For generations the people of Khimoida had survived on their own. It had started out as a small village, and it had grown into a town with a walls bisected by a river, the Ephenal. Khimoida's people had fought off monster attacks, and had avoided being dominated by the larger nations of Erebus, despite being located between the Malakim and the Calabim. This changed when a large band of orcs took the people of Khimoida by surprise. The countryside was lost, but the Khimoidans were fighting a desperate battle with the orcs for control of the town. They were able to hold on the south side of the Ephenal, but on the north side, nothing held the orcs in check. Until a Calabim army arrived.
"Open that door," Lieutenant Vagos said to a pair of soldiers standing nearby.
The house that they were searching had several corpses in it, both human and orc. The soldiers had not found any living orcs in it. The two men, whose names were Carok and Ilmbar, approached the door, which led into a large armoire. Ilmbar had his sword out while Carok turned the knob and swung the door outwards. A flash of metal snapped out from within the armoire, and Carok yanked his arm away. Ilmbar reacted quickly, and soon had his sword at the throat of a small figure, which turned out to be a boy of about seven or eight, who was holding a knife, which he promptly dropped.
"Do not kill him," ordered Vagos.
"His family was killed by the orcs," Carok commented. "No one is likely to miss him, and if someone does, they'll assume he was killed too. How about we take him to the slave market once we get to Acaia," he said, turning to Vagos. "You're our commanding officer, so you can have half of the money, Ilmdar and I will take a quarter each."
"No," Vagos said sternly. "He is brave, as we just saw. With the right training, he could become a fine soldier. We lost many men in the fighting, and Lord Malrim will want to have them replaced. You know that nobles think in the long term, and how they prefer to have soldiers who were trained since boyhood."
Vagos approached the boy and asked him, "What is your name, Khimoidan?"
"Derrin," said the child, in a voice that was numb with shock and fear.
Ten years later
It was night, and Derrin was standing guard outside Governor Malrim's manor. The people feared Malrim and his soldiers, and wished for things to go back to the way they had been. Derrin served because he had to, and out of honor. He had been taught that to be a soldier was honorable and heroic. Khimoida was located on the frontier of Calabim civilization, and as such was occasionally attacked by monsters, and by Malakim raiders coming out of the western desert.
During his training, Derrin had believed that he would one day face these external enemies. Vagos, now a captain, who had taken in Derrin and trained him, was the officer in charge of the city guards at the governor's manor, an imposing building built on a hill in the northeastern corner of the town. Derrin was placed under the command of Vagos as part of the manor guards two summers ago. Everyone in Khimoida knew that people had been mysteriously disappearing since the Calabim conquest. There were rumors that they were taken at night to the governor's manor, and never came out. Anyone who investigated too closely was likely to suffer the same fate. Derrin, as one of the guards, had heard more about this than most, but while he was disturbed by it, he knew better than to pay any attention to it.
There was a market plaza in front of the manor, and Derrin was one of the guards there. This first summer as a soldier was, to Derrin, the best time in his life since before the orcs came. His training had been full of brutality and hardship, but now at least he was treated with some respect. His duties involved enforcing the lord's regulations and catching thieves. Not once did he have to strike at anyone with his sword, as it was a relatively easy post. And then there was Sevina, the daughter of a merchant. Derrin fell in love with her soon after being assigned to the market, but he was afraid to even try to do anything about it. For eight years his every action had been subject to the approval of his superiors, and he was terrified that he might be seen as being lax at his post should any of the other soldiers find out.
And then there came one terrible day at the end of summer. It was morning, and an ordinary day at market was interrupted by a man who was fleeing from three soldiers, led by Carok. He was pale and drawn, as if he was recovering from a long illness. Derrin drew his sword, moving into the path of the fleeing man, causing him to frantically turn and to stumble over some litter. He struggled to get up, but as he did so, the three pursuing guards aimed their crossbows at him. "Halt!" Derrin shouted, with his sword drawn. The pale man took off, and the three guards fired at him. One of the crossbow bolts struck the fleeing man in the back and killed him. A second bolt lodged in some vegetables on a market stall – and the third one struck Sevina's father in the throat, killing him.
