Moror Stonehelm clomped through the halls of the Soapstone Towers, growling. Servants and guards got out of the dwarf's way in a hurry – his enchanted battle axe was out of its sheath on his back, and its red-orange glow flickered like a torch of doom. Moror's golden-gray beard was bristling, and spittle occasionally escaped his lips as some of his growls nearly became curse words in the dwarven tongue.
The grizzled dwarf threw a scowl at the two guards to the duke's office, as he rounded the corner of the hallway. One of the guards nervously opened the door, and barely had enough time to announce, “Moror Stonehelm, Head of the Kalen Corps,” before Moror swept into the room.
“Prat!” he bellowed. “What the hell's the meanin o' this? I have'nae e'en seen me clansmen, Angus an Seamus, fresh back from some mission o yuirs, when ye send some lil messenger boy wit a message tae see ye afore I e'en shit?! Are ye daft, man?”
The dwarven veteran glanced about the room long enough to see it was just himself, Prat, and Xavien de Lance – the young sorcerer that Prat had recently acquired.
Prat was a tall man – six-foot-four, with wide shoulders, and an iron gray beard that matched his short-cropped hair. He wore thick leather boots of a rich brown in color, with breeches of tough leather in a fading brown-to-gray, and short robes that were brownish at the bottom, and gray at the top. A wide, wide belt was about his gray robes, and the belt was made of alternating bands of brown and gray leathers. A longsword was on a leather baldric on his left side, and the hilt of another showed over his left shoulder.
Xavien was as tall as Prat, though not nearly as wide in the shoulders. He was a young man, with a light, chocolate-colored skin and thin brown hair. Xavien could speak the common tongue only brokenly, and was far more comfortable with his native Vridaran tongue.
Both guards exchanged startled looks with one another over the dwarf's outburst, and then filed into the room to serve as escorts, as they had been instructed.
Prat – otherwise known as Duke Henrik Kamus, of the Duchy of Hallis Island – said, “It's about time.” He made an arcane gesture with his claw-like hands that Moror almost recognized, and then the room dropped out from underneath all of them.
A terrifyingly long moment later, the floor returned, and Moror staggered. He was inside of a massive stone vault, and recognized it at once as the Hall of the Rakoran King. Indeed, the King of Rakore glanced up from a wide, dwarf-height table, where a number of other important and distinguished people stood.
King Feldspar Graniteshoulders grumbled, “I thought you said these halls were safe from teleportation spells, Prat.”
Duke Henrik bowed low, and said, “My apologies, King Feldspar. I should have been more specific – the spells protect from 'the more common teleportation spells'.”
Moror quickly sheathed his axe, and then bowed low, as did the two guards that had accompanied the duke.
And aide of the king quickly took Xavien off to one side, to get some information from the young man. As he did so, the king waved Prat and Moror over to the wide table, whose surface was glowing faintly. Several important people made way at the table, as Moror and Duke Henrik stepped upon a small dais to observe the glowing table. The two guards maintained their position, nervously glancing about at the other retainers, guards, and associates of the King of Rakore.
King Feldspar Graniteshoulders was a young dwarf, with a strawberry-blonde beard that barely reached half-way to his belt. He wore the crown of Rakore easily, though, with the grace and power of one who understands where power truly comes from. His keen blue eyes flickered over the guards, and then bored into Duke Henrik.
“War comes,” was all he said.
Duke Henrik glanced down at the table. It was made of a rare, black marble; when polished, it appeared to have no bottom at all. An illusion had been cast into the marble, depicting the peninsular nation of Rakore, along with its nearest neighbors. The peninsula jutted out from a desert in the east, and was bounded against the northern and western waters by twin mountain ranges, with a high valley between them that ran from southwest to northeast. A triangle was formed by another set of twin ranges, and the low valley between them had a wide shoreline with the waters to the south of Rakore. Both mountain ranges protected the vast forests of the interior, which bordered more of the southern waters, and some of the western waters. To the east lay nothing but hills and desert. To the north of the peninsula lay two islands – the larger, western one that of Hallis Island, the Duchy of Duke Henrik.
Small illusory soldiers threw shadows over the map. Prat analyzed the situation, and realized the need for the Council of War. For years, General Greldis had had a small, slovenly army of orcs positioned against the border with Rakore – in case Rakore ever decided to invade the Ogre Nations. Most of the orcs of the Ogre Nations were on their northern front, facing off against the Srik. The last that Prat had heard, almost every able-bodied orc in all the vast deserts of the Ogre Nations were needed for the war with the Srik. On the map, though, was a sizeable ogran army just south and east of General Greldis' army. The second ogran army was larger than anything Rakore could field on the battle ground.
A dwarf with a beard so white that it almost glowed, growled, “One of our Firestorm boys discovered the second army, just this morning. Worse, it appears to be veterans from the Srik front.” The white-bearded dwarf was the Baron-and-the-Bishop Dwarfendale. He continued, “Neither of the armies has moved in the last day or two, so far as we know, but each numbers close to half-a-million in strength.”
Prat studied the fierce air about the council of war. “Is not the first army that of General Greldis?”
The Marquis Mhenace, a human in black leathers and black silks, spoke with a soft voice. “General Greldis has been reassigned. My spies inside the Ogre Nations tell me that he was repositioned on the Srik front close to a month ago. We're still gathering information on his replacement, but all indications are that that army is now being led by a real warrior.”
A tall, willowy, half-elven woman with blonde hair and blue robes to match her eyes, said, “General Greldis was something of a moron, wasn't he?”
Moror grunted, “He was a typical orc, Mistress Brin.”
“Aye, well said, cousin.” Another dwarf, with a short, bright red beard with streaks of white just growing in, gestured at the eastern chain of mountains that bordered the desert, on the south side, near the triangle of fertile land known as the Janis Plains. “The Stonehelms've been usin a kobold ranger, named Kyip, tae spy on General Greldis' boys. It's a whole new army, truth be known. They're all professionals, taken straight from the front o the war wit the Srik. Greldis was a typical, slovenly orc – the kind we used tae see afore the War o' the Undead. His boys were'nae much different. Nae so, wit this bunch. Kyip says one o their Dooms e'en has a pet bulette for a steed.”
The king asked, “Could this have anything to with the undead that were set loose within your halls, last month, Yarbus?”
Chief Yarbus Stonehelm shook his head. “I dinnae know, my king. It could hae been a distraction, for them tae switch armies. Me brother Kurrold thinks twas somethin else…” His voice faded out, as though he had more to say, but could not.
Prat understood, and asked King Feldspar, “Could they be related?”
The king shook his head, his beard waggling as he did so. “No. I don't think so. 'Supreme Ruler' Itzak is a crafty ogre magi. He's probably been planning this for years – or something happened in their war with the Srik.”
Misstress Brin pursed her lips. “Let's hope not. I've faced some of the Srik – and I'd hate to think the orcs've found a way to beat them.”
Chief Yarbus growled, “Aye. I like the thought o lots o orcs dyin against the Srik.”
Another man at the table, dressed all in red and black leathers, asked Chief Yarbus, “What happened to your beard, by the way?”
The dwarf looked pained, and one hand unconsciously went to his short beard – barely four months grown. “Me wife an I had a dispute,” was all he would say.
The man in red and black leathers, Duke Herod Notimeh, shook his head with a rueful smile. “How dreadful,” he said with a droll tongue.
Prat asked, “Who leads the second army?”
Chief Yarbus shook his head. “Kyip does'nae know.” He glanced at Mistress Brin.
The head of the Mages' Academy – Lok Magius – unconsciously ran one hand through her hair, making sure it stayed behind a slightly pointed, half-elven ear. “Our diviner, Selera an Hakiel, has been able to find nothing. Her crystals are blank on this second army – but we only discovered it, today.”
