General Daraque res Khenor glared down at his mage as he watched the slow disappearance of tower after tower over the crest of a distant hilltop. He had heard the roar of the first falling, a distant rumble that came to his ears mingled only with the faint cries of the doomed. Moving to the best vantage point, he had been able to witness the top of the mages' tower slowly toppling over, followed shortly thereafter by a loud, echoing detonation as their implements of magic destroyed themselves. Shortly after that another tower, ahead of the others, vanished beyond the hill, and then a fourth, spilling forward to whatever doom had been visited upon it. Only one tower remained, unmoving.
"A spell." hissed his pet mage, a dark robed, sinister human by the name of Johan from next to him, earning the giant's heavy browed glare. "From there." he pointed toward the hill over which they were able to see just the tops of the doomed towers, and the one remaining. "Minor magic, but effective."
"It would seem." the giant rumbled as he broke into a ground-eating jog, his huge legs covering six of the shorter human's paces with each stride. Another giant snatched the mage from the ground by his waist and jogged after, followed by the giant's personal guard. Gibbering in their wake came the trolls, prodded on by the massive ogres who handled them.
Shortly after the fall of the fourth tower, though, they were forced to stop running as the ground at their feet heaved and bucked, throwing stones from precarious perches to tumble them down into the valleys around them. Daraque and those giants with him merely stopped and went to one knee, bracing themselves with their hands as the earth shuddered under them like a giant with the colic. The mage, held in the crook of his bearer's arm, swore vehemently as he was tossed about by the giant's attempts to keep himself balanced.
With a great, shrilling cry the trolls broke and scattered, the ogres not far behind them, dropping their weapons in terror. A few of them vanished abruptly, swallowed by a rift in the earth as a huge stone burst from the hillside, smeared red where one of the doomed creatures had run into or fallen upon it. Daraque shook his head angrily and waited out the earthquake, which was little more than any he had ever experienced in his youth as a human.
Due to his skill, cold ambition, and loyalty, Nasoj had gifted him with the power and form of a giant, though without locking his mind in a similar state. He had also earned the armour he wore, which he was promised would protect his life in the face of any foe. Thus girded against mortality, he had cut a swath of conquest and destruction across the northlands, quelling any rebellion against his lord wherever it lifted its head.
All that had ever balked him in his decade as General to all the giants of the realm was the pitiful fortress of Metamor Keep. Nasoj had called him back with the defeat of seven years earlier, the mage's personal guard slain and his magic utterly emptied in the casting of his final spells. Daraque had been forced to watch as the last of his giants were cut down by, of all things, women trapped in men's armour while all around them babies bawled and animals scattered for shelter.
Despite those losses, he had assumed victory to be assured, until a host of the animals suddenly turned about, resolving into something between man and beast, and went at the remaining Lutin hordes with a savagery that was pure animal rage. Babies became children that picked up weapons and returned to the fray no more armour than their own bloodlust. Nasoj's magic had been countered, but not entirely, and the Keep had been weakened by it.
But there were no more reserves to call to the front, to bolster those remaining tribes against the unexpected rage of the defenders, and the attack was routed. Nasoj pulled back, with Daraque one of the few left to cover his retreat to the dark castle he called home. Over the years Daraque had worked the northlands, quelling the rebellions that cropped up with the mage's defeat at Metamor, and returning order by the force of his fist and sword.
For seven years he had bided his time, waiting, marshalling his forces, gathering the most intelligent and level-headed of his forces around him as sub-commanders, ready to lead his troops into the next glorious battle against Metamor. He would lead them south come midsummer, taking command of the vanguard as the work crews reached the Giant Dikes and pushed southward into the passes. The towers, by then, would not have been far behind, their siege engines shattering any defense that was thrown up to thwart the road-builders. They would draw the enemy out, who would attempt to stop the road, and slaughter them in a great bloodbath that would redden most of his heretofore untested troops.
Once bringing the road above the level of the Keep's defensive ridge, they would merely roll the towers up against the curtain wall and pummel the defenses with their catapults while Daraque's own giants would swarm the wall and strike down the defenders. He knew that the Keepers would be able to summon aid from the midland kingdoms, perhaps a sizable force, but the towers would make the castle undefendable and they would be routed. Metamor would become the property of Nasoj.
Those had been his plans, orchestrated over the past three years as he had gathered and trained his forces to build the road, had the greatest engineers of the realm design and construct the towers and oversee the road construction. Everything had been planned out with meticulous care, and there was no chance of failure.
