Reaping in Kale

Part Four

By R. Krommydas

THIRD PART

angel by PoseMuse, public domain

The four adventurers, and their infant ward, ended up staying at the Marquis` residence for another three days before Arlgand and Brokk jointly declared Aidan fit enough (and safe enough, for others) to make the journey to Kale City, for the message that had come on the night they had arrived via teleportation circle had specifically requested that both Gareth and Aidan pay a certain party a visit.

None of his friends had commented on the strangeness of this prescient invitation, which had worried Aidan only a little. Having found themselves in a truly secure environment for the first time in months, they had distracted themselves with all manner of diversions. Brokk was particularly busy with his study of the sigil sequences that Burcan the White had gifted them, whilst Embla was mostly nursing the baby or working with Tybalt in the armoury. Isolde had all but disappeared from public view, except for meals and copious amounts of tea.

Aidan himself had been given the eminently reasonable explanation that: "You start making a mark on the world, some people get to looking you up for all sorts of reasons. Whole reason me and mine were at Bael was because we knew you would be passing it and, aside from your very influential friend Burcan, others wanted us to meet and safeguard you whilst in Kale. One of those wants to meet you, specifically, I don`t know why exactly, as soon as possible."

Now, as Aidan watched Gareth supervise the loading of the carriage, an over-encumbered page-boy struggling to install Aidan`s great warhammer into the relatively limited space of the interior, he was keenly aware of how he had acted over the last few weeks. His paranoia in particular stood out, and some of the thoughts he had had, especially about Embla, made his heart ache to recall. He would need to make restitution for that and other evil feelings on his return. There was also another, louder, slightly terrifying, individual to meet with after this journey.

"We will have a full discussion when you return, as you promised!" Malevoxa reminded him yet again. "About your past, your friends` histories. How you came to know the Dark Speech, battle Afej in his own lair, even survive! I need your tongue to deliver the secrets to me!"

"And of course you don`t want his tongue for anything else," the page-boy unwisely started to jest, before shutting up too late.

Malevoxa subjected the page-boy to a wrathful stare. Gareth winced to see that look, but from long experience knew better than to say anything about it. A small part of him thought it might even do the lad some good, or at least teach him to control his impulses to speak a bit better. There was a time and place for every comment, and most of the more astute ones tended to require a degree of privacy.

As the pair climbed into the carriage, Aidan caught a final glimpse of Malevoxa turning on the unfortunate page-boy and lashing him liberally with her infamously caustic tongue. The paladin resolved to speak with her about more than just his knowledge of the Dark Speech when he returned, because that sort of behaviour was simply unacceptable.

"You have quite the collection of strange allies," he commented to Gareth. "Some stranger than others. The tiefling, Tybalt, for one. Though I must confess, he pales in comparison to Malevoxa. To those with an interest in the performing arts, she is known across the civilised world. Still, from what I have seen so far, I have no doubt that all your names will be sung far and wide in the days to come."

"Tybalt is already the most famous of us all," Gareth said, a little sadly. "But it`s not for any of the good deeds he`s done. I don`t know how far the word spread...did you ever hear of the man they called the Horned Khan?"

Aidan blanched. "That wasn`t just a story from the Wild Lands? Please tell me it`s just exaggerated truth. Oh no. Don`t wear that expression. That`s never a good expression. How...how bad was it really then?"

♢♢♢♢♢

FIFTH INTERLUDE

"How...how bad is it really then?" Gareth asked nervously, lapsing into a highly informal pattern of Kalais that was horrendously inappropriate for his current environment. "If I`m going out there, you`ll tell me just what I`m dealing with, right? The last cambion to show his ugly mug in the world nearly reclaimed Kelerak for the East. I hate to say it and sound all unpatriotic, but we`re in much worse shape than they were."

King Milon Dukalle, less than resplendent in full military garb and glowering at anybody who came close, chose to overlook the personal address being given him by the young man before him. The newly enfeoffed Marquis du Rentes was technically born of nobility, but his familial estates were practically worthless these days, to say nothing of their coffers. Under normal circumstances, even having this former outlaw in the palace would be grounds to execute him on general principle. However, mitigating events had taken place involving vampires and stakes and his royal personage, and the king was inclined to mercy.

"The cambion is dead, Marquis," King Dukalle explained. "Unfortunately, she was extremely prolific and is entirely responsible for the rise in reported tiefling numbers in the Wild Lands. Every time she spat another one out, she would give it to one of the vagrant tribes to raise. There is no government out there and the few true townships that remain of our attempts to settle it can do nothing. One of her brood grew unfond of her. After he displayed her severed head on his horns, the rest of his kin were quick to bend the knee and proclaim him their Horned Khan."

He motioned Gareth over to a great desk on which a remarkably detailed map of the Kalais border had been spread. One small area near the tip of the Bay of Parting, at the mouth of a river bearing an unpronounceable elven name, was highlighted and bore a question mark notation: ?Hidden Elfport, Laithostar?

"The Belendale has granted extremely limited passage for this mission," the king said. "You will not be staying at Laithostar, nor even entering its vicinity, but as it is the next likely target after your actual destination, they are willing to make certain concessions in the interests of its safety. They have sent a ship to carry you across the Bay of Parting in complete safety to Covak on the west shore. You will be able to make the crossing in a matter of days rather than weeks."