Moror asked, “Do we do a recon in force, then? We could have Prat drop us in the middle o' em, knock a few heads, and then jump back out.”
Prat shook his head. “I need some sort of focus – or to have been there, before. If scrying doesn't work, then there's no way to 'drop' in, as you put it.”
The Marquis Mhenace said, “There might be another way.”
All eyes turned to the rather nondescript man. Though his features were as un-unique as they could be, his black clothing showed the tops of black throwing knives peeking out from the folds of his clothes – and a dark rapier was at his side. “It might be possible to get in a conventional reconnaissance group. I have such three individuals that would be perfect – four, if you could loan me Gundar, Mistress Brin.”
The head of the Mages' Academy nodded. “Gundar would love the chance, I'm sure.”
The marquis nodded to himself, his chin cupped in one hand. “Prat, I can't use your teleportation abilities at all – they're simply too loud.” He grimaced. “An ogremai or ogre magi would feel you teleporting in from miles away, but I don't need that kind of closeness. Mistress Brin, gather up Gundar, then, and meet me at Thayer's Rock. I'll have my three pair of special eyes, there. From Thayer's Rock, Prat can teleport us to the Stonehelms' – and Kyip can lead us in, from there. That might get us some information.”
All eyes turned to the King of Rakore. Both of his strong hands were on the table's top, and he peered into the depths of the illusions within the table. “Do it.”
He blinked, and then all of them turned around, as a small blue ring appeared in the middle of the room, not too far from Prat's two guards. The two guards hastily backed away, even as the ring expanded into a circle nearly nine feet wide. From inside of the ring stepped Father Bryan Stonegrudge, Bishop and High Priest of the Rakanus Clan of dwarves that held one of the other mountain ranges in Rakore.
“My king, I bring grave news. An army of ograns is within the Tikranor Plateau.”
The ring collapsed, as several people about the table began to ask questions, and the room began to buzz with conversation.
Chief Yarbus asked just above the din, “How far into the plateau are they?”
Father Bryan's dwarven feet quickly took him to the dais, and the table. He glanced at it, and then put a stubby finger on the eastern end of the high valley that ran from southwest to northeast. “There. Just inside the plateau. They crossed over the mountains some time in the last week. Our sentries couldn't see them, because of some unusual fogs in the area.” He looked at the map, and then grimaced. “That makes for three armies, on our borders. I see now, the reason for a Council of War…”
Duke Herod Notimeh grimly said, “That's it, then – we've been invaded. The other two armies are probably already on the move.”
King Feldspar bellowed at one of the dwarves in attendance, a younger dwarf and presumably one of his aides. “Notify Loreguard! Tell them to brace for an invasion!” He turned to Chief Yarbus. “Get back to your clan. It looks like the Stonehelms will have to hold off that second army by itself, until we can get Mount Basilisk prepared to aid you.”
Several dwarves, including Chief Yarbus, began running out of the Hall of the Rakoran King as fast as their dwarven legs would take them.
King Feldspar glared at the illusions in the table. “Prat! Go ahead with the Marquis Mhenace's plan, and be quick about it. I need you and Mistress Brin back here in less than a candle's mark.” He looked up, brooking no argument from Prat or Mistress Brin.
Prat nodded, “Aye, my king.” He gestured to Mistress Brin, and joined his two guards, even as Moror stood at the table for a moment later.
Moror was a Stonehelm, and wanted desperately to go join his clan in defending their mountains from the orcs. He longed to split open orcs, and even tackle a few ogres. He sighed, and quickly moved to aid his liege, Duke Henrik. “Ye know, Prat, I'm gonnae be needed by me clan.”
Prat nodded. “Not just yet. Not just yet, my friend.”
He ripped a hole through time and space with his violent teleportation spell, and appeared inside Misstress Brin's office inside Lok Magius – the Mages' Academy.
* * *
Brin winced, feeling sympathy for her mages. Every one of them would have felt a bit of vertigo when Prat teleported in. His unique teleportation allowed him to move far more people than hers, or anyone else's – but it lacked any form of subtlety.
Barely a second passed, before the door to her office opened, and her best friend and lover, Reed, appeared. His eyes changed color from green to gray as he saw the expressions of the guards, Moror, Prat, and her own.
Reed asked, “How bad is it?”
Brin said, “Bad. Find Gundar. We have to go to Thayer's Rock, and quickly.”
Reed nodded, sighed, and left the office.
Prat dropped his large frame onto a sofa, and the wood groaned beneath his weight.
Both guards glanced around uncertainly for a moment, before taking seats against the wall. Moror, for his part, just crossed his arm, and tapped his mailed foot on the plush carpet.
Brin asked, “Klah, anyone?”
Prat yawned, and said, “Sure, why not. By the way, how've you been, lately, Brin?”
The head mistress of the Mages' Academy smiled, and began heating up a pot of tea with a spell that brought fire from her hands. “Oh, pretty good.”
A parrot in the corner squawked, “Pretty good! Pretty good!”
“Oh, hush, Oliver,” she said absently. She finished brewing the medicinal tea, and then poured two cups – one for herself, and one for Prat. She had to step around the impatient Moror, but when on her return trip to her desk, the dwarf got out of her way.
Prat sipped at the tea, and sighed happily. “Wish Yukuyo could brew a cup like this.”
Brin chuckled. “Your head cook likes his tea rather bitter, doesn't he.”
Her eyes teared up, of a sudden. “Oh, Prat! Has it really come to this? I mean… war?”
Duke Henrik set his tea cup aside, and sat up on the sofa. “I'm afraid so, Brin. It was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.”
Brin took another sip of her tea, getting herself under control. “Maybe. It just seems like we can't go more than a few years, without someone trying to invade. First, the undead, then, the Nabrolians… There was that whole incident with the Chosen of Agincoth invading, for crying out loud!”
Prat nodded, reflecting sadly on the past few years. Trouble came to Rakore quite often. “Look at it this away, Brin – we've survived everything so far. We'll survive this.”
Brin sighed, and shook out her hair. “I hope so.”
Moror growled. “Finally.”
Into the room stepped a tall, sun-browned elf, with a braid held back by a strap of leather wrapped around his forehead. His muscular arms flexed, as though straining against the bonds of their skin. On his back were four longswords, two hilts visible over each wide shoulder. Gundar's pointed ears twitched, and his nose sneered. “Prat. You still smell like a bear.”
“Yeah, yeah; the feeling's mutual. C'mon, Gundar. You got all your stuff?”
Gundar nodded eagerly, sensing battle close at hand. “Always. What's up?”
Reed slipped into the room, and moved to Brin's side. “Trouble brewing at Thayer's Rock?”
Mistress Brin shook her head. “No – worse. Prepare Lok Magius for war. We've been invaded by the Ogre Nations.”
Reed rocked back on his heels, and even the caustic Gundar had reason to pause.
* * *
Rial Mhenace, Marquis of Thayer's Rock, First Quarrel of the King of Rakore, and General Manager for Gideon Enterprises, winced as Prat teleported in. Duke Henrik was nowhere in sight, but the Marquis Mhenace felt the teleport even from the armory.
His select crew were outfitting themselves from the prime of the Gideon Enterprises' stock, in preparation for their insertion through a supposed army of orcs.
Xavier de Voth was an elven warrior-mage that specialized in long knives, almost short swords, that he carried in sheathes on his forearms. As tall as Gundar, Xavier had a leaner build that spoke more of speed and agility than anything else. The dozens of tiny, black pockets sewn discreetly onto his black leather armor let other mages know he was a spellcaster, a rogue, and a fighter.
