those who had seen the monster that had ravaged the town first-hand.

The house was dark, and deep shadows were already gathering in the street. Garsen went around to the back door, and frowned as he saw their horse, Champion, fretting in its stall. None of the preparations he had expected to see were in evidence, but it was possible that Tamara had chosen to do the work inside rather than here in the back court. He felt a tiny whisper of unease that was likely a product of all of the preparations he’d witnessed all day, but nevertheless he loosened his sword in its scabbard as he lifted the latch and stepped into the kitchen.

Tamara wasn’t there, so he went into the front room to see her lying on the couch. She didn’t even stir as he entered, but as he called her name, she turned her head slightly to look up at him. Garsen saw blood trailing down her neck, and the crimson edge on the collar of her shirt.

He took a step toward her, but stopped as a man appeared from the hall that led to their bedroom. He was tall, pale, built like a warrior and clad in black that could not conceal the familiar outlines of armor underneath.

“I’m sorry to intrude, Captain Garsen,” the man said. “Your wife invited us in.”

Garsen reached for his sword, wondering about the us, but even as his fist closed on the hilt of his weapon, his eyes met those of the stranger, and all of his energy just seemed to bleed out of his body. He felt a presence behind him, but could not move, could not do anything as he felt a sudden icy chill suffuse him, followed by a sharp pain on his neck.

“Remember why we’re here,” the man said.

The room seemed to sway around him, but then the cold presence lifted, and he found that he could still stand, though barely. “You never let me have any fun,” a woman’s voice came from behind him.

Garsen blinked, and it seemed as though the tall man was suddenly right there in front of him, though he could not remember seeing him move. He could not look away from his eyes, which held him in an iron grip.

“What... what do you want?” he somehow managed to ask. The pale man smiled. There was something oddly... familiar about him, although in his current state Garsen couldn’t quite identify what it was.

“Answers,” the man said. “All I want is a few answers, to some very simple questions. Give them to me, and we will leave you and your wife unharmed. Well, at least we’ll leave you alive.” The woman behind him barked out a laugh that was anything but amusing.

Garsen did not believe him, but he knew that he would answer the questions, would do whatever the stranger asked. All he could do, as he screamed a prayer to the Shining Father within the confines of his own mind, was to hope that surviving this meeting would be a better thing than having perished.


Chapter 79


In the predawn gloom, most of the town of Highbluff was cloaked in deep shadows. The fortress looming over the town on the raised bluff that gave the place its name was dark, its towers rising up like black fingers in the night.

But in the town’s large open square, which faced up against the foot of the bluff which supported the citadel, the night was dispelled by a riot of light and color. It appeared that the entire population of the town was gathered there, men, women, and children, clad in raiment as assorted and different as the faces of the citizens themselves. There were soldiers, too, dozens of them, clad in the uniforms and armor of the legions, or the City Watch of Camar, or the livery of the baron of Highbluff, or simply in the mismatched garb of quasi-professional mercenaries. There had to be almost three thousand people in the square, crowded together into a space that had been designed to accommodate perhaps a quarter that number.

The light came not from torches or lanterns, although a few of those burned fitfully around the perimeter of the square. Rather, it was the people themselves who glowed, their bodies shedding a pale and vague radiance that built as it gathered, until the entire square and its contents glimmered like a reflection of the moon that occasionally peeked through the shifting clouds above as it descended toward the horizon in anticipation of the coming day.

The gathering was surprisingly quiet, and a somber hush lingered over the square, as though those who had come together here were afraid to violate the solemnity of the hour. Every now and then a faint hint of voices drifted through the square, but they seemed vague and distant, as though they were an echo of words spoken elsewhere.

From atop the battlements of the old castle, Corath Dar looked down at the gathering in the town square. He had the look of a man who had not slept in some time. He was flanked by several others, men and women dressed warmly against the morning chill, with cowls drawn up to shield their faces from view. One of those stepped forward from the deeper shadows farther back from the edge of the wall, and took up a position watching not far from Dar.

“You don’t have to be here,” Dar said to him. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t be.”

The robed figure turned slightly toward him. “I understand the logic of your orders, general,” Setarcos said. “But I’d really prefer to see what happens myself. Plus, I doubt that the life that clings yet to these bones would much sate the beast.”

Dar murmured something, but his attention remained focused on the town square. The glow rising from below cast his features into stark relief, giving him a grim appearance. His hands, resting on the weathered stone of the battlement, kept wanting to form into fists, but each time he clenched them, he forced himself to take a deep breath and loosen his grip.

“It will come when it comes,” Mehlaraine said. “The guardian said we would sense it coming; there is little use in our standing here to wait. It has been sixteen hours since they began the ritual. You need to rest.”

“They cannot rest,” Dar said without turning. “You would sleep while your kinsman is down there?”

The elf woman did not flinch from his hard words. “Selanthas is resting now, as I did earlier this night. Those supporting Sultheros work in shifts to attend him, and grant him their strength... as I believe that the servants of your sun god are doing for Allera. What good do you do them up here, watching?”

“I am doing all that I can do,” Dar admitted. He arched his back, stretching tired muscles. “What of your friend there?” he said, nodding toward the robed figure lingering against the far battlement, the one facing inward into the castle yard.

“Callyse would prefer to attend upon her master,” Mehlaraine said. “But she has her orders, and will obey them.” The apprentice mage inclined her head slightly, but otherwise it was as if she were a part of the stonework.

Dar bent his head back, looking up into the sky. It was still too dark to see Letellia and her friends, but he knew that they were up there. The sorceress had been true to her word, returning with her allies from the Mind’s Eye to confront the Ravager one last time. In addition to the diminutive alienist and lillend arcane archer that had fought beside her above Rappan Athuk, she had recruited two additional companions, a pair of half-dragon war mages who appeared identical as far as Dar could tell. The two creatures, whose names sounded like stones being crushed by a millstone, were almost as big as ogres, but Letellia had acknowledged that their magical abilities were not even close to the talent that she or Sultheros possessed. But they had joined her in the air, their magic augmenting the power of their broad coppery wings in keeping them aloft. They had all been up there since the ritual had begun, coming down from the skies in shifts to take brief rests. The five of them—he thought of Letellia as much of an outsider as the others, now—made for an unusual coterie of allies, but at least they were offering aid. Before, he would have been worried right now about their commitment to what they were facing.

But... before, he’d been wrong about a lot of things.

