Harbingers of War
Chapter 1: The Battle for Giran Edit
Due to Cardinal Seresin's efforts, the seeds of trust seem to have finally taken root - if only for a little while. The ominous feeling of an approaching crisis was shared by all of the races. The infernos of war that consume the entire land was sparked in a place that no one could have expected - neither the border regions nor the cold northern areas where the monsters roam, but deep in the realm of humankind.
History is the most severe teacher of stubborn lessons oft repeated. Humans seem to need enemies like the air they breathe. If they can find no likely adversaries, they will begin to agitate those around them. Ever since I learned of the disaster at Giran Castle, the words of my only teacher follow me, taunting with his perverse sense of wisdom: Since humans are made of the refuse of the gods, they are naturally dirty...
After the Elven ambassador passed through Aden's splendid castle gates, Duke Lewin Waldner, who had maintained control of Gludio, was driven out of the territory. The new lord was but an adventurer of unknown roots. In Dion, Duke Ashton was forced to relinquish his throne to rebels, fleeing to Aden. Blocked by the Ol Mahum mercenaries, King Amadeo's soldiers were unable to come to the Duke's defense. The rules of siege are cruel - a rebel leader who captures the castle becomes the lawful ruler for the entire territory. The king can only confirm the outcome. Humans would do well to take heed - even rebellions beyond the outer reaches of a territory may cause the kingdom to promptly collapse. Fate was already stepping toward chaos - an important battle was occurring in the richest part of the kingdom, marking a vital turning point in the events unfolding.
Many suspicious matters attend the battle for Giran Castle. With neighboring lords so abruptly replaced, how could Baron Carmon Esthus needlessly expend his forces in an excursion to conquer Antharas? Where did those who survived the attack afterwards roam? Where was the Baron himself and why did he entrust his castle to Lionna Blackbird, whose importance is yet unknown?
Why do those on the battlefield blithely revel in the fact that things have always been this way? The answers are as apparent to Sieghardt, a mercenary who traveled from Elmore to fight in the siege, as they are to the young princess who struggles to defend the castle at the Baron's request. For both of them and many others alike, the reasons are Harbingers of War.
Chapter 2: Erica (1)Edit
Innadril Lake borders Giran and Innadril. A huge wasteland stretches north to Death Pass. A river of tears flows south to Innadril Lake. On a hill above the northwestern shore stands the castle with a view of the lake in all directions.
It was a hot summer day when the sun cut through skin like an arrow. The moat surrounding the castle shone brightly, yet dark mountain clouds in the north foretold of heavy rains soon to come. Crows cawed nearby and both armies braced like blades in battle, waiting for the steadily approaching moment of conflict.
Graham was but an old man wearing expensive clothes, representing the castle lord like a merchant visiting a palace. Upon arriving at the tent, Sir Graham adjusted his cloak and complained of the severe western wind.
In contrast, Erica Ken Weber tied her hair together to fly in the wind. Her disquiet before the battle was exacerbated by the grumblings of Sir Graham. The clan flags around the encampment roared like fierce campfires in the wind. To the side, mercenaries handled a cache of supplies, dispersing arrows.
"Thanks to the lord's goodwill and ample investment, we'll not face material shortages. If only other things were as adequately handled by you mercenaries. Or those second-class fighters."
Graham blew his nose, directing his unpleasant gaze over the encampment. Another clan promised to this siege quietly prepared for battle. A group of thirty Dark Elves equipped with thin, polished swords and mithril armor were arrayed beneath a black flag bearing a red wolf crest. At the forefront, a silver-haired Dark Elf female commanded the group.
"You need not worry. They are the mercenaries of the Red Wolf Brotherhood. It is said not long ago they overwhelmed a group of griffon knights of high standing in clan battle."
"Oh... That is amazing," Graham retorted with an unseemly gaze.
"It is also said they have neither pride nor compassion, but an evil reputation for becoming annoyed and abandoning those who employ them. Not long ago, someone from a commercial guild attempted to hire them, but found his tongue cut out. He must have said something wrong."
The Dark Elven female directed her gaze at Erica as if noticing her glance. With a deliberate movement, Erica placed right hand to left breast, bowing in acknowledgement. Sir Graham turned his head quickly.
"Enough of the inspection - we shall return to Sir Sieghardt."
"If that is your wish, my lord."
Before she could finish her response, she was already looking at Graham's back as he rushed to the head mercenary's camp. Erica smiled.
Of the various Dwarven guilds, the Black Anvil was famous for concocting and employing particularly strange mechanical devices. The Black Anvil was rumored to have participated in the great tragedy that occurred in Dion Territory, when the Core of Cruma Tower was resurrected.
"Alright, whatever you want. I have nothing to say about that otherwise."
Sieghardt raised both of his hands and the three Dwarves in attendance raised the flats of their hands as well. On the back of their hands was a black tattoo inscribed in the shape of an anvil. They moved their short legs as they talked and Sieghardt shook his head from time to time as the Dwarves explained something. Finally, the leader of the Dwarves shook hands with Sieghardt and the Dwarves departed just as noisily. Erica coughed dryly and spoke carefully in a somewhat loud voice.
"We're ahead of schedule, but Sir Graham feels that the inspection is finished, general."
Sieghardt looked surprised but Graham nodded his head in affirmation.
"I have seen enough of the dignified appearance of the troops of Sir Sieghardt. I look forward to the results of the battle. But..."
Graham paused and looked toward Erica. Erica nodded her head softly. "I will step out for a moment."
"No," said Sieghardt, "It is alright. She is a trusted servant."
"In that case..." Graham opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated again. "How is it that you can trust Dwarves?"
A smile spread slowly on the face of Sieghardt.
"I have not depended on Dwarves like this before, but it would be an offense not to accept them, considering the sincerity they have always shown me."