"It is Covak that concerns us. I have inherited a situation there from my predecessor. A burgomaster, Tancred Veredi, installed there with the intent to begin the annexation and taming of the Wild Lands. He has since proven himself more akin to a servants of Sin than of Kale, but his distance forbore the expense needed to oust him. This matters, Marquis, because Covak will be attacked by the Horned Khan at the midsummer festival next month. The tiefling warlord, it seems, wants people to know that he is coming. He sent a letter!"

Gareth frowned at the map, trying to work out a way of escaping this obvious suicide mission. He was completely without allies, both at home and at court, and doubtless one of his more subtle detractors had persuaded the king to send him off to die like this. For all his boasting, he knew full well that he was a relatively ordinary man in a world that delighted in chewing up such folk, slowly and painfully, and then sometimes healing them up so that the torture could begin anew.

Exactly how was he supposed to stop a small army of tieflings on the warpath, led by someone whose idea of calling out their mother for giving them abandonment issues was to cut off their head and show it to people? He would have run in the other direction even if he had a dozen of each of his former friends still around to help. Gareth had a good mind to tell the king exactly what he could do with this situation.

"Are you hoping that I can somehow assassinate this Horned Khan?" he asked instead. "I know I`m a ridiculously good archer, but there are limits to how many fiend-spawned berserkers I can cut down by myself."

"You will find a solution, loyal and obedient subject of Kale," the king stated dangerously. "Because if you do not, it will only be a matter of time before the tieflings or some other lethal threat, far closer to home, will find you anyway."

♢♢♢♢♢

Gareth thought he had never met quite so vile a man as Burgomaster Veredi. Some of it was perhaps a hideous mirror of another path that Gareth himself might have gone down. Sure, Gareth enjoyed the company of women a little more than was perhaps appropriate-- especially if they were unhappily married-- and rarely passed up an opportunity to dice and drink with the common folk, despite his higher station; but he always tempered his actions with a genuine respect for those he chose to spend time with.

After barely an hour in the company of Tancred Veredi, Gareth witnessed him at his best, which was also his worst. He heard Veredi issue several orders-- not polite suggestions or mere lewd jokes-- to the local womenfolk regarding his bed that evening, and casually instruct his thugs to pull some random people into the town square to be beaten just in case anyone was thinking of changing how Covak was run. He watched as Veredi personally broke the legs of an emaciated man caught trying to steal food from Veredi`s cellars, pleading starvation.

The abominable man had essentially set himself up as an independent Hoth, and delighted in his petty tyrannies. Gareth wanted nothing more than to kill the brute himself, but this thought had been stamped on his face all too clearly. Almost as soon as he disembarked the elven ship, he had been seized and strip-searched-- and damn any kind of privacy or due process-- and left completely unarmed.

Veredi had not dismissed the reports of any threat from the tieflings on the way to his town. He had, however, forced everyone in Covak to be gathered in the square. They would be used, as he gleefully explained to Gareth, to slake whatever hunger the tieflings had-- "And you will be among them, marquis or no, if you dare to complain!" and then his men would deal with any that still wanted more. Afterwards, Gareth could carry word back to Kale that nobody, not even King Milon Dukalle, had more authority or influence here than Tancred Veredi!

That was how Gareth now found himself, functionally helpless, surrounded by the most commonplace kind of bully and despot, frantically trying to think up a way to survive the impeding massacre. For the tieflings, led by their Horned Khan, had indeed come to Covak on the promised day. Even one of them looked willing to kill an entire garrison of city guards, and their leader, bearing a pair of horrific runed axes and clad entirely in black plate mail that somehow only accentuated his immense size and stature, looked able to do so.

The tieflings marched with almost military precision straight into the square, ignoring the ring of civilians being herded into place around them. One of them, smaller than most, but with an intelligence to match any greater fiend`s shining from its eyes, stepped forward from the rest.

"We, the Unloved Children, have graced you with our presence," the herald announced in a booming, yet decidedly feminine voice. "You know we have killed many, and razed their hovels to the ground. Today this fate shall befall you also. UNLESS!"

Everyone`s attention was captured by that word. The herald of the Horned Khan practiced her craft, practiced her art, well. She whirled, commanding all eyes to fall upon her and pay full heed to her words. No court herald from Kale to Farland could have done it better. When she was sure that every scrap of focus was on her, she continued.

"Unless there is one among you who can best the Horned Khan! Come and test yourselves, if you have courage. If you lack that, then we will grant you the mercy of a quick slaughtering, as with any other sheep or cattle. For without the will to fight for survival, that is all you can ever be. So? Will nobody step forth to challenge our lord? Surely there is one of worth and skill among you!"

Speed was something Gareth had always prided himself on having. Speed when running away from danger. Speed when nocking and loosing arrows at danger he couldn`t run from. Speed of seduction, though never consummation if he could help it. Speed of thought.

"This is exactly the sort of man you`re after!" he shouted out, pointing straight at Burgomaster Veredi.

The Horned Khan turned his head to face Gareth, then followed the direction of his finger. With ceremonial stiffness, he raised his axes up in salute. The runes on them began to glimmer redly, with an evil light. They had belonged to his cambion mother, and had passed to him when he wrested them from her grasp and cut off her head with them. Now they sought new and worthy prey, and this thoughtful human had shown him exactly where that prey was.

♢♢♢♢♢

Even here, there was no credit that could be given to Tancred Veredi. He screamed in horror at being singled out and tried to dive behind his thugs, but the Horned Khan had him fixed in his sights, and Veredi`s men dived aside to avoid being run down by the charging tiefling warlord.