Yet, as he had watched the pitching crest of the mages' tower, Daraque had felt the bitter bite of failure. Something, somehow, had gone wrong. The engineers had missed something, made some careless mistake, and cost him everything. When Johan had said 'spell' his rage was absolute, though buried under the facade of iron rigid control that had kept him in power for so many years. Under that facade, though, he was a kettle at the boiling point with no outlet, soon to explode.
When he found that mage, he would rip the man limb from limb... slowly.
They resumed their run as the last of the tremors passed, the mage casting a quick spell to silence the sound of their approach. They giants' huge stride gave them a startling degree of pure speed when they ran flat out, without trees or shrubbery to slow them down. The came to the crest of the second hill within minutes, and did not know immediately what to look at.
The dike was an utter ruin, the water of the lake surging through a hundred foot wide cut in the foot of the dike, which was a three hundred foot breach in the roadway itself. The last of the towers stood a mere fifty feet from the precipice, while on the nearer side a crumpled heap of stone spilling down the eastern bank of the roadway was all that remained of the first tower. Daraque's shoulders tensed, his arms bulging as he clenched his fists angrily, and turned his gaze on a small, brown form down the western flank of the hill some hundred feet away. The furred creature was still watching the results of the destruction they had wrought, and never heard the score of giants that had thundered up behind.
Daraque suppressed a roar of rage as he focused on the source of his overwhelming rage, and sprinted down the hill with the startling speed of a well trained warrior. His quarry turned and looked back over its shoulder half a breath before the giant was upon them, their hand snatching at their weapon even as the giant's huge hand closed about their head and lifted them from the ground. Daraque batted the shortsword from the half-animal's small hand, and turned toward his mage.
"Is this the mage?" he growled darkly, his voice frighteningly level and quiet. The giant carrying Johan moved closer as the mage looked closely at the Keeper.
"No, she's just a fighter, no magic about her, Sire." the mage turned his attention to the sword laying in the rocks off to one side, "She has Ssipraza's blade though."
"Does the mage live?"
"I have no way of knowing, Sire."
Daraque grasped his quarry with his other hand as she tried to shift into a more animalistic form to escape the fist holding her head in its suffocating grip.
Llyn never even heard the monsters approaching, only the creeping sensation of impending doom touching at the small of her back prompted her to glance over her shoulder. Initially, she had thought the human was right there, standing directly behind her, and spun around to attack. But her eyes had deceived her, as the 'human' was still charging at her, and growing larger with each huge stride. She snatched at her sword a heartbeat before the giant's massive hand slammed around her head like the jaws of a bear trap and wrenched her bodily from the ground.
She feared her neck would break with the force of his assault, or that his grip would crush her very skull. She tried to bite his flesh, but it was too thick, too callused, and the rank saltiness left her gagging as her blade was knocked easily from her hand. The giant rumbled something, paused, and rumbled something more as Llyn shifted, changing to the smaller form of a true mink. The giant's hand closed about her midriff though, before she could escape the crushing vise of his fist about her head, and squeezed the breath from her lungs.
Releasing her head, he gave her a solid shake, rattling her senses roughly, "Change back." he growled, bringing her close to his huge visage. His salt-and-pepper beard barely obscured the cruel lines of his weather-beaten face, the cold green of his huge eyes boring into her like twin pikes. Gasping for breath, Llyn had little choice to do as ordered, clasping at his hand with her small paws impotently. As she returned to her normal form he transferred his grip, holding her in both hands.
His strength was dangerously immense, she knew he could squash her like a bug with hardly a thought, "Where is the mage?" the giant growled as he glared at her. She could do little but gape at him for several moments as she tried to regain her breath. He did nothing, waiting, his eyes trying to bore holes into her mind.
"I," she croaked, her eyes rolling, "I am." she managed to force out at length. The giant looked over his shoulder, where a robed human was standing upon a boulder beside a host of other giants merely shook his head at her words.
"You are not, peon." he rumbled, dangerously quiet, "You're nothing but a swordslinger. You have a mage with you? Where is he?"
"I have no mage." Llyn croaked, pointing toward the ground where she had been hiding, "The spell was in pieces, all I had to do was trigger it." The mage moved over to where she had been snatched from, picking up the leather and broken twig that Muri had given her.
"The magic is not hers, Sire." Johan reported, casting the items aside. Moving closer, he reached up and pulled the pouch containing her fire agates from her belt. Opening it up, he began rooting about in it. Llyn cursed inwardly. She had placed the stone in there with the express intent of losing it among the other stones. She knew what it looked like and could find it easily enough, but just in case of this very event, she had mixed it with the others.
