Chapter 18: A Crush of Blades and Malice


It is not proper to consider ourselves the pinnacle of god's merciful creation. Though we possess a unique and wonderful rung on the great ladder of existence, there are many above us, as there are many below. Ants parade about the ground, dwarfed by our toes, and yet they must appear as monsters to some. Likewise, we find ourselves mere insects when approached by certain beasts. From time to time, leviathan harass our cities with seeming impunity. Indeed, it is a marvel we sometimes chase them off. Over the centuries, how many of these beasts have we encountered, and how few have we managed to kill?


Yet, these leviathan are not the end of it. There are other beasts, some without name, that occasionally strip the land and dwarf us with their massive forms. Still, these beasts are nothing when compared to the infinities themselves. So slow are the infinities that some argue they are not alive – they are just rock and water, swimming about the void, a mere accident of creation. Some say they are nothing more than the terrain we call home. We alone are granted a fullness of consciousness, and so we alone must be the pinnacle of creation.


I find this argument to be folly. Indeed, some great beasts find themselves victims of humanity. Yet, we must recognize that many lesser creatures offer us no end of trouble. How many men have been killed by warring bugbear, lions, bulls in the field, and even the slightest of insects? A great count of men have died by these clever beasts. Does this mean that scorpions are the true inheritors of god's great creation?


At times we are better than the beings above us, just as we are occasionally overcome by the beasts below. There is no set order, nor is it a question of divine right. Sure, there is probability and expectation when men find themselves in conflict with nature's beasts, just as there are exceptions and surprises. In the end, it is only possible to do what one can to avoid the calamity of existence and embrace the blessings of our condition. Instead of worrying about our place among god's creatures, it is essential we live our lives with verve, passion, creativity, and a general loving kindness for all of god's creation. Then we shall know our place is simply among our brothers and sisters – and that is all we need to know to live full, prosperous lives.


- The Elder Races of the World: Considerations, Arguments, and Refutations, by Aogostua Veribos, page 882


~!@#$%^&*()_+


In the dark of the tower, Krumpus slept, curled up against the wall with his hands to his chest. He was exhausted, pained, and wanted nothing but sleep. But his rest was troubled. His hands ached. Several times, he attempted to stretch them in his sleep. For his effort, pain raged through his fingers and palms, up his arms, into his chest. On several occasions, he woke with a gasp.


For hours, Krumpus stirred on the edge of sleep, thanks to the pain that radiated from his hands. He groaned and clenched his teeth. Life drained from his core and bled out through his fingers in alternate waves of fever and chill. Groggy and irritated, Krumpus closed his eyes and tried to sleep once more.


But he would get no good rest. Finally, he gave up the effort entirely. He felt terrible as he sat up. His hands throbbed. Krumpus looked about his cell hoping that the guards left his bag. He thought to give himself something: conicle, silver leaf, maybe even a touch dragon's tongue... but his bag was gone. Instead, he wept. He cried into his hands, curled like claws, and watered his nails.


Dinner sat at the door. Krumpus knew it was dinner, because he was given the same three meals each day. Dinner was a thin broth, a few limp vegetables, and a stale crust of bread. He knew his dinner had not sat long as the broth still steamed. It was a thin bronze lining on storm clouds that roiled thick and ominous.


Without the use of his hands, Krumpus kneeled over the food and sucked at the warm broth. He felt quite fortunate to discover the broth when he did. The heat was just on the edge of drinkable and it gave him strength to have hot food. He held his face over the slight steam and reveled in it. Little comforts were all he had these days.


Krumpus rested on his elbows and studied his hands. They were balled in loose fists. The fingers were as fat as sausages. There was an inordinate amount of swelling. It hurt just as much to tighten up his grip as it did to relax it.


Krumpus gently coaxed his hands to move. He breathed into the pain as his eyes teared up. He did not worry them too much. Slowly, his fingers responded. Despite the pain, he fanned his fingers ever so slightly. He repeatedly told himself this was not the worst pain he'd ever known – but he wasn't certain. He thought the bones of his fingers might rip through the skin. He sucked his breath and glanced about the room as yet another wave of pain washed up his arms. With a sigh, he leaned over his soup once more.


Krumpus sat back, settled in, and wondered what the day might bring. He thought of the stranger and the oppressive reek of the rot. He tried to remember all the events of yesterday – but it seemed so long ago and always ended in the cruel pain that raged through his hands. After a short time, he abandoned the particulars, and simply stared across his cell. In the dim light, a thousand tiny eyes stared back at him from the far wall.


Intrigued, Krumpus leaned closer and realized they were not eyes at all, but the exit tunnels dug by so many ants. He remembered the little doctors did not exit through the drain – as they had arrived – but dug through the mortar between the stones of the wall. He hobbled to the wall and inspected the tiny holes up close. He gently rubbed at the mortar between stones. To his surprise, a thick chunk fell from the wall and crumbled to dust. He pushed a knuckle into the mortar and it gave easily – like the delicate crust of a perfect pie.


Krumpus took several deep breaths. He forced his fingers into the mortar. The burning in his hands increased, but not as much as his excitement. Did the little doctors dig him an escape route? He knew miracles were only as big as one was willing to accept, yet Krumpus had a wide view of the world and a great want of profound miracles. The idea that a hundred thousand ants dug him an escape route was not beyond the pale. To him it seemed to be quite a logical conclusion. After all, the little doctors always came to help.


With his fingers wrapped around a stone, Krumpus yanked at the smooth rock. He pulled the stone loose from the wall and dropped it with a gasp. Though pain raged through his hands and arms, Krumpus smiled. Behind the stone, a lacework of ant tunnels continued into the dirt. He poked his right hand at the dirt and it flaked away as fragile as the mortar about the stones.


Krumpus gripped another stone as fire raged from his fingertips, up his arms, and into his back and chest. He ripped the stone from the wall, all too happy to do battle, and dropped it next to the first. Tears stained his eyes and a wide grin stretched his lips. Krumpus relaxed his hands. He lay on his back for several seconds and allowed his hands a rest. Slowly, the pain diminished back to a dull throb. He wiggled his fingers ever so slightly. Though the effort pained him, his excitement served as an analgesic. May the torments of hell burn through his hands so long as they set him free!


