"Hail, and well met, Lord Provost!"
The mousy scribe warmly clasped Lord Provost Alaric's outstretched hand, and pumped it up and down vigourously.
"Aye," the Lord Provost frowned, trying hard to hide his distaste at this presumptuous clerk. "Indeed."
"It is a great honour, sir, for the Lord Provost himself to personally greet me upon my arrival." With a smile fit enough to swallow his ears, the Temple-sent census taker finally relinquished his grasp and bowed to Alaric with a flourish.
Behind Alaric, the gaunt priestess Idaril tried to stifle a smile and failed. Alaric shot her a venomous glare that the scribe completely missed in his groveling.
"Good scribe, we are far removed from the capital – indeed, we are close to the Lion borders – so, when the Lord Commander of the Griffons sends us emissaries, we welcome the chance to renew our contact with the capital."
"Indeed, indeed." The scribe nodded enthusiastically. "Your faith and devotion are an example to us all!"
"Then let us not keep you from your work. A census is an important duty, after all."
"Yes, yes, Lord Provost!" Excitedly, the scribe turned and beckoned to his two retainers. They were twins, broad of shoulder, yet slack-jawed and dim-eyed. As Alaric directed a questioning glance at the scribe, one of them looked at Idaril, and smiled a wide, gap-toothed smile and trailed a line of drool down his chin.
"Ah, yes," the scribe caught the Lord Provost's glance and shrugged apologetically. "Twins. I knew their mother, lovely woman that she was. Pity how she died, but the Temple now takes care of her children. Good for carrying things, little else."
The scribe produced a kerchief from somewhere about his person and proceeded to wipe clean the drooling twin. "There, there, the God Merin has put you into my care, no need to worry now, I'll take care of you."
Alaric watched the by-play with cynical amusement, then motioned to his bodyguard as the scribe and his retainers started carting the scribe's belongings along. The four Griffons fell into place, and the entourage moved along to the barracks, the scribe prattling along all the time.
"Scribe," Alaric interrupted. "What is your name?"
"Me? Oh, my!" The scribe looked flustered for a moment, seemingly stunned that so august a personality as the Lord Provost would deign to take his name. "I … I am Lysse, Lord Provost. Born of …"
Sighing, inwardly kicking himself, Alaric smiled as pleasantly as he could at the scribe, and started picking up the pace.
The sooner they got this idiot housed, the sooner he could turn his attention to more important matters.
Do you think the Temple Commanders know? Why else dispatch somebody here?
A scribe? You jest!
No. He is more than he seems. I can sense it.
Very well. Keep an eye on him.
Oh, I intend to.
"Yes, with a monthly revenue of exactly one hundred and forty-three silver falcons, generated by …"
Lysse peered shortsightedly at the ledger, and stabbed an ink-stained finger down at a paragraph. "Ah, but what is this? How do you account for this additional two gold florins? Surely, the …"
The debate between scribe and accountant was rudely interrupted by the door being thrown wide open. A pair of armoured Griffons roughly shoved one of the twins into the room, where he stumbled and fell, bawling.
"What is this?!" The scribe ran to the crying idiot.
"Your man," one armoured guard grunted. "Was found wandering outside, in areas where he was told not to go."
"Oh, really? Bad Thorin, bad Thorin!" Lysse proceeded to bat his retainer on the head, with the rolled-up ledger, the castle accountant was alarmed to note. The scribe turned to the guards. "But what did you expect, he's not right in the head!"
"We apologize for being rough, sir," the guard replied. "But we also have standing orders. Please restrain your men, or we will be forced to take measures."
The armoured pair spun on their heels and left the room. Lysse stared at their backs, then at the accountant, then finally at the mewling Thorin. "Oh, well. I guess I'm not going to get any more work done, am I?"
He grabbed the sobbing man and hauled him to his feet. "Alright, you've caused enough trouble today. Let's go back to the barracks."
"Candy? Thorin want candy?" Thorin stopped sniveling long enough to ask.
"Yes, yes, you can have your candy." Lysse put an arm around Thorin and guided him gently from the room.
The castle accountant shook his head, then bent and picked-up the fallen ledger.
He did not see the triumphant look in Lysse's eyes.
Something is wrong.
One of the scribe's fools ventured near the holding pens.
He may have seen something he shouldn't have.
Bah! The pens are hidden well. They cannot be seen …
Are you so sure?