Seeming satisfied, Graham departed without another word, leaving Sieghardt and Erica to themselves.
"I did not mind going outside, general. But I was thankful you said I was a trustworthy servant."
"We will have to speak of all sorts of things during the fighting, but it is more trouble to have to explain everything again later." Sieghardt then added, as if he had thought of something suddenly,"Things are well ahead of schedule. I think you have done a thorough job accounting for even the last potato in supplies."
Erica touched her hair softly in a show of modesty.
She wanted to ask about the Dwarves but decided against it, as Sieghardt would tell her soon enough. He always devised his strategies alone and gave instructions to his underlings about only what needed to be done. She had been surprised many times before, but had lately grown accustomed to his unexpected commands.
The Dark Elf woman that led the red wolves was waiting for the two when they emerged from the camp. She approached Sieghardt and put out her hand. After pressing his lips softly to her sekaman skin gloved hand, Sieghardt spoke a few words of greeting. It was in the Dark Elven language, with which Erica was unfamiliar. The woman smiled unnaturally but did not speak, returning to the encampment where the races were gathered. She seemed to like Sieghardt.
The defending mercenaries were deployed on the castle walls. As she covered her eyes from the sun with her hand, Erica inspected them carefully. She could see many Elves that had light, soft physiques and pearl-colored skin, which the Ruhn women envied. Some mystics in pure white robes also stood nearby, holding their staffs in hand.
"There are twenty or more archers above us. We must be prepared for many casualties when we attack the castle gates."
"Not to worry, Erica," Graham spoke with a confident voice. "That is the extent of their forces. You can be certain they have handled little more than farming tools before. Their bows cannot hide their numerical weakness."
Without speaking, Sieghardt looked over the forces arrayed on the castle wall and allowed a smile to cross his face.
"Lionna... She is not bad."
Erica had heard that name only recently. When she heard that responsibility for the defense of the territory had been entrusted to a girl of not even twenty years by the lord of Giran, she laughed in sheer disbelief.
Although Lionna Blackbird had commanded forces successfully in many other clashes, Sieghardt and Erica had defeated rivals much more formidable than her. However, they were troubled by a rumor that Lionna received divine protection from the Fire Dragon Valakas.
Erica forced all such rumors from her mind. Perhaps she knew the stories too well. Regardless, her general who stood before her could kill an opponent while laughing. She did not know what he was thinking; only that he would win. She would entrust the fight to him and concern herself with the work of which she was given charge.
Suddenly, the restless soldiers become startled. Several pointed toward the castle walls with expressions of disbelief. With a high-pitched screech, the castle walls opened and an Elf emerged, wearing Elven chain mail over his porcelain skin. Standing in platinum boots and wearing a long sword on his waist, he raised his empty right hand in a peaceful gesture.
"It seems as if he has come to surrender."
The Elf crossed the bridge over the moat and headed towards the place where Sieghardt and Erica were standing, approaching carefully with nimble steps. He bowed courteously to Sieghardt, as he was the leader of the attacking side. Sieghardt nodded, but the Elf stood straight and spoke in an elegant voice.
"This is a message from Lionna Blackbird, who as representative of the lord is in charge of the defense of Giran Castle."
The Elf pulled a scroll from his waist and unrolled it with both hands.
"Brave commanders and soldiers. I wish from my heart to praise your orderliness and dignity. As the defender of Giran Castle, I beseech you, please put your weapons away and go back to where you came. The owner of this castle was decided long ago and there is no reason for this to change. Whatever you want, it is not something you can obtain through military might. This declaration is also a warning: If you insist on your reckless attack, you will certainly suffer a cruel fate. On behalf of Lionna Blackbird, commander for the defense of Giran Castle. Nothing more!"
The distorted face of Graham contrasted with the refreshing laugh on the face of Sieghardt.
The Elf who finished reading aloud had no expression. Like all the other tribes of the forest that Erica knew, this Elf had a face with which one could not judge his mind in the slightest. As if waiting for Sieghardt's reply, he just stood there without blinking an eye. Sieghardt prepared his voice and then yelled loudly.
"Go and tell that young woman who you regard as your leader that I will cause little trouble if she will kindly hand over the castle! That is all!"
Laughter could be heard throughout the attacking camp at Sieghardt's thundering cry. However, the Elf replied without hesitation or even a hint of agitation.
"I will convey that you have rejected the request of Lady Lionna. I will go."
The Elf returned quickly toward the castle gate, showing his undefended back.
Erica came to Sieghardt's side.
"If you were trying to make them angry, would it not have been better to cut his throat before sending him back?"
"What anger? This is all just the formality of siege battle."
"Is that so? Is there a principle that must be followed even with this Lionna girl?"
Sieghardt nodded his head.
"It is a rule. Everything must take place according to the will of the castle. They will protect the castle. We will invade. We express our intentions and decide on the date and time. Those who break the rules can never be recognized by the castle."
"But doesn't that make things more advantageous for the defending side?"
Erica hesitated, but Sieghardt laughed knowingly. No matter how she looked at the possible outcomes of today's battle, she could not discern any reason that they would lose. Erica sighed and stretched out her shoulders.
Suddenly, a damp wind blew in from the northern mountains.
Chapter 3: Lionna (1)Edit
Lionna looked down from atop the parapet of Giran Castle, watching Vellion's return from the attacker's camp.
The Elven knight soon arrived and stated formally, "The leader of the enemy forces rejected Lionna's request."
She let out a short sigh at the confirmation of what she already knew. Vellion's face looked a bit distraught and Lionna wondered if he had also received some insulting words from the enemy. She looked out at the enemy camp sprawled outside the castle.
"So, we will have to fight. Thank you for your efforts, Vellion."
The Elven knight courteously bowed his head in response.
