Storms Over Kelerak

Part Five

By R. Krommydas

PREVIOUS PART

demon, CCO

No bard or wordsmith, no matter how talented, could have truthfully described the noise she made as anything other than a mouse-like squeak, and her friends struggled not to laugh at the sight of Isolde battling to stand back up and free herself from the cloth bindings she had become wholly enveloped in. A solitary eye peered out of a gap in the folds, glaring about like some baleful cyclops in search of a helpful limb, but to little avail.

"I`m a Zelish-born Hairfoot!" came the muffled complaint from somewhere within. "If we aren`t skull-shorn, we still rarely wear our hair lower than our cheeks. We don`t know how to do this anymore. I don`t think I even can do this. As in I think it is physically impossible."

At last, she burst mostly free of her prison and slowly disentangled herself from the remaining shackles. The azure-bright pile of cloth lay heaped on the floor, silently challenging her to a rematch. Isolde sighed, scowled, cracked her knuckles, and went back at it with no noticeable improvement for the fourth time thus far. What she had hoped would be a pleasant diversion, and which she had invited the others to her guest chamber to witness before the return to Dragonspur, was rapidly turning out to be an exercise in irritation.

"And she was so happy when she saw what it was," Brokk commented to Embla. "Closest I think I`ve ever seen her to tears. Happy tears, I mean. As rewards go, I think this was actually better than coin for her. The hositan of the Hynaphlund knew how much it would mean."

Embla nodded understandingly. "And this is a tradition of her people? One almost buried under the weight of the Dark Occupation? I can imagine how difficult it must be to rediscover the art. Sometimes the sand-walkers would wear such headdresses when they came up the mountains to trade. Smaller. They cut their hair. I still could not see how such scarves stayed on. Isolde, what is your word for these?"

"Dastar is the classical term," Isolde answered. "Some of the more westerly clans also used dulband, but I think that word only really survives in Kale. Not sure of the etymology of that one. Oh wait, no, I think I am. It was mainly Stalwart hositan that used it. Probably gnomish influence. Ugh."

"Isolde, I`ve always meant to ask, but it never seemed like the right time," Aidan spoke up. "But why do halflings have such a dislike for gnomes? They seem to like your people well enough, better than most of the other races. Dwarves possibly excepted."

Isolde sighed, and briefly gave up on trying to work out how to wear the dastar correctly. "Not all halflings, Aidan, that is the problem. We are not one nation, but three. Closer to two now, since the Proudfellows...ach, that`s a different part of the history. Point is, this is all going way back to the dark days of Rothnog and Stor-gris, may they never rise again. Back when there weren`t even Stalwarts and Hairfoots, just those of us still living under the protection of the dwarfholds and those of us making our own way. Insiders and Outsiders we called ourselves back then. We kept to ourselves, gnomes kept to themselves, and neither had any business mixing with the other."

"Then off to meet with them goes the great and adventurous Ballin the Stalwart--you see where this is going?--alchemist and brewer of the Outsiders, inasmuch as those country bumpkins even knew what those words meant. Worse, he comes back. Worse still, he`s actually met with the gnomes and got answers from them. Worst of all, the gnomes aren`t on good terms with the dwarves at this point for some reason nobody remembers, or ain`t telling. This puts the Insiders in a bit of trouble, does Ballin`s little journey. They have to support the dwarves, on account on still living under their roof, eating their food, and so on. But the Outsiders are starting to get real friendly with the gnomes. Things just... went downhill after that."

Brokk`s expression had shifted over the course of the explanation from interested to deliberately neutral, and it had not gone unnoticed. He pressed his lips together tightly and averted his gaze when the questioning looks came, unable to lie and unwilling to tell what he knew. Isolde loudly and immediately shrugged it off, her attention returned to the dastar, and to yet another futile attempt to wind the long cloth through her hair and bring it to rest behind her ears.

The exact reasons behind the ancient rift that had come between the dwarves and the gnomes were not entirely lost to time, though in the modern age even the scars of that wound had all but faded under the tyrannical lash of the Wintervale, and Brokk was one of those privy to the details. It was generally accepted among the few historians that had made a study of that era that a trade dispute had soured relations between the races, and this was essentially accurate. Not even loremasters of the fourth or lower orders knew any more than that, but Brokk belonged to the first order, and had seen the final pieces of the puzzle.

♢♢♢♢♢

As his friends continued to offer advice to (and sympathy for) Isolde as she battled with the dastar, Brokk thought back on the many revelations he had been granted in his life. As a wizard, the vast majority were mere insights into the varied arts of magic, disparate and manifold, almost meaningless on their own and valuable only when combined into a framework that a trained arcanist could, but was not obligated to, use to support the actual casting of spells.