The mage picked it out easily, "A locator." he reported, examining the stone closely. Llyn could only roll her eyes wildly, which was nothing different than she had been doing previously, the giant's grip was crushing her guts. She feared he would break her pelvis if he got any angrier. She cursed herself a fool, for this was one more time she had been captured by the enemy. "I cannot make it function, it is bonded."
The giant, who she suddenly realized was her most feared of enemies, General Daraque, gave her a squeeze that sent spears of pain through her hips and nearly crushed her breathless again. "Where is the mage!?" he bellowed, his hot breath flattening her whiskers against her muzzle as she cowered away from him as far as his hands would allow.
Murikeer draw up short with a startled cry as he saw the giants top the hill, dropping flat behind a stone in mid stride. His illusion still held, though the sudden cataclysm of chaotic life energies had nearly stripped him of his remaining reserves just as it had with the Lutins. He quickly sought out Llyn's presence, his heart giving another lurch in his chest as he detected the tiny tug of his tracking spell two hundred paces away, directly below where the giants had appeared.
Risking a glance over the rock, his worst fears were realized, and he cried out in shock. The leader of the giants, the one Llyn had told him repeatedly to avoid at all costs, had her held in the air by one hand, the other knocking her sword away. Muri snatched his bow from his shoulder as he tried to fade back out of easy sight from above or below, letting his illusion fade. He would need what remained of his magic if he had any chance in any of the hells of defeating the thirteen foot tall monstrosity. He dropped back against a recently unearthed stone as he struggled to string his bow with shaking hands, and reached back for one of his arrows.
"Artela, if ever your grace smiled upon me, let it do so now." he prayed, fervently, using the common tongue for the impromptu prayer, then switching to the elder Lothanasai tongue to quote phrases from the codex of Artela, "She may be one of Eli's get, but she's all I have." he whispered as he watched around the edge of the rock with one eye, his tail darting agitatedly behind him. "If I fail in this, she dies." he hissed quietly, as much to calm his own nerves as to beseech his goddess for her blessing, "And shortly thereafter, so do I."
He stood. From this distance he could see the weave of the magic set upon the giant's armour clearly. It glowed a violent, angry red, encrusting the steel breastplate with a complex pattern of energies, which shimmered and shone brightly despite the sunlight glinting from the polished metal. Tendrils of that energy traced out to his greaves and gauntlets, creating a web around him that was intended to prevent an enemy's weapon from finding his flesh.
Unfortunately, that magic was not also designed to protect itself from attack. He saw that fatal weakness the moment was able to pick out the magic in any detail. It all centered upon an etched amber stone set high in the center of his breastplate. The nature of the magic forced the placement of the stone, which logically should have been hidden away someplace sheltered, but it was proactive magic, and had to be beyond the items it defended to offer its protection.
And thus, was exposed to attack.
"Where is the mage!?" he heard the giant bellow, the first words he had been able to make out in the short few minutes since Llyn was captured. He knew that the mage had found his tracer stone, but could not make use of it because it was bonded to Llyn.
"I'm right over here!" Muri hollered back, revealing himself. The giant was turned slightly, obscuring most of his target with Llyn's body. Upon hearing Muri's shrill cry, he turned, as did all of the giants standing around him. "Artela, please give me this one boon!" he cried quietly as he drew his bowstring and quickly invested the last of his magics in the etched stone tip of the arrow. His breathing slowed, his heart seemed to pause in its rapid beating as the string came back to touch his whiskers.
A calm stole over him as he drew the cock feather across his whiskers, the sunlight glinting off of the giant's armour as he turned, one hand coming up toward the mage in a staying gesture, the other casting Llyn aside like a discarded child's toy. He took a step, reaching for his sword, but did so in slow motion from Muri's point of view. His arm steadied, the shaking vanishing from his limbs as he felt something stealing softly across the back of his hand, another touch upon his shoulder.
A whispered voice, barely heard in his ear, "Like this son, steady." his father's voice, calm and caring as Muri's aim came to rest upon the bright amber gleam, "Sight the target across the tip, feel the feathers, and breath out." The lesson was long past, his father long deceased, but he remembered it as clearly as the day his father had set his first target upon the field beyond their small cottage just outside of Metamor's walls. He let his breath whisper out, "There now, the pause between breaths, loose." the voice said with quiet, gentle calm. Muri did not hold his breath, merely waiting until the last of his breath had hissed path his teeth. In the instant of steadiness before he began to inhale, he unlocked his fingers, and the bowstring sang.
