The world was dark.
Xemitar saw only blackness, and here and there, a fine dusting of light – the life forces of a myriad of bacteria in and on everything in the abandoned room. The dusting of light was his only sight; only it allowed him to see the room for what it was. In the distance, though, through the darkness and the dusting of light upon the walls, he could see other points of light – bright beacons in the darkness, but far away and distant.
The dread knight pulled back an aged chair from the table, and sat down in it, gingerly testing it with the weight of his bones and his armor. The chair held, though barely. Were there flesh on his blackened bones, the chair likely would have snapped like so much dry kindling, which was about all the chair was after so long abandoned.
Xemitar growled to himself, half remembering a time long ago when such a place as the one-room cabin might have been his own.
He remembered the cool mountain air, the easy hunting, the free-flowing water… He remembered how his bones had ached before the coming of a storm. Xemitar had retired to the mountains of his home after a long, long career as a soldier, and a mercenary. His friends and his soldiers had used their monies to buy themselves manors and women and power, but Xemitar had made too many enemies to die in his death bed, and he knew it. He had withdrawn from society, and taken to the mountains to live out the remainder of his days in peace, and solitude.
He had died in a room much like the one he was in.
Through his lichsight, he could see the faint tendrils of life still in the cabin. He turned in the chair, and saw the light of a mouse's life force creep forward, and dart under the remains of the wooden bed. Though the mouse's life force eclipsed that of the bacteria and fungus all over the room, the mouse's life force was still eclipsed by those points of light on the horizon: orcs, and one ogre.
The dread knight sighed, lost in memories of that twilight of his life for a moment.
The fine dusting of light coalesced into a bright, powerful source – a woman whose soul burned brightly, overpowering all other light and making Xemitar almost blind.
She spoke. “You are wasting His time, dread night.”
The skeleton in dark plate stood suddenly, the chair falling over behind him and shattering to splinters. He turned away from the powerful soul and walked out of the cabin.
Her voice followed him out, as she walked behind him. “Xemitar.” When she got no answer, she spoke again. “Xemitar!”
The dread knight stalked away from her, pausing on the mountainside to look out over the plains and into the distance.
She walked up beside him, righteous and angry. “You will answer me!”
With a casual movement, he drew one of his dreaded broadswords with the hand closest to the angel, and then slashed the darkest of shadow metal through her startled form.
She exploded into a thousand points of light that slowly disappeared.
Xemitar knew she would be back, that angel of Brigain. But for the moment, he merely enjoyed the blessed darkness.
Out on the broad valley below, and even in the surrounding mountains, and even in the air, points of life energy moved. A falcon soared upon the heights. A herd of mountain goats traversed the rocky sides of a cliff. And a tribe of orcs and their ogre slowly wound their way along the horizon, moving closer towards him – and closer to the headwaters lake of the Tikranor Flow.
The dread knight had no flesh to speak of, but a bit of darkness creased into a grin around the lich's black teeth.
Between Xemitar and the orcs' life forces was a large flame of light – a monster almost as terrible as the dread knight. Around the monster circled tiny motes of light that floated as though tethered to some anchor in a sea of air.
The dread knight whispered with a voice that frightened stone, “Ish'Tir.”
Behind the orcs, shining brightly, another form focused into view. The tribe of orcs were lead by an ogre. The dread knight could tell from the vibrancy and power of the ogre's life force that it was an ogre that pulsed with arcane powers.
The orcs had come to kill Ish'Tir, a fifty-foot long, twelve-legged cat-like snake with the ability to generate massive amounts of electrical energy. The behir, as it was called, had grown large with the aid of its smaller companions. Will-o-the-wisps, tiny floating creatures that usually lived in swamps, fed off of the fear and pain of living beings, and could generate colors or even small sparks of lightning of their own – and were also immune to the lightning Ish'Tir made at will.
The will-o-the-wisps could turn invisible to mortal creatures, and thus served as excellent scouts for the huge behir. They fed off of the terror Ish'Tir generated in its prey as it bore down on them, and Ish'Tir was often led to large, juicy, terrified prey.
The orcs of the Tikranor Plateau had learned to leave Ish'Tir alone the hard way. The behir had grown large on their bones. And now they had called in one of the nasty ogremai to deal with the creature.
