Thank you so much for all the kind messages at the time of my leaving and on my return; I missed you all terribly.
My most sincere apologies and appreciation to the moderators, who took up the slack, you have always been stupendous people and I am much obliged to you.
To my beloved Guardians, you continue to be the finest band of rogues, this side of the Rathwood.
I will, perhaps, expound elsewhere on the reasons for my sabbatical but, in the mean time, here is a new story.
This is rather a long one, and ends on all sorts of cliff hangers, so I hope a few of you enjoy it and look forward to it’s conclusion.
Smoke billowed from the ruin of the keep, punctuated by the splintering of timber and rumble of falling masonry as another section of the defeated walls submitted to the flames.
Renfeld sat amongst the stones in the shell of a forge; glass, herbs and once-treasured ingredients lay trampled and spoiled around him.
He gazed with satisfaction at the carrion rooks circling the bodies and looked up at his own pair of wings – the once pristine feathers torn from their mistress and splattered with her blood, now lashed crudely to his back.
Staring up into the havoc of the copper sky, he laughed and laughed and laughed.
One week earlier…
Richard looked at the map again hoping that the mental block would clear, that some fresh, hidden hope would emerge from pictorial hills and rivers. He plucked at his unkempt beard. What would Elena do? He wasn’t the right man for the job, and he knew it. Vivica had been missing for weeks with two of the castle staff and the only sighting of her coach had inexplicably come from the Skyfhiem border. And Elena…Elena had fallen during that absurd expedition to the forsaken jungle. And not to an enemy sword, but the damned fog-fever.
He closed his eyes and saw her lying in the bunk on the ship…her flame-red hair matted with sweat, pale skin tinged with a purple bruises as her veins decayed inside her.
A tear tickled down his gaunt skin and fell onto the delicately contoured shores of Howling Bay.
“Lord.” The measured voice brought him back to the room.
Gunnar stood before him; the veteran knight holding his helmet under his arm, armour still polished despite the turbulence of the times.
“Your orders, Lord. There has been no word from Lord Thorne for six days and we must assume that Isgilham has fallen.”
“And the Strikers we sent to assist?”
“We must assume they are lost too.”
Richard dropped his head into his hands. The armies of Darkness now had no further barriers between them and Correllia, save the branches of the Rathwood.
“What of Mushashi and the City of the Cloud Loft?” They were supposed to counter attack across the Highlands and draw the enemy back to Shaguadin!”
“Lord, as I told you yesterday that Mushashi cannot move his main force from the Pass of Umber and the relief company he sent to aid at Shaguadin were ambushed in the Highlands…there were no survivors.”
“■■■■ your eyes, Gunnar, stop bringing me this wretched news. What else is there, a Kraken sighted off Windermere, perhaps?”
Gunnar tensed slightly and stared impassively; the situation was dire and he had seen the cracks spreading in Richard, as well as their defences.
“No Lord, a galloper from the Knight Lords has arrived. Lady Sonya is alive.”
Throwing herself to her right, Sonya swung her broad sword across her body, barely deflecting the massive cleaver as it swung in a predictable, but unstoppable arc. Then, springing back, crouched and bouncing on the balls of her feet, she waited for the next blow. This time, she was a little more ready for the power of the huge orc and as the blade fell, her parry encouraged its momentum and the orc stumbled forward, flat footed. Sonya grabbed a handful of his grubby cloak and pulled hard as she leaped, driving her armoured knee into his thick flank. The orc roared, more in annoyance than pain and threw a massive left fist across his body, desperate to land a decapitating blow.
Reversing her blade with supreme skill, Sonya thrust the flat of the blade through the orc’s heavy wrist guard as his huge arm passed by. “PIERCING STRIKE” she cried, summoning her mana and thrusting the blade down, dragging the orc to his knees by his wrist, as the blade buried itself to the hilt in the stony ground.
Even on his knees, the orc was still at Sonya’s eye level, he glared with his one good eye and bellowed his defiance, trying to drag the sword out of the hard earth. Sonya balled her gauntleted right fist and aimed for the snarling green chin.