Time suddenly leapt to full speed as the thrumming release of the bowstring rattled the bow, the zip of the arrow's cock-feather as it crossed the shaft of the bow and the giant let out a thunderous bellow. The arrow was a barely seen dart as it crossed the distance from skunk to giant, but its effects were instantaneous when it reached its target.
A tone like the peal of a great church bell split the air when the arrow slammed into the amber gem set into the giant's armour. Barely heard over the ringing tone was a softer sound, like the shattering of fine crystal, as cracks raced across the giant's breastplate. Muri staggered back, startled, as the giant's charge faltered, his hands going to his ears. The mage, in the middle of calling up a spell, cried out and grabbed his ears, crumpling to the ground and curling into a ball. The surrounding giants, beginning to move after their general, bellowed painfully and clasped their ears. Some went to their knees, dropping their weapons, while others turned and tried to flee.
Llyn gathered herself up from the ground painfully, and covered her own ears. But that caused an impasse... she cold not pick up her sword with her hands over her ears. Grimacing, she bent and snatched up her sword, her other hand grabbing up the sack of stones the mage had dropped next to himself with Muri's first attention grabbing statement. The locator stone was a little harder to find, but the small gleam among the grey rocks caught her attention immediately and she snatched it up. Stalwartly blocking out the agony of her abused ears with a rictus snarl on her muzzle, she moved over to the mage, who cried piteously and rocked back and forth, holding his ears. She ended his pain with a hard thrust of her blade.
Sudden, euphoric satisfaction filled her entire being, allowing her to ignore the echoing, clear tone of the General's dying armour. She grinned a feral grimace as she darted over to the general, who had clasped his bleeding ears and turned away from the skunk. Llyn gazed up into his face, seeing the blood streaming from the corners of his eyes and nose, and leaped up at that ugly visage. Her blade caught the giant a deadly blow to his throat, sinking almost to the hilt before Llyn dropped back to the earth and darted past him. The deadly belling ring had faded slightly by the time the giant toppled, face first, into the stony hillside.
"Run!" she screamed at Muri, who was still standing where he had fired the arrow, stunned by the force of the belling tone. She grabbed his arm and dragged him backward a few paces before he turned and began running at her heels.
Midsummer: Nasoj's Castle
The tall, slender man in dark robes looked out across the flat plain of his domain with a hard, stony expression upon his face. A cool breeze stirred his neatly trimmed hair, ruffling the sleeves of his robes as he examined his view. Never before had the view been as clear or expansive from his present vantage point, in one of his many receiving chambers. Until a few moments ago there had been but one narrow window set deep within a casement on the southern wall of the chamber, but now there was a huge hole in that wall. One brick, loosened by the loss of its neighbors, made a quiet grinding noise as it toppled from the top of the opening, vanishing silently over the shattered edge of the floor.
Of the messenger that had been standing before that wall a few breaths in the past there was no sign. The mage's brief fit of anger had annihilated the portly man, along with a sizeable portion of the wall, floor, and some of the ceiling.
Three catastrophic pieces of news in less than one week was not something Nasoj dealt with lightly. First came the news that the amulet secretly sequestered in Arabarb was stolen by a Keeper in the form of a rat, one of his ships sunk in the pursuit, and the rat had managed to escape by leaping from a cliff.
Then, from the lips of the man whose remains were little more than dusty marks on shattered brick, a messenger informs him that his siege towers had been destroyed, all but one of them cast into an abyss by the intervention of a mighty mage and a host of angered spirits of the land. Shortly after that battle one of his Generals had also been slain, the magic of his armour canceled by the same mage that had caused the destruction of his towers.
What irked the mage more than those defeats was the fact that they were most likely done in the same manner; by sheer, stupid luck. The rat had been alone, supported only by a single ship from Whales. He was a Sondecki, after all, but only one. Even so, he should not have been able to blithely scuttle in like the rat he was and abscond with the most powerful bit of magic Nasoj had let out of his castle in years. Nasoj mulled that over darkly as he swept from the shattered receiving chamber, scattering a coterie of curious attendants and castle denizens before him.
He said nothing, he would take care of the damaged wall in good time, leaving the startled castle followers to whisper and quail in his wake. He descended the dark, spiraling stairwells from the heights of his keep into its very bowels, moving to one of the side chambers, where a scrying pool waited in unbroken, absolute silence, awaiting his whim. He needed no light for the trek, knowing his way as one born to such a place would, though he had not lived here even half as long as he had lived in the softer lands of the south, nor had he been borne here.
