Twelfth day of the season of the deer, 3089
The village burned, angry triangles of flame reaching up from each of the thatched houses, contrasted against the black of the night sky. Choking grey smoke blocked out the stars up above, and the sounds of screaming were barely audible over the crackling of the fires. A small white cat watched from a rock, tail flicking from side to side, wings folded in to its sides and the red marks along its back glowing faintly.
It turned to look at the boy standing beside it, whose face was completely white with fear, and his hands trembled at his sides. Still, he forced himself to watch his home burning away.
Czoiltha spoke, in a neutral, normal voice. "Do you understand?"
The boy shook his head quickly, tears forming below his eyes, and he tried to say something but choked on the words.
"Mm." The cat returned to watching the blaze.
Still reeling at what he had been made to do, only a profound sense of loss filled the boy. He had lost his innocence, and his family, and everything he had ever known. He had done this.
"Your talents are great, but unrefined. You have the potential to be a great power in Emiria if you receive the correct tutelage; that of a hedge wizard such as you might have received would simply be a waste." Czoiltha began to lick its paw, but continued speaking. "Your actions will bring you great honour in the Emiria that is to come; what you have lost pales in importance beside that. It is the bigger picture that you must consider."
Leaping down from the rock and landing lightly on all four feet, Czoiltha began to walk off into the woods, tail arched upwards over his back. He took a few steps before turning to look at the boy.
"Come on. Time is wasting, Alric Ragnoros."
First day of the season of the hawk, 4005
Thirteen sets of hooves pounded the dirt outside Fort Noryal, kicking up long trails of dust that were visible from far further out than the horsemen themselves, whose armour glinted in the light. Their horses' mouths dripped foamy saliva and their barding flapped in the wind.
Their approach was heralded by a bugle that sounded out a low note across the mountainside. Archers and spearmen stood to attention at the walls as their castellan's body was carried in; the wailing of his wife could be made out coming from the keep. Both his squires were already there to remove the corpse's bindings and then lay it down on a long mat which was then rolled up and carried away.
Now the cavaliers dismounted, and removed their gauntlets. They were all weary and their armour was flecked with mud. Their tunics and tabards were torn and several swords were broken. Among them was the castle's warlock, Edemis, whose battle-robes were burnt and falling apart.
"I must go to the lady and console her, Edemis." Lieutenant Hinoc (next in line to castellanship) had turned to him and was speaking. "Please look after things here."
"Of course, sir." The wizard smiled. "I'll have the horsemen sent to the surgeon and get the horses back to the stables."
"Very good. Well, I shall see you later." Hinoc nodded in thanks and headed off.
Edemis sighed, and turned to the squires. They were gathering the horses together and had begun leading them off. He looked at the cavaliers. "You should check in at the hospital, and get yourselves some rest. I fear tonight may be eventful."
Then, he himself headed to the castle beacon. It was a glass-walled room above the observatory he used to study the stars, and quite cosy; specially designed to help him channel communiques for the other wizards of Tyvarna. Reciting an old and familiar litany, he felt out for a link to Castle Dultrak.
As ever, archmage Dassana was there. "Yes, Edemis?"
"I must report our affairs. The castellan has fallen."
"Hm. I am sorry to hear this, but it was not unexpected. Was it as I predicted?"
"Yes. The Dead were out in force. At their head was a lich known to both of us; Khaedrel Uinsar."
"I was aware of his presence, but I am surprised at his audacity."
"I was too. But it seems he has a small number of undead dragons under his command."
"They match descriptions of a type of dragon found on the borders of Emiria; the Shadowling. There has recently been conflict there and a substantial number of Shadowling corpses resulted."
"I cannot imagine that he has the power to raise many."
"There were but a few. Perhaps four, or five."
"That would agree with our knowledge on the lich. What of the late castellan's son, who rode with you?"
"He has not spoken to me since his father's death. I fear he may seek revenge."
"I predict that he has already left the castle."
Edemis' eyes snapped open, and he rushed to the edge of the beacon tower to see a horse galloping out through the gates, an armoured figure mounted upon it. "Oh, Imran." The wizard spoke softly. "You never did learn the meaning of patience."