Krumpus sat up and attacked the next stone in the wall. It gave with little effort. He pried away a fourth and a fifth stone. He smashed aside a six, a seventh, and an eighth stone before he took another break. This time, he took only a few breaths before he continued his work. He pushed his hand into the brittle dirt beyond the stones and it fell away with ease. Soon, there was a hole big enough to fit the shaman.


Despite the fire in his hands, Krumpus raked at the brittle dirt. He realized the tunnels of the little doctors did not extend everywhere. Indeed, they took a specific course. A solid floor, walls, and ceiling emerged as Krumpus pushed forward. He followed the ant burrows deeper into the earth as the tunneling shifted gently to the right. Soon, he was six feet in. He took another break and rested his hands.


The pain and possibility of escape made the shaman manic. He snorted and cursed under his breath as he attacked the brittle dirt. Although his head was loud with excitement, he stressed that his efforts produce little sound. Mostly, it was just the scraping of dirt as his faint curses barely escaped his lips.


Some ten feet in, Krumpus took a long break. He turned to the remainder of his dinner. He soaked the crust of bread in the remaining broth, which was now cool. He ate the limp carrots and sad leaves of cabbage. As he ate, he thought few meals ever tasted this good.


As he ate, Krumpus admired the gaping hole in his cell. He realized there was no hiding what he'd done. The air was filled with a fine haze of dust. To one side was a large pile of dirt and stone. He wondered how long he had before the guards checked on him. How long until the tunnel must be complete?


With a renewed sense of purpose, and a sharp sliver of fear to drive him on, Krumpus returned to his work. He ignored the pain in his hands as best he could, but the fire made his arms and shoulders sore. He also used his feet, to kick and scrape at the brittle dirt. This gave his hands a much needed rest as he pressed on.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Leverkusen entered the stone tower and proceeded to the prison beneath. Cairn glared as Leverkusen entered the guard room.


"Come back to brag?" Cairn stood, a formidable man. He rolled his head left and right as he prepared to fight.


"Peace friend, I've been sent to look in on the shaman. Fedring wishes to know how the man fares," Leverkusen lied.


"How 'e fares? He's got claws for hands! The man won't get a wink of decent sleep for days!" Cairn snorted.


"I guess Fedring thinks this one is different," Leverkusen said with a shrug.


With a snort, Brough stood with the keys. He opened the door to the cell block and proceeded down the hall, followed by Leverkusen and Cairn.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Krumpus wiggled his way back into the cell with another load of dirt. Anticipation of his escape fueled him as his hands raged with pain. Wanting to work faster, Krumpus gripped the wooden bowl stained with soup and used it to scoop dirt. The edge of the bowl put the pressure of digging into the creases of his palms instead of his digits. It was a nice alternative and alleviated a bit of the pain.


After a couple feet of digging, the bowl snapped in half as he caught the rough edge of the wall and hit solid earth. It was a fortuitous break. Now he had a scoop for each hand!


The tunnel continued to extend. His cell filled with more and more of the soft dirt. An incredible amount of it hovered in the air and created a thick, choking cloud. Krumpus coughed as he continued. He didn't mind as he spit dirt and mucus. The tunnel continued on and on. Now it was some thirty feet deep! Without such soft, brittle dirt, the tunnel would have taken days of constant work! Thanks to the ants, he managed the work in a few short hours, even with his hands so badly damaged!


Sweat and dirt stained the shaman's face and clothes as he wiggled in and out of the thinning tunnel. His hands ached. They felt as if they were on fire. He wondered if he compounded the damage of Fedring's needle magic, but refused to give up his work.


As the tunnel continued to wind in the dirt, Krumpus wondered how far the ants travelled. Perhaps the ants never meant to free him, but only return to the earth where they belonged. The tunnel seemed too long, and it was getting thinner and thinner. Surely, he should be free by now. He wondered if he shouldn't have been more calculating in his effort instead of attempting the tunnel all at once. Many hours had passed since he began. The guards were absent for a long time and his thirst bothered him almost as much as his hands. He tried not to think what the guards might do if they came in with the tunnel half finished. Whatever his punishment, it would not be pleasant.


And if he should get free? At best, he'd be free with no supplies and hands bent into rude claws. He'd be without his bag or cloak. He'd be without a blade or water.


Still, he had his feet, his life, his balls. Things could be much worse.


With grim determination, Krumpus attacked the dirt and bit back the pain in his hands. Suddenly, the dirt did a strange thing: it gave way to air. There was nothing beyond! Escape was finally assured! With a surge of effort, Krumpus pushed out an opening and hung halfway out the tunnel. He was free!


The air was fresh and cool as Krumpus huddled at the edge of his tunnel. He turned, glanced about, and noticed the termination was just outside the wall of the camp. So that is why the ants dug so far... He thought. He stared into the forest as it rose before him, maybe a dozen feet away.


Away from the camp, the world was quiet. Indeed, Krumpus realized the world was too quiet. All was not well. There was an electricity in the air, an expectation of trouble. Krumpus held still as the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. There was something ominous about the trees. None of the usual night sounds came from the woods. There was no scamper of nocturnal feet, none of the buzz and hiss of insects. There was only silence. Something stalked in the woods: dangerous, lurking, watching.


With a deep seeded suspicion, Krumpus eyed the forest. He was so intent on what was before him, he missed the sound of the cell door as it opened. All the dust and dirt in the air caused the guard to cough. "What the devil?!" Brough wondered as he tried to see through the thick soup of murk and haze.


A jolt of panic struck Krumpus as threats and curses reached his ears. Sounds of exertion followed as Brough pushed his way into the tunnel. He was much larger than the shaman and struggled to get through the earthwork as it thinned. Fright prodded the shaman onward. Krumpus pulled himself free of the earth and scampered into the brush at the edge of the trees. He threw himself under the protection of a scrub oak and froze in place. The sudden crunch of dead leaves and twigs seemed entirely too loud. A sense of dread filled the shaman. He felt pinched between something bad and something worse.