Veredi found himself staring at an armored horror from the worst nightmares of paladins and fiend-hunters. He brought up his mace to defend himself, its head still bloody from the hobbling it had been used to inflict earlier, and the first axe to meet it simply broke the ceremonial weapon into shards. The second swept the remaining piece from Veredi`s hands. The burgomaster yelped in fear and tried to dodge away again.

The Horned Khan responded to this attempt by bringing up one of his knees, slamming the serrated tip of the greave into the man`s crotch. Blood sprayed and Veredi collapsed, letting out a scream of unsurpassable agony. A curious murmur ran through the watching crowd.

"Hit him again!" one of the women whooped excitedly, before slapping her hands to her mouth, horrified that she`d drawn any kind of attention to herself, but then the cry was taken up by another: "Yes, hit him again, break him like kindling!"

The Horned Khan paused in his onslaught, looking around him in obvious confusion. With something approaching hesitation, he balled up his gauntleted fist and punched Veredi in the man`s bulging gut, driving the wind from his lungs and sending him flying, crumpled and wheezing, through the air to land in the dirt. This time, there could no denying the delighted cries that rose from the crowd.

Veredi managed to gargle an order at his men, but even as they drew weapons and moved to punish the ones cheering, the Horned Khan thundered a single commanding roar, wordless but clear. His tieflings promptly turned on Veredi`s thugs, savaging them perhaps unnecessarily slowly to death, and the air shook with the bloodthirsty vindication of Covak`s oppressed citizenry.

The Horned Khan looked down at his fist, at the blood dripping there, then over to Veredi`s twisted shape, and finally over to the exulting townsfolk around him. It took him several seconds to finish making the connection. Then he put down his other axe, walked over to Veredi, and picked the man up by the throat. Experimentally, the tiefling head-butted the vile burgomaster in the face. As he did so, splitting nose and lips into a bloody mess, the cheering grew louder, and full understanding came to him.

So Gareth watched, nauseated but unable to look away, as the tieflings tore Veredi and his men to rags. He flinched as the townsfolk of Covak pressed in on the tieflings and raised them up on their shoulders, expecting more death. He breathed in relief as the tieflings instead seemed bewildered by this, even scared of the overwhelming positive attention. He laughed reflexively at the incongruous sight of the commanding herald trapped in an admiring huddle of young girls who had clearly found their new heroine.

Then, experiencing a flash of his customary genius, he slipped through the masses to stand by the Horned Khan. The warlord had removed his helm so as to see the celebrations more clearly, and was visibly confused about it all. Gareth could tell that this was the first time the tieflings had ever been treated kindly. Now was the perfect time to complete both his mission and the salvation of Covak.

"You did more than just fight masterfully," Gareth spoke softly, sincerely. "You liberated these people from an evil no less foul than... well, than your mother. All the happiness and the joy they have from this day on, they will have because of you. This was a truly heroic deed, and I know a thing or two about heroism, let me tell you!"

"Yes!" exclaimed the Horned Khan, a strangely child-like expression of longing on his face. "Tell me. I want to know. All of it, everything. Please?"

♢♢♢♢♢

Aidan and Gareth`s journey to Kale City was punctuated by similar stories to this, of individuals who had been in just the right place at the right time to effect some significant change for the better. Some were shared knowledge, in particular of that band of heroes known as the Lords of the West, who helmed the reclamation of the three Liberated Kingdoms. The majority were more personal tales however, of the less famed agents of the light who were no less important in the grand scheme of things, but who were often no more than footnotes in the histories.

As the exchange went on, Aidan began to notice a distinct theme to those of Gareth`s telling-- aside from the obvious repeating message of his own magnificence when those stories were about his own deeds-- and he wondered at the strangeness of this fairly nonreligious man making reference to celestial intervention or inspiration providing critical aid.

He did not end up asking Gareth about this until they were nearly at the gates of Kale City, however, and even then, the answer was one he had almost expected: "Hmmm, I could explain, but I don`t want to, really. If I`ve got mysterious benefactor issues to work through here, then I`m going to make sure you do too whilst you`re with me."

So Aidan kept his quiet and tried not to think too much of it. He was unsurprised when the carriage passed into the very heart of the city, not only unchallenged by the guards, but with every gate and bulwark opened to it in readiness. The actual position of marquis was not exactly one of the highest in the land, but clearly Gareth himself commanded significant respect despite his ostensibly low position.

What did surprise Aidan was the irritated mumbling that occasionally slipped out of Gareth, more and more frequently, as they neared their destination. Perhaps the man`s joke about having issues with his benefactor was not exactly a joke. With the palace looming up before them, perhaps Gareth`s problem lay in the royal court. For a very minor noble to hold such influence, enemies among the higher nobility would doubtless be more plentiful than his allies.

"All right, this`ll do, as it always does," Gareth called out to the driver. "We walk from here. Pretend like we`ve got somewhere to be that other people want to as well."

When it stopped, Aidan alighted from the carriage and looked around him in confusion. The church was not new, but its stone still bore the scars of the trappings of the Darkest God, now replaced with the purer iconography of Aidan`s own god, Heshtail the Merciful. Its cemetery was vast and overgrown, yet the great dead boughs of an ancient yew tree rose up high above the hedges and pond reeds of this resanctified place. The image struck Aidan as especially peculiar, though he could not say precisely why.

"Follow me please," grumbled Gareth, his mood clearly on the decline. "We`ve got to say hello to someone first, then start a long and depressing walk. Maybe with you around something will change, but I doubt it."

