Chronicles of Murphy
Book One: Book of the Accursed
Disclaimer: Record of the Lodoss War belongs to...somebody else. In fact, even though I'm doing all of the work, most of the credit for these characters and ideas goes to other people, which seems really unfair. I'm writing this story, people are enjoying it...you know what, I SHOULD get paid for this! Screw the potential law-suits, screw the original owners, GIVE ME MONEY! GIVE ME MONE -
Ahem. Sorry, unavoidable that. Anyway, not my property, written solely for fun, etc.
The Best Laid Plans
Wagnard was enjoying himself.
"Soon...soon my goddess...soon, all will know your power, your majesty...all will bow before you," he lied.
It was a thrill he never could have imagined before; to not merely beseech such power, but to know, truly know that She listened. To know that she had laid such a grand, mighty destiny before him, to know that he would be the instrument of her resurrection - nay, her very birth upon the world, to all but sire the goddess himself!
To bring forth his patron...and enslave her...
He forced back the cackle he so desperately wanted to unleash. He knew the Scepter protected him, even from Kardis's power, but such thoughts...no, better to relish those thoughts in private.
Time enough to indulge when the goddess lay helpless before him...
He spun on his heel and headed deeper into the temple complex. If a malicious cackle was dangerous, that path of thought was outright folly. It never occurred to him; recognizing the danger in such a thought might have been a sign of sanity, but to have such thoughts in the first place...to hold them as reasonable...
No, he was beyond madness now. The deeps he'd sounded in his twisted psyche had a terrible rationale all their own.
He found himself lingering in front of the door to Deedlit's cell. Two of his senior priests stood guard; both high-ranking enough to bristle under the stigma of common guard duty, both devoted enough to swallow their pride for the sake of her resurrection.
She was...a bit of a mistake, Wagnard had to admit.
Kidnapping the elf had been necessary, but he regretted that he'd done so already; he had to keep her safe and healthy until the ceremony, and it had never occurred to him how difficult that would end up being.
She'd slit her wrists that first day. The only reasons she wasn't dead was that one of his priests had wanted a look at her, and had stopped by at precisely the right moment.
Finding that out had been the most terrifying moment of Wagnard's life.
To be so close to success he had never even dared dream of...to have lost that to such a small overlooked detail...
It was sobering.
Wagnard had taken immediate precautions; he'd posted both priests and soldiers as guards round the clock.
Her second suicide attempt, hanging this time around, had turned out to actually be an escape attempt, one that had cost him two novices, two guards, and the imbecile who'd given her a shift with a belt.
He allowed himself a bit of a grim chuckle at the memory; for all her warrior skills, she was still just a soft light-lander. It had been entertaining to watch her attempts to remain stoic during the executions. The HATE in her eyes, when he told her it would have been more merciful if she'd killed them rather than simply knocking them unconscious...
After that, Wagnard had decided to dispense with subtlety. He'd had her chained to a slab of rock, too tightly to move, a horse-bit in her mouth while he'd pored through his tomes for a half-remembered spell of stasis.
He had her unchained the next day, though not until after he'd cast the spell.
He wondered how she'd react when he dispelled it; she'd remember him pointing the scepter at her, and the next thing she'd know, she'd be laying on the altar, in ceremonial garb, too weak to resist what was to come.
Giggling under his breath, Wagnard continued on to his chambers, fantasies of the sacrifice playing out in his mind.
He was enjoying himself so very, very much.
It was almost impossible to remember how, but it really HAD seemed like a good idea at the time.
Looking back along the column, watching the tens of thousands stretch towards the sea, Alex should have felt satisfaction. He should have been glad at the size of his host. He should have felt awe that so many men had come at his call; that so many were here to fight for him, that if need be these men would lay down their lives on his command.
He SHOULDN'T have been repressing the urge to tear his hair out at how bloody SLOW the whole army was.
Marmo wasn't even that big! He'd checked the maps, and he was pretty certain that it had been less than fifty miles between Zyrth and Conquera; hell, he'd had scholars, scouts, and cartographers confirm it. It wasn't even rough country travel; the roads weren't great, but they were still roads. It wasn't like he was making them climb mountains. And yet here they were, three days out from Zyrth, and they'd covered all of twenty five miles.
His eye caught on a supply wagon; a private one, carting supplies for some noble or other that had come along with Kashue. It shouldn't have been here; the supply train belonged in the rear, but god forbid some high-born twit be denied his fine vintages, or whatever the hell else was in the bloody thing.
Alex tried to sigh as he nudged Bucephalus back towards the front of the column. It really HAD seemed like such a good idea when he first had it, right before he set out on his little walk-about. After all, look how much good he'd accomplished with such a small force at the battle of the valley. Imagine what he could have accomplished with a larger body of men, a better-trained body of men! Hell, he might not just rescue Deed, he might conquer Marmo in the process!
He'd actually thought that at some point. KNOWING he was a dead man walking; he'd briefly wanted to conquer Marmo.
"Hail the conquering hero," he muttered under his breath.
Kashue raised an eyebrow; he was fairly certain Alex hadn't meant to say that loud enough for him to hear. "Bit premature, isn't it? We have to conquer the place first."
Something sarcastic was on the tip of Alex's tongue, but he held it back. Instead, he just shook his head. "I think I prefer being the mysterious hero, come from places men know not, to save them in this, their hour of greatest need." Looking around the various other lords who made up the command retinue, he shook his head. "No offense, but leadership responsibilities don't seem worth it."
Kashue chuckled ruefully. "That just proves how green you really are." He shifted on his horse, armor creaking. "I've been the soldier, the captain, the general, and the king, and trust me; the boredom of power is still better than the excitement of impotence."
Alex allowed Bucephalus to come to a halt. He stared at Kashue for a bit.
Kashue met his gaze. "...really? Nothing? Not even a chortle?"
Alex's head drooped as he shook it helplessly. "That was terrible. Really, utterly, terrible."