Whilst sorcerers and other beings with innate powers may gain such advanced metamagical abilities with no effort on their part whatsoever, Brokk mused with the secret envy of those who needed to work hard to achieve what came naturally to others.

Other revelations, however, were of considerably greater and further-ranging importance, and the monumental effort required to survive them was one he no longer begrudged. The aches of his withered body, and the weight of the ancient stone tablet he could not be rid of, served as constant reminders of the price exacted upon the arrogant and unworthy, and all those nearby, who dared try to cheat the world out of its ultimate secrets.

Loremasters were rare and peculiar creatures for the most part. Every few years, true, their numbers would increase exponentially as the highest ranking loremasters emerged from seclusion and initiated dozens into the lower orders, directing them to seek out, and sometimes retrieve, particular objects or persons across the lands. But, often within a matter of weeks, these hoarders of all knowledge would vanish again as inexplicably as they appeared, leaving their students bereft of guidance and protection, and inordinately prone to violent death by the year`s end.

Too ignorant to defend themselves against the age-old enemies of the loremasters, even those who survived never progressing beyond the seventh or sixth order, the mystery of this consistent abandonment remained unexplained to almost all. It had been one of the earliest shocks to Brokk to learn that those initiated by a loremaster into the lower orders were only ever those who could not advance further, deliberately being left vulnerable and exposed so as to cull these less valuable members whilst also deceiving the killers into thinking they were somehow succeeding in their war.

To belong to the fifth order, to learn this ghastly truth, was contingent upon independent initiative, and to be a true loremaster was never to have been of the lower orders to begin with. Brokk, whose impatient lust for knowledge had damned his entire hold, was officially inducted into the fifth order as he crawled from the nightmare he had unleashed. It was another four years before he was informed of this, however.

Other revelations followed as time passed. Brokk withstood them adequately, though his guilt continued to eat away at him, and communication with his peers offered no relief. It was not until the fresh shock at Mavarra that he had gained something akin to a shield against his own horrors, and his later too-brief conversations with the bizarre druid Cawlis had given him just enough material to fashion a true ward against them.

Today he was both proud and ashamed of being a loremaster. In his depression, he had done his own share of initiating sacrificial decoys into the lower orders, and accepting the praise of his peers for doing so and helping to bring more truths to light. He had risen rapidly through the ranks as a result of his growing nihilism, and as a member of the first order, he was justly able to introduce himself with the actual title of Loremaster, capital letter and all.

His friends deserved better than him, Brokk knew that. He cared for them far too much to treat them as the disposable tools that other loremasters advised was the best course of action, but did not always win the fight against the compulsion to keep them in the dark about things they had not discovered for themselves.

Suddenly, he came to a decision, and at once a great weight seemed to lift from him. Brokk felt nearly a full decade younger as the curse he had brought upon himself relaxed its punitive grip by the least fraction. To some it might not have seemed like much compared to the terrible pressure of centuries upon centuries upon centuries beating down on him, but to this dwarf, so long deprived of true hope of forgiveness, it was more than mere words could describe.

If they want to know, I will tell them, and hold nothing back, Brokk had decided. They have held my life in their hands before, and my secrets along with it, and so deserve to share them if they wish to listen.

♢♢♢♢♢

The adventuring quartet remained together for a few more hours that day, until after the considerable luncheon of fruit-stuffed waterfowl that Duke Marius Sonnesberg had had laid out for them, at which point they were split up among the carriages that were being taken back to Dragonspur.

Aidan and Brokk were placed with a starstruck valet whose nieces had been among those rescued from the black-hearted raiders of the Hynaphlund; Embla travelled with the Duchess Brigid and, based on the hearty laughter and appreciative curses in a variety of languages, audible even over the clattering of three six-team carriages, was exchanging lessons in wrestling techniques with this bear-shouldered daughter of Anaria.

Isolde, by her own request, accompanied the Silver Duke himself for the first stage of the journey, intent on discussing a private matter. Out of habit, and a healthy paranoia when it came to her personal history making an appearance in their lives, Aidan had asked what the matter was about. His next ten minutes had been spent trying to wash congealing ducks-blood sauce out of his hair, and resolving to never again sit within reach of mercurial old men having such requests made of them.

When the procession rested that evening, Aidan still smelling faintly of mallard, belatedly tried to apologise for having asked the question in the first place. Isolde patted his arm as she assured him that she, herself, personally, would never have overreacted quite like that, and she frowned censoriously at Duke Sonnesberg as she added that it was very wrong to have done something so childish to such a decent and selfless person.

Then she leaned in close, breathing in deep and whispering just loudly enough to be heard by everyone present: "You smell delicious, by the way."

Peals of laughter followed the red-faced paladin all the way to find a bucket of water to soak his hair again, though the halfling, pocketing the coins being handed over by a highly amused Silver Duke, contented herself with a very smug grin. As usual, she won the bet she had made.

