Preface: Twilight Before Dawn
In the summer of 2000 I returned to Portland, Oregon from Los Angeles, where I had spent six months trying to escape from the wreck my life had become. I was just completing Armada, the penultimate chapter in the Dark Vengeance saga, and by year’s end I had finished Elven Twilight, and with it the Wulf saga (for the time being, at least).
Years ago I wrote a story in which I invented a fictional proverb, that the road home is always the longest. I think that the events of the millennium’s end were ample proof that, for me at least, the proverb was very true. When I returned to Portland, it felt as if I had been gone for years. In reality I hadn’t felt at home in a long time, even as I lived there and my life came unraveled. Now I was back -- broke, unemployed, largely without material possessions, but ready to start again.
It wasn’t an easy task. I got a job which I still have, made new friends, many of whom are still with me to this day. Not everything was perfect -- I bought a hot car and promptly blew the engine, but I didn’t mind too much. I even had the lack of good sense to fall in love, and my renewed enthusiasm was reflected in the optimism of Elven Twilight, particularly in the dragon guardians’ discussions with Livia, and Livia’s confession of love for Wulf and his response. When he says that he’d rather have a life-long friendship with Livia than love her for a year and have her hate him, they were words from the heart, directed at someone who was (and remains) very important to me.
So in the end, the Dark Vengeance saga was a chronicle of my own journey into darkness and back again. The observation near the book’s end that twilight comes both before and after darkness was a hard-won realization, but in the end it was what kept me alive and sane. To this day I remember the lessons I learned in that time, and hope that I am a better person for it.
The Wulf saga continues. I have several unpublished stories that I will be whipping into shape soon, and you are hopefully reading this as a result of rediscovering the new, new, only marginally-improved Wulf Archives.
“I’ve been thinking of you fondly, Sergeant,” said Herula as Rees and Tanelin busied themselves with her shackles. “I had no idea you were one of us.”
“The feeling’s mutual, Marshal,” I said. “I hadn’t expected to see you again under these circumstances.”
“You mean chained and helpless?” she asked sweetly. “It’s what I’ve been dreaming of.”
Rees cocked an eyebrow and grinned at me wickedly. “It seems our friend has quite the dark side, eh, Marcus? Perhaps he could demonstrate for me someday.”
“Enough socializing!” Tanelin snapped irritably, unlocking Herula’s wrist. “Now come on. We’ve work to do!”
Marcus lumbered to the door, an emaciated body slung over one shoulder and pitched it onto the floor where it lay, motionless.
“Another prisoner,” Tanelin said. “For our subterfuge.”
I looked at Marcus in horror, feeling my long-forgotten sense of morality finally stirring to life.
“Gods, Marcus! Did you...”
Marcus looked offended but didn’t reply.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t kill anyone,” Tanelin explained quickly, pulling a small blue gem from his belt pouch. “I had him find a prisoner who was already dead. Now stand back unless you want to end up looking like a Tandu.”
Rees gazed admiringly at Herula. “That doesn’t sound like a terribly bad prospect to me, Tanelin,” he said.
Herula frowned and looked at me. “What is this creature, Chuma?”
“Rees,” I replied. “And I think he’s more interested in me than in you.”
Rees waved a hand. “Bah. I do not discriminate. I’d take either one of you.” His eyes narrowed. “Or both. Simultaneously.”
I rolled my eyes and indicated Rees’ dark companion.
“This is Marcus. He obtained the map we used to find you.”
Marcus grunted and bowed politely
Meanwhile, Tanelin busied himself over the corpse, muttering incantations and then tossing the gem into the air. A blue glow spread from the stone to the body, and a moment later, a fine simulacrum of Marshal Herula lay there, battered and lifeless.
“Prisoners die all the time here,” Tanelin explained. “Odds are they’ll never check for sorcery, and the other one was probably forgotten anyway.”
“This means we should leave now?” I suggested.
“With all haste,” Tanelin said. “Those guards should be recovering any moment now.”
The way out was quicker but more harrowing than the way in. Turning corridors and sprinting back to the sally port, expecting at any moment to be set upon by a dark elf patrol was a nerve-wracking experience, but in the end we regained the outside just as the clouds were lightening with what passed for dawn.
“Back to camp, everyone,” Tanelin urged. “Herula, you go with Chuma. We’ll figure out what to do with you later.”
“With pleasure,” Herula said. “And my thanks to all of you.”
“The pleasure was all ours,” Rees assured her. “And if you two want to take me up on that offer, you know where to find me.”
He didn’t have time for much more, as Marcus and Tanelin immediately collared him and dragged him back toward the enlisted encampment.
“Well,” I said, as Herula and I trudged back toward the officer’s quarter, “I guess it’s just you and me.”
“Yes,” she replied, weary and exhausted, but with an edge of enthusiasm and gratitude, “we certainly are.”
“Shall I have a bath drawn for you?” I asked.
A pleasant purr sounded in the back of Herula’s throat.
“If it pleases you,” she said, softly, “it would certainly please me.”
The High Commander sat astride Dhruul, his ancient and lordly dragon mount, surveying the carnage that had once been a peaceful grassy hill. Thousands of Litharnan soldiers lay in untidy heaps, ignored by the elven warriors who stood by, leaning on spears, talking quietly or staring into space. Here and there animated corpses and skeletons shambled, either intent on a mindless task set them by their master or stumbling aimlessly, bumping into bodies, trees and each other. Smoke blew across the battlefield, and a flock of carrion crows circled overhead, grim and black as angels of death.
The liche-lord Ezikhan marched toward him at the head of a column of undead warriors. These had once been Feanor’s own commanders — some of them had even been his friends. Now they were abominations, mindless slaves whose spirits had fled.
Ezikhan was the worst of all — the arch elven traitor, returned from exile, now casting foul magics and performing horrific ceremonies as the armies advanced. He bore a severed human head, that of a pudgy, bearded, black haired man.
“Your opponent, My Lord!” he shouted, echoing like a lone voice in an empty tomb. “Prince Otto the Shrewd has made his last blunder!”
Feanor bit back his disgust. For all the horrors that the liche brought with him; he was an ally, and led a massive army against the elves’ enemies.
“Well done, sorcerer,” he replied. “Your army’s intervention turned victory into utter route. I thank you!”
“And I salute you, my friend!” Ezikhan said. “Against the two of us, no mortal can stand!”
It had indeed been a bloody day. Otto the Shrewd (who had lived up to his other, more common nickname, Otto the Imbecile) had drawn up a massive Litharnan army on the region known as the Anvil Plain, about the only available piece of high ground, Skull Hill. Initially, the humans had held their own, but as elven numbers increased and elvish arrows filled the sky, more and more of the enemy had fallen. When at last Feanor had personally ridden into battle astride Dhruul, the enemy had wavered, then broken. A few elite units of knights and heavy infantry covered Otto’s retreat, and for a time it seemed that the humans might be able to fall back on the city of Vosgraad for a last stand.
But even this was not to be. Approaching from the east, Ezikhan’s undead, now reinforced by vampires from the Firwood, smashed into the retreating Litharnans. Soon, the elves broke through Otto’s rearguard and attacked, catching the survivors in a vise of steel. Only a handful had escaped; the remainder now lay scattered across Skull Hill and beyond, and would soon serve Ezikhan as mindless zombie slaves.
The fortunate Fieldmarshal Van Leuter had escaped from the trap at the Pinewood to rally the Litharnans as they fled from the Skull Hill disaster — along with Vosgraad garrison, they were the only surviving defenders. Armies of blonde Nordskappers were on their way from the north, but even these fearsome warriors would not arrive in time. Within a fortnight, Vosgraad would be in flames, and the most powerful human nation would be another vassal state to the expanding elvish empire.
“A fine sight,” Ezikhan said with deep satisfaction, gazing about. “My minions are even now raising these humans to fight. What a joy it will be when Vosgraad’s defenders find themselves besieged by their own friends and loved ones!”
Feanor could not suppress a wince at the liche’s words. The parchment-skinned monster had already raised and enslaved Feanor’s own friends and loved ones, and no doubt knew how much the words hurt.
“Just so,” Feanor said. “I bid you good day, sorcerer. Best of luck with your magics.” He tapped his dragon’s neck with the butt of his spear. “Up, Dhruul. Back to headquarters. We’ve much work yet to do.”
“As you wish,” rumbled the dragon, and with that rose into the air. The fresh, clean winds washed away the carrion stink of the battlefield, but not the memory of the beast that fought beside him.
For the Lady, Feanor thought. For the Realms. For the Twelve. I am damned that they may be blessed.
She was there when he arrived, of course, Lady Vaenetha, his concubine and lover, the one who had urged the war upon him, told him to reclaim his people’s greatness. She lay naked upon the bed in the human manse Feanor had taken as his headquarters, covered only by a linen sheet. She held the sheet tightly across her, the dark circles of her nipples pressing against the cloth. Her hair was an untidy mass, like spilled straw, and her blue eyes burned with lust for both sex and blood. Something was different about her — she was like an animal now, unkempt and feral, living only for news of the latest battle, and for the raw savagery of their lovemaking.
“Hail the conquering hero,” she hissed, licking her full lips and fixing him with her intense, near-mad gaze. “How many of the humans did you kill this time?”
Feanor strode into the room, stripping off his sweaty tunic and casting it onto the floor.
“Does it matter?” he asked. “They are piled in heaps too high to see the top of. They came at us like ants, and we killed them like ants. Only a few survive, and they are in full retreat. Soon, this realm will fall like the others.”
Vaenetha grinned and flung aside the sheet. Her body was voluptuous, but somehow overripe, like a fruit that had fallen and lain too long on the ground. All the same, Feanor felt his lust rise, and he stepped toward her, dropping the last of his clothing. His penis was growing hard at the thought of taking her once more.
“Look at that cock,” Vaenetha said, dreamily. A still-smoking dreamweed pipe lay by the bed, and she reeked of the smoke despite her nakedness. “So very, very big.”
Feanor did not respond, but instead fell upon her with the same savage intensity that he felt when he fought the humans. She cried out briefly, then was silenced as he crushed his lips against hers. For a moment she resisted, then he felt her arms around him, nails scoring his flesh. Her mouth opened beneath his, and her tongue thrust into his mouth like a knight’s lance.
“Feel it?” he demanded, pressing his cock against her loins. “Feel that on your skin?”
She nodded. “Yes, my lord... I feel that big cock against me.”
He bit back a snarl, and the urge to sink his teeth into his lover’s pale white neck, but instead turned his attention to the softness of her breasts, biting and licking at her nipples, and pinching them with his fingers, heedless of her cries.
“I love it when you’re like this,” she said, huskily, stroking the back of Feanor’s head, pressing him against her. “After you’ve killed and conquered, you come and take me as hard as you want... Ohhh...”
This last was uttered as the elf lord pulled away, then seized her hips in a rough grasp and rolled her onto her stomach. With a firm grasp, he yanked her up onto her knees, fingers digging into the soft flesh of her buttocks.
“Oh,” she repeated. “Oh, wait...”
She was too late. Feanor seemed unconcerned with her wishes as he slipped the head of his cock between her thighs, pressing it against her soft pink outer lips.
“My lord... you’re...” Vaenetha gasped as Feanor finally thrust inside her with all the subtlety of a battering ram.
Feanor didn’t speak; his voice was a guttural growl as he pulled her to him, hands firmly around the soft curve of her hips, her rounded ass cheeks quivering as they slapped against him. Vaenetha moaned in pain for a moment; then her cries took on a more desperate edge, with real pleasure creeping into them.
“That’s what I like,” she gasped. “Take me, my lord. Take what you want, just like you take it from those humans.”
“Yes,” Feanor snarled. “That’s what I want.”
The two lovers were slick with sweat now, and Feanor’s hands slipped from his grip on Vaenetha’s hips. He slid one hand between her buttocks as he continued to fuck her, then began to move his sweat-slick thumb into the tight ring of her asshole.
“Ohhhh.” Vaenetha’s voice was tight, balanced on the razor’s edge of pleasure and pain. Her face was bathed in sweat, pressed firmly against the bedclothes, her shoulders down. With one hand, she fumbled beneath the bed, and withdrew a short, tapered cylinder, carved wood wrapped in leather.
“Use this, darling,” she gasped. “Put it where your fingers are...”
Feanor took the device and without hesitation, slipped it between his lover’s heaving buttocks, even as he continued to thrust his thick prick inside her. With a single motion, he thrust it into her anus, triggering another loud cry.
“That’s it,” Vaenetha breathed, huskily, face against one of her pillows, hair plastered to her skin with sweat. “That’s how to do it.”
As he continued to thrust in and out, Feanor withdrew the plug, then thrust it in simultaneously with his cock. Vaenetha tensed with each thrust, cries growing shorter and more desperate.
“Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh, my lord... Oh, my beautiful, conquering, merciless lord.... Yes. Yes. Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes....”
Vaenetha bucked and heaved, slamming her hips against Feanor, pounding with mindless intensity as orgasms shot through her body. Abruptly, even as the waves of release passed through her body, Feanor pulled the plug free and cast it aside, then spread her sweat-slick cheeks apart, pressing his cock against her asshole.
“Oh, my lord...” Vaenetha still trembled from her climaxes. “Please don’t hurt me...”
Once more, the elf-lord ignored her entreaties, and instead pressed his cock into her tight rear opening, driving in to the hilt despite Vaenetha’s cries.
“Oh, darling,” she whined through clenched teeth, gripping the sheets in her fists. “You’re so much bigger... Your cock is so much bigger... I don’t... Ahhhh... Oh, Feanor...”
Again, the pleasure overcame the pain, and she began to stroke her clitoris with trembling, slick fingers. In and out Feanor thrust, cock slick with sweat and her own cunt-juices, pounding mercilessly into her asshole. In a moment, she trembled and screamed, tumbling once more over the abyss into orgasm.
“Oh, fuck me... fuck me, my lord... fuck me...”
“Yes, I’m fucking you,” Feanor shot back, with a near-feral snarl.
“Come for me, my lord.” She turned her head and looked back at him, eyes wide, face flushed. “You want it, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Feanor replied. His eyes were glazed, as if lost in another reality. His muscular, scarred body was bathed in sweat.
“You want to fuck them, don’t you?” she demanded, teeth still clenched, voice brutal. “You want to fuck all those women you conquer, don’t you? Take them as hard as you want, shove your big cock up their asses, make them scream... Don’t you? Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Feanor said, panting heavily, near the end of his endurance. “I want to fuck them all.”
Then, Vaenetha thought to herself, feeling the growing heat inside her lover’s loins, you and I are both truly slaves to the same mistress...
“Fuck them...” Feanor cried, pulling his cock out and letting loose a gush of hot semen across Vaenetha’s back and buttocks. She grinned wickedly into the pillow as she felt the burning fluid drip down her legs and between her ass cheeks. He was hers now, and by the same token, Thae’lynn’s.
You’ve become what you hate, my lord, she thought. And I helped make you that way.
She said none of this, preferring instead to collapse on the bed, feeling Feanor’s semen finally stop, and reveling in the sensations of past climaxes and her delight at so controlling him.
“That was lovely, my lord,” she sighed. “Lovely.”
Feanor rose unsteadily to his feet and turned away.
“I’m glad you feel that way, you foul bitch,” he said. “Now get out.”
Far from being hurt by the harsh words, Vaenetha was delighted. The proud elf-lord’s transformation was complete. With dark skin, he’d have fit quite well into Thae’lynn’s own household. She looked at him, collapsed and panting on the bed as she gathered her clothes.
“I love it when you call me that,” she said, her tone low and wicked. “I love to be your bitch.”
“Then do what I say and get out,” Feanor said, wearily.
“Yes, my lord,” she said, and walked proudly from the room without even bothering to dress. The guards outside stared at her as she walked by, glistening and naked, her legs and buttocks streaked with semen, her hair a sweat-soaked nightmare. She did not care.
We serve our mistress well, don’t we my lord? she said silently as she walked down the corridor toward her room. Both of us.
Being an officer has its advantages, particularly in an army of absolute evil and chaos. I turned the day’s training over to my lieutenants and slept in my tent until past mid-day. The rest of the unit simply assumed I’d partied a little too hard the previous night (which was true, though they weren’t to know exactly how I’d partied), and the fact that there was a female in my tent only helped to further the illusion.
Of course, the female in question seemed quite delighted to be sharing my tent anyway, and when I finally awoke, I found her wrapped around me, naked body tightly against mine. She was warm, soft, and breathed slowly — I’d even hazard to say contentedly. Surprising for a woman who was just sprung from a filthy dungeon.
She stirred against me.
“Mmmm,” she said, her green eyes opening slightly. “I dreamed I was with you. I was afraid that I’d wake up and still be in the cell, but I guess it’s real.”
“It is, I assure you,” I said, softly. “Of course we still have to figure out what to do with you.”
“I’ve got a few ideas,” she replied, then snuggled closer, head against my chest. “Mmmm. I’ve wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed our night together. I’ve thought about it often enough since then. I haven’t had much chance to be with a male given all the activity and changes we’ve been through.”
I sighed, giving in to the inevitable. I told her the truth. “I enjoyed it, too. Especially in light of what’s happened since.”
“Oh really? What do you mean?”
“Later,” I said. “Long story. What landed you in the slammer?”
She shrugged, and I felt her flesh ripple alluringly beneath her fur. “A brawl. I killed a couple of fellow officers who wanted to have their way with me. I was arrested because one of them had connections. I’m glad Tanelin was so forward-thinking as to rescue me... I’d either have died in there, or been interrogated. If they interrogated me, they’d have learned I was hiding something and, well, I’d have been forced to betray Tanelin, who would have been forced to betray you, and so on.”
“Makes perfect sense the way you tell it,” I agreed. “Who are you working for? Same group as Tanelin?”
She nodded. “Elven dissidents. They’re intelligent enough to recruit non-elves as well.”
“I won’t ask any more questions than I need to,” I said. “Now that you’re in my bed and I’m trying to decide how to keep you safe.”
She rolled atop me, a pleasant weight. “As I said, I have a few ideas. Want to hear them?”
“I’m open to suggestion,” I said. “You feel good, too.”
I realized that for the first time in weeks, my breathing wasn’t labored and I wasn’t worried about what would happen. Soon, I’d have to get back to my duties, but here, now, I felt suddenly content and quiet, as if Herula’s presence, and the soft gaze of her green eyes made the moment easier.
“Well, Chuma,” she began, “if that’s your real name, you know it’s no great task to hide someone in this army?”
“I imagine. The thing is so huge and chaotic that anyone could fit in. Especially if the authorities think you’re dead.”
“Yes.” She looked briefly wistful. “My career as an officer has come to a dead end. For the moment, anyway. I’ll get back to work as a mercenary one day, but for now, I need to stay hidden and unobtrusive.”
She stretched out, draping herself across me, warm and pleasant.
“I remember that night, Chuma. The way you took me, made me yours, made love to me.” A shudder passed through her. “You know I love to be treated like that. I may be an officer, and I may send warriors to die at my command, but deep inside I’ve also wanted to take time and do none of that. To leave it all behind. To give myself to a strong, handsome male. Be his absolutely, serve his every need, his every whim. Not forever, of course, but long enough for the tedium of command to wear away, long enough for me to feel free to return and give orders again. You don’t know how much a burden it is, Chuma... How much I’ve wanted to leave it behind, submit to another, and let him be my master. It happens to everyone in authority eventually, I think. In any event, it’s happened to me, and now you’re here.”
I frowned. “How does that follow? What are you saying?”
“Poor thick-skulled Chuma.” Her voice was light, amused. “I know you’re smarter than that. Listen — many, if not most, officers in Thae’lynn’s untidy horde have mistresses, concubines, boy- or girl-toys. It’s a common way of surviving here.”
I thought on this. “Find someone strong and powerful to be with, and they protect you?”
“Exactly. I don’t really need anyone to protect me, Chuma, but I do need to hide and not draw attention to myself. Why not combine my desires with my needs, Chuma? Why not become your concubine? Hide in plain sight? And I’ll be a fine concubine, Chuma. You’ll be giving me what I’ve wanted for some time — a strong male to make me his, help me get away from the pressures of command. I’ll wear your collar, Chuma — serve you, obey you, give you everything that you want. Be the concubine you’ve always dreamed of.”
I frowned. “Since you know that I’m not entirely what I seem on the surface, Herula, I should confess to you that I don’t dream of a concubine who serves me and obeys me. Frankly, that just seems like a great deal of work. I prefer independent women.”
She smiled, making her look as if she was about to bite me. “Yes, but we do need to keep me hidden, don’t we? Keep Thae’lynn from getting suspicious? What’s the best way to do that? Make me insignificant. Make me nothing. Make me your toy that no one will notice, or that everyone will assume you bought in a slave market somewhere. That seems like the easiest way of solving our dilemma, don’t you think?”
I suppressed a snort of laughter. “You have it all worked out, don’t you? I guess I made a favorable impression on you that night.”
“You did, my master,” she said. “I liked calling you that. I liked the way you touched me, and took me. I could tell that you cared for me while you were doing it. You tied me up and whipped me, and gave me all those things, but you seemed kind and loving while you did it.”
I sighed. “Herula, for the past several months, I’ve been trying to tell myself that I don’t care, that if I’m a heartless, monstrous bastard who uses women and takes what he wants and only cares for sex, then I should simply give in to my urges and do it. Now you tell me how much I care and how kind I am. What am I to think?”
She looked quizzical. “What happened to you, Chuma?”
I encircled her in my arms and held her close. She sighed as I did so.
“I’d met a woman before I met you,” I said. “Well, I’d met several women. It’s a long story, Herula.”
I did my best. I told her about Livia and Narisha and Daedora. I talked about Ushandra, Shu Li, Danni, Emeralis, Tatiana, and others. That last night with Tatiana still resonated in my mind — it had, after all, heralded the downfall of my own self-confidence and belief that I was doing the right thing.
“I realized that I hadn’t even thought about her. All I wanted was what was best for me. And I’ve been fighting with myself over it ever since. I decided that if I was such a bastard, I’d stop trying. Just use people. Take what I wanted. We’re here in the heart of darkness, after all — it’s easy to be evil if everyone around you is evil, too.”
Herula listened contemplatively.
“You want to think of yourself that way,” she said at last. “But I see more than that in you. I see a male who wants not to care, but who cares in spite of himself. A male I could truly care for. That is why I’m offering myself to you, Chuma. Well, also because it’s a good plan, but my thoughts are if we can further our cause and enjoy ourselves in the process, why not?”