Leaning low upon his horse, Imran held his sword close to his body and felt the wind rushing through his hair. His face was set like stone, and grim, his eyes filled with anger. The chainmail sat heavily upon his back, jumping with his horse's strides and beating gently against his spine. He did not care, as bigger things sat on his mind.
It would be several hours ride, even at this pace. He ignored the flare that shot upwards from the beacon, calling him back, and stared determinedly forwards.
He gripped the hilt of his weapon a little tighter and imagined slicing through the mass of dead-eyed bodies once more. Enchanted as it was, it responded a little to his emotions, its blade growing slightly warmer in the scabbard and the inset gems brightening slightly. But it was not just the sword that was spelled; the scabbard bore a few simple wards and barriers for defence. Not quite a physical shield, but enough to hold off the lich's vile magics.
Licking his lips, he was not surprised to see a raven gliding slowly above him. A scout. He should have brought his bow. Ah, but there had been no time.
He rode on.
The lich Khaedrel lifted his black staff into the air and shouted out the words of command that helped him shape the spell he was forming; the grey clouds thundered in protest at his perversion of nature. He stepped into Hades and his body froze in mid-pose.
Everything was damp and cold, but his bones felt nothing. The darkness was oppressive and the restless Dead clustered around him, harmless, drawn to the wisps of life that hung from him. He looked out for any Greater Dead, particularly those that could take his body for their own and leave him here a shade, but saw none.
Taking a number of the Dead to hand, he pulled them back through into life and shoved them into the corpses before him. The bodies resisted for a moment but then accepted the new control, and then pulled themselves to their feet.
He breathed hard for a few moments; a holdover from when he had required air. Now he listened to his bond with each of the Dead under his control and looked out for anything approaching, but saw nothing.
The scouts far above, ravens and crows, cawed loudly as he took a look through their eyes at the surroundings. The homestead they had just destroyed was on fire, but otherwise only the Dead moved through the woodlands. He relaxed slightly and looked up at the darkened sky, watching the roiling thunderclouds and then watching the first rain spatter off his blanched bones and robes.
Then a shock, a bind severed, and he cast around amongst his Dead wildly to find the source. A flash as another fell, struck down by a glinting silver sword.
"Gather around me!"
The shambling dead obeyed, forming a circle. All four of his Shadowlings took off into the air and the scouts looked about frantically for any new dots on the landscape.
There; a figure on horseback, racing along on a straight line towards the lich. One of the Shadowlings separated from the group and flew to meet him, as two more of the clumsy Dead were banished by his sword.
Imran watched the undead dragon approach, and climbed up to be standing on his horse's back. Holding his sword in one hand he jumped up towards the swooping reptile, grabbing its facial horn as his horse continued along its straight-line path, slowing down as it did so.
The undead dragon could not see him and cast slowly around with its head. He took his sword and tried to thrust it into the creature's eye socket, but was knocked at the last moment and his strike slipped off its scales. The blade shone gently and a trace of a flame flicked along the metal, the gems in its hilt brightening. Grabbing purchase on its brow, he cursed loudly and prepared for another stab.
The Shadowling set down and began to try and claw him off with its front paw. He struck the limb but achieved nothing, and so was forced to shift along its face while it scratched at itself.
As it did so, he slipped his sword through under its digits, straight into the socket and flames burst into life around the blade. The paw stopped moving, the dragon's wings stopped beating, and it began to drop from the sky as the Dead within its body escaped with a sigh. He climbed up onto its neck and watched the shape of Khaedrel grow larger before him.
Now the corpse crashed into the mob of undead and he leapt off, sword sweeping through the air, and decapitated the lich mid-incantation. The skull fell to the ground and tumbled away down into a small ditch, the fires in its eyes dying away.
Immediately, the Shadowling Dead turned on those reanimated from humans, and crushed them. Imran ran for the trees, looking for his horse, only to see it picked up by an enormous talon and dropped from a hundred feet into the air. He cursed loudly and prepared himself for the next dive.
Two of the aerial reptiles remained and both had him in their sights. He doubted that he would be able to take either out, so sprinted further into the trees, taking cover behind a trunk. They circled up above him, searching for a way in to reach him, clumsily beating their wings in rhythm.