However, it wouldn`t be for another hour that she actually brought the coins back out to gloat over them, and then see that they were neither the denomination nor even the currency she had made the bet for. This time, when she rose to indignantly confront the Silver Duke about this, the laughter followed her as Brokk dismissed the illusion he had placed upon the coins, and gleefully collected his own winnings from the mischievous nobleman.

"Does losing not bother him?" Embla asked Duchess Brigid.

"Only when he doesn`t win," she answered ruefully, but with a loving smile at her husband.

This statement was sufficiently difficult to translate into sense that it was deemed the perfect end to a long day. There were still many miles to go before Dragonspur.

♢♢♢♢♢

Much has been written, and still more said, of the myriad wonders and horrors both that can be found in noble Dragonspur, from the imposing spectacle of the Spur itself to the cloistered harmonies rising from within the cathedral of St. Quentins; from the vicious gangs of cutpurses and smugglers that yet prowled the docks and alleys to the (surely unfounded?) rumours of slumbering unnamed beasts below the city`s foundations, bound there by the archmage Keler himself; but this day was one of the few when both wonder and horror were one and the same.

Niklaus, demoniac and servant of Vornoth, tried in vain to close his ears to the ghost of his betrayed wife Asta that continued to hound him at all times. The dead needed no sleep, but though the succubus Eilithu had vastly prolonged his life, he was yet technically mortal and needed his rest. Being denied it despite every protective abjuration or desperate evocation he knew was taking its toll on him, and only through careful use of illusions did he maintain his public image.

He listened carefully as his sponsor, the revered Oliver Goldcrown of East-of-Sky, explained the proceedings and protocol that he would need to undergo in order to be ordained as the latest of Kelerak`s barons. He listened very carefully indeed, for Baron Goldcrown was no lackey of his, as much as Niklaus would have preferred it. The baron`s history, of imprisonment and torture by agents of Sin, had left him wiser to the dangers of the world, and since his freedom he had been ever warded against magical interference in his thoughts and deeds.

If Goldcrown learned what Niklaus truly was, the demoniac would likely perish in short order. His powers were considerable, greater than most, but Goldcrown had the allegiance of two very potent and very dangerous spellcasters. Felix ack-Heathcliff, a cleric of Kantor, was the greater of the two in terms of the raw magical might he could deliver with the flick of a wrist, as was the Kantori way, but the other, Jacob ack-Simore, was a wizard known for his mastery of more subtle and insidious magics that were no less dangerous to the unprepared. Niklaus knew that he could overcome one or the other with ease, even in a true duel between them, but if his disguise was to fail, he would not be offered the luxury of a fair fight.

The only reason he had yet to be exposed was a lucky quirk in the manner his haunting had taken. Asta was bound to him, vengeful and cunning, beyond his ability to banish or exorcise her as he had many other spirits in his time. Yet with the bond to her monstrous husband being so strong, Asta had found herself unable to manifest to anyone else. She had tried every single time Niklaus met with his sponsor, and other times besides, but none had ever seen or heard her.

Today, however, something was different. She could feel it, drawing ever nearer by the minute. Niklaus could feel it also, a foreboding born of centuries of experience, and in the growing confidence of his haunter. On awakening that morning, the sense of doom he felt made him break an ancient promise to himself, and he filled his mind with the half-completed rituals and invocations to bring forth every demon he had ever communed with, unrestrained by the usual strictures of summoning.

Some, he knew, would be unable to answer. Destroyed, perhaps, or already called to the mortal world. Most, however, would be only too eager to claw their way into this fragile reality. There was no actual danger to them here. Should they be slain, their souls would simply flee back to their own planes to reform themselves over the course of some decades or centuries.

The utter chaos they would cause before their eventual defeat, however, would be more than enough to cover Niklaus` escape. From what threat, exactly, he did not know, but if it was as great as he sensed, then he would not hesitate to unleash the monsters upon everything around him.

♢♢♢♢♢

Damion Felmund moved silently, almost unseen, through the milling nobles and merchant princes of Dragonspur. Had he chosen it, he could have walked among them with his head high, but the heroic baron of Wyvernia could feel a threat in the air. This was no surprise to him, for he had been feeling danger stalk ever closer since Goldcrown had joined his weight to those already pushing the potential new baron forward.

It was a chill tingling across his skin, as though the tiniest of pins were pricking at him without drawing blood, a peristaltic pressure on his leg that recalled the break it had once suffered alongside his heart. It was also impossible for him to know exactly what was coming, or where it was coming from. So he slipped through the crowds, his years as a resistance fighter letting him approach conversations and depart before becoming suspicious himself.