I sighed again. “You’re a smart female. Beautiful, too. How can I argue?”
“Then I am your concubine,” she said. It sounded more like an order than a request, but then I was used to that kind of dichotomy among people I knew. She embraced me and relaxed, covering me like a warm, living blanket. “I will serve you well, my master.”
“I know you will,” I replied. It was probably what she wanted to hear.
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” she said, grinning, looking down on me. “Now, do you think you’re fit enough to make love to your new concubine?”
As usual, my cock had developed a mind of its own and had gotten big and hard as a rock while she was atop me, so she probably thought the question was rhetorical. I didn’t, but now that I was ready, her close proximity suddenly seemed far more exciting. She was warm, just heavy enough to be noticeable, her breasts pillowed warmly against my chest, and I could feel heat beginning to radiate from her belly and thighs.
“I suppose,” I said, “I should probably get into practice.”
With that, I slid one hand behind her head and drew her to me, feeling our muzzles touch. Her mouth opened and our tongues intertwined, and for long minutes I tasted her. My hands caressed the softness of her full, black hair, then down the muscular reaches of her back, to the softness of her buttocks. I cupped them and pressed her against me, feeling my cock hard and insistent against her furred belly.
She began to moan softly and writhed against me, a warm blanket of moving fur and muscle. Her breasts rubbed gently against my chest and her fingers intertwined into my mane, alternately pulling and stroking.
“Oh, yes,” she said softly, licking at my ear, and nibbling her way down my face. “Such a powerful male you are. I so want to belong to you.”
My reaction was to stroke harder, and press against her with my now-painfully erect cock. With one hand she reached down to touch it, reaching between us and encircling my organ with nimble fingers.
“You’re so big,” she said, adoringly. “I thought about this being inside me quite a bit after you left.”
“Glad I made such a good impression,” I replied.
“So am I.” She moved atop me, bare nipples sliding across my furred chest. Her breath came faster now, panting. Between my legs, she pulled my cock downward and slid it toward the center of the heat that radiated through her.
“Inside me,” she said, pleadingly. “Inside me now...”
I moved, feeling my cock slip suddenly between her thighs. Then she slid down, letting it move into her in a single, massive stroke. Her green eyes widened and a growl of satisfaction escaped her throat.
“Ohhhhhh, my masterful male,” she sighed. “Oh, my beautiful lion... My beloved owner... Ahhh...”
She rose up on her forearms above me, lovely black breasts bobbing like fruit on a branch. Forward and back she moved, my cock sliding in and out of her as she did so. I pressed my face down, taking one breast, then the other, in my hands, sucking and teasing at her nipples with my tongue.
“So rough, but so soft,” Herula cooed, moving faster, sliding me in and out of her with her own rhythm. “So long since I’ve had such a lovely organ inside me. Did you know that?”
“No,” I said, “but I suppose... military service... has its drawbacks...” I felt the heat rising inside me, as well. Her entire body moved up and down, fur sliding luxuriantly against mine.
“You’d better be careful,” I warned her, rising to meet her, my hands firmly upon her buttocks. “I’m going to come if you keep doing that.”
She frowned and looked askance. “That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you want to?” I asked.
“I am,” she said, her voice strained. “Don’t worry about me... I... Oh, Chuma...”
I gritted my teeth, feeling the heat rise higher, almost irresistibly. I was determined to hold back until she came, but it was a near-run thing.
“Yes,” she gasped, riding up and down, head thrown back, breasts swinging like twin pendulums, tail lashing. “Yes! Chuma!”
I gritted my teeth, feeling the heat rise higher, almost irresistibly. I was determined to hold back until she came, but it was a near-run thing.
“Yes,” she gasped, riding up and down, head thrown back, breasts swinging like twin pendulums, tail lashing. “Yes! Chuma! YEEEEESSSSSS!”
She writhed against me, rising up and down with such force I feared she would hurt herself. Still she came, shaking and crying out, and in the midst of her climatic convulsions, looked down at me and spoke earnestly.
“You come, Chuma,” she panted. “You come for me. Come in me. Come all over inside me...”
“I...” My voice cracked. “I will... Oh, Herula... I’m...”
I didn’t finish the sentence, but you can probably guess what I was going to say. Lightning shot through my body and my pent-up climax exploded into her, contracting violently. I held her, but she was strong and kept up, thrusting me in and out of her, as the orgasmic height of our lovemaking seized both of us. At last, the explosion passed, and she collapsed atop me, legs splayed on either side of my hips, my semi-erect cock still inside her, my seed and her juices mixing freely, slathering our thighs and stomachs. I didn’t care.
“Herula,” I said, softly, “I may not be the type who normally keeps concubines, but...”
She looked at me. Her eyes were glazed and sleepy. “But what, lover?”
“But I think you can be my concubine for as long as you want.”
She grinned and that, and collapsed, falling to sleep in seconds.
Well, I thought, I’ve certainly fallen into it again, haven’t I?
Looking at Herula, sleeping peacefully beside me, I realized that I didn’t mind terribly.
“Is there anything better,” Thae’lynn wondered aloud, “than planning the downfall of your enemies, the overthrow of civilization, and the triumph of absolute and utter wickedness, while getting shagged all to hell? Oh, yes, lover... That’s good...”
Behind her, his thick cock pressing into Thae’lynn, filling her completely, Mazzor grunted.
“Glad to be of service once more, Lady,” he said. He was a daemon, and in his day he’d have been one of the most terrifying. Since losing his way home and being stranded in Thystra, he’d lost some of his luster, but remained a frightening, powerful creature nonetheless. His wings brushed the ceiling of Thae’lynn’s bedchamber as he thrust in and out, and his nightmare-dragonish face was contorted with a savage pleasure that some might have mistaken for bloodlust.
“Ah! That was a good one, lover,” Thae’lynn said. She was a harmonious collection of curves and swellings, an ebon-skinned confection of equal parts lust, greed, cunning and perversion, every available piece of flesh pierced by jingling, silvery rings and studs, transforming her into living art, a masterwork of pleasure and pain in a single body. Her silver-white hair, long enough now to hang past her buttocks, was woven into a single thick braid, coiled on the bed as she rose to meet her lover’s thrusts.
And the two were not alone. Sherynia and Thae’lynn’s favorite toy, Yawesha’ae, sat naked on the floor, watching with awe as Mazzor’s massive prick pounded into the dark elf. Beside them sat a large, ruby-studded silver goblet that radiated a tangible aura of enchantment.
“You two aren’t here just to watch,” Thae’lynn commented. “We’re to eventually discuss practical matters, but I thought an enthusiastic little fuck-session might help get us in the right mood.”
“A fine idea,” Sherynia said. “What would you have us do?”
“Such obedient pets you’ve become,” Thae’lynn said, smiling, as Mazzor continued his tireless efforts from behind, grunting and snarling. She pointed to a low table with a black box sitting atop it.
“Open that. There’s a toy in there you need to learn to use, Sherynia. Yawesha’ae told me she was quite eager to help in your education, didn’t you, dear?”
Yawesha’ae nodded obediently.
“Yes, mistress,” she said. She was pierced like Thae’lynn, though nowhere near as much — her nostril, ears, lips, nipples and navel sported bright metallic adornments, and each of her shaven labia bore a single ring, linked by a fine length of chain. She was completely hairless, her head an ebony dome, her pubis a fine, delicate black mound. Her eyes were wide and violet-colored, regarding her mistress with absolute devotion.
Sherynia looked at the box matter-of-factly. She was a dusky-skinned woman with oversized almond-shaped eyes. These eyes were regrettably tired and blurry-looking from excessive indulgence in dreamweed and other intoxicants, but she retained a fair amount of her old air of authority.
Slowly she opened the black box, and her eyes widened in surprise, then jumped back as a scuttling, spider-like thing sprang out of the box and sat, quivering, on the edge of the table.
“It’s mine,” Thae’lynn said, languorously. “But you can borrow it.” She chuckled, then gasped loudly as Mazzor delivered a powerful thrust inside her.
“You should concentrate on the matter at hand, my lover,” Mazzor growled. “Else I will have to do something to regain your attention.”
Thae’lynn groaned, then sighed, grinning. “Truly? And what would that be.” She looked over at Sherynia. The black thing had scuttled up her arm and now sat on her shoulder. It resembled nothing less than an insectile frame with six long legs supporting an oversized phallus. The thick organ waved back and forth, as if searching for something.
“It wants to be inside you, sister,” Thae’lynn told her. “Let it crawl down to that lovely pussy of yours, and I think you’ll get some idea of how to use it.”
Sherynia looked dubious, but let the thing move down her body, convulsing slightly as it scrambled across her erect nipples.
“Oh!” she said, softly. “Is it...?”
“Just let it do its job, dearest little slut,” Thae’lynn said.
“Enough,” Mazzor snarled. “I’ll teach you to ignore your lover.”
With that, he pulled his enormous organ from Thae’lynn’s ring-studded cunt and slipped it upward, between her buttocks.
“Oh, lover...” Thae’lynn gasped as Mazzor’s cock slipped between her ass cheeks, then thrust without stopping between them. “Ahhhhh... Oh, gods, lover... You’re so rough...”
“I’ve never heard you complain,” Mazzor replied, pulling out, then pounding into Thae’lynn’s ass again.
“Mmmm... no,” Thae’lynn replied. She fell forward, face buried into the soft cushions, thrusting her ass upward to meet the daemon’s powerful cock. “No complaints... Oh, that hurts, lover. Hurts so very, very much...”
As Thae’lynn gave herself up to the none-too-gentle ministrations of her daemon, Sherynia watched with a combination of horror and fascination as the automaton crawled between her legs, growing even larger, a blunt protrusion rising from its ventral side as it wrapped its legs around her thighs.
“Oh,” she said again, feeling the blunt protrusion grown and slide between her labia, and into the overflowing depths of her cunt. A moment later, she lay on her back, a heavy black cock rising from her thighs.
Wordlessly, Yawesha’ae moved astride her, rings jingling, presenting her shaven cunt-lips to the mercenary woman’s mouth. She lay full-length against Sherynia, hands sliding around the heavy black phallus. With a sudden shudder, Sherynia relaxed, giving herself up to the dark elf’s attentions, licking at the shiny black cunt lips, tentatively running her tongue between them, then at last spreading them apart with her fingers, revealing the moist pinkish flesh within. She rubbed her face against the delicate flesh, seeking out Yawesha’ae’s pierced clitoris with her lips and tongue.
Between her thighs, Yawesha’ae was busy with the black artificial cock, running her tongue up and down its length with single-minded determination, leaving it hot and slick with her spittle. Sherynia sighed as she felt the sensations move through her body, as if the strange device was actually part of her. Inside her, the thing expanded, filling her, pulsing and moving in time with the dark elf’s attentions.
“Oh, she loves it, doesn’t she?” Thae’lynn asked. Her voice was stretched tight like a harp string about to break. “She loves getting sucked off by my little play-toy, doesn’t she?”
Behind her, Mazzor snarled again, and sank his cock deeper into the tightness of her anus, eliciting another cry of pleasure and pain. The bastard demon could change his dimensions, Thae’lynn knew — she liked it best when he tested her limits, to see if he could get her to beg him to stop. Thus far, she never had, accepting whatever he chose to give her. This time, she thought, he was pushing her closer than he ever had, but she refused to submit, refused to tell him to stop, instead taking the pounding of his monstrous cock without complaint.
“Fuck it,” she growled, thrusting her face once more into the cushions, fists clenched, nails digging into her palms. “Fuck that ass, you fucking animal.”
“I’m an animal, then?” Mazzor demanded. “A great, fucking animal?”
“Yes,” Thae’lynn gasped as she felt the club-like cock pound into her again. “Yes, you’re a fucking animal, with a big, fucking, monster cock... Fill me up, you fucking animal. Fill up my ass... Fuck me hard...”
Mazzor roared wordlessly and rose up, carrying her with him, his oversized hands gripping her hips. Now he stood, wings brushing the ceiling chamber, holding the dark elf woman like a toy, pulling her to him, then thrusting her away and just as quickly pulling her back.
Thae’lynn cried out with each thrust, but still endured the ride. She laced her fingers behind her neck, holding herself at right angles to her lover’s heavy cock.
Hold on... The stress was almost unbearable, but still she let the daemon toy savagely with her, pounding his great organ in and out of her asshole, again and again. At last, he seized her by the breasts and pulled her to him, still standing, and then bounded her up and down on his cock, heedless of her cries and her writhing body.
Thae’lynn gasped. “Hurt me, you animal. Make it hurt... Yessssssss....”
The tireless pace of their fucking seemed to spur Sherynia and Yawesha’ae to their own heights of excess. The Vendhayan was now on top, the dark elf’s legs wrapped around her waist as she thrust into her cunt with the big black phallus. Yawesha’ae gasped and cried out wordlessly, and the two women’ kissed and licked at one another, the dark elven woman’s twin bars glinting against the rich pink of her tongue.
By now, Mazzor was on his back, wings spread beneath him as Thae’lynn rode him up and down, his oversized prick still burying itself between her buttocks. As she did so, Mazzor’s thick fingers tugged at her pierced nipples, stretching her breasts, dragging them down, triggering even more intense cries from the ebon-skinned woman. For her part, Thae’lynn was also busy, her fingers flicking at her clitoris, pulling on the rings that crowded her labia.
“Going to come for me?” she demanded, raking Mazzor’s chest with her nails. “Going to come yet? I’ve already come at least ten times...”
“Good,” Mazzor rumbled. “Then you won’t have any problems sucking me until I come.”
Thae’lynn grinned. “None at all, my lover.” She glanced over at her two companions. “Yawesha’ae! Suck that bitch off while I suck Mazzor... Let’s see who comes first.”
Dutifully, Sherynia withdrew and stood, allowing Yawesha’ae to kneel in front of her, and wrap her lips around the artificial cock. The dark elf’s lips stretched to accommodate the organ, and in a moment, it was sliding into her mouth, deeper with each thrust. Sherynia’s hands stroked Yawesha’ae’s shaven head, urging her to swallow more and more.
“Mmmm, perfect,” Thae’lynn said, then sighed as she enveloped Mazzor’s thick cock, feeling it slide down her throat. Out it slid, and she took a breath, then swallowed again.
The two women sucked in silence for a time, their pace increasing, the twin cocks sliding down their throats in perfect harmony. Mazzor growled, and Sherynia sighed, feeling the sensations of oncoming orgasm spread through her, shared in some ineluctable magical manner with the black cock-thing between her thighs.
“Close, my love?” Thae’lynn asked. “Almost there?”
“You will see,” Mazzor replied.
“No, I think Yawesha’ae will see,” the dark elf replied. “Come, little fuck-pet. Finish Mazzor off. I will finish sucking your lover.”
Yawesha’ae turned her head, a string of saliva trailing to Sherynia’s cock. She smiled wickedly, then crawled over, allowing Thae’lynn to hand over Mazzor’s spit-slick organ. She grinned, then immediately began to let the daemon thrust into her mouth.
Thae’lynn watched approvingly, then crawled to take her place at Sherynia’s black cock.
“It is a wonderful device, is it not?” she asked, stroking it with both hands. “So big, so smooth, so powerful... It’s as if it’s part of you, isn’t it?”
Sherynia nodded, feverishly. Sweat beaded her forehead, pasting black ringlets to her flesh.
“It’s like being a man,” she gasped.
“Only better,” Thae’lynn said, “since you can stop being a man whenever you want. Now, feel this, you slut... Learn what it’s like to come in a woman’s mouth.”
With that she began to suck again, and gasped pleasurably as Sherynia grabbed her hair and thrust the cock between her lips.
`”That’s it,” Thae’lynn said, softly, then swallowed the cock again. She slid it out and looked up at Sherynia. “Call me a whore now.”
Sherynia frowned for a moment, then spoke.
“Suck it, whore,” she said. “Suck my cock like the filthy whore you are.”
“Perfect,” Thae’lynn sighed, and sucked more. Then she stroked the cock with her hands. “I’m your whore, mistress. That’s how you should treat your lovers, Sherynia. Like whores and sluts and cunts... Yes...” She sucked some more. “Are you coming?”
“Yes,” Sherynia replied. “I feel it. I’ve never... never felt anything... Oh, you fucking whore... I’m coming...”
Thae’lynn opened her mouth and teased the underside of the cock with her tongue, and was rewarded by an explosion of hot white liquid that splashed across her lips and into her mouth.
“Ohhhhh,” she sighed, swallowing and licking. “Like it, you little slut? Like coming in my face?”
“Love it,” Sherynia replied. “I love coming on you...”
Of course, Yawesha’ae and Mazzor weren’t far behind, and moments later the daemon unleashed a huge, orgasmic roar, unleashing a flood of semen across Yawesha’ae’s breasts. The dark elf laughed, grinning, and smeared the white fluid across herself as another gush of semen splattered her face and hairless head.
“So much easier to clean up without hair,” Thae’lynn commented, reaching for the ruby chalice. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink.”
Thae’lynn lay against Mazzor, slick with oil and the fluids of her partners. Sherynia and Yawesha’ae lay tangled together nearby, staring at her dreamily. She breathed heavily, wondering if perhaps she could manage the energy for one last round of orgasms.
“When is the time, my lover?” she asked. “When will you work your enchantments? I’m eager to begin, to see you and your minions spread havoc across the world once more.”
Mazzor rumbled and his face twisted into what might have been a smile.
“Tomorrow both your moons are dark,” he said. “It is the time of greatest portent for the magic I cast. Your priests are consecrating the ground as we lie here. Tomorrow I will make the gate. Then you and your army can march. To victory.”
“To death and suffering,” Thae’lynn sighed. “To the end of all things and the eternal pain of the living.”
“I love it,” Mazzor said, his voice dropping to an informal whisper, speaking like one lover to another, “when you talk dirty.”
She was interrupted by a faint knock at the door and, swearing loudly, she rose and opened it.
“Well,” she said, “as I live and breathe, if it isn’t Colonel Ta’loren, chief interrupter of his mistress’ most intimate moments. What have you brought me this time, Colonel? Requisitions for extra boot-laces?”
Ta’loren swallowed, trying not to look at the tangled mass of sweat and come-soaked bodies that lay beyond the door.
“Lady,” he said, hesitantly, “your priests have sent word requesting your presence at the sanctification ceremony. They will be performing sacrifice at the summoning circle that you and Lord Mazzor requested they build.”
Thae’lynn rolled her eyes. “Can’t you see I’m busy?” she demanded. “Tell those mushroom-eating, toad-licking, weed-smoking lunatics to go ahead without me. We will be there when it counts.”
Ta’loren nodded, looking distinctly relieved, saluted and turned away.
Thae’lynn slammed the door in disgust.
“That fucking idiot,” she grumbled. “If I didn’t need him so much I’d have to kill him. Perhaps after the war.”
Her lovers looked up at her, eyes eager.
“So,” she said, trying to recapture some of the burning, lustful joy she had so recently felt, “who wants to fuck me some more?”
Marshal Van Leuter surveyed the remnants of Litharna’s once-proud army. A few thousand sad, dispirited footmen, a handful of cannon, and a bare regiment or two of knights, all in battered armor with underfed, blown mounts. These were the last defenders of humanity.
In the days since his return from the battles in the Pinewood, Van Leuter had managed to rally the nation’s remaining troops. All the same, it seemed very little, and almost useless against the advancing enemy.
The gods have saved me for a reason, Van Leuter thought, then corrected himself. Kybor has saved me. Memories of crawling from beneath his dead horse and surveying a battlefield of the slain returned to him, and of his long, lonely journey through the devastated realm, fighting the undead and other creatures left behind by the elves and their allies. He had been too late to save Prince Otto at Anvil Plain, but as the Litharnan refugees streamed from the battle, he had finally made contact with them and put together at least a token defense.
“Our calls for aid have gone unanswered,” said Sir Karlus. The veteran knight led one of the last unbloodied units of horsemen, all fresh and gleaming beneath the Litharnan royal banner. “We know not whether the Empire has even received our plea. The Nordskappers march south, but they will not get here in time. Some Lastland tribes have declared for us, but some still revere the elves and will not fight them. Many suggest that we retreat and leave Vosgraad to the enemy.”
Van Leuter’s heart fell at the words.
“That is what logic dictates, indeed,” he said, “and our great realm was founded on logic and reason. But I cannot stand aside and see our people slaughtered or turned into shambling beasts at the touch of a necromancer’s hand. Here we stand, Karlus. And here, if necessary, we die.”
“Brave words,” grumbled Count Brassus, a burly, bearded man with no small amount of tough northern blood in his veins. “Yet what is the good of falling in an unequal struggle? If we fall back now we might be able to join with the Nordskappers and make a stand in the Rodskalls.”
“Or be slaughtered by dragons and flying daemons on the way,” said Karlus. “The enemy is summoning fell creatures to send against us. If we stand here we might buy time for our people to flee Vosgraad, and give the Nordskappers and Lastlanders time to respond. If the Empire sends troops, they may all be able to join and fight while the elves are still recovering from the battle with us.”
Van Leuter nodded. “I say we stand here, at the gates of Vosgraad, then retreat to the city for a siege. If we hold up the enemy long enough, more troops may yet arrive.”
“Bah!” Brassus spat contemptuously. “I’ll not risk my men in such vain defiance.”
“I’ll not order you to stay, your grace,” Van Leuter said. “If you wish, you may take your troops north and link up with the Nordskappers. They will need good scouts and intelligence on the enemy.”
Brassus nodded. “Though I question the wisdom of staying, I wish you and your men luck, Marshal. Kybor ride with you.”
“Kybor ride with us all,” Van Leuter said. “And good hunting.”
Brassus saluted and whirled, marching from Van Leuter’s tent. Outside, the day was leaden gray, unseasonably grim and cold.
“This is summer, isn’t it?” Karlus complained. “Why are we freezing? Is it more of the enemy’s trickery?”
“I’ll warrant,” Van Leuter agreed. “We must not let it stay us in our determination to meet the enemy. Have you information on the best place to defend?”
Karlus nodded. Outside a single droplet of rain smacked against the tent.
“The Field of Scythes,” he said, pointing to a parchment map on Van Leuter’s conference table. “There is ample cover for our archers in the wheatfields, and our flanks will be secure, the left against Lake Kalmach, the right against the Prizard Heights. It’s little enough against dragons, I fear.”
“Place the artillery here,” Van Leuter said, pointing. “In the rocks along our right. They’ll be hard to dig out, and they might be able to take some shots at those damned flying lizards. Put what priests you can with them. We’ll be needing more than a few miracles before this is done.”