After this, Derrin came to strongly dislike the Calabim occupation, but he had taken an oath of fealty to Governor Malrim, and while he secretly wished to see Khimoida free from the Calabim, he took his oath very seriously, and would not break it. Sevina inherited her father's business, but after his death she looked upon the guards with fear and hatred, including Derrin, who still loved her, but knew that he could not expect her to feel the same way, as he was partially responsible for the death of her father. While he did not think she blamed him personally, he knew the way that she looked at all the guards, including him. So he had limited his interaction with her to what would be expected for a guard and one of the merchants at the plaza, although he tried to treat her as kindly as possible, while at the same time he had never become romantically involved with anyone else.
Sevina had recently met the son of a traveling merchant who often came through Khimoida, and there was talk that they would soon become engaged. Derrin was relieved from his post by another guard, and while he was on his way back he encountered a group of about half a dozen soldiers. At their head was Captain Vagos. He said, "Come on. We need every man we can get. One of Duteri's people is in the southern city. I think it's Ralenna, the Svaltalfar."
Duteri. A Grigori adventurer, who was leading a small band of rebels seeking to free Khimoida from Calabim rule. He is the enemy now, Derrin thought, as he entered an empty house with Vonak, who was another guard and a friend of his.
"If she's in here, we might not see her," Vonak whispered. "Be ready, there may be a sudden attack."
They searched for Ralenna, moving as quietly as they could, still knowing that as a Svaltalfar, she would probably be able to detect them while remaining hidden herself. There were at least twenty-five other soldiers searching. Normally they would not try to catch such a dangerous enemy at night, but Lord Malrim was leading the search himself, as he had grown increasingly determined to stop the rebels. With their swords drawn, Derrin and Vonak entered a room that had once been used as a kitchen, and found nothing. They entered a bedroom, and in there they noticed some movement under a table. They saw quickly that it was a just a rat, but it set their hearts beating faster, as they knew that Ralenna could be anywhere within the house. They both spun as they heard a noise from the bedroom's doorway, but then they recognized it for what it was.
"The gate!" Vonak exclaimed. "She's escaping through the gate!"
They hurried in the direction of the gate, and when they arrived, most of the other guards were there too. The area they were searching was near the town's southern gate.
The gate was slowly rising, the bottom of the portcullis only four feet off the ground.
"She killed the watchman and set some kind of device to cause the gate to open after she left!" Vagos shouted. "Quick, to the wall! She may be there!"
Along with the other guards, Derrin entered a tower on the city wall and hurried up a stairway, emerging on top of the wall. A rope was dangling on the outside of the wall, over the flat ground outside the town. A human figure on a horse was visible, disappearing into the night. Some of the guards had crossbows, but it was too far for a shot.
"Again, a rebel has escaped me," Governor Malrim said in a deceptively calm tone. He had the dull yellow eyes, pale complexion, and perpetual sneer that all Calabim subjects, even the people of Khimoida, knew as a sign of the ageless and immensely powerful nobility, even though he was the only noble in Khimoida, not counting temporary guests who would sometimes visit.
"My lord, she is Svaltalfar, a dark elf," said Vagos, trying to be diplomatic. "I fought in the last war against them before I came here. Our scouts could never find them if they really wished to hide."
"You are a bunch of fools, that you all rushed to the gate when you heard it opening, and did not think that she could have been scaling the walls. If this was the first time one of Duteri's people had escaped us, that would be one thing, but three times he has had someone in the city, and always they have gotten away without any sign of their errand, or where Duteri's hideout is. Go back to your posts and bedchambers, but know that I may not be so forgiving the next time you fail."
Unlike their more fanatical counterparts in the Order, the Empyrean had private confession chambers in its temples. Separated by an opaque curtain, a petitioner could confess his or her sins anonymously to an unseen priest, even if the petitioner had broken the law. Not only could someone ask for forgiveness, they could also ask for guidance, and would often befriend a priest, the two of them knowing each other only by voice, not by name.
