Kathy, Daggeuro and Byron stood before the ranks of soldiers and the supply train arranged at the back of the columns, looking out over the hardened veterans who were under no illusions about what might happen to them. The fairies and pixies who’d volunteered to come with the battalion flitted hither and thither over their heads, using their power to send down waves of encouragement to those below them. We could all use a bit of that, Daggeuro thought. Kathy waved her hands over at the contingent of armored suits she had animated, making them stand to attention, weapons held at their sides.
“That’s going to be a major swing in our favor, you know,” Byron said, nodding his head towards her animated soldiers.
“I know,” Kathy replied. “But not as much as the wee folk. They’re really wonderful people. Wish I could spend more time with them.”
“Well, if we don’t get ourselves killed during this little field trip, what say you and I spend a little vacation time with them,” Byron said with a wry grin.
“Honestly?” She beamed at him beautifically. “I’d like that a lot. They’re really quite fascinating. Their perspective of the history of Ether is a lot different than most faerie folk. And oh! They have all kinds of great games! It’s just a shame they don’t know anything about movies.”
“Ah, cinema, how much we miss thee,” said Byron theatrically.
“Whenever you two are done with your routine, we should get going,” Daggeuro said flatly. Byron and Kathy nodded, and the kennin High Knight drew Boon from its sheath, raising it high overhead. In his booming tone of command, he intoned, “We march!” He, Byron and Kathy turned about, and began walking southwest, leading the columns of soldiers from the walls of Celia out into the plains.
The battalion was on the march, and war was begun in earnest.
Quintus watched as the outer guard moved out into the woods, half elves, half specters. The Chained One had listened to the recommendation and found it not only acceptable, but chided himself aloud for not having thought of it himself. They were wary, as he had expected, but they were also resolute. He had no idea how many troops would be coming against them, how serious King Ovin viewed the threat of The Chained One. For the sake of the kingdom, he hoped the fairy King was sending at least ten columns. Two hundred elite men and women would hardly stand a chance, but he knew there would be one man among them, regardless of how many or how few came, who would be able to carve a bloody swath through any army The Chained One could muster; Lord Daggeuro.
Everything could go to pot in minutes, he knew. If The Chained One discovered his treachery, he would be dead in a matter of seconds. The chains fused to his bones were more than a symbolic joining of materials; he knew that he was bound to The Chained One in a way that could never be undone, not without the apparition being slain first. How he could be freed of them otherwise, he didn’t know.
He had already used the flailing metal links as weapons, and found that while they were intimidating, they were also a major inconvenience. He had trouble getting dressed now, all of his clothes stretched in order to allow the chains to pass through sleeves and pant legs. He rattled everywhere he went, unable to ever again rely upon stealth unless he wrapped and bound the metal links.
Like the chains to his body, he was fused inextricably to The Chained One and his madness. He would never again be in control of his destiny so long as the creature lived. Yet he would have to fight for a cause he no longer believed in. So much had changed in such a short time for him, he hardly knew how to process exactly what had happened. Why did I kneel to him, he thought. What possessed me to throw myself at his feet?
The last of the outer guard disappeared into the woods. Quintus turned on heel and returned towards the village proper, waving to the people he’d spent so many years with, all of whom now looked at him not with the casual regard and respect they used to, but with a blend of fear and suspicion. These people had known him a long time, thirty-five years to be exact. The feeling of being stuck in someone else’s skin, of having become someone he was never intended to be, made him want to scream. Even walking into the bakery where Delia Faybrun had been making bread and pastries, cakes and pies for the townsfolk for twenty-three of those years, he couldn’t escape the look he was given; ‘say what you will or take what you will, and please, please leave me alone’, that look said.
He’d given these people over in a brief period of fanatical devotion to power far above and beyond anything he could ever muster or understand, and he hated himself for it. If he thought, when the King’s forces finally did arrive, that there was any chance his master’s side was going to triumph over the kingdom’s men, he would discover a way to die in the midst of combat. Perhaps I’ll spot Sir Daggeuro and earn the honor of being cut down by Boon and Bane, he thought. It would certainly be a cleaner death than anything I actually deserve at this point.