Aidan complied, his curiosity now fully aroused. The pair headed into the cemetery, pushing their way through the vegetation until at last they stood beneath the withered yew. Aidan shivered as he looked up at the dead tree, gripped by the uncanny feeling of being watched by something that could turn hostile at any moment, for no good reason.

"One of your stories was about a druid perpetually reincarnated to fight an ancient enemy," Gareth said suddenly. "Strange folk, druids. The ones that make a habit of turning into other things are the worst. Still... this old man here had his good days and I can`t really blame him for wanting to deal with what he himself made without involving the rest of us."

Then, more loudly, he called: "Maurice! Wake up and shift your roots, bark-face. This is Aidan of Zel. He was invited by the Exiled."

The earth shook slightly under their feet, and Aidan`s mouth dropped open as the dead yew moved, twisting itself in a way that made a section of whorled knots on its barks seem like sunken eyes inspecting the paladin, before the roots slowly pulled themselves free of the ground to reveal a crude tunnel and staircase leading deep below the ground. A blast of noxious air rushed out from the tunnel, carrying with it the suggestion of howls and screams.

"That was unnecessarily dramatic, you old show off," Gareth muttered. "Now how about some light?"

A branch dropped to the ground in front of him, its broken end dripping with a gelatinous ooze that was clearly no sap of any normal tree. Gareth lightly smacked it against a nearby stone, the impact igniting the ooze at once. Then, beckoning to Aidan to follow, he calmly set off down the stairs. The paladin, trying to take strength from the fact that this place was now devoted to Heshtail once more, followed in uncomfortable silence. After he passed through, the roots lowered themselves once more, sealing the way shut, as if it never was.

♢♢♢♢♢

Back at the estate, there was significantly less in the way of silence, as Isolde had just discovered for herself how eager Tybalt was for praise and good cheer. To this end, she immediately deemed it necessary to teach the tiefling everything she knew about gambling and gaming of all sorts, and demanded appropriate refreshments to accompany the lessons. This had been the beginning of the chaos.

Hamling had agreed this was important and quickly rolled in a large amphora of elven design. A few minutes after the powerful wine was shared out, Arlgand had stormed in, demanding to know who had thought stealing from him was a good idea. Already slightly tipsy due to the strength of the vintage and their small bodies, the halflings gleefully pointed at each other, and the priest scowled to see how much had been lost to their appetites already.

"Do you heathens not understand what it is you are quaffing with such merry abandon?" he cried out, mortified. "That is sacramental wine from the holy groves of the Summervale. It may only be used for blessings!"

Hamling had considered this carefully. "Gods bless you, elf!" he cheered, and promptly downed the rest of his flagon. Isolde hiccupped delightedly at the witticism, filled hers back up again, and together they began to bless everything they could see, down to individual pieces of cutlery.

Had it only been the two hositan, Arlgand might well have tried to discipline them as thieving children. Unfortunately for him, the rest of the estate`s heroes were also partaking and becoming quite merry themselves, with the sole exception of Embla-- who, while present and looking distinctly amused by the whole thing, pleaded excusal on the grounds of needing to feed the baby later.

Most of Embla`s amusement clearly stemmed from Tybalt slurring at her as tried to memorize rules for a variety of card games popular in Zeland and Orland. Having learned them all on Isolde`s first recital, she had been quite content to use her prodigious memory to support his own. Malevoxa, lacking Aidan to interrogate, had finally acquiesced to talk to Brokk, though the pair were not so much talking as arguing furiously over the respective merits of their magic.

That had been over two hours earlier, and Arlgand eventually found himself grudgingly joining in the fun. By this time Isolde had begun to teach Tybalt in earnest and the deepening evening found the raucous group cheering on the tiefling with genuine awe as he picked up the lessons ever more swiftly. Then someone had suggested an actual game to test all their skill and luck.

Several rounds later, of both drink and cards, and with a triumphant flourish, Isolde slammed her hand down, face up, revealing a very impressive matched-suit trio that nobody could withstand. One by one the others folded their cards in submission, knowing that they could not beat that. Only Tybalt was left, scratching his head in thought, and checking his hand carefully.

"I was doing a bluff," he admitted. "I only have two pair."

Slowly, he put his own cards down. Then he flipped them over to a chorus of gasps. Isolde blinked, then leaned in, as if the cards would manifest differently if she took a closer look at them. She rubbed her eyes in confusion.

"Oh," she murmured, working it out in her head. "You meant you had a run of four. Two pairs of the same. Oh, again. That...beats everything. You win. I lose."

"You only lost because you cheated," Tybalt said in a gracious tone. "I couldn`t win in a fair game."

"Hang on a minute!" a very confused Arlgand exclaimed. "How do you know she was cheating?"

Only now did Tybalt smile widely, even smugly. "That wasn`t the hand I dealt her. 'Sides, think I got my cards fair either?"

Most stared at the tiefling in shock, but Isolde just sat back in her chair, the silliest and proudest of grins on her face. "Oh I did teach you well. Skill and cunning both in ample measure. Not just a pretty face after all. Either of us! Bunga bless you, tiefling, and Bucca bless me too. Beat at my own game. I love it! I want a rematch when we`re both sober though. Ah, this has been a good evening. Shame the others aren`t here, though, come to think of it, Aidan would probably find something to disapprove of. Wonder what he`s doing now?"

♢♢♢♢♢

Aidan, at that moment, was long past starting to think he was in the company of an actual madman, though there was certainly ample justification for insanity. The tunnel had swiftly led into what appeared to be a network of ancient catacombs, but unlike any that Aidan had ever been in before.