His gaze dropped, until it rested on the black stones beneath his feet. He thought of the figure sitting bound inside the keep’s main hall, alone in a dark and empty space made cavernous by the absence of even a single soul for company. He still wondered if that had been a mistake. Aerim would get free, eventually; that had been the whole point. Dar hadn’t wanted to leave any man, even the Duke, to await death in a cell buried deep under the earth. The Duke was a dangerous man, all the more so for the dark magic that lay buried yet within him, muted but not destroyed by the intervention of Allera’s healing powers. He’d gone over to the side of darkness and shadow, and spent centuries serving the dread master of Rappan Athuk. Maybe Allera was right, and he’d been the victim of events beyond his control. Or maybe he’d brought his fate upon himself. Dar hadn’t been there, and he didn’t care enough to judge. Aerim wasn’t the man he’d been, perhaps. But neither was Corath Dar the same person who’d been thrust ill-equipped and damned into the Dungeon of Graves twelve years ago. And so the Duke waited like the rest of them to learn the course of their fate.

Someone emerged from the covered stair that led back down to the castle gatehouse. The clank of metal armor and slight tap of his polearm upon the stone of the battlement as he walked announced Aldos before he got close enough to be identified in the darkness. The knight ignored everyone but Dar, coming to attention a few paces from him, offering a salute that he could hear but not see. Dar did not look up, but said, “Report.”

“The situation remains unchanged below, general,” the Dragon Knight replied.

Dar pushed off from the battlement and rose to his full height before shifting to face him. For all that the general was a large man, Aldos only gave up a few inches to him. Yet the difference in their personal presence was considerable. The knight had lost his life for a second time in the battle with the Ravager outside Rappan Athuk, killed in the explosion of their hilltop entrenchments when the monster had burrowed up out of its prison directly under them. Allera had raised him a few days later, but while he had still not fully recovered from that ordeal, the loyalty that Aldos and the other knights bore to Camar remained unquestioned. Dar had suggested to Kiron that neither Aldos nor Petronia had needed to remain here, but the young Knight Commander had not needed to ask his lieutenants what they thought; they would remain until the end, and if need be, pay the ultimate price.

Repeatedly, if necessary.

“Kiron would not have sent you up here if he didn’t have a purpose,” Dar said to him. “So spill it, knight.”

Aldos glanced at the elves, but Mehlaraine had retreated to the far battlement to speak quietly with Callyse. Dar growled something impatient, and the knight turned back to him. “The Knight Commander... he is not sure how much longer the elf mage... and the others... can continue the ritual.”

“They will continue as long as it is necessary,” Dar said. He turned back toward the town, and thrust his fists into the cold stone of the battlement.

“Yes, sir...” the knight said, trailing off.

“Speak,” Dar said, without turning.

“I have seen spellcasting, sir... but this... it’s doing something to them...”

“This is not something that we can interrupt and then continue later, knight. We only have one shot at this.”

“Perhaps if you came down and saw for yourself...”

Dar sprang up so quickly that Aldos nearly jumped back. He held his ground as Dar thrust himself almost into the other man’s face. “And do what? Do you not think that I would stop this, want to stop this? Do you think I don’t understand the cost?”

A hand rested on his shoulder; Mehlaraine stood there in support, but said nothing. After a moment Dar turned and strode away, past Setarcos, who simply stood there quietly in the shadows, observing without comment. For a moment it looked as though he was heading for the far tower, to leave them, but after a few long paces he turned and started back.

“Tell Kiron,” he began, but he did not get a chance to finish, as a bright flare of light from below drew the attention of all of them to the town square below.

They could all see the change in the glow that rose off of the gathered townsfolk; the inner light that suffused them flickered, dancing in unsteady pulses of energy that caused the shadows around the square to twist and writhe. Over it all they could see the brilliant white globe of a daylight spell, the signal that had drawn their focus.

“It’s time,” Dar said. A glance at the elves, but Callyse was already unrolling a long parchment scroll taken from her pouch. Mehlaraine recovered her pike, the long shaft looking almost fragile in her hands. But Dar knew that the elf warrior’s mettle belied her appearance.

The fighter’s expression was a sculpture of intensity as he tore of his gauntlets, and placed his bare hands flat on the top of the battlement. The others were quiet as he stood there, silent, listening, and feeling.

Dar frowned. “No tremors,” Aldos said. “Shouldn’t we feel it coming?”

Dar waved him to silence. He looked down at the town, where the flickers of light coming from those gathered continued to build, faster, more erratic. He stared at them for a long second, and then his eyes drew up, to the dark night sky. His eyes widened in sudden realization.

“It’s flying!” he yelled, even as his eyes were drawn to the black shape that detached from the clouds above, a massive dark form that descended upon them like a shade of Death itself.

Richard Rawen

First Post
Well, I could hold back no longer... for days I felt like I've been holding my breath... waiting for each post... wondering... you are doing an awesome job at the prolonged cliffhanger LB - and that is said with both admiration and curses :) :mad:


Well, I could hold back no longer... for days I felt like I've been holding my breath... waiting for each post... wondering... you are doing an awesome job at the prolonged cliffhanger LB - and that is said with both admiration and curses :) :mad:
Thanks! Glad you're enjoying the buildup.

* * * * *

Chapter 80


Letellia and her companions had not been lax in their watch, although it took a few seconds for them to realize that the threat was coming from above, and not below. In that time, the Ravager had closed to within a few hundred feet, gliding on broad black wings.

The night sky came alive with blasts of lightning and fire that lanced out and engulfed the oncoming creature. The concentrated barrage of spellpower would have given most foes pause, but if the Ravager felt pain or discomfort from the assault, it gave no sign.

One of the half-dragon war mages surged forward to meet it, swelling with power as it laid wards upon itself, culminating in a polymorph that shifted its form into that of a golden dragon. The Ravager shifted course subtly, toward the incoming foe, and the two collided in a violent crash. The Ravager was the clear winner of the battle of mass and momentum, losing just a few score feet of altitude before its powerful wings were able to stabilize its course. The dragon tore at it with claws and bite, but then the Ravager seized its neck in its huge jaws and bit down, and the transformed mage’s assault became a wild but aimless thrashing.