The Empyrean was persecuted in most Calabim cities. The official reason for it was that Varn Gosam, the leader of the Malakim, used it to control people and impose his influence over the world, for the Empyrean had been founded by the Malakim, who claimed that it was their sacred duty to bring its light to everyone. But it was commonly known, although never spoken too openly, that the Calabim aristocrats hated the sunlight, which some believed was due to a special enmity that Lugus, God of Light and patron deity of the Empyrean, had for their kind.
The Temple of the Empyrean in Khimoida was tolerated, although officially frowned upon, by the government because trade relations with nearby Malakim were vital to the city's prosperity. Derrin visited the Temple of the Empyrean every morning before he went on duty. He went there to pray, to eat the morning meal in the communal dining hall, and sometimes to visit the priest in the confession chamber that was marked with a five-pointed orange star painted outside its door. This priest was Derrin's only confidant. He was the only person who knew what Derrin truly felt about Sevina and the Calabim, but he did not know Derrin's name, or Sevina's.
In the confession chamber, Derrin asked, "Why do you put yourselves in so much danger by staying here? Some people fear Duteri, and it is said that he is working with the Malakim. It is only a matter of time before an angry mob, or the soldiers themselves, break down the doors of this temple out of suspicion that you are helping him."
"We are here to bring the people enlightenment. It is dangerous for us, but just as the Bannor crusaders fight the forces of evil in open battle to spread the Order, so must we take our own risks."
"But what if I am ordered to sack this temple? What if the soldiers steal your sacred treasures? I can't bear to participate in such a thing, but if I don't, they might torture me, or even kill me."
"My son," said the aging priest on the other side of the curtain. "You are a soldier. It is your duty to obey orders. Do not blame yourself for doing what you must."
"I hope you do not fight them. I have never killed before, and I really do not wish to start with a follower of the Empyrean."
"We are not here for violence, and we know that resisting would only make things worse. But it would cause unrest among the populace if the temple was attacked, and the governor would not wish that when Count Azoren is expected any day."
"I know that someone is going to disappear, as it always happens when such an important visitor arrives. I feel like I am part of it, that I will go to hell for supporting such a terrible thing."
The sound of distant bells echoed in the background, and the priest said, "You are forgiven. I know that your heart is true, and that you serve the Calabim out of honor, rather than any evil motive. But we are out of time. You will be on duty soon."
Derrin left the chamber and exited through the main room of the temple, returning to the manor.
The manor guards were assembled in the main room of the guardhouse. Vagos told them, "Today I have gathered you here for a purpose. There is a man, with long black hair and a thick black beard, who is well-built and of medium height. He wears Kuriotate clothing, but he is a native Khimoidan. Some of you may have seen him. His name is Nedel, and he visits the market plaza every morning. We believe that he has stolen an amulet that must be recovered quickly. When you see him, you will arrest him and either take the amulet from him, or force him to tell you where it is." He explained to the individual guards what their roles would be in the plan, and then they went to their posts.
The market plaza was a large white square covered with people and market stalls. Around it were the shops of some of the larger businesses, but the scene was dominated by the Governor's Manor, with its large opaque awnings, of the style that was favored by the Calabim aristocracy so they could get fresh air without being exposed to direct sunlight. A guard, whose name was Beron, spotted Nedel, and gave the signal by walking to a fruit stand as if he was thinking of buying something there. Four guards at the side of the plaza opposite from the manor started to close in on Nedel, but he noticed them and started moving through the crowd to avoid them. Guards from all over the plaza started moving, some of them trying to catch Nedel, and others trying to cut off his escape. Derrin approached Nedel, with Vonak following from the same direction. As they started to realize what was happening, shoppers at the market kept their distance from Nedel, so that he could not lose himself in the crowd.
Seeing that he was cornered, Nedel ran towards a street on the side of the plaza that was located to the right of the manor, but a guard blocked him, and he disappeared into the open door of a carpenter's workshop, only to reappear a moment later when he was hurled through the doorway by a heavy blow from a carpenter wielding a large piece of wood. The guards surrounded him before he could stand up, and searched Nedel, taking his money and a few trinkets, but not finding the amulet.