A brute form emerged from the tunnel. Brough appeared much larger than Krumpus remembered and felt far too close for the shaman's comfort. He stared into the woods and looked for any disturbance. Another form crawled from the tunnel and scratched dirt from his hair. Free of the earth, Cairn stomped about the entrance of the tunnel. "Shit tits!" He kicked at the dirt. "Piss, puke, pussy, poop, fart, phlegm, and fornication!"


Krumpus was not in a good spot. It was a straight line from the tunnel to the scrub oak that hid him. The guards were bound to find him, and quite quickly, as soon as they searched. Still, he felt something worse than these two men haunted the woods. Despite his nervousness, Krumpus refused to move.


A third man emerged from the tunnel. Unlike Brough and Cairn Leverkusen began to search the woods immediately. It was only luck that he chose to search under a pine just to the left of the shaman, and that he should move the other direction.


Somewhere behind and to the right of the shaman a twig snapped. Leaves rustled. Something huffed.


Cairn reached up and pulled a long, thin dart from his neck. "What is this?!" He croaked. A wave of nausea washed over the man. He crumbled to his hands and knees. A violent impulse overtook Cairn and he spewed vomit with gusto. After several wracking heaves, Cairn could no longer hold himself up on all fours. He dropped onto his side and began to convulse. His eyes rolled back in his head and a thick foam exuded from his mouth. For several seconds, he kicked and thrashed about the dirt. Finally, Cairn stopped. His head lulled to the side and blank eyes leveled an empty stare at the sky.


"Cairn?" Brough leaned over his associate as a dart winged past his face. The guard lurched back and stared at the trees in terror. Without a second thought, he dove into the tunnel. He screamed and raged as he clawed his way back through the earthwork.


Leverkusen pulled his sword and a dagger as shadows rushed at the man. They were shorter than he was, but they outnumbered him a dozen to one. He cut at the beasts, but they dodged back and stayed out of the reach of his sword. The guard tried to make his way back to the tunnel, but it was too late. He was flanked. The man lunged forward and cut down one of the beasts, and the circle of enemies collapsed. The creatures cut him down in a flurry.


With Leverkusen dead, the shadows flung themselves into the tunnel after Brough. They were small, smaller then men, and had an easy time getting in. Still, they were large enough to be dangerous, and were armed to the teeth. As they passed mere feet from the shaman, Krumpus noted their swords, knives, axes, mallets, spears, blowguns... Their faces were covered in fur. Krumpus realized what he witnessed: bugbear!


A dozen of the bugbear clawed at the entrance of the tunnel, and another dozen pushed close to the mouth: an excited crush of blades and malice. Screams sounded from the earthwork and carried into the lower levels of the tower. More and more of the creatures poured into the tunnel. The peel of a bell announced the invasion was known.


A call went up from the woods, a guttural command that was repeated several times. Suddenly, there was a large popping sound. With a rumble, a section of the outer wall of the fort lurched and dropped several feet. Timbers snapped and broke as the section of wall fell into the camp. A tower tore from the wall and crashed to the ground in ruin. Screams of pain and astonishment rose from the camp as bugbear darted out of the woods and made for the breach in the wall. Krumpus realized they must have spent days sapping the wall. He wondered how long they must have snuck around the forts undetected.


Archers in the other towers clanged their alarms and fired arrow after arrow into the swarm of attackers. Fire appeared in the woods. Several balls of flame arched up into the night sky and exploded against the wooden towers that stood nearby. They caught fire as more and more of the beasts poured from the woods into the gap of the wall, no longer harassed by Ministrian arrows.


Although several beasts still mulled about the entrance to the tunnel, their attention now firmly fixed on the fort. Excited, the creatures clapped each other and danced with glee. Several charged for the breach in the wall while others waited to get through the tunnel.


The bell atop the tower clanged and echoed off nearby hills. The incredible quiet of the night was now a cacophonous riot. With so much noise in the air, Krumpus felt it was safe to move. Slowly, he crawled from under the clump of scrub oak and into the trees. He angled away from the creatures and moved along the curve of the wall to the east.


The further Krumpus got, the faster he moved. Shortly, he found himself on the east side of the fort with half a bowl still in each hand and nothing else. He stepped onto the road and turned back to see flames lick up the wall. The sounds of battle were thick behind him, but faded quickly as the shaman continued on his way. Ecstatic to have his freedom, Krumpus skipped and danced along the rough road. He clacked the two halves of the bowl together in time to his song. He did not relish the death and misery of those in the camp, though he recognized a certain justice in it. Most importantly, the matter was beyond his control, and therefore beyond his responsibility.


The Tears of the Broken Moon arched overhead and gave their septic light to the land. As Krumpus contemplated the hard justice of the great creator, his eyes caught on something at the side of the road. In the ditch was a long, wide spread of delicate yellow blossoms. His heart jumped as he realized he stared at a massive colony of foxbane.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Outside, all was quiet. Meu said there was nothing to do until Derris arrived. Until then, they should try to get some sleep. But Wenifas had no luck. She stared wide-eyed at the sleeping form of her boy and gently plied the hair from his face. She wondered how long until Derris would join them, when the rustle of fabric caught her attention. Wenifas turned to see Meu pull back the curtain that separated the rooms. She had a determined look on her face.


Wenifas sat up. "What is it?" She whispered.


Slowly, gently Meu leaned over the priestess and kissed her. Wenifas knew there was venom on her lips. The beast would soon be in her head.


The shaman has let them in, Meu said as she picked up the staff, cloak, and bag. She showed Wenifas the danger: waokie! Thousands of waokie flooded the camp.


"What do they want with us?!" Wenifas asked.


They want to kill and plunder, Meu stated. If they do not destroy the camp, they will certainly make a mess of it.


Wenifas glared at Meu, "You knew!?" she accused. "You knew and you didn't tell me?!"


Meu stared at the priestess. I am here for the shaman. I am here for Derris. By extension, I am here for you. To hell with the rest of them. I care nothing for this camp of slavers and pirates.


"Is that what you think of us?" Wenifas glared.


Yes, Meu admitted. Though I am sure there are others worthy of empathy and respect. How am I to separate them one from another?