The God of Destiny had a plan for Ish'Tir. Xemitar's instructions were clear: ensure that no ogremai would ever again attempt to bring down Ish'Tir, to make the ogremai's death so horrid that the orcs would spread the word far and near that none should approach the headwaters lake of the Tikranor Flow.
The dread knight sheathed his broadsword, and drew his hooded cloak of darkness tighter about him.
Below Xemitar in the sunlit valley, a cold shiver went down the spine of the ogremai – as though Death itself was coming for him.
* * *
Gambinth the ogremai shivered away his discomfort. He scowled at the surrounding mountains, their bases lost in the heat shimmer of the valley which stretched for dozens of miles between the hulking, snow-covered peaks.
His escort of orcs said nothing, if they noticed the shiver. The green-skinned, porcine creatures marched in perfect order, two files of ten, with two orcs walking off to one side, one keeping pace with the ogremai.
Gambinth understood somewhat the incredible discipline the orcs held, but it was all still a nebulous concept. Like many of the ogremai, he had been content to lead the orcs and the kobolds like kings – until the cursed Srik had invade their desert lands. The Srik were huge killing machines, like ants grown to the size of cottages. Gambinth and his Supreme Leader, Itzakos, had tried everything to stop the rampaging Srik, including hiring human mercenaries to teach the orcs and the kobolds and the other ogres how to fight like humans.
The orcs had taken to the training – learning, digesting, understanding all of it. To all the ogremai, the newly trained ogran forces had simply been more effective. They left the running of the war to the orcs, for the most part, stepping in only when they felt the orc leaders were growing too powerful, too intelligent.
Gambinth growled to himself, wishing orc actually tasted decent. Unfortunately, the foul porcine beasts did *not* taste like pork, but tasted instead like some kind of horrid feces from a shit-monster. Kobolds, though… Kobolds tasted much like chicken, with their own natural spices. The nine-foot-tall ogre smiled toothily to himself, thinking of a good kobold boiled alive, perhaps as soon as he returned to the burning wastes of the Choranil.
Tazik, the lead orc, stayed abreast of the hulking ogremai. The creature loomed nearly three feet over Tazik, but the orc had no real fear of the ogremai – only a healthy respect for the beast's strength, cunning, and magic – and its evil.
Tazik's sergeant kept the file marching at a regular pace, expertly timing that pace to stay abreast of the ogremai. Tazik himself merely marched and waited. The King of Rakore had granted the orcs the valley of the Tikranor Flow and many of the mountains around the plateaued valley, in exchange for the allegiance of the orcs. The orcs, in return, were allowed to live.
Rakore's mages had been feared and respected by the orcs since they first heard that the peninsula had been unified under a dwarven king – a king who supported the mages. Tazik spit upon the ground. He hated dwarves. He and his clan had fought them for ages, and never managed to do more than kill a few here and there.
The Ogre Nations under Supreme Ruler Itzakos had almost crushed Rakore. Tazik knew better, though – they had merely pushed a dangerous creature into a corner, and then that creature had gotten truly vicious. Rakore unleashed its mages, each mage killing whole battalions of Tazik's brothers in arms. The mages had done more damage in a day than had all the dwarves in the three months of fighting before that.
Tazik snarled to himself, focusing his thoughts more on the present than on the past.
Though the whole of the high valley had been granted to the orcs, they had had trouble with one section of it. The headlands of the Tikranor Flow was a lake nearly a score of miles long. There had once been a human town at the base of the lake, where it fed into the Flow – but it had been abandoned even before the orcs and their masters invaded.
An entire brigade of orcs and their supporting ogres and kobolds had been wiped out at the headlands before the orcs learned to go around the lake and leave the town alone. A creature more dangerous than the Srik had claimed the unnamed town as its own, and the orcs in their seemingly infinite numbers had simply flowed around the lake and the town before abandoning the area to the monster and going on.
Rumor said that the town had been a place of great riches, but no orc had lived to explore the rumor. So many orcs had died that ogres had been brought in. So many ogres had died that ogremai were had been brought in. So many ogremai died that all the Ogre Nations had come to know the name of Ish'Tir. The riches of an ogran nation lay somewhere about the town that was built around the Tikranor Flow and its headwaters.
Beside Tazik and his group, the Flow rumbled over broken stone, and he could follow the mists the Flow generated further up the valley. He could just make out the abandoned town from where they were.