An uncomfortable pause.
What about the gramaryes you have set about the scribe's chambers? Do they reveal anything?
Which could mean that either he is merely a scribe, or he is even more powerful than you are, my dear Idaril.
It could be an artifact of great magical power, one that he carries around with him.
Could be. Let us not jump to conclusions. He will show his hand soon enough.
Aye, Lord Provost.
"Candy, indeed," Thorin grumbled. "Merin's Grace! Where did you think of such a code phrase?"
"In the shower, to be honest," Lysse answered distractedly. He tossed a small brooch from hand to hand absently. "You are certain?"
"Aye, milord." Thorin replied. The guise of the retarded retainer discarded like an old shoe, he had thrown open the chest of their belongings, and was rapidly pulling on dark leathers and a hooded cloak. "The Seeking Jewel worked far too well. As soon as I neared the place … well, let's just say that I regretted concealing it in so sensitive a region."
"Indeed." Lysse spared the man an amused glance. The Seeking Jewel had been created specifically to sniff out the Griffons' sworn enemies, the Alchemists of Dirz. When the foe was near, the jewel was wont to turn warm.
"Your worst fears are confirmed, milord."
"Enough talk. You know what to do."
"For Merin and the Temple," Thorin saluted after dressing. From the chest, he withdrew a single, short blade.
Lysse tossed him the brooch, which he pinned to his leather jerkin. "This will shield you from her Sight."
"I will return with all the help I can muster."
With steel bared in one hand, Thorin slipped the cloak hood over his head and vanished out of the window with a single leap. "Godspeed, lad," Lysse whispered. He turned to his other retainer. "Now we go hunting. Get dressed."
"Aye, Lord Inquisitor," Darius rumbled.
I know. It would appear that you were right.
Aye. The glamour that blocked my vision cleared the instant his man left. As I surmised, it must be some sort of device that blocks my scrying.
He must have given it to his man, aye?
Unfortunately. I can no longer track him.
Can we use the hounds?
No. What magic that blocks my Sight also blocks my control over the hounds.
Never mind, then. Bring the fort's defenses up to full, and send a detachment down to the pens. It is where our friendly scribe will go next.
As you command, Lord Provost.
The pair of guards outside the Inquisitor's quarters did not stand a chance.
Darius smashed the door aside, crushing one guard against the wall. Lysse came out the other side, the flat edge of a gauntleted hand catching the other guard just so on the bridge of his nose, breaking it with a sharp crack.
As the guards reeled, swords came unsheathed. In moments, the deed was done.
Shouts of alarm rang throughout the castle.
"Ah, well, stealth was never my strong suit," Lysse shrugged nonchalantly. "This way."
The pair ran down darkened corridors, the sounds of pursuit growing ever loudly.
Our guards will not be able to stop them, Idaril.
What do you propose, Lord Provost?
Get to the Nexus. The experiment could use a trial run, don't you think?
Excellent suggestion, milord.
One corridor led to another, a veritable maze of stone passages.
But Thorin had done well, feeding the knowledge gleaned from his clandestine reconnaissance directly into Lysse's mind. The Inquisitor moved with the surety of this knowledge, eventually coming to a double-bound steel door.
"Wizard-locked," the Inquisitor proclaimed. He fished out a scroll. "This won't take a minute."
"We may not have a minute, Inquisitor," Darius pointed at a squad of approaching guards.
"Oh, bother. Do delay them for a while, good fellow."
"Yes, Lord Inquisitor."
The closing guards literally skidded to a halt as they spotted the intruders, one clad in the holy armour of the Griffon Inquisition, and the other in the distinctive, patterned plate armour of the Praetorian Guard.
That hesitation cost them dearly.
The Praetorian Guard was the elite of the Griffon forces. Formed from a cadre of men that underwent training harsh enough to kill eight out of every ten applicants, the Praetorian Guard was skilled in the use of various blades, axes, bows, and their hands and teeth.
Steel whistled as Darius drew the great hand-and-a-halfer that was the trademark weapon of the Praetorian Guard. The draw motion became a slash, blurred into a horizontal cut, and finally ended in a vicious thrust.
Three guards dropped.
The remaining three started to respond by bringing their weapons up.
Darius kicked one solidly in his knee, shattering it. As the man fell screaming, he spun swiftly despite the weight of his armour, and put a backhand block on one man daring enough to riposte. His gauntlet came across and caved in the fool's skull with a single hammer blow.