Wenifas swore and spit as she shook her boy awake. "Claiten, baby! Wake up! I need you to wake!"


Claiten sat up and rubbed at his heavy eyes. He looked at his mother, then at Meu. With a groan of protest, he threw himself down on his pillow and closed his eyes once more. Wenifas cursed under her breath as she shook him again. In the distance the bell of the great stone tower clanged to life; once, twice, three times. Claiten opened his eyes as his mother lifted him to his feet. He noted the ringing bell and the growing panic on his mother's face. A sense of danger overcame the boy, and he blanched.


With a squeak, Claiten pulled on his clothes. He made sure his knife was attached to his belt. Wenifas pulled on her pack and took up the strange weapon Leverkusen gave her. There wasn't much in the pack: a change of clothes, her stash of desert flower, a small sack of coin she'd collected over years, and a large sack of coin given to her by Meu. The second bag of coin dwarfed the priestess' own reserves and was dominated by gold. On top of this were thin rations for several days and a large canteen of water, and cloth diapers for her daughter.


Claiten had his own bag of clothes, food, and another of Fedring's coin purses. Meu had the last of Fedring's purses, another dress, and more stuff needed for Evereste.


"Where to?" Wenifas asked.


Where will we find Derris? Meu replied.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


In the Invader's Fort, a knot of Ministrian guards stared toward Camp Calderhal as they listened to the sound of the great bell. Without orders to the contrary, they would not abandon their current work, which was to guard the Bouge prisoners. Still, the bell continued to ring, and a nervousness built among the men.


Minutes after the bell began, a runner appeared in Minist uniform – a rare thing in the Invader's Fort, only allowed in emergencies. He ran toward the guards and saluted as he came to a stop.


Petearus gave a hasty salute. "Well, man? What is going on?!"


"We are under attack! Commander Hizenwellar orders all available men to the stone tower!" the messenger said.


"You heard him!" Petaerus called as he waved his men forward. "To the tunnel! Everyone to the tunnel!" Derris ran with the others. As he passed Petearus, the low officer grabbed Derris and pushed him back. "Not you!" Petearus snapped at Derris.


Surprised to be singled out, Derris swatted at the two feathers in his commander's hat. "But, he said all available men..." He pointed toward the incessant tone of the bell.


"You are not available! You will make sure none of the prisoners take advantage," Petearus glared at him.


"But the alarm..." Derris balked.


"Do as you're told!" Petearus snapped.


The other guards laughed as they ran passed. Derris watched as the other guards rushed away without him, embarrassed and humiliated.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Wenifas made her way to a wide road that ran east and west through the heart of the camp. There, a stream of guards surged from the barracks and made its way toward the old stone tower.


"Derris!" She shouted over the heads of the men. "Derris!"


"Out of the way!" A guard shouted as he shouldered past her, uninterested in a hysteric priestess.


Someone grabbed Wenifas by the elbow. She turned on the man as she tried to pull away. She expected to see one of Fedring's underlings. She expected that everything was found out.


The man recoiled and threw up his hands. He was not a guard at all, merely a laborer, an old man about the camp. Wenifas knew the man in passing. He let her cut in line at the well, helped her draw up water. and joshed with Claiten and the other children. Despite his rough appearance, Wenifas thought he was a kindly gent. She gave him a weak smile, as if to reassure him. He frowned at her affected face.


"Pardon, my lady," the laborer said. "What happens? What is the alarm?"


"We are under attack. We cannot survive," she said before she considered her words.


"Cannot survive? But surely, all these guards..." the man spoke.


"There are too many," Wenifas shook her head.


"Who attacks us? Is it Trohls?" He whispered with wide eyes.


"It is demons. It is the waokie," Wenifas said.


"The trap setters?" He asked in horror. Although he'd never seen a waokie, their reputation was large among the commoners. "What shall we do?"


"Flee. If we wish to live, we must leave," Wenifas said.


"Where will we go?"


"Anywhere," Wenifas shrugged.


We don't have time for this, Meu spoke in the priestess' thoughts as she tugged at her hand.


I can't simply leave him, Wenifas replied. The priestess turned back to the old man. "Gather what you can. Meet us at the three mark well – ten minutes!" She yelled as she ran after Meu. The old laborer stared after the priestess. As she disappeared behind a rush of guards, the old laborer turned and ran the other direction.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


The bell of the tower and various alarms continued to ring as Toar shook Baet awake.


"What is that?" Baet asked as he sat up in alarm. "Is there a battle?"


Toar shrugged.


"Maybe just a drill?" Baet asked.


Toar shrugged again. "There's only one way to know for sure. Get your shirt."


Baet grabbed his shirt, but didn't bother to put it on. The other Trohls about them stirred and whispered about the alarm, but did nothing to investigate. As Baet and Toar approached the door, one of the Bouge blocked the way. "Don't go out during alarms. The guards will flog you for it! They'll flog us all!"


"A fig for the guards!" Baet snorted and barreled passed the old man. Still, he opened the door slowly and was cautious as he peeked out. There were no guards around. The prison was quiet except for the continuing alarms. The other prisoners were well cowed. Toar followed him out and the two men kept close to the side of the building as they approached the fence.


"Who could be attacking?" Baet whispered. "There's no one out there but other Ministrians."


Toar shook his head, his eyes wide. "Can't you smell it? The funk of bugbear is thick in the air! There must be a full blown war out there!"


"Hold!" A voice called from the other side of the fence. "Identify yourself!"


Baet and Toar pressed themselves against the building and stared about the dark. It took them a moment to realize the guard was not addressing them.


"Criminal!" The guard called. Metal clanged against metal as the guard continued to call. "To arms! To arms!"


Sounds of running feet carried over the fence. More voices added to the lone guard. Baet dashed from the edge of the building and peered over the wall. "It's Carringten!" He whispered back to Toar.


On the other side of the fence, Carringten fended off three guards with Bence's short sword. He parried a stroke from one of the men and kicked the attacker in the chest. The man flew back and crashed against the prison fence. Baet pulled off his shirt, grabbed it at each end,, and flung it over the fence. It looped around the guard's neck. He heaved on the shirt. The guard choked against the fence as he tried to pull free.