Outside the rain came faster, and the wind began to blow, shaking the tent.
“I obey,” Karlus said. “Kybor save us, it’s all I can think to do.”
Van Leuter was about to reply when he heard the screams.
“What...?” he began, then turned and hurried to the tent entrance. Outside, he was confronted by a scene from nightmares.
What fell upon his troops was not rain. Dark, sticky, and warm... He looked down at his hand and saw it running with crimson.
Blood fell from the sky. A torrent of crimson washed over the camp, soaking tents and drenching the soldiers.
“The necromancer,” Karlus said, fearfully as the surrounding Litharnans cried out in terror. “He sends this against us.”
“It’s nothing,” Van Leuter said. “It’s to unnerve us, frighten us. That’s all.”
“I’m afraid,” Karlus said, watching nearby troops begin to flee, or fall to the ground, paralyzed with horror, “that it is succeeding.”
“All ashore that’s going ashore!” Livia bellowed, as two dozen longships grounded, and a black tide of warriors swarmed onto the Litharnan beaches. They were a bizarre assortment — human corsairs, orcish freebooters and Xeshite refugees, all fighting for plunder, vengeance, or simply the fun of it. The gold that they had taken from the wizard’s tomb in Xesh had bought an impressive force of cutthroats and warriors. The weapons and other plunder were also being distributed, though Narisha insisted on keeping most of the powerful magical items close to hand. Livia herself carried an old Imperial wizard’s staff set with glowing gems and inscribed with protective spells.
Li the tiger-woman had, true to form, refused to take any of the plunder, magical or otherwise, preferring to fight with her twin sabers. She carried nothing else, not even clothing, but her muscular wolfen bodyguard kept any admirers at arms’ length. Livia sighed, thinking of Li and the moments they had shared on shipboard. Right now, though her feelings for the Kaitian were nothing short of adoration, all her carnal desires appeared to have vanished. Perhaps it was the violence that lay ahead.
The landings continued — there was no one to oppose them. The elves and undead had scoured the country clean, killing or driving off the humans who lived here. The port of Tarnstranz was in ruins; the smoke from a thousand fires climbed to the horizon a few leagues to the east. The place was sure to be crawling with undead, and Livia wasn’t going to put her forces through that trauma again.
Narisha bounded ashore beside her. The demon-woman seemed possessed by warrior-spirits’ her eyes were slitted yellow and feline, her fangs were longer, and a tracery of black stripes covered her crimson skin along with her intricate network of dark tattoos. An enchanted sword inscribed with unreadable runes hung from her side, another item from the Necrotian horde.
“The scouts were right,” she said. “No opposition yet. What’s the next step?”
“We meet up with our allies,” Livia said. “Squitter and Udo need to contact their friends and relations, and call in some favors.”
“We’re setting up a crystal network for communication,” Narisha said. “The rat and the dwarf are still aboard the Conqueror trying to make contact. They’ll let us know when and where.”
“Very well.” Livia looked inland, toward war and blood and uncertainty. “Finish getting the troops ashore.”
Livia’s communications crystal glowed, revealing the image of a tatty-furred, emaciated-looking ratling.
“Auntie Chmeek!” Squit cried. “It’s Squitter! Remember me?”
“I remember about fifty Squitters,” she replied, irritably. “Use your proper name and I might recognize you.”
Squit sighed and unleashed a mass of squeals and chirps.
“Ahhhhhhh,” replied Chmeek. “I was wondering where you’d gotten to. Figured you were dead or something. Like most of our relatives. So what’s up? You just calling your aunt to say ‘hello’ or do you want something from me? I’ll bet it’s the last... No one ever just calls me to say ‘hello.’ You watch ’em be born, help raise ’em, try to teach ’em the basics of civilized living, how to crawl through sewers, how to find the choicest garbage, how to keep the monkeys from catching ’em, and what do they do? Go off adventuring in the world and forget that ol’ Auntie Chmeek ever existed. Unless they want something. Well, what do you want, youngster? Money? Food? A place to stay?”
Squit shook his head and groomed his whiskers in annoyance.
“None of that, Auntie,” he said. “I need help. You know. Friends. Fighters. A few thousand of ’em if possible.”
Chmeek shuddered and groomed herself in turn. “What the hell are you talking about, boy? Fighters? We’re not fighters. We’re sewer-crawling, scavenging vermin, and no one’ll ever tell you different.”
“Well maybe they will if you help me, Auntie.” Squit leaned forward, eyes bright, talking enthusiastically. “The elves, they’re kickin’ everyone’s asses. If they beat the monkeys in Litharna, they’ll come for us... At least they don’t think the monkeys are animals or nothin’. They think we’re just... What didja call us? Scavenging vermin? Maybe if we help the monkeys, then we’ll be able to live with ‘em better and not crawl around in sewers anymore. Maybe the monkeys’ll think we’re civilized, not animals or the like.”
“Don’t count on it, nephew,” Chmeek replied. “But you got a point’ these shaved monkeys’ll be easier to avoid than the tree-huggers. The elves got magic, and they think we’re lower’n dirt. At least the humans are dumb enough to stay hidden from.”
“Yeah, well that’s one way of lookin’ at it. There’s a big battle comin’. The monkeys are gonna fight the ear-boys outside Vosgraad. We gotta get there in time to help ‘em. Hell, if nothin’ else the humans’ll owe us one.”
Chmeek shrugged. “What the hell? What’s a few more ratlings, more or less? I think you got a couple thousand relatives that’ll come along just so they can get a decent meal and maybe get to sneak into Vosgraad. ’Sides, they don’t like elves any more’n the rest of us.”
Squitter squeaked happily. “Great! Where do we meet up?”
“You tell me, nephew. They’ll be ready to go in a day or so.”
Night was falling as the last of the tents went up. Narisha and Daedora stood beside her on a low hill, surveying their surroundings.
“I’m surprised Udo had enough brains left to operate the crystal,” Narisha said, “but he got through to his stunty little relatives. Seems they were already planning to march against the elves on their own, figuring to die gloriously against their ancient enemies. They were disappointed to learn that they’d have to share the glory with the rest of us.”
“They didn’t object to fighting alongside orcs?” Daedora asked. “I’d think they’d rather die.”
“They would,” Narisha said. “But apparently if a relative calls, they have to come help him no matter what, even if he’s a drunken halfwit like Udo. Pretty decent arrangement if you ask me.”
“We’ll all be meeting up outside Willhaven,” Livia said. “The elves bypassed the city on their march north, but left a small army of undead and vampires to lay siege. If we can break the siege, we’ll probably be able to persuade the city garrison to accompany us.”
“The more the merrier,” Narisha said. “Haven’t seen a war this decent in years, have you?”
“I don’t consider it decent,” Livia said. “I do consider it necessary, though. We have an obligation.”
“When did you start thinking in terms of obligation’?” Narisha asked. “Is this part of that new leaf you’re turning over?”
“Perhaps,” Livia replied. “Perhaps I’m starting to see that debt that we owe our world and our fellow creatures. That one Wulf keeps talking about.”
“You’ll be an example to my people,” Daedora said. “When this war is over, when Thae’lynn has been overthrown, I’ll try to teach them what you’ve taught me.”
Livia faltered, gaping at the black-skinned elf.
“I’ve taught you?” Incredulity rocked her. “What have I ever done that sets anyone an example?”
“You undervalue yourself, lady,” Daedora replied. “Perhaps that’s why you’ve been the way you’ve been.”
Narisha made a disgusted sound. “You know, demons don’t waste their time with a lot of introspective, deep emotional crap,” she said. “We just do. We don’t worry about why.”
“That can be an advantage,” Daedora agreed. “Especially in these days. But I think you need to appreciate what Livia is going through now. We’re approaching a moment of truth against the elves. She’s approaching one with herself.”
“Thanks for spelling it out so succinctly,” Narisha said. “I never would have figured that out on my own.”
“No need to be touchy,” Livia said. “The world is changing. We’re all changing. I’m getting older myself, and I wonder whether I’m ever going to do anything lasting. All I’ve done until now has been selfish, thoughtless, uncaring. That has to change, or...” She faltered. “Or I don’t think I’ll be able to live with myself anymore.”
Narisha shook her head. “We all live with ourselves every day,” she said at last. “I don’t know why I put up with all your introspective bullshit, Livia. For all your talk about accepting others and understanding them you don’t seem to have the least understanding of yourself.” She turned and strode toward her tent. “Let me know when you’ve decided to stop torturing yourself and just want to live your life.”
Livia stared after her lover, her heart pounding.
“What did I do?” she wondered aloud. “Why is she being so difficult?”
Daedora looked contemplative. “Demons aren’t jealous by nature, at least not in the way humans or elves are. She never cared if you slept with others, did she?”
Livia shook her head. “She encouraged it. Wanted to know everything.”
“Just sex, however. Demons aren’t made like us... It’s not like them to be envious of sex or physical love. But now, Livia. Now you are feeling emotions, thinking of things beyond yourself and beyond Narisha. You’re having feelings that Narisha simply doesn’t understand. It frightens her, angers her. You’ve got to understand how her people are.”
“After all these years,” Livia said. “I thought I knew her and that she knew me. But we both have places inside us that neither of us want to see.”
“It’s the same with everyone,” Daedora said. “Sometimes you get to see those places, and you don’t feel the same afterward.”
Livia sighed and watched the camp.
“I’m puzzled,” Li admitted as another howl rose from a nearby cluster of orcs. “One would think that they’d never seen a naked female before.”
“I’m sure they’ve seen many,” Tanu replied, “but for some the novelty never wears off. Besides, I doubt any have seen one of your race before.”
Li shrugged. “Livia didn’t seem to think it was a good idea for me to inspect the orcish camp. I think she is overly cautious. They seem harmless.”
“Oh, they’re far from harmless, my mistress,” Tanu said. “I’ve fought them before. They are dogged, tenacious, and not terribly intelligent.”
“Now, now, Tanu... That’s just the sort of racial prejudice that this alliance is fighting against.” She frowned, looking at a group of orcs playing a game that seemed to involve attempting to stab their own hands with daggers. “Some of us are simply intelligent in different ways. Look at Captain Skrall.”
Tanu considered that. “The captain has his good points.”
“I know,” Li replied. “And he still seems to like me even if I won’t sleep with him. That at least is encouraging.”
The army, such as it was, had formed into a chaotic, if powerful force. After breaking the siege of Willhaven, they’d welcomed hundreds of human volunteers into their ranks. Skrall’s orcs and the Hillcleaver dwarves had arrived soon after that, each proclaiming its desire to set aside past differences in the interest of killing lots of elves. Just the same, the orcs and dwarves didn’t trust each other, and everyone was holding their breaths, waiting for the inevitable explosion that would tear the army apart. Li’s job was to try to prevent it, but it seemed like an impossible task.
The orcish encampment was laid out with an almost purposeful disorder. Orc clans, who would fight with each other when no one else was available, were clustered in fortified outposts, with sentries, barricades and even stake-lined pits and siege engines providing defenses. At the center of each was the chief’s tent, each decorated with banners, trophies, skulls, shields, and other barbaric icons. Songs, war chants and drunken shouts echoed from the camps, each seeking to outdo its rivals. Also, as Li passed each of the camps, a chorus of propositions, wolf whistles and lustful howls erupted. She wasn’t certain whether to be offended or flattered.
“I suppose they are admirable in their own way,” Tanu admitted. “They seem to be totally unaware of such things as pain and fear.”
“Making me grateful that they are on our side,” Li added. Ahead lay a camp that was more chaotic and sprawling than most. The chief’s tent was a virtual mansion constructed of hides and miscellaneous junk, with a massive banner portraying twin wolf’s heads above crossed spears. Skulls, bones, and other grisly trophies decorated the banner poles, and at the top was a massive fanged humanoid skull, which Li took to be a daemon of some kind.
“I believe we’ve found the Daemon Wolves,” Tanu said. “They were one of the more troublesome tribes back home in the Wilds.”
Li nodded. “And it seems they have an official welcoming committee.”
From the Daemon Wolf camp, a dark tide of staggering, shouting, leering orcs wove and tottered. Some carried bottles, others smoked large dreamweed bundles, still others munched on unidentifiable fungi. A small horde of goblins scurried after their larger cousins, delivering food and drink, wrestling with each other, and occasionally darting into the crowd to grab fallen loot.
“A fine looking collection, wouldn’t you say?” Li asked, making sure that her swords were easily accessible. The belt and baldric were annoying, interfering with the freedom of total nudity, but they were a necessary evil.
“No, I would not, mistress, but I agree they look dangerous.”
The orcs approached, shouting and gesturing obscenely. In the lead was a particularly fearsome-looking individual with a heavily-tattooed face and yellowed, jutting fangs. He glared at Li from beneath craggy brows, his black eyes glinting in the firelight. He wore a variety of armor pieces and a heavy black wolfskin cloak. At his side hung an oversized cutlass.
“Evenin’, ma’am,” he grunted. “What brings a naked cat-woman an’ her pet puppy to our camp tonight?”
Li met the orc’s gaze coolly. “The desire to see the orcish people in all their military splendor, of course,” she replied. “As we are to be allies, I’d like to see what qualities you and your folk bring to the battlefield.”
The orcs gathered behind the chieftain all whistled, stomped and made various exclamations like “Oooh!” and “Whoa! She’s got fangs!” in response, which seemed to annoy the big orc.
He glared. “You mock me, female. No one mocks Chief Garguk of the Daemon Wolves.”
“I do no such thing,” Li replied. “I speak the truth.”
“And you act as an emissary for those who would command us and order us around like common goblins?” Garguk spat. “You look more suited to be my concubine and decorate my bedchamber.”
Behind Garguk, another chorus of “Ooh” and “Wow!” and “You tell her, Chiefie!” rose up.
Tanu stepped up beside Li. “I am honor-bound to defend this female from all who would do her harm,” he said, hand on his sword hilt. “You would do well to watch your actions.”
Another roar echoed from the watching orcs, but Li placed her hand on Tanu’s shoulder.
“Stand fast, my love,” she said. “I will defend myself against this one.”
Garguk’s eyes registered a faint glimmer of respect.
“You do not need the Wolfen to fight for you?” he asked.
“No,” Li replied, indicating the sheathed swords at her sides. “I can fight for myself quite well.”
Garguk exploded unexpectedly into action, stepping back and drawing his cutlass. The blade was a monster, almost as large as Li herself. “Then defend yourself, female, or serve as my slave!” he roared.
Instantly, Li’s swords were out and she was leaping into the air, avoiding the first sweep of the orc’s cutlass.
“How can I be your slave if I’m sliced in half?” she asked, ducking another blow and striking at Garguk, first with one blade, then the other. Lightning Strikes Twice.
“You don’t know orcs very well, do you?” Garguk replied, blocking one blow and turning aside the second with a gauntleted hand.
“Well played, Sir Orc,” she said, dodging back and letting her opponent lumber after her. “You’ve the strength and I’ve the speed. Who will prevail?”
Garguk said nothing, but aimed a mighty, overhead blow at her. She barely dodged the blow, and it struck the flinty ground, sparks showering.
As Garguk drew back for another blow, Li gathered herself and leaped, soaring above the orc’s hear, tumbling through space, to land behind him. The Agile Viper.
Then she was on his back, her sword held to Garguk’s throat.
“A fine show, Chieftain Garguk,” she hissed. “But I hold the upper hand. Throw down your sword and live.”
Garguk’s expression changed, breaking into a massive, jagged-fanged grin. With a clang, his cutlass fell to the ground.
“You have bested me, girl,” he said, his voice surprisingly happy and bright. “A fine show.”
Behind them, the gathered orcs broke into spontaneous applause and cheering.
Tanu frowned, puzzled.
“You approve?” he asked as Li released Garguk and the orc retrieved his sword.
“Of course,” Garguk replied. “Every new commander’s gotta be tested, after all.”
The orcs crowded around Li, laughing and clapping her heartily on the back. The mindless lust that they had regarded her with before was nowhere to be seen.
“Commander?” Tanu asked.
Garguk nodded. “Hell, we’ll never decide on a leader on our own. We just figure that if she can beat the biggest badass of the lot of us, she should tell us all what do. All the other tribes’ll fall in line... If we’d picked an orc, they’d have all started fighting again. Now we got a real badass leader, and she’s a cute, naked chick to boot.”
Tanu shook his head. “Your kind baffles me.”
“You ain’t exactly an open book yourself, Rover,” Garguk replied, then waved as a trio of orcs approached, leading a gigantic black wolf on a chain. He turned to Li. “Okay, babe. Here’s your reward.”
Li looked curiously at the wolf, who sniffed at her with no little suspicion.
“Reward?” she asked. “The wolf you mean?”
“Yes. The wolf,” Garguk said, testily, “He’s the senior pup from my wolf’s litter. He’s yours. His name is Black Fang.”
“‘Ey, chief,” complained a small orc nearby, “I thought youse said his name was ‘Mister Fluffy’.”
Garguk batted the smaller orc with the back of his hand, eliciting a brief yelp.
“Black. Fang,” he said, slowly. “His name is Black Fang.”
Li grinned. “You give a pet wolf to a cat?”
Garguk shrugged and looked at Tanu. “Why not? You’ve got one already. What’s the harm in one more?”
Tanu looked annoyed but didn’t respond.
Li approached Black Fang. The wolf seemed a little confused at the presence of an enormous, bipedal tiger, and stiffened as she touched his mane, but didn’t object.
“He’ll take a while to get used to you, general,” Garguk said, “but you should be able to ride him once we go after the elfies.”
Li bowed graciously. “My thanks to you and your people, Garguk,” she said. “You are indeed honorable.”
Garguk looked surprised. “Now, I know no one’s ever called us that before.”
“I wonder why,” Tanu muttered softly.
The neighboring dwarven camp was, in contrast, a place of order and discipline. Laid out in arrow-straight lines, with strategically-spaced guardposts and artillery positions, the Hillcleavers’ temporary home was almost painful to look at after the orcs’ teeming hive.
“The short ones appear to have their own emissary,” Tanu said, noting a column of dwarves marching smartly toward them. Four particularly strapping specimens, their beards grey and intricately braided, bore a heavy platform, upon which perched an old but vital-looking dwarf, resplendent in gold-chased armor and a plain iron helm.
Black Fang bristled slightly at the dwarves’ approach, but Tanu laid a hand on the great wolf’s head. It looked up at Tanu, then at Li with large, trusting eyes, then relaxed.
Ahead of the throne marched two young dwarves in red and yellow livery. As Li and Tanu watched, fascinated, the placed large trumpets to their lips and blew, producing a horrific cacophony.
“Let all attend!” shouted the first, lowering his trumpet.
“The High Chieftain Thjorkill Hillcleaver approacheth!” bellowed the second.
“Slayer of daemons!” continued the first.
“Battler of goblins!” shouted the second.
“Forger of weapons!”
“Defender of the weak!”
The old dwarf seemed about to speak when the heralds began shouting again.
“Avenger of the helpless!”
“Master of the Most Ancient Axe of Retribution!”
“Wielder of the Hammer of Thall!”
“Beloved of the Sacred Queen Davra!”
The two paused for an instant, and again the dwarf began to speak.
“Ruler of the Ancient Halls of Splendor!” cried the first herald.
“Bearer of the Crown of the Mountains!” roared the second.
“SHUT UP!” thundered the dwarf-chief, glaring angrily.
The heralds looked somewhat offended, but finally fell silent.
Thjorkill rubbed his temples, irritably.
“You are the one called Shu Li?” he asked.
Li nodded and bowed. “I am. And this is my attendant, Tanu.”
“You honor us,” said Thjorkill. He glanced at the two heralds who were now taking up positions on either side of his throne. “Now, if my loyal heralds have nothing else to say...”
The heralds shook their heads.
“I’ve a matter to discuss with you.”
“Of course,” Li said. “I come as emissary of Lady Livia and her allies.”
“As well you should,” Thjorkill said. “Our cousin Udo has spoken of you. Quite extensively, in fact.”
Li glanced at the ranks of dwarves escorting Thjorkill and fancied she noted a few lustful stares, much like those Udo usually fixed her with.
They speak of ancient honor and tradition, yet they gape as easily as the orcs, she thought. It’s just as well, I suppose.
“We have been informed of your honorable acts in the camp of the orcs,” Tjorkill continued. “You bested the orcish chief in single combat, but spared his life.”
“I did, my lord,” Li said. “He was an honorable being, and an ally.”
Thjorkill nodded, clearly impressed.
“My advisors have told me that our people have never served as allies to the orcish people. Many of them oppose marching in this army. They also oppose putting ourselves under human command. However, as my people have no quarrel with your race, and you have proven yourself worthy, we are willing to join the orcs in proclaiming you our leader for the duration of this conflict.”
Tanu suppressed a chuckle, then looked at Li.
“I am... honored, my lord dwarf,” Li said, carefully. “I accept your proposal with humility and gratitude.”
Thjorkill’s weathered face broke into a smile at this, and he turned to the dwarven warriors who escorted him.
“She has consented!” he said. “All hail the High Lady Shu Li!”
The dwarves clashed their weapons on their round, painted shields.
“All hail!” they shouted in response.
Two guardsmen hastened forward, bearing a massive, double-headed dwarven axe etched with intricate knotwork.
“Take this ancient weapon as a sign of your new status, lady,” said one.
“It was borne by the Forge-King Knorri, countless generations ago.”
Li accepted the axe. It was heavier than she was used to.
“My thanks,” she replied. “I will give it to my attendant for the time.”
Tanu accepted the axe, looking at it with admiring eyes.
“Now,” Thjorkill said, “perhaps the lady would consent to join us in our command tent for a barrel of fine ale!”
Li and Tanu exchanged glances. It would, she thought, probably be a terrible insult to turn down the dwarf-lord’s hospitality.
“We would be honored,” she said.
Lord Cammon the Flayer read the dispatch with growing concern. His adjutant, Sir Makkon, shared his worried expression.
“You have verified the accuracy of this report?” Cammon demanded, throwing the scroll to the floor.
“I have, my lord,” Makkon replied. “The dark ones are, indeed, opening dimensional nexi and appear to be summoning trans-spatial entities to this location.”
“Speak plainly, you popinjay,” Cammon spat back. “You mean that the dark elves are summoning daemons again?”
Makkon nodded. “They are, my lord. And may well blunder into the nexi portals that give access to the serpentai.”