The last guard still standing lost his nerve and turned to run, but got all of two steps as Darius threw his hand-and-a-halfer in a curious underhand motion. The blade bit deep into the man's side, and as he fell, gurgling, Darius stomped his armoured heel into the guard with the broken knee.
Bone cracked. With the guards silenced, Darius retrieved his blade and once again stood next to the Inquisitor.
The incantation finished, the ensorcelled lock on the door popped open, and the Inquisitor shouldered his way in. They stopped cold when they saw what was held within the chamber.
The place was huge – Lysse reckoned that it would hold a hundred men, in full armour, fairly easily. But what caught their attention was the Griffon priestess, Idaril, in the midst of the room. Floating sedately in the air, she was cocooned in a ball of eldritch energy.
Coughing growls brought their attention to the four graceful, feline forms prowling towards them.
Muscle rippling, the beasts did not look like any natural creature. They appeared forcefully melded together, parts stripped from tiger, canine, and wolf. They were all teeth and claw, and as they charged, their breath stank of the unholy laboratories of the Scorpion Empire.
"Dirz Tigers!" Lysse screamed unnecessarily.
Spell-power crackling at his fingertips, the Inquisitor lashed out at one monster. Blue flame wreathed the beast, burning it away in the Merin-blessed fire. Lacking any sort of magical ability, Darius simply took firm hold of his huge sword and planted himself to receive the charge.
The first Tiger to spring at Darius paid dearly for the action. The Praetorian swung his massive blade in an overhead chop at the leaping monstrosity. The impact, coupled with the beast's own charge momentum, served to completely bisect the Tiger. Darius swore profusely as foul innards and stinking ichor drenched him.
The second Tiger took advantage of the momentarily blinded Praetorian, and bowled him over.
Lysse had no time to pay any attention to his bodyguard. The last Tiger was uncannily intelligent, halting its charge abruptly so that he only burned the ground before it with spellfire, then leaping hither and thither so that he could hardly aim.
The Inquisitor was no slouch in the martial arts, though, and he willingly traded his magical firepower for the reassuring weight of the greatsword he carried strapped to his back. It was a Blade of Judgment, a weapon blessed by the Archpriests themselves. In acid-etched runes on the blade, it proclaimed its name proudly: Deliverance.
The Tiger came on, claws and fangs flashing. Lysse inscribed an expert figure of eight in the air with Deliverance, and the Tiger withdrew, missing its left paw, and trailing a terrible gash down one side. Grievously wounded, it was too slow to evade Deliverance a second time, and it yowled as it died with the greatsword sheathed in its corrupt heart.
Darius was having a harder time of it.
The slavering Tiger had fastened its fangs on his left forearm, and was doggedly worrying away at the armour. Tough though the fire-forged steel was, Darius could feel the metal buckling. The hand-and-a-halfer far too bulky a weapon for this close-up work, so the Praetorian simply let it fall from his hand. He formed a huge fist, and jerked his fist downwards, activating the spring-loaded spike mounted on top of his gauntlet.
He slammed this into the Tiger's eye.
The monster roared as it let go of his forearm and reeled. Darius did not miss his chance. With one precise strike, he punched the spike deep into the creature's exposed carotid artery in its throat. The tainted, black blood of the Tiger arced high into the air as it rapidly bled to death.
Darius disconnected the spike from his gauntlet; the poisonous, acidic blood of the Dirz beast had already begun to corrode the metal. He recovered his bastard sword, and moved to the Inquisitor's side, limping a bit.
"You're hurt," Lysse observed. He returned his stare to the glowing, levitating Griffon priestess.
"It is nothing," the stoic Praetorian shrugged.
"This is worse than I thought. How could a Griffon have fallen so far?"
"Because to fight evil, sometimes, you need a different form of evil." The crackling energy surrounding Idaril faded as she gently floated back to the ground. But her eyes were still glowing a vivid green.
"The danger, of course, being that you might turn into just exactly what you sought to fight." Lysse pointed out. "Sort of, like the way you and the Lord Provost have become."
"Never! Can't you see, Inquisitor? You, of all people, I would imagine would see the clearest!
"The Dirz use clones on the battlefield. They scavenge from their own dead, and ours, to build their armies. Even if we defeat them in honest combat, they always come back, stronger than ever!