Fairyth was a more conventional woods elf, with leathers of mottled greens and browns, and a massive bow of yew. Fairyth's prowess with the bow was almost unmatched in all of Rakore, save for perhaps two or three other archers. His ability to fade into the shadows made him the ultimate sniper, and the marquis had spent considerable time and effort to keep the elven archer under his thumb.
The third member of the team was Jalik, a Vikerman soldier with a knack for staying hidden, a penchant for juggling and throwing his longswords, and a grim determination. Jalik was armed with a longsword whose guards were two cobras hissing at one another, and whose intertwined bodies made up the handle. The longer-than-normal longsword had the ability to siphon off a victim's life-blood into the wielder, making Jalik far harder to kill than he appeared.
One of the marquis' bodyguards stuck his head into the armory. “Rial? I think Prat's here.”
The marquis nodded to himself, and then paused. “How do you know? Are you sensitive to arcane energies?”
The bodyguard chuckled. “No. The door to your office burst off its hinges, and I can hear a bear roaring from down here.”
Xavier, Fairyth, and Jalik both paused for a moment. Jalik asked, “A bear?”
Rial winced. “I forgot about the shield guardian!”
* * *
Brin was thrown against the wall, and Moror ducked. A metal monster was attacking them inside of Rial's office, and both of Prat's guards were already down – both knocked out by one bash from the monster's shield.
Gundar had drawn two of his longswords, and was alternatively trying to defend Mistress Brin, and attack the moving metal.
It appeared to be a sort of suit of armor, with no one inside, armed only with a shield. The free hand of the suit of armor was bunched up into a fist, and attempting to punch Gundar a second time. The elf was having a rough time catching his breath from the first punch.
Prat used the time Gundar was buying to… change. Duke Henrik was normally a six-foot-four man with broad shoulders, an iron-gray beard, and piercing green eyes. When he chose to, he could become a massive bear that was well over nine feet tall when it stood up – and stand up he did.
The shield-bearing armor turned to face its newest opponent, and then rushed the half-ton bear Prat had become. Both of them tangled in a heap, blowing the door off its hinges, as Prat let out a frustrated roar.
Gundar sheathed both his longswords, and helped Mistress Brin to her feet. The elf said, “I think he's got it under control.”
The elf and the metal monster went rolling out the door. Outside of the Marquis' offices was a ledge, set high up in the stone that was Thayer's Rock. A forty foot drop awaited the man that did not take the stairs.
The shield-bearing armor opted not to use the stairs, and it took the bear with it.
The yard below was filled with sailors, ship-makers, and other workers, as befitted a ship construction yard like Thayer's Rock. The battle drew spectators that gave the two rivals a wide berth, as they rolled around, fighting one another.
The metal monster had phenomenal strength and power, and was beating on the bear with all its might. The massive bear was grappling for a hold, but its claws kept scrabbling against the armor, without gaining any real purchase.
Finally, the bear grasped the armor's helmet in its jaw, and crunched down on it. The helm was squashed into a tooth-marked pan of metal, and the whole monster stopped moving.
Prat staggered back from the metal monster, slowly shifting back into his human form. Blood oozed from a cut on his lip, and he glanced around at the stunned crowd that was slowly backing up.
The Marquis Mhenace pushed his way through the crowd, followed closely by his bodyguard, two elves, and a foreign man.
Rial took one look at his broken shield guardian, and stood there with his mouth held open.
Prat said, “Well, for what it's worth… I think it chipped a tooth.” He put a finger in his mouth, and ran it along one of his canines.
One of Rial's underlings, a dwarf by the name of Tankth Wirebeard, began yelling at everyone. “Get back tae work, ye lazy bums! Ye ne'er seen a fight, before? What're ye thinkin, that we pay ye tae watch fights? Hell, no! We charge ye! Naow, unless ye want tae pony up a silver each for watchin this here fight…!” And people began to disappear in a hurry.
Rial said to Prat, “My sincere apologies, Duke Henrik. I had not realized you would teleport into my offices…”
Prat glanced up at the top of the stairs, and the ledge where Gundar and Brin stood. He called up, “How's my guards?”
Gundar called back down, “They'll be fine, but I suggest you leave them here until they're done recovering from concussions.”
Prat winced. “Oi.” He turned to Rial. “These the three you were talking about?” He gestured to the two elves, and the foreign man in black chainmail armor.
Rial nodded, still somewhat dazed by the destruction of his shield guardian. “Yes, they are. Ah… Can you get them to the Stonehelms? And brief them?”
Prat nodded. “No problem.” He dug in his grayish robes, found a sheet of parchment, read it off, and…
* * *
The Korkthalam was the heart of the Clan of the Stonehelms. The natural cave had veins of quartzite running all through it, several waterfalls, small streams, forges giving light, and dwarven torches with divinely lit, ever-burning flames.
As soon as Prat appeared with his retinue, a creature composed of cooling plates of magma turned around and looked at them with burning eyes.
The fifteen-foot tall creature made no move to advance, and Prat let out a sigh of relief.
Kurrold Stonehelm, the High Priest of the Stonehelms, barked out, “Prat! S'good thing Galgiran recognizes ye, or else his avatar here'd'ae turned ye intae puddin!”
Prat blinked, and asked the golden-bearded dwarf, “Galgiran's avatar?”
“Oh, aye! We summoned him, me an Yarbus, as soon as we heard the word. Galgiran hisself watches over our caverns, naow, so we kin concentrate on keepin the whole o the ranges clear o the vermin orcs.”
Even as Kurrold Stonehelm spoke, a tight formation of three dozen dwarven fighters moved past, weapons at the ready.
Prat said, “Kurrold. These four are the people Rial wanted to scout out the ogran armies. Can you have someone take them out of the mountains, and point them in the right direction?” He gestured at Gundar, Xavien, Fairyth, and Jalic.
Kurrold rubbed his beard, and nodded. “Aye. Aye, I kin. Chimera! Chimera!” He turned around, looking for someone. “Where'd ye go, girl?!”
As Prat relaxed, despite the gaze of Galgiran's avatar, a half-elven, half-orc woman came trotting up to Kurrold.
Kurrold said, “Aye, there ye are, lass. Be a dear, an lead these four knuckle-heads up tae the surface, on the desert side o things. See if ye kinnae get ahold o Kyip, too.”
Jalic, the Vikerman warrior with the snake-blade, visibly recoiled from the half-elven half-orc. Gundar and Fairyth, the elven archer, seemed non-plussed, and Xavien the elven warrior-mage seemed fascinated.
Chimera was heavily tattooed, in the fashion of the desert elves, and it was apparent that her elven heritage belonged to the tall desert elves – she was two inches over six feet in height, and had a huge flamberge-greatsword over one shoulder. Her grayish-hued lips were pulled back from the tips of two porcine tusks, and she growled at the four. “You bunch look like the rejects from an elven adventure novel.”
Jalic, whom had never seen an orc, or a half-orc, blurted out, “It can speak!”
Gundar wrapped one arm around Jalic's head, nearly suffocating him, and said, “Don't mind him. He doesn't get out often. Nice mohawk.”
One of Chimera's hands went to the inch-wide strip of black hair she grew out like a crest, and then she grinned, revealing full orcish lower canines. “Let's go.”
She shook hands with Kurrold, nodded at the avatar of Galgiran, and then led the three elves and one human off into the dwarven city.
Kurrold looked up at Prat from beneath his bushy eyebrows. “Whot naow?”
“Now, Kurrold, I have to get back to Mount Basilisk… The king has need of my abilities.”
The High Priest of the Stonehelms snorted. “Magic. S'got its uses. Just wish me nephew'd stay away from it.”