The half-dragon’s companions came to his aid, flying closer as they continued their magical assault. The other war mage flung a second fireball at the Ravager, exploding it near the rear of its body, to avoid harming its cousin. A series of white lances of power fired from Lyllalya’s bow stabbed into it, but while the lillend’s accuracy was exceptional, none of the shots penetrated the Ravager’s insanely thick hide. A second empowered chain lightning from Letellia definitely caught the creature’s attention, and as the blue flashes of electricity flared through its body it tossed its captive aside, after sucking one last draught of life energy from its crushed body. The half-dragon tumbled awkwardly as it fell, fat gobs of blood scattering around it from the vicious wound in its neck. Once the Ravager shot past its cousin dove toward him, using magical flight to accelerate his descent.

The Ravager changed course, moving with surprising speed and grace for a thing of its bulk. Its huge wings caught the air as it regained the altitude it had lost, driving it straight toward Letellia and Lyllalya. The lillend darted to the side, but was buffeted by one of the Ravager’s wings before she could get fully out of the way. The blow was just a glancing one, but it knocked the archer roughly aside.

Letellia made no effort to evade, merely lifting her staff as she waited for the creature to reach her. It opened its jaws as it shot forward over the last few lengths separating them, jaws big enough to swallow the human woman in a single gulp.

The sorceress waited almost until the last second, then opened a dimension door that placed her slightly above and behind the Ravager. She fired another chain lightning after it as it shot past, but Ravager merely absorbed the hit as it had absorbed all of the damage wrought upon it thus far.

“It is... a force of sheer destruction,” Lyllalya said, as she flew back up to rejoin Letellia.

“We must stop it,” the sorceress said. She looked down at the square below, at the brilliant orb of daylight surrounded by the flickering ghost-lights that rose from the people gathered there. “We can evade it in an aerial battle, but I don’t believe that we can inflict enough damage upon it to destroy it. I needs to be brought down to earth.”

“Agreed, but I am not certain how that is to be managed!” the lillend cried.

The Ravager had continued on past the battle and had begun to curve back around in a broad arc. Its course had taken it through a pair of pseudonatural air elementals summoned by Dra Mak Mor, but whether the creature found their alien life forces unappetizing, or simply did not consider the summoned beings a threat, it had merely shot by them, leaving even the speedy elementals racing to catch up. The Ravager was giving up altitude, now, picking up even more speed as it completed its turn. Its objective was instantly obvious.

“It’s going for the town,” Letellia said. “The ritual is working... come on!” Hefting her staff, she descended after it, the lillend flying first behind her, then pulling ahead as her superior speed began to tell. But it was clear that neither of them was going to catch the Ravager before it reached its target.


Chapter 81


The Ravager descended toward the town square, drawn by the flickering tendrils of life energy that radiated out from the gathered townspeople, soldiers, and spellcasters who were packed into that confined space. The creature had drawn its wings back close against its body now, and it glided like a quarrel shot by a ballista, straight toward the lush fodder that had drawn it up out of the underworld, back to the sunlit surface where life blossomed everywhere, ready to be taken to feed the thing’s unnatural and never-ceasing hunger.

It barely seemed to notice the dark figures that rose up out of the town to block its way. To its senses, attenuated to the ebb and flux of life energy, these two were like black abscesses, empty spots in a living world. They were in its path, but the idea that two tiny specks like these could stop a being like the Ravager seemed rather unlikely.

Talen, burdened with a bulging sack of old canvas, looked at Shay. “The beast is distracted; get its attention. Don’t miss.”

His vampiric consort snorted. “I never miss,” she said, lifting a compact but powerful bow, and drawing a red-fletched arrow to her cheek in a practiced motion.

Her shot lived up to her words, slicing through the night to impact the Ravager squarely in the center of its protruding forehead. The arrow failed to penetrate that bony ridge, but the impact triggered the spells laid upon the missile, and a bright fireball exploded around the Ravager’s head. The eruption drew an annoyed shriek from the creature, but disrupted its flight for only a moment. It recovered quickly, and adjusted its course slightly to take it directly through the pair that had deigned to hurt it, if only slightly.

“Come to father, you big bastard,” Talen said, lifting his sack. Shay drifted back and to the side, leaving Talen to face the creature’s rush alone. Like Letellia before, the vampire lord made no move to dodge or evade; he merely lifted the bulky sack in front of him.

This time the Ravager did not open its jaws to swallow him; rather it looked as though it would merely go through him to its destination.

And then, in the scant instant before the Ravager struck, Talen thrust his hand against the bottom of the sack, inverting it.

Fifteen hundred pounds of alchemical goo erupted from the interior of the bag of holding. The mixture, painstakingly prepared by duergar alchemists, flew out in a dense gob that almost immediately began to spread as gravity drew it down and away from Talen. It struck the Ravager near the joint where the leading edge of its left wing met its body, and stuck there, while the long trailing edge slapped down across its body, forming a new anchor each time the substance touched it. The mixture, known to surface alchemists as tanglefoot, continued to play out in longer strands as the creature’s movement and the flaring wind of its passage spread it across more and more of the creature’s body, with long tendrils starting to form in its wake, trailing behind it.

There was no chance of Talen evading impact; he struck it solidly on the belly, and almost immediately got tangled in one of those long strands. He started to fall away from it, but as he passed toward the rear of the creature he hit one of its hind legs, and another strand of the spreading goo. He would have thus followed it to the end of its flight, save for the fact of what he was. Within a few seconds his body began to dissolve, and in gaseous form he parted from the Ravager, trailing back behind it in the air.

The Ravager was strong, immensely strong, and given time it could have easily won free of the entangling mixture, which was already starting to harden in the brisk rush of air. But there was just too much of it to avoid in the moment, and within a few seconds the stuff had engulfed its entire left side as though it had been a large bug falling though a spiderweb. As its wing became fouled its flight became erratic, complicated by the increased drag caused by the dozens of trailing filaments.

The Ravager plummeted, its momentum carrying it low over the town. As it passed above the square, the flickering light surrounding the gathered citizens finally flared one last time and died.

And with it, almost all of the gathered people there disappeared. All save a handful, including an elven archmage, who sagged against the support of a graven black staff, and a human healer who fell to her knees, driven past exhaustion by the effort of channeling positive energy into the illusory constructs created by the power of Sultheros, his staff of the magi, and the ritual crafted by the lich Amurru. Maricela looked barely better off, kept standing only with Kiron’s support, and the other three clerics of Soleus who had been supporting Allera collapsed as the ritual did, slumping to the ground, unconscious.