The first hint as to the otherwordly nature of this place was the door that suddenly slammed open, but it was a door in the ceiling, not the walls. A faint illumination shone through it, but when Aidan looked up, the light was coming from no apparent source in the endless darkness beyond. Gareth had let out a surprised chuckle at this, and his foul-tempered trudging pace immediately picked up.

Hideous skittering creatures barred their path next, in body like some unholy cross between dog and insect, but gave buzzing shrieks like owls swarmed by angry hornets. Aidan`s stomach twisted, threatening to empty itself of his sparse journey`s luncheon, but when faced with the repulsive horde, Gareth actually cried out in excitement. The abominations paused their cacophony, confused by this, and Gareth began to whistle cheerfully as he advanced on them fearlessly.

In seconds, his boot had sent the majority of them flying into the air, where they hung in defiance of gravity, flailing helplessly as he beat them with his strange torch. The flames that sprung up around them were blue. Gareth looked back at Aidan with a manic, delighted grin.

"Things ARE changing," he exulted. "I should have brought someone else down here years ago. Finally a bit of variety!"

Aidan instinctively shrank back from the man as he laughed his way further down the tunnel, the incendiary horrors he had dismissed still floating in the air behind him. When Aidan too passed them, he felt no heat from the flames, and for all that he tried to stamp it down, a rising suspicion grew in him again. It flowered when the pair reached the fourth of the crossroads, without going up or down even the most minor of slopes and always taking the left turning, and Aidan saw that they were not back where they had started. This too made Gareth even happier than before.

This is more than just a peculiar labyrinth, he thought, remembering one of his more obscure lessons. This is an anchored demiplane. An actual, permanent Maze spell tied to the real world at all times, and populated with its own unique and infinitely malleable defences. And it`s bleeding through into the real. Not even the elves at their height could have made something like this. This... construct is of the gods.

The realization somehow did not make him feel any better. Aidan continued to follow, knowing that he was fully at the mercy of Gareth, and trying to trust in his god that nothing terrible was about to happen to him. As the walls split open to reveal gaping, fleshy maws of living corpses reaching out like prehensile tongues to grab him, Aidan retracted his trust and readied his hammer.

"Oh don`t let them scare you!" Gareth chided the paladin, carrying on without the slightest pause. "I don`t mean they can only hurt you if they scare you, or anything like that. It`s just that you should be above this sort of thing."

"Paladins still feel the emotions of fear and panic, you know," Aidan said in a forced-calm voice as the terrifying display halted, frozen in time, the barest instant before it met him. "We just don`t have the luxury of giving into it like everyone else. It`s a horrible feeling. Where in the Hells are you leading me?"

Gareth just laughed and continued on the path. Aidan swore and followed. As soon as his back was turned, the walls closed up and became ordinary stone again. He did not need to look behind him to know this was true. A few minutes later, they emerged from the tunnels into an impossible cavern, seeing before them a pair of immense metal doors that stretched up and to the sides beyond the range of vision. It was not the fault of the torchlight, for the doors themselves shone with a pale light and reached beyond eternity.

"First time I`ve ever seen this too!" Gareth said happily. "Oh this makes such a difference, you`ve no idea. Oh, torch is out. Not that we`ll need it. Just push anywhere, I`m pretty sure these`ll swing right open for us."

To Aidan`s dismay, this was correct, and his brain struggling to process the image of the lithe Gareth nonchalantly pushing open a door larger than most mountains with a single finger. Still holding onto his warhammer tightly, ready for anything - or more likely, not ready, but hoping he could respond appropriately to whatever came next - Aidan stepped through after him.

The chamber beyond was a simple reception hall that would almost not have looked out of place in any courthouse. Plain furnishings and gentle lamplight gave the place an air of serenity. A reading desk in one corner was the only elaborate feature, its legs and sides engraved with artistic depictions of the creation of the world, and of the gods taking up their places in the pantheon. A white-robed figure bathed in holy radiance sat there now, eyes shining golden and skin like polished onyx-- and vast feathered wings framing him like a church icon, their magnificent pinions brushing against the ceiling.

Aidan took one look at the beatific angel, howled in fury, and lunged.

♢♢♢♢♢

The steel head of the warhammer thrummed to its destination with force enough to shatter the head of a stone golem. However, the angel did not move when struck this devastating blow to the side of his head, not even so much as to blink. Aidan grunted in pain as his weapon rebounded, friction burning his hands as the shaft tried to escape them. Somehow, this only hardened his resolve and he pressed the futile attack with mounting ferocity.

"Noble paladin, I respectfully insist that you cease this violence," the angel spoke calmly, as if he was not the target of frenzied assault. "Your time with the marquis should have prepared you better for this meeting, but I see there has been some neglect in this matter. Oh Blessed Heavens, Gareth, don`t just stand there, do something!"

Gareth looked back blankly. "Help. Guards. Murder. What do you want of me, Zaphkiel? Look at him go. I try anything, it`ll be my head. Literally. No thank you, I`m staying right here. Besides, it`s fun watching you get smacked with a giant mallet. Therapeutic, almost."

His breath ragged from the exertion, Aidan cursed in every language he knew. "The cruelty of this world is your doing, Outcast One! A thousand torments would not redeem a thousandth part of your shame!"

The angel Zaphkiel seated himself again, continuing to ignore the physical blows against his perfect and unperturbed skin. An errant strike bounced off his side and smashed into the desk instead, reducing it to so much twisted firewood. This, if nothing else, produced a sigh of vexation.