"As discussed earlier this morning, Vellion, I want you to direct the foot soldiers. If the enemy breaks through the castle gates, you must prevent them from reaching the inner castle. Baron Esthus entrusted the defense of this castle to me and I would like to prevent the enemy from ever reaching the inner keep."
"I will do my best. All else is in the hands of the gods."
"May the blessings of the stars be with you always."
The Elf descended the stairs gracefully and disappeared from view. Lionna sighed again, much deeper than before.
Less than half the defensive forces remained in the castle. Even Cardia de Hestui and others on whom Lionna could always rely were outside the castle. The enemies had suddenly appeared when least expected. Could spies have infiltrated the castle walls? Were that the case, could she trust anyone?
For a moment, her suspicions ran loose and all sorts of doubts began seeping into her consciousness. This girl, who was thrown into the role as lord of the castle, tried to shake the thoughts tormenting her.
Anger surrounded her entire body like a mist enveloping a lake. Her knuckles turned white as she grasped the stone railing of the parapet.
"I stand ready to assist in the castle defense, Lady Lionna."
The declaration from behind her came from an Elf whose voice she had not heard for a long time. Turning around, she realized he was wearing the green ceremonial dress permitted only to the high priests of Eva.
"Ah, Ellik! You have arrived!"
"I am sorry, but we were greatly delayed in Dion."
"Do not apologize. You know of our... situation?"
Ellik nodded. "I met Dubian upon my arrival."
The two comrades walked slowly through the castle.
"As you know, this layout is very similar to that of Gludio Castle. The fiercest battle in that siege took place at the entrance to the inner castle. That was the weakest link in the chain of the castle's defenses."
"I regret the disappearance of Duke Waldner. He was a good man. Is he still missing?"
The silence of the Elven priest revealed what he would rather not say.
Her voice became somewhat severe. "The castle gates cannot be defended." Lionna tried very hard to fight back the tears suddenly welling up inside of her. "Is there anything we can do?"
"It would be good to gain some time at the castle gates and thin out their ranks from the protection of our castle walls. As soon as the enemy breaks through, we must be prepared to withdraw our forces to the entrance of the inner castle."
"Those are my thoughts as well. We really have no other choice."
Ellik nodded his affirmation.
Lionna returned to the castle walls. Looking across the battlefield, her gaze came to rest on a flag with the head of a golden sheep emblazoned on a black background. She carried her thoughts like heavy burdens. "That is where the enemy leader waits."
"I suppose those thoughts are also shared by our counterparts."
"Their actions are those no ordinary leader would dare, or common adviser would recommend. Ellik, this unreasonable war is a dangerous force that looms before our eyes. We must find some way to prevail."
Ellik regarded Lionna for a moment - a human girl whose age was not even one tenth his own.
"I follow your charge, Lionna."
She resolutely returned to the ranks of soldiers and assigned combat positions to the archers and mystics. Later, as she was giving final strategic instructions to the foot soldiers in the castle's inner court, Ellik brought a female Elf to meet her. During the introduction, Lionna noticed she had long golden hair and fine features. On her neck was an amulet of Eva, the goddess of the lake.
Many of the young foot soldiers found themselves staring, as this was the first time actually seeing an Elven woman in the flesh. "Would that you were half as attentive to my instructions," Lionna quipped wryly. The soldiers all lowered their gazes, suddenly embarrassed. Lionna smiled as she motioned the Elves to follow her in order to make their introductions elsewhere.
"This is Luellin, the oracle of my command."
Lionna could see she was an elder of very high position in Elven society. She bowed her head to greet the Oracle, hoping to hide how nervous she was.
"During the battle, she will shield you with her protection and healing magic."
Lionna extended her hand. "With our meager resources, the archers and foot soldiers would benefit more from such protection. Please assign this person to Vellion's inner castle defense. Receiving such unwarranted consideration does not seem right to me."
Ellik's reply was polite but firm. "You are our leader. We take the necessary measures to safeguard you from injury. To not do so would threaten the safety of us all."
Realizing he had spoken too loudly, he quickly glanced toward the foot soldiers, who were too busy appearing disinterested to meet his gaze. He spoke again in a lower tone.
"When the siege starts, this will become a scene of mass confusion. Frankly, I abhor this kind of battle. Young and old alike, whose lives have already faced so many hardships, will be destroyed in an instant. Throughout all of these uncertainties, one thing is absolute: Your life must not be sacrificed."
Reluctantly, Lionna nodded her head without speaking.
A horn blared in the distance. Its low, wailing resonance alerted everyone in Giran Castle to prepare for battle or run before the ensuing chaos. The steady reverberations inspired the forces on both sides with renewed purpose.
Many of them would soon join the rows of forgotten headstones in some unkempt cemetery.
Archers on the parapet set arrows to bows, aimed for the masses and pulled back with all their strength. Blue energy from soulshots commingled with spells recited by the mystics until a golden energy coursed through the bodies of the archers.
Units of attacking soldiers arrayed in groups of thirty, awaiting the signal. Finally, the commanders in the field raised their swords and the soldiers began marching toward the castle in an arrhythmic crescendo of footsteps sparsely punctuated with cries of war.
Hundreds of arrows sliced through the sky in a cruel rainbow.
The battle had begun.
Chapter 4: Erica (2) Edit
As expected, the first to reach the castle gates was the Red Wolf Brotherhood. The warriors intended to tear down the gates quickly, but when they crossed the bridge, Elven foot soldiers suddenly emerged from hidden side passages and blocked any possibility of retreat.
The defending foot soldiers wore light armor, making the greatest use of their dexterity. The Elven knight, who had entered Sieghardt's camp alone to convey the declaration, was their commander. Rather than clash directly with the Dark Elves, they moved skillfully to prevent them from retreating. As a result, the Red Wolves were battered by arrows pouring over the castle walls and they fell one on top of another. Had Sieghardt sent the supporting troops any later, the Red Wolves would have been wiped out completely.