"Where is the amulet?" Carok demanded, shoving Nedel against the wall of the carpenter's shop.
"I-I d-don't know," Nedel stammered.
Carok punched Nedel hard in the stomach, making him grunt and double over in pain. "Don't play the scared citizen act with me. I've seen it before and I know you're guilty as sin. Now tell me where the amulet is, or you'll tell the interrogators in the manor dungeon."
The threat of being interrogated in a dungeon, with the diabolically cruel torture devices that Calabim interrogators were rumored to have, caused the man to shrink back in terror, and he said, "I sold it to a merchant. I don't have it any more. Please, let me go."
"Which one?" asked Carok.
Nedel pointed to a market stall, and Derrin felt his blood turn cold. The merchant at the stall was Sevina. She was involved in this, or she had been falsely accused. Either way, he was terrified of what the Calabim would do to her.
Carok pointed to a pair of guards and said, "You there. Take this man to a cell." As the guards hauled Nedel away, Carok turned to the carpenter, tossing him a gold coin. "You have done your civic duty. If not for you, he might have gotten away."
"I happened to have a large board handy when he burst into my shop, obviously fleeing from the law. Stopping him was the least I could do for this city," the carpenter replied modestly.
With five other guards, including Derrin and Vonak, Carok approached Sevina's stall. Derrin felt his heart pounding with terror about what they might do to her, but he knew that he could not try to stop them, as doing so would only make them more suspicious of her.
When they arrived, Sevina said, "What can I do for you today?" Beneath her external politeness, Derrin noticed the fear and hatred that she felt for the guards, as he always did.
"We must search your goods," Carok said. "We received a tip that somebody sold you a rare amulet recently. Do you know anything about it?"
"No, I do not," Sevina replied, and to Derrin's immense relief, stepped away from her goods so that the guards could search them.
As he searched through Sevina's wares, which were primarily luxury and household items, along with the other guards, Derrin felt like he was violating her privacy, but he still had to do it, so he would not appear lax in his search. The guards found no sign of the amulet.
"You had better not be hiding it somewhere," Carok said to Sevina. "I hear that Count Azoren has certain… tastes, like Prince Flauros does, shall we say."
"I'm not in possession of any amulet," Sevina said.
"There is still one place we haven't looked," Vonak said. All six of the guards knew what he was talking about.
"I think you should do it, Derrin," continued Vonak. "I've seen the way you look at her, and I know you want this."
Derrin barely forced himself not to choke. Not only had Vonak said that in front of her, he had suggested that Derrin search Sevina for the amulet. For a moment, Derrin was strongly tempted, but then he was quickly repulsed. He would not do such a thing to her, especially since he held himself responsible for the death of her father. But someone would have to do it, and Derrin shuddered to think of the rough, brutal hands of the other guards groping her, and not just to find the amulet. But the scene was interrupted by a loud, imperious voice calling from the direction of the manor.
"It is him," Lord Malrim said, pointing to a glassware merchant who was trying to end a lengthy conversation with an obstinate customer. "I can sense his fear." The merchant did not flee, as he was too terrified to move. Carok directed his group of guards to approach the glassware merchant, who was taken away into the manor. Derrin was tremendously relieved that nothing happened to Sevina. He wanted to help her rearrange her wares, but he knew that he would have to go back to his post.
Orotep brushed the concealing branches aside and entered the cave where Duteri had his base. He continued through a twisting tunnel, which entered a wide natural chamber where a group of eleven men and three women were seated around a stone which magically illuminated the chamber. A young man threatened him with a spear, and withdrew it upon seeing who had arrived.
"So, how was the Mirror of Heaven?" asked the spearman, whose name was Orrom.
"I didn't get to see it," Orotep replied, "but I did speak with Varn Gosam in Golden Leane."
"And what did the leader of the Malakim say?" The voice, speaking in a calm tone of casual authority, came from the other side of the cave. It was Duteri, leader of the Khimoidan rebels.