Kashue chuckled, kicking his mount to canter. "It was meant to be." He didn't bother keeping a quick pace; it just meant waiting later. It was obvious that Alex had something he wanted to talk about, and equally obvious that he was hoping for an opening.
An opening the mercenary king had no intention of giving him.
It often surprised people to discover that the common-born Kashue was politically astute. Few ever realized it was that common perspective that served him so well; people wanted to think acumen in dealing with the machinations of nobility was something reserved for nobles. Had Kashue been the sort to indulge in speculation, he might have realized it was a bizarre form of empowerment; as long as the inscrutable powers-that-be were beyond them, then 'they' had an excuse for their powerlessness. As it was, he just realized that people had expectations, and that most of the time it paid to play to them.
The real trick was recognizing when not to. Giving Alex an opening might be the kind thing to do, maybe even the diplomatic thing to do, but something held him back. In part, it was pettiness; Kashue wouldn't admit it, even to himself, but he somewhat resented Alex's meteoric rise to prominence, so like his own. It was more than that however; petty men might rise to power, petty men might even manage to TAKE power, but they seldom held on to it. No; for all that he couldn't put it in words, Kashue felt it instinctively. What ever Alex meant to say, it shouldn't be coaxed from him. Whatever it was in him, it need to be driven out, and only Alex could manage that.
Alex shook his head as Kashue rode ahead. He kind of wished he and Kashue were better friends; he could use someone to talk to at the moment. Slayn, Leylia, and Chiffon were further back in the column; close enough to find, but truthfully, he needed a soldier's advice. Parn, Shiris and Orson, besides being more acquaintances than friends, were farther ahead, managing the scouts. He paused thoughtfully. Actually, Orson would be just about perfect.
He was about to nudge Bucephalus forward when a commotion ahead took the decision away from him.
One of his scouts galloped up, not even bothering to get out of the saddle as he threw a hasty salute. "Sir, something's happened. Lady Shiris needs you at the head of the column."
Alex frowned. "Something's happened? Nothing more specific than that?"
The scout squirmed a bit under his gaze, but continued gamely. "Some of our scouts haven't returned, sir. They're more than two hours late. It might be nothing, but Lady Shiris is concerned."
Alex didn't bother grilling him further; truthfully, he was grateful for the distraction. "Head further down the column; find Slayn, Ghim, and Woodchuck; I want them ready for what may come. I'll see to Lady Shiris on my own." Waiting only for an acknowledging nod, he galloped ahead.
"I am NOT overreacting!" Shiris snapped.
Alex didn't frown, but he was getting good at recognizing the sensation of phantom involuntary expressions. "Really? Not even a hello, straight on the defensive?"
She flushed. "Listen you, I've been listening to three days worth of people telling me that there's nothing to worry about, nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard, nothing to be found. Three days of people suggesting that we don't need so many scouts, that I'm worrying about everything. And now something has finally happened, and I am NOT going to ignore it."
"Fair enough. The messenger said that some scouts haven't reported back?"
Shiris took a deep breath before nodding. "Yes, one of the rear flank groups." She beckoned him closer to the campaign table she'd had set up, a necessarily crude map on top weighed down at the corners with whatever had been at hand. "They were supposed to be covering our left flank, taking a rough-country path parallel to ours to make sure no one was setting up any ambushes." She traced the southern path they had been following for the past two days. "They were supposed to be reporting once every hour." She peered up at the sun's position. "It's been nearly three hours since their last report."
Alex stared at her. "They've been out of contact for that long? Why is this the first I'm hearing about this?"
Shiris managed to get her voice under control, though only just. "The first hour, I assumed that they were just late. The second? I sent a relief group to see if they could find them. They just returned, with no word, no sign of them, like they just...vanished into thin air." Her glare redoubled. "I wanted to be damn sure something was wrong before I stopped the column."
Alex was silent for a while. Eventually, he turned back to Shiris. "Call off the scouts. I want everyone back with the column." As Shiris's eyes widened indignantly, he managed to cut her off with a finger to her lips. "We'll discuss this more fully once we've made camp for the evening. For the time being, we need to start making better time."
Shiris glared at him, the muscles of her jaw working under the skin as she bit back what he could only assume to be curses. "You think I'm over-reacting."
He shook his head. "No, you're not. That's what worries me."
For the most part, Ashram's reign up to this point had been...rocky. Beld abdicating rather than dying spectacularly to clear the way had thrown everyone for a bit of a loop, to say nothing of Wagnard's constant sniping and back-biting, even before he'd managed to get his hands on divine power. Combined with Ashram's need to delegate while he got a handle on Soul Crusher's power, and...well, again, rocky.
As a result, it was nothing new for someone to have to come before him to squirm their way through an explanation of how exactly they'd managed to screw up.
Though it WAS new to have Pirotess doing the squirming; she tended quite a bit more towards competence. "Were my orders in this matter unclear?"
Pirotess kept her eyes lowered as she knelt on the ground. She wanted to glare at her own subordinates for landing her in this mess, but one didn't pass the back on Marmo. Not under Ashram. You took your punishment with dignity, and only then did you pass it around. "No, your majesty."
Ashram rose from his camp stool in the command tent. He ignored Pirotess, ignored her bodyguards, ignored the two scouts behind them and strode to the opening. He let his gaze sweep the clearing, taking in the bustle of the war camp, letting them stew in the silence. He waited until he heard the rustle of them shifting before turning back. "No contact with the Coyotes until after they reached Conquera. You say you understood." He stepped in front of Pirotess, and forced her chin upwards, meeting his gaze. "So explain why two dozen of Latrans' scouts are in my camp?""
Pirotess swallowed despite herself. She'd seen him reprimand subordinates before, and this...it was going a bit different with her. She tried to read his expression, but there was nothing in his eyes but detached insistence, nothing to tell her how upset he really was, or even if he was at all. She straightened up somewhat, still kneeling, but no longer straining her neck upwards. "Our scouts were following the Coyotes, and they...they were careless. They hadn't realized they were being tailed back to our camp until it was too late. At that point, our choices were to allow them to return with our troop deployment, or engage them."