Prat chuckled grimly. “Let's hope your nephew never has need of it.”
“Aye, I'll drink tae that.”
Moror shuddered. “Not again…”
* * *
Duke Herod Notimeh, in his red and black leathers, pointed at Loreguard. “We'll want a contingent of mages here, with whatever we can spare. If we can devastate this army, then we can shift our forces at Loreguard to…” He winced, as Prat teleported in.
Prat staggered a bit, and says, “I think that makes five teleports, today…”
King Feldspar said, “You'll need at least five more, by my way of thinking. There's a lot of work to be done, Prat.”
Prat and Moror strode up to the dais and the dwarf-height table.
Duke Notimeh said, “As I was saying, Loreguard should give us the easiest victory, especially with mage support from Lok Magius. It has the largest portion of the standing army, the thickest walls, and the hardest defenses to take, next to Lok Magius, or Mount Basilisk.”
King Feldspar interjected, “Or Mount Lavanor, or Lok Giran, or the Stonehelms. No. I want the mages on standby. Loreguard is not, yet, under assault. Nor is any portion of my realm. We'll hold them in reserve. Prat.”
“Yes, my king.”
“With Rial's clandestine reconnaissance going on here,” and he pointed to the Stonehelms' range,“ I want a reconnaissance in force, here,” and he pointed to the eastern end of the Tikranor Plateau. “We have to know what's actually up there, and if we can distract them by thinking we have an army working the mountains around there. It might give them pause.”
Prat looked thoughtfully at the table's map. “When do you want it?”
King Feldspar glanced at another dwarf, Duke Orcbane.
Duke Orcbane was an older, grizzled veteran of many an ogran battle. He had lost his right hand to a necromancer assaulting Lok Sadic, and had replaced it with a mithral stump. Duke Orcbane said, “What kind of force can you gather, and get there, Prat?”
Duke Henrik placed both hands on the table, thinking. “I can get Jynx; he's back at the island. Moror's here. I'll need to get Delbin from Lok Magius.”
The king snorted, and muttered, “If he's there.”
“True.” He studied the map for a moment more. “If we have Jandor and his friends hit the other side of the ogran army up here, the orcs would definitely think there was a large army hitting them.”
Duke Orcbane and Duke Herod both recoiled, as though Prat had suggested offering the king to the enemy army as bait. Duke Orcbane spoke, first, “Are you sure you want that kind of…”
Duke Herod said, “Wild magic. That's some scary stuff. There's a reason we made Jandor set up operations well south of Teras.”
King Feldspar said, “Shush. Prat's the expert on magic – not you two. How long before you can assemble your force, brief them, and attack – and then return to tell us what we're facing?”
Prat thought furiously. “I can attack inside of a mark, but it may take a few marks to assemble the information we gather, and bring it back to you.”
The king nodded. “Do it. Information is in short supply – and we need a lot more of it.”
Duke Henrik nodded, and gestured to Moror. The two of them stepped away from the dais, and Moror grumbled, “Not again…”
* * *
The island had once had a name of its own, but over the last five years, it had gradually taken on the name of Spider Werks – the name of the mages' facility run by Jandor Firelight.
Jandor's kind of magic was scary, unpredictable, and powerful. The mage from Vridara used wild magic, channeling the raw power of arcane energies in attempts to increase the power of the mage. Unfortunately, the wild magic was unpredictable, and oft-as-not harmed the caster or helped opponents.
Prat admired Jandor, for of the few wild mages he had met, Jandor was the only one that reveled in the chaos of wild magic.
The island's climate was warm and humid, with a wondrous breeze blowing in from off shore to offset any discomfort. The Spider Werks facilities themselves were constructed of granite and basalt, but instead of conventional mortar, they were mortared by spider silk. The buildings were squat, two-story affairs, except where they abutted against the mountain, and there they were four- and five-story buildings.
Moror shuddered, and muttered, “I hate spiders.”
Even as they watched, a group of over a dozen hairy spiders, each as large as a man's chest, went over one of the buildings, filling in crevasses in the building stones with their webbing. One of the spiders had a shiny carapace, and an odd set of red markings on it. That spider turned, and observed Prat and Moror cautiously, its front pedipalps held forward and searchingly.
Prat said, “Ho, Rath. Is your master around?”
The familiar dipped all eight legs, and then turned. The spider's master, Jandor Firelight, came running around the corner at full tilt, followed closely by young woman in white robes and sandals, and an almost skeletal man in black leathers, with obsidian spectacles over his eyes.
Jandor Firelight was a medium-sized, skinny man near thirty years of age. He wore leather robes despite the heat, and kept his hood up to keep the sun out of his eyes. Although it appeared that many eyes were glistening out from the shadow of his hood, Prat knew that the wild mage wore a diadem of some transparent steel that gave viewers the impression, at first glance, that the hood hid a spider's many eyes.
Jandor's two companions were equally strange. The young woman was Sarah, a cleric and monk of Whalin – the God of Healing and Compassion. Sarah was barely five feet tall, but had a litheness and exuberance to her that seemed to make her taller than she actually was. She had a three-foot piece of rope in her hand, looped back so that she held both ends.
The other man was almost skeletal, with pasty white skin offset by the black leather armor he wore. He sweat made the armor even darker in the light of day, and at his side was a scimitar of some greenish material that defied description. Kozak, as he was known, was a Shah'Reer – a Shadow Guardian. He was a member of a strange religious order that transcended death itself, for its members oft times returned from the grave to guard people or relics. Kozak's duty was to defend Sarah with his life. Sarah's duty was to guard Jandor with her life. Jandor, for his part, was a child in a man's world, and an old man in a child's universe.
Behind the three of them, were others – the dwarves, tomanths, and senior mages that made up Spider Werks. Spider Werks was where the vast majority of actual magic took place in Rakore, from construction of arcane items to testing new and powerful spells.
Jandor said, “I can tell by the expression on your face, that this is going to be exciting.” He bowed low. “Duke Henrik Kamus, you honor us with your presence.”
Prat returned the bow. “We don't have much.” To the crowd of nearly two dozen mages and guardians – and the golems that were ambling over to the assembly, and the familiar that rode them, Prat said loudly, “The Ogre Nations have invaded! One army lies outside the realm of the Stonehelms. One lies east of Loreguard. One is already within the Tikranor Plateau.”
Shocked gasps were heard, and a low buzz of conversation and exclamations followed. Several familiars barked, or meowed, or let off sounds according to their particular species. Rath, and the other spiders, chittered in an eerie fashion.
Spider Werks was an island, with only a few vessels allocated to it. Despite its importance as a testing ground for Rakoran mages, the island was considered indefensible, and would have to be evacuated. Jandor knew this, but also knew Prat would not have come in person if he were not there to pick up people. Of all the mages Jandor had ever met, Prat could teleport the most – even if the teleportation was somewhat violent.
Jandor asked, “Okay, the pants are full. Is this the part where we attack them?”
Sarah and Kozak exchanged worried glances, and then looked to Prat for confirmation.
Prat nodded. “King Feldspar wants a 'reconnaissance in force'. I think that, if I can get you and some of the other wild mages on the other side of an ogran army, it'll distract them enough for me, Delbin, Jynx, and some others to do a recon on the other side of the army.”
Kozak adjusted his obsidian spectacles. “They'll think they're under attack, and it might slow their advance. Which army? The one east of Loreguard?”
Prat shook his head. “The one on the Tikranor Plateau. We've already got a team going in for the one near the Stonehelms. The one near Loreguard will make itself known, soon enough.”
Kozak muttered, “Well, if I had to assault a fortress, Loreguard would definitely be one of the last ones on my list.”