Cammon’s face remained impassive, but his yellow eyes began to burn with suppressed rage.
“Bring the Crown of the Outer Darks,” he said. “I am summoning the lords to council.”
Makkon’s eyes widened. “My lord? Do you contemplate...”
“War, Makkon,” Cammon snarled. “I contemplate war.”
I strode along with as much arrogance and dignity as I could muster. I’d put on the best clothes I could find — a blue tunic and a headband to keep my mane out of my eyes, trying to at least keep up appearances in the middle of Thae’lynn’s chaotic horde. Not that it made all that much difference to my troops.
“By the gods!” cried a familiar voice. “Our leader looks more delicious every time I see him!”
I nodded and tried not to laugh. Rees and Marcus stood at the head of their squads, looking about as out of place in an army of utter darkness and evil as possible.
Overhead, the purple clouds of the dark elf realms rolled and boiled, making the sun cast deep shadows. In the semi-darkness, my unit looked even more menacing — a hundred or so cut-throats of a half-dozen species, from Olaf the grinning Cold Islands berserker to Natuk the one-eyed Wolfen, Austri and Vestri the renegade dwarf brothers, Natando the Veldtsman, Kami the Nomad, ritual scar-covered outcast from her Desert Lands, and dozens of others. They were all criminals, exiles, killers, but I was sure of one thing.
They were loyal to me, not to Thae’lynn. If I told them that we were changing sides, they’d shrug and figure that since they were all doomed anyway, it didn’t matter who they fought for.
I was counting on it.
I walked slowly past them as they stood at attention, all watching me with fearsome gazes. These were fine fighters, every one, and in spite of myself, I felt a rush of pride.
Of course, they weren’t just looking at me. Several paces behind, her face obscured by a leather muzzle, the former Marshal Herula walked, head down, arms bound behind her. I led her on a leash that was attached to the muzzle, and she was dressed in a silken halter and gauzy trousers. She also wore a veil and headdress, both embroidered with coins — it served the dual purpose of concealing Herula’s real identity and fulfilling her confessed fantasy of being part of a harem... Various anklets, bracelets, finger- and toe-rings completed the outfit. When she had told me about her harem fantasy, I’d sighed, rolled my eyes, and inwardly told myself that some women simply didn’t know how good they had it. I agreed and we got her the outfit, which I had to admit was pretty appealing.
I had so many mixed feelings about the role I was playing that it was hard to distinguish one from another.
For a time, after I’d arrived here, I had been a different man (or a different lion, depending on how you looked at me). I had cursed myself, forgotten who I was, willing to simply leave my morals back aboard the Skate and be the monster that I was expected to be.
But it hadn’t taken very well. Wulf was still alive inside Chuma and Wulf didn’t like to think he used people. But now, with my “concubine” following meekly behind me on a leash, I felt even more confused and uncertain of myself.
Not that it was unusual for a commander to bring his sex slave on review. One woman was attended by a half-dozen naked, collared males, and as for our commander, well, Thae’lynn’s tastes were well-known (and in most cases admired) throughout the army. As Herula had suggested, it was a perfect way for her to hide in plain sight, especially since as far as Thae’lynn and her toadies were concerned, the “real” Marshal Herula had perished in prison. To the rest of the world, my new slave’s name was Kitten.
No, I was just acutely aware that I was leading a female tandu who desperately wanted to be my submissive pet, and no one seemed to think there was anything unusual about it.
And, I was also slightly twitchy and nervous, given what she’d asked for the previous night.
I’d agreed, of course, but only after the morning’s review.
“You mean I have to wait?” she’d asked eagerly.
“Yes, until I’m done with what I have to do,” I’d replied.
“Oh, yes,” she gushed. “I’ll be thinking about it all night and all tomorrow.”
I sighed. “Always eager to please, my darling.”
“I’ll be so good for you, master,” she said softly and submissively. “So very good.”
So now, with just a few minutes to go before Herula got her wish, I was far more nervous with anticipation than she was. At least, outwardly. I had to physically will my erection to vanish on three occasions, since Rees’ comments would have been more than I could bear.
Finally, I came to a stop and faced my company. Herula kneeled silently beside me.
“You are a fine, well turned-out company,” I said, grinning. “And I am eager to lead you into battle. As our training nears its end and our campaign begins, I hope that you all know where your loyalties lie, and what your obligation is to me as commander.”
A hundred pairs of eyes (well, perhaps less than that — some of them had eye patches) reflected understanding.
“Very well then,” I said. “You are dismissed until this time tomorrow, when our leader will be addressing the army. I suggest you all be ready to march at a moment’s notice after that.”
With that, the unit dissolved into a chattering crowd. I left them behind and walked off the drilling field as nonchalantly as I could. Herula (she told me that she preferred being called Kitten, which she thought symbolized her total submission to me, a state that I still found a little discomfiting) followed behind, head down. I could feel no enthusiasm radiating from her, but I knew it was there, cleverly hidden.
We didn’t go back to my tent. In the rickety town that sprawled around Council Spire there were numerous establishments that catered to the army. I’d secured a particularly well-equipped chamber upstairs in a tavern called the Golden Thighbone. We collected a goodly number of leers as I led her through the crowded common room, but no one commented as I swept the room with a deep glare. As we went up the stairs, the patrons returned to the difficult business of drinking themselves blind.
Okay, I thought, time to play...
The room was as I’d ordered it... It had been a banquet room, but a few gold crowns had persuaded the management to remove the large dining tables and replace them with a large four-posted bed and a number of other items. The owner hadn’t batted an eye when I’d asked, either — again, there were advantages to being evil...
I seated myself in a large leather wingback and unhooked Herula — no, wait — Kitten’s leash.
“How would you serve your master?” I said, trying to ignore how silly I sounded. “Show your devotion.”
Kitten stepped back, head bowed, and kneeled in front of me.
“Would my master have me dance?” she asked, softly, in a voice that I knew was capable of steely resolution.
“That will do, slave,” I replied. “Dance for me, and perhaps I will reward you.”
Gods, I thought, who writes this stuff?
She held out her bound wrists.
“Will my master loosen my bonds so that I may perform for him?” she asked, still looking down. “He may bind me again immediately, should I displease him.”
Yeah, like this woman could displease anyone, I thought, looking stern and untying her.
“Now,” I said. “Dance. Dance for your master.”
Effortlessly, corded muscles flexing alluringly, she glided to her feet and spread out her arms, leaning back, coins jingling, her breasts bouncing in an unequal struggle against her flimsy halter. I saw nipples briefly outlined against the fabric, then she began to move.
I’d never really thought that tandu were known for their dancing abilities, but Herula/Kitten certainly did her job well. Even without accompanying music, she was the proverbial poetry in motion, gliding like a ghost, spinning like a dervish, crawling like the jungle-dwelling panther she resembled, and as swiftly moving like a lion pouncing upon its prey. The coins on her headdress jingled loudly as she moved, along with her bracelets and ankle rings, but otherwise she made no sound. All at once, after several minutes of graceful, almost ethereal movement, she returned to her knees in front of me, and for the first time her burning green gaze met mine. It wasn’t a slave’s gaze, of course — one cowed and beaten and utterly without hope. This was the glare of a warrior, confident in the knowledge of what she wanted and how... Again, the dirty secret that I’d learned in Xesh returned to me — so often, the “pleasure slave” is nothing of the kind, and the master is actually the one who serves. Armed with that thought, I relaxed somewhat, and returned the tandu’s burning green stare.
Slowly and deliberately, never breaking eye contact, Kitten reached behind her neck and loosened her halter, then with even more painful slowness, lowered the garment, peeling it from her breasts like the skin of a ripe orange.
“Does my master like what he sees?” she asked. I’d heard such a question before — from Li and others — but I always liked it anyway.
I nodded. “Your master is pleased.”
Slowly, she exposed one black, hairless nipple, then the other, and finally let the halter fall. She stroked her breasts and teased at her own nipples, still staring directly at me. She sighed deeply, and a small moan escaped from her.
“Dance for your master,” I ordered. “Dance more for me.”
She grinned, and her submissive expression returned.
“As my strong and noble master wishes,” she said, and stood once more.
Now, naked save for a pair of gauzy black trousers and her veil, which revealed far more than they concealed, she moved with even greater sensuous energy, writhing on the floor one moment, standing and spinning, dark hair tossing the next. Then she stopped again, standing in front of me. She leaned forward, pressing her breasts together, squeezing her nipples between her fingers, her panting breaths interspersed with faint moans of pleasure.
“You want this, master?” she asked, feverishly. “You want me?”
I nodded. “You’ve done well.”
“I’m not finished.,” she said, and with a single sinuous motion, stepped out of the trousers and danced, totally naked except for the veil, her black tail lashing, her breasts rising and falling with her excited breathing, buttocks flexing, legs tensing and untensing as she moved. At last she stopped and kneeled once more before me, eyes glazed, chest rising and falling. Like wolfen and n’doro, tandu didn’t sweat, so she could only pant heavily to shed all the heat she’d just generated.
I had to do the same, actually, but I forced myself to remain calm.
“You... like... my dance... master?” she asked between breaths.
I nodded again and rose. Beside my chair lay a number of fun implements; I picked up a pair of cuffs and stepped closer.
“You did well, my slave,” I said. Damn, I was actually starting to get into the role again. I suppose practice makes perfect. “Now you’ll receive your reward. Hold out your wrists.”
She did, dutifully holding her wrists together, her breasts squeezed between her upper arms, bulging alluringly. Her nipples were hard, protruding eagerly. After Kitten’s dance my cock felt like a granite castle keep, but I tried to keep my expression neutral and uninterested; she seemed to like that, for some reason, though I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.
I attached the cuffs and clipped them together, and she lowered her hands. She kept her breasts held tightly between her arms, however, and they continued to bulge out alarmingly. Only her eyes were visible above the veil, but these were returning to their usual calculating, wicked stare. I reached out, and took her veil in one hand, then with a single motion, pulled it free, exposing her face completely. She still breathed heavily, her tongue protruding past pure white teeth.
“Now,” I said, “you’re naked for me, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” she replied. “I want to be naked for my master.”
“On your hands and knees,” I said, as commandingly as I could manage. “You need your reward.”
There was a brief intake of breath, then Kitten’s eyes once more fell, and she swiftly slid into a crouching position, on all fours, her bound wrists beneath her. Between her round, black-furred buttocks, her tail lashed excitedly, as it had the first time we’d been together. My mouth was dry and my heart pounded as I took up a short riding crop from beside my chair. The notion of such a strong, powerful female giving herself completely up to me was, as always, terribly exciting, and my breath came heavier than normal as I stroked the crop up and down the back of her thighs. Between them, the dark flesh of her cunt was moist with excitement. I resisted the urge to simply throw off my breeches and start plunging, and kneeled beside her.
“Does my Kitten like this attention?” I asked, softly, whispering into her ear. She sighed in response and a shudder passed through her body.
“Yes, I do,” she whispered back, tensing. Then she pressed herself down on the floor, breasts bulging. “Now, please. Please punish me. Please give me pain. I want it now.”
I couldn’t really argue with that. As it was, Kitten looked like a masterpiece of erotic sculpture, an ebony statue, graceful back arched, buttocks tense and quivering with anticipation, thighs with corded muscles, desperate for my touch. Her eyes were closed, lips parted, breath now coming slow and almost labored, as if she could barely restrain the passion building inside her.
“Please,” she said, softly, voice trembling. “Please punish me, master. Make it hurt. I want it, master.”
“Very well,” I said, and brought the crop down lightly across the back of her thighs. She tensed and moaned.
“Harder, please,” she gasped. “Please, master. I need it. It’s been so long since I felt your passion.”
I brought the crop down harder, across her buttocks this time. Again, she tensed and cried out.
“Master...” she gasped. “Yes.”
Again, harder this time. It slapped loudly in the stillness of the room, and she moaned even louder.
“Like it, slave?” I asked. “It’s your reward.”
“I... I love it, master,” she said, then gasped again when I slapped the crop across her thighs with a long, strong stroke.
“That’s what I want,” Kitten said. “That’s what I want from my master...”
After another half-dozen strokes, her pussy was sopping, and her cries went on almost uninterrupted, rising in volume only when the crop made contact with her flesh.
“Master...” she gasped. “Master, I’m...”
Again, with a loud crack the crop came down on both buttocks, making contact with the wetness between them.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh....” Kitten collapsed forward, legs giving way. “You’re making me come, master...”
“As my Kitten should,” I said, swiftly loosening my breeches and pulling my cock free. Quickly, I moved astride her, and slid my hardness between her moist cunt lips. She cried out again as I penetrated her and slid without stopping, to the hilt. Her cunt closed around me, hot and welcoming, and a moment later I felt her contract and twitch as she came, clutching at me with powerful contractions.
“I’m coming... I’m coming,” she said. “Fuck me, please...”
I pulled out, then thrust in again, pressing hard against the softness of her buttocks, then pulled out and thrust again. I leaned back on my knees, pulling her back with me, and continued to fuck her as we moved.
“Yessss, oh, yesssss,” Kitten cried. “My master’s cock it so big...”
At last, her contractions subsided, and I pulled out of her. I hadn’t come yet., but I had plans for her.
“Turn over, Kitten” I said, lying on my back. “Turn over and suck me.”
When she did, the fire in her eyes was almost painful to see. Her wrists were still bound, but she seized my cock in both hands and stroked, then ran her pink, rough tongue up and down its length.
“I can taste myself,” she said. “I can taste myself on you.”
I sighed and growled, letting her mouth envelop me. Amazingly, she let most of my shaft slip into her mouth, then slipped me out, stroking the shaft with both hands as she did so. Then she held the head and first couple of inches of my cock in her mouth, and went on stroking, sliding hands up and down my slick shaft, alternately bearing down and releasing me, squeezing as she stroked, drawing in the heat that pounded through my veins... I wanted her desperately, wanted to come for her as she had come for me, and felt all my perceptions focus on the sensation of her hands on my cock and her tongue, teasing my cockhead, licking delicately at its sensitive tip...
“Oh, Herula,” I said, forgetting myself for a moment, then corrected myself. “Oh, Kitten. Oh, sweetest slave... Taste your master’s come...”
With that, the heat finally exploded, and my cock burst forth, gushing into her mouth. She sucked at it, swallowing my load, still stroking and squeezing as my contractions continued. At last it was over and I collapsed, feeling her mouth still on my cock, as she sucked up the last of my orgasm.
“Mmmmm, master,” she sighed, crawling up onto my chest, and looking down at me. Her fur was matted with my come, and her eyes were wild, as if she’d just won some kind of great victory. “You come so much for me.”
“I do,” I replied. We were only half way done, I reflected, despite my desperate desire for sleep. “You’ve more rewards to come, slave, so save your strength.”
“Ohhhhh, master,” she murmured, snuggling against my chest. “I can’t wait.”
We kept on for another couple of hours. I managed to get Kitten tied up in various intricate ways, and she managed to pleasure me in a number of even more surprising manners. I made her kneel, blindfolded, while I fed her or dripped various expensive liquors on her tongue. I made her wear a gag while I fucked her from the front, her legs wrapped around my shoulders. I made her toy with herself and bring herself to the brink of orgasm while I watched, then told her that I wouldn’t let her come — we repeated this about ten times before I finally relented, and she brought herself to a series of massive orgasms. We made love lying down, sitting, and standing up. I came at least five times, she came perhaps a dozen. I was, I thought, finally banishing memories of Tatiana and the horrors of Council spire, content and happy with this woman.
We staggered home later, utterly exhausted. I imagined that I had a few more go’s in me, but I wasn’t terribly inclined to use them. Every muscle ached, and I looked forward only to bed.
“You are a magnificent male,” Herula/Kitten told me, walking behind me, collared and leashed. “You master me so very, very well.”
“Thanks, I think,” I replied. “I’m not sure if it’s a job I have the energy for on a long-term basis.”
“That’s all right, master,” she said, and the steel in her voice was pure Herula. “We can trade, and I can be mistress if you like.”
“That might be less work,” I said. “We’ll talk about it later.”
Herula had a smaller tent near mine. I left her there as the sun set and stepped toward my quarters. I was tired, weary, and sleepy, but when I noticed that there were no sentries outside, I grew instantly wary. I silently unsheathed my sword and used it to push open the flap. Inside the small antechamber was dark, with only the map table and conference chairs visible in the gloom. Beyond was my bedchamber; to my shock, I saw a pair of lamps burning. Cautiously, I stepped through the antechamber toward the sleeping room.
“Back so soon?”
The voice made me jump, and I whirled, sword at the ready. In a dark corner, a bullseye lantern glowed to life, revealing a figure sitting in one of the chairs.
“Tarnith,” I said, feeling both anger and relief. “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
She smiled. She was barely clad, in a long black coat, unbuttoned to reveal her pale flesh. The swelling mounds of her breasts were prominent, one covered in tattoos of tangled purple thorns. Her hair was braided down the middle of her scalp, a long knot of black and silver.
“Heh.” Her voice was slurred; she’d been smoking or drinking — probably both. “I like the idea that you might kill me, Chuma. It’s exciting.”
I frowned. She was worse than usual tonight.
“I heard you have a new fuck-bitch,” she continued, rising unsteadily to her feet. “Some tandu cunt... Like that Herula... Fuck, I hated her.” She paused, thinking. “I heard she was dead. Too bad.”
“You have a problem with my taking a concubine?” I asked. “Most officers have them.”
An ugly frown contorted her face. “I hate her. I hate that fucking bitch-slut-cunt. Whoever she is. You should let me watch you fuck her. Let me beat her ass with a stick while she sucks you. That’d make me feel better.”
I nodded. “I imagine it would.”
She laughed sloppily and lurched toward me. Her arms went around my neck and she gazed at me with bleary eyes.
“Just don’t,” she whispered in words suddenly as sharp as a dagger, “let her start thinking that she’s anything more than you’re trashy little cum-slut, ’cause she isn’t.” She paused, lips moving closer to mine. “All I have to do is give the word, and we’ll have ’er pulled apart and fed to the lizards...”
I fought down nausea at Tarnith’s words... For a moment, I hated her for what she had said, then reminded myself that she was a creature of her environment, and that Herula was under my protection.
“Kiss me, you fucking bastard,” she hissed. “Kiss me than fuck the shit out of me.”
I let her lips crash sloppily into mine, and felt her tongue thrust hotly into my mouth. Almost instantly, I felt myself getting hard, even though I’d only just finished with Herula. I felt Tarnith’s hand against my crotch.
“That’s good, lover,” Tarnith purred. “Get that big fat cock hard and ready for me, you fucker.”
I twined my fingers into her braid, and yanked her head back, eliciting an excited yelp.
“It’s ready for you,” I said, in a low voice, setting free some of the anger and disgust I felt toward her. “You don’t get any until you’re naked, though.”
Tarnith met my gaze. Her eyes were wild, lustful.
“Oh, you’re a tough fucker, aren’t you?” she demanded. “Want me fucking naked, do you?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Get that coat off, you bitch.”
“Mmmm,” Tarnith sighed. “You like calling me that, don’t you?”
“And you like being called that, don’t you?”
“Mmmm,” she repeated, and nodded, at least as far as she could with me gripping her hair. “I like it. I like being your little bitch. And I like you being a big, ugly, fat-cocked bastard.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Shut up and get naked for me.”
She smiled, red lips curling upward like a drawn crossbow.
Slowly, she opened her coat up, pressing her body against me, and let it slide to the floor.
“There,” she said. “That wasn’t very hard was it?”
“No,” I admitted. “It wasn’t.”
“Now what?” she hissed, twining her fingers into my mane. “Now what do you want your bitch to do for you?”
By way of reply, I pressed her down to her knees and grabbed the back of her head, pressing her face against my crotch.
“Oh, yes,” she gasped, licking and biting at the fabric over the hardening shaft of my cock. “Yeah, that’s the big, fat cock I want. Yeah.”
I loosened my breeches and stepped out of them, my erection hanging before her lips. She flicked her tongue across its head, and looked up at me, teeth bared.
“I want you to suck me, bitch,” I growled, grabbing her head and pulling her toward me again.
“Want me to suck it?” she demanded, and her fingers twined around my hard shaft. “Want me to put it in my mouth and suck it, you gods-damned bastard?” She grinned up at me. “Make me. Make me suck you, fucker.”
I growled wordlessly, and once more grabbed her braided hair, thrusting my hips against her. I held my cock in one hand and pressed it to her lips.
“Suck it,” I ordered. “Suck that cock.”
She glared up at me. “No. I won’t. You have to make me.”
I grabbed her chin and forced her mouth open. She fought it, but not too enthusiastically as I pressed my cockhead against her lips. She made cursory protestations, but let me force it into her mouth.
“Suck it,” I said again. “Suck it hard.”
She glared up at me and grabbed twin handfuls of fur on my chest, sucking with hollow-cheeked determination. I glared and seized her wrists, holding them together over her head.
“Suck, bitch,” I growled. “Do it.”
Tarnith continued, sliding my cock in and out of her mouth even as I held her hands up. At last she released me and looked up.
“Does that tandu cunt suck your cock as well as I do?” she demanded. “Is she a better cocksucker than I am?”
I let her wrists go. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Fuck her,” she said contemptuously, standing up, and rubbing herself lewdly against me. “Fuck the cunt. No one can fuck you like I can. Say it.”
“No one can fuck me like you can,” I said, and meant it — though not in the manner she thought I did. “Now get in on the bed. Hands and knees. Now.”
“Oh, you want that, don’t you?” she hissed, syllables still slurred with liquor and narcotics. “You want me to go in there and shove my ass up in the air and let you fuck me like a slut, don’t you?”
“That,” I said, “is because you are a slut. You love it. Admit it.”
“I do,” Tarnith replied. “I love being your slut. I don’t want you to fuck anyone else, you fucker. I want you to just fuck me. Send that cunt back to the gutter where you found her. Do it, or I’ll do it for you.”
“Enough,” I spat back at her. “I don’t want to hear it. I just want you in the bedroom with your ass up in the air.” I pulled her tightly against me, and slapped her buttocks, hard. “Now get in there, whore.”
Tarnith’s gaze met mine for an instant, flashing with murderous rage... She would happily kill me or Herula, I realized, if either of us displeased her in any way... The dreadful dilemma of keeping her at bay while keeping her happy shot through my mind, but then she pulled away and turned, sauntering into the bedchamber, swinging her large hips back and forth. Her black-and-white braid twitched like a zebra’s tail. My cock was still hard — damnation, but she was a sexy woman, but unfortunately I didn’t think her personality was exactly compatible with mine.