"He said that he would be honored to accept your fealty, should you take control of Khimoida," replied Orotep, who was swarthy and dark-skinned like the Malakim, but had never been a subject of Varn Gosam, as he had been born into one of the desert tribes that had never joined the Malakim civilization.
"Is everything ready for our plan," Duteri asked Iskorin, a wizard who was sitting next to him.
"I have prepared all the necessary spells," the wizard answered.
On the evening after the incident at the market, a messenger arrived at Khimoida, saying that Count Azoren was to be expected tomorrow. Derrin was sleepless with worry for Sevina that night. He had heard that Flauros, one of the two leaders of the Calabim, had caused many young women to disappear back in Prespur. He was afraid that Sevina would be chosen as a gift for the Count.
Tired of lying restlessly in bed, Derrin rose, being careful not to wake the other guards who were sleeping in the same barracks. He walked to a window that looked out onto the market plaza, which was empty at this time of night, and stared at the dark bulk of the Governor's Manor, which seemed to come alive at night in some unexplainable way. He watched, unseen, for what seemed like an eternity. And then he saw, or at least thought he saw, a human figure in a dark cloak carrying a smaller human figure, which was moving slightly, as if awake but in a state of lethargy. It was like in the whispered tales of Lord Malrim's dark side. Derrin desperately hoped that the smaller figure was not Sevina, although he could not tell at this distance.
When dawn came, Derrin watched the merchants in the plaza set up their shops, arriving earlier than usual because they all knew that Count Azoren, who to many of them was a man of unimaginable wealth and power, would be arriving that day, and maybe, he might want to buy something at the market, or, more likely, have a member of his retinue do it for him. But there was no sign of Sevina. Derrin knew with a terrible feeling that Sevina was an early riser, and that she would have more reason to prepare early than most of the others, because she sold some items that a visiting nobleman might wish to possess.
The Temple of the Empyrean, with all of its brilliant splendor, meant nothing to Derrin as he went to visit the confession chamber marked with a five-pointed orange star.
"What would you do if I was to speak of something forbidden, something that you could get in trouble for merely knowing?" Derrin asked, his words sounding hesitant even though he was speaking to the one person in all Erebus who he was most comfortable with.
"My son, you know that you can tell me whatever you wish inside the confession chamber and I will never repeat it, no matter what it is," said the priest on the other side.
"You know of the people who disappear, and are supposedly taken to the governor's manor?"
"I do. It is best not to do anything about such knowledge, but I will hear what you have to say."
"They've taken her. I think she's – for the Count."
"I am very sorry," said the priest, who was the only person Derrin had told about his feelings for Sevina, although the priest did not know her name.
"What should I do if I must choose between honor, and doing what I know is right? I've let too many evil deeds be done, and even participated in some of them. I can't break my oath, but at the same time, I cannot abandon the one I love. What is your counsel, father?" he asked, using the formal way of addressing a priest, which he normally did not do in this chamber.
"Honor is about doing what is right, not about blind obedience to an evil master. I cannot advise you to take on the government and risk execution, but I know the good in your heart, and if you truly know that something is wrong you should do what you feel is best."
"But how can Lugus forgive me for breaking a sacred oath? Will I spend eternity in hell?"
"I am sure that Lugus will understand. I believe that this is a crucial point in your life, when the strands of fate are woven together for you." The priest slid a small wooden box under the curtain. "A man who wished to give up a life of crime gave this to me. It is likely that you may need this. I assume that opening locks was part of your training?"
"It was," Derrin replied, taking the box. "How can I ever thank you?"
"Listen to the good in your heart, and never allow darkness to tempt you," the priest said, just before Derrin left with the wooden box, which contained a set of thieves' tools.