He slipped further into the trees, but doubted he would be able to escape the dragons' senses of smell. They did stay largely overhead, and he felt a sinking feeling.
"Need any help?" He felt magical communication from behind him.
He spun round to see a strange creature looking at him quizzically. Quadrupedal, it had a dragon-like face and was covered in gold scales, but leonine paws and a forked tongue that flicked out even as he watched. "Um. Yes, I think so."
"Alright." It turned its head to look up at the Shadowlings and two lances of light shot from its eyes straight into the two undead, immolating them so that only ash drifted down to the ground. "There."
"Well, thanks." Imran scratched his head. "What can I do in return?"
It looked hard at him. "Nothing, really. Do you know what I am?"
"I didn't think you would. None of us have been seen for a very long time. I'm a Sirrush."
"Are there more of you?"
"Not as far as I know, no. I'm the last of my kind."
"And why are you here?"
It made a roughly shrug-like motion. "I woke up here."
It stepped forwards and headed out of the forest, making barely a sound, looking at the undead bodies lying around on the grass. Imran tried to follow it and struggled to keep up.
"I suspect you need transportation."
"Yes. I'm from Fort Noryal, to the east-"
"I'm not going that way, but I can take you to the encampment of Terol, and then Castle Dultrak. I'm needed there and I reckon you are too."
"Strange things are afoot. We'll get there faster if you ride." It knelt down to allow him to climb on its back, and he did so.
It set off at phenomenal speed to the west.
Xander Tyros leant on the crenellations of Castle Dultrak and watched the clouds of dust kicked up by the Raul raiders slowly move in the distance. While they posed no threat to the fort itself, the farms they relied on were all too vulnerable. He had moved in all the peasants from the fields into the castle, but the enemy was likely emptying their granaries, killing the livestock left in the pastures, and burning their crops even now.
They did not have the cavalry to repel the raiders, either. It angered him, and he struck the stone with a gauntletted fist.
Remus, the castle's custodian, walked up to him. "You are troubled, sire?"
"Yes, I am." Xander kept his eyes fixed on the movements of the Raul horsemen. "Will we be able to endure the winter without what we had gathered so far?"
The custodian's scarred face twisted as he frowned. "It is a concern, sire."
"Yet we cannot drive them away."
"No, sire. We have not the horses."
"So we face a dilemma. Can we get word to Haysal and Noryal?"
"Aye, sire, and we have done so. But they cannot come quickly enough."
"Damn them, Remus. What can we do, then?"
"We are still considering the matter, sire."
"Perhaps you'll come to a decision once they're gone, eh?" Xander stepped back from the wall and walked off.
Sitting on the highest roof of Castle Dultrak, Jas looked down on the inhabitants. He saw soldiers drilling in the practice yard, sparring with blunted swords. He watched archers test their marksmanship on the range, and men jousting with practice targets.
He could see into the magicians' court from up here, and watched fascinatedly at the repeated castings of ice blasts and spikes from the two apprentices, under the gaze of Dassana, the castle's archmage. He could see her berating one for some trivial reason, but was too far away to make out the words.
His brother, Xander, was pacing the battlements, Remus behind him. The frustration in his gait and posture was obvious, and Jas wondered if there was anything he could do to help. It was the raiders that were causing them trouble, he had been told. They were raiding the fields, but the castle didn't have enough horses to chase them away.
It wasn't his problem, though. Xander would sort it out, like he always did.
"There you are. I knew you'd be up here."
He turned to see his sister, Amelia climbing up onto the slate beside him. "Hi."
She sat down and looked down at the castle with him. There were a few seconds of silence as she noted the view, and then squinted into the afternoon sun to make out the distant cavalry. Then, she spoke. "We're in trouble, Jas."
"Yeah. Remus told me."
"No reinforcements can get to us in time."
"Can't we... magic them away, or something?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You expect too much of our mages. They can't do just anything. I'd like to see you hit a horseman from this distance with a fireball."
He shrugged uncaringly. "We'll sort it out eventually."
"Hmmm." She adopted a vacant expression.
"Yeah?" Her head turned to him again.