"We can't even destroy their gene-collectors, the biopsists, the vicars, and the neuromancers. They are too well protected.
"The only way we can truly destroy the Scorpions is if we destroy them from within. By controlling their clones and cloning vats, turning them against each other. Can you imagine, biopsists being destroyed by their own guard?"
"But at what cost?" Lysse shouted back. "Their minds are too alien! Too … tainted. Look at what has happened to you!"
"Not so." Idaril smiled. "They are human, too, merely … unguided. All one needs is a firm hand, and they willingly serve. And they are the perfect servants: fearless, tenacious, unquestioning obedience."
"You have become one of them, Idaril." Lysse shook his head. "Now you must be cleansed."
"You cannot stop me!"
Shrieking in sudden anger, Idaril raised the symbol of her office, the Staff of Flame, and prepared to smite the Inquisitor.
Anger turned to pain and despair as two feet of solid steel unexpectedly sprouted from her chest. Distracted by the Inquisitor, Idaril had failed to notice Darius circling around to her back.
The Steel Priestess collapsed limply to the floor, her lifeblood gushing out. Lysse rushed to the dying woman's side, and pulled out the small, silver hilted knife he always carried when hunting heretics.
Cradling her head in his lap, Lysse began carving the Runes of Heresy and Damnation into her forehead. Before he got far, however, the fallen priestess coughed up a great gout of blood, and spoke.
"You know nothing, Inquisitor, for you are nothing. It was I who held the beasts in check, it was my magic that held them in thrall. Now that you have slain me, you have condemned this entire town to death. …"
Lysse paused, shocked at the revelation. "There are more?"
Idaril laughed, a horrible, wet, tearing sound. "Of course there are. We have a full complement here, from Keratis warriors to Belisarius clones. Personally, I am proudest of the Dasyatis clone we have sitting …"
A terrible roar echoed through the chamber.
"… just next door." Lysse finished for her.
With a final wheezing laugh, Idaril was gone.
The Inquisitor spat a curse. He took up the carving knife once more. "Oh, well. The short version, then."
"Just … hold him a few moments, will you, lad? This is important."
As the Inquisitor resumed his carving of the runes into Idaril's dead flesh, Darius wondered just exactly how he was supposed to stop the seven-foot tall, two-ton Dasyatis clone that had just bashed its way through the wall.
"Idaril of the Sisterhood, I hereby declare you Excommunicate and Anathema. For your sins against the One God Merin …"
Darius sighed to himself. Just another day in the life of a Praetorian Guard.
As Lysse continued to murmur softly, he set his sword out and charged the D-clone.
Outside, on what passed for ramparts of the town, the Griffon conscript called Kaylas was astonished to see a full team of cavalry come charging up the road. Their armour was polished to a brilliant red, with delicate gold filigree. Lances gleaming in the sunlight, they bore the banner of the Lions of Alahan.
Just then, a terrible tearing sound forced him to look behind.
It cannot be, his mind rebelled. The war is far to the south!
His eyes did not lie, however, for dozens of Dirz clones had ripped their way out from beneath the cobbled road. Blades flashing, they laid into helpless bystanders and horrified militia alike.
A rough hand seized his should and spun him around. Somehow, somebody had scaled the twenty feet between ground and rampart and now held a blade to his throat.
"Open the gate," Thorin hissed.
Nodding numbly, Kaylas reached out a hand and activated the mechanism that would swing the town gates wide open.
"Who are you?" The conscript gasped.
Thorin smiled nastily. "Someone you never want to see again."
He removed the knife from Kaylas's throat and pushed him against the wall, then handed the shocked conscript his halberd.
"Akkylannie has need of you, conscript. Make us proud." Thorin pointed at the wild chaos in the streets.
Unable to decide if he feared Thorin or the Dirz more, Kaylas clutched his halberd tightly and ran out into the streets.
"Let us hope we are in time," the Thallion whispered softly to himself. He took a short running jump from the rampart to a nearby roof, heading for the castle.
Lord Captain Rhythe of the 57th Royal Alahan Lancers led the charge into town. His lance ripped into a Keratis warrior on its first attack. Shaking the body loose, Rhythe turned his heavy warhorse and managed to skewer another two more Dirz before the lance broke from the abuse.
"What madness is this?" His lieutenant, named Corvas, riding beside him, shouted. "The Dirz-Griffon war fronts are all to the south!"