The Ravager issued a sharp, bestial cry, but whether it was anger at its current circumstances, or out of some awareness of having been tricked, was unknowable. It struggled one last time to free itself, twisting awkwardly in midair. It barely cleared the outer wall of Highbluff Castle, knocking bricks and bits of stone flying as its wing clipped one of the towers jutting above the wall. It then slammed into the top of the keep. The creature, far heavier than any rock that could have been thrown by a trebuchet crafted by the hands of man, crashed through the roof of the keep, vanishing within in a cacophonous noise that echoed over the town. Its disappearance was accompanied by a plume of dust and debris that briefly obscured the entire fortress from view.

As the swirling detritus in the air began to ebb, Corath Dar became visible, floating through the air by means of a fly spell cast by the elven apprentice, Callyse. In his wake, Mehlaraine, likewise empowered, approached behind him. They headed toward the great opening in the roof of the castle keep, moving swiftly but warily. But before they could reach their destination, Letellia dove down from above. Another dimension door had hastened her pursuit of the Ravager, and as she reached the gaping hole she raised her staff and channeled another stream of liquid lightning down into the building. She started down into the ruined structure, but Dar forestalled her with a shout.


She paused only long enough to yell back. “We must strike before it can recover!” she cried, then vanished from view in a swirl of blue robes and curls of dust in the air.

“Damn it!” Dar yelled, surging after her. Before he could reach the opening, however, there was a howl of wind around him, and he was buffeted by the rapid passage of Dra Mak Mor’s pseudonatural elementals. They vanished into the keep in a violent flurry. Dar started after them, ignoring Mehlaraine’s shouts behind him, but as he neared the gap he could already hear the crumbling sounds from below. Before he could do anything else, the entire front half of the keep collapsed in upon itself. Another plume of dust washed over both warriors, blinding them, as Letellia and the Ravager were buried together under the weight of the keep.


Chapter 82


Dar descended cautiously, one arm raised in front of his helmet to shield his eyes from the swirling debris writhing around him. He had drawn out his everburning torch, and held it before him, driving back the darkness that gathered deep within the remnants of the keep interior. When he emerged from the dust cloud, however, he couldn’t see much more then he had before.

A considerable swath of the castle keep had come down; a forty-foot swath of wall had collapsed inward, taking with it a sizeable portion of the roof. The great hall was now a jumble of rubble, pieces of stone ranging from the size of a wagon down to a man’s fist, tumbled throughout with roof tiles, bits of wood from smashed furniture, and other debris. There was no sign of the Ravager, or of Letellia. Or of anyone else.

“How long?” Mehlaraine asked, drifting down to hover beside him.

“Not long,” Dar returned. And as if to echo his words, there was a faint noise, a subtle vibration that seemed to radiate from the pile of debris. “It’s not safe in here; the rest of this building can come down at any minute. Get above, see to Sultheros and the others.”

The elf woman nodded, and shot up into the sky. Dar followed more slowly, watching and listening. He wanted to go with Mehlaraine, wanted more than anything to go to his wife, but he lingered, knowing what was coming, but needing to see it with his own eyes.

Down in the square below, a scant bowshot distant from the ruins of the castle keep, another scene was developing that was almost as grim. The vast gathering of townsfolk and soldiers had vanished with the end of the ritual that had lured the Ravager here, leaving less than a dozen people remaining. The square that had seemed to crowded just a few moments before seemed almost eerily lonely now, the cluster of individuals collected under the bright light of Maricela’s daylight spell looking almost dismal as they reeled from the aftereffects of the Ravager’s disruptive passage.

“Get those clerics inside that building!” Kiron yelled, grunting with effort as he half-dragged the semiconscious Maricela to the dubious shelter of an empty market stall at the edge of the square. Petronia started to move to help him, but he stopped her. “Help Allera!” he ordered. The knight ran toward the healer, who was kneeling upon the stone tiles, her head bowed as though deep in prayer. She was better off than the clerics, who were all unconscious and unresponsive as his men lifted them in pairs and carried them toward the nearest structure. He looked for Sultheros, and saw the elf archmage still standing, though it looked like his staff was the only thing keeping him upright. The two fighter-mages who had supported him throughout the ritual were moving toward him, but they looked dazed, slipping sideways a step for every two they managed forward.

All of the spell-casters, incapacitated, he thought. He held Maricela’s head carefully as he eased her to the ground, lying her upon a small pile of canvas sacks that had been tossed into a corner of the stall. The priestess groaned, and she was conscious, but her eyes flittered wildly about, and Kiron knew that she wasn’t seeing anything at the moment.

His heart stabbed with concern for her, but he knew that they had bigger problems. He looked up toward the castle. He couldn’t see the keep above the outer wall, but he’d seen and heard the impact, and while he wouldn’t have put coin on another creature surviving such a plummet, he knew that whatever respite they’d gained against the Ravager was only temporary.

Dar was up there, he knew, and others; but the two people most critical to their plan were right in front of him, and in no condition to help right now.

“I’m sorry, love,” he said, letting Maricela go, and thrusting himself to his feet. For that matter, he wasn’t in such good shape himself; his legs resisted his efforts to rise, and his head spun for a moment as he steadied himself against the side of the stall. Part of it was exhaustion, but some part of the backlash from the sundered ritual had likely affected him as well. Fortunately, he’d been less vulnerable to it than the magic-users.

Forcing himself to fight through the lingering mental haze, he hastened over to Petronia. “How is she?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the woman knight said, her jaw clenched with frustration. Kiron could see her resisting the impulse to look up at the fortress atop the bluff; his own eyes kept being drawn there, like iron shavings to a lodestone. But there was nothing he could do about that, now.

“Did you try giving her your draught?” Kiron fumbled with the clasp of his pouch, but Petronia shifted to show him the bottle in her other hand. “Physically, she’s okay, it’s just...”

“Help me up.”

Allera’s command, though delivered in a weak, fluttering voice, nevertheless drew their full attention at once. Kiron came to her other side, opposite Petronia, and met her gaze. He was startled at how weak she looked, and while there was a vagueness in her eyes that mirrored what he’d seen in Maricela just a moment ago, as he watched he could almost see her steadying herself. She reached out, and grabbed his arm. “Help me,” she repeated. “There isn’t much time.”

Kiron nodded at Petronia, and the two of them slowly lifted Allera to her feet. The healer almost swooned, but when Kiron hesitated, she seized his eyes with hers. “Give me a moment. Don’t let me fall down.”