I waited a few moments, the contradictions of the situation flickering back and forth in my mind, then turned and strode into the bedchamber. Twin oil lamps hung down from chains, illuminating Tarnith’s pale form with a warm, golden light. She crouched dutifully on the bed, her large, soft buttocks thrust into the air, the delicate flesh of her cunt exposed between her thighs. The purple tattooed vines covered one entire buttock, leaving the other pale and unadorned.
“That’s more like it,” I said. “You want it now, or later?”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Tarnith slurred, looking back at me, eyes glazed and uncaring. “Just as long as I get it.”
I snorted, and stepped unceremoniously onto the bed, feeling it creak beneath me. I grabbed Tarnith’s hips and pulled her to me. My cock slipped inside her without any assistance — she was that wet from our antics in the other room.
“Oh, you really wanted it, didn’t you?” I said, pulling her to me, then thrusting her away. As I pounded in and out, her buttocks quivered, our flesh slapping noisily together.
“Yeah, I did,” she gasped. “Yeah, I wanted that fuckin’ cock in me, you motherfucking bastard. Oh, yeah... Ohhhh...”
She groaned and, by all the evidence I could see and hear, came within seconds. I was at least grateful for that... I doubted she’d be as demanding now...
But I was wrong. Moments later, I was on my back, and Tarnith was atop me, riding my cock, letting it alternately fill her up then slip out, pounding down with all the force of a dwarf miner cracking a particularly stubborn boulder.
“That bitch fuck like me?” she demanded again. “That fucking, cocksucking, slutty little gutter tramp fuck like your Tarnith? Huh?”
“No,” I gasped. “Not at all.”
“To hell with her.” Tarnith’s face was contorted, her eyes wild. “Fuck her. Get rid of her. Give her to your men, let ‘em fuck her to death... Stupid cunt, thinking she can replace me... Fuck her...”
I felt a sudden lurch of fear as I saw a strange light flicker in her eyes, then her voice twisted into a horrific screech.
“Hail Chaos...” she snarled, and I saw a glittering blade in her hand, flashing a coruscating rainbow of evil colors. “Fuck you, lion-man... I am your death...”
It wasn’t Tarnith anymore... It was that trebly-damned chaos blade, once more lashing out and trying to destroy me.
Well, now it had me. I was flat on my back and helpless, trapped beneath Tarnith’s muscular frame. I threw up an arm to defend myself, but the evil blade had already begun its descent, and I had mere moments to live...
Then a second blade flashed in the moonlight, and Tarnith’s head tumbled from her shoulders, black and white braid whirling, blood geysering.
I cried out in sudden shock, pushing the decapitated body away from me. It fell to the floor, twitching, with Tarnith’s head falling beside it and rolling to a stop at the feet of ex-Marshal Herula, who stood in all her slave-girl finery, a steel broadsword in one hand.
I looked at her, panting, eyes wide. Once more, my life had been saved by the merest whisker.
And, I thought, fine whiskers they were, too...
“I heard her screaming,” she said. “I thought you might need help.”
“You were right,” I replied, looking down at the sundered body. “Hopefully no one else heard her.”
“If they did no one would care,” Herula said. “There are shrieks and screams all over this fucking camp at night.”
The chaos blade had fallen, as well, landing on the floor of my tent. As it had in the past, it began to melt away, and in a moment was gone.
“Gods,” I said. “I wanted to be rid of the woman, but I didn’t want it this way.”
“That blade is becoming quite a pest, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Well, it’s gone for the moment. Come on. Let’s get this corpse out of here before anyone comes to investigate.”
Herula moved quickly, wrapping the head in my sheets and helping me sling the body over one shoulder. Blood still dribbled, and it was a terrible mess.
Outside, the night was still, save for the occasional burst of laughter or singing in the far distance.
“There’s a corpse pit this way,” I whispered. “They’ll be covering it up tomorrow. We can dump her there.”
If anyone saw us, no one bothered to stop us as we carried Tarnith’s mortal remains to the slit trench where dead slaves and unfortunate enlisted men were dumped. As we dropped her in, I felt a twinge of guilt and sympathy — she had been a thoroughly evil, ill-tempered and wicked woman, but even so I hadn’t truly wanted her dead... I sighed as I watched her body and head vanish into the darkness.
“Come on,” I said. “We’ll need to wash off.”
Herula smiled. “Together?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. We’d just managed to murder a fellow officer, and Herula was treating it like a missed dinner appointment.
“I suppose,” I said. “Needless to say, I’m not much in the mood for any more fooling around tonight.”
Herula looked disappointed. “Ah, well. Perhaps next time.”
As we turned away from the trench, a sound echoed across the camp that made me freeze in fear.
It was a scream, deep and terrible, sounding from far away, like a soul in the grip of either terror or ecstasy — possibly both.
“Gods,” I said. “What the hell was that?”
“Let’s not wait to find out,” Herula urged, suddenly nervous. “Come on. I’ve a feeling as if someone just walked across my grave.”
As I led the way back to my tent, I noted that I had exactly the same feeling.
The ceremonial center lay beneath a roiling, lightning-streaked sky, a circle of standing stones, each daubed with blood, and each bearing a different sacred symbol, and each set with a flickering yellow-orange torch. In the center lay a great summoning circle, inscribed with a twelve-pointed star and surrounded by glowing runes. Two of Thae’lynn’s priests capered and danced around the circle, swinging smoking censers, filling the air with their intoxicating scent. As she watched, one of the priests swung his censer with a little too much enthusiasm, bashing the forehead of his fellow priest, who fell in a heap, twitching spasmodically.
Thae’lynn rolled her eyes. The fools were inept as ever, but they were necessary. She thought of her original priests, who had gladly died, impaled on the horn of her black unicorn. These two would probably enjoy what was coming, as well.
It was a relatively private ceremony. Thae’lynn sat, naked but for a black cloak, upon her sedan chair, the torchlight reflecting off the multitude of rings and bars all over her body. There was sorcery in the air; this much she felt, tingling deliciously through her nipples, her thighs, and the bright silvery ring in her clitoris. It was dark, wicked sorcery, forbidden to all but the most foul practitioners’ naturally, she loved it. Feeling her excitement rise, Thae’lynn took a drink from the Silver Chalice, feeling the darkness rising up in her soul, filling her like no lover could.
Her four minotaur-bearers stood nearby. They were far too stupid to know what was going on here, of course, but they would make passable bodyguards should the ceremony go badly.
Besides Thae’lynn, the priests and minotaurs, only the daemon-lord Mazzor was there, towering above the summoning circle, wings spread out, a flaming sword in each hand. His reptilian head inclined toward her, and for a moment their eyes met.
Truly he does love me, the monster, she thought, and shuddered delicately, feeling her nipples grow harder. Such a beast, such a magnificent, exciting beast.
Did she love him, she wondered? Was such a foolish emotion possible to her, the ruler of the Dark Elf realms, the puppet master who had plunged her world into bloody war yet lost not a single warrior, the woman who would lead her people to vengeance against their oppressors, and preside over a world of endless nightmare and suffering?
Love? What was it? Weakness, nothing more... If the daemon loved her, then so much the better, she thought. I do not love him, but I want him. I desire him. I live for the sensation of his hard, tireless cock filling my every orifice, feeling him possess me and make me his helpless plaything... Yes, I live for that, she thought, but I don’t love him.
She took another drink, and thoughts of love fled further. Mazzor began the ceremony.
He chanted in a language so ancient, alien and arcane that lesser races would be struck deaf from simply hearing it. To Thae’lynn, of course, it was pure music, a symphony of suffering and endless pain. As he chanted, the swords began to glow’ one blue, one red.
That wasn’t all that was happening, Thae’lynn observed. As the guttural, alien syllables continued to pour from the daemon’s throat, the great organ between his legs began to stir, rising like a knob-headed maul of flesh. Thae’lynn’s own excitement grew, and involuntarily, her fingers crept between her legs, to find that she was already wet and her pierced clit had already begun to swell.
Mazzor waved the swords in complex patterns over the circle, weaving intricate traceries of blue and red, blending and knotting together, glowing in the air for long seconds after the blades had passed. The glowing runes seemed to fall from the swords, dropping onto the circle, creating an even more elaborate fulgurous violet pattern on the ground.
The two priests’ one nursing a large lump on his head but otherwise sound’ danced madly around the circle, crying out incoherently, apparently as excited as Thae’lynn, though in different ways. She knew for a fact that both were eunuchs, and gained their pleasure from their dark gods’ bloody rituals.
Such a waste, she thought, stroking her clit with one hand and her breast with the other, tugging at the hard silver bar that pierced it. Why give up the thing that brings the greatest joy? Or at least joy that is among the greatest’ in some ways, conquering small nations and watching your enemies kill each other is even more pleasurable.
The violet patterns in the circle grew larger and more violent, eventually rising into full three-dimensional reality, a cage of bright purple energy, enclosing...
...What? Inside the cage was blackness upon blackness, swirling like oil on dark waters. Thae’lynn knew what was inside the cage... It was enough to blast the sanity of anyone but her. She stroked faster, feeling tension build inside her.
Mazzor’s voice rose up to near impossible volume and tone. Perhaps they could hear him as far away as the camp... Thae’lynn didn’t care, as the first wave of orgasm began to pass through her, and she gasped, staring at the thick, erect cock between Mazzor’s thighs’ longer, seemingly, than her own forearm. He could change its size, of course, to the point where it would fit, albeit tightly and deliciously painfully, into any orifice she wished to offer.
The daemon’s shriek rose to a climax, as another wave of orgasm shot through Thae’lynn’s body and she felt a gush of hot juices between her fingers... Gods, what that daemon could do for her, even if he never touched her...
The glowing purple cage sprang open, revealing the swirling interior darkness, full of hot points of light that Thae’lynn realized were eyes’ red, orange, green, yellow, blue’ seemingly thousands, all staring lustfully out at the mortal world beyond the portal.
“Come!” Mazzor cried in more conventional language. “Your Lord commands it!”
Thae’lynn caught her breath as something stirred in the darkness, seized by the urge to leap from her chair, fling her cloak aside, and offer herself, body and soul, to the things inside. She forced the urge down... If they could tempt her, mistress of so much power, what effect might they have on ordinary souls?
The stirring resolved itself into solid form, and from the cage emerged...
Thae’lynn screamed and laughed, torn between terror and triumph. As the beasts came forth, her screams and laughter increased, until she was certain they could be heard for leagues.
The army covered the plains around Council Spire like a bad infection. It wasn’t an organized force so much as a horde of scavengers, ready to sweep across the elven realms and overwhelm it by sheer weight of numbers.
I stood at the head of my troops, Herula (no, I reminded myself for the hundredth time — Kitten) kneeling beside me in her usual pose, chained and collared, her face obscured with a purple veil. Memories of Tarnith and what we had done kept running through my mind, though I was relatively certain we’d not be found out — in an army such as ours, troops died or disappeared every day. Still, we had skated very close to the edge of discover since my arrival, and I didn’t think we could afford any more mistakes.
On a lower balcony of the spire itself, our fearless leader appeared. In the distance, she seemed small and harmless, though her attendant winged daemon was impressive, and her retinue of slaves and warriors formed a protective barrier around her. When she spoke her words echoed across the plain, resonant, and magically enhanced by a glowing crystal.
“Hello? Is this on?” She paused, clearing her throat, and tapped the crystal. “I just want to say a few words to you, my minions, before you leave on your great mission. I know that some of you have wives, husbands, and sweethearts and children, and all that idiocy, and that there is a good chance that some of you won’t be coming back.” She paused again. “I can deal with that. But for those of you who are going to pay with everything you have, rest assured that the world is going to be a little bit worse because of you. Now, let’s get out there and give it to them! Death to the light elves! Death to the humans! Death to the dwarves! Death to the beast-folk! Death to all who oppose us!”
A cheer went up from the army as a hundred thousand voices combined into a single shout of affirmation and anticipation.
“And to aid you in your mission, I want to introduce you to our newest allies! Mazzor, reveal your servants!”
The winged daemon gestured grandly, and from behind the Council Spire, dozens of dark forms began to emerge.
“Gods, what now?” Rees demanded as the forms came into focus.
Daemons led them... The same as the hellish horde that had ravaged the elven lands during the last great war. Winged, horned, fanged, crimson- or green-skinned, they were smaller versions of Mazzor, each exuding vast hellish power. But behind them marched column after column of lesser, but no less terrifying, creatures.
Here came a mass of armored chaos warriors like the one I’d fought before. Armor gleaming with unnatural colors, faces invisible behind daemon- or beast-faced masks, armed with massive, thick swords, and bearing heavy shields inscribed with shifting chaos-runes.
Another daemon led a band of thin, reptilian creatures the likes of which I had never before seen... Drawn from some distant corner of Thystra, or from another world altogether.
I gaped, and my blood ran cold.
At least a hundred of them marched behind a dark-haired female, human-seeming save for the great bat-wings that rose from her back. She was naked but for necklaces and jewelry fashioned of verdigrised copper and seashells, but she wasn’t what drew my attention. What marched behind her did — heads and torsos of humans, four arms, and the lower bodies of snakes. They carried wicked-looking weapons, and were variously males and females.
I had seen such creatures before, years ago... One of them had kidnapped and sucked the life essence from n’doro males in the distant Veldt lands. I’d fought her, and banished her to the depths of the Heart of the Lion, where the n’doro ancestors would hunt her forever. I thought that she was a unique creature, since I’d never seen one like her before or since. Now, the terrible truth began to dawn on me.
They were aliens, from some other plane of existence, now summoned to Thystra by Thae’lynn and Mazzor. Even so far away I could feel the evil roll off of the snake-daemons in waves, dark and palpable. And the words of my demon-lover Narisha had said so very long ago...
The only people are from another place, yes. But it’s not a fire-and-brimstone realm where sinners are punished. Well, perhaps it is now. We haven’t been back in quite a time. In any event, our enemies still live there, and it’s important that we keep them there...
She’d rarely elaborated on her words, implying that the true identity of her people’s enemies was a closely-guarded secret. But she’d let enough slip for me to get a pretty good idea of what her people feared.
The snake-daemons had come, in force, and in service to Thae’lynn. And I had a terrible suspicion that they were the ancient enemies of Thystra’s demons. In pursuing her own agenda of vengeance, Thae’lynn had brought an alien war to our world.
We marched out the next day. The mercenaries led the way, with Thae’lynn and her miscellaneous daemons following. I was at least glad that we were leaving the evidence of Tarnith’s fate behind, and that so far none had questioned the n’doro captain’s right to possess a tandu concubine.
The barren reaches of the Darkhold passed but slowly, beneath roiling clouds and black lightning. The beasts of the wilderness preyed upon the column as it advanced, but Natuk kept my troops in line with ruthless efficiency and fortunately we lost no one.
We reached Khordelis in less than a week of hard marching. A vast black fleet lay in the harbor, much like the mismatched armada I had seen when I had first met Thae’lynn, years ago. We prepared to board as more and more warriors and fell beasts crowded the city.
The days were a blur. One gloomy afternoon, I found myself wandering near the waterfront, to the place where I had met Tatiana, and where she had taken such joy in cutting my living heart from my body and showing it to me. The tavern where she had worked was in ruins, a mass of charred timbers, harboring only rats and mad-eyed beggars. As I approached, a murder of filthy crows rose lazily from the place.
Was she dead, I wondered? If not, where was she, and who was she with? If I saw here now would she forgive me?
Perhaps, perhaps not. All I knew was that beneath this dark sky, as I prepared to board Thae’lynn’s terrible fleet, I saw things about myself that I had never seen before.
My thoughts were ever self-serving, ever self-centered, always thinking of how the world and the gods mistreated me, and never considering that perhaps I had mistreated the world. I had lived in the certain belief that since I was cursed by the gods, that I had the right to commit whatever sin I wanted, to live as I chose, and to put my own welfare above everyone else. Even my acts of generosity had a selfish element, as if I was buying good will and future consideration.
That was not the way of the world, not the way that I wanted to be. Looking down into the dirty water of Khordelis bay, I saw the distorted reflection of an alien creature — a great, leonine being who was not me, who possessed strength and virility that I did not. Chuma was little more than an elaborate mask, a place of refuge for my weak human self.
“Phaedra,” I said softly. “Phaedra, Rexxara, Kybor, Saint Orlan. All of you, help me.”
Then I looked up. The clouds were lighter to the north, and there was a faint hint of clean daylight there. Far away, I thought, lay the islands, the places of beauty where I had once fought. And there, too, lay the Silver Lady and her towers, now under terrible threat.
And Livia, and Narisha, Ushandra, Daedora, Li, Skrall, Udo, Squit, Shardinn, Steph, and all the others who mattered to me.
I’d fight for them, I thought. I’d come back for them. Not for me, not anymore. I’d lived for myself for too long, now, even if I claimed that it was for others. Now it was for them.
I turned away from the dark water and headed back toward the city.
Once more, the deck rolled beneath my feet, and I felt at one with the sea. The darkness of Arwensland faded behind us, and now the sun shone through patchy clouds. Occasional squalls dropped rain on us, but it was fresh, clean rain, unlike any I’d felt in months.
The armada sailed north. Black-hulled dark elven vessels plowed through the waves beside human corsairs and a motley collection of mercenary ships. It was the orcish invasion all over again, but this time Thae’lynn was in total control, and from what I was able to discern, had an excellent chance of winning.
Our vessel was a broad-beamed transport, wallowing like a fat duck in the waves. It was stuffed with supplies, horses and fodder, leaving my troops to camp uncomfortably on deck. I stood near the bow, while Rees, Marcus and Tanelin lounged nearby, brightening considerably the farther we got from the Darkhold.
“Now what?” I asked, only semi-rhetorically.
“I don’t know,” Tanelin said. “We’ve done all we can so far. I think that your plan remains sound.”
“You mean splitting off and warning the Lady?” I asked. “Hell, it might help, but if most of her army is off getting massacred in Litharna, what good will we really do?”
“That remains to be seen,” Tanelin replied. “All we can do is trust to the Twelve and hope for the best.”
“Very elvish of you,” I said. “You people are very fond of trusting to fate, aren’t you?”
Tanelin considered this. “Perhaps that is another of our fatal flaws.”
“Ships ahoy!” Rees shouted, pointing toward starboard. “It seems our elvish friends are wise to us!”
I looked. Graceful sails filled the horizon, and the soaring prows of high elven warships.
Our first battle was about to begin.
The sea heaved and convulsed around Dolphin as the Sea Griffon fleet surged into the heart of the invaders’ armada.
They were better prepared this time... Dark elven vessels towed by serpents and sea-dragons, backed up by powerful mercenary warships and magic — it was all far more potent and dangerous than the ragtag mass of tubs and hulks that the Stormking had taken against him. As he watched, Gullwing took a direct hit from an enemy fireball and foundered, water flooding over its railings as crew leaped overboard.
“Tell the other ships to maintain formation!” Nae’mitz shouted. “And have the ship’s wizards cast counterspells... We’ve got to keep enemy magic contained until we’re to close grips!”
Two officers saluted and made for the sending chambers, where Nae’mitz’s commands were relayed to the other ships.
A nagging sense of doom tugged at Nae’mitz as he surveyed the enemy fleet — it was far larger than his, and though the high elven vessels were superior on a ship-to-ship basis, the enemy’s numbers would eventually win the day.
I tried to tell them, he thought. Convince them that Feanor was the real traitor, that his war was a sham and that our true enemies would soon be at our throats. Now Thae’lynn has revealed herself and it’s too late.
“The Warrior and Victory both report that they are too damaged to continue!” bellowed an officer as Dolphin began to slide down a long, dark wave... The seas were growing rougher as the battle progressed; more enemy magic, Nae’mitz wondered?
“Tell them to fall back and try to make it home,” Nae’mitz shouted back. A massive wash of spray exploded across Dolphin’s bow, and behind it a pair of black-hulled enemy ships, bearing down from both sides. “And prepare to repel boarders!”
Nae’mitz pulled Ocean’s Treasure from her sheath.
Come now, he thought. Come and finish this foolishness.
“What the hell are they up to now?” Livia demanded, looking down at the competing throngs of dwarves and orcs.
“I think they’re arguing over who loves that tiger babe more,” Squitter suggested. “They both proclaimed her their general, after all.”
Livia sighed. “Well, at least they have something in common now.”
“Buncha’ idiots,” Squitter commented. “Fallin’ all over themselves cuz she’s naked and cute.”
“I sympathize completely,” Livia said, remembering her moments with the Kaitian on board the Skate.
Squitter pointed down the dirt road leading into the encampment.
“Hey, listen! I think I hear ratlings!”
With that, Squit scurried off.
The sound of disciplined marching caught Livia’s ear and she hastened to the place, wondering what body in this rodentine rabble could possibly have the ability to march in step. As she did, a curious sight presented itself.
Squit stood there, clad in mismatched armor, whiskers twitching with annoyance.
“How the fuck do you like this?” he demanded, pointing. “That bastard is always trying to muscle in on my action!”
Livia stared in astonishment.
A column of a hundred ratlings approached. Her ears had not been playing tricks’ they marched in step, were armed with ratling-sized polearms, and were clad in colorful regalia, puffed sleeves, plumed hats, doublet and hose. The main color was red and yellow, and Livia had a momentary mental image of a band of rats dressed up and trained to behave like Litharnan warriors in a circus or sideshow. She shook her head, but couldn’t get rid of the image, especially as the column came to a smart halt, and stood at attention with a clash of arms and jingle of metal.
“Hail, fellow warriors!” cried a cheerful voice, edged with the annoying squeak of a ratling. “My merry band and I are at your service!”
Livia focused on the speaker. He was taller than his fellows, and in a strange way, more handsome and dashing, as if a sword-fighting bravo had been shrunk, then equipped with beady eyes, a long pointed face, whiskers and a tail. To her surprise, he doffed his plumed hat and bowed low.
“I am, good lady, your servant, Marshal Skeek, leader of Skeek’s pikemen, the finest warriors in all ratling-dom. And, might I add, a distant cousin of your venerable leader, the brave and inimitable General Squitter.”
“Yeah, yeah, spare me,” Squitter chirped, washing his face with visible agitation. “Just cuz you dress like a monkey, it don’t make you better than the rest of us rats.”
“Oh, perish the thought, dear fellow!” Skeek seemed amused. “We fight as the rest of you... We fight and die with honor. We few. We happy few. We band of brothers.”