Baet continued to pull. The timbers of the fence weren't strong enough to handle the strain. Suddenly, the guard crashed through the fence and staggered backward among the splinters of railing. He crashed to the ground. Baet and Toar were on him at once. Baet pummeled the man's face as Toar wrestled the sword out of his hand. Limp and bloody, the guard gave up the fight. Baet ripped a dagger from the man's sheath, turned, and snagged the sword from Toar. With a weapon in each hand, he ran for the hole in the fence.


"Hey!" Toar yelled at Baet. "I get nothing?!" He called, empty handed.


Baet shook his head as he ran, "I've seen you fight!" he called back.


Carringten faced off against the remaining two guards. There was a gash on his shoulder. Blood ran down his arm and dripped from his fingers as he parried and dodged the attacks of the guards. Baet slammed into the nearest guard and knocked him to the ground. He stuck the man with his sword and turned on the remaining guard.


"To arms! To arms!" the guard called as he backed away from Baet and Carringten. He noticed the dark man was injured and rushed Carringten, in hopes of overwhelming the man. Carringten defended himself well as Baet closed in. The guard slashed at Baet to keep him at a distance, but the musketeer parried with his own sword, stepped into the Ministrian, and stuck the dagger in his chest.


"DERRIS!"


Two women stood at the end of the street and stared wide-eyed at the brutality they witnessed. They stood a good thirty yards away with a young boy and a babe.


"A priestess," Baet breathed as he blinked at the weeping beauty.


With her free hand, the priestess pulled a musket from her belt. She pointed it at the three prisoners, and grit her teeth.


Baet hissed as he saw the weapon. He flung himself at Toar and knocked the Trohl to the ground. The weapon in the woman's hand roared to life, convulsed, and threw fire. The musket jerked her arm back. Evereste erupted into screams and squirmed in her mother's arms.

Baet stood and faced the strange woman. He didn't know how she came to possess Cloud Breaker, nor did he care. "I'll have that back!" he yelled at her.


Wenifas braced herself once more and pulled the trigger again. Nothing happened. The weapon failed her and she wiped tears from her face. In disgust, she almost threw the weapon to the dirt. But the murderer wanted it. She stuffed the weapon back into its holster, turned, and ran back the way she came as so many tears corrupted her vision.


Baet took several steps toward the woman. He turned back to Carringten and Toar. "Let's go!" He called and waved his friends forward.


"Patience, my friend," Carringten called to Baet.


"She has Could Breaker!" Baet insisted.


"And you have your freedom and your life. If we manage to live – if we free Creigal – I'll buy you ten identical," Carringten promised.


Baet swore under his breath. He didn't want ten more. He wanted Cloud Breaker! Toar ripped cloth from one of the dead guards. He approached Carringten and wiped the blood from his arm and chest. "We need to wrap this," Toar told the dark man as he examined the long cut. "You are lucky. It is not deep."


"Good," Carringten said as Toar bound the wound.


"Did you find Creigal?" Baet asked.


"No, but I found someone else."


"Who?"


Carringten locked eyes with the musketeer. "Bence," he said.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Wenifas ran into the square of the three mark well in a state approaching hysterics. She clutched her babe as they both sobbed and was astonished by the volume of people she found there.


The old laborer breathed a sigh of relief as he saw her approach. "I though you'd left us," he called to her.


There were hundreds of people in the square, all of them with hastily packed provisions and goods. They were commoners one and all: laborers, cooks, urchins, clerks. None of them had more rank than priestess, though there were a couple dozen of those. Several of the people recognized Wenifas and the pain in her eyes. They moved forward to comfort her.


Wenifas wanted to mourn and thought it proper to wail and gnash, but Meu interfered in her thoughts. She reminded the priestess that if she wished to live – if she wanted her children to live – she needed to be calm, dispassionate, and calculating.


The crowd pressed a flood of questions at Wenifas. "What is happening? Why the bell? Where do all the soldiers go?"


"We are attacked," Wenifas explained as she wiped her face. "We are invaded, and we will not win."


This caused a great among of murmuring among the gathered crowd. Most of them were already convinced, though some of them openly scoffed. To Wenifas, it seemed obvious. Did they not see the expanding fires? Could they not hear the approaching conflict and the screams of the dying?


"You do not have to believe!" Wenifas snapped at the crowd. "You can stay here if you wish! Only remember that you were warned!"


"How shall we escape?"


"You must trust me," Wenifas stated. "Trust me," she repeated as murmurs and shouts of derision carried over the crowd. Wenifas pushed her thoughts at Meu. You ask them to trust me, but how will we escape?


The thoughts of the wyrm were not reassuring. Trust me, she repeated.


Wenifas stood up. If they failed, if they did not escape, then all the better. She'd join Derris and dance in the halls of Ooroiyuo and Naharahna. If death came upon her this night, there was nothing to mourn – nothing but the future of her children. For them and them alone she'd try. If she failed, she'd find joy in it. She preferred to see herself with Derris once more.


"It is time!" Wenifas called. "If anymore wish to follow, we go east!" Though some of those gathered snorted and refused to go, they agreed that they would send along any that dallied, to follow the fool priestess to the far end of camp. With guards at the gate, they would not get any further.


With some two hundred civilians behind her, Wenifas approached the east gate of Camp Calderhal. Dirt and tears spotted her face. Most of the civilians murmured that the guards would not let them out. Their only option was to turn back into the camp and face an unknown threat with kitchen knives, pans, candles, and the few actual weapons they possessed. Instead, they huddled together and hoped by some divine intervention they might be freed.


The captain of the guard stepped in front of the thick knot of peasants, "Turn 'round! Go back to your quarters!" He shouted at the gathered crowd. He was unconcerned as he had three dozen guards under his command. They were all armed. He could cut through this rabble in a matter of minutes.


Wenifas shook her head and wiped her red face. "We cannot," she began. "A war of waokie presses on the camp. They are within the walls. If you do not let us out, we will perish."


The guards began to murmur. The captain did not believe it. "How do you know such a thing? Who has told you this?"