"How far can a longbow shoot?"
"Depends. Maybe up to four hundred yards."
"And that would require a proper longbowman, too."
"I can shoot a longbow."
"Only a boy's one, and not far, either. Only a grown-up man can draw back a real longbow at all, and to get the maximum possible range you need to have been training your whole life."
"We'll get them somehow, though."
"I hope so." She said, tilting her head slightly.
The dust clouds continued to rise amongst the burning mills.
Imran held on tight to the Sirrush's horns as it raced between the trees. The wind whipped past his face, forcing him to squint, and his scabbard repetitively bashed against his leg.
"Hey, should I call you by a name?" He asked.
"If you like. I was called Kevras."
"Nice to meet you, Kevras. I'm Imran."
"Alright. And you have a Tyros sword."
"That's a pretty Tyrosian name, so I think it counts as a yes."
"You're familiar with the region?"
"I was here almost two thousand years ago, and remembered something of it. Nothing more than passing interest, though. We were busy at the time."
"You'll find out in a year or two, by my calculations."
"So tell us in advance."
"No can do. We have the present to concentrate on."
"Right. You need to tell me what we're doing out here."
"We are going to pick up an army to relieve Castle Dultrak from Raul raiders so that we are allowed in and I can access the castle crypt."
"Why, what's in the crypt?"
"You will see."
"Can't you just tell me? Do you take some kind of perverse pleasure in my being ignorant?"
"Yes. But it's more important than that, because you might interfere."
"Only if you do something morally wrong."
"Then I'll try to stop you."
"And how well do you think you would do?"
"Uh, probably not well."
"How well do you think I'd do?"
"It'd be pretty embarassing for you, really."
"So why do you need me at all?"
"Xander Tyros would not let a dragon into his castle even if it had just saved his harvest for the winter. A human figurehead is needed as a proxy for negotiation."
"So that's all I am?"
"Yes. For now, at least."
They settled back into silence, and Imran watched the world fly past in a blur for a few minutes. Then, Kevras began to slow.
They came to a stop just outside of a small fort, with a wooden palisade, and several archers jumping up to aim their bows at him. The peaks of tents could be made out above the stakes that formed the wall. Named Terol, he recalled.
Imran knew that Kevras couldn't communicate with non-magical humans, so also that he would need to do the talking. "Relax, friends. I am Imran Skavos, from Fort Noryal."
"Oh yeah? On a big damn... whatever that is?"
"A forest drake, from Bronzewood." Kevras jerked slightly and angrily at the lie, and narrowed his eyes. "Uh, we often ride them when we need to travel quickly."
"Hm. I'll get the lieutenant out, then."
He disappeared from the wall and then reappeared half a minute later, with a sour-looking officer beside him.
"Good afternoon, lieutenant." Imran smiled.
"I'm told you're the castellan's son, from Noryal?"
"The castellan is dead, as of yesterday."
"Ah. I'm sorry, sir."
"Do not burden yourself, lieutenant. I need your help, though. Can you take me to the commander of the fort?"
The gate began to swing open, and Kevras headed in. A man-at-arms headed over and helped Imran dismount, then attempted to put a set of reins around the dragon's neck. A firm growl deterred him. A squire headed over to Imran himself. "I was told to take you to the marshal, sir. If you'll come with me."
He followed him through the maze of tents, past the soldiers cooking, playing cards, laughing, and practising. There had to be over a thousand here. Why? What was the significance of this place?
He was ushered into a particularly large tent, but still had to bend down to get through the flap. Inside, it was quite dark, and an armoured marshal looked up at him. He was a large figure, tall and well-muscled. "Sir Skavos, I am told?"
"Yes. You have me at a disadvantage..."
"No problem, I'm hardly famous. Marshal Dirris, at your service."
"Why is such a large force stationed out here, marshal?"
The marshal sighed loudly. "Xander takes exception to my company and would hate to see me gain any glory. So I am stationed out by the Desert and look out for bandits."
"Yet he gave you all these men?"
"They are too loyal to me to take away. He knows that."