Kiron looked over at Sultheros. The elf hadn’t gone down, but his head was bowed until it almost touched the tip of his black staff. His assistants were speaking to him, but there was no sign that the archmage was hearing them.

“It was not... pleasant,” Allera said, in answer to the question that Kiron did not ask. “We will... recover. But there is nothing that my magic can do... in this instance...” She took a deep breath, but her lips shook as she let it out.

“Water?” Petronia suggested. Allera nodded, and she drank of the small skin that the knight suggested. “Dar... the others?” she asked.

Kiron’s answer was cut off by a noise of crashing stone. All of them save Sultheros and the unconscious priests looked up to see the gatehouse of the castle explode outward in an eruption of wood and stone.

The Ravager emerged through the storm of destruction that it had created. It had transformed itself. Thirty-five feet tall, its new form was a things of nightmares. Its deep crimson hide and black teeth and claws it had retained, only now it had the look of an ape, albeit an ape with an extra pair of arms sprouting from its shoulders. Muscles bulged under its dense hide, and its jaws opened to unleash a roar that shook the buildings around them to their foundations, an echo of the cry it had made when first it had emerged from its prison into the clean air of the world above. Crusted bits of dried tanglefoot mixture still clung to its body, along with patches of gray where shattered bits of stone had clung to it. It strode forward through the wreckage of the gatehouse, and the new gap in the castle wall that ten men could have ridden through abreast.

The Ravager was pissed off, and ready to unleash some destruction.


Well, the story is finished. :D Going to double-post tomorrow, because I have a nice cliffhanger to toss out for Friday. The big finale with the Ravager will play out over the next week and a half, when I hope to wrap everything up.

* * * * *

Chapter 83


Flames erupted around the head of the Ravager.

The half-dragon outsiders flashed by, keeping a good distance, throwing fireballs. The one that had been nearly killed by the Ravager’s bite trailed behind, not fully recovered from its ordeal, but that did not stop it from flinging magic.

The Ravager ignored both of them.

It could not treat Corath Dar with such cavalier disregard, however. The warrior made his presence known with a diving attack that came at the Ravager from behind. Justice flashed in his hand as he slashed at the creature’s skull, but at the last instant it shifted slightly, and instead of carving its left eye as he’d intended, he merely drew a shallow gash in the bony ridge under the socket.

The Ravager snapped at him, but while it failed to catch him with its viciously sharp teeth, one jutting side of its jaw clipped him hard in the side. Flung upward off his trajectory, the fighter hovered in the air, just a moment too long. Even as he started to recover, angling down and away, the Ravager slammed a fist into him with the force of a ram. Dar was knocked flying so hard that when he hit the side of the gatehouse tower, still clinging precariously to the remnant of the castle wall, he went through it, an armored projectile that vanished from view in a tiny plume of pulverized stone.

Lyllalya drifted down on spread rainbow wings, white flashes erupting from her bow as she dropped a steady barrage onto the Ravager. It ignored the attacks much as it had the ineffective fireballs from the draconic war mages, but as it turned back from its devastating punch against Dar, one missile caught it on the edge of one armored nostril, driving a stab of pain into the dim mind of the creature.

Reaching down, the Ravager tore into the remnant of the wall with its huge claws. Its brawler form was less conducive to excavation than its crawler incarnation, but that had not stopped it from burrowing out of the rubble of the keep, nor of demolishing the gatehouse. Its strength proved quite adequate to tearing free a hunk of stone the size of a draft horse, which it hurled at Lyllalya with a massive snap of its muscled arms.

The lillend was fast and agile, but the stone came at her almost as fast as a bolt fired from an arbalest. Lyllalya dove out of its path, but was clipped hard on one wing. She screamed as the missile broke the wing, and was barely able to control the path of her descent as she fluttered down behind the bluff, toward the sluggish-moving river below.

A bright blaze of blue energy stabbed through the pre-dawn gloom, knifing into the Ravager’s chest like a dagger. That got the creature’s attention, and it focused its baleful stare upon the square at the edge of the town below, at the elven mage who stood supported by a black staff that radiated power. Sultheros’s chain lightning had hurt it, but its body was already beginning to repair the damage that the spell had wrought.

Sinking into a half-crouch, the Ravager sprung into the air. The arc of its leap was impossibly high for a creature of its sheer size, but again its sheer strength made such mundane considerations meaningless. For a moment it was just a dark shadow in the air, and then it landed, smashing down through a chandler’s shop with enough force to shatter the sturdy structure of wood and stone into splinters and rubble. Several other buildings nearby collapsed from the concussive impact of its landing, and windows shattered all around the square. A crack appeared in the ground, running out into the square for twenty paces, and flagstones an arm’s span across toppled into it. Those few defenders left on the far side of the square were thrown roughly to the ground.

The Ravager tore through the remains of the chandlery and stepped out into the square, doom burning in its black eyes.
Last edited:


As promised, first of two updates.

* * * * *

Chapter 84


Dar stirred, grimacing as pain tore through the lingering shreds of unconsciousness. He became aware of a sharp odor, and drew his head back, only to bang it hard against the stone wall behind him.

“Take a care,” a calm voice said. “You have an ability to absorb damage that matches few men I have encountered, but even you are mortal, Corath Dar.”

Dar looked up to see Setarcos standing above him. “How long...”

“Just a few seconds. The creature has moved down into the town, but I fear that this tower will collapse at any moment.” The aged monk held out a tiny metal box, which was the source of the stink Dar had detected. “This is a potent stimulant with curative properties, I recommend that you...”

Dar reached out and grabbed the box, downing its contents in a single gulp. A sudden shot of energy seemed to flow into his body, along with fiery tongues of pain that almost made him cry out. Every bone in his body felt like it was broken, but he was able to stand. He realized that the fly spell was still active, and he lifted a few inches off of the ground as he summoned the magic again.

“Can you manage...”

“I will be fine,” Setarcos said. “Fight well, Corath Dar.”

Dar nodded, and shot up toward the gaping hole in the side of the tower ten feet above.

Petronia almost fell again as she staggered to her feet, and started to pick up Allera. On the far side of the healer, Kiron was getting up as well. “We have to get her out of here!” the woman knight exclaimed. “We can’t stand against that thing!”

