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Total War Heaven » Forums » Bardic Circle - War Stories & AAR forum » Sepia Joust VIII- Set your Fantasy Free (Submissions Scroll)
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Topic Subject:Sepia Joust VIII- Set your Fantasy Free (Submissions Scroll)
Terikel Grayhair
Imperator
(id: Terikel706)
posted 31 August 2014 04:56 EDT (US)         
The tittering drumroll petered out as the trumpets began their blaring call. The gates opened to allow two columns of gaily decorated horses to enter. Each horse bore a knight in gleaming armor, and each knight bore a lance with pennants streaming in the wind. The bass drums began bomming as the columns separated, then turned to face the tribune where the Host and Hostess of the Joust stood waiting.

The Lady dropped her handkerchief. As it gently fluttered to the ground below, the Lord of the Joust called out to the knights below:

Let the Joust Begin!


(Note:- this is the Submissions Scroll. Only post submissions here. Discussions and comments are reserved for the Discussion scoll. Terikel's story will be posted on or about 8 September, to give others the chance to get that first impression in.

Voting will commence in two weeks or so when this scroll closes. Please reserve your votes for that scroll.

We at Heaven games appreciate your participation and diligence in posting correctly. )

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
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Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII

[This message has been edited by Terikel Grayhair (edited 09-01-2014 @ 11:45 AM).]

AuthorReplies:
General Sajaru
Tribunus Laticlavius
posted 31 August 2014 08:49 EDT (US)     1 / 3       
Fried Chicken

28th of Willius, 596
Near Wamba, Slovenia, Arbatros

Lieutenant Emma Athney, heavy platoon, fifth company, tenth regiment, Steel Legion, shivered as the chill wind sliced right through her cloak. It might still supposedly be spring in northern Slovenia, but it didn’t much feel like it.

Looking over at Rachel Hawk, her girlfriend and platoon mage, Emma smiled. It was hard not to with Rachel; it had been less than two years since their return from their time in Zhurav, and they were still trying to figure out what their relationship would be like. However it might end up, Emma knew it was going to be fun.

Her smile broadened at the memory of the previous night. It had been the first time they’d slept- for part of the night- in a bed for over a month now. The trek from where tenth regiment was based in the far southern part of Menzobaria was nothing compared to that luxury.

Twice a month, a platoon of troops and five wagons made the trip down to Wamba to pick up fresh food supplies. Mostly, it was livestock- in this case, chickens- brought back to the camp for milk and meat. Wamba was the closest town to tenth regiment’s camp that was on a rail line, so that meant that was where they had to go.

After hearing about the rather pleasant accommodations in Wamba from first platoon, second company’s lieutenant, Emma had volunteered her platoon to do the next supply run. Which meant they were now trudging back through the drifts of dead leaves that carpeted the trail, their colors trampled and rotted to brown.

At the head of the company walked Iris Valesko, first squad’s sergeant, with Tamsin Lovell, its senior mage, and a pair of privates. Likewise, four of her soldiers had rearguard, five were on the wagons, and the remaining twenty guarded the flanks in pairs.

Despite her precautions, Emma still found herself more than a little nervous; her troops- hell, she herself- were infantry, not scouts. And definitely not the famous Menzobarian Rangers, who could spot a stray bird at half a mile and steal your shirt without being spotted.

In the four weeks of their deployment to the area, tenth regiment had found nothing. No orcs, no one trying to slip across the border, and definitely no Zhuravi. However, it was Steel Legion’s turn to be in Menzobaria, and General Lessando wasn’t one to leave her forces sitting around in some combined legion base camp.

Just because it made sense didn’t mean Emma like it though. In fact, she found forward deployment rather a pain in the ass. At least when they’d been in Zhurav- Marebes to be specific- they’d had running water and proper beds. Well, not right away, but once she and Dani had started winning.

Her thoughts seeming to echo Emma’s own, Rachel remarked, “It was nice not having to squeeze two of us onto a cot for once.”