Seeing the first attackers so cruelly decimated, the morale of the other soldiers quickly fell. The weather seemed to change in accordance with events on the ground. Gathering clouds billowed by northern winds blocked the sun, coloring the sky in hues of flaming ash.
As these events unfolded, Erica contemplated Sieghardt's expression. His face looked like he had bitten into something extremely bitter.
She could not contain her surprised disappointment. "This is not at all what I was expecting!"
Still silent, Sieghardt seemed to be deciphering some unfathomable code in his head. Erica decided to observe the events without saying anything more.
Graham, who was standing nearby, looked very dissatisfied. He sputtered awkwardly and finally exclaimed.
"Those mercenaries came at a high price! Make use of them now, lest they go to waste!"
Sieghardt ignored Graham completely and gave instructions to his assistant.
"Red Wolf Brotherhood, retreat. Archers to the front. Aim for the feet of the enemy soldiers and shoot three burst shots. Then fire at the archers on the castle walls. Twisted Claw fighters - prepare to discharge."
The messenger delivered Sieghardt's commands loudly to the troops. Soon multiple units of Rangers moved forward to fight in three groups of five. Responding to the commands of the Hawkeye and the Phantom Ranger, they loaded their arrows, pulled back the strings and poured forth like water. Their shots flew into the wind and broke into hundreds of pieces, lighting many fires at the feet of the Elves. Fortunately, the survivors of the Red Wolf Brotherhood and the units that had risked their lives to rescue them escaped without great losses.
Graham stomped his feet, frustrated at being ignored. Reaching the end of his patience, he put his hand to the back of Sieghardt. The ears of the black panther that had been sleeping next to Sieghardt stood up. The animal straightened its back lethargically and interceded Graham and his master. The panther bumped into Graham's leg with his shoulder, throwing him off balance. Stretching out his neck, the beast brushed himself against his benefactor, yawned and gave Graham a disdainful look. Graham caught himself and stepped back silently, his belligerent attitude quickly dissolving. Some time ago, Sieghardt had summoned this panther from the world of the dark.
Although Erica felt some sympathy for Graham, she took noticeable pleasure at his cold sweat and sudden silence.
In long strokes, Sieghardt kneaded the thick, lush fur that covered the immense cat, which purred loudly in response. Calmed to an almost trance-like state by this therapeutic activity, the leader addressed Graham in a detached, sublime tone.
"Do not worry, Graham. Since they are expendable, we will use the mercenaries as we see fit."
Sieghardt signaled his attendant to bring him a chair and his voice became more authoritative.
"The full-scale battle has not yet begun. Now, for the sake of your own well-being, please have a seat and watch the action from a comfortable distance."
Confounded, Graham could do naught else but seat himself and remain silent for the time being.
One drop. Two drops. Rain started to fall in earnest. Thick humidity that blanketed the conflagration became a torrential downpour, harsh drops stinging charred and weary faces. The field of battle became a mire of brown mud. Without regard to the capricious winds, clashes of iron rang ceaselessly and screams of the dying grew louder with the passage of time.
An Orc crouched in the rain some distance from the agonizing screams. Shakdun, who had received the title of Destroyer from his race, was deeply immersed in meditation. Contrary to his silent disposition, thoughts of malice permeated his inner being. Were he able to join the fight, the Destroyer would have already shown the enemy the true meaning of his name. Erica was curious what he could be thinking at this moment. About his brothers who were rebuked as betrayers? A shameful memory of the day he was exiled by the prince of flames? Perhaps he thought about his fiance left back home.
Blood poured from his shoulder, glistening against the tendons of his wide, powerful back. Shakdun was ready for battle.
His finest troops, numbering slightly more than twenty, waited patiently in their raincoats for their general's command. One of them held out an extra raincoat, but the leader raised his left hand without turning and spurned his subordinate's offer. Erica witnessed this and decided she would rather follow Sieghardt's lead than that of the Orc.
"If you do not hurry up and send them into battle, Shakdun may come running with that club."
As if waiting for an ideal moment, Graham spoke up. He held an oily shred of paper against the rain as he stooped in the chair provided by Sieghardt.
"That Orc is the Destroyer who ruined one of the taik orc villages in the Forest of Mirrors!"
"One does not use a glaive to kill flies. This is not the right time for Shakdun to step forth."
Graham stood up abruptly. "When would be the right time?"
Without blinking, Sieghardt remained impassive for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Graham shrugged his shoulders and collapsed again into his chair, muttering drolly.
"As usual, our infallible leader knows all and says nothing. But if he loses -"
"We will win." Erica cut him off.
In disgust, Graham sulked off and disappeared behind the camp. Erica was glad that he had left, even though he had escaped physical rebuke.
The rain fell in a torrent. As the heavens flashed in the north-west, the landscape changed to a white hue. Thunder boomed in the distance like the dull thump of beating drums.
"The intense lightening and rain reminds me of a heroic scene from the songs of the bards." Erica mused to herself.
A messenger approached, saluted Sieghardt and called out in a loud voice.
"Our Osori unit was destroyed! The leader of the Sigh of Hag unit is dead!"
"We can see that, you idiot!"
Before Sieghardt could say anything, Erica approached the messenger yelling shrilly, having lost control of her emotions. The leaders of the units still awaiting the commands looked in the direction of the sudden commotion. Erica was silenced by Sieghardt's black panther, which nudged her with his head and growled with a low rumble.
At last, Sieghardt spoke.
"And what of the Elves?"
"You mean the enemy?" Shaken, the messenger barely managed to reply. "They began to retreat. But it seems a few of them are still resisting outside the castle."
Sieghardt gave a faint smile. "Of course. That is the way the game is played."