He called out, “Grayvoth, do you see it?”
Tazik's sergeant paused in his low cadence, but continued marching along. He was silent for a moment, studying the lands around him, before answering, “I see the town, sir, but not the beast.”
Tazik nodded to himself. “I estimate we'll make it there at day-break, if we keep up this march.” The leftenant shielded his eyes from the sun, and judged it to be at mid-afternoon. The orcs could march all through the night without pause. They were battle-hardened troops, but the ogremai was not.
Feeling the orc leader's eyes on him, Gambinth growled in the ogremai tongue, “What?” He had understood but little of the exchange among the inferior orcs.
In a slow, broken ogremai, the orc leader asked, “Can you walk continue at night through?”
Gambinth scowled, puzzling through the words. About his eyes he wore a gauzy cloth to help protect them from the harsh light of day. The ogremai nodded to himself. “Yes, I can keep walking through the night.”
The ogremai muttered to himself, “This had better be worth it.”
The orcs had offered a huge bounty to the ogremai if they could help them rid some abandoned human town of a creature. Gambinth had at first thought them to be talking of a runaway Srik queen, perhaps – but their descriptions were too accurate, and that thousands of the orcs had been unable to take it indicated a grave danger. Gambinth was taking few chances, but he was also taking too many.
In exchange for their lives, the orcs had been granted a duchy of their own, free of the Srik – and free of the ogremai. The orcs hated their former masters as much as they hated the dwarves. The orcish duke, Dwarfkiller, had put a bounty on the heads of ogremai within the duchy. That the orcs had approached the remaining Ogre Nations and asked for help was troublesome.
Gambinth had trouble stepping through the political upheavals his presence must be causing.
Tazik, though, had no such trouble. The dwarven king of Rakore had spared their lives and given the orcs a duchy, but he was not willing to help them clean out the great beast from the valley's headlands – because as much equality as the dwarven king had decreed, he still, at heart, hated the orcs.
They hated him, too.
Grayvoth returned to his low cadence, heard just loud enough to keep the troops in step, but not requiring them to answer.
Dwarven arms and dwarven steel,
Will make for us a nasty meal;
Dwarven blood and dwarven guts,
We'll boil down some tasty nuts;
Dwarven horns and dwarven beards,
Will make us charms for blood that's spilled…
The hot afternoon's sun beat down on them, and the ogremai pulled his robes tighter about him, chilled by the altitude and the lack of desert heat. The orcs around him seemed impervious to the cold he felt, as they marched on to the tune of strange orcish rhyming chants.
He felt another shiver from the cold. Gambinth couldn't help but feel he was being watched – perhaps by the very beast he had come to slay.
* * *
Grayvoth called, “Group, halt!”
The two files of ten orcs stopped deadly still, seemingly made of stone, all standing at attention.
The orc sergeant called out, “Left, face!”
As one, the score of orcs smartly faced to the left, towards their sergeant, Grayvoth.
Grayvoth did a smart about-face in the pre-dawn light, and saluted his leftenant, Tazik.
The leftenant returned the salute, and said from his position near the ogremai Gambinth, “Sergeant, let the troops eat, drink, rest. Rotate them; no more than half down at a time. We are in the Beast's territory.”
“Yessir. How long will we be here?”
Tazik glanced at the ogremai, and asked in the ogre's crude tongue, “Long how we be spot this?”
Gambinth grunted, his pink eyes bared in the pre-dawn light. “Until I say so.” With that, the ogremai soared up into the sky, his arms to his sides as though gravity had no hold on him.
Tazik lost sight of the ogremai quickly, as Gambinth disappeared, light passing through him as though he did not exist.
The leftenant turned back to Grayvoth. “Unknown.”
The grizzled orc sergeant dropped his salute, and did another about-face to face the troops. He began handing out detailed instructions, with the first file to take first watch, and the second file to rest, positions to rotate every half-mark.
Grayvoth watched his file leaders – reeves, the dwarves called them – quickly begin their assigned tasks. Grayvoth was a treasure, as sergeants went – as disciplined, rough, experienced, and deadly as any orc, but he took care of his troops and their souls. While the grizzled sergeant watched over the reeves and their files, he pulled forth his iron scimitar and sat to honing it as he watched his troop.