Emma smiled, “You’ve just become spoiled, Rachel. Our long stint in the capital had gotten us used to city living.”

Shrugging, Rachel replied, “What can I say, Em? We’re better suited to city life than this whole humping shit through the bush.”

“Why don’t you wave your hand make things go faster?” Emma teased. “Oh, that’s right; you’re not that sort of mage. You only blow things up.”

“Hey, that’s been useful plenty of times before,” Rachel pointed out. “I don’t recall you complaining about my specialization then.”

“Yeah, well that’s before we had to do quite so much walking around,” the lieutenant shot back. “A spell or two to speed us all up would be more useful now.”

A sudden meaty thwap interrupted them, drawing both of their gazes to the front of their formation in time to see one of the privates clutching at the crossbow quarrel in her throat. Blood, startlingly red against the brown of the leaves, spurted out, and the woman crumpled to the ground.

After staring at the dead- for she was definitely dead- soldier for a fraction of a second, Emma yelled, “Take cover! We’re under attack!” Then she grabbed Rachel by the arm and headed for the shelter of a rock.

More crossbow bolts shot out, felling another pair of her soldiers. Even as Emma began to figure out where they were coming from, she heard a battle cry from behind her column.

Looking back, she saw dozens of men in dull grey chainmail erupt from where they’d been concealed, well back from the trail. Drawing her swords, Emma shouted, “Form up, form line! Mages, I want suppressing fire on those crossbowmen!” Dashing out into the open, she nearly took a crossbow bolt to the face.

“Shit!” Emma swore viciously, wishing- for once- that she carried a shield.

A flaming yellow pea shot past Emma a moment later, arcing out to drop right amongst the archers, where it exploded in an awesome flash of fire, the flames shooting out before curling back on themselves.

She didn’t have time to thank Rachel, but Emma sent a grateful thought her mage’s way. Charging forward, she stabbed out at the first Zhuravi coming towards her, her leading sword knocking his spear aside so she could move inside his reach and stab him in the face with her other blade.

Dancing back from the half dozen other spear points reaching for her, Emma retreated to her meager line. The eighteen remaining sergeants, corporals, and privates formed a staggered line along the side of the trail, ready to repel the attacking Zhuravi.

More potent, however, were the nine squad mages and Rachel behind the line, casting their spells past the spear and shield-wielding soldiers. A volley of magical darts sped out past Emma as she joined the line, striking down a dozen Zhuravi soldiers. For they were indeed Zhuravi; if the style of their armor and weapons hadn’t given it away, the banner with a black star picked out in white on a black field most certainly did.

Undeterred by the magical barrage, the Zhuravi came on, stabbing at the Arbatrosians with their spears. Once again, Emma moved forward, this time as the point of a spearhead formation. Using her left hand blade to parry probing spears aside, she kept her right sword back, flicking it out to stab at unprotected feet, legs, and faces.

Iris was right beside her, the tough sergeant stabbing at the Zhuravi with her longspear even while she used her large shield to block their attacks, protecting Emma’s flank. Spear flashing, she put the foot long steel tip through a man’s momentarily exposed throat, punching through his chainmail to pierce the flesh beneath.

Withdrawing her spear smoothly, Iris stabbed out rapidly, forcing a pair of Zhuravi back from Emma’s side. The lieutenant was practically a blur, and Iris found it hard not to gape at her display of swordsmanship and speed. A spear glancing off the sergeant’s helmet brought her focus rather firmly back to the matter at hand though.

Keeping her hands moving independently of each other, Emma stabbed the closest Zhuravi in the knee, just above his boot. As he stumbled back with a cry of pain, she retracted and slashed the next man in the face. At the last moment, he threw himself backwards, turning a blow that probably would have sheared off part of his head into a deep gash across the forehead.

Blood spilled down into his eyes, and he dropped his spear to try to clear them. Emma took advantage of his impaired state to deal him a killing blow. Whipping her blade around, she knocked aside a pair of spears headed for her body.