He told the guard on duty to bring a lantern. Taking the lantern directly, he headed for the edge of the lake and gestured toward the mist-covered lake. A flame appeared from the middle of the lake as if to reply.
Suddenly, a massive flow of water splashed, throwing rocks toward the base of the mountain facing the military encampment. Something churned continuously in the water. A new sound was added to that of the waves and the rain, like the cawing of a bird. This changed to a creaking noise, as if hundreds of wooden doors were opening and closing. The water splashed again and a vibration emanated from within the earth. An enormous body, like a large column, rose up through the thick mist. Erica looked for the end of the column, but realized it was part of something much bigger. Already beside her, she had to turn completely around to see the entire thing.
It vaguely resembled human form, but with strangely long arms. Its entire body was covered in mud and vegetation, like some ancient giant appearing from the bottom of the lake. The maleficent streaks of rain washed it of these impurities. As the lightening struck again, Erica could clearly make out its face.
The behemoth passed well over their heads, making its way towards the castle wall in heavy, lumbering strides.
Chapter 5: Lionna (2)Edit
All words were forgotten in the empty thickness of battle. Sounds of rain and the clashing of weapons seemed remote and insipid. As soon as she saw that thing, Lionna felt a huge anvil drop from outside existence to land with the forgotten harshness of reality on her head. An enormous iron leviathan, towering over the castle walls, lumbered slovenly towards them. Soldiers protecting the castle fell into panicked chaos, disregarding their duties, only able to stare at the thing.
"Shoot! Shoot now! No need to aim at something that size!"
Someone managed to scream a command to the archers. Shocked into reality, Lionna gathered her wits and instinctively held up her spear.
"Maintain order!" She yelled with all her might.
"Think about our comrades, those who fought and died against Antharas, never to return! Act in a manner befitting their sacrifice!" With one foot on the parapet, she aimed her spear at the mechanical blight.
Her officers were first to respond, commanding soldiers to let loose with arrows and magic. However, the arrows bounced off the giant behemoth's iron hull like mad flies. The mystics sent flaming balls of crimson that rode the hot moisture, only to leave faint scorch marks on their target.
The gray golem disregarded their combined resistance, treading heavily towards its destination. As it approached the moat, a crossbeam supporting the bridge creaked ominously. Suppressing her urge to scream, Lionna ordered her forces to continue their resistance.
Suddenly, the somnambulant automaton crashed into the castle walls with the full force of its brutish mass. Lionna staggered near the precipice, collapsing into someone who grabbed her tightly and brought her down safely on top of himself, breaking her fall.
Gathering her wits, she realized the person underneath her was sorcerer Dubian of the Ivory Tower. His robes were completely muddied from the rain and his wet hair stuck to his face.
Lionna stood up and returned to the parapet, forgetting to thank her supporter. The berserk machine slowly raised its huge arms to pummel the castle gates. Magic and arrows sent against the giant abated, leaving flames only on one arm, which soon extinguished.
Dejected, Lionna could spur her soldiers no further. Looking off in the distance with a languid gaze, she felt despair consume her entire body.
"That golem was created by Dwarven blacksmiths of the Black Anvil Guild. Look at the mark on its shoulder - it represents the black anvil itself. But to move a body so large requires an extraordinary power source."
Cutting short the lengthy explanation, Lionna replied sharply.
"What does it matter? That thing is going to raze the castle gates. We must find a way to stop it!"
At that moment, the entire castle shook fiercely, with a force much stronger than before. Many soldiers collapsed in their places and sorcerers fell like coins from the Ivory Tower. Lionna held the stone columns of the parapet with both of her hands, barely able to endure the onslaught. With every rise and fall of the golem's huge arms, the thick boards that made up the castle walls were splintered and scattered all around.
Dubian called out while supporting his body against the wall of the lookout tower.
"The one controlling that thing must be a Dwarf of the Black Anvils. We must find him! If we can stop him, this golem will become nothing more than a lifeless iron heap!"
Lionna paid no heed to the arrows that flew in from the attacking camp. Pushing her upper body over the edge of the castle wall, she inspected the scene. Due to the fog of the lake, she could only see a world completely awash in a milky-white haze.
Another violent crash added to the sounds of destruction, resulting in visible cracks on the castle gates. Lionna blinked uncertainly, blinded temporarily by a sudden burst of light that came from the direction of the lake. She ran along the castle wall to determine the cause.
Dubian followed behind her, reciting spells that formed a magic column of circular light. A cat-like creature with unusually large eyes emerged, standing on two feet. The sorcerer uttered more commands and the creature leaped upon the parapet, put its paws to its forehead and gazed across the lake. After a short time, it approached the sorcerer and communicated mentally with its master.
"The Dwarf is at the lake."
With that, Lionna sprang to action. "Bring me a swift horse!"
She hurried toward the stairway. "Fighting an opponent you cannot see is a futile endeavor. One must go directly to the source."
"No, you cannot do that! It is too dangerous!" The Elven oracle Luellin, who had not spoken until now, blocked Lionna's path.
Lionna roughly pushed her aside and shouted,"Get out of my way!"
Luellin staggered slightly, but refused to allow Lionna to pass. She looked intently into her eyes and yelled in desperation, "My life, as well as that of everyone in this castle depends on you!"
Soldiers on the castle walls followed Lionna with their eyes, supporting Luellin's pleas.
Ice-cold drops of rain stung her neck, shoulders and chest. As Lionna muttered to herself, an archer extended his hand and took a position.
The archer handed his bow to Lionna. She walked quickly to the north end of the castle wall.
"Dubian. Pen and paper."
The sorcerer and oracle followed behind. "Speak. I will write what you say."
Lionna reached the north side of the castle wall and tied the completed letter to an arrow. She relied on memory to find a small thicket located northeast of the castle and pulled the bowstring. The arrow followed an arc as it disappeared into the fog.