The exception to this was that singularly worthy opponent, Starsul. Even now, as the final preparations were being made to present Niklaus ack-Anaria, the promising potential baron, to Lord Osbern and his council, Starsul was preaching to all who would listen. Whenever he drew near, Damion listened. He asked himself why the two barons were on opposing sides when they were in agreement on so many things. He never had an answer to satisfy.

His circling was interrupted at last by a new commotion. Cries of surprise from the citizenry, preceded by cries of distaste and shock from the nobility. Even from across the plaza, Damion saw the unmistakable figure of Sir Kelphin, towering two heads over any other present, moving to intercept the newcomers, then fall back with a deferential bow.

Marius Sonnesberg! Damion realised, putting the pieces together. The mad old man has actually come. Oh no. Starsul will go berserk again. And this time blood may actually be spilled!

Frantically, he began to move towards the upset, hoping against hope that he could reach the group in time to head them off from Starsul until at least the assembly of barons was called. Even Sonnesberg wouldn`t do anything to provoke Starsul whilst in the presence of Lord Osbern.

Now that is a foolish hope, Damion admitted to himself as he closed the distance. Propriety is not part of that man`s vocabulary. And after the argument he caused last time, who knows how he`ll react to Niklaus when he sees--what is that?

Damion halted, backtracked a few paces, and stared closely at the gathering around the prospective Niklaus ack-Anaria. It seemed in passing that a strange haze had fallen over them, centring upon Niklaus himself. No, not quite right. Just above the man, in fact, above and behind. A shape was forming in the air. A woman`s shape.

She was staring down at Niklaus, her features indistinct save for the eyes, blazing coals of hate and fury. Damion had seen the dead before, though never one such as this. The chill pinpricks along his skin became stabs from icicles, and for a moment his leg all but gave out under him as the memory of powerful muscles pressing down upon it returned. The ghostly figure opened her mouth, a pit of utter blackness, and screamed harsh words in the language of the dead, pointing accusingly at Niklaus as she did so.

Damion could barely hear what the ghost was saying, but the reaction--or lack thereof--from everyone else clued him in to the fact that she had not yet manifested herself to them. Then he corrected himself. There was one other person reacting to this, and it was Niklaus. He had looked up at the ghost in irritation and shock, before seeing that nobody else could see or hear her, and then replaced his mask of indifference before anyone could notice.

Anyone, that is, other than Damion Felmund. At that moment, he knew that whatever accusations being levelled by the ghost would be true, and that they were no doubt similar to those brought against Niklaus by Duke Sonnesberg all those months ago. Blood, he understood, would indeed be spilled this day.

♢♢♢♢♢

He had not thought his sermon today was going to be particularly memorable. There was simply not enough intelligence among his audience to appreciate the message he was trying to impart--too little worthy fuel for the fires of his god to take hold. About the only thing that stood out was Damion Felmund skulking around even more obviously than usual, and even this had become its own tired routine between them.

Yet when that insufferable Sonnesberg and his retinue strode into the plaza, and moments later an accusatory litany was howled out at the Anarian upstart Niklaus from ghostly lips, Baron Russel Starsul of the Greensreach was truly delighted to have been proven wrong. Blood pounded in his ears, boiling in his veins as the furnace of his heart was stoked to a zealous frenzy.

Without pause for breath or shock, he redirected his invective towards Niklaus and his sponsor Goldcrown, though even then he was careful not to accuse the other baron directly of complicity in whatever evils Niklaus had been planning. The Anarian glared at him no less hatefully than at the ghost shrieking overhead, and at those who were now pulling away from him, wary of whatever was going on.

From the other side of the plaza, Russel Starsul could hear the Duchess Brigid calling out in acknowledgement to the ghost, joining her voice to its in accusation of Niklaus as demoniac and murderer and Vale-lover. Nearer, Damion Felmund was already drawing sword, moon-silvered engravings glimmering in readiness for battle. Advancing on the accused, scant feet from Niklaus, the law-mongering tower that was Sir Kelphin could be seen parting the crowd through sheer force of will, demanding obeisance and justice.

In fact, Russel Starsul could see only a single face among the masses that was not wearing any new expression. He was not surprised to see it belonged to Burcan the White, less still that the Potentate`s gaze was focused upon the oncoming Sonnesberg retinue rather than the mounting apoplexy of Niklaus.

What will break first? Starsul asked himself, still encouraging all who could hear him to bring down the wrath of the gods upon any who aligned themselves with the powers of the East.

The answer came more quickly, and more forcefully, than most might have anticipated. With a desperate cry, Niklaus clapped his hands to his ears, futilely trying to block out the ghost`s screams. His form rippled and twisted, the illusions he had woven about himself falling away under the pressure and weariness, revealing his true haggard appearance.