More and more Zhuravi poured out from the tree line, trying to overwhelm the Arbatrosians. As their numbers grew, they tried to force the flanks of the line, moving to surround Emma’s vastly outnumbered platoon. Two lines of lightning shot out, momentarily disabusing them of the notion.

Then they surged forward, and Emma realized that the line wasn’t going to hold. “Fall back,” she commanded. “In formation, fall back across the road.”

Even as the Arbatrosians began to retreat, the Zhuravi surged forward, trying to encircle them. Behind Emma, Rachel shouted a word, and a raging ball of flames burst in the midst of the enemy, scattering them and setting them back on their heels.

The momentary respite allowed the platoon to retreat across the trail. Taking stock of the situation, Emma’s heart sank; at this point, there were easily two hundred Zhuravi coming after them, with more still leaving their hiding places. She was good, but not that good.

“Shit,” Rachel muttered, the mage looking at their enemies as well. “They’ve sent at least two companies after us, maybe more.”

“We need to get to a more defensible position,” Emma stated. More loudly, “We’ll fall back to the tree line and move towards that hill, over there. Rachel, do you think you could come up with a little surprise to leave behind?”

Rachel grinned evilly, “I have just the thing.” Chanting briefly, she waved a hand at the middle wagon. “We have about twenty seconds before that goes off.”

“Let’s move!” Emma shouted, and led her platoon away from the trail. Jogging into the tree line, she looked back at where the Zhuravi were reforming and starting after her troops. Suddenly, there was a blinding flash of yellow fire as Rachel’s fireball went off.

As her vision cleared, Emma saw a good forty Zhuravi soldiers lying on the ground, unmoving. At the same time, she smelled the stench of burnt hair and flesh mixed with that of charred feathers, along with the more pleasant smell of cooked- in this case a bit overcooked- chicken. “Damn,” she swore mildly, “now we won’t get any fresh eggs.”

Rachel laughed aloud at that, “Of all the things you might worry about at a time like this.”

Grinning at her girlfriend, Emma led the platoon into the woods at a trot. At this time of year, most of the leaves were changing colors and falling off the trees. It made for rather beautiful scenery, but not the best visibility.

Charging out of the trees and into a rocky clearing just below the hill, Emma sensed something was wrong- some sixth sense of danger warning her about stepping into the clearing. “Get down!” She yelled, even as a crossbow bolt slammed into Rachel’s stomach. The mage fell with a little cry.

Emma threw herself onto the ground, the rest of her platoon quickly followed suit. Someone else cried out, however, and there was a meaty thwack accompanying a cut off gurgle.

“Ah shit,” Rachel moaned, hands clutching at the quarrel in her stomach, “that hurts.”

“Stay down,” Emma ordered in a hiss. Sliding her swords back into their sheaths, she drew her short sword and began to belly-crawl forward. Clearly, the Zhuravi had set up their ambush in advance, just waiting for her platoon to arrive. That meant she had to break free of it immediately, before they could completely encircle her command and slaughter it.

Looking back, she motioned to Tamsin and Iris to follow her, and slunk towards the rocky field. It might provide some good cover for their crossbowmen, but it also provided good cover for those sneaking up on the crossbowmen, as long as you didn’t mind getting a little dirty.

Crawling through the clearing, Emma saw half a dozen Zhuravi peek out from cover long enough to fire their crossbows before ducking back. Catching Tamsin and Iris’s attention, Emma indicated for the sergeant to take the two on the left and the mage the one on the right. Emma saved the middle three for herself.

Moving gracefully across the intervening distance to the first man, Emma waited until he moved out to fire. As soon as his bolt was flying towards her platoon and he was ducking back, she struck. Surging out of the grass, she stabbed him in the throat with her sword. Then she was back down, easing her blade free of his corpse.

A quick scan showed that none of the man’s squad mates had seen her do the deed. Emma moved to a crouch and dashed across the distance between her and the next crossbowman. Coming around his rock, she found him reloading and unaware of his surroundings. She left him on the ground with a slit throat.