Imran was slightly taken aback by the marshal's dismissive tone when talking about the prince. He had never heard a bad word against the royal family in Noryal, but did not want to seem naive. "I need a relief force, to drive Raul raiders away from Castle Dultrak. No others can reach it in time. Will you help me?"
"Sure. We haven't seen action in a long while, and I'm pretty sure we'll be able to justify saving the castle. Though... we don't have any mages or anything special. Just soldiers."
"Can you give me numbers?"
"Six hundred longbowmen, four hundred pikemen, and four hundred cavaliers. Eighty supply wagons and five hundred support staff."
"That should do nicely. Do you think the prince will favour you again if we do this?"
"Doubtful. His resentment will probably just grow. But the others in Dultrak should be looking out for me, so I might get an active post once more. I hope so."
"I hope so too, marshal. When shall we march?"
"Tomorrow. I'll tell the men."
He headed out into the encampment, and Imran sat down to think.
A sand-crab scuttled under the sand as the troops passed by, leaving only its eyestalks protruding to watch them as they marched. The morning sun was gentle and the weather was pleasant amongst the rocks, but this would not last till midday. The faster they could cross the desert, the better.
Imran was at the head of the formation, on Kevras' back. The marshal and his lieutenant rode their horses alongside, and they were backed by the cavaliers. Behind them came the pikemen, then the longbowmen, then the baggage train.
Kevras sent a message up at Imran. "Tell me about Castle Dultrak."
He replied by the same means. "Dultrak is the largest fortress in the Kingdom. It has a wall a hundred and fifty feet high made from impenetrable stone and manned permanently by a thousand longbowmen who train by shooting through the holes in rings."
"Yeah, yeah. But do you know any facts?"
"The wall is high, and it is enchanted. And there are lots of archers."
"That's not very helpful."
"What are you interested in? There is an order of mages."
"How many? How good?"
"We don't know any other orders to compare to, but there are at least a dozen. They can throw balls of fire and ice and create barriers that stop arrows midlight."
"Pretty basic, then."
"Yeah. I've known magicians who could lift cities into the air and deposit them fifty miles away."
"I saw it."
"I don't believe you."
"Maybe you'll see it yourself someday."
"Maybe not. But I have done."
Imran looked back up at the rising sun.
They reached the edge of the desert and found themselves back in grassland by mid-afternoon. Tired and in need of water, they came to a stream and began to drink, men and horses sharing the water. Skins and casks were refilled, supplies replenished, and men sat down to eat and talk for a few minutes. Imran did not begrudge them a short while of rest.
Kevras watched Imran drinking, not needing any fluid himself. Then, he settled down in the grass, curling up like a cat.
Imran had borrowed a telescope from the marshal and was scanning the horizon. He looked quite tense as he slowly moved his view across the blurry distance.
"There. Castle Dultrak, on its crag. Twenty miles or so."
"How long would that take?"
"Four hours, at the pace we've been taking. We'd reach there at evening. That's fine; I plan to engage tomorrow morning anyway, and this has the benefit of alerting the Raul to our presence so they gather for battle instead of destroying any more of the granaries and barns."
"What if they raid the camp at night?"
"We position ourselves on a rise and keep good watch. They aren't big on night attacks anyway; less honourable."
"Somewhat naive, then."
"Perhaps," Imran said carefully. "But they are products of their society."
Skallavos, Weyrlord of Sukos Weyr, took off from Mount Saura as the sun sank from the sky and darkness settled upon the mountainside. The moon became bright in the sky, watching from about half-way up the heavens, and the stars began to appear, no longer drowned out by the shine of the sun. A cold wind was in the air and tugged softly at the membranes of his great wings.
His silver scales reflected a little of the moonlight, flowing like liquid. Each beat of his pinions was almost silent, though his vast wings beat powerfully at the air. As he increased his altitude, the shrinking rivers and trees so far below became white arcs and black knots in the landscape.
An owl flew several hundred yards below him, seemingly unaware of his presence, and he watched it for a few moments. His acute dragon vision enabled him to make out its features even from this distance.
Vesha was right behind him- his mate, a white dragon, adept at using magic and countering it. They had had a clutch together, over a hundred years ago; three eggs, each of which grew up to be a strong and noble dragon. They were very proud of their offspring, though they had not seen them in decades. Each had gone to another Weyr, as was the custom.