Ashram's expression didn't shift throughout her explanation. He settled himself once more on the camp stool. "How many were killed?"
She released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "None on either side, your majesty. I took charge personally, and we were able to put them to sleep without bloodshed."
Ashram frowned, resting his chin on his hand as he considered what to do next. If he was done with Pirotess and her men, he gave no such indication. Finally, he waved one hand dismissively. "Leave us."
Pirotess rose to her feet as her men shuffled backwards from the tent, their heads still down. She came alongside Ashram, letting some of their formality slip away. "It was a mistake, I realize, but we didn't have any choice. We couldn't afford to let them reach Latrans."
Ashram turned to face her. "You don't think he's going to realize something's wrong when his scouts fail to return?"
She shrugged, unapologetic. "He's clever and he's suspicious; of course he'll realize something's wrong. This way, at least he won't know exactly what's gone wrong."
Ashram seemed to accept that; he rose to his feet and went back to the tent's entryway. "Your men were sloppy, letting themselves be seen like that." He turned to her. "We can't afford sloppiness. Not now, not with these stakes."
Her eyes narrowed. "A half dozen of my men did their duties...incompetently. I hardly think that compares to losing thousands on a doomed assault against a fortress."
A ghost of a smile drifted across Ashram's lips. "I suppose not. I never intended for Latrans to find my camp."
Confusion marred Pirotess's features; what the devil was that supposed to mean? Realization began to dawn on her face. "You intended for those men to die?"
Ashram chuckled. "It's wasteful, isn't it? Fighting an enemy, simply because he's an enemy? All the more so when you're fighting towards the same goal." He shook his head. "But I have no real choice in the matter, do I? My people would never accept an alliance with the Coyotes, especially after the loss of Zyrth, and neither would the Coyotes accept an alliance with us." He turned back into the tent, walking over to his map table. "But all those men...warriors, wizards, priests, scouts, soldiers, twenty thousand strong..." he shook his head, hands resting on either side of the map, "they'll go a long way towards dealing with Wagnard. If they manage to defeat him, they'll only do so at great cost. If they fail, they'll still manage to soften Wagnard up for me." He smirked. "Either way, the best thing I can do is leave them be."
Pirotess stared at him. "...you call an armed sortie ending in a massacre 'leaving him be'?"
"Hakkon was an arrogant, headstrong fool. So were his men. Not one of them had the stomach to wait the Coyotes out." Ashram sighed, shaking his head. "They were the worst of them, but there plenty more on the fence. But after seeing what Latrans can do in the field?" He straightened up. "Cooler heads are beginning to prevail."
Pirotess stared...no, gaped at Ashram's back. Ashram's plan to wait Alex out was no surprise, she'd been privy to that from the word go. She agreed with it; using one enemy to take out another was a standard tactic among the dark elves. But Hakkon...Hakkon had been, at worst, a nuisance, one of dozens who bristled under Ashram's rule, who thought themselves a better candidate for emperor. He hadn't even been the most dangerous, just one of the most vocal.
And Ashram had sent him and his faction to die, not to delay Latrans, not to force him into a disadvantageous position...but to clean house.
The fate of Marmo, of all Lodoss hung in the balance of these next few days. Nothing could...should have been more important than that, and here Ashram was, apparently confident enough in his victory that he was already planning for the future.
It was, in a perverse way, reassuring.
Ashram meanwhile had been tracing the route between Zyrth and Alex's current position. He tapped at a spot not quite halfway in between the two. "The first night of his march south, Latrans camped here, correct?"
Pirotess shook herself free of her thoughts and came to his side. "More or less."
"He fortified his position, then abandoned it, correct?"
"I don't know if I'd call it fortified; he surrounded his camp with a ditch and piled up the dirt behind it as a rampart." She shrugged. "Enough to slow down an attack, but not repel it."
Ashram nodded thoughtfully. "One way or another, he'll be reacting to the loss of his scouts. We're going to have to move earlier than I intended. Call in one of our divisions; I want them to set up in Latrans's old camp, and I want it fortified properly. Deepen and widen the ditch, the same with the ramparts. I want your dark elves to accompany them; we'll take a page from his book and use magic to finish the fortifications quickly. And send word to Beld; he'll be striking sooner than planned."
Pirotess frowned. "You're cutting him off from Zyrth? Won't that force him to turn back, secure his flanks?"
Ashram shook his head. "He won't. Or rather, he can't. He needs to stop Wagnard, and that means getting to Conquera as fast as he can. If he turns back, gives up his forward momentum, who's to say he'll ever regain it? What's to keep him from getting bogged down? No, this is just the extra sting he needs to put him into a gallop." Ashram smirked, his hand unconsciously stroking the pommel of Soul Crusher. "I've let him and his men have it too easy. It's time to remind them who they're dealing with. Time to remind them what it means to face an emperor."
They were in the middle of erecting the camp for the evening when the news came.
It was a long, tedious process that Alex had instituted; he'd basically decided to reproduce Roman castra each night, though on a much smaller scale. The forward scouts started the whole process, marking out the boundaries and the central 'streets' dividing the camp into quarters. By the time they'd completed that, the infantry had arrived to start fortifying the site with a six-foot ditch, the earth thrown backwards to be rammed into an earthen wall.
It sometimes amazed Alex they put up with it; he'd never heard so much grumbling in his life. Besides that, not once had they been attacked in camp; not once had all those efforts proven their worth. Add to that the cavalry, the Lusitanians and Carrals outright refusing to help out, instead using the time to converse about how they were going to crush Marmo, how much better it would be if they didn't have to slow down for infantry in the first place...
It was a tense situation made none the easier by the sudden arrival of a wyvern-rider.
Since the Command Tent was still being erected, Alex commandeered a regular troop tent, cramming in himself and the scout with just enough room for a half-dozen more bodies.
It said a lot about Shiris that not once did she display satisfaction at having been proven right. She wasn't exactly grim, but her concerns were her lost scouts and future maneuvers. "How big is the camp?"