Squit looked at Livia.
“Where the hell does he pick up this stuff? I know I never taught it to him.”
Livia only smiled.
Narisha looked askance at the untidy crowd of ratlings that gathered around the edge of the encampment. Skeek and his well-ordered pike-rats had proven the exception. While the orcs seemed disorganized, most ratlings seemed to feel that order and discipline were optional rules to be followed only when one felt like it.
“I’m worried about the rats,” she said. “They don’t seem to have the slightest idea of what constitutes real military procedure.”
Livia shook her head. “Maybe that’s for the best. And don’t judge them just yet. I suspect they’ll prove their worth.”
“Well, if nothing else they’ll absorb a lot of elven arrows for us.”
Livia sighed. “You’re such a cynic.”
Narisha seemed taken aback. “You continue surprising me. A year ago, you’d have been just as cynical.”
“They do indeed.” Narisha’s voice didn’t sound quite as hostile as it had the last time they’d spoken. “Livia. Darling. I’m sorry I was so short with you before. And I want you to understand that apologies are almost completely unknown in demon society, so that you understand what a sacrifice I’m making.”
Livia shrugged. “I’d probably have done the same in your position. I know that I’m being frustrating. But I feel... I don’t know. I still love you. Adore you. Worship you like the goddess you were, and are. Please don’t forget that. But I think I see more to the world than I thought there was, and it’s making me think and not show the love that I feel. It’s as if I’ve discovered that the world out there is worth saving and loving, as well.”
“Hm. I doubt my countrymen would agree, but I’m trying to see your point.”
“I lived in a bubble, away from the world, convinced that I was the only one that mattered. It’s not true, Narisha. If the world is unhappy, it’s inevitable that that unhappiness affects us as well. I hate to say it, but I’m beginning to feel an obligation to the world, as well as to myself.”
“You truly worry me when you talk like that, woman. I’m afraid you’ll go join a Kyborist nunnery or something.”
Livia snorted. “I’d seduce all the nuns.”
“And wouldn’t that be a sight,” Narisha said, wistfully. “I’ll have images of that in my head for months.”
“Well, now that we’re speaking, perhaps we should go meet with our allies. I suspect that the orcs and the dwarves will need to do some mutual trust exercises.”
“As if that would ever work,” Narisha replied. “We’ll be lucky if they don’t kill each other before we get to the battle.”
The world focused to a single point in the elven marshal’s mind... His only existence was battle, his only comfort was slaughter. The nobility he’d once felt had vanished, and in its place was only the numbing, intoxicating haze of pure violence. He was lost now, even Feanor’s fogged mind knew that. But the glory and victories he brought to his people was worth the loss of his soul and his elvish honor... If he was to die, he would die fighting in the cause of the Lady.
The land fled beneath him as Dhruul carried him toward the enemy. The great, walled city of Vosgraad lay ahead like an open sore along the broad river, surrounded by human slums, filth and destruction. Long streams of refugees jammed the roads leading north from the city, but the humans were not entirely beaten... Not yet.
An army of sorts was drawn up a couple of leagues south of the city, covering the retreat of the civilians, blocking the advance of Feanor’s army.
Feanor felt his face twist into a rictus of savage joy. There would be another battle, a final one, sufficient to break the humans’ power in Litharna forever. With the realm under his heel, Feanor knew that the other lands wouldn’t last long. Next on his schedule of conquest was the corrupt White Empire, which he knew would give him even less trouble than the Litharnans with their cannons and crossbows and clanking machines.
He hauled on the dragon’s reins, and turned in a vast, majestic circle, banking back toward where his army advanced, screened by thousands of lurching skeletons and zombies.
Battle, he thought, eagerly, feeling the same passion that he had once felt for Vaenetha as he thought of the slaughter to come.
Death, he thought. Blood and pain. Our enemies will fear us forever, and we need never bow to them again.
“You’ve done the impossible, Marshal,” said High Priest Ruthvaar, gazing at the steady lines of human infantry, standing steadily in the morning sun. The dragon dwindled in the distance, but everyone in the army knew that the elves and the undead would soon follow.
“None of us thought that the army would stand,” Ruthvaar continued. “You kept them together and now we at least have a chance.”
“Not much of one,” Van Leuter replied, grimly. “We all pulled together after the rain of blood and my commanders kept desertions to a minimum. Now, if we’re fortunate, we can hold the prick-ears long enough to evacuate the city. Beyond that I can guarantee nothing.”
“Kybor is with us, Marshal,” Ruthvaar said, with the confidence of the truly deluded. “Kybor’s hand saved you after the Pinewood, and guided you to us through the heart of the enemy. If Kybor stands with us, our victory is assured.”
Van Leuter was about respond with another platitude, when the rhythmic tramp of horse’s hooves caught his ear. On the plain below, where the Litharnan army stood, a cheer went up as a column of riders, armor gleaming, rode from the east.
“Phaedra’s tits... I mean, by Kybor’s infinite mercy,” Van Leuter said, glancing guiltily at the high priest. Fortunately for Van Leuter’s eternal salvation, Ruthvaar was too intent on the arriving horsemen to have noticed his comments.
They were knights, clad all in white and polished steel, white banners flying, pennants flapping at the end of upright lances.
“The Knights of Saint Orlan!” Ruthvaar exclaimed. “The Empire has sent them to aid us!”
Van Leuter hastened to meet the column, and as he did the lead knight, his helmet bearing a crest in the form of a roaring dragon, clambered down from his charger and bowed. He wore a pure white cloak, and his face was that of a desperately devout man, with pale blue eyes and a selfless expression.
“Lord Van Leuter!” The knight’s voice was curt and efficient. “I am Sir Throvus, and I am here at the behest of my monarch, the Sacred White Emperor! I offer you five regiments of our finest knights to aid you in your struggle against mankind’s ancient enemies, the elves!”
Van Leuter could only stare as nearly a thousand knights continued to pour along the road from the Empire, and as his soldiers continued to cheer.
“Kybor be praised!” Ruthvaar said, smugly. “Our lord has seen fit to send deliverance from our enemies, the Imperials!”
Van Leuter rolled his eyes, throwing caution to the wind.
“For Kybor’s sake, would Your Grace kindly shut up before you insult them and they decide to leave?” he demanded. “I don’t care if they’re damned Imperials... I’d accept help from an army of orcs and ratlings if they were to offer it!”
Ruthvaar looked scandalized. “Marshal! Such thoughts are foolish! What true human would accept aid from the foul under-races?”
Van Leuter snorted. “Don’t worry, Father. I doubt the issue will come up. No armies of orcs are coming to our aid. Now, let’s go greet the rest of the Imperials before they decide they want to go home!”
“I’m afraid,” Narisha reported, “that our little alliance has some command problems.”
“What do you mean?” Livia demanded. The army was on the move, heading toward the sound of battle in the distance, near the place called the Field of Scythes. She and Narisha trotted along with the human mercenaries now; the non-humans were up ahead, moving in echelon toward the enemy.
“The orcs insist on leading the way, and having the honor of attacking first. The dwarves objected, but then the orc wolf-riders took off and moved out in front. The dwarves and the ratlings are running to catch up, but I think the greenskins are going to get too far out in front. We may end up hitting the enemy in waves, which may not be a good thing.”
Livia swore. “What about Li? Those bandy-legged little perverts will do anything she asks them to.”
Narisha shook her head. “She’s got her work cut out for her, riding back and forth between the orcs and the dwarves. I’ll try to catch up with her, but I doubt we’ll make it.”
“Are you saying that we have no way of controlling those idiots?” Livia sighed.
“That about sums it up, lover,” Narisha grinned. “But don’t worry; I’ll try to get them to listen to reason.”
The demoness galloped off, and Livia tried to concentrate. Bloody, damned, stupid glory-hogging orcs...
“Doesn’t sound good,” Shardinn said. The wizard rode close by, looking somewhat apprehensive as the final battle approached. He held a staff from the Xeshite horde, one which appeared to significantly enhance his casting abilities.
“No it doesn’t,” Livia replied. “Keep that staff close, brother. You may need it sooner than you think.”
Shardinn swallowed. “What do you need me for, lady?”
Livia considered. “Go and join the infantry. Tell them to move faster, since the damned wolf-riders are going to charge ahead and get themselves slaughtered. Then find Narisha and see if she needs any help.”
Shardinn nodded. “As you wish, lady.”
Then he was gone, and for a brief moment, Livia wondered if it was the last time she’d ever see the wizard.
Li felt Black Fang’s warm flesh between her thighs and the strong contractions of its powerful muscles as it loped tirelessly along, tongue protruding, breath steaming in the cool air.
“On, you sons of whores!” she bellowed, waving her saber. “On you slayers of elves, you takers of plunder! On to slaughter, to victory!”
Behind her, the orcish riders yipped and howled in response, waving weapons and snarling. Their wolves barked and yowled as they ran, and soon it was hard to tell which was which.
Of course, she would have to change her tone somewhat when she came to inspire the dwarves. Generally, calling a dwarf the son of a whore was a bad idea, though the “slayers of elves” line would be appropriate.
Oh, brave and foolish warriors, Li thought. You are far more alike than you want to admit.
Beside her, Skrall clung uneasily to his own wolf. He was a sailor, not a cavalryman, and the entire experience of riding left him baffled.
“Fine words, Lady!” he shouted. “These boys’ll follow you to hell and back with a stopover in the Demon Realms! I’m proud to be your shipmate!”
Li laughed. “And I yours! But would your people be following me so fanatically if I weren’t naked?”
Skrall considered this. “Well, if you weren’t naked and so good lookin’, maybe... then again, it might not matter. We orc boys’re not terribly particular about who we follow, so long as there’s a good bloody scrap at the end!”
“I think you can be assured of much blood and violence, my friend!” Li shouted back as the wind began to rise and howl in her ears. “Some of it your own!”
“Suits me just fine, Kaitian!” Skrall cried and, finally getting the hang of moving with his coursing mount, threw back his head and howled. “Whooooooooooooo! Death to the elves!” He turned back and shouted. “Come on, ya damned dwarf-fuckers! Race ya to the battle!”
The mass of orcish riders picked up speed and rode on to the north.
The enemy’s army is so very vast and powerful, Van Leuter thought. How can we hope to survive?
He kept his thoughts to himself as he scanned the field with his looking-glass. The commander must be stoic. He must be brave. He must never betray his fears.
Yet as he looked, it was hard to keep from outwardly expressing the terror he felt in his heart. A mob of undead — skeletons, zombies, ghouls, and other, even less savory creatures — preceded the army, and above them flew a vast cloud of black bats, darting and wheeling.
Spear fodder. To take casualties as their horde advances. To spare the elves and other troops the losses.
The elves alone would have been more than enough to sweep aside Van Leuter’s small command. Spearmen in shining armor held the center, supported by elite double-handed axe- or swordsmen. Cavalry, resplendent in lacquered armor, proud banners flying, held the flanks and the reserve. A seemingly endless double line of archers marched ahead of the elven force, each armed with a heavy white bow. Van Leuter had seen these bows in battle, launching arrows with almost unbelievable strength, capable of penetrating his knight’s heaviest plate armor.
All along the line were more units of skeletons and zombies, armed with bows, scythes, swords, axes, and all manner of rusted, ancient weapons. Among these undead were armored monstrosities, bearing the symbols of the lords of chaos — Slaerth, Akanax, Zalitar and others that Van Leuter had never seen before.
There were towering figures there, too — battle daemons wielding swords of flickering lightning, chaos warlords with burning crimson eyes, hell-beasts with slavering jaws and expressions of utter evil and perversity.
Our foes show their true colors, Van Leuter thought. The elves are pawns of chaos and slaves to the beasts of hell. All their words of justice and honor are lies.
With a single, curt motion, Van Leuter snapped his spyglass shut and turned to his adjutant, Sir Zhelig, who immediately began scribbling on a piece of parchment.
“Deploy the archers and crossbowmen forward,” he said, endeavoring to keep his voice steady and confident. “Light cavalry to either flank, halberds and swordsmen to the center. Relay my regards to Sir Throvus and ask that he keep his knights in reserve until such time as they are needed. Our artillery shall remain on the heights behind us and are to open fire as soon as the enemy is within range. They are to aim at the main body of elvish troops and avoid the screen of undead. Priests should prepare to pray for miracles and stop any airborne troops that attempt to attack our war machines. The artillery must remain in action for as long as possible.”
“I obey, My Lord!” Zhelig snapped a salute, spurred his horse, and galloped toward the main army.
Below, troops began to move like toys in a child’s sand box.
How do they feel, he wondered, knowing that by the next dawn most will be dead?
The thought of all the brave men and women on the plains below struck Van Leuter like a blow, and he felt his composure begin to slip. He turned away rapidly, blinking tears from his eyes.
They say we are animals, he thought. Animals worthy of only of extermination or enslavement. How little they know.
“In the name of your ancestors!” Li shouted, holding the ancient dwarven axe above her head. “In the name of the ancient treaties and the kings of the distant mountains! In the name of Litharna and the eternal bond of brotherhood between human and dwarf! We march!”
Some of the armored dwarves behind her seemed moved almost to tears by the words. Others simply gaped at her as if they wanted her as their favorite concubine. It didn’t matter to Li — the words she spoke to the dwarves were as heartfelt as those she had bellowed to the orcs. Honor, glory, vengeance, the needs of allies — all these things were sacred to her people, as well, and now she spoke from her heart.
The dwarves’ only real flaw was that they marched so very slowly, moving along on bandy-legs, weighed down by massive amounts of armor and absurdly heavy weapons. But march they did, toward the sound of battle, but a few leagues to the north. Li held Black Fang’s scruff firmly, reminding the wolf not to race ahead of the dwarves.
“For the honor of Kaitia!” shouted one of the dwarf marshals behind her. “For the honor of Lady Li!”
And the dwarves echoed him.
“She’s my friend!” shouted a voice, and in the crowd, Li could see Udo’s earnest, somewhat drunken face.
She grinned a savage grin.
“They love you, lady,” Tanu said proudly. “They are ugly, it’s true, but they are a sensible race.”
Li laughed. “Ready for battle, my love?”
Tanu nodded fiercely and bared his savage teeth. He loped along beside Black Fang, his presence comforting the great wolf. “Always, alongside you.”
Dhruul and Iskhana swooped low over the battlefront, their riders gazing down with satisfaction.
“It’s good!” Ezikhan shouted.
Indeed it was. The humans were standing and fighting far more bravely than Feanor had expected, delivering storms of arrows and bolts into the undead screen, cutting down hundreds. Yet, it was scarcely enough, for every time a shambling corpse fell, another rose to take its place. The humans had already inflicted enough casualties to cripple an ordinary army, but to this creeping mass of reanimated flesh, it was barely a scratch.
From a distant hill came the flash and report of artillery. The humans’ crude metal-throwing machines. Feanor felt little concern from the clanking things until he saw that their shells were arcing over the mass of undead to land amid his precious elven forces. Instantly, the shells burst into orange-and-black infernos, scattering shards of glowing shrapnel. As Feanor watched in horror, he saw a dozen of his finest spearmen fall, armor rent and battered, and a squad of cavalry panic and flee in disorder.
“The cannon!” he shouted, gesturing. “Ezikhan! I go to destroy their war machines!”
Ezikhan nodded and gestured. Instantly, a nimbus of protective energy sprang up around Feanor and Dhruul, and he banked, sweeping toward the hill and its hateful machines.
The human archers and handgunners turned their weapons upon him, but the missiles rattled harmlessly off Dhruul’s armored belly.
The hill where the human machines roared and flashed raced closer.
“Your grace! The dragon comes!” The acolyte’s voice was filled with awe and fear, but the peace of Kybor kept Ruthvaar calm and collected.
“Follow the battle plan,” he said. “Cast the fury of Kybor and his saints at the daemon.”
“In Kybor’s name!” The acolyte replied, and nearby the corps of priests began to chant and gesture at the onrushing monster.
Dhruul swept smoothly down from the chill upper air like a deadly arrow aimed at the huddle of human war machines. Suddenly, his progress was interrupted, as if his wings could no longer support them, and he hesitated, dropping from the heavens like a rock. Blue flames enveloped them, and for a moment Feanor was blind. He struggled to maintain control of his mount.
The humans and their crude magics, he thought fiercely. The arrogance...
Another bolt of enchanted energy struck at him, emanating from a circle of white-clad humans below. Anger surged through Feanor’s veins and he directed the great dragon downward toward the humans.
“Kill, my ancient companion! Kill them!”
Dhruul, lost in a terrible dragon’s bloodlust, only bellowed in reply, and unleashed a torrent of fire across the white-clad humans. Instantly, they vanished in the storm of flames, and collapsed into charred heaps.
“Death to the humans!” Feanor cried. “Death to all who oppose us!”
He pulled back on Dhruul’s reins and swept back toward the hill.
Ruthvaar crawled away from the blasted, blackened crater where he and his priests had called upon Kybor. Looking around as soldiers hastened to his aid, he saw that he was the only surviving priest.
You have deserted us, great lord, he thought bitterly. You have allowed your greatest and most faithful servants to die.
For the first time in his life, Ruthvaar felt a trace of hatred for the god he served.
“Ware!” shouted a squire, pointing. “The dragon! The dragon is coming!”
Tell us something we don’t already know, Chief Gunner Shultz thought bitterly. He’d seen the dragon shrug off the magic and incinerate the priests. Now it swept down from the skies toward him and his battery. Mere moments remained before the beast and its armored rider were upon them.
On it came — a dreadful mass of muscle, claws, fangs and scales. Desperation clawed at Shultz, but still he stood his ground.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, as old gran used to say, Shultz thought, fighting down the urge to flee.
For a moment an image flashed in Sultz’s mind, of the ancient dragon and the fell powers it represented, facing down the cold steel and iron of Litharnan guns, of sorcery finally coming to grips with science...
We have the tools we need. They have sorcery, we have science. Let’s see which one proves stronger.
“Quickly, boys!” he shouted. “Elevate the barrels! You loaders! Pound some shims underneath ‘em! We’ll need to shoot into the air before he hits us!”
To Shultz’s intense relief, his gunners hopped to, almost grateful for something to do in the last few moments of their lives. On each of his six cannon, two burly artillerymen heaved, lifting the barrels up, while loaders shoved wood, rocks, bits of bridle, and anything else they could find into the gap between the barrels and the gun carriage, wedging them, then pounding with sledge hammers.
“Lower the howitzers!” he cried. “Stop lobbing shells at the prick-ears and shoot at that thing!”
Again, the well-trained gunners complied. The operation took surprisingly little time, but since they were all spurred along by terror at the oncoming monster, Shultz was not terribly surprised.
“Load up, boys! Fast, fast, or we’re all dragon food! Double powder loads! Triple! These may be the last shots we ever take, so don’t skimp!”
They moved with drill-field precision, throwing in two, three, even four bags of powder, ramming them home, then jamming shells, solid shot, chain, rocks, and other debris into the muzzles. Six cannon and three howitzers had been brought to bear upon the creature, and not a moment too soon.
On it came... A hundred paces... Now fifty... Fangs gleaming, eyes burning, wings like a hurricane...
“Wait until I give the word, then unleash hell, boys!” he cried, raising his sword and facing the dragon, defiant and unafraid.
The dragon loomed like a daemon come to proclaim the end of the world, and he could smell the brimstone stench of its breath.
“Fire, my lads! Blow him back to elf-land!”
Nine guns spoke, belching fire. Two of the weapons, overloaded with powder, exploded in a terrible flash, cutting down all of their gunners instantly. But as for the rest...
A thousandweight of jagged, hot metal slashed through the air, enveloping Feanor and Dhruul in a cloud of acrid smoke. The blue halo around them flickered and vanished, and Feanor felt the dragon lurch beneath him, screaming in sudden agony.
“No!” he shouted, even as a tumbling load of chain and scrap tore through Dhruul’s wing, ripping it to shreds, and sending the great beast falling.
“Oh great spirits!” Dhruul’s deep, unearthly voice echoed from his throat, in a tone that Feanor had never heard before. “Free! I am free! For the Lady!”
And to Feanor’s shock and horror, the beast bucked and heaved, sending him flying from the saddle to dangle from his leather harness as Dhruul plummeted toward the foot of the hill.
“We have been betrayed, Lord Feanor!” Dhruul cried. “I die, but I am free! And now, you shall be the same!”
Feanor screamed as the ground below him rushed up, then blackness enveloped him.
The liche stared with a mixture of shock and elation as Dhruul’s rent, battered corpse tumbled from the sky and crashed to earth at the foot of the hill where the human gunners shouted and cheered.
Feanor! Is he dead? Ezikhan did not know. But at the very least, the leader of the elven forces was out of the battle, and now...
Now I command, Ezikhan thought. Now at last I am supreme!
Iskhana cried out in agony as her mate perished, but Ezikhan had no time for sentiment. He brutally seized control of the dragon, and forced it to bank back toward the advancing army. He was staying well clear of the human artillery...
It will gain them nothing, he thought. We will win, cannons or no...
Yet, as the liche made for the cluster of elven officers, preparing to assert his authority and order the elves to advance, he heard something that would have made his blood run cold, had there been anything in his veins save dust.
From the rear of the army, the unguarded, unprotected rear came the sound of horns, and the battle-cries of warriors.
As Ezikhan watched in horror, a black mass of riders appeared — fierce green-skinned creatures mounted on great black wolves, skull banners held proudly, orcish war-chants echoing. And there was more... They shouted other words, and some were words no orc had ever before shouted. As he heard them, Ezikhan’s fear deepened.
“Death to the elves! Death to the necromancer! Litharna! Litharna!”
First to fight, last to flee! The words of his people echoed in Skrall’s head as he clung to his wolf with one hand, and brandished his cutlass in the other. He realized that his mount had raced ahead of the rest of the wolf-riders and now he led the charge.
What the hell? Why can’t a sailor lead the charge?
“On, boys!” he roared. “There’s killing to be done!”
Then they were upon the elves, chopping down surprised-looking spearmen and young elf warriors.
“Damn glory-hogging orcs,” Squit grumbled as he and his warriors toiled northward. “Getting there first and having all the fun...”
“Fear not, noble cousin,” Skeek said as his pikemen marched along in a well-ordered and disciplined column, surrounded by a thousand other motley, unkempt ratlings. “There will be glory enough for all. The orcs can’t win the battle on their own.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Squit said. He checked the brace of daggers in his belt and the blade attached to his tail. “Maybe they’ll need us to save their asses when they realize they’ve gotten so far ahead of us.”