The last man fired over her head just before Emma sprang up to stab him in the chest. A sudden blast of pink fire to the right almost made her miss the second man behind the rock. As it was, she had to dive desperately forward to avoid the bolt her fired at her from point blank range.

With a snick, it scored a bright line across her pauldron as she fell. Rolling over, Emma swept her short sword across to knock the man’s sword aside. Mid-swing, he kicked her in the side. Once again, her armor was up to the task of keeping her from grievous harm; this time, however, his attack at least hurt.

Employing her own feet, Emma kicked him in the groin, very hard. The man let out a little gasping, retching sound, and fell backwards. Regaining her feet, Emma stabbed him in the neck.

“Tamsin, Iris?” Emma called out softly, trying to figure out where the other two had gone.

A moment later, Iris moved out from behind a boulder, “Over here.”

“I’m here,” Tamsin announced, then promptly collapsed.

Emma and Iris rushed over to her, going to their knees next to the mage. Feeling for a pulse, for a moment, Emma though she couldn’t find one. Then her fingers found the spot, and she could make out Tamsin’s heartbeat, now weakened by the bolt sticking out of her shoulder.

“We need to get her to the medics,” Iris said urgently.

Shaking her head, Emma replied, “No. All of us need to move to more defensible ground. Take Tamsin and make for that cluster of rocks halfway up the hill,” she ordered. “I’ll meet you there with the rest of the platoon.”

Then Emma was off, running back to get Rachel. Bending down and scooping her girlfriend off the ground- to Emma, the mage weighed barely anything- she waved the platoon forward. “Head for that cluster of rocks,” she directed.

As her troops went past her, Emma looked back through the trees towards the trail. Already, Zhuravi troops were advancing through them after the Arbatrosians. Seeing the number still pursuing her platoon, Emma felt the beginnings of fear creep through her guts. Firmly squashing such thoughts, she hurried after her troops, trying to keep Rachel as stable as possible.

When she reached the cluster of rocks, Emma put Rachel down in the middle, where her platoon’s three medics were already setting up, and started getting people organized. At the moment, she had all three of her sergeants, fourteen corporals and privates, and seven mages; one of the dead was a mage from second squad.

Arraying them around the circle of rocks, Emma put a pair of infantry with each mage, keeping the sergeants and herself in reserve in the middle of the circle. It wasn’t much, but they might be able to keep the line from collapsing immediately.

Having realized their quarry had stopped, the Zhuravi didn’t seem to be in any hurry to come back into contact with Emma’s platoon. Then again, with the casualties they’d already sustained- she smiled nastily at that thought- she wasn’t surprised they were reluctant to attack again. However, Emma’s most powerful asset was currently lying on the ground with two of the medics laboring over her.

Once they’d massed, completely surrounding the Arbatrosians’ position, they advanced, clearly hoping to overwhelm Emma’s meager force. “Give them a taste of your magic,” Emma ordered her mages. “Every one we kill now is one who won’t bother us later.”

Three of her mages immediately launched into casting, sending three fiery peas arcing out towards the approaching Zhuravi. Halfway there, they disappeared.

“Shit!” Emma swore viciously. “There their mages are. We need to take them out; Iris, on me.”

The sergeant hurried over to her, “What’s the plan, ma’am?”

“We get our mages to distract them and provide covering fire, then force our way through their troops to their mages and kill all of them,” Emma replied. Turning, she looked for Rachel. The mage was resting now, the healers having taken out the crossbow bolt. “Rachel, I need your help.”

Sitting up carefully, the mage asked, “What do you want me to do?”

“On my count, all mages will cast in that direction,” Emma instructed. “Ready? Three, two, one, cast!”

All together, the nine mages launched into chanting. As their incantations neared completion, Emma and Iris moved towards the edge of the circle. Each mage spoke the final words of his or her spell, and magical energy shot out from their position. More than half of the spells never reached their targets, but three did; a lightning bolt, a small fireball, and a storm of ice and frost.