Adeon shrugged uncomfortably, only part of his discomfort due to the cramped quarters. "As big as ours have been, big enough for fifteen, maybe twenty thousand. They're serious about fortifying it; everyone I saw, elf, goblin, human, kobold, and ogre was busy in the ditch, shoring it up."
Ghim scrubbed one hand through his hair. "Doesn't make any sense. It's their bloody island; they have to have camps of their own already set up. Small camps, sure, but why go to all this trouble?"
Kashue looked grim. "He's not trying to hide what he's doing at all. He wants us to know he's waiting behind us. He's sending a message. But like Ghim said...why?"
"You said the camp was big enough for twenty thousand," Alex broke in. "You saw that many?"
Adeon shook his head. "I didn't get low enough to get a good estimate, but I know how many our camps can hold. Ogres might take up a bit more space, but it's a solid estimate."
Alex fixed his gaze on him. "I need to know exactly what you saw. How many were there?"
Adeon squirmed under Alex's gaze. "...I'd estimate six, seven thousand at most."
"What were they doing? Be specific."
Adeon grimaced, cradling his head in one hand as he tried to remember. "...There weren't very many people within the ramparts. Nearly everyone was building up the walls. Wait...there were others moving in and out." His forehead creased. "I...I think they were bringing in supplies."
Kashue frowned. "Laying in supplies? They're preparing for a siege?"
Wood whistled quietly. "Whatever they're up to, they don't plan on letting us stop them, do they?"
"It still doesn't make any sense," Kashue said. "They're less than a day's march from Zyrth, we could have our forces hit them by dawn if we needed to. And they're not even twenty miles north of us; we could have them in a pincer tomorrow."
"There are less than five thousand souls in Zyrth," Alex said in a monotone, "and not a single piece of siege equipment." He looked up. "And as Ashram is making clear, he can put his forces in the field anywhere he likes with us none the wiser. We send men from Zyrth, and there's nothing to guarantee they won't be ambushed the second they're too far from the base to make it back."
"But should we attack?" Etoh asked. "We came here to stop Wagnard and save Deed, not fight Marmo. If Ashram isn't going to stop us, why not go forward?"
Adeon coughed uncomfortably and immediately regretted it as seven sets of eyes swung round to him. "Um...forgive me, but have any of you seen what lies ahead?" Silence was his only response. Swallowing, he plowed ahead. "There's no more road. There can't be; it's all mountain and canyon and..." he swallowed again, "...it's like the land itself melted and ran like wax. There are spires and...and loops of jagged rock, outcroppings and valleys." He looked around at them. "There are no walls surrounding Conquera, because there isn't enough flat space to build them on. There are no towers or forts because the Marmo can hole up anywhere they like and wait to ambush us. Sir...I'm sorry sir, but I'm not sure if we can go forward."
"We're going forward," Alex said. There was no anger, no force...nothing but a statement of fact. "There's nowhere else to go. Etoh, Slayn...how long do we have before Wagnard begins the ritual?"
The two shared an uneasy glance. It was Slayn who answered. "The best day for the ritual will be the dark of the moon, in two weeks time, but..." they shared another glance.
Wood groaned. "You've got more bad news for us I take it?"
Etoh managed a small grin, trying and failing to hide his dismay. "If Wagnard is concerned solely with resurrecting Kardis, if he's doing this out of piety, he'll wait for the proper day. But the Scepter...if he wants to control Kardis, enslave her, he may not bother waiting."
Wood stared at him. "Wait a minute...you're telling me that he could resurrect Kardis...anytime he likes? He could resurrect her right now, if he wanted?"
"He could try," Slayn broke in. "But remember, resurrecting a dead goddess isn't something that Wagnard...or anyone for that matter, would have any experience in. He has only ancient lore and prophecies to go by. Any deviation comes with the risk of failure." Slayn took a deep breath, steadying himself. "And if he fails, then unless he can find another high elf, he'll never get another chance."
No one had anything to say to that little gem.
Alex took a loud, ostentatious breath. "How reassuring. But this doesn't change our goal. You're telling me that coming home after this is done won't be easy. So be it. We can worry about that after we win." He came to his feet, holding the tent flap open as he ushered them out. "Fortify the camp properly; this is no longer a temporary base. We'll leave a detachment here as a rearguard when we leave tomorrow. Adeon?" He gestured the wyvern rider forward. "Do you have any survey maps of the terrain ahead?"
He shook his head. "I haven't had a chance to draft anything." He fumbled in the bag at his side. "I have a map of Marmo here though, and I remember what I saw. What are you looking for?"
Once the map was spread on the ground, Alex squatted beside it, trying to find a position that didn't crowd out anyone around him. He began tracing his finger south. "We're right about here, right? Conquera is..." he continued southward, "...right about here, right?" He stabbed a finger into the map. "That's where we'll find the temple of Falaris, right?"
Wood cleared his throat. "Actually, I've been talking to some of the smugglers we brought along, the ones who've dealt with Marmo. From what they said, the temple is a little bit off the beaten track. None of them were ever allowed to go there, but they all agree, it's off by itself on top of a hill."
Adeon frowned thoughtfully as he scanned the map. "I did see something that looked man-made...it was too small to be part of Conquera, but the rest of that fits." Pointed to a spot a few miles east of where Conquera seemed to be. "It would have been right around here, I'm sure of it."
Alex nodded. "Doesn't change the distance much; either way we're still a little over twenty miles out. That's doable in a day, but according to you it's all rough-country going..." he grimaced. "We'll be lucky to make half that distance tomorrow, even if we leave most of the baggage train behind. And if it's mountainous terrain, our cavalry isn't going to do us much good either." He was silent for a time, chewing over his thoughts. Finally, he sighed. "We'll push as hard as we can tomorrow, set up one last rally point. If it's as bad as you say Adeon, we're not going to be able to dig in; if an attack comes, that's where it'll be. After that, we go for the temple with everything we have."