“We have to,” Kiron said, but his voice betrayed his own feelings, that Petronia’s words were only stating the truth. His hand dropped to the heavy bronze hilt fastened to his bet. “Get her to safety,” he started to say to Petronia, but to his surprise Allera looked up, her eyes clear and determined.

“No, my friend,” she said. “We all stand here.”

There was a flare of light as Sultheros unleashed another spell in the direction of the Ravager. The monster unleashed another cry of rage that was almost defeaning, even coming from a few hundred feet distant. A hulking thing emerged from the rubbled building behind it, a massive earth elemental of pseudonatural origin that rose up and wrapped huge arms around the Ravager. The elemental was nearly as large as its opponent, but the Ravager reached around with its extra arms and pulled the summoned entity off its back as though it were a child. The elemental slammed a fist hard into the Ravager’s chest, the thump of it like the booming of a rockslide. But the Ravager merely took it in its claws and tore it apart, striding forward through the cascading rubble. A pair of scorching rays flared with red fire across its shoulders as one of the half-dragon mages flew over; the Ravager did not even look up.

Kiron had not looked away from the creature since its unholy cry. “What do you need,” he said to Allera, without turning.

“Time. Just a little time,” she said, her voice quiet, yet somehow audible over the din.

Kiron nodded, and took up his sword. “Protect her with your life,” he said to Petronia, and started across the square, toward the Ravager.

A few of the other knights started after him, but Petronia held them with a shout. “Ward your charges!” she said, directing them back to their positions protecting the vulnerable clerics. Maricela, lying in the open stall, had started to stir, but the others remained insensate. “Remember your duty this day!” she yelled, taking her own position at Allera’s side, supporting her as she reached out to her magic. “The Dragon Knights hold the line!”

There was no answering cry, no shout of challenge. In the face of the Ravager, any such declarations would have seemed foolish bravado. Instead, the men and women of Camar held their weapons, and waited for death to come to them.

In the ruined gateway of the castle above, Selanthas cursed as he looked down at the scene above. Fortunately for him, he’d taken his rest in the South Tower, and not in the castle keep. Behind him, Callyse and Setarcos emerged as well, the elf woman helping the old man navigate the last steps of the wrecked staircase leading down from what was left of the gatehouse tower. The elf archer lifted his bow, but then lowered it without firing. Even at this range, he could make the shot easily, but what hope did he have of actually harming the creature? Selanthas was a calm man by temperament, but at the moment he felt like gnashing his teeth in frustration.

Behind them, a noise of movement drew their attention back to the ruined gate. They turned to see a man clad in tattered clothes, sodden with blood, carrying the limp form of Letellia. Selanthas recognized the man as the prisoner that they’d taken at Rappan Athuk, and he started to lift his bow again, before recognizing the futility of it.

“She lives,” Duke Aerim said, and that finally got through to the elf, who reached into his pouch for the potion there before hastening to the aid of the wounded sorceress. She was unconscious, and it took some doing to get the healing draught into her, but it worked quickly, and the woman stirred as it completed its work.

It wasn’t until she started to wake that Selanthas looked up and realized that Aerim was gone.

Seeing Allera recovered and casting, Sultheros joined in the effort to delay the Ravager from reaching them. The elf summoned a wall of force across the square, the spell forming a glowing barrier some thirty feet high and nearly fifty feet across. The Ravager slammed a fist into the wall, but did not waste time pounding uselessly upon it; instead it started moving around it. The end nearer the creature culminated in front of an inn, a centuries-old two story structure with a high stone foundation. To the Ravager, this proved barely an obstacle as it came around Sultheros’s wall and tore through the front of the inn, ripping off the entire second story as it passed. Denied its rich feast of life by the trick played on it via the vanishing population of Highbluff, it seemed intent now on at least slaking its thirst on the magic used by these few remaining foes. It was focused on Sultheros, but as it drew nearer its black stare shifted to Allera, who had turned away from it, and who seemed utterly unaware of her surroundings as she closed her eyes and lifted her arms. To the Ravager, she glowed with a brightness that far outshadowed the globe of daylight, and it eagerly looked forward to consuming that glow, to ebb at least for a moment the ravenous hunger that drove its existence.

Thus focused, it completely ignored Kiron, at least until the knight, who narrowly avoided getting trampled beneath its ground-shattering stride, drove the epic sword given to him by Amurru through the monster’s right heel, slicing through its flesh all the way to the bone.

The Ravager screamed in real pain. It lurched to the side, falling against a leatherworker’s shop next to the inn it had destroyed. Its weight collapsed the building, and two of its four arms vanished inside the structure as it leaned precariously over.

Kiron pressed his attack, but before he could draw near enough to strike again, the Ravager lashed out with a left arm, seizing the knight in its huge paw, crushing him as it made a fist. Kiron struggled in vain against that steel grip, while the monster righted itself, leaving another structure in wreckage behind it. Already the wound at its ankle had stopped oozing fluid, although the gash still gleamed wetly as it slowly knit itself shut.

More spells splashed across the monster’s back, but the creature paid them no heed. Mehlaraine shot in, trying to help free the knight, but the Ravager merely swatted her almost casually with claw before she could draw close enough to strike with her spear. The elf warrior’s momentum was abruptly reversed, and she finally slammed into a roof some two blocks distant, dazed and bleeding, both of her arms broken and dislocated from their sockets.

Maricela, staggering out of the stall where she’d laid unconscious, screamed as the Ravager lifted Kiron in its fist, and bit off his head and a good-sized chunk of his body. His right arm, still holding his sword, went flying through the air, landing in the square in a bloody mess just behind the creature. Opening its fist, it thrust the rest of Kiron into its maw, swallowing the remains in a greedy gulp. Its meal seemed to fortify it, and when it stepped forward, its damaged leg withstood its weight without difficulty.

That distraction resolved, the Ravager started forward again, toward Allera and the others.


Chapter 85


Maricela’s agonized scream echoed across the square, and became words of power, an invocation that sent a raging flame strike down upon the Ravager. If sheer grief and hatred could have empowered the spell, it would have reduced even that monstrosity to a cinder; as it was, it scorched the dense hide covering its shoulders and the back of its head, but did little else.

Sultheros stepped forward, and raised his staff. At the call of the eldritch magic within the artifact, another elemental rose from the ground in the middle of the square, a massive thing of the deep earth, its body covered in the displaced flagstones like blotches on its skin. This one was greater than the pseudonatural monster that Dra Mak Mor had conjured earlier; it stood taller than even the Ravager, and the ground shook as it stepped forward, sixty thousand pounds of earth gathered into ambulatory form.