General Quintus asked Delia for a cheese and raspberry danish, took his baggie with a nod, and left, feeling her eyes upon the back of his head like hateful psychic daggers. When he stole a glance back at her through the window of her shop’s front door, he saw her dart away, caught in the act of glowering at him. There were more folks who didn’t wish to be here than he had assumed, but it was too late now. He had let go the only batch he would be able to the day before, and even they had come dangerously close to being caught out by specters patrolling the perimeter. If not for lieutenant Kitek, that strange tereko serving under The Chained One’s command, offering up a distraction by way of his loud stomping away from the elven general and his refugees, he knew they likely would have been spotted. But Kitek, as a specter, must have sensed his own kind bearing down on their little encounter there in the woods. That he would help the faerie folk at all said volumes about the creatures that Quintus had always assumed were mindless killing and eating machines.
He waited until he was in the barn that served as his home and office now, sitting with his legs dangling over the side of the cot he’d had pushed up into the back corner of the main chamber, to unwrap his danish. When he bit into it, he used the back of his hand to wipe away the filling that smeared his lips, then the bump of his wrist to do the same to the tears streaking his cheeks.
Kathy watched the stalwart veterans cluster together, tending to stick with the other soldiers of their own specialization. The military forces of the Amermidst Kingdom didn’t operate in a way she was familiar with from what she’d read in fantasy novels. In the books, each squad had a single soldier to handle various aspects of overall missions. Here, though, squads were single-purpose, requiring several squads to work together in order to make things rounded out. Yet from what she discovered by asking Daggeuro about the practice, the composition of the squads was entirely determined by the size and scope of the mission at hand. When smaller numbers were required, the more traditional fantasy arrangement she knew from reading genre novels held true, with one or two squads of five men each composed of various specialists.
The Awakened woman admired their collective good humor and spirits, given that each and every one of them knew that they might well be marching to their own demise. But that was true of any army, she supposed. Just as she knew full well that some of these men and women weren’t heroes at all, but sadists whose only socially acceptable means of lashing out and enjoying the kind of carnage and bloodshed they were capable of was within the confines of recognized warfare. Strapping on a uniform didn’t automatically make anybody a hero, regardless of which Plane one lived in.
Byron nudged her with his wrist, holding his spoon up to his lips and slurping soup as she looked over to him. “So, penny for ‘em, dimmy-dah,” the Awakened man said with a grin.
“It’s an expression from The Dark Tower series,” Byron explained, setting his spoon and empty bowl aside on the ground in the high afternoon sunlight. “Basically it means ‘penny for your thoughts’.” Kathy just blinked at him a moment, then set her own unfinished lunch aside, hands clasped together under her chin, thinking. At last she replied softly, so that her voice wouldn’t carry.
“I’ve been sitting here wondering how many of these people are going to make it back home in one piece,” she said. “When I was here the first time in Ether Plane, the shade Luga attacked Celia with a small army of goblins, trolls, gotrin and a smattering of lizardmen and elves. I remember what being besieged was like, even though it wasn’t long between the start of the siege and the battles inside the city. There was a quiet desperation, a gnawing thing that hollowed out its own little cubby in your guts, waiting for the first sign of oncoming hostiles to go burrowing down into your colon so that the first fight you got into, you thought you were going to shit yourself.” Byron whistled appreciatively at her description, even going so far as to give her a few claps of quiet applause.
“That was impressive, dearheart,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Thanks. The problem now, I guess, is that this time around we’re the ones who’ll be the besieging force.”
“Ah, but we’re not the initial aggressors,” Byron said, using one of his cards to conjure up a free-standing kitchen sink, complete with running water to rinse out their bowls and spoons. He scrubbed away at Kathy’s bowl and looked back and down at her. “And you know Sir Daggeuro will try to minimize the loss of life. I’ll bet Luga wasn’t looking to keep damages down, was he?” Kathy shook her head, and Byron reached down and tapped the tip of her nose, leaving a foamy soap bubble there. She decided not to retaliate, for the time being.