She treated her assailant to a dazzling smile - “Bed time, meat bag”
Sonya caught herself and turned to see Prisca. Her hair was, as ever, pulled back as tight as her adherence to military protocol. Sonya rolled her eyes and tossed back her loose, blonde locks.
“Ma’am, this will not do. The Orc delegation are here to negotiate an alliance, not wrestle in the dirt”.
“It’s all the same to our new green friends,” Sonya threw back, a little out of breath still. “You need to warm up to them, Prissy, or they’ll get frostbite.”
Prisca ground her teeth at the ill-favoured nickname.
“The head of the delegation will see you shortly, ma’am. You will make yourself presentable, I am sure”.
“Yes, yes” said Sonya, dismissing her aide-de-camp with a wave.
Prisca turned and marched stiffly back in the direction of the pavilions leaving Sonya to wipe the sweat from her brow and grin. She felt at her side and remembered her missing sword.
“Your ‘sword’, Lady” rumbled a deep voice before her.
“Thank you, Mek, good match…not too sore, I hope”. She accepted the hilt being offered back to her, just toy-sized in the hand of her opponent.
“I will live, Lady…but some ham would help me mend faster”. The orc grinned, showing an impressive collection of crooked fangs, as he patted his massive gut.
“You know where the mess tent is, Meat Bag, but try to leave a few rations left for my boys, will you?”.
They had pitched camp among the spurs of the Ogron Mountain, using the valley as cover from the many eyes of the enemy.
Sonya had around two hundred able Knight Lords left at her command and resources were getting scarce. Few of their armoured harnesses were still complete, shields were splintered and swords chipped. But they were still alive, mobile and could hold a combat formation.
How had it come to this? Looking back, it was obvious that they had become so over confident, so exposed. After the fall of the Dark Lord, everyone had looked forward to a time of peace, Lady Vivica had brought many of the provinces together with the Treaty of Dragonia – Mushashi, Thorne, the Guild of Skyfheim…even the Deities had attended and Athena herself had donated one of her own quills for the signing.
Elena had been restless after that…the odd skirmish with the goblins, the Avalon tournament…nothing had given her the thrill of combat. So the prospect of an adventure over the seas had been irresistible and she had not returned alive.
Vivica had tried to guide Richard, who succeeded Elena as Captain of the Guard, but for all his bellicose enthusiasm, he didn’t have the tactical skill and the enemy had used this to his advantage.
In the north, Rigard had requested assistance as the Guild Knights were struggling with a new insurgence of undead creatures from Shaguadin on the Skyfheim border. A delegation of rangers had confirmed that Shaguadin was swarming with reanimated fighters and unyielding corpses, and Richard, keen to prove himself had ordered the Imperial Army to mobilize.
But it was a ruse, for in secret powers aligned to the Dark Element had made a secret and deplorable pact.
In an unprecedented move, the Lady Hel had united an entire Element.
The world was turned on its head as former alliances were torn up. The Imperial Army found itself attacked in the rear by the treacherous Guild even as they were swamped by the hordes of undead. Lord Thorne had led an army of Northmen from Isgilham to break the lines and allowed a handful of regiments, including Richard and his guard, to flee back south.
While the land was still reeling with the news, the forces of the Dark Element fell on their unprepared foes. The armies of Cypria allied with the remnants of the Darklings and made an attack on the mountainous lands of Mushashi in the Cloud Loft.
“And so here we are, mighty Bold Tusk. Bruised, battered and backs to the wall.” Sonya tried to read the gigantic, impassive face of the Orc chieftain as they stood around the table. “I understand that your people have also lost much to the onslaught of the Dark; joining forces is now our last hope to turn them back”
“It is not my place to decide the fate of the War-Folk, Lady. My mistress speaks for us”.
Bold Tusk stood to one side and Sonya saw a diminutive figure standing at his elbow. This creature was bent double with age, leaning on a gnarled staff and bedecked with bones and totems. Sonya blinked in astonishment, taken aback, but then her gaze locked with the strangers eyes…she had never seen anything like them – burning and yellow, shifting sometimes like a cat, then a snake – burning with magic.