“That’s the spirit, cousin!” Skeek declared, pointing forward with his pike. “Now onward! To victory!”
Ezikhan leaped down from Iskhana’s saddle, and the impact jarred his fragile bones.
Once this is all over, I will need a new body, he thought. Hopefully, Feanor’s corpse won’t be too badly mutilated.
“The orcs have thrown in with the humans!” he shouted. “And Lord Feanor is laid low by the cowardly Litharnans! You must form a rear-guard to hold off the wolf-riders, then press forward to smash the humans! Quickly, or all is lost!”
The elvish commanders stared at him, uncomprehending, the passion and bloodlust of the past months draining at last from their faces. It was as if the loss of their commander had finally drawn the veils from their eyes, allowing them to at last see what they had become.
Lady Vaenetha hastened forward, her haggard eyes brimming with tears.
“Feanor? Is he dead? What has happened?”
Ezikhan dismissed her with a curt gesture, and commanded two of his armored zombie warriors.
“Kill the sow!” he snarled. “She is no longer useful to us!”
Vaenetha screamed fearfully as the zombies advanced, crying to her fellow elves for aid. They did not move, but watched impassively as the undead things fell upon her and rent her flesh until she lay unmoving, a mass of blood and torn clothing.
“Now!” Ezikhan cried, pointing a withered finger at the elven officers. “I command here! You will advance!”
Reluctantly, the elves saluted and turned away.
“See, my cousin! The orcs are stymied! They need us now!”
Squit had to admit that Skeek was right. After slashing effortlessly through the rear ranks of the elf army, the wolf-riders had slowed and finally stopped, beset on all sides by disciplined elves and fearless undead. They maintained formation well, but as Squit watched, he saw several orcs pulled down and their wolves overwhelmed.
“Charge!” he shouted — it emerged as a deafening squeak, but it was enough for the ratlings around to hear and pass on to their fellows. “Let’s get ‘em!”
With massive affirming squeal, a thousand ratlings surged forward, a dark tide bearing down to aid the surrounded orcs. Blocks of elvish archers, summoned hastily from the front, deployed in front of them and rained white-feathered shafts onto the rodents, and many fell. But their impetus was almost unstoppable, and in a moment they had struck and overrun the line of archers.
Squit struck left and right with his daggers, and whipped his tail about, slashing through elven flesh behind him. An archer fell before him, he leapt onto the elf’s chest and plunged both daggers into his throat. The corpse still twitched and bled as he bounded on toward the next.
Skeek’s pikemen fell obediently into formation and pressed on, spearheading the ratlings’ advance, pressing through the archer’s line and into the ranked warriors behind them. The elves gave way, as if in shock and surprise that such tiny and insignificant creatures could fight so bravely. Then the mass of ratlings was upon them, swarming like black, biting insects upon a field of wheat. Perhaps five ratlings in ten died, but that still left five ratlings alive and killing.
In a few moments, the elves had fled or died, and the orcs were reforming, preparing to advance again.
A voice shouted from the throng of wolf-riders.
“Hey, Squit! Nice job, you little bastard!”
Squit grinned and waved.
“Thank you kindly, cap’n!”
The entire army shouted in triumph as the dragon fell from the sky, but even this victory wouldn’t be enough to save them. Already, the advance guard of undead was moving to engage Van Leuter’s front line, and though the human pike and swordsmen held for the moment, more shambling monstrosities pushed forward from behind, and would eventually push the humans back by sheer weight of numbers. The priests were gone as well, robbing the army of its magical defenses.
With a hurried clatter of hooves, Sir Zhelig galloped up, his face lit with incredulous joy.
“My lord! My lord!” he shouted, fairly leaping from the saddle. “Our scouts report that there is an army to the enemy’s rear, and that they are attacking!”
Van Leuter frowned. Such rumors were common on the battlefield, and he had long since learned to trust only his own eyes.
“What army?” he demanded. “What armies could possibly march on the elves rear? There is nothing left to fight them.”
“The scouts say it is orcs, sir. Orcs and small, furry creatures.”
Van Leuter leaned forward, sniffing Zhelig’s breath.
“Have you been drinking?” he demanded.
“No sir! Never! Use your spyglass! Look for yourself.”
Van Leuter sniffed again and snapped his telescope open.
He scanned the rear of the elven army. Yes, there was fighting. Yes, there were burly forms mounted on what appeared to be wolves. And yes, there were small furry creatures ranging among the mighty elven formations, darting, stabbing and fleeing.
“Kybor save us,” he muttered. “You might be right.”
“Look, sir, up there!”
Van Leuter lowered the spyglass and looked into the sky, where a graceful white bird flew, hovered for a moment, then dove toward the ground. There was a brief flash of silvery-blue light, and in the bird’s place stood a slender, blonde-haired woman. Van Leuter noted that she was both naked and well-formed, but pushed such thoughts aside as she spoke.
“Forgive my informality, Marshal!” she said hastening forward. “I am Livia of Stoneburg, and I come with news. My allies and I are now assaulting the elves from the south. If you push forward now, you and your army might yet win this battle!”
Van Leuter stared for only an instant, with ancient stories about angels and demigoddesses descending from the heavens to save heroes flashing through his mind. Then he looked through the spyglass again. There were more troops there, falling upon the elves, pushing them back. Dwarves now, and more humans.
“By Kybor, woman,” he said. “You speak the truth!”
He whipped off his cloak and handed it to her. “If you truly bring salvation to us, your name will forever be honored!” He turned to Zhelig. “Tell Sir Throvus to prepare to advance. It will be his knights’ job to smash through the undead and let us get to grips with the elves beyond. Tell him this now! I will raise a red banner when he is to attack!”
Zhelig saluted and was gone.
“Now, lady sorceress,” Van Leuter said to the pale woman, “perhaps you can tell me where you and your army came from.”
The liche’s subordinates stood in a semicircle around him — necromancers, zombie masters, vampires, daemons. Darkness seemed to hang about them like shrouds.
“This is our most crucial moment, my brothers and sisters,” Ezikhan said. “The elves hold the rear but they are sore pressed. We must use our own powers to turn back the enemy in the rear, while holding them in the front. Summon your creatures; raise the dead. Anything to hold and turn back the army that marches from the south. If we push them back for but a little while longer, we will be victorious, and the surviving elves will be our servants forevermore.”
Those of his allies who could grin did so, and in a moment all moved away like wraiths, heading for the rear where the elves fought against the unexpected attack.
Ezikhan turned and walked toward the front, where his zombies still strove against the Litharnans.
The tides of battle can change in an instant; I should know as much from my own history. But now if they are against us, in the next instant they will be with us — and it will all be to our greater glory when the elves are reduced to our slaves.
Like squat, unstoppable machines, the dwarves toiled along, neither slowing nor flagging, axes and hammers ready, rune-banners flying, marching to the metallic clang of their musicians pounding on anvils and drums.
Li strode beside them, fighting back the urge to race toward the sound of battle, running ahead of her warriors, leaving them behind to fend for themselves.
No; they have chosen you... You will march with them, and they will follow you.
One last rise lay ahead of them. Li suffered through the painfully slow ascent, then at last passed over the crest to see what lay below.
It was not encouraging.
“So what now, your highness?” Squit demanded as he and Skeek stood back to back, slashing at the eruption of clattering skeletons that had overwhelmed them. “Any suggestions?”
“Fight like ratlings and die with honor!” Skeek shot back. “Ratlings and orcs fighting shoulder to shoulder as allies!”
Squit squeaked in annoyance and ducked a rusty axe swung by a legless skeleton warrior. He leaped onto the thing, hacking at it with his knives and finally shattering it into fragments.
“Hell with that, cuz!” he shouted. “What good’s honor when you’re dead?”
“You have a point, Squitter,” Skeek replied. “Let’s say we stay alive as long as we can?”
“Deal!” Squitter said. He slashed at a rot-fleshed zombie with his tail blade, then scrambled out of the way as it collapsed.
In the distance, among the elves and undead, Squitter caught a glimpse of ponderous forms in thick, nightmarish armor, advancing slowly but inexorably to catch his ratlings and the besieged orcs in a vise.
“Chaos monkeys, cousin!” he squealed, pointing. “We may get to die after all!”
“Ratlings versus the hordes of Chaos?” Skeek cried, almost happily. “It hardly seems fair!”
“You’re right,” Squit replied, scrambling toward relative safety as the dismounted orcs and their wolves formed defensive squares to hold off the tireless undead. “They’ll wipe us out!”
“Hell, cousin!” Skeek shouted back, holding his pike aloft and looking downright dashing. “I meant it wasn’t fair to them!”
“Fuck, Skeek,” Squit complained, “what color is the sky in your world?”
“Fuck you!” Skrall fought afoot now, his wolf snarling and biting beside him, tearing at the mass of dead things that had clawed up from the ground. Heartened, the overwhelmed elves had reformed and were once more advancing.
Now, Skrall fought both zombie and elf, not sure which one he hated more. His cutlass hewed down a golden-haired spearmen, then an instant later, sliced through the brittle ribcage of a lurching skeleton. The squares held, as the chittering ratlings swarmed to reinforce them, but the undead seemed limitless. Now, backed by the reformed elves, they might be able to overcome the normally-impregnable squares.
“We’re in trouble, cap’n!” shouted a nearby warrior, face covered in wild warpaint. “Gonna die where we stand!”
“At least we don’t hafta worry about bein’ saved by ratlings!” Skrall bellowed, smashing two fleshless skulls together in an explosion of dusty bone fragments.
“Yeah!” the warrior said. “Only thing worse’d be bein’ saved by dwarves!”
A light cavalryman galloped up. Both he and his mount were streaked with sweat and panting heavily.
“Dire news!” he shouted. “The elves’ allies have conjured up hordes of undead to stop our advance, chaos warriors come, and bats and other flying things fill the air! The wolf-riders are surrounded and the ratlings have been cut off. The dwarves advance under Lady Li, but they may be overwhelmed as well.”
Narisha swore. “I tried to tell the idiots to stay in formation, but did they listen? Hell, no.” She turned, her long cloak swirling, and strode back toward her human and orcish foot troops, who filed almost casually along the road behind.
“Lords and ladies!” she bellowed. “It seems that we’re needed! Please advance at the double and hope that there are ratlings and orcs left to save!”
Officers grinned and soldiers shouted, and the column moved forward at a speedy pace. They would add considerable backbone to the mismatched and disorganized advance, but the power of Ezikhan’s necromancy would need more than strong backs and sword arms.
Back at the cluster of misfits and sailors that passed for a command staff, Narisha spied Shardinn the wizard, looking thin and nervous astride a grey gelding.
“Hail, spell-man!” she shouted. “What can you do against the undead?”
“Axes of the dwarves! The dwarves are upon thee!”
Up and down the line, the dwarves took up the cry, brandishing weapons, pounding on shields, and a few bizarre individuals actually casting off armor, biting at shields and foaming at the mouth.
At the head of his troops, Thjorkill, resplendent in gilded armor and iron helm, pointed at the roiling mass of combatants ahead, nodded at Li with a fierce grin and bellowed.
And the dwarves sprang forward at a...
Well, Li noted, at a fast walk.
“Even when the hurry they’re slow,” Li grumbled, striding beside a mass of dwarf axemen.
“Truly, who would want to hurry to a battle?” Tanu asked, unsheathing his sword. He wore a mail coif with holes for his ears, and a leather breastplate. A round shield was strapped to his arm, and he had wrapped his legs and forearms with studded leather. He was, Li had to admit, even more dashing and handsome than normal.
“We do, if we want to live,” Li replied.
On came the dwarves.
The chaos warriors, undead and elves broke against the orcish square, and fell back, but like an ocean wave, they gathered their strength and prepared to advance again. From the ground, fallen warriors rose, eyes blank, limbs moving like puppets, now necromantically-driven parodies of the living beings they had once been. Elf, orc and ratling zombies now shuffled to attack the square.
“One more charge and they’ll take us down,” Skrall said, grimly. He bled from a dozen wounds but didn’t seem to mind. His cutlass was notched and scarred, and ran with blood from elves and ichor from the undead. “It was nice knowing you, rat.”
Squitter glared back. “Damned defeatist. We’ll stand and fight to the last.”
“Yeah,” Skrall replied, “but we’ll still all die.” He waved his battered shield toward a low rise perhaps a hundred paces distant. “See that old boy up there on the hill? He’s the one who’s calling up the zombies and sending ‘em in to attack again. He’ll keep doin’ it until we’re all dancin’ to his tune!”
Squit looked up. A dark figure wreathed in a blowing black cloak stood there. He squinted — his eyesight was better at close range, like most of his kind.
“It’s a babe, Skrall,” he observed. “Really pale and sick-lookin’, though.”
Skrall nodded. “Vampire.” He glanced up at the sky, dark now with clouds and swirling hordes of bats. “Must be usin’ magic to come out during the day. She’s the problem, not those fuckin’ zombies.”
“Should we go after her?” Squit wondered aloud.
“Fuck, you little rodent,” Skrall spat back. “We’d never make it through. They’d cut us to pieces before we got half-way.”
“I didn’t mean you damned green-skinned lummoxes,” Squit replied. “I meant us. We can slip through those fuckin’ ear-boys and skellies and go after her.”
Skrall frowned. “You guys’re crazier than I thought.”
“Hey, it’s a hell of a lot better’n stayin’ here and dying like... Well, like...”
“Like rats?” said a nearby voice.
“Oh, fuck, don’t tell me...” Squit turned to see his cousin standing at the head of a motley assortment of ratlings — uniformed troops from Skeek’s unit, rag-clad youths, veterans clad in cast off pieces of armor, and others.
“Great suckling mother, cousin,” Skeek said, “you’re getting more like me every day. Shall we attack?”
Squit felt his whiskers vibrate in annoyance.
“Yeah, what the hell?” he said at last. “At least if we all get killed I won’t have to deal with you anymore.”
Skeek squealed. “On to victory, then! Death or glory!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Squit replied sourly. “Death or glory.”
A tide of dark-furred fury swarmed out from the orcish square, flowing like water through the ring of steel that surrounded it. A few fell, but most swept on, ducking under sword-blows, darting between legs, leaping over piles of corpses and scrambling down the other side.
“Onward! For ratling glory!” Skeek shouted.
“Shut the fuck up and run!” Squitter shouted back.
“Perhaps I was wrong to drill my troops in human ways,” Skeek continued, panting alongside Squitter, dodging a massive axe, wielded by a black-armored chaos warrior. “Perhaps we should fight in our own way, not the humans.”
“You mean like rats?” Squit asked.
“Something like that. Come on, lads! Have at’ em!”
On the tide rushed, pouring like water around the enemy, as the orcs set weapons and prepared to receive the charge.
“You sure they’re not just runnin’ and only tellin’ us they’re attacking that vamp?” grunted an orc named Sergeant Zgash who stood beside Skrall, grounding his halberd and tensing as the untidy crowd of elves, zombies and chaos warriors formed up and began to move forward.
“Nah!” Skrall replied. “The little bastard Squit’s okay. He’s true blue. Musta been an orc in a previous life!”
“Let’s hope so!” Zgash said. “Here the fuckers come again!”
Skrall lifted his heavy cutlass once more, noting that it was in poor condition from chipping at hard bone and solid skulls. He grunted resignedly as an elf raced at him, red-shafted spear leveled at his chest.
He waited until the blood-crusted point was just a handspan from his heart, then lashed out with his shield, knocking the weapon aside. The elf barreled forward, unable to stop, and conveniently impaled himself on Skrall’s blade. The elf fell, twitching wrenching the cutlass from Skrall’s grasp.
“Grunk’s flaming cock!” Skrall snarled, searching for a weapon, then grabbing the spear from the elf’s nerveless fingers and stabbing at the looming bulk of a heavily-armored chaos warrior. The point broke and the shaft splintered, but the thing fell back, slipping on the bloody ground and falling atop the dead elf.
Skrall screamed incoherently, flinging himself atop the warrior. The thing’s spiked armor cut his flesh, but he didn’t care, pulling a brace of daggers from his belt and stabbing downward. The warrior looked up at him from behind its demon-visor, and its eyes burned like twin coals.
A moment of sheer anger and hatred washed over Skrall. This was no orc, no human, no dwarf, no elf... War was a way of life for his people, but only with those things that bled and died, those things that fought and resisted — enemies to be cherished and respected, and slain without mercy... This was no mortal thing, it was a beast, an alien, a true enemy...
Skrall slammed his two fists down, guiding the daggers unerringly through the beast’s eyeslits, stabbing into the twin burning coals. A terrible heat suddenly shot through Skrall’s hands and arms — the warrior convulsed, then collapsed beneath him as if it had been crafted of cheap pottery, shattering like a hollow thing, a faint wisp of smoke rising into the air, then dissipating.
Skrall’s hand closed around a fallen mace, and he swung it upward, blasting into fragments the ribcage of a skeleton, then smashing downward to shatter the skull of another elf spearmen.
“Get ‘em, Skrall!” Zgash roared, trading blows with a zombie. “Orcs forever!”
Skrall scrambled to his feet, and the two fought on, shoulder to shoulder.
The elves, zombies and chaos warriors seemed unconcerned with the flood of verminous humanoids surging around them; perhaps the elves thought the cowardly ratlings were retreating. The chaos warriors were intent on more worthy foes, and the undead simply didn’t care. Up the hill the ratlings scrambled, Squit and Skeek leading the charge.
“Hey, babe!” Squit shouted, gathering himself to leap. “Time to party!”
The vampiress spun to face the tide of ratlings, black hair swirling, opened her mouth to display her fangs, and hissed angrily. If Squit were a human he might have found her attractive, but now he only saw her as someone else standing between him and his next meal. Below, the undead paused in their advance as their mistress’ concentration was broken.
Then they were on her, a hairy carpet of biting, clawing, stabbing fury. Squit grabbed an arm, wrenching away the black wand she carried, sending it flying. Skeek was around one leg, tugging and biting, until she fell, shrieking, clawing back at the ratlings, sending one or two flying, blood spurting. But there were too many for her, too many...
“Bitch ain’t dyin’, cuz!” Squit shouted as he watched the gashes and scratches he’d made in the vampiress’ flesh heal almost as quickly as they were created. They’d pretty much shredded her tunic and ripped off most of her jewelry, but she continued to fight, ripping ratlings apart with hands and fangs. They still had a huge edge in numbers, but if they couldn’t find a way to finish her off...
“Back!” Skeek bellowed, and advanced with a broken spear shaft. Squit released his hold on the vampiress’ arm and rolled away as his cousin raced into the fray, shaft clutched in his paws.
Time seemed to slow, moving along with each heartbeat as Skeek leaped, shaft held tightly, and plunged down, the spear thrusting between the vampiress’ blood-streaked breasts... Down... down...
The splintered wood stabbed into the monster’s chest, and thrust through her like a sword of finest steel. Her shriek was deafening, but it faded almost instantly as her body disintegrated, flesh falling away, leaving only weathered bones. Then the bones were gone, and the vampiress was nothing more than a pile of grey dust.
Squit and Skeek sat, panting, as around them the ratlings exulted, squeaking and squealing. Below, the skeletons and zombies fell, disintegrating like their mistress, until the field was blowing with their dust.
Suddenly, the undead stopped moving, fell and crumbled to dust. The enemy’s numbers were instantly cut to a quarter of their original size.
“He did it! The fucking rat-bastard did it!” Skrall shouted, and waved his orcs forward. “Form up! Form up on me! Advance! Ratlings ’n orcs forever!”
Moving like the born warriors they were, the orcs shifted formation, forming a dense mass, ten deep, and charging forward into the now-confused and scattered elves and chaos warriors.
Behind them, a mass of burly, armored warriors appeared, marching slowly but resolutely behind a lithe, orange-and-black striped female.
“Send the word to advance in support of the knights!” Van Leuter shouted as Throvus’ wedges of glittering riders spurred forward, plowing through the slow-moving undead like scythes across ripe wheat.
“I obey!” Zhelig replied, and galloped off.
“Shall we follow, Marshal?” Livia asked. Mounted on a chestnut mare, she was decently clad now, in a blue tunic, a skull-topped wand clutched in one hand — how she had brought it along as a bird, Van Leuter had no clue... Mysterious were the ways of wizards...
And totally heretical, as well... The notion of a sorceress helping to lead a Litharnan army to victory would have been anathema to such as Ruthvaar, but there were no priests here to countermand him, so if the wizardess wished to help, then help she would.
“I say we shall, sorceress!” Van Leuter spurred his horse forward. “We live and die by the next few moments, all of us!”
“You,” said Livia, trotting behind “are an overflowing fount of optimism and cheerful thoughts!”
“Try leading the last stand of humanity and see how optimistic it makes you, lady,” Van Leuter called back at her.
The knights battered through the undead, leaving vast channels behind them. The Litharnan army followed.
Zarrabeth’s destruction shot through Ezikhan like a crossbow bolt. The vampiress had been the lynchpin of his defense in the rear, and now she was dead, and a mass of orcs, ratlings and — now, he sensed with growing fear — dwarves rushed through the gap. The elves’ entire rear was in peril now, and unless he could stop the advance, the entire army would be destroyed.
“You!” he shouted, pointing to one of the few surviving elvish marshals. “See to the front! The humans are advancing and you are to hold them as long as possible! My necromancers and I will deal with the enemy to our rear! Do this now! I command it!”
The marshal, a woman clad in silver-blue armor and a plumed conical helm, hesitated for a moment, her eyes reflecting a combination of anger, fear, and defiance.
“Obey me, or serve me as one of them!” Ezikhan gestured at the rotting corpses that had once been elves, now serving as his bodyguard. “Do this now! I command it!”
Reluctantly, the woman turned and began to shout orders. There were few elves left from the original army; perhaps enough to hold the Litharnan advance while Ezikhan dealt with the humans’ upstart allies. Once the elves were dead, of course, they would serve him far more faithfully and unquestioningly. They had been little more than a convenience to him from the beginning, after all.
“Keldar!” the liche ordered, pointing to his chief adjutant with his staff. “Take a regiment of zombies and reinforce the line to our rear! I will join you with my dragon!”
Keldar, the human necromancer, stared back with weary eyes, and nodded, urging his fleshless, undead horse forward.
“I obey,” he said, but his voice was ragged, as if at the end of his strength.
Ezikhan watched for a moment, then spoke to his gigantic reptilian mount.
“Up, Iskhana!” Ezikhan urged. “Let us see how these fools deal with us!”