A short time later, she looked in the direction the arrow had flown and headed again for the west side of the castle wall. She still had much to accomplish.
Vellion lead a few more than twenty Human and Elven foot soldiers, concealed in a small thicket between the castle and lake. The attackers would not have expected numerically inferior defensive forces to expend a separate unit. Vellion and the foot soldiers departed from the castle through a secret gate to the north, where they awaited further orders.
Having read the letter attached to the arrow, Vellion headed for the lake immediately. They avoided the attackers, which were concentrated mainly in front of the castle gate. Bypassing the eastern side of the castle walls, they traced the edge of the lake according to Lionna's instructions. Fog concealed the group's movements until they reached their destination.
They came face to face with the attackers.
A Dwarf held a lantern that was covered to protect it against the rain. In his other hand, he held a strange mechanical device, shaking and gesturing with it in the golem's direction.
Vellion's eyes met those of the Dwarf. The Dwarf looked back at the Elf, opened his eyes wide in surprise, but began to laugh.
A huge Orc with fierce claws of steel appeared from behind the Dwarf, which quickly turned and hid behind him. The head lieutenant of the foot soldiers also appeared, whose body was encased in heavy armor, emblazoned with the crest of a golden sheep.
Vellion looked at the lake that stretched behind the Orc and sighed. He slowly lifted his sword.
Chapter 6: Erica (3) Edit
The Elf emanated a surprising ruthlessness. The edges of his Elven Longsword ran with blood as his opponents ran for their very lives. Erica watched with amazement as the Elf slew six of her fellow soldiers. A wiry rogue approached the Elf from behind, moving stealthily through the fog. His grip tightened around the hilt of his long, serrated dagger.
Erica watched as the rogue raised his dagger for the killing blow. Without warning, the rogue's neck was sliced open and his weapon flew haphazardly. A shining, fist-sized orb returned to the Elf of its own accord. He stood as still as a statue, except for his eyes, which were scanning for a new target. His expressionless gaze fell on Erica, who was mostly enshrouded in fog.
With sword outstretched, a faint aura flowed from the Elf's body. The soldiers raised their weapons and approached the Elf. The mercenaries, once possessed by bloodlust, were suddenly satiated. The sight of their fallen allies, scattered and broken across the battlefield, did nothing to deter them as they approached their own demise.
Even as these words left her lips, Erica became aware that she was no longer hidden by the fog. She too walked toward the Elf, carrying nothing but her pitiful dagger.
One after another, the mercenaries died on the Elf's sword. Erica strained to restore her own will, managing to stop the movement of her feet. It was all she could do just to remain still as the Elf engaged her Dwarven ally. As the killing stroke was about to fall, she saw the Destroyer Shakdun appear from the mist. He swung a hammer at the dwarf, knocking him into the lake and out of harm's way.
Shakdun took out his two-handed Jamadhr as the Elf recoiled. A strange battle cry, half yell, half song, burst from deep within the Orc. The two-edged sword slashed toward Shakdun's neck, but he crossed his metal claws, catching the blade. The small shape that hovered about the Elf emitted a light as it dove towards the Orc's chest. Stepping back, the Orc seized the offensive. The six claws of the Jamadhr flashed time and again. The Elf evaded and parried the attacks.
The Elf's face seemed made of clay and the Orc's forearms seemed like dragon leather. Each was marred with countless cuts, and with each clash, fresh blood flowed, spattering the ground.
"This is not going to work," Erica thought.
Erica picked up a dead archer's bow, and found a stray arrow in the mud. She drew her shot and aimed for the Elf. But the Orc and the Elf moved so quickly that she could not track her target. Knowing she could not seriously injure the Orc, she released the arrow.
The arrow sliced between the warriors, breaking the flow of Shakdun's onslaught. The Elf paid no attention to her as he attacked with a single-bladed sword. Shakdun stood his ground, lashing out with the Jamadhr. The blades collided in an eruption of unnatural flame. Metal slid across metal as the combatants maneuvered their interlocked weapons. With a deft twist of his hilt, the Elf broke the guard of his own sword against the durable claws of the Jamadhr. The Elf withdrew his blade, cutting the Jamadahr's leather bindings, and gouging flesh beneath it.
Blood flowed between the claws of Shakdun's Jamadhr. The straps unraveled, slick with blood. The weapon slipped from the Orc's hand, falling to the ground, heavy and useless.
Erica let out a scream and ran toward the Elf. The single edged blade arced toward her with stunning precision. Erica felt the tip of the blade whip through the loose strands of her hair as she ducked and rolled to the ground. Shakdun lunged, thrusting the remaining Jamadhr forward. The Elf parried with one sword, plunging the remaining blade into the Orc's flank. He howled ferociously. Erica rose to one knee, then pounced.
She threw her entire weight into the dagger, penetrating the Mithril armor, cutting flesh and breaking bone, finally touching the very life of the Elf.
The Elf slowly collapsed. As he dropped to his knees, a strange sadness came over his face. His eyes fluttered and he fell to the ground.
Looking at Shakdun, she saw that he was gazing down at the corpse of his enemy in silence. Blood flowed from the spot the Elf had stabbed him, but it was not a mortal wound. The Orc unfastened the remaining Jamadhr and threw it into the lake.
Erica wondered if the Orc was angry at her for having intercepted his opponent. She stood for a moment and decided to approach him. Touching his shoulder, she spoke with purpose.
"He would not have killed you."
Shakdun looked at her with a severe gaze. His eyes bespoke his uncertainty. Erica turned her face without knowing why.
"I am sorry."
Shakdun walked toward the edge of the lake, where the Dwarf he had saved was nursing a wound. The Dwarf was holding a huge weapon that was twice as tall as his own height. Shakdun took the weapon, waved it around in the air and then looked directly at Erica.