Jandor asked, “Can we swing by Lok Sadic, and pick up Baron Sadic?”
Prat shivered. “We can, if we must.”
The wild mage nodded beneath his hood. “Definitely. If I were an orc, I'd hate to face Baron Sadic.”
Duke Henrik nodded, and then looked over the assembled mages, familiars, and constructs. “Begin your evacuations. Jandor, get your people ready to teleport, as soon as possible. We don't have much time.”
* * *
Moror was sick of teleporting – particularly by Prat's methods. He swallowed back his bile from the latest jump, and shook his head and beard to clear his mind. They were in a forest of some sort, and Moror could smell the ocean, not far off.
An arrow suddenly thwocked into the tree nearest him – it's passage had parted hairs in his beard. Moror's battle axe was out of its sheath in a heartbeat, its eerie orange and red light flickering to life. The dwarf glanced at Prat, but the mage was nowhere to be seen.
Moror glanced around, carefully keeping his axe's double-bladed head ready to deflect arrows. He kept one hand on his battle axe, and the other began to creep towards one of his myriad throwing axes.
A voice from somewhere in the forest called out, distantly, “Who are you?”
Moror Stonehelm growled, “I'm the head o' Prat's Kalen Corps. Who be you?”
There was silence, and then the voice called back, somewhat closer, “Prat, I know – the Kalen Corps, I do no–!”
The sounds of a brief struggle sounded from behind some bushes, and suddenly Prat stepped forward, holding a tall desert elf in his embrace. The desert elf was over seven feet tall, and powerfully muscled. He struggled futiley against the half-man, half-bear that was Prat. Moror's eyes watered as he tried to look at Prat, for his form wavered, matching the background, and making it difficult to see the werebear.
The desert elf suddenly laughed, the heavily-camouflaging tattoos on his face splitting into a grin. “Prat! There you are! Now put me down,” he growled.
Prat dropped the tall desert elf. The duke, in his hybrid man-and-bear form, was only a few inches taller than the desert elf, but had twice the weight on him.
Prat growled unintelligibly for a moment, and then said, “Malkir. Where's the rest of your archers?”
Malkir peered in interest at Prat, as the werebear shifted back into his human form. “They're out training. We're playing 'hide and seek', basically.”
Moror glanced at the arrow that was sunk several inches into a tree nearby. “Playing. Hrmph.”
Prat, back in his human form, said, “Malkir Vinaalaalus Rakore, this is Moror Stonehelm, the Head of my Kalen Corps.”
Malkir nodded affably at Moror, and strode forward to collect his undamaged arrow. “So, what can Arrowstorm do for you?”
Duke Henrik said, “Rakore has been invaded by the ograns.”
The desert elf's eyes went from warm and friendly, to cold and malicious. He tilted his head into a grim look, and asked, “When can we start killing them?”
Prat nodded. “Soon. Gather your archers together. I'm going to start transporting people here, and we'll finally jump from here, when we're ready. We're going to do a 'reconnaissance in force' against one of the armies moving against us. I figure that you and Arrowstorm can strike on one side, the wild mage and his people on another, and I'll hit the third – and we can find out just how well-armed and well-disciplined this army of orcs and ogres is.”
Malkir smiled, albeit with a malicious cast. “Good.” He took a large horn from the pack on his back, and glanced at it. “You're lucky you didn't damage this, Prat.”
Duke Henrik said, “You could charge me, later.”
The desert elf let loose with a long blast, followed by two short blasts, and then another long blast from the horn.
Archers began to descend from the trees, step from behind trees, and crawl out from underneath brushes. Moror shivered, to think about how many archers had had him in sight all along.
Malkir said, “Arrowstorm, this is Duke Henrik 'Prat' Kamus. He's going to bring us to an army of orcs. What say you?”
The men and elves nearest Malkir let out a whoop that startled the forest into silence.
* * *
Prat dismissed the dwarven guards that turned towards him. He strode past them, and out of the Hall of the Rakoran King. It did not take him long to find Xavien de Lance. The tall young man was having a heated discussion with Mistress Brin, who glanced up as the werebear and mage strode forward.
“Prat!” she exclaimed. “He won't go with me back to Lok Magius!”
Xavien said with a thick Vridaran accent, “King's men said that I vas to stay here, and vait for Eshir.”
Prat groaned. Eshir Anyalethelis was Xavien's elven mentor in the arcane arts. Eshir and the rest of the mages Xavien had arrived with had been taken to Lok Magius, but apparently Xavien's limited Vridaran was preventing him from realizing that.
Xavien cross his arms, and said, “Here I vill vait.”
Prat growled, and ripped a hole in space and time – dragging Mistress Brin and Xavien with him – to Lok Magius.
The young sorcerer seemed dazed by the violent teleport, but Mistress Brin recovered far more quickly. “Now, I'll take you to Eshir.” She broke down into pidgin common, “Eshir, this way,” and she pointed. “Thank you, Prat.”
Prat nodded, and asked, “Any sign of Delbin?”
The werebear easily kept pace with Brin and Xavien, as he followed them out of Mistress Brin's office. Mistress Brin's familiar, the parrot, swept out of the office to land on Prat's shoulder.
Brin said, “None, but that doesn't surprise me. He's probably off on the plane of eroticism, or some such.”
Xavien caught the word, and managed to blush, despite his darker skin tone.
Prat growled. “Then we'll have to roll without him.” There was a moment of powerful forces being torn asunder, and then Prat was gone.
* * *
Several teleports later, Prat was drained and exhausted, but continuing to work. He explained to the gathered forces his plan, despite feeling tired. He supplied the illusions necessary for the briefing to work, further adding to his fatigue.
Braddock Lahn, one of Malkir's followers, asked, “Do we use volleys, or do we just fire at will?”
Someone muttered, “Poor will – he's always getting shot at.”
The nervous laughter quickly faded, and Prat answered, “Fire at will. The more chaos, the better.”
Malkir nodded. “What if their skirmishers or scouts are well aways from the main body?”
Prat said, “It doesn't matter. Proceed to plow into the heart of the army as best you can. Startle them. Scare them. Battle them anywhere and everywhere. When it's time to get out, Faeradd will lock onto our coordinates, and free us.”
The Baron Sadic, a massive, seven-foot-tall desert elf easily the equal in size to Malkir, asked in a gravelly voice, “How will he know when to transport us out?”
Prat said, “Good question. I have the rough location of the northern army, from Father Bryan's people. Once we're in place, we'll have but a quarter mark, before Faeradd pulls us out – that means you have to be exactly back at your point of arrival, or you won't get pulled out.”
One of Prat's selected people, a Firestorm member by the name of Genesee Shalamarteen, grinned. “S'that why ye want me there, Duke Henrik? So my pipes can lead everyone back to that point?”
Prat shook his head at the young elf. “No. You're a helluva fighter, Genesee, but you've also got those Karasenth bracers of Habrem. Those bracers may be needed – especially because you're also a mage.”
Genesee blinked his green eyes, and shook his two-toned red and gold hair. “All right. Butt-kicking it is.”
Duke Henrik had seen Genesee several times before in his work with Firestorm, but for some reason, at that moment, the young elf reminded the duke of his long-dead wife – with his emerald green eyes, two-toned hair, and lean but powerful build.
Faeradd said, “A quarter mark will be a long time, if you're in battle. It's all the time you've got - make sure you return to your insertion point.” The gnomish illusionist fidgeted in his thin robes, and mopped at the sweat on his brow. To him, the climate was unbearably hot, adapted as he was to colder climates.
Malkir said, “A quarter mark should buy us plenty of information, and a lot of dead orcs.”