Tazik looked to the horizon. The sun would not clear the distant valley's floor for some time, but it's red glow signaled a gathering storm.
To the west, the unnamed town was just visible in the darkness, more a set of dark shapes in the pre-dawn light than anything else. From where he was, the leftenant could throw a stone at the nearest building, a small out house that no longer reeked of human filth.
There was no sign of the beast the orcs had named Ish'Tir – Living Storm. The beast had a wide territory, though, and was wily, unpredictable, and very dangerous.
Grayvoth came to stand next to Tazik. “Sir. First file is on watch. Second file is cramming food down their craws, but as soon as their done, I'll have em start in on camouflaged shelters for us all.”
Tazik nodded, looking at the abandoned town, watching more and more detail slowly come to light in the dawn. “Sergeant… You think this is too easy?”
The grizzled, green-skinned veteran snorted. He bent down and picked up a piece of something, and held it up towards the leftenant.
Tazik stared down at the length of bone in the sergeant's hand. It was a rib, though from what, he could not say. In the increasing light, he could see that the ground was littered with bones, most ground into the wet loam of the earth or hidden by the many rocks and stones.
The leftenant snorted, and rubbed his thumb and forefinger along one upwardly thrusting tusk. “Have the second file dig down into the earth. It may not help much, but it's a start.”
Grayvoth nodded, and tossed the rib out into the darkness.
The darkness skittered aside where the rib landed, hiding behind a boulder.
Tazik's eyes went wide, and then he drew his own black iron scimitar with a steely rasp.
Grayvoth turned at the sound. He had heard blades drawn a thousand thousand times in his years, and he knew the instinctive sound of a blade drawn for haste above silence or maintenance or other causality.
The thick skin of the sergeant's back twitched as though shaking off a fly, even as his eyes took in the sight of his leftenant standing, blade drawn, facing broken ground that led to the abandoned town.
Grayvoth's hand sought the grip of the blade he had just oiled and put back in his scabbard.
The leftenant turned slowly, glancing back at Grayvoth, and then looked back out over the broken grounds of the land.
An eternity stretched by as both orcs peered into the brightening gloom, looking for something neither could see.
Caution was something orcs learned from the moment they were born. Only the fierce competition for the best breast overcame that innate caution and fear. The competition gave way to fierce bloodlust later in life, but it was always there, just below the surface, ready to be harnessed and used a vicious weapon.
A shadow moved. The growing light gave birth to a shadow behind a boulder orc-high, and that shadow moved, sinuously, stalkingly – and then suddenly lightning fast.
There was no sound made as the dark shadow, like the toothed beak of some enormous snake, lunged out and swallowed the leftenant whole. The shadow fled back behind the boulder, the only sign it had struck the thump the leftenant's blade made as it fell to the earth.
Grayvoth called, “TO ARMS!” as he raced towards the boulder and its shadow.
With his blade ready, he leapt into the shadow of the boulder, casting about for something to strike, for a hole in the earth, for some sign of the dreaded Ish'Tir.
A score of orc troops suddenly surrounded the sergeant, bows drawn, blades out, and shields held defensively.
There was no sign of the leftnenant, and only Grayvoth had seen him go.
The first file reeve asked, “What happened? Where's the leftenenant?”
Grayvoth seemed spooked, and that spooked all of the troops. “The shadows ate him.”
* * *
Xemitar laughed silently to himself, watching from beneath and around them, invisible to their senses, and yet standing in the midst of the orcs, in the shadow of the morning sun.
The leftenant beside him trembled in fear, certain that he was dead. The dread knight's force kept him from speaking or moving, or even breathing.
The orc sergeant gave hand signals, slowly backing his troops out of the area, and away from the darkness where Xemitar and the leftnenant existed. Eventually, the orc troop disappeared from view, slowly withdrawing, watching for signs of trouble from every shadow.
Only one shadow held trouble for them, and they had left it behind.
Xemitar turned to the leftenant, and released some of his hold on the orc.
The dread knight's blackened, skeletal jaw never moved – but the orc heard powerful, hissing, indeterminant words in its mind.
“What is your name, orc?”
Tazik had faced the undead before, but there was nothing mindless about this skeleton of black bone. It could have been some form of humanoid, but the skull and bones were of no race he recognized. It was too different from everything else he had ever seen to be anything else he had ever seen.