"Never you mind, Corvas!" Rhythe shouted back. "Dirz are Dirz, wherever you find them!"
He reached behind him and unsheathed the saber that every cavalryman carried as a back-up weapon, and set to hewing heads and limbs with a will. When that crazy Griffon Thorin had showed up, invoking the ancient treaties of peace and alliance, Rhythe had debated whether to send his troops immediately, or communicate his misgivings back to his commanding officer.
Now, he was glad that he had come instead. The Dirz were a threat, and were to be exterminated like the foul scorpions they were.
Casting his gaze about, Rhythe saw a terrible warrior scything down his enemies with a strange, hybrid sword-axe.
By all the gods, a Dawn Warrior!
Here was a foe worthy of his blade. Lord Captain Rhythe set the spurs to his warhorse, charging into the fray and towards glory, death, and whatever else awaited him.
Darius barely dodged a blow that put a three-foot-diameter hole in a solid stone wall. The ensuing howl that followed nearly burst his eardrums from its sheer volume alone.
The Dasyatis clone was nigh-impossible to stop. It moved far too quickly for something of its size, it struck with enough force to shatter stone and bone, and it was tireless.
Darius had already split its flesh at least half a dozen times with his bastard sword, deep gashes that spilled dark purple ichor all over the ground, and it only seemed to enrage the beast. In return, the clone had only landed a glancing hit that had dented his breastplate, and sent him flying fully ten feet to crash into a pillar.
All this, in less than a minute. Darius wished the Inquisitor would quit mooning over the damned, dead priestess and get back into the fight.
Lysse finished his work, inscribing the final rune on Idaril's throat, marking her as a heretic and to be forever denied the fruits of Merin's Paradise. The sounds of battle behind him told him how Darius was faring.
The Inquisitor grabbed Deliverance and ran to help the Praetorian Guard.
Thorin leapt from roof-top to roof-top, the need for haste far outweighing his concerns about personal safety. After all, was this not what Thallions trained for?
He launched himself into the air from yet another roof-top, deftly twisting in mid-air and catching a descending drainpipe. Setting the balls of his feet to either side of the pipe, on the wall, Thorin slid down back to ground-level. He was immediately beset by three sword-wielding Dirz.
With blinding speed, he drew a pistol and shot one through the skull at point-blank range. As the Dirz crumpled, Thorin had time enough to holster his gun, draw his blade, an leap at his enemies.
Such swiftness would have caused human opponents to hesitate for a moment, shocked into awe by its nigh-supernatural appearance, despite its very mundane origins of superb training and conditioning from young. But Thorin did not face humans – the Dirz clones were incapable of higher cognitive functions, and they came on relentlessly, undaunted.
Thorin darted in to the right, forcing the clones to get in each other's way as they tried to reach him. The one closest to him lashed out anyway. The Thallion ducked under the clumsy swing, and riposted with a careful cut that removed the offending arm.
Ignoring the terribly injury, the clone reached over with its other arm and tried to club Thorin with its buckler.
Except that the Thallion was no longer there.
Thorin had back-flipped acrobatically, landing neatly on his feet. His shortsword flashed once more, and the Dirz lost its other arm. Two more swift, precise cuts, and the Dirz came apart in a shower of gore.
The remaining clone shoved its dead brother aside and came at Thorin with a remarkable combination of sword thrust, buckler-edge slash, and steel-shod heel. Such a flurry of blows might well have demolished a lesser opponent, but the Thallion was no such opponent.
Lacking a shield, Thorin grabbed his holstered pistol. He spun it around and held it by the main body, then depressed a hidden catch. With an audible click, a small, crescent-shaped blade extruded from the pistol grip. All the while, he weaved easily back and forth, avoiding the Dirz's blade.
His chance came a heartbeat later. Spotting a tiny error in footwork that left the clone unbalanced for but a split second, Thorin lashed out with his shortsword, forcing the clone to block or be spitted upon the length of his blade. The move over-extended the reach of the clone, and there was nothing it could do as the Thallion whipped his pistol-blade around viciously.
Blade met skull with a crunch, and the Dirz dropped like a stone.
Without a backward glance, Thorin ran on. He reloaded his pistol as he sprinted, praying that he was not too late.
Darius cursed feelingly. He had gotten tired, and careless, allowing himself to be backed too near a wall. Now there was barely room to move, let alone swing his sword. As if sensing victory was near, the Dirz beast bellowed triumphantly, and swung its cleaver-sword at the Praetorian Guard.