The Governor's Manor was filled with activity, as everyone was preparing for Count Azoren's visit. In the brown and red leather armor of a Calabim soldier, Derrin was able to avoid suspicion as he entered the manor. He had heard that in Lord Malrim's private chambers, there was a door that led underground. Derrin waited until he heard that Count Azoren had arrived, and then he made his move. There was one guard standing outside the door of Malrim's private chambers. Derrin was wearing a helmet, and he kept his head turned so that the guard would not see his face. Derrin passed the guard, as if he was on some other errand. Then, he suddenly grabbed the guard and slammed his head against the wall, causing him to collapse unconscious to the floor. Derrin searched the unconscious guard, and found some keys, but none of them fit the lock on Malrim's door. Derrin opened the box of thieves' tools he had with him and started working on the door.
The large covered wagon bearing the banner of Count Azoren rumbled through the market plaza. Two of the Count's guards and four guards from the city were escorting it. A pair of large double doors in the Governor's Manor opened, and the wagon rolled through. It entered a wide room, decorated with tapestries imported from the older cities of the Calabim. At the far end of the room from the entrance, there was Lord Malrim, sitting in an elegant chair flanked by his guards and servants. Count Azoren stepped out of his wagon, approaching Malrim.
Soon after Derrin entered Malrim's private chambers, he found a trapdoor concealed beneath a rug of elven origin, and descended a ladder beneath it. He entered a dark corridor lit by occasional torches. It was clearly ancient, built in a different style than the rest of the manor. Apparently there had once been someone else living in this place long before the Khimoidans. That did not matter to Derrin, as he was here to find Sevina.
As he walked through the corridor, there was an oppressive feeling to it, as if something was haunting the place. And then he started seeing the bodies. Once he got deep enough into the corridor, he saw many of them, in various stages of decomposition. This was where the governor's victims ended up. Further down the corridor he saw a series of cages, and in one of them he saw Sevina. She looked unkempt and frightened, and her fear was only worsened when she saw Derrin entering.
"What is your business here?" a harsh male voice barked. Derrin saw that in front of him, there was a guard holding a sword, pointed in his direction.
"Governor Malrim sent me to fetch the prisoner," Derrin said, and as he said that, he noticed Sevina shrink back against the wall of her cage.
"Of course," said the guard, as he sheathed his sword and unlocked the door of Sevina's cell, dragging her out into the corridor. As the guard moved closer to Derrin, he said, "You're not who I expected. Who built this place?"
The question caught Derrin off guard. "Someone ancient?" he said.
The answer was obviously wrong, for the guard drew his sword and swung it at Derrin, who drew his own sword and parried the blow just in time. The guard quickly attacked two more times, Derrin struggling to survive as he parried one blow and ducked beneath another. The guard was about to attack again, but then he gave a cry of pain, and he turned suddenly. This gave Derrin an opening, and he quickly lunged forward and stabbed his sword deep into the guard's side. The guard collapsed, as Derrin pulled his sword out. Derrin then saw what had distracted the guard. Sevina was holding one of the torches from the wall, and she had burned the guard with it, enabling Derrin to strike. Derrin had no time to think about having actually killed someone, and the guilt and horror he was starting to feel, as the sound of footsteps came from the corridor's entrance. Derrin grabbed Sevina's hand, and they fled through the corridor, into another tunnel. Derrin held his sword, while Sevina still had a torch, so that they would not accidentally run into a wall once they entered areas where there were no burning torches. After running through darkness, with Sevina's torch as their only light, they took a brief rest in an alcove set into one of the walls. In the distance there was a small patch of light, not the orange glow of torches, but the radiance of the sun.
"Why are you doing this," Sevina asked quietly. "You are not like the other soldiers."
"It is because I care about you, Sevina. More than you will ever know." They were interrupted when the light of torches carried by the pursuing guards showed up in two different tunnels leading to this one.
"Go," Derrin said. "Don't use the torch, it will give you away. There's light over there," Derrin said, pointing to the narrow shaft of sunlight in the distance.
"What about you?" Sevina asked.
Derrin felt a thrill like nothing he had experienced before, that Sevina actually cared about what happened to him. But there was no time for such thoughts, as the guards were closing in. "I'll draw them away, buy you time to escape. Without waiting for an answer, Derrin snatched up the torch and burst into the tunnel, going in the opposite direction from the shaft of light, holding his sword in one hand and the torch in the other.