When he was done with their few dishes, the pair took to searching for their kennin companion, finding the High Knight seated alone by the trunk of an old maple near the front ranks of the battalion. He had his back pressed against the tree, eyes squinted against the light as he looked out south and west. In his hands was the rainbow cloth he used to clean and polish Boon and Bane. When Kathy and Byron arrived before him, Daggeuro didn’t even look up at them as he said, “My friends, I don’t like this one bit.” Kathy flinched back, taken off-guard. She hadn’t caught any hint of fear in Daggeuro’s voice, but rather a heavy dose of caution and wariness. “We have been on the march for six hours, and we haven’t seen a single specter.”
“Is that really so strange,” Kathy asked, shrugging her shoulders. “I mean, most of them are beasts and little more, but wouldn’t they be smart enough to avoid a big group like this?”
“They would avoid us, yes,” the kennin High Knight said, tucking away the cloth. “But you haven’t quite taken my meaning in its entirety. Our outbound scouts have seen no specter activity whatsoever,” he said, rasping this last for emphasis. “And that, I believe you can imagine, is unprecedented.” Daggeuro grabbed his bag and tapped the buckle, withdrawing from it a bark-covered binder, handing it up to the humans. “I should have let the two of you see this days ago,” he groused.
“What is it,” Byron asked as Kathy opened the binder. There were approximately twenty pages of parchment inside, and a quick rifle through them showed her wonderfully rendered drawings of Awakened humans, almost all of them wearing their Mortal-side garb. The pages contained brief bios on each Awakened, including their name, their age, vital statistics and short descriptions of their unique Awakened powers and attributes. “Um, Daggeuro,” Byron said, taking several sheets Kathy handed to him to look over. “Are these all of the Awakened?”
“No,” the kennin said. “Just the ones who were attacked and had their powers copied by Cassius Melchar. You’re in there too, Byron, though from what we’ve seen and what we already suspected, he can’t copy your powers, as they weren’t Awakened here in Ether Realm, but elsewhere entirely. It’s important before we get to Parik that you both familiarize yourselves with what Melchar is capable of at his worst.”
“Well, does he have any magic of his own,” Kathy asked, scanning the first couple of sheets, focusing on the powers sections.
“Nearly negligible,” Daggeuro said. “From what the sages have been able to glean from all of the old records, he had some minor talent in air magic and unspecified profane powers. Everything comes up daisies until he discovered his ability to clone the powers of other Awakened humans. When he realized he could make that permanent by killing off the original wielders of those powers, he became far more dangerous and power-mad.” Kathy and Byron read through the papers, trading back and forth until both had scanned the profiles for the powers associated with the other Awakened victims. When they were finished, she handed the binder back to Daggeuro. “Well? Any thoughts off the bat?”
“The specter conjuring and domination power,” Kathy said. “That one’s obviously dangerous. But should he be able to use it this far out?”
“It stands to reason that if he, like Petra, can extend its range by channeling more magical energy into it, then yes, he could make it reach as far as Celia,” Daggeuro said. “Anything else?”
“Yeah,” said Byron. “You listed it as ‘Assault Mirroring’ for Pierce Agnew. What exactly is that?”
“If Melchar activates it, a ring of orange energy will glow around him on the ground. Any physical damage he suffers so long as the energy is present will be returned on the assailant when he breaks the ring. It’s not something he’ll have a lot of use for; magic will be the order of the day.”
“But Boon and Bane,” Kathy said. “What would happen if you struck him with one of them and had the attack thrown back at you?”
“Nothing,” Daggeuro said with a wry grin. “The blades are attuned to my soul, my essence. So long as I am their master, the blades can never be used to harm me.” He folded his arms over his chest. “But there’s other things we need to worry about. His necromancy and ability to animate the inanimate, his control over specters, these are his most dangerous tools at range. In close, he can create temperatures capable of reducing everything in a five foot radius of him to ashes. That’s only if he’s wounded, though, and we all know that such a feat is going to be difficult. He probably won’t think to do that if the circumstance even arises.”