None of this by itself would have been enough to convict him of any crime--possibly, but only possibly, excepting the unlawful practice of magic--until the contingencies Niklaus had prepared took effect. Ragged holes began to appear in the air around him, rents in the fabric of the planes that led to the most abominable of realms beyond the mortal, the Infinite Abyss of Malor.

Eager, snarling, monstrous faces peered out through these tunnels. Eager, grasping, monstrous claws tore wider the ways opening to them. And with eager, gibbering, monstrous cries came all the horrors that Niklaus could summon.

♢♢♢♢♢

The first demon to emerge was an unusually corpulent vrock, rolls of putrid fat hanging even from its scabrous wings and dangling beneath its beak. With a hideous squawk, it somehow took to the air, beginning to expel a noxious cloud of pestilence that was sickening merely to see. Several of the more weak-willed and weak-stomached members of the nearby Goldcrown retinue began to retch and scream in terror as the vrock covered them with its toxic vapours.

It was no less surprised than anyone else when a noose of cleansing golden light instantly burst from the crowd below, seizing it by the throat and dragging it back down to the earth before it could so much as flap its wings a second time and spread its poison further. Struggling futilely in the magical snare that Burcan the White, well-prepared and ever-vigilant against the dangers that might threaten the world from without, had captured it with, the vrock was helpless to defend against the blade aimed at its neck.

For a brief moment its decapitated head continued to shriek obscenely before dissolving back to Malor. Demon blood sizzled upon the sword for some seconds yet, and Damion Felmund raised it aloft that all could see that these fiends could be wounded and slain. The sight only added weight and authority to the bellowed command that followed:

"Slay these pawns and bring down the traitor Niklaus! For Kelerak! Kelerak and the Spur!"

The invigorating cry was taken up by throat after throat, and the impending clash between demon and mortal immediately became a far more balanced one. At the epicentre of the emerging fiends, Oliver Goldcrown drew his own sword and began to hack at the squirming dretches and flittering quasits that were bubbling out of the planar holes, cutting down two with each strike. At his side, his loyal companions brought their own strengths to bear--priest actually wielding an axe of raw magical force with remarkable skill, wizard shielding them with blasts of wind that hurled entire groups of demons stunned to the ground--and the trio actually began a slow advance towards Niklaus.

A hezrou, toad-like and reeking, burst out near to Sir Kelphin, croaking hungrily at him. It was immediately shunted aside by the immense knight`s equally immense shield, and for all that it battled to regain its footing and its advantage, the mighty but crude demon was slowly bludgeoned into oblivion by the shield its awkward flailings could not turn aside. It served its purpose, however, as Niklaus retreated from the knight.

Living shadows poured forth as well, squealing in dismay at the bright sun they found themselves in. Instinctively, they attempted to climb into the air, but were promptly feathered with arrows fletched in blue and in green, as the nearest troops of both Spur Elites and Standing Battalion had shown their worth and already deployed against this surprise attack. The few of these shadow demons that continued to rise only made bigger targets of themselves. The rest descended straight into a slaughter as holy fires blazed into life around the soldiers` weapons, the warmages and battle clerics of Dragonspur`s finest proving their own worth.

Further away from the most furious part of the melee, Damion Felmund engaged in a frantic duel with another hezrou that had shown a concerning degree of intelligence in avoiding the heart of the battle to pursue the weaker mortals it had sensed beyond, and had slain several warriors before Damion had caught up with it. Only now, when Damion was so fully distracted, did the hezrou`s commanders slip past the duelling pair and cast off their invisibility. An awestruck silence, punctuated with lustful, only barely conflicted, murmurs, fell over those who beheld them, for Niklaus` preferred contacts among the fiendish races were the undisputed masters of turning friend to foe.

Their names are many in the writings that detail them. Pleasure demon, or devil, or fiend. Incubus and succubus. Corrupter and seducer. From these are birthed the half-mortal cambions, and the perverted bloodlines that give rise to tieflings and other infernal throwbacks. From their ranks came the terrible Lord of Lust herself. The brutish demons that had answered Niklaus` call most swiftly were terrible indeed, but ordinary strength of arms was enough to hold them off. But when it came to the legionnaires of eroticism, it was strength of spirit that was needed and, in too many highborn hearts of Kelerak, sorely lacking.

Dancing between forms, sometimes clothed in a single glorious sex, sometimes at once male and female in beatific harmony, the pleasure fiends worked the power that was their dark gift. Eyes glazed over as the magical charm took hold of their owners, and slackening jaws held back no moan of desire, from either man or woman.

Hindsight could have warned the fools of such an assault. The inadmissible evil lingering from the Dark Occupation in Kelerak, worming its way still through the population, was one born of the Lord of Lust and her domain of perverse appetites. But even amidst such weakness, there were some who are hardened against the lures of this corruption, and a clear voice rang out with the undiluted might of moral outrage and fervent indignation, demanding attention such that even the pleasure fiends turned their attentions to the orator.