Kashue frowned. "How are we going to get there? We'll need a guide, or better scouting to pick our way through canyons like that."
"Chiffon can take care of that," Alex said, smirking a bit. "She knows a guy. Or...close enough, I suppose." He rose to his feet. "Make sure we're solid here; we're going to want a fall-back point. And make sure everyone completes any last minute preparations; this is probably going to be the last peaceful night we get." He held the tent-flap open, nodding as reassuringly as he could manage as they left.
As the rest of them filed out, Etoh and Slayn hung back, still anxious. Alex pretended to ignore them as he watched everyone else head out to reinforce the camp. Once they were...somewhat alone, he turned back to them. "Something's bothering you. How bad is it?"
They exchanged a glance that quickly stretched out into some kind of optical conversation. Whatever passed between them, it was Slayn who answered. "There may be another factor in deciding when Wagnard performs the ritual. Do you know anything about a Blue Moon?"
Alex's expression didn't change, though he had the oddest phantom sensation of his forehead creasing. "Let's simplify things. Assume I know nothing at all about what you're talking about and go from there."
Slayn coughed; it occurred to him that he'd been assuming as much in any case. "Er...to the uneducated, magic can seem...random, incomprehensible. However, that is far from the case. Magic is only possible with a higher understanding of the underlying forces of the universe, forces that conform to certain...predictable behaviors."
"This is simplifying? Magic has rules, I get it."
Slayn looked non-plussed at that. "Er...yes, that sums it up I suppose. What's more, these rules are ultimately hierarchical. The broadest characteristics of magic, such as the Law of Sympathy or the Principle of Contagion, as well as the Rule of Three are all but omni-present in all forms and expressions of magic, while others only apply in only the most specific of cases."
Alex palmed his face. "Big rules trump little rules. And this has something to do with the moon?"
Etoh came to his rescue. "What Slayn is trying to explain is that magic often seems random, but isn't. So long as you understand the rules, then you can almost always predict how it will behave."
Slayn sighed. "That's where the Blue Moon comes into play. It's...a regular blue moon is just the second full moon in a calendar month, and that in and of itself isn't too terribly important. However, occasionally, the presence of a blue moon signifies something else. A night of wild magic."
Alex glanced between the two; both wore equally serious expressions. He turned to Etoh. "What exactly does that mean?"
"Two things," Slayn broke in. "First, the amount of magic present on such a night is enormous, far exceeding anything a mage would encounter any other night. And considering that the Scepter confers control over magic..."
Alex growled under his breath. "Oh fan-fucking-tastic. You're telling me Wagnard is going to be more powerful than he was when he killed me?"
Neither seemed terribly comfortable with the reminder they were talking to a revenant, shifting and trying to avoid eye contact. Alex pretended not to notice. "Alright, that's a problem. You said two things."
Slayn took a deep breath. "It's called wild magic for a reason. The magic...it's unstable. The laws of magic themselves remain intact, but the hierarchy breaks down, goes into a...a flux, I suppose. So spells can misfire, fail to activate, or end up doing more than they should, with no real way of predicting them."
"It's not all bad news," Etoh said. "The instability is worse the more complicated the spell would be. So something as a ritual of resurrection is all but guaranteed to fail or...well not work the way it's supposed to. Wagnard, no matter how insane he is, was one of the most gifted scholars of magic in Lodoss. He'll know this too."
Alex digested that. "Alright, bottom-line. The night of the full moon magic is going to be unreliable at best." He frowned. "That's tomorrow night. Why did you wait this long to tell me?"
Slayn coughed into his hand. "We weren't sure if it was important. As I said, it's only a possibility of this even occurring; a blue moon isn't necessarily the same as a Blue Moon," he said, enunciating the capitals. "And I'm the wrong person to explain this to you anyway; before Wort spelled it out for me, all I knew was that a blue moon is a bad time to use magic." He shrugged apologetically. "Understand, nights like that rarely happen more than once in a mage's lifetime. They're not exactly easy to study. But..." he sighed. "Nights like that tend to coincide with momentous occasions. I don't know if it's because they're most likely to occur then, or if their presence raises the stakes, but either way...if this is a coincidence, it's an unnerving one."
"...thank you for telling me," Alex said after a long silence. "That might change things a bit. We'll know more after the meeting later tonight." He turned to leave, paused, and turned back. "Who all knows about this? Have you shared this information with any of the priests or mages in camp?"
Etoh shook his head. "Something felt...ominous, I suppose. I just chalked it up to being on Marmo, but every magic user here is feeling something. It didn't seem necessary to bring it up."
"Does Chiffon know?" Slayn shook his head. "Find her and tell her everything you know. I don't want her walking into the unexpected."
Alex watched them leave, trying to decide what to do with the information. He had questions, but they could wait. They hadn't actually told him anything concrete, though that wasn't surprising for something called Wild Magic. Still, Slayn had been right about one thing.
It didn't seem possible that this was a coincidence.
As occupations went on Marmo, it was hard to beat Priest of Falaris. You were assured a comfortable lifestyle, you were automatically exempt from going off to your death in whatever mad conquest was in vogue that year, and provided you were sensible enough not to aim to high, you were reasonably safe from death at the hands of your higher-ups.
"HOW HAVE THEY GOTTEN SO CLOSE?!"
Regrettably, 'reasonable' safety was entirely relative. Particularly when you'd drawn the proverbial short straw and had to inform your power-mad high priest that something had gone wrong.
It should have been a great moment for him, his first entry into the inner Sanctum of the Temple of Falaris. He ought to have been taking it in; the enormous floating stone, floating there on nothing more than the presence of Kardis herself. He should have been able to admire that terrible Altar, the immense pillar towering thirty feet into the air, carved with the images of every dark god and spirit of the faith. He should have basked in the dim glow of the violet witch flame flickering in the innumerable sconces within the temple.
Instead, he priest shivered where he cowered below the altar, not daring to raise his head, awash in the stink of his own fear and the tang of ozone, feeling the hairs on his neck rise as uncontrolled lashes of electricity danced around Wagnard. "It appears that they have been...uncontested in their march across Marmo."