"For the sake of your own body, Aidan, stop this foolishness!" he said chidingly. "As you know what I am, you also know that there is nothing you can do to harm me. Oh please, now this?"

Aidan threw down his hammer, spitting furiously like a cat, and hurled himself bodily at the angel. Just as his weapon before him, he bounced off the impervious celestial, unable to get even the slightest purchase with nail or fist. He made a savage jab with his thumb at an exposed eyeball, but succeeded only in hurting himself. Zaphkiel had not so much as blinked throughout.

Then he did blink, keeping his eyes narrowed and brow furrowed as Aidan pulled back. His angelic radiance dimmed, seeming to grow around the paladin instead as Aidan opened himself to the divine powers that he had sworn himself to. In this place, the conflict of holy against holy was visible even to Gareth`s mundane sight. When Aidan rushed back at Zaphkiel, the confluence of their auras became nearly blinding.

Aidan reached out with his bare hand again, intending to grasp the angel by the face. For the first time, Zaphkiel flinched, but made no effort to evade. When the paladin`s skin touched that of the angel, the celestial flesh burned and peeled as if subjected to a searing brand. A few short seconds was all that Aidan could manage before his strength ran out, and he fell to his knees, exhausted by the effort. The sacred light infusing him faded away, and gradually that of the angel returned to its normal glory.

"I clearly erred in judging your abilities, Champion of the Lord of Mercy," Zaphkiel admitted sorrowfully, the merest hint of pain in his voice now. "Though in one respect I remained correct. You cannot channel enough of Heshtail`s power to kill me, even assuming I can be killed here. That is but one part of my punishment, and entirely irrelevant to why I have invited you here."

"Rest now. Regain your breath. Gird yourself for the challenges ahead, and hate me as the messenger if you must. I care not what I must endure, so long as the world of NĂºrion itself endures. Perhaps you are wearied of hearing such dire prophecies, for so often they are overstated hyperboles of the desperate. I regret that this is not one of those. Listen well as I speak of what was, and why this will change what is to be..."

♢♢♢♢♢

SIXTH INTERLUDE

Though Daug-Dagoth was three thousand years dead, the memory of the Ravaging Beast lingered still in the unbeating heart of Cutalak the Constant. Nothing else, not even the most terrible fiends of the blackest Hells could arouse a sliver of fear in him, but the scent of a werecreature would stir the next closest thing.

Cutalak had lived for much longer than his last mortal body. He had been the first necromancer of humanity, corrupting the pure elven magics gifted to the young race, and installing himself in a fresh body whenever his current one was wearing out. He prided himself on ascending to become one of the great constants of the universe, joining the exalted ranks of the gods and the planes themselves.

Then Daug-Dagoth had come to the bitter northlands that had birthed Cutalak, which one day would become known as the frigid realm of Cadocia. Daug-Dagoth was a servant of the presumptuous witch who dwelt in the Wintervale, seeking to claim the Book of Seven that Cutalak had personally drawn forth from oblivion and fashioned into reality. Taken by surprise by the audacious attack, Cutalak perished, only to awake again in his mangled body as the first of that hideous breed of the undead named vampire.

He had passed on his new gift to many others since his remaking. Some of these were strong in ways that he did not understand, but did not need to, for no matter how perverted the dark magic became as it passed down the bloodlines, Cutalak himself was the absolute master of them all. He needed not fear rebellion from any of his unliving descendants. He need not fear anything, he told himself.

Yet there was a presence in the east, in the uncomfortably warm lands south of the Greatwall Mountains. Cutalak could feel it growing, and hated it all the more for how it made him remember fear and pain. His vast brood gathered in the ice fields below, awaiting his command. Cutalak let them wait, let their hunger grow, until even those so weak as to falter in sunlight would not hesitate to wage war under its cruel stare.

Then south they journeyed, until at last they came to a plateau overlooking the eastern ocean. There Cutalak and his ilk beheld a thousand of the southern lands` nomadic savages, as yet untouched by any vestige of civilization, prostrating themselves before a hunchbacked priest. It was from this figure that the sensation emanated, and Cutalak wasted no time in ordering his brood to feed, whilst he himself hurtled out of the sky to impale the man with a silver sword he had had specially crafted and enchanted.

The priest did not waver under the blow, sneering at Cutalak. Its human guise was cast off, and the hunched man that had been there was replaced by a towering sorcerer-king of the rakshasa tiger-fiends. A triumphant roar rose up from the primitive human cultists as their own flesh sloughed from their bones. Cutalak felt his strength desert him as a thousand weretigers now stood where mere prey had been moments before.

He fell, weeping tears of blood, shaking with a terror he could not overcome. The rakshasa did not bother to taunt him or mock him. It merely withdrew the sword from its unbleeding chest and pierced Cutalak`s long-dead heart with it, sending him to a final death and a Hell he deserved fully. Outnumbered and leaderless, his brood still reaped a heavy toll, but at last there were none left who had not immediately fled the battle.

♢♢♢♢♢

"You are indeed a gift of the gods," the ancient vampire Arrelok had laughed at the weeping girl between drinks. "I will keep you as a trophy, I think. You can remind me of this conquest and of how easily mortals may be deceived by their betters. Stepping beyond the night-wards to help a poor old man like that. Inviting him into the holy refuge. What a feast for me..."