"The world is beautiful tonight."
"Yes." He fell back slightly to fly alongside her. "It is indeed."
"Do you see the human fort?" They both looked at Fort Noryal together- so small from this distance, a speck in the landscape, though with several small sources of light within.
"There are more fires than usual. Perhaps they are on alert."
"You always look for the explanation involving conflict. Perhaps it is a festival of theirs, or they are simply enjoying the night as we are."
"Unfortunately, the explanation we often seek to avoid is often correct. But it could be an innocent reason, yes."
She slowed slightly, so he did too.
They stopped beating their wings and glided along the air currents, entirely still. He looked at her and she looked at him.
"Something is wrong, Skal." She said, quietly.
"What is it?"
"I feel it. Something magical, in the edges of my senses. Down below."
They swooped down together, towards the high forest, which was like a sea of black leaves that waves upon its surface that moved in synchrony with each breeze. Owls hooted and a nightjar sang somewhere amongst the trees. As they came down low, the downdrafts from their wings created new waves in the foliage that rippled out for a few dozen yards and then faded away into negligibility.
Continuing on, they moved towards a shady valley that was wide and shallow, with a thin stream running running along its floor. The pines sat with their trunks at gentle angles to the sloping walls.
There, hidden underneath a pitch of tall larches, was a small hut. It was of basic design, wooden logs and reed thatching, and a small fire flickered within the door.
They landed in a small clearing nearby and Vesha shivered, even though dragons were not affected even by icy cold. "I have never felt anything like this before."
They made their cautious way towards the hut, squeezing between trunks despite their bulk. They tried to remain stealthy, but it was impossible for two creatures as large as they forcing their way between the firs. A man stepped out of the hut and faced them, with a strange-looking cat on his shoulder.
"Greetings, dragons. It is a fine night tonight." The cat spoke.
"It is indeed." Skallavos rocked back onto his hind legs. "I am afraid I am unfamiliar with anyone of your description, even though you seem to be the type to be remembered after an encounter."
Czoiltha stretched its wings and purred. "Just as it is meant to be."
The man wore a jerkin and a cape, and leant on a staff held in his left hand. He was young; maybe a little way into his twenties. He did not seem to be the type to enjoy talking; tight-lipped and with a dissatisfied expression upon his face. But he did not seem nervous, either, holding himself somewhat casually.
Vesha spoke. "Something here feels wrong to me, little cat. Are you responsible?"
"Nah. I would make sure to hide any detectable weirdness I exuded so that no-one would come knocking. But I fear that I may know the source of your anxiety."
"Oh yes?" Skallavos looked down sceptically.
"Oh, yes." Czoiltha smiled, revealing sharp white teeth.
The hut exploded in a shower of splinters and flaming reeds, and something stood where it had been, at the centre of a circle of runes and symbols. It was a thing with the posture of a gorilla, but with six arms all touching their knuckles to the ground, and with a number of spikes placed seemingly randomly over its body. Its head was like a lizard's or a newt's, and it had black hide with streaks of orange and white. Fire blazed in its eyes and it bellowed at the dragons, growing in size to over ten yards tall. It raised itself up on its legs and beat all six hands against its bronze, armoured chest, roaring.
Vesha's eyes were extremely wide and she twitched slightly. "This is the source, Skal. It feels..."
But it leapt at them, tackling Skallavos head-on. He tried to wrestle it back but it was stronger than he was, forcing him to give ground, and its extra arms allowed it to find purchase on his torso. Roaring, he blasted its face with a great gout of flame, but it barely noticed. Vesha blasted it with a lance of light from the side, but it dissipated harmlessly over the thing's skin. Lightning, too, dimmed into nothingness as it touched the Demon.
She created a ball of force and pushed the creature off Skallavos. He took a moment to recover and then he and the monster began to circle each other, searching for a weakness in the other's guard. Czoiltha and the dark mage watched from a short distance away.
The Demon created a ball of orange flame around one hand and then punched at Skallavos. He caught the fist but was hit by the same attack from the left, hitting his torso and knocking him back, with demonfire on his scales. In the flames, grotesque faces formed and cackled, but it quickly dimmed without sustenance.