He spoke as if it was a declaration written in stone and then laughed. Erica let out a smile. Then she turned her thoughts back to the battle.
"It looks as though there was more resistance in the castle than we expected. Many foes still remain."
A Dwarf sat in a tree near the encampment, a pipe clenched between his teeth. He held a cylindrical item to his eye and looked out toward the lake.
"The operator seems to still be alive," said a voice somewhere near the base of the tree.
The Dwarf removed the device from his eye and looked down at the source of his interruption. A Human stood next to the tree trunk.
"What did you say?" the Dwarf asked.
"The golem operator seems to have survived."
The Dwarf let out a hearty laugh and put more tobacco into the pipe with his thumb. His fingertips, long-since calloused from doing a Blacksmith's work, could not feel the heat from the burning ash.
"That is a stupid thing to say."
"What? Why?" The man standing under the tree spoke.
"What possible reason could there be for shaking a lantern while operating a golem?"
The Dwarf took a deep puff from the pipe and spoke slowly and deliberately. "And why did the Orc take the device from the Dwarf? Because it was too heavy?"
The Human under the tree opened his eyes wide and looked out over the lake as if in disbelief.
"Then… why did Sieghardt use the lantern?"
"Because he is a fox. With nothing more than a lick of flame, he lured the enemy's finest soldiers to their death."
"But to risk the life of the golem operator…"
The Dwarf sighed. "It was the enemy who assumed that the lantern's light came from the golem operator's hiding place - an assumption that Sieghardt predicted and intended. The enemy has paid the price for their folly."
The Dwarf jumped down from the tree. The Human hurriedly reached out to him, but the Dwarf pushed him away as if to say he did not need the help.
"Quite a successful field test."
The Human nodded in agreement.
"I trust you will speak well of it to those who have invested." The blacksmith of the Black Anvil Guild smiled with satisfaction.
Chapter 7: Lionna (3) Edit
In the hallway behind the throne room, the tension was thick. Only ten remained, including Lionna. She wondered how many of them would even have the strength to raise their weapons when the time came.
The damage was severe, and the situation was grim, but hope remained. If they could prevent the leader of the invading force from seizing control of the castle's heart – a holy artifact – they would emerge victorious. But Sieghardt's forces were very strong. They had swarmed through the courtyard and smashed the inner door. Now they were headed straight for the relic, and the only way to reach it was through the hallway Lionna's group guarded.
Lionna could not help but notice the precarious condition of her rag-tag group. She feared that injury and exhaustion might take them before even having the chance to face the enemy. Some had retreated here out of loyalty, while others had been driven here by the happenstance of battle. Behind Lionna, the Oracle Luellin was still standing. But Dubian had been lost in the chaos. And the report of Vellion's death had come as a blow to the troops.
Even as she surveyed the scene, Lionna noticed that she was bleeding. Luellin spread out her arms to cast a spell of healing but Lionna stopped.
"Save your strength for the others."
The nearby soldiers who had protected them had suffered even more seriously. Luellin did what she could to heal their wounds.
The clashing of swords was replaced by the echo of swift footsteps. Their enemies had dispatched the last remnants of the castle's outer resistance. Lionna lifted her sword. The soldiers created a defensive perimeter around Lionna. The enemy appeared from around the corner and Lionna summoned the strength to shout.
"Glory to Giran! Attack!"
The first wave of enemy soldiers was cut down by a row of spears. The charge was broken, and Lionna's defenders held their ground. A massive Orc waded through the melee, wielding an enormous glaive. Lionna doubted he could put it to good use in the narrow, crowded hallway. But she watched in horror as the Orc broke through the defensive perimeter.
"It's dangerous! Get back!"
Lionna pushed the soldiers and ran out to meet the Orc, tearing away from Luellin's protective grasp.
The Orc's glaive cut through flesh, and smashed the granite walls. Blood and dust filled the air. Half of her remaining force lay amidst the rubble. Another wave of enemy soldiers followed in the Orc's wake.
Lionna ordered her unit to retreat to the Relic Chamber. They stood in a tight circle, surrounding the Holy Artifact, as the enemy surrounded them. Lionna could see that the time to recognize defeat had come.
Lionna slowly looked around her. Even in the second-floor railing that encircled the chamber had been completely overrun by enemy archers. The arrows that were directed at her all glowed blue together with a brief, low hum.
"Hold your fire."
The enemy soldiers that had been blocking the entrance stepped back and Sieghardt Ein came forth, followed by his black panther. He looked at the Orc and spoke.
"Shakdun. There are still some forces resisting in the east of the inner castle."
The Orc didn't budge.
"There is no need for you to remain. She has already lost her will to fight."
The Orc didn't take his eyes of off Lionna.
The Orc turned his back and left the Chamber.
Sieghardt moved his gaze past the corpses to look at the girl who stood holding a sword. He gave her just the slightest smile.
"It's been a long time, Lady Lionna. Or does the occasion require that I call you sir?"
"It is too bad that we meet this time as enemies."
"There's nothing to feel sorry about."
Sieghardt furrowed his brow and looked once again at the girl before him. Her hair was damp with sweat, her skin stained with blood.
"Even scarred by battle, you are no less beautiful than you were on the night we spent in the ruined fortress."
Lionna attacked Sieghardt. He gracefully side-stepped her blow. He drew his sword and parried her next attack as well. In the space of that moment, the entire room erupted into chaos.
Luellin cast her gaze on Sieghardt and began an incantation, but Sieghardt's panther leapt at her. The exhausted oracle was unable to dodge in time. The panther knocked her to the floor, pinning her under its giant paws. The Oracle flailed her staff desperately, but the panther swatted it away. The panther sunk its teeth into Luellin's throat. The Oracle went limp as her blue robes turned to red.