"UNCONTESTED?!" Laboriously, Wagnard forced himself back under control. This was unacceptable; he was so close, so wondrously close to perfection, to ultimate power. It was unacceptable that he be denied it. "How..." he ground out, "is that possible? How is it that they have not been ambushed by our people as they slept? How is it that the armies of Marmo have not crushed him?"
The priest swallowed, refusing to risk raising his head. "There...there have been attempts, my lord...at first. Hakkon attempted to draw them from Fortress Zyrth, and was...his men were wiped out with almost no losses on the side of the Coyotes. Since then, our people have been reluctant to meet them in the open field."
"To the Abyss with the open field," Wagnard snarled. "Why then haven't they bled them? Ambushed them, harried them?" He began stalking down the stairs to the luckless messenger. "And why hasn't our 'esteemed' Emperor Ashram faced him?"
He swallowed once more. "I...it would be presumptuous of me to speak for the emperor..."
Wagnard's eyes narrowed. "Presume."
The priest took a long, shaking breath. "What we have heard - "
"You will face me when you speak to me, boy."
Cringing, he raised his head. What he saw in Wagnard's eyes frightened him worse than the lightning, worse than all the dark pageantry of the temple.
Wagnard was calm. Terribly, horribly, dreadfully calm. Bolts of violet lightning still flickered in the air, reacting to his rage, but whatever madness infected him had abated, if only for the moment, merely waiting for the worst moment to reemerge. "...We have heard it said that Ashram has made no move whatsoever to attack Latrans. That he has given every indication of...of allowing him to reach us unharmed."
If the information surprised Wagnard, he didn't let it show. "So. He has abandoned his land, his people, his gods." An ugly smirk crawled across his features. "He would defy me, but he is too cowardly to face the consequences himself." A harsh bark of laughter burst from his lips. "So be it then. Let him scheme and plan, he and his old man and his dark elf whore. Let him have his hopes. Let him live to see all his prayers fall on deaf ears. Let him live long enough to watch me tear the souls from Beld and Pirotess as offerings to Kardis, to see his own fate before I send him to join them."
The priest tried not to move, desperate to avoid regaining Wagnard's attention. He found himself waiting for a maniacal laugh, a shrill cackle that never materialized.
His efforts proved fruitless as Wagnard rounded on him. "How long? When will Latrans reach the temple?"
"If nothing slows him down...nightfall tomorrow." He hesitated. "...Is there anything you would have us do, your holiness?"
Wagnard smirked. "You?" He laughed; still not the shrill cackle the priest kept waiting for. "And what can you do boy, that Kardis has not empowered me to do? What can any of you do?" He shook his head, still chuckling. "I would have you watch. I would have you witness the end of an era, boy." He flung his hands wide, the Scepter raised. "No, let him come. I'll end it here myself." He faced north, smiling. "Make haste, boy. Hasten to your doom. Come to Wagnard. COME OFFER YOUR SOUL TO KARDIS!"
The priest cringed as Wagnard finally let loose, howling with laughter as sullen red light erupted from below the Altar. He watched the red glow suffuse him, watched his eyes gleam in the bloody light, watched the madness consume him, and casting all decorum to the wind, bid a hasty retreat.
As he fled the temple, he found himself wondering at his own fate. If Wagnard failed tomorrow, there would be consequences, repercussions. Ashram no longer bothered to hide his disdain for the priesthood; they could well expect a bloody purge if Wagnard failed.
But if Wagnard succeeded...he shivered.
Try as he might, he could not imagine a version of Wagnard succeeding that left anything to preside over.
Down in the deepest recesses of his tower, Wort stood up from his labors.
Well, tried in any case; it was a rather lengthy process involving quite a few more joints than he'd been aware of before they'd all lined up to issue their complaints. He grimaced as he tried to work the stiffness out of his...everything, surveying his work.
He sighed, shaking his head. It was crude, most of it, but he was confident it would get the job done. The room itself had long been prepped for magic, like most of his tower. He'd never had need for this particular room, never felt like any of his endeavors had been dangerous enough to justify the lengthy climb it took to reach the damned place.
But with Karla involved...
He wasn't entirely sure there WAS such a thing as paranoia when it came to her.
He didn't feel up to dealing with her at just that moment, so he spent the next few minutes looking over his work, just taking it in, letting the it sink in. He ran his hand over the carved walls, the ancient runes of four different languages mingling with the more modern tongues of magic. On a whim he grabbed one of the iron braziers he'd mounted to the walls all those years ago, trying to jiggle it and failing. He allowed himself a smile at that; it was comforting to know that all the work he'd put into this place was lasting.
His smile faded as he turned back to the center of the room, to the center of the enormous magic circle he'd finished engraving into the floor. Carved, not painted; he wasn't going to risk someone smudging these lines, particularly himself.
It had been easier than he'd thought. Then again, he'd spent weeks researching variations on this seal back when Alex had first asked him to build that damned box all those months ago.
And now...now he was going to break it open.
Sighing, he took up his staff and levitated the iron-and-lead case into the hollow he'd left in the center of the circle, trudging after it. It was with shaking hands that he opened the case.
The wave of compulsion that washed over him did just that; wash over him. He released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding at that; apparently he hadn't been quite as confident in his skills as he'd thought he was. The seals were holding; he'd only been able to tell the magic was there because of his training. Anyone else who entered the chamber (assuming they could make it past all the safeguards he'd left in the passageway) would likely never even realize what they'd almost been subjected to.
He allowed himself to relax, both hands wrapped around his staff as he waited for Karla to finish feeling out the magic. It occurred to him belatedly that he hadn't bothered to bring a chair down; not exactly a priority, but certainly a nuisance.
He didn't have long to regret that particular oversight. What looked like some kind of faintly pink mist began to rise in the circle, forming itself into a vaguely humanoid silhouette under a much more distinct phantom circlet. "Well, I confess I hadn't expected to speak to you ever again, Wort."