It now grabbed at Vesha, and she jumped back to avoid its grasping hands. But it was too fast, and grabbed her around the neck, then snapped it. She slumped to the ground, lifeless.
Skallavos roared in fury and threw himself at the Demon, slashing at it with his claws, in a frenzy. His mouth spurted fire and he jumped onto the monster, forcing it onto his back, toppling several trees. He grabbed its face and shoved his thumbs into its eye-sockets, trying to gouge them out. But the sockets contained only fire, and it punched him in the belly, knocking him off from it.
He hissed loudly and they began to circle once more. If only they had brought their armour... now he dodged another two punches and delivered one of his own to its snout. It grunted and then lightning of many colours began to race over its body, forks of electricity protecting every inch of its hide.
Not to be defeated, Skallavos gathered together his magical power and knocked it back with a blast of force, then jumped onto it and closed his jaws around its neck, ignoring the pain of a hundred electric shocks that would have killed a human. He wrung it like a wolf would its prey, shaking the Demon from side to side as it took hold of his snout and tried to prise his jaws apart.
He bit down harder, and visualised force around each of his teeth, slashing through the unprecedentedly tough hide of the thing. The flesh resisted for half a second and then gave, and as his jaws clashed shut, the body disappeared into flame and then nothingness.
Now, he turned to face Czoiltha. "You." He spat.
The little cat looked up at him innocently.
"You did this!" He roared, and leapt at the Demon Lord. But mid-charge, a beam of blazing blue light caught him in the chest and he came to a stop, looking down in astonishment at the charred hole all the way through his body, then crumpling over dead.
Czoiltha began to lick his paw, relaxed despite the power of the spell he had just used. "Next time, don't let every mage within a hundred miles feel what you're doing."
The two armies began deployment around a mile apart. While outnumbered, Imran's force had the better ground- its flanks were protected by two hills, each of which was topped by a large granary. A small force of picked pikemen had been placed upon another hill slightly further to the left still, there to prevent a rear attack.
Together with Dirris, he drew up a plan of battle. Each flank would be occupied by half the archers, using the hills and buildings to their advantage, who would then be backed by small forces of cavalry. In the centre, the pikemen were placed in phalanx formation, but not alone- most of the cavaliers had been dismounted and joined the phalanx on foot. The formation was ten ranks deep and sixty columns wide.
In the distance, they saw the enemy drawing up their cavalry. Each Raul horseman was a powerful warrior, and they attacked with devastating charges that crushed the enemy quickly and completely, using shock tactics and often displaying the ability to manouevre and attack the enemy's sides and rear, which Imran was eager to prevent.
They had discovered that the enemy was led by the Raul warlord himself, Adalrik. There was certainly a deeper reason behind their presence here than sieging Castle Dultrak; perhaps something was going on to the north. It was an intriguing question for after the battle.
A small force of cavalrymen had been seen detaching from the enemy lines and heading towards the left-side hill, which the picked pikemen now occupied. Taking the telescope to his eye, Imran watched them form to receive the charge. The attackers began to gallop up the hills, certainly with the terrain to their disadvantage, and braced their lances against their arms for the impact.
But against the wall of pikeheads and points, the horses refused to charge, shying away and becoming excitable. The Raul were losing control of their mounts and the thrusting pikes slew the creatures from under them, then stabbed the tribesmen where they fell. Against the tight-packed, unyielding formation, the Raul charge was useless. Only a few survivors were left to gallop back to their lines.
There was a short pause in the battle, but there could be no rest. The men remained tense, and Imran did too.
"They will have to charge. They seek for us to break before they do so."
Dirris shook his head and spoke loudly so the men could hear him. "My men are too disciplined and too professional for that. We saw just how effective their charge is against our lines, and we are certainly not afraid of them. Let them brood; we will be all the stronger for each minute they dawdle."
Imran smiled wryly. "Very true, marshal. This battle may as well be already won."
Dust in the distance, forming billowing clouds, showed the Raul moving at last. Even from this distance, he could hear the yells and battle-cries that often broke the infantry lines even before the cavalry reached them, and then the horsemen would cut down the fleeing footsoldiers as they fled.