Lionna heard Luellin's last cries, but had no time to feel anything. She was the only one left. She knew that she was surrounded by enemies, but she kept her gaze locked firmly on Sieghardt as she attacked.
For some reason, his response came a split-second too late. The tip of her sword grazed his temple. A drop of blood rolled down Sieghardt's cheek.
Catching her breath, Lionna noticed that Sieghardt's men were no longer focused on her. They began stumbling incoherently, and dropped to the ground one by one. It was only then she noticed the faint purple light that lingered in the air, clinging unnaturally to the unconscious soldiers. At the same time, the archers that had been trying to shoot her from the second-floor were attacked by a strange, catlike creature.
"Lionna! This way!"
Entering the Chamber was Dubian of the Ivory Tower and an Elven Elder. A writhing ball of flames appeared at the end of his hands and flew toward Sieghardt. Together with the explosion, the entire body of the dark avenger was engulfed in dark red flames. Sieghardt crossed both arms to protect his head and rolled to the ground. His black panther sprinted toward the Elven mystic. Dubian let out a scream and collapsed.
Lionna ran over to Dubian. Sieghardt, who had extinguished the flames, blocked her way. Lionna's sword was filled with the energy of the spirits. Her weapon flew toward the dark avenger's head. Again he blocked it.
Suddenly, a red shimmering caught fire under his feet. The ghostly red tendrils spiraled upward and around his legs, immobilizing him.
The Elder finished reciting the spell and called to Lionna. But Lionna was rushing to Dubian's aid. Dubian rammed the end of his staff between the panther's bared teeth and pushed with both hands. The panther fell to the ground with the staff still in its mouth. Dubian rose to her feet. A white flame arose to the side of her body and then a bright flash hit the panther hard. The panther was consumed by a cloud of black smoke and it disappeared – sent back to the nether realm from whence it came.
As Lionna put her arm around Dubian, she saw one of Sieghardt's sleeping soldiers begin to stir. It wouldn't be long before his entire force awoke.
Before leaving the Chamber, Lionna turned around to look at the dark avenger. His dark eyes gleamed as he smiled.
"Goodbye, Lionna Blackbird."
Lionna knew he was looking for an emotional response. She had no intention of giving him the satisfaction. She broke away from his gaze and said nothing.
Lionna, Dubian, and the Elder fled through the corpse-strewn hallway.
Chapter 8: Epilogue Edit
The dark clouds that poured rain over Giran slowly dissipated. Sieghardt, leader of the mercenaries, gathered with his fighters in front of the holy artifact of Giran castle. The soldiers eyed Sir Graham suspiciously as he entered the room to find Sieghardt receiving a report.
"The defending officers have all died or run away. A few continue to resist in some areas of the castle, but they are soon defeated."
Graham clapped his hands and walked over to Sieghardt. He placed a hand on the dark avenger's shoulder.
"You're amazing! Truly amazing! It was a complete victory, Sir Sieghardt!"
Sieghardt smiled humbly and looked at Graham. Graham went over to the holy artifact before speaking casually.
"The Lord will be very happy. There were some misunderstandings in the beginning, but they mean nothing after this great victory. I will be sure to tell the Lord about your hard work."
"Do you really need to trouble him?"
Sieghardt stood next to Graham and observed the holy relic quietly. It had the form of a woman standing on a jeweled pedestal. This object was no ordinary statue. It bestowed absolute power to the holder, over the rich land of Giran.
Graham opened his eyes wide, as if to ask what he meant.
"Looking at it this way…" the dark avenger removed the glove on his left hand, facing the holy artifact and took a step closer.
Graham quickly put out his hand in a defensive gesture. "What, what?" He laughed nervously and spoke. "Sir Sieghardt, your work stops here."
Sieghardt smiled without speaking.
"Stop joking around. Take my share of the compensation. I'll give you as much as you want. Wait until the Lord has communed with the holy artifact, as planned."
Sieghardt's right hand went to his hip and then moved forward again. It was a natural and flowing movement, as if taking out a handkerchief to wipe away sweat. His smile remained as Graham's head fell to the ground. Sieghardt placed the sword back into its sheath without a drop of blood on it.
"I had grown used to his nagging voice. I'm almost sad we won't be hearing it any longer." His underlings laughed heartily.
Sieghardt put his left hand softly on the holy artifact. The statue and jewels turned red and a faint light started to shine. Light spread to Sieghardt's arm, was absorbed into his body, and that was all. Those in the vicinity realized that the castle had just changed ownership.
Sieghardt and his mercenaries walked out. In the middle of the imperial room, a golden carpet was spread. At the other end was a table inlaid with gold. In front of the table was a dark green billowed insignia. Under that insignia, there was a red base and a footrest created in the shape of a wolf's head. Near the throne were the servants and chamberlain who service the castle lord.
"Do you have anything to say?"
The chamberlain smiled softly and shook his head without speaking.
Sieghardt slowly went up to the throne and sat down. He rested his chin on his left hand and lifted one leg up over the other. Satisfied, he smiled. With the chamberlain leading the way, the employees of the castle expressed their courtesies to the new castle lord.
Twenty or so wooden boxes were scattered around in a disorganized way in one room on the second floor of Giran Castle. Erica Ken Weber shook off the dust gathered on the last box and opened the top to see what was inside. There were old tools for maintaining a garden.
Erica exclaimed and hit the box with all her might. She checked again for the items in the box; after a short time, she sighed with resignation and simply left the room.
The item she was looking for had already disappeared.
In the hallway, corpses were lying all around, of both friendly and enemy troops slain in battle. She avoided the corpses in the hall and stopped before a window. Outside, she could see the soldiers reveling wildly in their victory. The noise of celebration in honor of the new lord was very loud.
If the object she was unable to find was still in the hands of the enemy, she would have to leave the castle before the year was up. So too would her allies.
Erica shook her head and returned to her comrades.