And there was a cold, cold menace to the creature. And yet it had asked for the leftenant's name.
“Tazik, Leftenant, bound to Captain Smathis.”
Xemitar looked at the orc, hard. The porcine beast's life force outshone all the other life around it, making Xemitar half-blind to the landscape. But Xemitar could look deeper, and see the life force of all the creatures that lived on and in the orc, see the individual life forces of each organ, each cell, each biorhythm.
No one living could lie to Xemitar.
The dread knight hissed in Tazik's mind, “You amuse me, orc, so I shall let you live, for the moment. My goal is simple: to keep Ish'Tir alive. Give me one reason why I should not just wipe out you and your troop and that annoying ogre magi above?”
Tazik's eyes were wide, and he moved his jaw a few times, seeing the tips of his tusks appear and disappear from his view as he stared at the dread knight. “Why?” He coughed, clearing his throat and mind. “Why do you want Ish'Tir kept alive?”
Though the orc could not truly see any flesh on the black skeleton's bones, there was a hint of an outline, a hint of contours, and a hint of a growling and fierce expression form on the skeleton's black, skeletal visage.
Xemitar answered, “The answer to that will result in far worse than your death, orc. Unfortunately, your answer does not give me a reason not to wipe out you and your troop.”
The horrid skeletal figure drew two broadswords made of darkness from beneath its shadowy black cloak, and advanced on the orc.
Tazik thought frantically, his mind racing through concepts, ideas, memories of battles past, and more. He held up his hands in a defensive posture, and said, “Wait! Spare my troop's lives and I'll see to it that none ever approaches this area again!”
Xemitar paused, his broadswords menacingly near Tazik's throat. “How.” It was not so much a question, as a statement upon which the orc's life depended.
The leftenant cleared his throat, eyes wide, and began to speak…
* * *
Sergeant Grayvoth used his scimtar to motion an orc back. “Easy, Nalvont. Maintain your position.”
The orc trooper in question was practically chomping at the bit to go back towards where the leftenant had disappeared.
Grayvoth swallowed. He was in no hurry to go back to that position, having already seen whatever it was. He was a tough, grizzled orc that had seen many hard years of campaigning – but he knew when he was out of his element.
They had set into a defensive perimeter, almost totally camouflaged, except for the sergeant. He hated being bait, but he figured that it had to be done. That, and the ogremai had no way of finding them again without having an orc standing around to see from the air. Perhaps. Grayvoth knew the ogremai had sorcerous, god-like powers – but he had seen many an ogremai die during the last war.
The sun had crept into mid-afternoon, and still the ogremai had not returned. The sergeant had decided that if no one returned by sunset, they would high-tail it away. They were lucky that the beast, Ish'Tir, had not found the rest of them yet.
From horizon to horizon, a deep, thrumming, horrid hiss reverberated.
Grayvoth cursed the gods for their love of 'irony'.
The sergeant glanced to the skies one last time, before taking cover. The ogremai, wherever it was, could fend for its own damned self.
* * *
The ogremai Gambinth was confused, and angry. He had found the savage behir lounging in the ruins of the forgotten town's temple. The beast had been half-hidden in the shade, curled around a pile of steel and gold, gems and enchanted items.
The ogremai had nothing but contempt for the unintelligent beast. Though 50 feet long, it was little more than a hatchling compared with some of the giant hatori the ogremai regularly used as mobile command posts. The twelve-legged behir could generate lightning, unlike the larger four-legged hatori of the deep desert, but even with its lightning it was a pitiful danger.
Gambinth circled the behir the orcs called Ish'Tir for some time, almost until sunset. Invisible, he could have reigned down death and fire from above on the dozing creature. Anger and cold calculation kept him from doing so.
Gambinth had been on another front of the war against Rakore, when rumors of the dreaded Ish'Tir had found him. Looking down on the pitiful hatori hatchling-sized beast, he could not imagine how Ish'Tir had killed even one ogremai, let alone dozens.
But then again, more ogremai had been killed by the orcs than by the behir.
The orc known as Dwarfkiller had rebelled against his rightful masters. Thousands upon thousands of orcs had followed Dwarfkiller into Rakore, and the sneaky bastard had even managed to smuggle many of the females in with him. The ogremai of the Ogre Nations had suffered a horrible defeat in that betrayal.