The impetuous charge of the enemy was led by the golden-armoured bodyguard of Adalrik himself, and various banners and pennants flicked in the air above the warlord's head. Their horses were larger than any of those Imran had ever seen, huge Destriers with muscle bulging in their hips and shoulders, their hooves thudding against the dirt. It was certainly an impressive sight, but Imran did not let himself be swayed.
"Hold firm! Their horses shall impale themselves on our spears and the helpless riders shall be cut down by our swords. The Raul shall fear us from this day forwards and never again will they menace our lands!"
Emboldened soldiers locked together, shoulder-to-shoulder, pikes extended in several ranks to meet the wave of men and horses that thundered towards them. And in a moment the Raul were crashing into them, their horses forced onto the wall of metal points by the mass of cavalry behind them. The Tyrosian army held firm and no part of the phalanx faltered, allowing the enemy to kill themselves and blood to run in streams around their feet.
The enemy cavalry, halted by the phalanx, now was forced to receive the fire of the archers on each flank. Arrows slew horses by the dozen, falling like deadly rain, each strike yielding a whinny or yell as the enemy force was devastated from in front and above. The warlord himself was struck by a shot, the arrowhead finding a joint in his neck armour and entering his body. He fainted upon his mount as it raced around aimlessly, eyes bulging, terrified of the pikes that faced it.
Now Imran's cavalry took their opportunity and came amongst the Raul from behind, cutting down the demoralised tribesmen and not leaving a single man alive to escape back to the enemy camp.
With the battle won, the phalanx opened and relief flooded through them. "Victory is ours!"
Imran and Dirris grinned together. The marshal extended a hand and Imran shook it. "My congratulations, marshal."
"It was an honour serving under you, sir."
Mounting their horses, they turned to lead the army towards Castle Dultrak.
The triumphant army arrived at the drawbridge of Castle Dultrak and it was lowered for them, allowing entry into the fortress. The massive oak gates opened before them, the portcullis rose into its holding-place, and they passed through the murder passage into the castle interior. Bowmen watched them from above, and there were nods of gratitude from the soldiers that watched them pass.
Now on the road to the keep, there were surrounded by a pressing, cheering crowd with flowers and gifts. The castle's garrison held back the civilians to allow the army passage, but did not try to stop the throwing of bouquets and small presents. Imran could not stop himself from smiling and noted how proud the soldiers seemed behind him.
A chant began in the crowd; they were cheering his name.
"Tell me, Remus, who is this man whose name they chant?"
The custodian's scarred face grew a little grimmer, knowing what was coming. "This is the general who led the army that defeated the raiders, sire. Son of the late Castellan Skavos of Fort Noryal."
"I see. And whose army does he lead? I do not remember dispatching any message to Noryal that would have arrived in time."
"That of Marshal Dirris, sire. Commanded by you to guard the Desert of Sighs."
"Yet now he is here? And disobeying a direct order?"
"He cannot be tried for his actions because of laws regarding this kind of situation, sire. We cannot hold him accountable for desertion if his doing so saves the capital."
"I don't like that marshal. What should I do about him, Remus?"
"He is too popular to murder, sire. And moving him out of the way again would be too obvious. I fear you may have to give him a more prominent post."
The Prince gave the custodian a curious look, then smiled malevolently. "Oh, I have a better idea."
As the long line of men and horses snaked closer to the keep, the buildings became denser and the crowd thinned. The great citadel loomed closer and its white walls glinted under the midday sun, almost too bright to look at. Banners of many designs and colours flew from its parapets and four beacon-towers extended from the top corners.
The keep's guards lined the final bridge, enclosed completely in silver armour, holding their halberds up and remaining almost perfectly still. A courier stepped out to greet them.
"Greetings, returning army! I have been sent from his majesty with your relief orders."
"Greetings. We await our commands."
The man, short and dressed in a short blue tunic, pulled a scroll from his satchel. "The army is to return to barracks until further orders are received. The commanders are to dine with the prince and his court tonight within the keep."
The troops began to disperse, leaving only Imran and Dirris before the citadel. Dirris shrugged his shoulders and they headed in.