"We have seen it with our own eyes," Wenifas said. She turned to Meu, "She will show you if you allow it. She is sent of the gods. Let her kiss you and you too will know the truth of it."


The captain gave Meu a puzzled look. "What magic is this?" He asked. "Is she a Jay?"


Wenifas shook her head, "No, she is more."


"Do not trust it," one of the guards whispered to his captain. "Foul magics are upon us this night!"


Captain Ayrik considered these words as he looked at Meu. Despite her advancing age, she was quite pretty. She did not seem dangerous in the least. She held a staff, but not in a threatening manner. In such a slight dress, it was unlikely she hid any other weapons. Yet, Ayrik knew appearances were deceiving. Might this woman plan some treachery? It would get her nowhere. Even if she managed to overcome the captain, his men would kill her and all the fools that followed. And if the priestess told the truth, these people were dead anyway. If the soldiers of the camps failed to turn back the waokie, was there any chance these commoners could defeat them with pots, and pans, and kitchen knives? Perhaps this strange woman, pale and smiling, would give him reason to release them. Perhaps she was sent of the gods, and the priestess could be trusted. They were pretty enough, and everyone knew the gods favor beauty. Ayrik waved Meu forward. "It is but a kiss," he said.


With a pleasant smile, Meu approached. Indeed, there was venom upon her lips. She put her hands on Ayrik's cheeks. She kissed him several times, slow and sure. He was a handsome man and Meu did not mind.


It took several seconds before the toxin opened the captain's thoughts to the skin-walker wyrm. Suddenly, shocked to have her thoughts in his head, Ayrik pulled away from Meu. Dismayed, the other guards drew their swords and stepped forward. Ayrik raised his hand and waved them off. For several seconds, his eyes were far away as he conversed with Meu. Finally, his gaze returned, "What are you?" he asked out loud.


Meu kissed the captain once more, a gentle peck on the cheek. I will show you all that I am if you let us go, she promised.


Ayrik could not simply let them go. After all, there was a war to prosecute. Commoners were not to leave the camp without military escort. Yet, that was something Ayrik could provide. The gate captain turned to his men. "Form up!" He yelled. "Prepare to march!"


The men looked at him with confusion on their faces. "Sir?" one of the men asked.


"A sea of waokie pours upon us! We cannot hope to push them all back! But all need not perish! I command you to escort these people east, to safety!" Ayirk pointed with a nod. "Now form up, and open the gate!"


"But our charge, sir," One of the men began. "We must keep the gate."


"I remember and maintain our charge!" Ayrik snapped at the man. "But the gods have chosen a new duty for the rest of you! You will serve as escort, and the priestess shall lead you! She holds command! Now do as you're told, and thank the twin gods for sparing your miserable lives!"


The guards turned to each other and whispered amongst themselves. Discipline gave way to confusion. The gate rose halfway, jerked to a stop, and began to close.


"Sir..." One of the men whispered as he stared daggers at Meu. "What has she done to you?"


Ayrik smiled a wan and defeated smile at his colleague. "She has shown me the truth of it. The forts are lost. We will fight and we will lose. The enemy is too many. They will sweep us under," he said. "But not you. You will go east and guard these people. Protect them. This is my order, that you and they shall live. Now, raise the gate!" He roared. "And pray the waokie don't follow you!"


Slowly, the parade of paupers passed under the gate. Many of the guards paired off and began to escort them east. Several stayed behind. "We will watch with you," they told Ayrik. "If you perish, we will die with you. It is a warrior's death and we do not lament it!"


"You will do no such thing!" Ayrik snapped at these men. "I've given my order, and it stands!" He pulled his sword. "Stay and I'll kill you for traitors!"


Chagrined, the guards gave in and backed through the gate. Slowly, they turned and walked after the peasants as their captain stepped into the wheel house and shut them out.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


"This is it?" Baet stared at an unremarkable building.


"I am sure of it. I was there when the tolling began," Carringten pointed to a distant patch of shadow. "Armed men ran to that building and never came out. More and more went in. But never the same came out."


"All we have to do is go in and find what?" Baet asked.


"A way forward," Carringten shrugged. "I suspect a tunnel."


"Let us hope there are no guards," Toar noted.


"Simple enough," Baet gulped.


They checked to see if anyone approached. There was no one in sight.


"Now or never," Carringten said as he ran for the building. He pulled open the door, and slid inside. Baet and Toar followed close behind. The interior of the building was lit. They stared about the large room and noted Soat uniforms hung on one side and Ministrian uniforms hung on the other.


"Do you recognize any of these crests?" Baet asked as he poked about the Saot uniforms.


"They are all fakes..." Carringten began. "Which ones do we want?"


"Let's take the real ones," Toar pointed at the Ministrian garb. "Saots are the enemy, remember?"


Baet mumbled under his breath as he changed. In Minist garb, the three men searched for another exit. As they searched, Baet continued to talk about the fake Saot crests. "Why such cheap imitations? Why not use real crests?"


"What house would you fly?" Carringten asked.


"Wibbeley, I'd wager," Baet answered.


Carringten shook his head. "Whoever is behind this does not wish to fly their own, and they cannot implicate another house in this war. There could be serious consequences if such a ruse was discovered."


"What losses do royalty ever suffer?" Baet asked. "The king will not jail them."


"No, they would not be jailed, but they might lose title and prestige. To royalty, there is nothing else," Carringten replied. "With fake crests, there is no injured party, no one to sue or reprimand."


"But they slander the entire nation," Baet noted.


"Then it is a matter for the king alone," Carringten answered. "Likely, the king knows all about this. It wouldn't surprise me if Count Drefford has special permission to create such forgeries."


"But the Trohls won't know it," Toar began. "And that is how they sell their fake war."


Carringten gave a nod.


"Here it is," Baet called as he discovered the door to the tunnel.


Carringten and Toar clapped Baet on the shoulder, and the three men entered the tunnel. Carringten went first. There was no one else in the tunnel. Shortly, they arrived at the far end. They marched through the barracks, opened the door, and surveyed Camp Calderhal. Fires raged about the north part of the camp. They could see figures and shadows fighting in the distance and hear no end of confusion and conflict in that direction.