"This is going to hurt," Darius muttered under his breath as he brought his sword into a futile guard position and braced himself.
The blow was every bit as painful as he imagined. The oversized blade crashed into his sword blade, the tempered steel lasting all of two seconds against the terrible impact before snapping. His arms rattled with the sheer force of the contact, and then the blade slammed into his breastplate.
Metal screeched and tore, and Darius felt the enemy's weapon bite into his flesh. It carved a gash an arm's span across his chest, then launched him, flailing helplessly, into the air. The Praetorian Guard crashed into a stone pillar so hard, he remained embedded in it long after arriving.
Having seen the D-clone's last, probably fatal strike, Lysse cursed his tardiness. His insistence on observing the proper rites for banishing heretical souls may have caused the loyal Praetorian's death. The Inquisitor launched himself at the Dirz's back, the Blade of Judgment held high.
Unable to turn fast enough, the D-clone could only scream in pain as the Inquisitor struck and plunged Deliverance deep into its muscled back. Lysse held on for dear life as the huge beast bucked and squealed like a stuck pig. It reached an arm over its back and somehow managed to find him. The Inquisitor squirmed as he was lifted bodily and thrown clear.
Lysse fetched up against a wall, stunned but not badly hurt, thanks to the blessed armour he wore. He stood shakily, watching as the clone twisted and roared and screamed in pain. Any hopes that Deliverance had destroyed the aberration were dashed as the Dirz rounded suddenly on him and charged.
Doubting if his spellfire would do anything more than scratch the beast, but with nothing left to defend himself aught with, the Inquisitor prepared to make his last stand.
Somehow, the Dawn Warrior sensed the approaching Lion Knight.
The wicked sword-axe buzzed as it swung around, and cut Rhythe's mount out from under him. As the horse whinnied piteously and sprawled its length in the cobbled street, Rhythe leapt out of the saddle, tucked into a smooth, if bone-jarring, roll as he hit the ground, and came up with eyes blazing.
"You will pay for that," he promised as he pointed at the Dawn Warrior with his cavalry saber. "I just broke that stallion in."
The cavalry saber was designed for a man on a horse, with a heavy, if slightly fragile, blade. Weighted towards the front, it was meant to be dropped on to an opponent from a height, whereby its keen edge, coupled with the swing momentum, and its own weight, were meant to shear through flesh and bone with ease.
But on the ground, such a weapon put Rhythe at a disadvantage, and he knew it.
Rhythe pitched the saber at the Dawn Warrior half-heartedly as he turned and ran, his eyes desperately seeking for a more suitable weapon.
The Dawn Warrior, the elite of the warrior caste of the Dirz Alchemical Swarms, did not even deign to bat aside the saber. The weak throw simply bounced off its armour and fell to the ground. It raised the deadly sword-axe as it rushed after the Alahan Captain.
Out of the corner of his eye, Rhythe watched the Dirz warrior's pursuit. With no time left, he grabbed the first thing he could find – a spiked chain – and whirled to face the enemy.
"You'll have to do." Rhythe eyed the chain uncertainly, then a plan came to mind and he wrapped its length around his forearm as fast as he could. He had battled the Wolfen, the wolf-beasts, of the forests and seen them fight thus …
The Dawn Warrior came on like a simoon, howling with battle rage and as implacable as the desert sands. The sword-axe chopped down viciously, but Rhythe deflected the cruel edge with his make-shift shield. He followed up with a left hook that rang against the Dirz's helmeted jaw, then pivoted on one heel and swung his chain-wrapped right arm against that same jaw.
Metal kissed metal in an orgasm of screeching sound. The Dirz staggered under the blow, but recovered quickly and punched out with the hilt of its sword-axe. It caught Rhythe in the chest and knocked him back a step.
The Alahan Captain did not flinch, stepping in to take another wicked hilt-punch to the face. But he gave as good as he got, crashing heavy blows into the Dawn Warrior. Rhythe was not above fighting dirty, either, and once he was close enough, he rammed a knee into his opponent's groin.
The breath rushed out of the Dirz with a great whoosh, and the clone dropped its sword-axe and doubled up.
Somewhat surprised that the move worked, Rhythe paused a moment before recovering. He kicked the clone once more in its sensitive nether regions, for good measure, then picked up the fallen sword-axe and parted its head from its shoulders in a move that could hardly be called fair and honourable.