The great dragon seemed as reluctant as the elf-woman; the death of her mate tore at her, and to Ezikhan’s enhanced senses, it seemed that some strange web of sorcery was all that restrained her from turning her fury on him. He kicked her and struck at her great scaly neck with his staff.
“Up! Up! You serve me! Up!”
Snarling wordlessly, given entirely up to grief and anger, the dragon took to the sky.
At long last, the bandy-legged warriors joined the fight, filling gaps in the orc/ratling line as they pressed forward against the failing elves and Chaos warriors. In the distance, the Litharnans advanced, cutting through the undead screen, squeezing the elves tighter into the vise.
“On, brothers! Slay!” Li was in her element, leaping and bounding, whirling like a mad thing, slicing with twin swords, then jumping nimbly away. An elf fell to her spinning blades, then a chaos warrior, then another elf.
A distance away, Li heard Tanu’s savage howling, and the screams of elves. They were separated now, but she was not concerned. She and the wolfen could handle themselves in battle.
An armored warrior with two gigantic axes swung at her, barely missing. The massive, rune-covered blade shattered the rocky ground and stuck for a moment as the thing tried to wrench it forth. Li ducked as the other axe arced over her, then rolled and came up at the warrior’s feet. She stabbed upward with one blade, but the warrior’s gorget warded off the attack.
The axe came free and the warrior moved again to the attack, wielding the twin weapons as if they were light rapiers. Instinctively, Li parried, her blades ringing against the axes. It did little good — the thing was strong and apparently tireless. She struck at its helm and it flinched. She stabbed at the gap between its breastplate and pauldron and scored, feeling the blade bite real flesh.
The warrior roared in anger and struck again. One axe descended onto her saber and with a spark, her blade shattered, broken pieces whirling away. Again, Li gave ground, flinging aside the broken hilt of her weapon.
Damn... gods... ancestors... She was growing tired, and the monster seemed incapable of fatigue. She jumped, avoiding another deadly slash, but the flat of the second axe took her in the shoulder, knocking her down, onto the ground littered with corpses and broken weapons. Trying to rise, feeling pain in almost every muscle, she slipped on a bloody breastplate and fell. Above her, the chaos warrior descended, arms windmilling as axe blow after axe blow smashed upon her. She dodged, scrambled back, rolled away, and none of the blows connected, instead battering the ground, slicing through dead bodies or smashing skeletons.
Li knew she was tiring and now it was only a matter of moments before the warrior had her...
Then a rush of short, armored figures surged over her, axes and hammers swinging, and a familiar voice shouted.
...And a half-dozen dwarves now beset the warrior, hacking at his chest and arms and legs. The warrior swung its axes, and a dwarf went flying, blood geysering.
Summoning what remained of her strength, Li gathered herself to spring, her single remaining saber poised.
“Kaitia!” she shouted, leaping, sword thrusting. Down onto the chaos warrior she fell, the impetus of her leap driving the bloody blade through the thing’s neck, piercing its gorget and stabbing through to the other side. With a gurgling scream, the warrior flailed with its axes, once more knocking Li down. She landed heavily on her shoulder, and looked up, hoping to see the armored giant totter and fall.
It didn’t. The fell powers that controlled it kept the beast moving, and it swung to face her, black blood still pouring from its wound, and raised both axes for the final blow on her.
“We die together!” echoed a fearsome voice from inside the helm, but before the twin axes could descend, a diminutive figure appeared between Li and her opponent, swinging his own twin-bladed axe with almost unbelievable force, smashing a deep gash in the warrior’s breastplate, sending forth a gush of blood and entrails.
“Fuck you!” shouted the dwarf.
The chaos warrior had one last burst of strength, however, and the two axes fell, not on Li, but on the dwarf who had saved her, hammering down into his shoulders, smashing armor and cutting flesh. Both fell in a colossal tangle of bloody limbs and broken steel.
Li panted, red and black flashes obscuring her vision. Her shoulder and several ribs were certainly broken, and possibly more. Fighting shock and pain, she dragged herself toward the fallen dwarf. To her shock and horror, he was still alive, eyes flickering with fading consciousness.
“Udo,” she gasped. “Udo, thank you...”
“Tell ‘em,” the dwarf said, urgently, with the last of his strength. “Tell ‘em how I died...”
Then he was gone, and Li collapsed on the body, falling into darkness and silence.
The final line of alliance troops advanced at a run. Narisha leaned low, clinging as her horse galloped recklessly ahead. Shardinn remained alongside her, holding his reins in a deathgrip with one hand, and his staff with the other.
“You ready?” she shouted. “We’ll be there in a moment!”
“I’m never ready!” Shardinn replied. “But I keep surviving anyway!”
Ahead, the struggle looked as if their intervention would finally tip the balance. Dwarves, orcs and ratlings pressed ahead despite horrific losses, pushing the elves back. Beyond, the Litharnans advanced, cutting swaths through the foul hordes of undead.
Suddenly, a dark shadow blotted out the sun, and Narisha looked up to see...
“Ware! Dragon! Dragon!”
She didn’t know where the shout came from, but it had the desired effect. As the beast descended, wings like sails, teeth like swords, Narisha’s army scattered, its forward motion broken. A cloud of terrible flames exploded from the dragon’s jaws, and rolled toward Narisha and her troops.
Narisha’s horse reared and she fell as the fireball engulfed them. In the roar of superheated air, she heard Shardinn chanting, even as the flames incinerated her horse and roasted her armor.
She rolled on the ground, feeling her hair burning, and the searing touch of the flames.
Demon I am, she thought. It takes more than that to kill me...
Narisha sprang to her feet. Her skin was blistered and smoking, her armor gone, but she still held her enchanted blade, and beside her Shardinn stood untouched, the last glimmers of hastily-created magical defenses fading from the great staff. His robes smoked and he looked somewhat worse for the wear, but at least he was alive.
As was Narisha, and that was a good thing, for they were the only two left to confront the scale-armored, winged nightmare and its corpse-like rider that now towered before them.
She glanced over at the wizard. He looked at her questioningly.
“Hell, I’m game if you are,” she said, grinning. “Want to take them on?”
Shardinn shrugged. “A second rate sorcerer and a naked demoness against a dragon and a liche?” he asked. “I’ve seen worse odds.”
The rider looked down, focusing its burning, eyeless gaze as if seeing them for the first time.
“Flee before me, puny mortals,” it hissed in a voice that was at once quiet and loud as a trumpet blast. “Flee and live. Stay and become my servants.”
“You’ve been reading too many bad novels, dragon-rider,” she replied. “No one talks like that anymore.”
The thing laughed — a worn-out, gasping sound. “I care not! I am Ezikhan, slayer of the high king, and master of the soulless legions!”
Shardinn blanched. “Ezikhan...” he said, fearfully.
“You know my name, man,” the liche said. “Then you know my power. And my mount, Iskhana, Burner of Cities!”
Shardinn’s expression changed to a frown and he looked at the dragon.
“Iskhana.” His voice was quiet.
Then, to Narisha’s surprise, the dragon met his gaze, and spoke in a voice that was strained, agonized, like a man crying for mercy on the torturer’s rack.
“Wizard... Help me...”
Realization flashed in Shardinn’s eyes and he stepped back, hands weaving sparks through the air.
“The liche!” he cried. “Take him! I’ll deal with the dragon!”
Whatever you say, Narisha thought, and moved instantly.
No weapon, no armor... What’s my best alternative...?
A moment later, a red-and-black striped creature with a tiger’s body and terrible stabbing teeth leaped through the air, scrambling up the dragon’s side and onto the liche. Only the burning hatred in the beast’s yellow eyes showed that it was still Narisha.
Ezikhan laughed and batted at the creature, flinging her aside. She rebounded off Iskhana’s wing and fell to the ground, but rolled back to her feet and leaped again. This time Ezikhan’s response wasn’t quite fast enough, and Narisha enveloped him in massive paws, bearing him out of the saddle as Shardinn chanted, mana sparks swirling around him, then exploding outward from his staff.
Narisha had the wizard in her claws, but it didn’t seem to do any good. For all the creature’s frailty, it was amazingly strong and resilient. She tried a swipe with one paw, only to have Ezikhan shrug the attack off and strike her once more, pounding her side and bashing ribs.
Fuck, first that asshole in Xesh and now this fool, she thought. I’m going to have to start working out more...
Suddenly, a rush of almost unbearable magical force swirled around her like a cyclone. She and Ezikhan staggered, falling apart, desperately trying to weather the unexpected storm of magic. Through the glowing blue-green whirl, she heard shouting and awful screams of agony.
“Wizard! Wizard! Free me!” It was Iskhana, her voice contorted with pain. “The dark one has me... Please...”
Other screams joined those of the dragon; it was Shardinn, crying out as the magic took him, too... The dragon was in the grip of a powerful spell, and fighting it battered the wizard horribly.
Through the torrent of magic, Narisha fought to attack the necromancer again. More susceptible and aware of the mana around him, Ezikhan responded slowly, obviously agonized by the nearby battle. She was on him, claws out, ripping at emaciated flesh. With a rush of strength, however, Ezikhan rolled atop her, his fleshless face leering down at her.
“Your kind has an unfortunate tendency not to die when politely asked to,” the liche hissed. “I think I will correct that oversight once I rule this world.”
“Don’t fucking count on it.” Narisha’s voice rose up from her throat, a semi-animal growl. “We have a nasty habit of outlasting our enemies...”
Ezikhan’s hands encircled Narisha’s thick tiger’s neck, and husked in a dry, deadly voice.
“Not... this... time... demon...”
Darkness crowded around Narisha. She struggled, lashing at the liche with her claws, desperately trying to dislodge him. Her snarls faded, and her struggles grew weaker.
What a fucking stupid way to die, she thought. Strangled by a dead elf...
Suddenly, the weight of Ezikhan’s body lifted, and his hands were torn from Narisha’s throat. She looked up to see the liche struggling in the jaws of...
The liche’s great, loyal mount... Free of whatever compulsion drove her, whatever evil had possessed her, she turned on her master and savaged him, shaking him like a toy. The necromancer struggled, but to no avail as the great curved fangs pierced his body. As Narisha watched, feeling her demon-form slowly return, the dragon swung its head and flung Ezikhan’s body to the sward.
“Fool!” Iskhana cried, voice like a thunderclap. “I served you once, but you betrayed our brothers and sisters, and slew the holiest of rulers! Then I served you only because I was compelled to... Now I am free to unleash all my hatred!”
On the ground, the broken necromancer moved feebly, holding his hands up defensively.
“No!” he shouted, voice like ice shattering. “I only wanted what was best for our people! I only did what I needed to do! Spare me!”
“Die, traitor!” Iskhana roared, and a burst of flame rushed from her jaws, enveloping Ezikhan and once more washing over Narisha.
Dragonfire twice in one day, she thought. This is some kind of record.
Ezikhan shrieked... If he hadn’t been so badly wounded, he probably would have been able to resist the dragon-fire, but now he was totally defenseless, and his ancient body burned like a torch. He screamed for long moments, kept alive by his unnatural vitality, but eventually the twitching black scarecrow stopped moving, and just burned.
Narisha made certain she was still in one piece, fighting off the terrible effects of the fire. Her flesh was seared, tender, and blistered in places, but when she touched her head, Narisha felt a scream building up in her throat...
“Where is my fucking hair?”
Rank after rank of undead perished before the advancing Imperial knights; a few of the armored forms fell, overwhelmed by sheer numbers, but the wedges of warriors continued to grind forward, hewing left and right, stabbing with lances, hacking with axes.
“Follow!” Van Leuter shouted, waving his sword. “Follow! Don’t let the enemy close in behind them!”
Behind him, squares of Litharnan halberdiers, landsknechts and other footsoldiers pushed forward. The broad channels cut through the enemy by the Imperials threatened to close up like the ocean around a rock, but the Litharnan advance kept them from doing so; hundreds, thousands of skeletons, zombies and other shambling aberrations fell.
“The elves!” Van Leuter cried. “On to the real enemies!”
The glittering ranks of elven spearmen were only a short distance away now. More and more undead collapsed; many without being struck by weapons. It was as if the power that drove them forward had finally petered out, and at last they collapsed and returned to their original lifeless forms.
“It’s a miracle, My Lord!” shouted Karlus. The knight rode beside Van Leuter; his armor was dented, rent and blood-stained, but he still lived. “The undead ones are falling!”
“Phaedra... I mean... Kybor be praised!” Van Leuter replied. “Speed the advance, then! We must get to grips with the elves!”
Ahead, a trio of winged, fanged monstrosities with weapons of fire stood — more of the daemons summoned by the enemy. But their outlines were faint, out of focus, as if they were struggling to maintain their grip on physical form.
“Attack!” Van Leuter commanded, and a wedge of Litharnan horsemen formed around him. “Destroy the daemons!”
Iskhana lay on her side, breathing heavily.
“My mate is dead; this I know,” she said, feebly. “My own time is short.”
“I’m sorry, dragon,” Narisha replied. “You fought well.”
“I fought against all that my kind believes is right and good,” Iskhana said. “Would that I could undo the damage I have done.”
“You were under compulsion,” Narisha told her. “You needn’t fear; I’ll tell everyone the truth about you and your kind.”
Iskhana choked with a rush of sulpherous air.
“It was Thae’lynn,” she said. “The dark one. I felt her. She and her people crafted the spell that enslaved us. She used us against you, and used the elf-woman, Vaenetha to seduce Feanor into making war on the world... She has undone us, and destroyed my race.”
Narisha glowered. It was the confirmation of everything Daedora had said.
“We’ll avenge you, dragon,” she said. “And we will honor your memory.”
“This world...” Iskhana said, softly, a voice no louder than a whisper emerging from her cavernous throat. “This world was made for my people... But we fell into evil and corruption, and were cursed... Now at last, we die, and the curse is ended...”
Narisha felt the tug of unfamiliar emotions — sorrow and pity, and the distant sting of tears.
Damn you, Livia, you’ve made me an emotional wreck...
“Farewell, dragon,” she said. “May the next world treat you more kindly.”
Iskhana took a deep, final breath, and was still.
Narisha turned away, sadly.
“Shardinn?” she called. “Where the hell are you, wizard? That was a hell of a trick you pulled. Come on out, I’ll buy you a...”
She stopped. Shardinn lay motionless on the blackened ground. Feeling her heart racing, Narisha kneeled beside the wizard.
The sorcerer’s eyes stared up, empty and lifeless.
In the distance, the clash of arms rose and fell. The last of the undead had fallen and now the elves, caught between two armies, were making their final stand.
“We won, Shardinn,” she said softly. “Thanks to you. You saved us, you damned sorcerer.”
Now the tears came, and for the first time in her life, Narisha could not stop them.
The only thing sadder than a battle lost, Livia thought as she guided her horse through the gathering twilight, is a battle won.
At least half of the Litharnan army and their allies had perished. Broken skeletons and butchered zombies lay, once more at peace, beside countless other bodies — once-proud Imperial knights, armor rent and bloody; Litharnan pikemen; dwarven warriors; ratlings; humans; orcs, and others... All slain in the same cause, dead together on the field of honor, along with countless bodies of their foes. Golden-haired elves in priceless, ancient armor, bearing millennia-old weapons, lay still and bloodless, never again to see the glory that had once been their realm.
A few elves survived as prisoners, sitting and staring in mute horror and exhaustion, guarded by Litharnan soldiers. Feanor’s nightmare vision was over at last, and now even they knew that their ancient enemies, the dark elves, were behind the war.
A figure approached out of the gloom. Naked, battered and, to Livia’s shock, almost hairless, Narisha limped along, bearing a motionless, robed body. Livia dismounted and hurried to the demoness. When she saw the body, she gasped.
“Shardinn?” she said. “How did it happen?”
Narisha set the body down gently. “Fighting the dragon. He broke the spell that held her, and she killed the liche. He saved us all, Livia. Gave himself up to save us. Poor, stupid, brave bastard.” She shook her head.
Livia kneeled beside Shardinn. “Udo’s dead, too, the idiot. Skrall might lose his arm. Li’s in the infirmary, but they say she’ll be all right. Squit’s okay, but the ratlings must have lost hundreds.” She looked across the battlefield as the sun faded and darkness swallowed them up. “Every one of them was someone’s son or daughter. Every one of them felt love and hate and anger and pity. That they’re all dead is...” She faltered. “It’s almost beyond comprehension.”
Narisha swallowed hard. “You were right, Livia. You and I have both been selfish and thoughtless and... Well, you’re better with the words than I am.” She kneeled and put her arm around Livia’s shoulders. “At least we’re alive now. And we have each other.”
Livia nodded. “I love you, Narisha. I’ve said that so often before, but now I’m going to show it.” She sighed. “It looks as if they’re going to make Field Marshal Van Leuter their new ruler. He wants to meet with us and discuss the dark elf situation.”
“What about the dark elf situation? I’m sorry, but I’ve been slightly out of communication lately.”
“The dark elves have invaded the elven isles. They’re opening up dimensional gates as they advance, reinforcing their army with daemons. With their army wiped out, the elves’ll have almost nothing to defend with. If Thae’lynn manages to take the Silver Tower, everything we’ve done here will have been for nothing.”
“So what’s going to happen?” Narisha sounded weary, but resigned to her fate.
“We go south with another army to save the Silver Lady. We can’t let the dark elves win, not ever. First we fought against the high elves, now we’re fighting for them. It’s an insane world.”
Narisha sighed. “It never ends, does it?”
“It will end, Narisha. Soon.” Livia stood and turned toward his horse. “It has to, or we’re all finished.”
“Let’s hope that Wulf has made some progress, eh?”
“All I hope is that he’s still alive,” Livia said. “If he comes back safe, I’ll be satisfied.”
Narisha paused and spoke slowly, as if reluctant to reveal her own fears.
“Me too, Livia. Me too.”
Slowly, as the sun sank, huge and bloody, over the battlefield, the army began to come back together, coalescing into something resembling an organized band. Marshal — no, they were calling him “Prince” now; it was a title he felt he would never get used to — Van Leuter led his horse. His armor weighed on him, feeling for all the world as if every one of the sins and pain of existence rode on his shoulders.
“We’ve a prisoner, my lord!” a voice echoed from the shadows. Sir Zhelig approached, leading a small group of pikemen. Behind them, hands bound, a rope around his neck, shuffled a pale figure.
“Put him with the others,” Van Leuter said wearily. “We’ll sort them all out tomorrow.”
“I think this one is special, your grace,” said one of the pikemen, yanking on the rope, causing the figure to stumble forward. “We found him half-dead under one of their dragons. Tell him your name, prick-ears.”
The elf looked warily at Van Leuter. His eyes were the same pure blue as the rest of his race, but they carried a hint of madness. He had been stripped of his armor, and he wore only a torn, filthy tunic, but there was a dignity in his bearing that could not be denied.
“I am Lord Marshal Feanor,” he said, proudly. “Commander of all the Silver Lady’s armies, and avenger of my people.”
Van Leuter stared for a moment, then spoke softly.
“It seems, my lord,” he said, “that we have much to discuss.”
The last of the broken Sea Griffon fleet vanished behind us. A few ships had managed to escape, but for the moment there was nothing left to oppose us. I took small comfort in the fact that neither I nor my unit had been called upon to fight — that had been left to the warships and marines. I hoped that Admiral Nae’mitz and his crew had at least escaped to fight again.
The elven homelands materialized out of the mists a few days later. Herula and I stood near the bow, watching. There were few suitable landing beaches; in most places the trees grew to the water’s edge. Thae’lynn’s wizards solved this particular issue by blasting down acres of trees with black stormclouds of sorcerous energy. Within hours, massive stretches of the coastline were smoldering ruins, and the landings began.
“It’ll be hours before we’re ashore,” I said. “I suppose we should just take it easy in the meantime.”
Herula nodded. “I suppose under other circumstances I’d suggest that you take me below and make love to me, but this simply doesn’t seem like the best time for it.”
“I’d say it’s the best time of all,” commented an amused voice from behind us. “Make love while you can, I always say, for at any time you may feel the icy hand of death upon your heart. Isn’t that the truth, Chuma?”
“Well, Rees, other than the fact that I’d like to kill you for eavesdropping, all I do is say that you really need to get laid,” I said.
Rees looked sad. “Since I’m sure you’re not offering I suppose that will have to wait,” he said and glanced up. “Do you think it will rain? It always rains on the unloved.”
Before I had a chance to reply, Natuk the Wolfen and Kami the Desertlander appeared. Natuk was a tough, one-eyed outcast with patchy fur, and Kami a cryptic, dusky woman covered with ritual scars. I trusted them both, and hoped that the sentiment was returned.
“The others would like to know when we’ll be landing,” Kami asked. “Have you heard any word?”
I shrugged. “Since when do they tell us anything? I think we’re here primarily to catch arrows for the dark elves.”
Natuk growled. “You are as enthusiastic about this invasion as the others, my captain?”
“If they would rather storm an orc’s cesspit than the elven islands, then I’d say that you were correct, Sergeant,” I replied.
Natuk joined us at the railing. Kami held back, but looked wary nonetheless.
“Soon,” I said. “Soon we’ll be ashore and we’ll see what happens.”
Natuk cast me a knowing look from his one good eye.
“Whatever your orders, my captain, we will follow you.”
I returned his gaze.
“I’ll be counting on it, Sergeant.”
Lord Cammon the Flayer adjusted the straps on his helm and turned to review his troops. Rank upon rank of crimson-skinned warriors stood at attention; in the distance lay the great sky-ships that would transport them to the dark elven realms. Hunting beasts, land dragons, behemoths, wyverns, and other exotic beasts stood under the control of their trainers, as ready as his warriors to spread havoc among the enemy.
“My comrades!” he shouted. “We fly to war for the first time in generations. The Zhalha’sarr’im have awakened our ancient enemies, and opened up the way for them to follow us to this world that has been our refuge! We did not want war, but we believe that the dark ones have gone mad, and that their minds are as wild and violent as our own ever-changing realm. We must stop their madness, if necessary with fire and steel. Our enemies cannot be allowed access to this world, and it is our duty to fight so that they can be driven back to the darkness that spawned them.”
He raised up his whip, the symbol of his rank.
“On, my warriors. Victory or oblivion!”
As one, the demons’ members of a race that was chaos embodied, that never acted in concert save when their entire species was in jeopardy, shouted in response.
“Victory or oblivion!”
With that, the massive demon army began to file toward the waiting sky-ships.