The spells slashed out into the Zhuravi formation, searing and scorching and slicing. Emma and Iris charged out in their wake, headed straight for the six Zhuravi mages in a cluster ahead of them.

Thrown spears and stabbing swords reached out for them, but Emma created a wall of steel, slashing her twin blades back and forth in twirling patterns. Two-thirds of the way to the enemy mages, three Zhuravi soldiers tried to block her path.

Sweeping her left hand blade across, Emma deflected two of their swords, even as her right hand sword flicked out towards the third man’s leg. He dropped his shield down to catch her attack, but it had been a feint; her left hand sword came across and pierced his neck. Maintaining her momentum, Emma’s right hand blade snaked around her middle opponent’s shield to slash open his hip, chainmail links shattering under the force of her blow.

Retracting her sword from the first man, Emma slashed across with both blades. The last man tried to parry, but her powerful double attack knocked the sword out of his hand and kept going, leaving a pair of deep cuts from shoulder to hip. Blood, warm and sticky, sprayed out, splattering against half of her body.

Suddenly, a white-hot lance of pain stabbed her in the back. Crying out, Emma pushed forward, moving away from the spear that a clever Zhuravi had managed to slip between two of the lames of her armor. Another man appeared to oppose her, but she was a blur, stabbing him in the leg and slashing open his right forearm, laying it open to the bone.

Then there was nothing between Emma and the six mages.

Mostly scrawny men, five of the mages were trying to retreat, even though their path was blocked by the mass of infantry behind them. Their efforts, in turn, blocked the troops from moving past the mages to engage Emma. As soon as she killed them though, the Zhuravi would be all over her.

That was a matter for later consideration, because the last mage, a man easily a head taller than Emma’s five foot two, was bearing down on her brandishing a two-handed sword.

A grimace of pain on her face- that spear wound in her back really hurt, and was busy leaking blood down her back- Emma charged to meet him. The mage’s sword slashed through the air at her head, and instead of trying to block it, Emma ducked and deflected it high.

With her other sword, Emma tried to slash open the man’s stomach, but he danced back, and her glancing blow didn’t even cut through the robes he wore. Dodging back from another mighty slash of the greatsword, she charged in after it, getting inside the man’s reach. Her right hand blade stabbed out ahead of her, but once again, a slight twist of the man’s body- and the magic protecting him- made it glance off his side.

Emma had been expecting that, however, and her left hand sword delivered her real attack, a powerful downward strike into the intersection of neck and shoulder. That punched right through his magical protection and bit deep into his body. Already gore-splattered, when Emma severed his brachial artery, hot blood sprayed out across her armor and face.

Spitting out the man’s blood, Emma put a foot on his body, wrenched her sword free, and advanced on the five remaining mages. One by one, she cut them down, batting aside or ignoring the spears that reached out at her, trusting in her armor to protect her.

As Emma decapitated the last Zhuravi mage, she heard someone behind her cry out, “Emma! We need your help!” Glancing back, she saw the circle had been breached. Zhuravi soldiers were inside the line! In the brief moment she was looking, three Arbatrosians went down, two of them mages.

A red haze obscured Emma’s vision; they were killing her troops! Tightening her grip on her swords, she threw her head back and let out a screech of anger. Then she spun and charged back towards the circle of rocks. Half a dozen Zhuravi soldiers moved to block her.

Without even slowing, Emma blew straight through them, her swords a blur. As she came out the other side, two were dead already, and the other four were falling to the ground, mortally wounded.

Seeing Iris in front of her, Emma shouted, “Back to the platoon!” A moment later, she shot past the sergeant, gaining speed as she reached the clearer area around the platoon’s position.

Altering course slightly, Emma slammed into the side of the attacking Zhuravi spearhead like a one-woman tornado. Both hands working furiously, she slashed and hacked and stabbed. Enemies fell away, dead or clutching at savage wounds. By the time she reached the middle of the circle where one of the clerics was locked in combat with a Zhuravi, she was coated in blood from head to toe.