"You would think that the Dirz would have fixed that by now," he told the headless corpse.
Then a troupe of Belisarius clones swamped him, and Rhythe was too busy swinging his borrowed sword-axe and yelling to give much effort to thought anymore.
Lysse unleashed a spellfire barrage at the charging behemoth. Holy fire seared the beast, and it screamed. Its momentum abated enough for the Inquisitor to dive out of the way as the Dirz clone ploughed its way into the wall.
The Inquisitor got clipped anyway, an unintentional slash from the Dirz's set of dew claws mounted on its left heel. Hardened bone tore through even his blessed armour, and Lysse reeled from the sudden pain.
It was fortunate then that the dim-witted Dirz giant chose to spend a few moments demolishing the wall, unable to understand that if it simply backed out, it would be free of the encumbering stone. Leaking blood, Lysse limped over to where Darius lay partially entombed in a stone pillar.
"Merin … aid us!" He gasped. Heedless of the damage he might be causing the Praetorian Guard, Lysse latched on to one armoured heel and pulled with all his strength. Darius came loose and crashed to the ground, his plate armour rattling.
He yanked a scroll inscribed with a rare healing spell from the holder at his side, and started reading feverishly. With a sigh of relief, the Inquisitor watched as the spell took hold and the Praetorian Guard began to stir.
Behind him, the Dasyatis clone finished bringing down the wall completely, opening an exit to the outside world. Sunlight streamed in, highlighting the dust motes that floated in the air. The monster knuckled down into a gorilla-like walk and began stalking towards the Inquisitor and the feebly groaning Praetorian Guard.
Thorin was almost at the fort when he saw a great section of wall come cascading down, and a hulking, brutish body come out through the hole. The Thallion wasted a few moments gaping in astonishment at the giant as it thrashed about, creating a hole in the wall fully fifteen feet across.
The Thallion shook himself and yanked out his pistol, then ran the remaining hundred feet or so to the Dirz-made exit. Thorin knew a Dasyatis clone when he saw one, and he knew if it was a fool's errand to think that he could stop such a tank with only a pistol and a shortsword.
But when he saw the Dirz's intended targets, he knew he had to try.
Lysse saw the lumbering giant, and tried summoning his spellfire once again. Briefly, blue flame danced on his fingertips, then died away.
"Bad time to burn out, Inquisitor," Darius groaned softly. "And you always thought you were on fire."
"Oh, yes, make jokes at a time like this," Lysse grimaced, nonetheless breaking out into a small smile. "Still, it's good to see that you still live, old friend."
"Not for long once that thing gets here."
The Inquisitor could not refute that statement. He watched the behemoth close.
I pray the Lions will finish what I have started.
Thunder boomed then, and a gout of corrupted flesh and black blood fountained from the Dasyatis clone's back. It howled and arched its back as Thorin leapt and came down on it, using the still-embedded Deliverance as a handle.
"Inquisitor!" The Thallion cried as he tossed his shortsword to Lysse, hanging on to Deliverance's hilt for dear life as, for the second time in ten minutes, the D-clone tried to rip an offender from its back.
Lysse staggered to his feet, and missed catching the Thallion's blade. He settled for picking it off the floor in a very undignified half-crouch. Running as best as he could, the Inquisitor reached the Dirz clone to see Thorin use his pistol-blade to cut away at its questing fingers.
"Merin damn you!" Lysse growled as he reached out one hand and latched on to the metal strips riveted to the abomination's chest. Surprised, the clone halted its mad bucking for a moment.
The Inquisitor seized the opportunity and thrust the shortsword out at the oversized jaw with all his strength. Razor-edged steel slammed home and cut upwards into the D-clone's pea-sized brain. Lysse threw himself backwards as the abomination staggered.
The Inquisitor landed flat on his back with a resounding crash, his teeth rattling from the fall.
"Next time, I look before I leap," Lysse promised himself, groaning as he hauled himself unsteadily upright.
Still on the drunkenly-weaving clone's back, Thorin fumbled with his pistol as he tried to reload it one-handed. The Dirz behemoth was already dead, but it simply was not smart enough to realize it, and the Thallion was determined to drive the message home.
Hooking a leg over one of the clone's shoulders, Thorin muscled himself into place and rammed the pistol muzzle into one eye.