"Where do you think they're hiding Criegal?" Baet asked.


Toar shrugged as he looked about for birds – but there were none to see. Carringten pointed toward the massive stone tower, which seemed to be the center of all the mayhem.


"We've been blessed with a distraction, only to find the mayhem is right where we aim to go," Baet stated.


A crash sounded as another section of wall collapsed. Sparks and smoke billowed from the wreckage. The shouts and dismay of the Ministrian troops rose to a dramatic crescendo along with the cheers and triumph of bugbear. Grim faced, Carringten took a step toward the tower.


"How do we hope to get in?" Toar asked.


"Fight," Baet answered between tight lips. Out of the corner of his eye, something caught his attention. With a hiss, Baet slammed into Carringten's back and pushed the man out of the street. Toar turned and saw the rush of horses. He jumped back and just avoided getting trampled.


Half a dozen riders careened through the street at full gallop. One of the riders glared at Baet and yelled, "get out of the way!" The riders flew down the street, headed away from the mayhem, and for a moment the three men watched them go. Suddenly, two of the horses buckled and threw their riders to the ground. The following horses pulled up short. Shadows dodged about the group. Metal clanged against metal. A woman screamed.


Baet smelled opportunity, looked to Carringten, and gave a bit of a nod. He ran forward with his captain and Toar hot on their heels. As they approached the fight, Baet recognized the short, compact, furry attackers. They were indeed bugbear! A hot anger rose in the musket man. This time, he had the element of surprise!


The buggers struck at men and horses alike. One of the creatures stuck a rusted sword into a fallen rider again and again. Baet smashed into the bugbear and sent the creature reeling into the dirt. He turned and faced another beast. The creature leveled its spear and drove forward. The musket man knocked the spear aside with his sword. He grabbed the shaft of the spear, pulled, and kicked the creature squarely in its chest as it lurched forward. The creature flopped back in a heap with the wind knocked from it.


Carringten struck a bugbear with his sword and the creature screamed something horrible as blood sailed through the air. He killed a second and struck a third before the buggers were able to turn and mount a proper defense against his onslaught.


One of the bugbear pulled a hapless rider by a fistful of blonde hair. She screamed as Toar smashed the creature on its armored shoulder. The beast winced, loosed its grip, and circled away from its prisoner.


Knives flicked through the air. They curved from the hand of the last rider and caught in the neck and chest of a bugbear. The beast dropped, writhed, and kicked in the dirt as life fled its body.


The ambush was broken. The bugbear still outnumbered the humans, but Baet, Carringten, and Toar had surprised them and inflicted heavy damage. The buggers broke and fled – but they did not go far. At the end of the street, they rallied and turned on the small group of humans once more. Slow and steady, they began to advance.


Something sang through the air. Toar raised his sword in front of his face. A dart clinked against the metal of the blade. He turned to Baet with a shocked look as both glanced at a feathered needle on the ground.


"This way!" The last rider called and pushed her horse to the east.


Toar grabbed the fallen woman by the hand and pulled her to her feet. They ran after the rider. Baet and Carringten followed. The bugbear ran after them, but were quickly out paced by the long legged humans. With squat muscular legs, bugbear were built for endurance, not sprints.


The small group ran through the twist of buildings and tents. Men and women of the camp huddled in doorways and peeked out from their hiding places, only to disappear back into their dwellings.


"Get out!" Baet roared at them. "The devil comes for you!"


The people stared at him with fear and confusion in their eyes. One of them yelled back at him with hate and viciousness as he quickly dodged back inside. Only then did Baet realize he was yelling in Saot. With a huff, he forgot about these people and focused on saving his own skin.

The rider paused and waited. Toar and the blonde stopped as they panted. They stared at each other, shocked to see that the other was also a Trohl. Baet and Carringten were close behind. They heaved and caught their breath as they sized up the rider and the blonde.


"The gate is this way," The rider said and pointed to the east. Baet stared at the hard face of the rider and realized they had rescued not one, but two women! The rider's hair was dark, and despite her glaring features, Baet was captivated. She was beautiful!


"Non," Carringten shook his head. "We seek our master."


"And who is this?" The rider asked.


"We seek the gentleman, Dandifrod of the Emberwood Trust," Carringten told her.


A smirk crept across the rider's lips. "Ah yes, the dark warrior," She turned on Baet, "And I presume you are the musket man. And this is the native guide?"


"You know us?" Baet realized, his heart a patter.


"I do. More importantly, I know your master. He is grey haired and just recovered from the sweet rot of the waokie. But he is not here. He's gone east to Ebertin," she said and pointed to the far gate.


"The lies of a Jay!" Toar spit. "She will see us guide her from the camp! She will leave Creigal here and let him die! She only cares for her own skin!"


The rider hissed at Toar, "I tell no lies! He is gone! We would be wise to follow!"


Carringten stared between the two with a deep frown on his face.


"You must believe her," the blonde girl urged Toar. "He is taken east, to Ebertin."


"Why do they take him east?" Carringten asked.


"They mean to execute him," the rider revealed. "If you wish to save him, we too must go east."


Still, the three men were dubious.


"I am Meriona, and I am indeed a Jay of the Black Throne, " the rider confessed. "This is my apprentice, Celesi. We do not lie to you. We thank you for saving us, but we will not stay here and die. Come with us, and perhaps you can save your master. Stay here, and when I see your master, I will tell him how you have saved us." Meriona shrugged. "Well met, good men. Now state your intention, that at least two of us might live."


"You swear he is gone?" Carringten asked.


"If I lie, may the holy Empress fall from her throne," Meriona stated.


"And he is to be executed?" Baet added.


"It will be quite a spectacle – for the commoners of course. It is little more than political expedience on the part of Gliedian and Kezodel. Mere theater for the masses," Meriona shrugged her indifference.


"Can you get us past the gates?" Carringten continued.


"I owe you no less," she said as she stepped her horse past the man. "We must go, unless you wish to encounter more of those beasts..."


Celesi pulled Toar after the horse. Baet and Carringten followed.