Emma stabbed him in the back.

Breath coming quick and light, Emma shouted, “Fill the gap! Hold the line!” Then she was charging back out in front of her troops, moving around the circle, laying enemies low as she went.

Even as Emma cut down a Zhuravi infantryman, she saw across the circle another of her soldiers fall, simple weight of numbers overcoming superior training, equipment, and experience. Enough spears and swords reaching out, and eventually one will slip past even the best fighter’s defenses.

Dancing back into the circle, Emma assessed her platoon. Nearly half of her soldiers lay dead on the field or injured in the middle of the circle. Of her mages, three were dead, and Rachel and two others were injured. The remaining four were down to swords, having already expended their magical repertoire. Most of the rest of her troops bore injures, some superficial, some more serious.

Emma looked out at the oncoming Zhuravi, and despair settled in somewhere in the pit of her stomach. There were over a hundred enemy soldiers still on their feet, ready to finish off her beleaguered command.

Shaking her head back and forth, Emma let out a growl of frustration and anger. She had not fought and sweated and bled and cried for three years just to let some bunch of ordinary Zhuravi soldiers kill her. If someone was going to kill her, it would have to be some great gladiator- and she’d killed more than one of those- or an Uplifted, one of the Emperor’s favored servants. No, there was no way she was about to let herself die to day. Or if she was, it was going to be surrounded by dying enemies on all sides, shattered swords in hand.

Stepping out in front of her platoon, Emma bellowed, “Is that all you’ve got?! Come and get me!”

For a moment, the Zhuravi seemed uncertain, as if the sight of her, unperturbed by their numbers, gave them pause. Then a sergeant shouted back, “Get her! Kill them all!” And the entire enemy force surged forward, shouting battle cries.

Shouting one of her own back- “For the king!”- Emma rushed to meet them. Sword and spears reached out for her, trying to stop her. Now she was even less concerned with defense. Their blows only made her angrier. Roaring in pain and fury, she struck back. Their shields and pathetic parries were no match for her strength and speed. Wood splintered, links shattered, and flesh tore under the force of her blows.

Warm blood washed over her arms and splattered across her body. The taste and smell of it drove Emma to kill faster. Before, her swords had been a blur. Now, they were impossible to follow. Such was the speed of her attacks.

In Marebes, in the great arenas, there were times when Emma had felt hints of her bloodlust rising towards the surface. Now though, it had her entirely within its grip; if one of the Zhuravi had tried to surrender, she would him down without a thought. It was almost as if she was a spectator in her own body, seeing herself cut a bloody swath through the Zhuravi.

Behind her, Emma heard one of her troops cry out in pain. His scream drove her even deeper into her bloodlust. She charged back towards the circle of rocks. Her only intent was to wreak destruction upon her enemies. Protecting her troops wasn’t her motivation any longer. Only the death of her enemies mattered.

Screaming again, Emma cut a man in half, reveling in his death. To slash, to cut, to kill, to bath in her enemies’ blood; that was all she wanted. When she reached the circle, she found Iris, a wounded Rachel, one of the medics, and a corporal trying to keep the dozen Zhuravi attacking them at bay.

Emma leapt into the fray. She went after the ones attacking Rachel first. It was selfish of her, but she did it anyway. The mage was far more important to her than the others. Two of the four fighting Rachel died before they realized Emma was there. As they turned to face her, Emma cut a third down. Rachel finished off the last man, distracted as he was by Emma.

By the time he fell, Emma was already moving to aid Iris. Swords flicking out, she went right through the five men in a moment, leaving all of them dying behind her. Then she charged the last three, cutting them down in a similar fashion.

Eyes scanning rapidly, Emma surveyed the battlefield. As she did, she realized that there weren’t any enemy left standing. Great sprays of bodies covered the ground around the circle of stones. With a sigh, Emma felt her bloodlust retreat, leaving her an empty shell. Like a puppet with its strings cut, Emma dropped to the ground.