"I can't believe you have only two Moroi," Azoren said to Malrim, indicating the two guards on either side of the governor, who had a distinctly cold and brutal appearance to them."Back home, any governor's manor would be guarded entirely by Moroi."
"That's what living out here on the frontier is like," Azoren replied.
"Why do you stay here, in this backwater when you could live in the heart of the country?"
"Sometimes I ask myself that, and I realize that there is no greater joy than having the undisputed power of life and death over so many. Out here, as long as I pay my taxes and agree to mobilize my soldiers if there is war, I can do whatever I want."
"I can understand quite well," said the Count. "On another subject, have you been informed of my preferences in mortals?"
"Yes. I have one ready for you."
"Could you do me the courtesy of having her brought to my guest room?"
"Certainly," said Malrim, and sent some guards away.
"Now, shall we discuss business?" Azoren asked.
"For what reason have you honored me by your presence?"
"For this one!" Azoren said, and cast off his dark cloak. Suddenly he had a sword in his hand, and he was no longer Count Azoren, but he was Duteri, leader of the rebellion against Malrim. He swung the blade at Malrim, who, with superhuman speed, reached out and grasped Duteri's sword arm, and easily threw him across the room.
The room sprang into action. Servants fled through side doors to raise the alarm. The two Moroi drew their heavy axes, and two guards elsewhere in the room drew swords. And then Duteri's companions emerged from within the wagon. A male elf with a bow leapt out, and immediately loosed an arrow at Malrim, who dodged with superhuman speed. Orotep came out, brandishing a battleaxe, followed by a human swordsman.
Ordering his two Moroi to attack, Malrim moved towards a door, and then a thrown dagger came out of nowhere. Malrim turned just in time, the knife grazing his neck and drawing a thin line of blood. The dagger had come from the direction of the wagon, as it had been thrown by Ralenna, the Svaltalfar. A Moroi rushed at the elf, who fired an arrow into his stomach, but the Moroi, maddened with supernatural rage, kept going, but the elf, with seemingly impossible speed, fired another arrow, which struck the Moroi in the heart and killed him.
The other Moroi and one of the guards engaged Orotep and the swordsman, whose name was Delros. Malrim took a spear from a coat of arms on the wall and hurled it at the elf archer, striking him in the chest. An orange ball of fire flew towards Malrim, but was stopped by a guard who stepped in his way, who was rapidly incinerated as the magical ball of flame spread over his body. Iskorin, the wizard in Duteri's party, had stepped out of the wagon and joined the fighting. Malrim fled deeper into the manor, with Duteri, Ralenna, and Iskorin pursuing him as Orotep and Delros fought the two remaining guards.
The guards were chasing Derrin, as he tried to lead them away from Sevina as much as possible. They were about to catch up to him. They would catch him, and he would certainly die, Derrin realized. He hoped that Sevina would get away safely, that his sacrifice would not be for nothing. And then a heavy gong reverberated through the earth. Derrin had rarely heard the sound, but he knew what it meant. The manor was under attack. It was a most dire emergency, which took precedence over everything else. The guards chasing Derrin left to answer the call, and then Derrin realized how he could avoid being caught. He joined with the guards, becoming just another soldier hurrying to answer the call.
Guards hindered the attackers' progress, but stood little chance against them. Duteri fought them with a sword, using his superior fighting skills to kill many of them. Iskorin's magic was deadly to the guards, killing them from a distance. Ralenna would come out of nowhere to stab soldiers or throw daggers at them. Vonak was cut down by Duteri's sword, and Carok died from a lightning bolt conjured by Iskorin. The door to Malrim's private chambers was open, and the three adventurers approached it, and entered.
They saw no one, but suddenly, Malrim leapt down from the ceiling, holding a sword. He jumped straight at Iskorin, and drove the sword through his body. Ralenna threw a dagger at him, and he withdrew the sword and knocked the dagger out of the air with superhuman speed. Duteri attacked Malrim with his sword, the two of them engaging in a duel. Duteri was an excellent swordsman, but he was outmatched by Malrim's superhuman strength and speed. Ralenna took a curved blade from the wall, and attacked Malrim with it. Now that he was faced with two opponents, Malrim gave ground, keeping to the defensive.