Sonya’s hand drifted instinctively to her sword hilt but a low growl from Bold Tusk brought her back to the room.
“This is Skittleskull, High Witch of the green skinned War Folk. She speaks for us Lady. And you will listen.
Skittleskull patted the Orc’s hand in calming acknowledgment. “Lady Sonya,” she spoke in an earnest but surprisingly articulate croak, “indeed, these times are the most grave since the fall of the Dark Lord. I have no love for your Corellian empire building; but we are all now snared in this deadly puzzle. So, the orcs and goblins will stand with you and with sword and axe, and the magic of nature and light, we will fight. Now, let us make haste with our plans…
Aife lay back in the heather and breathed in the fresh sea air. Rumours of great battles with armies of the dead might be the talk of the village, but out here on the dunes there was nothing but peace and solitude. Well, not quite solitude
“So…what do you say?”
Aife sighed, “About what, Derric?”
“About the Midsummer may pole…about maybe - maybe us weaving a ribbon together?”
She looked out at the infinite waves, rising and falling all the way to Cloud Loft far over the horizon. She liked Derric; he was a simple woodman, reliable, he had an axe and he lived in a village of the Rathwood, the largest forest in the land. It was simple for him – a daily routine of picking up his axe at day break, swinging it at trees and putting it down again at sunset.
Reliable. Routine. And, urgh, Ribbon.
Those were words that did not sit well with Aife but options were sparse in this corner of the mighty Corellian Empire. Maybe she should Weave the Ribbon thus year…
“Hello, what’s that in the surf?”
Derric looked perplexed. “Look, there in the back wash, it looks like a statue.”
Derric peered in the direction that Aife was pointing. “It’s a funny colour. Maybe it’s a stone giant from Shaguadin…I heard the merchant dwarves taking about strange creatures abroad…” he cautioned.
But Aife was already running down the sandy slope to the water’s edge. “Don’t talk rot, Derric, it would be a very small giant…” she shouted back with scorn. She ran through the shallow salt water, skipping through the breakers and soaking her leather boots.
Presently, she came across the figure, lying prone on its back and partially buried in the wet sand, its head just clear of the water. It’s limp hand still clutched some kind of ceremonial staff.
Aife gazed in wonder at the exquisite detail of the god-like musculature, a stark contrast to the male physique she was used to – Derric’s pigeon chest or her father, Little John’s, famous ham-gut…it could almost be a giant. The surface of the figure was a deep bronze and, shining through the encrusted sand and seaweed, Aife could make out swirling gold designs.
“Careful, Aife” came Derric’s hesitant call from over her shoulder as he stayed back on the dry ground. “What is it?”
“I don’t know, but I want to get it out of the water. It’s going to need some muscle, so run and fetch my father, she said pointedly, turning to face him.
Derric frowned, but turned and ran back up the dune.
“Good dog,” thought Aife as she turned back to the figure in the sand.
But there he was, standing before her…sea water dripping from his powerful frame.
Without warning, the figure let out an ear-splitting ROAR and the air was engulfed by the power of a sun.
The news of Lady Sonya had lifted the mood in the mountain stronghold; even dragging Richard from his despairing mire and galvanised the soldiers and towns folk.
Gunnar was completing his inspection of the defences, noting that the men and women of the Strikers stood more upright at their posts, that the Ravager Archers had returned to daily target practise and even the pig-millers and miners were going about their grubby business with renewed vigour.
His hopeful introspection was interrupted by Olaf, the watchtower sentry.
“Sir Gunnar?” the doughty soldier’s voice cracked and he swallowed.
“Speak, man. What brings you here with such an ill countenance?”
“They are come sir…the Dark…they are here.”
The blood froze in Gunnar’s veins, but he paused, drew a breath and rallied himself.
“We shall make preparations, we knew this day would come. Which peak did you spy them on? How many days march do you estimate until they cross the valley, can we deploy archers to harry them in the pass?”
“No sir, it is witch craft…I tell you THEY ARE HERE”.