“Maybe not,” said Byron, “but he can use Harvey Shalluck’s lightning to fry us if we get too close.”
“That’s precisely what I’m worried about for melee purposes. We have to fight him at range, but range will be difficult with so many other footsoldiers to contend with.” Daggeuro rose, signaling to his lieutenants to make the columns form up for the continuation of the march. “And he has a number of dangerous powers that work well in middle and long distances. Frankly, he’s a strategic nightmare. If not for the wee folk, I might think we had no real chance against him. But we have them, and we have something else,” he said, hitching up his bag.
“What’s that,” Kathy asked.
“A wild card,” Daggeuro said, tipping his snout towards Byron. “I know you have limitations on your power, but I think we both know that they don’t always apply. What the circumstances are precisely, we don’t know.”
“So we can’t depend on that alone,” Kathy said. She looked to Byron and took his hand, squeezed it. “But I’m sure we can think of something before then if we put our heads together.” Daggeuro nodded, and together, they led the way forward.
Chapel saw the first scouts almost two miles away using a farsight spell, and herded the specters away, driving them west by means of his power to make certain that nothing would be spotted by the oncoming forces. He had been one of the first to bow to The Chained One, the very first to kneel before general Quintus. There were none as loyal as he, and when the master asked him to partake of this mission, he accepted with no hesitation. But he’d already driven himself nearly to exhaustion, weaving over the plains to force command over specters and run them off. Even fellins could get tired running all over creation.
There were four more large groupings of specters that he could sense down the path southwest, four more before he could be free to take some rest. By then, the battalion would need to make camp for the evening, and he would be able to use a more passive form of his power, sending the magic ahead of him by many miles and remain parallel to King Ovin’s forces.
It wasn’t a perfect methodology, but for the moment, he was the only one out here. Nobody else had been willing to go so far from the village on their own; fear alone didn’t keep them close to The Chained One anymore. They had become dependent upon the master’s essence, the very energy he let off around his body. Such a thing was not unheard of, though most who suffered such a parasitic need found themselves with a great number of problems when the source of their attraction perished or dissipated. He’d seen it happen once himself, when Abe Sheltis became distraught, nearly catatonic over the loss of his dog, an animal who was almost boundlessly energetic as a pup and adult, but who, in older age, quite suddenly lost its drive entirely.
Chapel didn’t understand the mechanism behind this phenomenon, but then, few faerie would. The Ether was full of all manner of magic and wonder, but it didn’t possess any of the writings or studies of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. The entire field of psychology was a relatively new thing to the denizens of Ether, and only a handful were familiar with it. Those familiar usually wrote it off as a Mortal-side pseudo-magic, babble without meaning. Had they taken the time to fully appreciate it, they might have turned some things around in their world, politically speaking.
For the time being, politics had nothing to do with his task. It was easy enough to keep the specters away, and when the battalion made camp for the evening, he found himself considering infiltrating their ranks for a more personal and brutal attack in the night. But that was madness; there were nearly a thousand people out there, and he’d guess at least half of those men and women could destroy him without much effort. Chapel wasn’t afraid of death, but he was terrified of failing the master.
There appeared to be several outbound pickets set around the battalion as it was, which further removed any thought of trying to get close from his mind. But Chapel didn’t need to necessarily go down among them himself. With a serpent’s smile he turned away from the battalion and used the faint evening light to seek out what he needed.
Byron sat at the mouth of the tent he and Kathy were sharing, staring out into the darkness around the camp. Something felt amiss, but he couldn’t very well tell the guards on the pickets to be on the lookout for a hunch. If they didn’t laugh at him outright, they would at the least dismiss him and try to assure him that they had everything under control on their end. He didn’t believe they did, but he would just have to let the matter go.