In the distance, a gate emerged. Carringten and Baet exchanged uneasy looks as they advanced. Baet expected a few dozen guards, even as the battle raged to the west – but there was only one man. He stood in the door to the gatehouse. "Hold!" The man roared as he stepped forward with his sword in hand.


"Gather your men!" Meriona called to the captain. "I shall pick among them for an escort!"


Wide-eyed, the captain bowed. "Apologies, mistress, but I have sent them away. They guard the people," the captain began.


"Away?! The people?!" Meriona interrupted. "And who watches the gate?"


"I maintain the gate," the captain assured, and stood straight and tall.


With a huff, Meriona looked over Carringten, Baet, and Toar. It seemed she'd have no more men for an escort. The prospect bothered her. She did not know these men, and although they saved her once, who was to say what they'd do when there was nothing but open road before them? Could she trust them to be men of character? She had little choice. She was not staying in the fort and she could not forcibly leave them behind. Yet, she had weapons and knew how to fight. If they were dishonorable, she swore to seduce, manipulate, and gut them one by one. If they caused her harm, she swore to return the favor seven fold. Meriona turned back to the captain. "Let us through."


The captain looked at Carringten, Baet, and Toar with similar reservations. Despite their Ministrian uniforms, he could tell they were not shock troops. With a frown, he looked back at Meriona.


"They are none of your concern," Meriona barked at the captain. "Now let us through."


The captain lowered his blade. He turned to the gatehouse and set himself against the wheel. Slowly, the gate raised. Baet held his breath as he passed out of the camp. He looked back at the raging fires and listened to the cacophony of war. There was certainly a chaos about the place. Some of the men and women of the camp fought the proceeding blazes. Others fought the advancing shadows of the invading bugbear. A few simply panicked and ran this way and that.


The gate closed. Meriona walked her horse. Celesi continued to hold Toar's hand. Carringten and Baet followed close behind. Meriona eyed her motley escort. She turned in her horse and addressed the men as one. "See us to safety and I will shower you with riches. See us to safety and I will introduce you to women of intimate talent," she smiled. "But if you think to force yourselves upon us, our people will hunt you to the ends of the earth."


Toar regarded her with a derisive frown. He would not contemplate such a thing. Baet stared at the woman with horror in his eyes. He'd never forced himself upon anyone! Only Carringten seemed unaffected by the remark. Only Carringten managed a reply. "We are not base or malicious men," he said. "If you wish to help us, lead us to Dandifrod and argue for his life."


Meriona gave a nod. With a smile, she turned her attention back to the open road.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Robbed! I am robbed! Fedring sobbed as he continued to struggle against his bonds. Leverkusen left the window open, and so he could hear all too much of the chaos about the camp. Fear filled him as he was forced to guess what happened outside.


Several guards banged at his door and pleaded with him to answer. "Lord Fedring! We are under attack! We must move you to safety!" But they did not enter. Without his permission, they would not enter. He tried to spit out his gag, but it was tied tight, and he could not.


Fedring cursed the guards for cowards as they refused to open the door and drag him out of his quarters. The poor bastards must suffer a terrible internal conflict. He could hear them arguing over the best course. Do they open the door and incur the wrath of Fedring, or do they leave the door closed and possibly face whatever invades the camp? Before they could come to a consensus, the latter happened, and Fedring could hear the fighting outside his door.


The Majoris listened as one of his guards suffered an ignominious death. On the other side of the door, someone squealed and sobbed as he suffered some wound. The other guards were more courageous as they cursed and struggled for some time before the world outside the door finally went quiet. The Corpus Majoris knew the guards had lost when the door smashed open and no one called his name or rank.


Ears perked, Fedring listened as something crept into his room. He held still and hoped the lump of blankets might simply be ignored. For a time he could hear steps about the apartment, occasionally punctuated by the crash of something valuable. For a time he thought he still might get away, then the edge of his blanket lifted and Fedring came face to face with a dog – only the dog was on two feet and carried a long, wicked dagger in it's front paw.


Surprised to see the Majoris, the beast jumped away and dropped the blanket. Fedring's world went dark once more. Something poked Fedring in the side, something sharp that split the skin of his side. Fedring screamed into his gag, squirmed, and struggled against his bonds once more. Curse that bastard, Leverkusen! If he should ever catch the man – in this life or the next – he swore to skin him slowly!


The blankets were pulled from Fedring and he stared wide-eyed at several dog-faced beasts. It took him a several seconds to realize these were the dreaded waokie. There were six or seven in the room, and they were quite amused to find him trussed up like a pig and ready for the roast. One appeared older than the rest and he dug about a pouch as the others deferred to him. The beast held a small packet of black filth in one hand and a delicate needle in the other. It dipped the needle in the black filth and poked Fedring with it again and again. It pricked him deep and Fedring squealed and surged against his bonds to the delight of the gathered beasts,


The rope held fast as the old waokie dipped his needle again and again before each prick. The beast pricked his arms, legs, back, neck, and face. Then his companions rolled Fedring on his side and the old beast pricked his chest and stomach. By the time the creature was finished, Fedring was exhausted and barely flinched each time the needle broke his skin.


Fedring sobbed as he realized the beast infected him with sweet rot. He cried and confessed the sins of his heart. If the true god should simply save him, he promised to be better. He promised to be of service – if only he should be spared.


As time passed – as Fedring realized his prayers went unanswered – he scorned the world and cursed it for his troubles. He sneered and snarled and savaged the land with his thoughts. He swore if he met god, he'd roust the ineffectual old lout from his throne and disembowel him.


Several waokie left the room, but two or three always stayed with the Corpus Majoris. After a couple hours, Fedring started to feel lightheaded and nauseous. His condition deteriorated throughout the night. After a dismal sleep, he woke to find himself lined with rot. For a second, he believed it was but a nightmare, and he should wake safe in his bed before another day of collecting metal, sex, and apologies from the priestesses. His hands and feet throbbed, and no matter how he rolled about, the pressure was always on some sore part of his body. Though he didn't want to look, he saw the rot develop on his chest and arms whenever he glanced down. For a time, he sobbed. For a time he simply drooled and begged for death to take him. He suffered the better part of two days before he finally gave up the ghost.