The Ravager was not interested in it, but it could not easily get around the thing, so it went through it.

The two titans collided in a violent clash. For a moment it looked as though the Ravager might actually lose the initial contact, as the elder elemental smote it across the side of its head with a massive fist. But the Ravager merely lunged and dug its claws into the elemental’s body, then pulled it into a close embrace. The elemental was too big for the Ravager’s jaws to seize hold of it, but it still managed to tear free a considerable chunk of its squat head. Clods as big as boulders fell from its body as its claws dug deeper, tearing big rents in the elemental’s body.

Allera was unaware of the battle raging a stone’s throw behind her. Fighting through the disorientation and pain that had followed the collapse of their spell-weaving, she had reached out again for the full power of her healing magic. Exhausted as she was by the lengthy ritual, grasping the power was more like trying to get hold of a rushing river than the usual soft, welcoming flood that she was used to. But grasp it she did, and as she surrendered herself to that flow, she once more reached deep inside herself and parted the barrier that separated worlds.

Another gate opened, but unlike the dramatic portals she’d opened in their last clash with the Ravager, this one seemed almost muted, a doorway opening with a white glow, its brightness overshone by the continuing radiance of Maricela’s daylight spell. The whiteness grew, until an opening the size of a barn door hovered before her, a few inches above the ground. A shadow appeared within that luminosity, a vague shape that took on humanoid form as it approached its threshold.

Allera felt the cost of holding the gate like a knife rubbing against the boundaries of her consciousness, but she forced herself to ignore it. She paid the price, maintaining the portal until the other could reach her.

He stepped through. Clad in a flowing robe, he bore only a large shield, a slab of metal the size of a serving board, covered with a simple drape of pure white cloth. An ageless wisdom shone in his eyes, and something else—peace.

That did not stop him from looking over Allera’s shoulder and taking in the decidedly unpeaceful scene resolving in the open space of the square behind her. The newcomer shook his head.

“You two just can’t manage to stay out of trouble, can you?” Licinius Varo asked.


Thanks for all the posts! Thought you'd enjoy that twist. I actually didn't plan for it to happen (at least not when I wrote my original outline), just sort of happened when I was writing this section.

Here we go...

* * * * *

Chapter 86


The elder earth elemental that Sultheros had summoned came apart in an explosion of dirt and stone that scattered across the width and breadth of the square. The Ravager stormed through the remnants as they scattered on the morning breeze.

“Well. Let’s get its attention, shall we?” Varo said, summoning a firestorm that rose up in brilliant white sheets from the ground around the Ravager.

The Ravager roared in fury and stepped through the flames, the scorch marks covering its legs and flanks already starting to fade as it picked up speed. Its size was such that less than ten strides separated it from Varo and the others. Sultheros raised his staff, and Allera lifted her hands, limned with a soft blue glow, but Varo gestured for them to hold as he stepped between them.

“Get back,” he said. “Remain behind me.”

The elf shared a glance with the healer, who said, “Do as he says! Fall back!” The others did as bid, although they could barely keep their feet with the ground shaking under the Ravager’s tread. Eight strides, seven, six, the monster looming over them like a tidal wave.

Varo lifted his shield, and drew back the white sheet.

“Witness truth,” he said to it.

The Ravager looked upon the rune scribed upon the shield.

The monster roared again, lifting its head. It lost its stride and staggered to the left, but its momentum kept it going, through the square, into the buildings beyond. Heedless of what it was doing, it clipped Varo with one foot, knocking the cleric back twenty feet to land hard against an overturned wagon. The heavy shield was torn free, and skittered wildly across the square. The others were able to get out of its way, but Allera fell to the ground as it passed, and Sutheros quite nearly joined her. Only sheer luck kept it from crushing the building holding the incapacitated clerics and their knight guardians, although one corner collapsed, and the warehouse beside it was completely devastated. It kept on going, through a second building into the street beyond, and then through a pair of small houses beyond that. Only then did its charge start to abate, but the incredible noise of its cries continued. It started lashing about with its arms, the claws taking off nearby roofs as though they made of straw.

Dar flew down from above, as Allera ran over to where Varo, grimacing, was starting to get up. He landed beside them, shaking his head at the swath of destruction left by the creature. He looked even more surprised to see Varo, but he recovered quickly. “What did you do?” he yelled.

Varo’s expression remained calm. “I drove it insane.” As if to punctuate his words, the top of a chimney landed in the square about ten paces away, spattering them with pieces of broken bricks. The Ravager roared again.

“You... what? Are you mad, priest? What can we possibly hope to gain...”

“It will no longer be able to act in a coordinated manner, nor will be able to escape you for a second time. If you act quickly; the spell is permanent, but I suspect that the creature’s innate powers will allow it to shake off the effect in time. In very little time, perhaps.”

Dar stepped forward, and for a moment it looked as though he would seize the priest. With his white robes torn and mussed, he no longer looked like a celestial emissary, but again a mere man. At least until one got a good look at his face, and his eyes.

Allera grabbed Dar’s arm to forestall him. “How do we kill it, Varo? We’ve been able to damage it, but it regenerates far too quickly.”

“And if you say that we need to have faith, I swear I’ll feed you to it myself!” Dar growled.

Varo looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Can you summon the Host once more?” he asked Allera.

The healer shook her head. “No. Fueling the ritual drained most of my powers. I could barely manage that one gate; I had thought to bring the solar once more...”

“Yes. And you ended up with me, I’m afraid.”

“Can’t you do a gate of your own?” Dar asked. “I remember before...”

“I am afraid I cannot,” Varo said, cutting him off. “My writ here is more circumscribed than before. As an agent for outside forces, my abilities are limited by the Compact.”

“What the hell then are you...”

Dar was interrupted by a loud noise from several streets over; more buildings coming down. Above them, their allies continued their magical attacks against the Ravager, but from what they’d been able to do thus far, it was doubtful that they could do more than slow its rate of regeneration.

Letellia drifted down from above, accompanied by Lyllalya, who looked pale despite the magical healing that had restored her broken wing. Sultheros stepped forward to join them. “I am surprised to see you here,” Letellia said to Varo.

“Likewise,” Varo said.