"Trespassers! Planar indigents! By what arrogance do you dare such transgressions within my sight? Do you know not that the black days are passed when the unborn curs of outer realms could presume to dominate others? Slither, you worms of wretchedness, on your bellies back to the lightless pits from whence you came! You have not the least permission to be in this gloried city, or this blessed realm, and by the authority I wield within both, I bid you depart at once!"

♢♢♢♢♢

"They will tear him to shreds!" Aidan cried, fighting to reach Starsul through the masses of the panicked and charmed. "See? That one has even adopted his shape to appeal to his pride and narcissism!"

"I think both you and they will find that man to be more resilient than he appears," Marius Sonnesberg laughed, weaving his own way through the crush with considerably more grace and effectiveness.

The Silver Duke`s words were proven correct almost immediately. The astute pleasure fiend had barely begun to speak its words of charming and befuddlement, when its head snapped to the right and a series of deep red indents bloomed on its left cheek. Starsul, never one to do anything by halves, followed up his contemptuous backhand with a no less derisive slap to the pleasure fiend`s right cheek.

The fiend, wounded more grievously in its pride than its flesh, retreated in shock, scarcely able to believe it had been so brazenly assaulted. It even held up a hand reflexively, as though such an entreaty would halt Starsul`s zealotry. When the baron continued to advance, the fiend`s natural craven spirit failed it. Hoots of derision followed its retreat, and one of its peers stepped up to deal with the arrogant mortal that had challenged them.

This pleasure fiend was not so easily intimidated by a single adversary. Perhaps it was because this one was older, and had served among devils and demons alike, and had seen far more terrible things. Perhaps it was because it had studied arcane mysteries that no mortal could uncover without being driven irrevocably insane. Perhaps it was because once, long ago in Malor, it had served in the retinue of Brathelathor herself. Whatever the reason, this pleasure fiend did not hesitate to speak the words of uttermost immolation and call upon the eternal fires of the Hells to consume Russel Starsul and bind within them his soul to torment forever after.

A great blaze roared up from his feet, but shockingly, seared neither his robes nor his flesh as it rose higher in a blistering helix that finally wrapped itself about his head, so that he appeared to have a towering mane of fire. Bright embers drifted away in a wind that came from nowhere. He opened his mouth to howl in delighted, frenzied exultation, and his tongue was a tendril of flame. His breath emerged as the roar of a forest fire, his voice crackled like a well-stoked furnace.

"Very well, I admit I did not think him that resilient," the Silver Duke commented in a resigned tone. "This proof of Flamgart`s favour will make him even more boring now. Help him anyway, paladin. Another monstrosity is coming through and I think this one will need my attention."

With an impossible leap, a salmon leap, the Silver Duke seemed to fly over the heads of the earthbound unfortunates, and alighted gently in front of the portal straining to expel its cargo. Massive pincers had reached out into the world, clashing blindly to clear the path for the rest of the demon, uncaring as to what they destroyed. A nightmare head emerged, equal parts drake and wolf, followed by a bony ruff bedecked with spines as thick as a man`s leg. A second pair of arms, ending in clawed fists that looked able to shatter steel, peeled aside the crumpling edges of the portal and allowed the remainder to cross over.

The glabrezu gurgled horribly, taking in the sight of the Silver Duke, and subjecting it to an unnatural intelligence that was belied by its terrifying physicality. No unthinking brute was this and it recognised that the aged human in eye-watering colour combinations was more than merely insane. Even so, it was surprised when its pincers hit nothing but air, and the old man had somehow driven his cane into its flank like some kind of geriatric shiv. Pain, for the first time in centuries, and so much more enduring than any that had been felt in millennia!

Enraged, all its attention on the Silver Duke, the glabrezu did nothing to stop Embla from slipping past to join the melee against the lesser demons, eagerly crashing into the back of the hezrou duelling Damion Felmund. It could not even see the duchess Brigid moving around the outside to intercept Niklaus before he could disappear in the chaos. What it could see, and which it ignored, was a dwarf floating in the air on a flickering disk of magical energies.

That was fine by Brokk. It gave the wizard enough elevation to see his targets clearly, and if anything tried to attack him, then Isolde was more than able to protect him, currently hidden under the illusion of an overturned table. A number of quasits and even a pair of vrocks attempted just such an assault, and were summarily reduced to dissolving ribbons by the agile and many-daggered halfling, each blade glowing with holy light as Burcan the White came to the aid of his old friend.