She had spent the next eight years hurrying and scurrying in his lair as a slave. From time to time, he would bring her out to regale a visitor with the tale of how he had deceived her, and offered the merest taste of her blood to share with his fellow vampires as a toast to the "vintage." One of these, the mighty Voivode Balaur of the Davonian regency, a first-blood scion of Cutalak himself, took far more than that.

The Voivode regent compensated Arrelok with a silver sword, claiming to have liberated it from a rakshasa that had overstepped its bounds long ago. Though only slightly mollified by the magnificent gift, Arrelok did not press the matter. It would have been impolite to go against one`s own vampiric sire in such a way, and his human pet was not irreparably broken.

On one particular fateful night, years of patience and quiet strength came together at last. Arrelok returned from an evening of over-feasting, having woken feeling strangely drained and weary. Everything in his quiet retreat away from the cares of the outside world was as it should be, or so it seemed at first.

Arrelok frowned at the empty space above his mantelpiece. He did not recall instructing the girl to clean along there this night, but he was far too sure of the power he held over her to even consider the possibility of rebellion. It had, after all, been eight years since he plucked the waif-- and she was still tiny for her age-- from obscurity to place her within his gilded cage. He was annoyed, however, that she had taken down the prized piece usually mounted there.

The waif did not struggle to wield the great silver sword. Its edge became serrated like fangs, biting into her sire`s flesh and tore at his innards. He died screaming, uncomprehending of how his final death had come to pass. Too old and powerful for the sun to slay, he was nevertheless left stupefied by its touch. Eight years of being downtrodden had given her great skill in stealth. Careful use of mirrors had directed the light into his study, and after that she had had no difficulty in forcing the comatose monster to induce a vampiric transformation in her.

Now she was free again. She was also a vampire. The silver sword looked very enticing, but a voice seemed to speak to her from it as she contemplated her own death. So she strapped it to her back and went out into the world she had left as a child robbed of innocence. She could not remember her human name, only false affectations given to her by monsters.

God-gift. Tribe-shield. Good-wife.

As a monster now herself, she thought they would suffice.

♢♢♢♢♢

Kiborus, the Cold Master of the Wintervale and Chancellor to the Dweller Herself, ground his teeth at the sound of his guest`s voice, wishing that he could justify plucking out her heart and lapping at the sweet nectar within. It would have been rudeness, however, of a kind that he could not sanction. She was, after all, his progenitor by way of Galen Stireck, and he had already broken the oldest unwritten law of vampires by killing his own sire.

"My lady Kyrren, you fail to understand my position here," he sighed, trying to remain calm. "I have duties, responsibilities, that cannot simply be cast aside. There is a place for you as well, if only you would take it. How can I explain-"

The vampiress flickered, appearing in front of him with a snarl and only then vanishing from the window overlooking the Nameless City. Even here, in the heart of his own demesne, Kiborus flinched, impressed by the power of this ancient queen of blood. She was a mere four generations removed from Cutalak himself, via the legendary but reclusive Balaur, and by a thousand years the oldest vampire left in the world.

It was rumored that she could even scorn the sun for a time, even if it still burned and seared her flesh-- but that was the only rumor of her that Kiborus did not believe. In his mind, no vampire had ever been able to withstand the sun. It was a Thing Not Done, no matter what dark magic was invoked or what awesome powers the purest bloods had wielded.

"You presume overmuch, Kiborus!" Kyrren hissed, and the walls themselves shivered at the scorn in her voice. "I have stood before armies and sent them fleeing with a look. I have danced on the precipice of oblivion as the planes crashed around me. I have supped from the veins of angels as I sacrificed them for no gain but a moment`s amusement. You, boy, will explain nothing to me."

"I did not come here to bandy words with a lickspittle toady," she continued relentlessly. "Nor am I here to bargain, or persuade, or tempt with reasonable offer. Whatever authority you think you wield here, Chancellor, know that it is of no use against me. So before you truly exhaust my patience, give me the location."

Kiborus resisted the urge to glare at her. It would only provoke a fight, and the political situation was too fragile right now to risk any kind of upset in the Nameless City. His own most recent spawn, a Havenish pirate by the name of Saithith, was looking promising enough to be significantly promoted in time for the Dweller`s eventual assault on the western lands.

He weighed up the options quickly, efficiently. With Kyrren in this agitated state of mind, it seemed prudent to him just to acquiesce to her demand, take a few hours out of the night to perform the necessary rituals, and get her out of his way before anything went wrong. After the triumph of the Wintervale, he could always take preparatory steps to ensure her eventual return to the fold. The rest of the Dreamers would be equally valuable assets once he actually found a way to control them.

"Very well, lady Kyrren, I will do as you command." Courtesy, even false, would soothe things over. "The Dreaming Pit shall be revealed to you. I merely regret the passing of ages has caused you such despondency. It is not right for one of your majesty to fade into apathy. Why, if you were to withstand a few paltry decades yet..."

Kyrren bared her fangs. "Your mistress` wearisome crusade will fail. Such things always do. I have not the stomach for such predictability. I want to find my sire. I want to offer my respects before her eternal tomb. I want to join her and the others in the Timeless Dream. And I want to do this as soon as possible!"

♢♢♢♢♢

Gareth listened to the tale with interest, frowning as he considered the implications. "Zaphkiel, one question. You said Kyrren was the oldest vampire left, but if the Balaur who sired her and the Balaur that I killed were the same as you`ve led me to believe..."