He swept into the scrying chamber alone, stopping a pace away from the edge of the inky black pool. A scrying pool blessed by Ba'al himself, it allowed him to look anywhere within the lands he controlled, and to where ever his forces walked, though not very far beyond the limited sphere of their influence. Focusing on his desired image, he watched as the last of the towers resolved from the depths of the black pool.
The dim light of dusk painted the motionless grey tower in contrasts of light and shadow, its quiescent catapults arrayed with perfect precision, as if awaiting a battle. Some thirty feet from the front of the tower, the roadway ended abruptly, a sheer drop down into the valley which the road-builders had blocked with a huge earthen dam over which they laid the road. Nasoj barely suppressed an angry epithet at the extent of the destruction. Clearly they had not built the road properly, or this could never have happened.
As if on cue, the earthen wall along the northern edge of the valley began to crumble, spilling huge heaps of dirt into the rapids of the water below, where the remains of the other keeps remained in a jumbled tangle of stone and wood. With a surge, the last remaining tower, along with the stretch of road upon which it rested, began to descend the slope toward the bottom of the valley. Like a load of stone on a lift, it rocked slowly from side to side as it slid downward, a wake of earth and wood tumbling down behind it. Reaching the bottom of the valley, the earth and wood it had ridden upon shattered upon the stones, tossing the tower forward and sideways like so many stacked pebbles. Toppling silently, the tower shattered against the rocks at the bottom of the valley cut through the remains of the dike, sending up a cloud of white mist that obscured its last moments.
A frustrated, apoplectic snarl escaped the mage's throat at the sight, which seemed timed only to vex him. With a snarl, he waved a hand over the image, and focused his will upon the dark waters, evoking one of the scrying pool's other, more powerful magics. The view of the tower wavered, then clarified, revealing the roadway hale and unblemished, a line of five towers arrayed across it. Silently their crew labored to push the massive constructions southward, whips rising and falling from the drivers' platforms as the catapult crews trained atop the four siege towers. No one was on the top of the mages' tower.
A silent flash of light lit the undersides of the towers briefly, and the result of that magical discharge played out in all of its stately, ponderous horror for the angered archmage. Not only had they built the roadway wrong, allowing far too much water to pile up behind it, they had failed to insure proper security, allowing their enemy to use one of the most minor of earth magics to undo all that had been wrought.
He knew the spell, merely by the echo of its invocation, as a simple, if powerfully cast, shatter spell fixed and triggered as one single mass. Their enemy had not, though, deigned to destroy one of the towers utterly, and block the others with the debris, but had attacked their single greatest point of weakness, the barely protected stone wheels. Half of the mages working with the procession had never escaped the fall of their tower, though they had several minutes to make good any manner of escape. They had died trying to save their magical possessions. Those that had abandoned the tower had not yet returned, wisely choosing to stay as far from their lord as they could, knowing that others would report the failure of the towers.
Nasoj impatiently waved his hand, refocusing his scrying pool upon his General, and watched patiently as he captured the mink. A Keeper, nothing more than a Long Scout. With the appearance of the skunk, though, Nasoj's attention focused, identifying him for future eradication, just as he had watched the rat. He could not see them at the Keep, but he could watch them whenever they were in his lands, if he knew they were.
The skunk, like the mink, was a nobody, a mere scout mage. What transpired next Nasoj was unable to determine, for the image within the pool wavered, unfocusing, and no matter what Nasoj did he cold not call the image into any further clarity. One of the gods had intervened, somehow, to aid the mage. The result was easy enough to see as Daraque reeled back, clutching his ears. The General's entire command reeled and staggered away from whatever sound the mage's spell had called up, even the skunk's ally seemed to be having great difficulty. She managed to grab a sword, though, and put an end to Daraque, and his pet mage Johan. Nasoj noticed whose sword she carried as well, a Moranasi's blade. Not one of the true swords, but merely an ensorcelled blade from Nasoj's own forges, similar to any other sword carried by the rank and file in all respects except the dark enchantments placed into the steel after it was turned over to its master.
Ssipraza had survived the tower, though, that much Nasoj could determine with a mere thought which sent the image in the pool skewing into the present, revealing the black robed Moranasi cleric in some inn, most likely in one of the frontier towns. That he survived, and had lost his sword to a Keeper, might prove interesting. Nasoj would have to find out where the cleric's loyalties truly lie, since he had yet to attempt recovering his blade.
With a curt wave of one hand Nasoj rendered the pool dark once more, and stalked angrily from the chamber.