“This situation is untenable,” the sorceress said. “Dra Mak Mor and Koros are keeping it busy, but they can’t really hurt it. Our spellpower is depleted, and the thing has gone through the best we could dish out with barely a scratch.”

“Varo has messed up its mind,” Dar said. “But we don’t have any way of knowing how long it will be affected.”

Letellia nodded. “We can remain out of its reach, but I doubt that our magical firepower alone will be enough to overcome its regenerative abilities.”

“Bring it back here,” Varo said. As everyone turned to face him, he said, “Between those buildings, there,” indicating the main street that fed the square.

“What trick do you have up your sleeve?” Dar asked.

Varo shook his head. “Nothing you haven’t seen before, Dar. We can only pray to the gods that it is enough.”

“Why were you sent back here?”

“Because I am a part of this world as well, Dar. Even now.”

Allera stepped between them. “We don’t have any time.”

Dar nodded, without turning from Varo’s gaze. “Do it,” he said. Sultheros nodded, and lifting his staff, he uttered a spell and rose into the air. His attendants followed behind him, their cloaks fluttering out behind them as their fly spells lifted them above the wreckage of the square. Letellia and Lyllalya followed behind them. Dar lingered just a moment longer. “Stay in cover,” he said to Allera. “If there’s nothing you can do, don’t try to be a hero.”

“I cannot hide from it; it senses my power, I believe,” she said. She touched Dar’s arm, and said, “We all have to do what we can.” Healing power flowed from her, easing the fighter’s wounds. It was a trickle compared to the power she typically wielded, but he touched her face, and smiled as she met his eyes.

Dar stepped back and lifted back into the air, following after the spellcasters toward the noise of the mad Ravager’s passage through Highbluff.

“What can I do?” Petronia asked.

“Let’s see what we can do for the other clerics... wait, where’s Maricela?”

They looked around, but the priestess was no longer anywhere within the square.

Flying high above, Talen and Shay floated on invisible threads of magic. “Interesting,” Talen said. “I didn’t expect to see him again.” Below, they watched the Ravager rampaging through the town, driven to madness by Varo’s spell.

“Do we intervene?” Shay asked.

Talen shook his head. “Let’s see what they do first.”

Shay glanced back at the horizon to the east, which was steadily brightening now with the light of the coming dawn. “You do see that, right?”

Talen nodded. “This will be settled, one way or another, very quickly. And then we will need to decide for ourselves what has to be done.”


Chapter 87


The Ravager, beset by madness, was taking out its frustrations upon the empty town of Highbluff. But as it wrought destruction through a swath of ruined buildings, torn up streets, and cluttered rubble, it wound its way back toward the square facing the citadel, where it had first entered High Bluff.

Those flying above were doing their best to abet this course, but it was the Ravager itself that set it, for even through the haze that Licinius Varo had laid over its senses, the creature still craved the life energies of those defenders who had taken shelter there. Allera’s presence it could still taste like a predator scenting a hint of roasted meat on the wind, and now the presence of Varo offered something more, another lure to drag it on.

And something else as well, something not quite distinct, something... familiar.

Lightning and fire engulfed the Ravager, driving it into a rage, but it could not counter the attacks from below. Normally canny enough to adjust its tactics to meet such challenges, in its current state the creature could neither seek another transformation nor create and hurl missiles at those above as it had against Lyllalya earlier. Instead it lunged at its foes, leaping high enough so that it seemed it must catch even those flying high above, before gravity inevitably dragged it back down, usually destroying another building or two as it landed.

Those above were able to inflict damage, but it seemed that nothing could hurt it enough to overcome its incredible stamina and regenerative powers. Dra Mak Mor flew over it on his little carpet after one failed leap had left it lying on its back in the wreckage of an inn. He drew out a small object from within his robes and dropped it, muttering a word of command as it trailed away from him. As it fell it grew, the shrink item spell unraveling to reveal the item as a bulging barrel, gaining speed as it fell, finally exploding as it struck the Ravager squarely upon the chest. Its contents were revealed as a cascade of fine material sprang up in a plume. It glittered in the predawn light, hanging in the air for a moment, but fell back to earth too quickly to be mere dust. It covered the Ravager’s body and much of the rubble around it in a fine layer of sparkling material.

“Look away,” Letellia warned Sultheros and his coterie, flying next to her.

The half-dragon war mage Koros flew past and hit the Ravager with a fireball from his wand. The spell itself lacked the power to harm the Ravager through its considerable resistances, and in fact the tongues of flame died out even as they touched its flesh. But the heat of the spell was more than sufficient to ignite the metallic powder that the alienist had dropped.

Night became day as a blazing plume of brilliant white flame obscured the Ravager, the inn, and everything around them. For long seconds none of them could see anything, and they had to avert their eyes from the intensity of the display. They could hear the creature’s noises of pain, but when they could look again, they saw its form, outlined in the white fire that still enveloped it, rising up once more.

“Stubborn bastard,” Letellia observed, hitting it with another chain lightning that vanished into the glow. She knew better than to try to disintegrate it; the thing’s fortitude was insane, and she may as well have tried to vaporize the Great Cathedral in Camar. Beside her, Sultheros hit it with a spell of his own. His bolt failed, sizzling into nothing against its resistances. The elf bit off a curse, but like Letellia knew that its protection against magic was sporadic and almost random; they just had to keep hitting it.

The burning white flare faded as the Ravager stormed forward, still trailing bits of flame. The inn remained a pyre, and several of the buildings nearby had already started to catch. One way or another, it looked like Highbluff was not going to survive its encounter with the Ravager. But with much more at stake, those fighting here held nothing back.

Dar flew low over the Ravager, careful not to come close enough to risk a grapple. He knew better than to attempt an attack now, especially with his allies firing off area spells left and right. He felt the thrum of power from Justice, and knew that he could hurt it, if infinitesimally. But likewise it could hurt him, and it was pretty obvious who would win in that exchange.

Still, as the creature approached the square once more, his hand tightened on the hilt of his weapon.

Varo had set up a whirling blade barrier across the entrance to the square. But as the Ravager entered the intersection that joined that street, another figure stepped out of the shadows between two of the buildings that fronted it. As she lifted her mace, divine light shone from it.

“Face the judgment of Soleus, beast!” Maricela cried, invoking a righteous might spell. As she grew in size the Ravager turned to face her.

“Maricela, no!” Dar yelled, but the cleric paid him no heed, stepping forward to face the creature that had killed her beloved.

An Advertisement