That the orcs had agreed to pay an ogremai's ransom for help from their former masters had indicated a grave danger, indeed. Gambinth's superiors had asked him to investigate. If the danger were great enough, then the beast would be released on the rest of Rakore with ogremai aid. If the danger were small, then he was simply to destroy the creature, and take the reward.
Gambinth flew again over the area where the orcs had been. There was no sign of the orc troops that had been assigned to him for the trip. Gambinth thought about a report to his superiors, perhaps haven awoken the behir and lead it to the troops, to kill them and enjoy their terror, before putting down the pitiful beast itself.
Below the ogremai, Ish'Tir hissed, circling, eying the sky, watching the now-visible ogremai like a tasty morsel that hovered just out of reach.
Gambinth felt betrayed all over again. The orcs had abandoned him, just as they had abandoned Itzakos and the Ogre Nations.
The ogremai turned himself as invisible as the thrice-damned orcs, and held his position in mid-air, pondering.
If he simply destroyed the behir, then he might be forced to destroy the orcs himself – if he could find them; but, if he were caught doing so, it would cause an even more dangerous rift between the orcs of Dwarfkiller and the Ogre Nations. Supreme Ruler Itzakos wanted to woo the orcs back – a far greater fate than they deserved.
Something stabbed Gambinth in the butt, and the ogremai shrieked. He spun about in mid-air, but there was nothing there. His cloak, where it covered his butt, was on fire and his butt burned – greasy smoke trailing out from his invisible self. The ogremai used his enormous hands to bat out the fire, and whirled about in the darkening twilight.
There was no sign of Ish'Tir.
Gambinth wondered if the behir had somehow generated a bolt of lightning that could strike out at such a distance, perhaps even curve around… The ogremai shook the thought aside. Impossible. How had it even seen him, while invisible?
A bolt of lightning struck his shoulder from below, so fast that the ogremai did not even see where it came from. It was small, as lightning bolts went, but enough to send him tumbling end-over-end through the air.
Another bolt hit him from the side, slamming into one of his big, sandaled feet.
Fear and confusion overtook the ogremai, and he quickly flew away from the town with all speed. Again, from the ground, there was a bolt of lightning that sent him tumbling through the air.
Gambinth used all of his power to descend, quickly, and hide behind a flood-strewn boulder. His foot, his butt, his shoulder – all ached with the power of the storm bolts that had gone through him. He gulped down air, his yellow eyes peering into the gathering gloom.
The ogremai saw only darkness, and shadows, up to the sun-light peaks far in the distance. Around him, the ogremai's disdain began to be replaced with fear.
* * *
Xemitar growled a warning to the massive behir, and the beast held still. For all the behir's multiton weight, it was so fearful of the dread knight that it obeyed without hesitation – it knew, down in its tiny brain – that the dread knight was in control.
The orc leftenant Tazik also knew Xemitar was in control, but the orc's fears and doubts left him trembling and clumsy. It was all the orc could do to place the enchanted ring on the beast's enormous dew-claw.
Xemitar growled at Tazik, “Now grab the bracers, and find some spines along Ish'Tir's back that are the right size.”
Tazik quickly moved away from the beast, and went back to the horde of treasure Ish'Tir had accumulated in a decade's occupancy of the town. The beast could not digest enchanted things, and it actually had an eye for shiny objects – having left silver, gold, and other bright objects alone.
The orc leftenant had even found the remains of a human in beautiful plate mail armor in the horde. The man had apparently died of dehydration or starvation; his form was partially rotted and partially mummified within his intact armor. Ish'Tir had apparently seen the plate mail, and taken the man prisoner to observe the shiny object often. The armor had not protected the man from having his legs broken, or his arms broken – and the animal intelligence that required from Ish'Tir scared Tazik almost as much as the dread knight did.
After several long hours' work, Tazik was finally done.
Ish'Tir slitered away from Xemitar rather quickly, and paused only once to flick his tongue out at the dread knight, before disappearing off into the night.
Tazik quietly pocketed a gem of extraordinary value from the horde into his military purse, before Xemitar turned his attention back to the orc leftenant.
Xemitar said only, “Put it back, Tazik. Your reward is your life. You and your troop get to live – if this works.”