As Olaf emphasised this dreaded news to the horrified Gunnar, the clouds were cut asunder by a strike of violet lightning. The coursing energy struck the top tower of the strong hold, blasting the tiles from the roof and scorching the flag of the Holy Sun from its lofty seat.
An ill wind began to howl around the castle, bringing rolling clouds from the surrounding mountains and throwing the day into a half-lit gloom. Gunnar raced eastwards, shouting orders to any within earshot.
“To arms, to arms, Correlia! Archers to the walls! Strikers form up! You, douse those forge fires, man. Someone get me Lord Richard. To arms!
His armour clattered as his steel sabots carried him across a bridge and up the steep steps of the inner curtain wall towards the watch tower. He caught himself on the frame of the heavy oak doors and took a gulp of air before he forced his aging body into a sprint up the stairs.
He made his way to the observation floor and peered out of the great eastern arch. And there, barely a bow-shot from the walls he saw a swirling mass of magical energy – a eye of churning miasma, bolts of energy flashing from it’s centre.
More heavy armoured footsteps heralded Richard’s arrival. He leant on the wall of the parapet, panting and gazing in disbelief beside Gunnar.
“What is it Gunnar? Some bewitched Titan?” asked Richard, his face drawn and pale.
“No titan Lord” replied Gunnar is a stunned hush, “that is a summon gate”.
As his eyes grew more accustomed to the strobing energies of the gate, Gunnar saw shapes advancing from the gate, their numbers swelling with each moment that passed.
And then he saw another shape, like a vast and horrifying crow hovering above the stormy energy of the gate. A female figure, but twisted and clothed in indigo leather and jagged pewter with dark, feathered wings holding her aloft. The swirling winds dropped for a moment and then, by some magic, blew from the figure towards the stricken stronghold, amplifying the figure’s terrible voice.
“BEHOLD CORELIA! I AM DEATH AND I. AM. HEL!
Gunnar looked around, waiting for some response from his lord and saw Richard cowering behind the wall.
“Lord! Lord?!” Richard ignored his plea
With a sudden righteous indignation lending him strength, Gunnar dragged the other man to his feet.
“Richard, pull yourself together. The people need to see some leadership. They need to see you. Answer the challenge.
“Gunnar, it is hopeless, we cannot stand against this, we must flee to the waterfall gate before we are killed.”
Gunnar looked his Lord in the eyes with disgust and struck him across the face with the back of his gauntlet.
“Answer the challenge, or I will kill you myself. Lord” he hissed
Richard stood stunned, aghast at the assault so Gunnar continued in a softer tone, “I know you are not Elena, but you must draw some of her fire from within you, or every man and woman her will perish by nightfall”.
Richard looked him in the eye and nodded. “aye, Gunnar. Elena would not stand for this attack on Corellia. He nodded again then drew himself up, filling out his still-powerful physique and bellowed out toward the devilish apparition.
“BEHOLD, FORCES OF THE DARK ELEMENT. I AM RICHARD, CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD AND WEILDER OF THE CLOUD HAMMER. WE ARE THE PEOPLE OF CORRELLIA AND WE ARE NOT AFRAID!
A ragged cheer rose from the stronghold as the castle folk turned their faces to the watch tower. Richard called down “Every man and woman capable of holding a blade or bow – arm yourselves and look to the walls!”
Hel descended back to the rocky earth and seated herself on a dais of stone that had been assembled by her minions. She gazed with pride at the writhing portal of the summon gate as her army continued to pour forth and assemble. Column after column of shambling skeletal warriors and shuffling corpses filed past and took up their station, waiting for the command of their mistress.
She glanced at her acolytes.
“What do you make of them, Executor?”
The lithe form of Sartana stepped forward, her night black cloak falling back to reveal her pale blue flesh and brace of brutal swords.
“Their morale hangs by a thread. They will crumble before an assault”
“Perhaps, but even your powers will be slowed by these walls. My spies in Ogron inform me that that idiotic girl, Sonya, still commands a viable force and has combined her army with the green barbarians. We must not be delayed by a lengthy siege and find ourselves pinned in. Do not forget that Midsummer approaches. We must conclude our business here promptly.”