"Time to die," he murmured, and pulled the trigger.
The giant bucked one final time as the bullet ricocheted within its thick skull, liquefying its brains, then collapsed limply to the ground with a crash that shook stones off the shattered walls.
The 57th Royal Alahan Lancers was part of the elite fighting force of the Lions of Alahan. To date, they had only lost two major engagements, one of which was an ambush by an overwhelming force. They did not lose this battle, maintaining the fine Alahan record of honourable combat.
Uncoordinated and unguided, hampered by the loss of the corrupted Steel Priestess, the Dirz fought fiercely, but as individuals, not as cohesive fighting units. The Lancers smashed through their ranks, crushing many beneath the steel-shod hooves of their mounts, and spitting many more upon the pristine steel of their lances.
The Dirz's fates were sealed when the Lancers brought up their infantry support, a platoon of twenty swordsmen and archers.
The last Dirz clone fought a battle of epic proportions, in a most un-clone-like display of skill. It claimed the lives of fully eight soldiers, including the Griffon conscript Kaylas, and Rhythe's second-in-command, the brave Lieutenant Corvas. Alahan archers finally feathered the thing with multiple shafts, bringing it down with over twenty arrows.
In the aftermath of the battle, Inquisitor Lysse found himself pondering if the Steel Priestess Idaril had been right after all.
Was the way to defeat the Scorpions to plant Griffon scorpions in their midst?
Frowning, Lysse noticed a slim volume buried beneath the dead priestess. He toed her corpse aside, then bent and gathered the book up. His eyebrows rose as he gave it a quick once-over.
It's all here! The gramaryes, the spells, the wards! How she accomplished it. So it CAN be done …
Troubled, he slipped the book into a pocket and went off to find Darius and Thorin. There were reports to write, and Lord Commander Arkhos would undoubtedly want a personal debrief, and then those bloody bureaucrats at the Temple of the Inquisition …
Once these things were all done and over with, there would be ample time to examine the book and its secrets. Lysse was sure of it.
The Lord Provost Alaric was never found, despite an intense manhunt that went through the northern border of Akkylannie with a fine toothcomb and lasted six months. Still, the Inquisition had Alaric's name struck from the rolls of the Griffon military machine, and branded him a traitor and heretic in absentia. A bounty of fifteen thousand golden florins was placed on his head, taxable, of course.
"It is done?" The voice was soft as velvet, and poisonous as a cobra. It held an undercurrent of sibilant hissing, a quiet, unspoken threat.
"Aye, milady." Alaric knelt before the shadowy figure. "The seeds have been planted."
"Excellent." The figure drew itself out from the shadows, her feet never touching the ground, and Alaric flinched at the disturbing silhouette. The susurrating sound of her movement brought to mind vipers and sidewinders sliding through desert sands.
The former Lord Provost quickly averted his eyes. He knew that the cloak she wore provided her mobility, magical power, and physical protection. It was an artifact of wondrous power, mysterious origins, and a hideous, horrible alien sentience that had bonded itself to its wearer in a union that had been as depraved as it was un-natural.
A smooth hand reached out and caressed his cheek. Alaric closed his eyes, knowing what was coming.
"For this service, I grant you immortality."
Alaric grunted once as something razor-sharp and lightning-fast made a precise incision in his ribcage, then reached in and cut out his beating heart and held it before him.
The missing heartbeat was like thunder in his ears, and Alaric had time to appreciate it for fully another thirty seconds before he collapsed and died.
With Alaric's heart spitted on a blade-limb that was one of the arms of her Cloak of Crawling, Sasia Samaris, the Rose of the Sands, motioned to a waiting neuromancer. She deposited the rapidly cooling organ into the containment unit the neuromancer was holding.
"See to it that his genes are properly distributed," she instructed.
The neuromancer snapped the container shut, bowed, and departed.
Alone in the sanctified shadows of her chamber, Sasia Samaris smiled grimly to herself.
"Beware scorpions in your midst, Arkhos. You had best beware."
Barely five years later, Inquisitor Lysse would be hauled before his peers, stripped of his rank and title, and condemned to die as a heretic and burnt at the stake. After his execution, a slim volume of terrible Dirz sorcery would be found hidden under his bed sheets.
This innocuous leather-bound book would spark off the Inquisition Wars, and herald the inexorable advance of the Scorpion Empire northward.
But that is another story.