At last the portals were closing up behind each demon they expelled, Niklaus` confidantes among their foul kind being exhausted. Kelerak`s finest had already stemmed the tide at its height. Now they began to turn it fully. The pleasure fiends had come closest to imperilling Dragonspur, but when Aidan`s warhammer and Brokk`s magic joined the now-literally incendiary Baron Starsul in raining down destruction upon them, what control they had imposed was broken as swiftly as their bodies.

♢♢♢♢♢

Niklaus scurried from one place to another in a mad, futile panic as centuries of effort crumbled around him. Every time he thought he saw a way to escape, the route was blocked. What he had been convinced of as his salvation from any threat was now proving to be his own downfall, as the unleashed demons had done no more than rouse the Kelerites to action.

Spurred on to greater heights than they might have ever imagined by their true leaders, the divided assembly he had sought to infiltrate and consume from within for the dark glory of Vornoth, the men and women of Kelerak were triumphing over the foulest beings he had dared to commune with. Even the troublesome outlanders he had been advised to eliminate at his hoped-for barony of Fisherman`s Solace had not been the true danger to his schemes, though by arriving with the Silver Duke in tow, they had clearly been instrumental in orchestrating this downfall.

At his back, inseparable from him, Asta laughed at his mounting terror and understanding that by devoting all of his mental resources to summoning every fiend at once, he had effectively rid himself of any other defence. It was a novice mistake, unforgivable, an idiocy stemming from exhaustion and desperation, and entirely the outcome his betrayed wife had hoped to accomplish with her haunting.

The mightiest fiends he had brought forth were already succumbing. Damion Felmund had finally struck down his hezrou, taking advantage of the Erunian outlander`s surprise attack, and the slow obliteration wrought by Sir Kelphin was proceeding almost unhindered thanks to the holy wards the church of Neltak had placed upon his shield. The pleasure fiends were scattered, falling swiftly to a half-elven paladin with a warhammer and Russel Starsul--who, to Niklaus` utter horror, was now revealed as undeniably a champion of the Firelord himself--whose mere proximity scorched the unclean flesh of the fiends and whose touch set them alight.

Even his glabrezu was faltering under the relentless assault from Marius Sonnesberg, who was apparently impossible to hit, or deflected the force behind each blow so that the demon risked overbalancing at any moment. The dwarven wizard who had broken his curse on Asta had turned his attention from the broken pleasure fiends to this greater adversary and was enfolding it in spells of weakness and slowness. Whenever it attempted to use its own innate magic, or take to the skies for some kind of aerial advantage, either Burcan the White or the halfling gutter runner, acrobatically using its own bony spines to move along its ruff and slip her daggers between its chest and throat scales, would bring its efforts to nought.

In the midst of this catastrophe, there was still enough sanity left in him to recognise two important things, and it was the second of these that interrupted his efforts at escape. The voice was one he barely knew, having only heard it at one long-ago function, but it spoke to him in the ceremonial tongue of the ancestors whose honour and memory he had defiled.

"Ill met are we, Niklaus Liespeaker," said Brigid Sonnesberg coldly, barring the last possible way out of the plaza. "Did you think you had escaped us? We of the true Anar remember. From father to daughter, from mother to son, from past to future, the songs of vengeance have been passed down. Judgement is come. Will you die better than you lived? I hope so."

In the same old speech, the demoniac hissed at her hatefully, "Precious irony indeed, for a whore to condemn my life, when so eagerly did she spread herself before the white hairs of a slop-brained petty-king! How low has been brought the Great Bear, squealing defiance as might a swaddling babe to the chastising hand!"

Brigid`s cold expression scarcely wavered at the insults, but her eyes flashed. By her side, the ethereal figure of Asta hovered in support, and these two daughters of mighty jarls, agents of retribution living and dead, at last faced the great traitor of their people. Niklaus somehow suppressed the urge to shiver, instead casting his gaze about for the one hope he had briefly been left, only to be denied even that.

"Eilithu!" he pleaded to the air. "You gave me this life. I gave you so much more. You abandon me now? Why do you not come to me?"

"She cannot answer," Brigid smiled thinly. "The succubus Lilith was vanquished years past during the rescue of Baron Goldcrown. If any part of her black spirit remains, it is banished to the farthest reaches of the Hells. The baron recommended her defeat was kept a secret to encourage any who thought her still active to reveal themselves in search of her. Now, my sister-cousin, let us end this."

Asta matched Brigid`s smile, becoming ever more solid as destiny neared, and intoning a dire obituary: "Niklaus, you were once of the Elk, and you betrayed that trust. On this day, the Bear and the Wolf pass judgement on you that this wrong be avenged. May the Seal carry your soul swiftly to where it belongs."