Sartana curled her lip at the rebuke but kept quiet; even she feared Hel’s ability to strip a warrior of their power.
“Perhaps something a little more sophisticated? As soon as that buffoon, Richard shows his face between the crenulations, I’ll put a bolt between his pretty eyes.” Domitia blinked at Hel with puppy-dog eyes and a rosé pout.
“No, Sartana is right about one thing. Their morale is feeble; they are one humiliation from capitulation. Send for Obakan.”
“Just, so as I understand you correctly, my shiny friend. You are the herald of the Holy Sun and you have travelled from a temple on the far side of the Windermer sea. In order to save the world from a witch with a magic door. But you were shipwrecked by a gorgon and turned up on my beach in just your pyjamas. You then accidentally channelled a ‘solar-beam’, barely missing my wayward daughter here and now, you want my best horse so you can ride to Correllia. BAHAHAHAHA. I’ve heard some tall tales in this tavern, sir, but that takes the biscuit. AHAHAHA. Either you take me for the biggest fool in the Rathwood, or you’ve swallowed too much sea water. FRIAR, MORE ALE FOR MISTER PYJAMAS HERE!
Little John roared with laughter again and thumped the table in alcohol-soaked merriment. The newly imported Dwarvish brew was potent stuff and was fast overwhelming the big man’s senses. He leaned back, holding his immense belly, and shook his head at the strange visitor. Aife scowled at him from across the table. The mysterious stranger from the beach, Joon, sat impassively next to her, wearing a borrowed cape, but still gripping an ornate glaive that Aife had mistaken as a staff.
“Take that look of your face, daughter of mine. I’ve had enough of your flights of fancy with Mister Pyjamas. It’s time you started looking after a home.”
“And what do you mean by that?” she demanded.
Little John looked down into his flagon, avoiding eye contact.
“I’ve agreed to a proposal from Derric; you will weave a ribbon with him at the Midsummer May Pole.”
“I Will Not”
“YOU WILL”, Little John slammed down his drink onto the rough table top,
“you will, Aife.”
“But he’s a woodsman!”
“I’M A WOODSMAN, SO JUST WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT, WHELP?”
Aife stood up, throwing her chair backwards, eyes a blaze.
“I will weave no ribbon” she fired at her father as she turned and stalked out of the tavern.
Out in the cool night air, she looked into the sky and sighed; the moon was bright and the western horizon tinged with a queer purple aura. She felt so trapped…how could she fly away from here. From Derric…from her ham-headed father…
“I am sorry if I have caused conflict between you and your father”
She turned towards the low, measured voice, its foreign slur still exotic to her untravelled ears.
“It is not your fault, Joon, he is a stubborn man and used to getting his way.
“Again, I apologise, but if he will not help then I must leave and make my own way with all haste.”
“I understand…I wish I could come with you…I’ll walk you to the village gate and point you on the western road.
The pair walked through the dark settlement; the noise of revelry at the tavern fading at their backs. Aife wanted to linger, to stretch out this moment when adventure seemed to be within a fingertips reach, by Joon set a determined pace.
Without warning, a hooded shadow stepped out in front of them, blocking their path. Aife quickly looked over her shoulder, alert to robbers, but Joon faced their potential assailant.
“If wish to leave with your life, step away friend. But if you tarry, or are a minion of the dark, I will end you.” Said Joon evenly.
“I do wish to tarry, master monk, but hear me out before you end an old stone-boots like me”.
Aife noticed that the figure was rather short for a robber.
“Who are you?”
“I’m afraid that I am the cause of your father’s current emotional state, miss. Allow me to introduce myself, Kiril, travelling merchant and Master Brewer of the Ogron Dwarves, at your service”. The shadow threw back his hood to reveal a broad face with a long hooked nose, plaited white beard and one keen eye, the other replaced by a long scar that cut across his brow.
Kiril continued “While the folk here may feel safe and sound, I’ve travelled these lands for many years – the hidden highways and byways of empire and beyond. You don’t get an everlasting wound like this”, he pointed to his dead eye “without visiting some curious places.”
“Impressive tales” interrupted Joon, “but you are delaying my journey.” He went step around the dwarf but Kiril raised his hand.