Tazik swallowed. He still did not know if the dread knight could see in all directions, but he was thankful to still be among the living.
* * *
Grayvoth held his breath, willing silence into the area around him, willing his troops invisible.
The ogremai Gambinth was invisible, but it was obvious the nine-foot tall ogre was trying to tip-toe about. The ogremai was as loud as a hatori in a srik nest – and about as dangerous when provoked.
Like many of the ogremai, Gambinth had powers beyond those of most beings – and like all the ogremai, those powers went straight to their heads. Ogremai all tended to believe that, because they were invisible, they were undetectable. Such might have been the case when the ogremai flew above the earth – but on the earth, their egos were their undoing.
Grayvoth continued to hold his breath. If the ogremai did not detect them, then it could not speak to them, give them orders, coerce them to face the beast… The grizzled old sergeant half snarled, drawing his lips back from one of his yellowed tusks. He knew the ogremai wanted to use the orcs as mere bait, or worse, in its bid to take down Ish'Tir.
The shadow that ate Tazik… Grayvoth only hoped that it was unrelated to Ish'Tir, but the veteran's instincts told him otherwise. Ish'Tir had killed so many orcs that the Horde had gone around the unnamed town. The beast was potentially unstoppable. And Grayvoth knew that Gambinth would want to see the beast in action before trying to take it down.
Gambinth's sandled prints continued to move noisily about, either confused or searching for the troop.
Grayvoth's eyes went as wide as they could, and only a lifetime of fighting and war kept the thirty-year-old orc still. A… thing, hovered in front of Grayvoth. It was gray, one foot wide, and somewhat spherical, with strange growths all over it. The hovering ball had swooped in from nowhere, and paused only inches in front of the orc's face.
The ball was no larger than the veteran's head, and held at about head-height, hovering, bobbing slightly, rolling from side to side, slowing turning.
Grayvoth could not even blink, his pupils dilated as wide as they could go.
The ball suddenly moved away from Grayvoth, towards the stumbling ogremai. As the ball moved, it slowly became the background behind it. It turned invisible.
Grayvoth blinked, wondering what had just happened, and then blinked as a blinding light startled his pupils.
A bolt of lightning struck the bumbling ogremai. The bold cracked like a bullwhip, and briefly blinded Grayvoth. Gambinth screamed – and ran off in a random direction. There was another bolt of lightning that crackled from around a boulder.
And then Ish'Tir slid overhead. The monstrous creature's belly was armored in scales as thick and strong as the armor Grayvoth and his troops wore. There was a glow to the beast, and as it's legs swept by, leg after leg after leg, six on a side, Grayvoth saw that the creature was armed – with weapons bound to its claws and horns. It had armor. Magical shielding turned the evening dusk into a strange flickering of pastel greens and blues, shifting and changing about the creature even as its long tail finally swept past.
Grayvoth let out a deep, instinctive, almost-silent whimper.
Something deep and evil spoke from the solid rock behind him. “Excellent. This works out *quite* well.”
The spirit of Tazik spoke from behind the grizzled, frazzled veteran as well. “Grayvoth.”
The veteran closed his eyes, spots dancing in his vision, his lips and fingertips tingling from holding his breath for too long.
Again, the spirit of Tazik spoke in a harsh whisper, “Grayvoth!”
Slowly, the veteran turned around, staring at the darkness of the depths of the boulder in which he had hid.
A hand reached out of the darkness, and pulled the grizzled veteran into the depths of the rock, while some deep and insidious voice cackled with malicious glee.
* * *
Gambinth sprinted for his life, and then vaulted into the air, rapidly gaining altitude. He cringed and instinctively yanked his legs up, tightening into a ball, just as he heard the snap of Ish'Tir's jaws, and felt it's horrid, frustrated, breathy growl.
Below the rapidly ascending ogremai, there was a flash of dust in the red moonlight as something enormous and invisible fell back to the earth.
The dust was disturbed as the fifty foot long creature scrabbled through the cloud, and was gone. The occasional cottage-sized boulder was brushed aside by the creature's angry movement, and smaller rocks were thrown every which way by the scampering of a massive creature with a dozen legs rapidly moving through the environment.
In the near darkness of the night, Gambinth whimpered.
The sound gave him away.