Relative silence at his back told him that not one of his demons remained intact. The demoniac turned his head to see his former sponsor, Oliver Goldcrown, at the head of those he had sought to destroy. When he looked back, his last sight was of Asta and Brigid as they seized him, broke him, and discarded him. As his soul fled the mortal world to its rightful place amid the tortures of Malor, Asta sighed joyfully and, for the last time, dissipated--and for her were waiting the wondrous glories of an afterlife for the noblest martyrs and heroes.

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Within the hour, the chaos of a demonic incursion had ended. It was replaced by the chaos of a political frenzy. Now that the threat had passed, and indeed been overcome by a grand show of unity from all the disparate factions of Kelerak, the alliance had instantly dissolved so that everyone could work out who was responsible for it all. And with Niklaus dead, that meant who was responsible for letting him get so close to his goal.

The Lovelaces had argued it was the fault of the Goldcrowns for sponsoring him. Gregory Danube, one of Oliver Goldcrown`s most staunch allies, diverted the accusation by asking why the Lovelaces had been so easily charmed by the pleasure fiends and had notably absented themselves from battle even prior to that. This had allowed Russel Starsul, whose ignited manifestation had doused itself with the life of the last pleasure fiend, to accuse both sides of incompetence by virtue of moral weakness.

Damion Felmund had leapt to the defence, pointing out that Starsul had not spoken out against Niklaus either, instead spending his time loudly preaching for the renewal of a holy war against the East. Sir Kelphin opined the attack itself was a declaration of war, and that it was important to prosecute whoever may have incited it by, for example, their ceaseless calls for a crusade against the East.

Brigid Sonnesberg attempted to intervene and point out that Russel Starsul had clearly been protected by Flamgart during the attack, and so his patron clearly did not oppose his call to arms. The Whites immediately questioned why an Anarian had been allowed to get anywhere near the position of baron in the first place, and hinted at some especially devious duplicity as Niklaus` apparent death came at the hands of another Anarian (who had clearly married above her station) and what was obviously some kind of malevolent ghost. With all this magic flying around, who knows what really happened?

This time it was Goldcrown who pointed out that the Whites had proven even more susceptible to the pleasure fiends than the Lovelaces, and had even begun to direct their bodyguards to aid the demons before the charm was broken by Starsul. To this insinuation, Sir Kelphin and Damion Felmund argued that this was not itself evidence of anything other than weak wills, and in fact, it had not been until the arrival of Marius Sonnesberg and the adventurers that the ghost had been able to manifest.

At this point, Guildmaster Sir Eric Ranolph raised the question of why that happened, and on and on the arguments went, to and fro with no sign of any lasting agreement between or within any of the groups. To a certain extent, Niklaus` plan to destroy the baronies of Kelerak from within had been doomed to failure from the outset--it needed nothing so complicated as his centuries of scheming to accomplish, for the nobility were quite capable of tearing the country apart by themselves.

Standing apart from the verbal tempest, Marius Sonnesberg was apparently ignoring everything in favour of narrating his role in the battle to his cane, whilst Aidan and the others watched on in despair. No less upset than they at what was happening, Burcan the White nevertheless maintained a nervous hopefulness as his expression. His face brightened as one particularly insistent cry started to multiply around the plaza:

"A High Moot! Call Osbern out from the Spur. Let us have a High Moot. Let every voice be heard and judged. A High Moot!"

The calling of a High Moot was something even Embla had heard of in relation to Kelerak. Outside of the Founding Laws laid down by Keler himself at the dawn of the kingdom, it was the oldest and most enduring tradition of the nation, and one of the most rarely performed, no more than six times thus far in its entire history. It required every adult member of the nobility, and every anointed public servant such as the guildmasters and the priesthood and military officers, to be in attendance so that between themselves and the king, the most binding of decisions might be made regarding the future of Kelerak. To go against the judgements reached at a High Moot had never been known and was thought of as practically a sin in and of itself.

"Everyone who is needed is already here for a High Moot!" Damion Felmund announced as the crowd finally agreed on this one thing. "We need but the Green Throne to acknowledge this and it may be started this very day! Lord Osbern will not deny us this ancient right!"

"Ahem, Damion my boy," Marius Sonnesberg interrupted with an apologetic cough. "But you are wrong. We are still missing one person."

The shocked and confused silence was thick enough to be a physical presence. The Silver Duke, unperturbed by the undivided, and mostly hostile, attention of the most powerful and influential figures in all Kelerak, took a moment to scratch the tip of his nose with his cane. Burcan, knowing at this moment that his ultimate gambit in bringing the Silver Duke to Dragonspur had just paid off in full, nearly fainted away in relief as the explanation was given.

"Where, might I ask, is Harald? Assuming he is not still a captive of that pompous lich Ajef the Black over in Dessingrove. Harald would need to be released if he was to attend, and indeed, if a High Moot was to take place at all. Come to think of it, if it`s a rescue party we need to send, I know just the four people for the job."

TO BE CONTINUED