“Master monk, hear me out, you have a great distance to travel and a great evil to face. I didn’t interrupt your walking to slow you down, but to offer you a much faster form of transportation”.
“You will aid me in the quest? I will put your life in peril.”
“Aye, I know of the evil you face, and it will spread. Word is, Isgilham has already fallen and Corelli is on a knife edge. An old stone-boots can’t out run this wicked thing, so he better turn and face it, axe in hand.”
“Then I accept your offer of transport, Master Brewer. What manner of craft or beast is it? A ship, a dragon?”
“Well…sort of both.”
The three walked out of the village and into the gloom of the Rathwood. Aife was so excited that she had quite forgotten that she should have stayed at the gate.
“Where are we going, Kiril, this isn’t a travelling contraption, we’re just walking”, Aife queried
“Patience miss,” answered the dwarf “we always park the wagons away from the villages and hire a few mercs to guard them. That way none of the local cut-purses can be dipping their fingers into the goods. Ah, here we are.”
They came into a moonlit clearing and Aife saw the shape of Kiril’s wagon.
“It’s certainly a very large wagon, Master dwarf”, said Joon, “Almost like a ship of wheels. But I fear your mercenaries have taken your horses and made off into the night.”
“Not my boys, Joon” replied Kiril “Show him lads”. There was a sudden twang of bow strings and three arrows stuck, quivering, in the ground at Joon’s feet.
“That’s odd” said Kiril, “there should be four. One must have missed.”
There was a further twang and an arrow buried itself between Kiril’s boots.
“We’re not all lads,” came a reproachful, yet melodic voice.
“Ah yes, mistress Liana. My mistake. Well, let’s be having you, there’s work to be done.”
Aife heard thuds and rustles in the undergrowth around them and then four figures stepped out to meet them – all dressed in wood land greens. Two men, the elven maiden, Liana, and a scruffy goblin.
“Joon, may I present my personal bodyguard – Greg, Berden, Liaina and Needler, also known as – “
“You’re the Rebel Sharpshooters!” exclaimed Aife “You’re wanted from here to Skyfheim for stealing the Mystic Rings of Natalya!
“That is a malicious rumour, I assure you lady” said the suave Gregorian.
“A rumour you started, you narcissistic berk” cut in Berden
“Careful B, that’s a long word. Don’t use a year’s worth of brain cells in one go” retorted Greg, giving Aife a wink.
“Right, enough, enough,” hurried Kiril, “We need to make haste. And this time it isn’t just another jealous husband out for Greg. We’re setting sail for Correllia.
Kiril explained the band as they worked around the wagon. Aife had seen the Jay rigs working out in the bay, but had never seen so much rope and canvas, it was all very perplexing.
“What is it Joon?
“I have heard of such things – I think it is a ship of the air.”
Aife gawked as Berden started pumping a great bellows. A huge canvas bag, entwined in ropes and pulleys started to inflate above the wagon as the small goblin, Needler, nimbly scaled up and down the contraption untwisting cables and adjusting knots.
And within a matter of minutes it was done – the wagon sat in the clearing tethered to the forest floor with the great canvas above it, straining at the anchors.
“All aboard – I assume you’ll be joining us miss on this perilous adventure?”
Aife looked at the motley crew – a mix of races, weapons, accents and reputations that had already stretched her village mind beyond belief. She looked at the tangled rope like so mean woven ribbons.
Without looking back she climbed the ladder and onto the fantastic contraption. Kiril cut the final anchor rope and they lifted off into the darkness.
“So, remember the rules, Lord” Gunnar counselled as they marched from the keep and through gate of the inner curtain. “This combat will decide the siege, a champion and a second from each army. To the death.”
“Yes, I recall,” replied Richard grimly, “particularly the ‘to the death’ part.”
“I don’t trust them, Lord. They have no honour…perhaps we should withdraw, fight the siege and wait for Lady Sonya to break through their lines.”
“No, Gunnar, I have been idle too long. This is my chance for redemption. We both know that a siege would be short and not very sweet. Hel commands an army of the dead and her allies are up to their eye balls in dread magic. No, this is my time, in victory or defeat. At least…at least I will be able to look Elena in the eyes when I see her.”