When the first of the guards came out through the trapdoor, he rushed at Ralenna, who swung around and slashed his stomach open. Malrim took advantage of the interruption to take the offensive, allowing Derrin and two other guards to come through the trapdoor. Ralenna dropped her sword and drew a pair of daggers, and plunged each of simultaneously into a different guard. With a sweep of her foot, she kicked the curved sword upwards and grabbed in midair, easily parrying a slash of Malrim's sword.
Derrin had taken an oath to defend his lord and country, and despite what he had done for Sevina, he still intended to follow that oath as much as possible. Another guard came through the trapdoor, and attacked Duteri, who quickly cut him down. But killing the guard weakened Duteri's defenses for just an instant, allowing Derrin to suddenly attack him, inflicting a slight wound on his upper leg. This gave Derrin the upper hand, and he pushed Duteri back with two sword strokes. Malrim caught Ralenna's sword in a blade lock, and kicked her with superhuman speed and strength. The blow hurled her against a wall, stunning her.
Malrim thrust at Duteri, who awkwardly parried the blow. Derrin lunged at Duteri, and it seemed like he was going to hit, when he tripped over Iskorin. The dying wizard used his last arcane energy to send an electrical shock through Derrin, which prevented him from striking Duteri, whose sword spun in a graceful arc and slashed Derrin's throat. With a wet choking sound, Derrin dropped his sword, and clutched at the fatal wound in his neck as he collapsed to the floor.
Malrim swung his blade at Duteri's head. Time seemed to slow down for the Grigori adventurer, as he made the spontaneous decision to duck rather than to parry the blow. As he lowered his head, Duteri thrust his sword with great speed. As he felt the cold steel of Malrim's sword graze his forehead, Duteri's plunged his own blade into Malrim's heart, driving it entirely through his body. For a moment, Malrim stared down in shock at the blade in his chest, and he turned even paler, and then seemed to age decades in a matter of seconds. Then his body crumbled to dust around Duteri's sword.
"It really has been a profitable transaction," Count Azoren said as he took the jeweled dagger, an artifact from the Age of Magic.
"I agree," Duteri said. "Without your assistance, there is no way I could have pulled this off."
"I never really liked Malrim, and I could care less about Varn Gosam having Khimoida as part of his empire," Azoren said, staring out at the night sky from the balcony on the second story of the Governor's Manor.
This is intended as a deconstruction of adventure stories, particularly the genre of heroic fantasy. In many books, movies, TV shows, and video games, the heroes will often kill large numbers of nameless thugs or soldiers, who are sometimes referred to as "mooks". In the genre of fantasy, it is quite common that the villain is a tyrannical ruler. When heroes fight this kind of villain, they will usually kill large numbers of mooks. These soldiers will fight the hero only because the villain told them to. The idea behind this story is to turn a typical heroic fantasy tale on its head and show it from the point of view of a mook. If the story was to be seen from Duteri's point of view, it would be heroic fantasy, a Robin Hood-like tale of a small group of rebels overcoming an evil government. Derrin would have been nothing more than a particularly tough mook at the end, whose death would likely be applauded by the audience. If this was told as typical heroic fantasy, there would have been nothing about Derrin's honor, his love for Sevina, or even what he was doing right before the final confrontation. It seems to be an unwritten rule in most adventure stories these days that if the protagonist is in love with someone, that person will love them back. Derrin's love for Sevina is a subversion of this. Also, the "heroes", meaning Duteri and his people, are less morally pure than in most adventure stories.
The world that this story is set in is based on the world of Fall from Heaven 2, a fan-created modification of the turn-based strategy computer game Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. All nations and cities that are mentioned in the story are from the game, except for Khimoida. All of the characters are my own invention, except for Flauros and Varn Gosam, who are only mentioned. If you wish to learn more about the game, Google "Fall from Heaven" and you should get the Fall from Heaven website, .net, as your first result.