Wort sighed, though whether in relief, exhaustion, or something else, even he couldn't have said. "Nor had I. It gave me no pleasure, sealing you away like I did - "
"But you did anyway. Such cold comfort. But is that for you, or for me? Surely you know that I of all people understand doing hard things to those I care for. Did you think I wouldn't understand? Do you express this regret for my sake, or for yours?"
It was a while before Wort could answer. "For myself, I expect. I did what had to be done, and I hate myself for doing it. I hate you for forcing me to do it. And I care deeply for you even as I hate you." He looked up, focusing his gaze where two hazy eyes might have been. "But that I do it for myself makes it no less true. Whatever my reasons for saying it...do you feel any better for hearing it?"
"Feel? My dear Wort, feeling is all I can do anymore." She was silent for a time as he considered her words. "It does please me, I suppose. There are so few on Lodoss I respect enough to value their opinions. It's nice to see one of them again." The misty figure twisted around, seeming to look over the room. "Fine work. I must applaud your efforts, even if they are to imprison me. But..." she spun back to 'face' him, "I do not believe you've gone to such efforts for my own comfort. You have a purpose. Speak it."
"Renard. He broke into my tower, broke the seal on your box. He spoke to you."
"Indeed he did. Does that displease you, Wort? That another has been so close?" She studied him for a moment. "Do you know, I rather like imagining your jealousy. How very petty of me." A warm, rich chuckle echoed in the chamber. "But no, you've never allowed yourself to feel that way about me. What concerns you about him?"
He really should have brought a chair. "What do you know about him?"
Karla scoffed. "I've met him once, Wort, and it was hardly congenial. He spent a bit talking down to me then demanded I explain the mechanics of Kardis's resurrection to him. Do you imagine I know more than you do?"
Wort sighed. "He's up to something, Karla. He's obsessed with Latrans; he may well have been the one to send him here in the first place. And since Alex's arrival, we've had invasion, war and chaos. And now, after untold millennia of dormancy, Kardis stirs. And wouldn't you know it, the only way to bring her back is with the life of the high elf that Latrans has fallen in love with." He waited for Karla to reply, but she remained silent. "I don't know if this Renard is powerful enough to do any of this, but this much coincidence makes me nervous. I know too little. That needs to change."
Karla remained silent for a moment, but it was clear this time that Wort was willing to wait her out. "He's powerful, enormously powerful. He's also completely inhuman. Whatever I am now, I started as a human, and I retain some of that humanity. He never had any of that; whatever he is, demon, god, or something else, he doesn't think or feel things the way a human would. He doesn't play by human rules." She was silent again. "I don't know why he's after Latrans, why Latrans is here. I don't know if he brought him here or followed him. But in some fashion or another he cares about Latrans, or at least what happens to him. As for the rest of us?" The mist rippled, as though shrugging. "I'm not entirely sure we're real to him."
Karla's insights did little to ease Wort's mind, or conscience for that matter. The image of the tiara slanted to one side, as though the mist were cocking its head. "It seems I haven't told you anything you didn't already know. And yet you're not asking any more questions...now why is that? Was it just confirmation you were after? But why? Why would you care about my opinion, if you've decided I can't be trusted?" The mist drifted forward, only to coalesce, as though it had run into a barrier. "What are you playing at Wort? And what role do I play in all this?"
Wort forced himself to meet her gaze. "Whatever your failings Karla, you always had the best interests of Lodoss at heart. But Renard..." he shook his head. "It's as you said; he couldn't care less about what happens to the rest of us. And unlike you...unlike Wagnard for that matter...I can't see anyone stopping him." He sighed. "Which means his attention needs to be diverted elsewhere."
Karla's chuckle was infinitely knowing. "I see. Yes, he needs to be distracted, but the only way you know to do that is to send Latrans away. Except...you can't do that, can you? Not in the traditional sense. No, there's only one way to remove him from this world." The mist drifted back into the center of the circle. "Finishing off Latrans...It's exactly what I would do. How does that feel?"
Wort's gaze never wavered. "It feels dreadful. He's not my friend, but he's someone I can admire. He's putting everything he has, body and soul on the line for Lodoss, and should he succeed..." he shook his head, "...I have to plan on how to end him." He looked up, snorting at Karla. "Are you smiling Karla? To know that in the end I've taken up your role?" He shook his head. "Don't. What I might do is monstrous, but I do it to save Lodoss from forces it could never withstand."
"Might do, Wort? Have you so little conviction?"
He smirked. "You're thinking how similar we are. You're right, of course; we are very much alike. But what matters is how we differ Karla. And unlike you, I have faith in the people of Lodoss." He stepped forward, setting the butt of his staff against the lid of Karla's box and closed it. "I have faith in the world they can forge, free of my meddling."
The meeting could have ended worse, Alex supposed as he left the command tent. There could have been a mutiny. There could have been massive, large-scale desertion. Narse could have woken up, flown over and burned them all alive. They could have completely mis-timed the whole operation and had nothing to show for the invasion other than front-row seats for the resurrection of Kardis.
Weighed against THOSE possibilities, everyone leaving in a foul mood, either insulted (in the case of those who he was ordering to stay behind) or convinced of their ultimate doom (Woodchuck in particular, though everyone else who would be pressing ahead too) wasn't a bad bit of work at all.
The ghost of a smile slid across Alex's face. His thoughts shouldn't have amused him anywhere near as much as they did, but all things considered, he was enjoying feeling good about something.
Not wanting to surrender that feeling, he kept to the shadows as much as possible as he made his way to the tent he shared with Chiffon, not wanting to have to deal with anyone else.
They'd spoken shortly after he'd left Slayn; he'd needed Cyrus to scout ahead, and more and more, she was developing a stronger rapport with the raven. He half-expected him to remain as her familiar after it was all over. That accomplished, she'd elected not to attend the strategy session, letting him relate what Cyrus had found.