A glowing yellow ball appeared next to the ogremai, who was flying a half mile above the earth. The ball screeched, and a bolt of lightning reached out and stung the invisible ogremai, sending it sprawling head-over-heels through the air. The glowing ball disappeared as suddenly as it appeared.
The terrified ogremai rapidly began to fly back towards the Ogre Nations, and away from the beast the orcs called Ish'Tir.
* * *
Xemitar watched the bright life force that was Gambinth flee back towards the east. He doubted the ogremai would stop before it crossed the border into the Ogre Nations, such was the fright it emanated. The smaller life forces of the will-o-wisps followed the ogremai at a distance, feeding off of its fear and terror.
The dread knight held Ish'Tir still, preventing the great beast from attacking the orcs.
The orcs were drawn up in razor-straight formation, with their grizzled sergeant in front. The orcs tenaciously held onto their discipline – because the alternative was to die in gibbering terror.
Neither Grayvoth nor Tazik, nor the rest of the orcs, could see Ish'Tir – but they knew he was there. His tail occasionally smacked against the earth, and it felt like a sledge hammer battering the ground near their feet. Despite the beast's invisibility, they could smell it, and hear it. Its breathing was like the bellows of a massive smithy, and held in its scent death and decay.
The occasional flickering of the beast's snake-like tongue was the scariest, for it sounded like a rattle-snake preparing to strike, rhythmically there, and then gone, there and then gone, moving as the beast's head moved from side to side.
The troop's leftenant stood near the invisible beast, apparently controlling it by dint of will alone. Their awe at their leftenant was considerable.
Tazik stood near a shadowy, ephemeral, and invisible Xemitar in the darkness; the leftenant invisibly shaking in the proximity to the dread knight.
Xemitar spoke quietly for Tazik alone. “Your idea has worked, Leftenant. Your troop has a half mark's head start. And then I release Ish'tir.”
The beast roared, having heard its name and knowing it.
Tazik turned to his sergeant. “Grayvoth. Have the troop move out at a double-time – and do not let up until dawn.”
Grayvoth saluted, and performed a smart about-face. “Right, face.” His troop turned smartly to the right. “Double-time, march!”
They sprinted at much faster than a double-time, sprinting with all their considerable training and endurance.
Tazik moved to follow, as an icy-cold, skeletal hand lay upon his shoulder.
“You may live – for now. You will speak of this to no one, Tazik, or I will strike you and your entire troop down in the dark of night. You never saw me. It is best if you forget about me entirely. Now go – before I change my mind.”
Grayvoth had looked back, and slowed down, having seen his leftenant was not following. As Tazik sprinted away from the invisible Xemitar and the invisible Ish'Tir, Grayvoth waited long enough for Tazik to join him, and then they both ran, together, as though the Dark God were at their heels.
* * *
Xemitar chuckled to himself, holding Ish'Tir at bay. The beast was hungry, and confused, and frightened by the dread knight's will.
A dusty light began to fall from the heavens, as bits of stars that were no more bright than fireflies began to fall and coalesce into a woman's form.
To the dread knight, she was blindingly bright, as her life force took shape.
“Xemitar… He is pleased with your work. You have done well.”
The dread knight scowled, the folds of shadow about his skeleton drawing down, and a grimace appearing over his teeth. “Go to Curiss.” He spat dust and darkness upon the ground.
The woman deigned not to have heard him. “He has another task for you, Xemitar.”
The dread knight said nothing for awhile, merely snarling at the image of the angel burning his sight. He relented, after a moment, though. “Leftenant Tazik, bound to Captain Smathis… He helped me considerably. See to it he is rewarded, and I will perform this next task for Him.”
The angel appeared confused, and waited for the rest of Xemitar's usually blusterous tirades. When none came, she could only ask, “What?”
Xemitar stared sharply at the angel, and she could see into the darkness and madness and evil that was Xemitar. And something else glowed there, as well – something she had not seen in a long, long time in the dread knight: respect.
The dread knight growled, “Reward Leftenant Tazik, bound to Captain Smathis, and I will perform His next task.”
The angel blinked several times, and then appeared to look askew at the dread knight, as though seeing him for the first time. The hint of a smile was on her lips, as she realized that she was rewarding a younger version of Xemitar.
Within the dread knight, the heart of a Soldier still beat, and not even death could keep him down.