Baron Sadic said quietly, “May it be so.”
Prat shook his head, as though banishing unseen demons. “We leave in a quarter mark. You have that long to get ready.”
The group of leaders dismissed to tell their people, and make last-minute corrections. All of them were near a tall tower, seemingly made of a single piece of granite or stone. The Tower had the capability to jump all of them – the entire, small army – right onto the doorstep of the ogran army, without them being aware of it. Prat hoped that, if all went well, they'd be able to teleport in several times – but he also did not want to give away the Tower's abilities to the ograns.
Faeradd sighed. “I suppose I ought to go up into the Tower.”
Prat nodded, and gently clapped the small gnome on the shoulder. “Thanks for volunteering for this, Faeradd.”
The gnome smiled, his large nose quivering. “It's my pleasure – and we both know I'm not a front-line kind of fighter.”
* * *
As soon as they jumped into position, Prat knew he would pay dearly for the 'reconnaissance in force'.
He stood at the head of his small army – composed of nearly two hundred crossbowmen, fifty archers, twenty mages, twenty golems, ten familiars, and perhaps fifty of his Kalen Corps.
Prat growled, seeing that he had just pitted over three-hundred of his people, against over a million opponents.
Prat looked out over the assembled ogran army, and realized that it was two armies, each with over one-hundred thousand orcs in it, and close to five-hundred thousand kobolds. His quick glance confirmed that each army had over ten-thousand ogres, and thousands of giant minotaur lizards, deinonychii, herd beasts, and siege engines.
Prat's army was right between the two gigantic ogran armies – and already the kobold scouts had seen them.
The kobolds were small creatures, barely over three feet tall. They were somewhat humanoid-looking, reptilian creatures with a short tail and highly mobile faces. While rather annoying individually, they were vicious in numbers. Half a million kobolds were numbers enough for anyone. Worse, there were two armies of them, both on the move just a bit apart from one another in the high valley that was the Tikranor Plateau.
Also in the armies were orcs. The porcine, humaonoid-looking brutes were as tall as a man, extremely strong, not-too-intelligent, and dangerous in any kind of numbers. Prat guessed there to be over one-hundred thousand orcs, in each army.
Worse, there were ogres. Nine-foot tall ogres, somewhat reminiscent of orcs, but so huge in girth and limb that they could snap a man in half without breaking a sweat.
Moror said, “Oh, shit.”
Duke Henrik Kamus bellowed, “Stand your ground! One-quarter mark!”
His Kalen Corps took up the yell, “One-quarter mark!”
Malkir set his bow, and the first arrow flew, even as a legion of coyote-mounted kobolds broke into a gallop towards them.
Several hundred ogre infantry – each over nine feet tall, and dressed in full plate, with massive shields and swords – turned their giant minotaur lizards. The enemy armies were only a few miles away on either side, and slightly down slope from Prat's army – but those few miles would shrink in a hurry.
The ograns were on the move, with tents, fortifications, and more packed on backs and anklosaurs.
Arrowstorm – the elite elven archers of Malkir's – let loose a devastating volley on the first skirmishers to near them. Thunderstorm – Braddock Lahn's crossbowmen – were not far behind, with a volley that felled kobolds and coyotes both.
Jynx, Prat's long-time friend and sometime body-guard, drew both of his katanas. The slightly curved blades were distinct – one practically glowing with sunlight, and the other shrouded in darkness. Dressed in dark leathers, with bright silver throwing knives all about him, Jynx was particularly formidable. He looked worried, but each katana blade dipped independently of the other – confidently, willing.
Jandor Firelight, the Baron Sadic, Sarah, and Kozak, all took up defensive locations, as the mages dispersed throughout Prat's army for a more dispersed defense.
Moror muttered, “I hope Gundar an the boys're havin an easier time o it, than we're about tae.”
Prat drew both his longswords, and ignited their blades so that they burst into flames. “No kidding.”
Despite the withering volleys from Arrowstorm and Thunderstorm, the first of the coyote-mounted kobolds hit the line. The mages let loose with walls of flame, magical missiles, and lightning bolts that mowed down dozens of kobolds at a time. Their shield guardians and golems moved in closer, defending the masters of magic.
Thunderstorm switched from crossbows to longswords as quickly as they could, trying to fight back against the shortswords of the kobolds inside their line.
The fifty of the Kalen Corps that Prat had brought, dropped as many kobolds as they could with light crossbows, and then drew their longswords as the coyotes pushed into their lines.
Baron Sadic dropped all his illusions of mortality, and many mages around him gasped, even as they fought against kobolds or a withering hail of arrow fire from kobolds still mounted on their coyotes. The Baron Sadic normally appeared as a tall desert elf – but he died some years before. His skeleton retained his soul, and the skeleton was all that remained of the former Inquisitor. As punishment by the gods, he was consigned to undeath. The seven-foot tall, desert elven skeleton lashed out with clawed hands, reaching down to grab the short kobolds, and hurling them tens of yards away – or even backhanding one of them so hard that it took the reptilian humanoid's head off.
The flashing light and darkness of Jynx's katanas added to the eeriness of the battle. Bodies died by the score, and quickly. Those that tried to flee from him found daggers in their backs as he threw them with amazing accuracy – sometimes tossing one sword into the air long enough to get a volley of three throwing daggers out.
Nearby, a massive grizzly bear reared up on its hind legs, swatting a kobold close to a hundred yards away from its coyote mount. The bear came back down in the midst of a score of kobolds, and began to tear and rend them with its massive paws.
Prat watched the spectacle out of the corner of his eyes, concentrating on using his spells to wipe out as many of the kobolds as he could. The orcs were fast approaching on giant minotaur lizards – three orcs hanging onto each side of the massive lizards, with one orc sitting behind its head. All save the driver had nasty composite shortbows, and were already peppering them with ill-aimed shots. Arrowstorm, under the baron Malkir, responded with a hail of arrows into several of the lizards, taking them down on the run, so that they rolled and killed many of the orcs riding them.
The thousands of kobolds that were against and inside their lines, along with so many coyotes, was already taking its toll. Thunderstorm, under Braddock Lahn, was concentrating solely on clearing out the line, and establishing one, while trying to defend the mages, which were doing their best with myriads of spells and crazy effects.
The sky darkened, and everyone around the wild mage Jandor scattered. A massive, thunderous cloud of darkness arced lightning into the ranks of kobolds, and began to slowly descend, forming a funnel that was homing in on the wild mage. Jandor continued to concentrate on his spell, even as two kobold arrows struck him in the shoulder. The funnel descended around Jandor, and the winds formed a defensive wall through which no arrow could penetrate. Lightning continued to flash, and Prat had no more time to wonder or worry.
Four minotaur lizards, each bearing a massive ogre in plate-mail armor made from the hides of Srik, was bearing down on Duke Henrik Kamus. Before Prat could do more than analyze, a small ball of steel struck one minotaur lizard from the side, so hard that it threw its ogre and went over on its side – its belly split open.
Moror flashed Prat a grin, before hefting his magically burning axe in preparation for another attack.
Also coming to Prat's aid was the grizzly bear, meeting another minotaur lizard full of orcs head on in a crash of bodies and blood.
Prat drew down two more spells, before shifting his wizard's repertoire into his sword. Heads began to fly from bodies, as the duke wielded twin longswords with deadly efficiency.
Even as his longswords moved nearly of their own accord, Prat was analyzing the battle.
His army would be overwhelmed very shortly, despite the walls of flame on several fronts, and the mages decimating whole ranks and files of orcs and kobolds. The kobolds were simply overwhelming Prat's army, even with the orcs barely into the line. Worse, ogres were charging in, on foot and a-minotaur-back. Prat's Kalen Corps was scattered amongst his army, and Thunderstorm and Arrowstorm were similarly scattered.