Kathy came out and sat next to him, herself also unable to fall asleep due to a feeling of things being unsettled. Daggeuro had set his tent in the middle of the camp, an arrangement he assured them was necessary to maintain morale and to keep up with standard procedures for a militia force on the march. He wasn’t about to have his men and women begin grumbling about him playing favorites with the humes. When everything came down to doing battle, these people would be quite lucky to have Kathy and Byron with them.
“Something’s off, you know,” she said, looking around into the darkness of the camp. “There’s plenty enough pickets and guards, but there’s still something wrong. Can you feel it?”
“Yes,” Byron replied softly, running his finger through the loose soil between his crossed legs. “It’s to do with what Daggeuro told us earlier, that the scouts hadn’t seen any sign of specters throughout the day, I think.” Kathy nodded, and would have made her own hypothesis aloud, but for the sudden introduction of screams to the night air from the eastern side of the battalion’s camp.
Kathy had her bow and an arrow in hand before she had even gotten to the end of their row of tents, while Byron swung up a warhammer over his shoulders that pulsed with a queer purple light, blackened plate armor covering his body except for his head. They followed the screams until they found themselves standing on the edge of the camp, several handfuls of armored men fending off what looked like a trio of chimeras, all of the beasts swiping and ducking away, their attacks made more of harassment than of any attempt to maim or kill. Still, several men lay dead in the low grass, their tents torn asunder. Kathy lobbed several arrows at the beasts, while Byron closed with his warhammer and lent aid to the men and women facing off with the specters in close-range combat.
It only took five minutes to dispatch the creatures, but half of the camp was up as a result of the fracas. As Byron and Kathy stood together surveying the damage done, they agreed that it wasn’t really all that much, but any damage done to them before arriving at Parik was detrimental to their overall aims. Everything would be settled there; the survivability rate for those who got all the way there decreased with each one of these incidents, however.
There were gaps in the battalion’s defenses, clearly. One of them that most of the ranking officers agreed was responsible for this first evening’s assault was their lack of aerial defenses. The chimeras had been able to drop down upon their victims without alerting the outer picket guards to their presence, an issue none of the sergeants or lieutenants had thought to address ahead of time. With the wee folk staying separate from the main body of the battalion in the evenings and at night, Daggeuro’s forces had nobody equipped to handle assaults from above.
The kennin High Knight, bleary-eyed and in need of sleep, agreed to put his head together with Byron and Kathy during the next morning’s breakfast and early march about what to do for such a defense as they needed. Nobody seemed ready to press him on the issue, and he ambled back to his tent to disappear until he was genuinely needed. Of course, when he did join the Awakened humes the following morning, he still seemed worse for wear. He sat with Kathy as she sipped at campfire-prepared coffee, Byron breaking down the tent behind her as Daggeuro picked lazily at diced fruit in a bowl with thick sugar-cream. He scoffed, a half-hearted chuckle coming from his drooping lips.
“Strange, this,” he said, popping a cherry in his mouth.
“What’s that,” Kathy asked.
“Well, during your first visit here to Ether Realm, you spent most days like this completely amped up, nerves all a-jangle, ready to explode with trepidation. Now, well, you just seem a lot more relaxed, as if this were all just natural. How do you explain that,” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at her. Kathy shrugged, smiled.
“Well, it’s really a choice between being cool about it all or freaking out. At this point in time, I’m opting to be cool,” she said. “Especially since so many of your people here are veterans. They don’t need to be dealing with a panicky hume hardly any of them knows.” Daggeuro grunted, nodded. He clearly didn’t care much for the truth behind her response, but he accepted it at face value.
By the time the camp got settled once more, Byron and Kathy had been asleep again for almost half an hour. Unfortunately, there were scores of other soldiers who weren’t able to get themselves relaxed enough to get back to restful sleep. If they came into any trouble during the day, those men and women who were unrested were going to find themselves suffering a much higher mortality rate than those around them, regardless of level of experience or skill.
There were gaps, and unless they got filled in, the entire battalion, including Daggeuro, Kathy and Byron, were in grave danger of arriving at Parik already broken and defeated.