It hadn't been promising; the ground was as rough and barren as Adeon had claimed, and the best they could find as a stopping point for the next day was a relatively large flat spot on top of a hill, too solid and stony to dig in, but large enough that they'd at least be able to get all his men in one place. Still, it was literally the best they could find. They'd make it work.
She wasn't asleep; Alex found her outside the tent, working Bucephalus's flanks with a currycomb. He stopped short, watching her for a while, just enjoying the simple pleasure of watching her at her task.
There was no smile on her face, no sadness, no tension...she was serene, for lack of a better word. Soldiers bustled throughout the camp, enemy monsters lurked in the darkness, Wagnard awaited them just over a day's journey ahead, and yet there she stood, engrossed in her task.
It was hard to believe she'd changed so much in so little time. Hard to believe they'd all changed as much as they had.
Apparently, he hadn't been quite as stealthy as he'd thought; she turned to him, a small smile adorning her cheeks. "The meeting went well?"
He shook his head as he came into the firelight. "It went horribly; I can't remember the last time I had to listen to so many people tell me I was wrong for so many different reasons."
She chuckled. "No one wants to be left behind. What grander adventure could there possibly be? Who could bear to come all this way and not be there at the end?"
Alex was quiet for a long while. He sighed eventually. "I'd rather they live to tell of what happened here. I'm going to have to order men to their deaths, and I've accepted that. But I also have a responsibility to see to it that as many of these men make it back alive as possible."
Silence descended on them again. Chiffon turned back to Bucephalus; he didn't need further grooming (or any, really), but he enjoyed the pampering even more than Chiffon enjoyed pampering him. Alex watched her, but there wasn't the same pleasure to be had. He'd managed to to slip back into the same funk that had been bothering him for days.
He sighed again. "It wasn't supposed to go like this, you know. I never intended to take an army against Wagnard; there was no sense in that. With the scepter..." he shook his head. "Throwing more bodies at him isn't going to work. I thought...I thought I was going to need them to reach him the first place." A bitter chuckle escaped his lips. "Not sure why I thought so. Parn didn't need an army."
He looked up at Chiffon. "I knew this was going to happen, you know. The resurrection of Kardis...Wagnard and the Scepter...Deed...I knew it would happen this way." Chiffon looked up, her expression unreadable. "I've known how this was all going to play out almost from the first day I set foot on Lodoss. And I let it." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Why not? I'd seen the story, I knew how to reach the good ending, I thought...why not? The path was right there, I just had to keep following it." He shook his head. "And it never even occurred to me that I could change it. Forge my own path. Make something new, something better...maybe worse, but mine, you know? But...but that wasn't what I wanted. I just...I just wanted to be a hero. I railed against it, and I said I didn't want it, but I did. I just wanted to play hero."
He spread his hands wide. "And here we are, going through the same motions. Deed's suffering god only knows what waiting for Wagnard to rip out her soul and feed it to Kardis. Ashram is lurking out there, planning whatever it is he's planning. And it could have been so much better, if I'd just bothered to...I don't know, do anything." He sighed. "I should have made it better."
Chiffon set down the comb, walking over to Alex. She took his hands in hers, lead him to a campstool beside the fire, and set him down in it, kneeling at his feet. She examined his hands, running her fingers along the callouses and scars. "It's all the same, is it? You never changed anything?" She looked up. "You've told me before you knew the story, but do you know, you never told me how it went. How did it begin?"
He stared at her in confusion. "What, the Record of the Lodoss War?" She nodded encouragingly. Alex stared, trying to remember. "Um...it started in Zaxom. Goblins attacked, Parn fought them off...Ghim, Slayn, Deed, and Etoh showed up, and..." he snorted, "and the journey began."
"What about Karl?"
He stared at her. "...there was no Karl. He...maybe he was killed in the attack, maybe he just never left..."
She cocked her head. "And after that? Fortress Myce?"
"...burned to the ground. Sacked. Jebra...Ashram killed him." He shook his head. "Jebra never made it past red-shirt status. He...no, everyone there only existed to prove how dangerous Ashram and the Marmo were."
"And then? Did he follow Ashram to Kannon?"
"...he never went to Kannon. Kannon and presumably the rest of his family died. And...and you never showed up." His grip tightened around her hand as a tiny smile began to worm its way across his face. "The battle in the Valley ended with Beld and Fahn both dead, both armies routed. Leylia was only freed from Karla at the cost of Ghim's life and Woodchuck's soul. Shooting Star survived, and Pirotess didn't." He looked around. "And when the invasion came to Marmo, hardly anyone survived to face Wagnard at Conquera."
Chiffon rose to her feet, smiling. "You did those things, Alex Latrans. You've saved lives, saved kings, saved kingdoms. You've brought people together who might never have met otherwise. And no matter what happens tomorrow, you've left Lodoss a better place." She drew his head to her chest, clutching him tightly. "Yes, your path and that other hero's have been similar. Yes, you could have made different choices, taken a different route to this place. Maybe it would have been better." She released him, cupping his face in her hands, raising his eyes to hers. "Your path wasn't perfect. But that doesn't mean that this path had no meaning, no worth."
Unconsciously, Alex had raised his hand, pressing Chiffon's against his cheek. He would have given anything to feel her warmth against him. But maybe he didn't need to. He could see it in her gaze, hear it in her words...he smiled as he rose to his feet, turning to look south. "You know...my story isn't over yet. I've only got one thing left to do, but it's..." he chuckled, "it's a bit of a doozy."
His grin took on a feral quality. "I don't care how I got here. I'm here now, and I get to decide how this ends."
To be Concluded...
Author's Notes: So...I was looking over the last chapter, and I realized I'd promised that this would be the last chapter. As it's a cliff-hanger, that's obviously not the case, but I did want to apologize to anyone who saw the update and thought "it's finally done!"
Finishing this chapter turned out to be a lot harder than I'd expected, mostly because I decided to change so much kind of at the last minute. Still, I'm glad I did; if all I was going to do was re-trace the end of the Record of the Lodoss War, what was the point of making a new story?
Hope you like it!