Only a handful of minutes had passed, and they were already out of time.
The duke took another look at the situation, trying to see a way to salvage things. His army – his band, really – was caught between the two mighty armies. The band was not directly between them, but rather on the outskirts – as though someone had drawn two huge circles that almost touched, and then drawn a small circle between them and off to one side, that almost touched the other two huge circles. The coyote-mounted kobolds has simply maneuvered around the band, pinching them between the two larger circles.
Prat bellowed at the top of his lungs, “Arrowstorm, clear out the rear! Thunderstorm, help them!”
Moror shouted over the thunder of the army, and Jandor's hideous winds, “Retreat?”
The duke bellowed, “No retreat. Moror! Jandor! Jynx! Sadic! To me!”
His swords were managing to pile up a considerable wall of kobold and coyote bodies nearby. Their arrows could do nothing to his armor, and those that bit into his flesh did even less harm. His werebear curse was something of a blessing in combat.
Moror, Sadic, Jynx, and the huge bear lumbered on line with Prat, establishing a front. Jandor's wild magic continued to lash out lightning at the enemy hordes, even as their arrows were caught in his maelstrom of wind. The sky was still dark, and the gravelly ground was becoming muddy with blood and gore.
Kozak and Sarah took up positions not far from Jandor, walking through his wall of wind as it faded away. Jandor the Wild Mage took up a new tactic, lobbing explosive balls of fire through the wall of Prat, Sadic, Jynx, the bear, and Moror. The balls of fire engulfed dozens of enemies, sometimes even vaporizing them. A hail of blackened body parts began to rain down upon them all.
The bear along Prat's side used a massive swipe of its paws, and then took up a kata stance as it cleared some small amount of breathing room. The duke grinned, suddenly realizing who the bear was – Genesee Shalamartene. The grin quickly died, as the implications of a fighting bear sunk in. Genesee, with his hair and eyes so much like Prat's long-gone wife, had often refused to talk about his past. The grizzly bear was of a golden brown in color, but there was no mistaking the intelligence in its eyes. Genesee had a flair for magic, and the urge to fight, and…
Prat had spent nearly three centuries as a bear, after the death of his wife and children. Genesee looked so much like one of his children that it nearly stopped his swords in motion.
Reality sunk back in. There would be time for revelations, later. The beast within him needed to be focused. One of his swords shattered the head of a coyote in a burst of fire and flame, sending the body sprawling even as the kobold on its back panicked, voiding its bowels in a gruesome stench. The kobold died soon after, as the Baron Sadic picked it up out of its saddle, and began using it as a club.
The baron's other hand let loose a bolt of lightning that arced hundreds of yards deep into the ogran line, killing kobolds and orcs by the score. Other lightning bolts joined the baron's, a moment later, as the mages in the band found some relief from the kobolds in their midst.
The Kalen Korps had cleared out enough kobolds to allow the mages to bring up defensive magics, and more walls of flame. Wands were unlimbered, and began to blast lightning bolts left and right, deeply into the masses of the encroaching armies.
Arrowstorm kept the back end relatively clear, with help from Thunderstorm, as the coyote-mounted kobolds withdrew for a moment, to build up their numbers, and amplify them with minotaur lizard-mounted orcs.
The golems of the mages were fairing well enough, but even the strength of stone or metal was little compared to a greater mass of kobolds. The bodies were piling up, and one shield guardian even tripped, going down under a staccato hail of shortsword attacks.
Moror's flaming axe cut through first four, and then five more kobolds, before he met resistance from real warriors – the veteran orcs of the Ogre Nations. With the orcs moving against the line, Prat redoubled his efforts with his swords, while keeping one eye on the battle.
Jynx called out, “Prat! Above us!”
Prat saw the flickering of winds up above, and knew that a dreaded moment had come. He yelled, “Sarah! Light!”
Sarah reached deep within her, and held up the holy symbol of Whalin – the Compassionate, and the Healing. Sunlight fanned out from the holy symbol in a great arc, even as a globe of darkness descended down around them. Light and dark warred for a moment, before being cancelled out.
Prat, hoping that the main front would hold itself, extinguished his swords and dropped back, sheathing them, and allowing the bear of Genesee and the hulk of the Baron Sadic, to cover in for his absence. Prat cast an arcane spell upon himself, and was quickly airborne. He twisted a ring on his finger, and began to fade out of vision – nearly invisible to the naked eye. Another arcane spell allowed him to detect the presence of magic anywhere about, and his senses were nearly overwhelmed from below as levin bolts and balls of fire erupted from the lines.
Up above him, however, two shapes glowed faintly, indicating the flying ogremai that had just lobbed down globes of darkness onto the band below. In the distance, a third, flying shape – invisible, as were the other two – was fast approaching from above.
Prat's ring protected him, as he sent out a surge of magic that disrupted conventional invisibilities. The two ogremai nearest him were revealed, and each quickly began to gather in magical energies in response to the attack.
The ogremai were as large as ogres, though not nearly so large in girth. Their armor consisted of stiff hides instead of plates, and their weapons were magic, alone. The ogre magi, more commonly called ogremai, were full of magic.
Prat recognized both ogremai preparing to rain down fire and destruction on the band of men and elves and dwarves, some hundreds of feet below them. Prat moved in as close as he could in the limited time left to him, and unleashed a tremendous ball of fire, centered on himself. Another ring protected him from the fireball, but it did not protect the ogremai. One plummeted to the earth, landing atop a man from Thunderstorm – killing him. The other ogremai was blown out and down, just as the third ogremai reached the area of the blast.
A levin bolt arced down into the band, and Prat responded by unleashing a levin bolt of his own at the third ogremai.
The second ogremai, recovering from the fireball with half of his face scorched and black, began to retreat, flying away as quickly as he could.
Prat could not allow him to escape. From the air, it was obvious how small Prat's band was. So long as the battle on the ground was confused, the ograns would never know how large the band was, except by taking a bird's eye view of the bodies piled five and ten high.
Prat targeted the retreating ogremai with magical bolts, and unleashed a storm of them. The bolts ripped the retreating ogremai in half, even as the third ogremai suddenly appeared.
The duke's special ring was not fool-proof. It gave him a chameleon-like ability to blend in with his surroundings, but it was not invisibility. The third ogremai struck with all its strength, augmented by a spell of strength. Worse, the blast carried with it a powerful spell of darkness. Tentacles of evil wrapped themselves around Prat, binding him, squeezing him, and trying to force their way through his skin.
The ogremai gasped in surprise, as close to a dozen arrows perforated its thick hide. The dead ogremai suddenly began to plummet to earth, its spell of flight gone. The evil tentacles of black released Prat, who floated in mid air for a moment, recovering his breath.
Malkir redirected Arrowstorm at a new target – a regiment of orc cavalry, mounted on minotaur lizards.
Prat dropped a flurry of lightning storms on the minotaur lizards, and then summoned up a thick, greasy fog that ate everything in its path, burning them with its acidic vapors. On the other side of the band, where the kobolds and coyotes were beginning to flank them, he crafted an illusion of thousands more of the Rakorans, coming at them from behind. To augment the illusion, he took control of a minotaur lizard on the fringes, and threw an illusion over it, so that it appeared to be dwarves on a hippotaun. The 'dwarves' began to fire indiscriminately, as their minotaur lizard began to trample coyotes and kobolds both, even as it took fire from its own side.
Prat unleashed several fire balls that would take a few moments to build in power, and then began to alter the strange weather Jandor's wild magic had unleashed.