“When we enter the combat ground, I will attack first and try to weaken the champion. Then I can cast my ability Spirit Link when it is you turn to…”
“No, again, no Gunnar. You will not be my second.”
“Should I fall, you must lead the evacuation and defend the people from these fiends. As you said, they have no honour. Valen shall be my second. I know he is impulsive, but he is a fine duellist. No arguments, Gunnar. It is already arranged and it shall be Valen.”
Richard felt his heart start to pound as he walked towards the eastern gatehouse. Valen and an honour guard of Strikers fell in to step behind him and Gunnar as they crossed the great causeway on to the mountain side. He felt the hopeful gaze of a thousand eyes on his back and knew that the walls were thronged with every man and woman who could bear to watch their fate play out beyond the stronghold.
They stopped as they reached the delegation from the Darkness.
A wicked looking man sauntered forward, his face painted and a pair of tattered wings was lashed to his back.
“I am Renfeld, humble servant of the Deity Hel and second to her champion, mighty Obakan.”
“Looks like a humble goose to me” muttered a striker, inducing a snigger from his neighbour.
Renfeld approached the soldier and stood nose to nose with him, a manic look in his frenzied eye.
“I sliced these wings from the body of the Deity Athena, while she lay dying in agony from my poison. I will look for you afterwards. And your family”.
The soldier baulked.
“Enough”, growled Gunnar “we are not here to bandy words. Let us end this thing”.
The strikers formed half a circle with their backs to the enemy army, while a squad of decrepit skeletal warriors did the same with their back to the stronghold, as was the custom; no combatant could flee the circle without meeting a foe.
And so it began – Valen versus the vile Renfeld.
Valen swung with twin broadswords with finesse and precision, while Renfeld parried with his buckler and swung with his light scimitar. The two fighters circling, wary.
Valen feinted, with a swing of his left sword and lunged up with the right, Renfeld flailed at both and fell back; Richard began to nurture a seed of hope. If Valen could finish Renfeld quickly, they could take turns to weaken this Obakan character and maybe, win the war.
As Renfeld retreated again toward the wall of strikers, Valen bounced on his toes and spun his expertly-balanced blades. “Inspiring fencing”, sneered the painted assassin. Then, as Valen struck again, Renfeld trapped his sword in the notch of his scimitar and twisted hard. The fine blade snapped and as Valen staggered, Renfeld tackled him with an armoured shoulder. With a click, blades slid out of the shoulder guard and gouged deep in his opponents flank.
Valen fell, blood seeping from two deep wounds. He let out a cry of pain, holding his side and scrabbling to regain his footing.
Renfeld took a step back, sneering down at his stricken foe. “I call for the exchange.”
Richard rushed forward. “We also call for the exchange!” he blurted and ran into the ring to Valen’s aid. He dragged the stricken man to the striker’s line and turned just in time to receive a massive blow to the side of his head.
Reeling, he swung the Cloud Hammer in a clumsy back-swing, trying to clear his defensive arc and get a bearing on the source of the blow. His attacker came into focus; flowing white hair obscuring grotesque pallid features, a warped physique throbbing with powerful muscularity with cruel, jagged plates strapped to his creases and chest harness. The creature, Obakan, was armed with a heavy sabre and a razor-sharp shield.
Obakan attacked again, alternating shield and sword in a blizzard of deadly attacks, keeping Richard off balance and deftly dodgy the swings of the mighty Cloud Hammer.
“Careful Lord, move your feet. Don’t give this monster another opening” encouraged Gunnar from the perimeter.
“Silence, old fool,” retorted the twisted Renfeld from the undead lines, “Perhaps you will take the place of the pitiful squealing coward that lies gutted at your feet; I didn’t even get a warm-up”
“I accept your challenge, vermin” growled Gunnar
Part 2 Coming soon
Will Joon complete his mysterious quest?
Will Richard prevail in his mortal duel?
Will Sonya and her Orc allies be the salvation of Corellia?
Find out next time!