The angel smiled knowingly. "Kiborus always thinks he knows more than he does. The Voivode Balaur had retreated so fully from the world, descending in rank to a mere Hochsgraf by that time, that only a very few vampires knew him to yet exist. Rest easy, Gareth. You still hold the honor of being one of the only beings, whether mortal or immortal, ever to slay a first-generation spawn."

"Just testing you," the irrepressible Gareth laughed. "I always knew I was beyond fantastic."

Aidan, however, was less than satisfied by any of this: "You think I care about the arguments held between vampires thousands of years gone? You, Outcast One, helped bring about a world where such monsters as vampires and the Dweller came to be. You refused to fight against Vornoth!"

Gareth yelped in shock, even his bravado not stretching to brushing off the name of the Walker-in-Darkness being spoken aloud, and he darted as far away from Aidan as he could, hoping that he was out of immediate thunderbolt range. Even Zaphkiel looked taken aback by the outburst, surprised by the rage in the paladin`s voice. For all of his limited semi-omniscience, some things still had the power to catch him out, and Aidan was clearly one of those.

"I refused to fight him indeed," Zaphkiel admitted slowly. "For I, and others like me, were made to embody the spirit of mercy and sufferance. You clearly remember the stories telling of what quality we had to take upon our exile. Our wings, inverted in the fall, that we might never fly back up to the Heavens. Across the planes we fell, sealed away in half-realities like this one, to contemplate our well-intentioned error."

"I know not how many of us yet survive, for I was by far the most fortunate in coming to rest in the mortal realms, the safest of the planes. Our doom was to join in the war regardless, but unable to wage it as effectively as once we might. We had to wait for opportunities to touch the world again. The death of Balaur and the passing of his dread spirit at last to its place of punishment gave me one such chance. I spoke to Gareth and called him here. Though I will say, our partnership has not always been easy..."

The angel looked over to Gareth, still coming no closer to Aidan than he could possibly manage, despite the current lack of divine obliteration from the named Darkest God, and the man managed a sympathetic laugh. The two of them often seemed to fight each other more than they did the forces of evil, exasperated by either Gareth`s mortal foibles or Zaphkiel`s frequent lamentations of his fate. Nonetheless, they struggled along adequately.

"Soon after, his druid ally Maurice Dubael transfigured into the first and most effective warden of the path-- and incidentally sealing away an unholy symbol of the Death God, needed to triumph in the battle against Balaur, within himself. A noble act of self-sacrifice. It gave me hope that the strength of mortals might one day prove enough to join with that of the celestials in defiance of the Walker-in-Darkness."

Aidan still glared at the angel, hearing nothing that he could not already have deduced or known. "You still have given me no reason to care for anything you say!" he exclaimed furiously. "What could you possibly offer me as a reason not to return with every cleric and paladin left in the Liberated and the Occupied Kingdoms and send you back to the gods to face true judgement?"

Zaphkiel shook his head sadly, but answered, "The Dreaming Pit of the ancient vampires has been found, and its occupants soon shall awaken to trouble the waking world once more."

To this, as Gareth had before him, Aidan was left with only two words: "Well, crap!"

♢♢♢♢♢

The journey back to Gareth`s estate outside Rentes proper was far less jovial than the journey to Kale City. Aidan pressed Gareth mercilessly about the angel Zaphkiel on the one occasion he spoke, which Gareth made the mistake of mentioning was ironic given the god to which Aidan was dedicated. The two spent the next hour arguing without saying a word, a feat made especially impressive by their relative unfamiliarity with each other.

Their mood did not last. They both knew the situation was far too serious for that, and Aidan was keenly aware of not slipping back into his former ill temper - no matter that it had been brought about by a malignant spell intent on making him into just another of Afej the Black`s hounds.

Rather than dwell on that however, he tried to consider the future that lay before them. One memory-- of the gnomish criminal Wulfram that had betrayed them back in Elder Daven, and his reappearance at the head of a slaving band in Bael scarce a week gone-- kept coming back to him. After this thought had occurred to him, Aidan spent much of the rest of the journey back wondering if, hoping and even praying that, at least one loose thread from their past might be tied away by the end of this whole ordeal.

Almost as soon as he entered his domain, Gareth slipped into the role of marquis once more, snapping out orders left, right, and center with practised ease. He had always enjoyed being in positions of authority, so long as there was never any responsibility attached to them, which for most of his life, had meant he had hated being in charge of anything beyond his own destiny. After this was done, he promised himself, he intended to take the rest of the decade off. A few simple orders to go first...

"Tybalt, bring the sommelier please; this will need the finest wine to see us off with. My bow is waiting? Good. Now someone find me those two hositan and... yes, what is it, Arlgand?"

The elf sighed heavily. "I got a message whilst you two were away. Our eyes in the sky say the last of the outer wards has been breached. They carried the bone banding out two days ago. At this rate, even the stone will be broken through by the week`s end."

"So we need to cross the country in just under three days," Gareth surmised drily. "Well, I always liked working to a deadline."

They laughed at the terrible joke, only the barest hint of their concern and worry seeping into the sound. The fight ahead was not going to be an easy one, even if everything went well. Word had been sent out to others in the neighboring realms, just in case their efforts were in vain. None wished to consider that possibility, but its necessity forced their hand.

And scarce two hundred miles to the east, far below the hills marking the border with undead-plagued Daven, at last the shovels wielded by emaciated hands struck worked stone instead of mere dirt. On the other side of the long-buried, innermost barrier, undying monsters stirred in their sleep, sensing nearby life. Life that should have been in the clean, harvest-scented air of the outside world. The season of reaping had come to Kale again.

TO BE CONTINUED