Below him, the Kalen Korps was creating a very tight formation with their shields half-protecting the mages, and the mages making considerable use of their wands to mow down rank and file of coyote and kobold. Where the orcs and minotaurs had hit the line, the line held – but only because a number of wands had been used to control orcs, to augment the line.
Prat's delayed fire balls blasted through the ranks of orcs, taking down two minotaur lizard-mount ogres in full charge. His weather control was suddenly augmented by one of Jandor's wild surges of magic, and a massive funnel cloud descended from the thick clouds that were billowing out from right over their heads.
The Baron Sadic raised his hands to the sky, as lightning flashed, Jynx's sun and moon katanas flashed, and magics flashed about him. The dead orcs and kobolds that littered the battlefield began to rise, further augmenting the orcs and kobolds already under the control of the band.
The mainstay of the ogran armies suddenly hit, and the lines collapsed as minotaur lizards climbed over one another, orcs let loose hundreds of arrows, and an ogre charge punched through the Kalen Korps.
Prat roared in frustration as Jandor, Sarah, and Kozak went down under a mass of kobolds.
Moror was smashed from behind, as an ogre with a huge sword swept him aside.
Jynx leapt atop two ogres, and sliced the head off of one, before leaping to Moror's aid. The dwarf staggered to his feet, as Jynx moved to stand with him, back to back.
Sadic smashed an ogre's skull in, even as a minotaur lizard swept his undead aside.
Prat caught a glimpse of Braddock Lahn going down in a hail of orcish arrow fire, as the last of the mages let loose a single levin bolt, deep into the ranks of the ograns.
The duke drew both his swords, even as there was a tremendous clap of thunder and a flash of lightning –
And the band was gone. Prat was a lone above an empty pocket of earth, in the midst of thousands of ogran soldiers.
Faeradd had teleported them all out early – all save Prat, who had been above the battlefield.
Prat wondered briefly if any of his band were still alive.
He contemplated remaining, and dealing as much devastation as possible to the ograns. He still had a considerable repertoire of spells at his command.
But his people needed him. He growled in frustration, and tore through space and time, alerting all of the ogremai to his presence – or lack of it. He teleported into the air directly above the Tower, and began to fall.
Faeradd had constructed a field of antimagic – a zone wherein magic did not work. The zone let the remainder of Arrowstorm and Thunderstorm fire into the crowd with impunity, mowing down the remaining orcs and ograns. The task force normally assigned to guard the Tower helped with the killing frenzy, pulling out the bodies of Prat's small army, even as they cut down the rest of their enemies.
Prat bounced once off of the Tower's conical peak, and then fell into the morass of bodies being piled up – both living and dead.
* * *
Water splashed into his face, and he sputtered.
Prat was groggy, and shook his head to clear it. Water was flung everywhere, and he could feel someone recoil.
Sarah laid a hand upon his brow. “Easy, Duke Henrik. You'll be all right. My healing energies have restored you – although, to be honest, you probably didn't need it.”
Prat coughed, and sat up – gingerly, so as not to raise the ire of the priest. “What of Jandor? And the others?”
Sarah laughed softly. “My healing energies were available to you, because someone else's healing energies were available for everyone else.”
The duke grimaced, as the baron-and-the-bishop Dwarfendale stumped up beside him. The dwarf's blazingly white beard was bristling with repressed fury. “Prat! I tried to get here as soon as I could, but the king's was nearly assassinated, and there's a traitor on the loose!”
Prat glanced around. It looked like the entire complement of healers and clerics from Lok Giran – the Fortress of the Soul that was Dwarfendale's – was killing any orcs that moved, and ensuring the healing continued on everyone else. They gave the Baron Sadic a wide berth, even though his illusions of being a desert elf were back in place.
Prat sighed. “Is the king all right?”
Dwarfendale, dressed from helm to boots in mithral armor, put his fists on his hips. “Yes, he's fine. We're moving all operations to the Soapstone Towers until we can ferret out the traitor.”
The duke sighed. His duchy had just become the seat of the entire Rakoran government. “Who died?” Who died because of my ill-planned 'reconnaissance in force'? he thought to himself.
The baron-and-the-bishop said, “Braddock Lahn. Kozak. A dozen of Arrowstorm. Two dozen of Thunderstorm. Two dozen of the Kalen Korps. Four mages – and seven golems. And Genesee Shalamarteen. Of course, the gods aren't done with Kozak. They brought him back, to keep watchin over Sarah, it appears.”
Sarah blushed. “I don't know why the gods choose to defend me so.”
Prat shook his head. “Genesee?”
Dwarfendale shook his head. “An ogre got him. He's got a spear through his heart.”
The duke stood up, easily brushing Sarah and the baron-and-the-bishop aside. He quickly found the form of the large grizzly bear, and saw the spear they spoke of. It was more of an ogre-sized lance, and it had punched through most of the bear's rib cage.
Dwarfendale said, “Prat, there's not much we can do, with all of the healing that needs to be done at Mount Basilisk. Faith can only do so much for us. We dwarves have to do the rest. And this is beyond us.”
Prat growled. “No. It's not.” He grasped the huge spear with both hands, and snapped it off just above Genesee's rib cage. He pulled the other side of the lance out of Genesee's rib cage, and knelt beside the body. Even as they watched, the body slowly began to revert back to that of a young elf with gold and red hair.
The duke looked into the lost, glazed eyes for several moments, before closing them with one hand. The Karasenth bracers of Habrem that were on Genesee's forearms snapped audibly, and then fell off of the dead elf's body.
Prat drew in the arcane energies he had remaining, focusing them onto one spell in particular. His powers tended to be forceful, loud, and as subtle as a bear. He forced open a gateway to the Relic of Habrem, and startled an archon of the Goddess of Music and Mathematics.
The startled archon glowed as from within, and asked through the portal, “What? What is it? What do you wish?”
Duke Henrik Kamus said, “I wish to know, if Genesee Shalamarteen was any relation to me. Was he my son?”
Sarah gasped, putting one hand to her mouth. Jandor, nearby, swallowed audibly. All knew of the violent death of Prat's wife, some centuries ago. The duke still celebrated her death – and her life – once a year. All also knew of the deaths of his children.
The archon shook his head. “Genesee Shalamarteen was not your son, Henrik Kamus. His soul does, indeed, now rest comfortably with Habrem. His soul knows all, now – and he tells me that you were his grandfather.”
Prat was stunned, but managed to force enough strength into his lungs and tongue, to work. “I thought… All of my children were killed?”
“Nay, Henrik Kamus. You have some thirty children, and nearly fifty grandchildren.” The archon paused, and tilted its head, as though listening to something only it could hear. “Genesee says this: For three centuries did you roam the land, lost and bereft, as a bear in bear form, with bear memories, bear wants, and bear desires. Each year, when the bears would come into heat…”
The image of the archon winked out, leaving Prat blinking back tears.
He quickly saw the ramifications. The female bears he might have mated with, would have had children – children capable of shifting between the natural world, and the human world. With the proper incentive, they would even have made the shift, themselves – becoming humans. If Genesee had been his grandchild, then that meant one of his children had mated with an elf – or that one of the bears could have been a druidess in the form of a bear.
Prat began to laugh. He began to cry.
Dwarfendale said gruffly, “Well, does that mean you've got a lot of bear whelps out there?”
Prat laughed and cried, cleansing his soul of nearly five centuries of death and agony at outliving his wife and children.
Sarah said to the baron-and-the-bishop, “Hush.”
Duke Henrik shook his head, and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Now. We've got ograns to wipe out.”
Dwarfendale grinned ferociously. “Aye. You're right. Let's go kick some ogran ass.”