As she lay there, taking deep gasping breaths, Emma began to register the dozens of cuts and wounds on her body. In her frenzied state, she hadn’t noticed them. Now though, she nearly cried aloud as the pain came cascading back into her. Some were just minor cuts on her arms and torso, but there were some pretty serious ones as well.

In addition to the first stab wound in her back, Emma had picked up two more deep puncture wounds, one in her side and the other through the meat of her thigh. Her right arm had been gashed deeply twice, her left arm three times. In fact, she wasn’t entirely sure how she was still holding her swords.

The surviving, uninjured medic rushed over to her, chanting over Emma, hands pressed to her side. Some of the pain eased, enough that she was pretty sure she could stand. If her legs would support her, that was.

Rachel came over and sat down next to Emma. Reaching out, she wiped at her girlfriend’s face, trying to wipe off some of the blood that soaked Emma’s clothes, armor, and hair.

Smiling up at her, Emma remarked, “I could really do with an omelet right now, but you blew up all of our chickens.”

“Hey, you’re the one who told me to,” Rachel retorted with an answering grin. “Besides, since when do you eat omelets after noon?” More seriously, “You saved all of us; I don’t know how you did what you just did, but it was amazing.”

“I lost myself, Rachel,” Emma told her. “The only thing I cared about was killing all of them.”

“Well, you did a pretty good job of that.”

Emma shook her head, “I never want that to happen again. I hope you sent a message to Dani; I can’t walk right now.”

“She’s on her way,” Rachel confirmed. “I’m not really up for carrying you.” Shaking her head, “Who knew going to get a couple of chickens could be so deadly?”

“I doubt the chickens did.”

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
Terikel Grayhair
Imperator
(id: Terikel706)
posted 08 September 2014 04:09 EDT (US)     2 / 3       
Elfin Logic


He was falling.

Falling.

It was in itself not an unpleasant sensation, but it would definitely have a very unpleasant conclusion upon impact with the ground far, far below.

One could simply not expect to fall over two miles out of the sky and expect to merely walk away with a scratch or a bit of road rash.

He was a Griffon Rider. Griffon Riders do not simply fall off their mounts, especially at height. There were straps and belts and stirrups and all sorts of things to prevent this very occurrence, yet the impossible had happened. He was falling. And it should not have happened. Not to an officer in front of his command. Yet Lieutenant Damur Tilburca found himself in that very predicament- an officer commanding the Griffon Patrol falling through the sky towards the ground rising far too quickly below.

He remembered. He had not fallen. He had himself unstrapped the buckles and released his own safeties. His griffon Zephyr was climbing almost vertically; the dragon that was chasing the pair was closing rapidly. There was only one way to ensure one of them survived, and Damur took it. He leapt from his saddle with lance in hand toward the reptilian beast climbing beneath.

The lance drove deep into the serpentine eye of the dragon. The fall- a couple of hundred paces at most- was still enough to impart some strength to the impact. The lance pierced into the dragon’s brain, sending a spasm throughout the great beast as the brain suddenly ceased to function. The beast died right there, two miles up. It rolled over in a suddenly-flaccid blob battered by winds and currents as its lifeless husk surrendered its momentum to the steady pull of gravity.

Damur leapt from the broken head of the beast into the free air. His patrol of ten Griffon Riders had been surprised by the three black-and-green dragons coming out of the sun, but his men had reacted well. They had scattered to charge the dragons from all sides, as they had been trained to do. Teamwork. It was drilled into them, and the only chance Damur had of life. No Griffon Rider would pay heed to a fallen foe, but they would sacrifice themselves to save a comrade. It was on this slim chance he was counting.

He had little hope. His evasive tactics before his leap had led the smallest of the three dragons up and away from the main brawl before he had killed it. The rest of the patrol had headed downward toward the ground and safety. He was alone, and falling through the sky. Some gnomish genius had calculated that a falling object would hit the ground in about a minute from that height. His argument was not challenged until he noted that it did not matter the size or density of the object, only the shape. That brought others into the fray, but did not help the falling officer other than to give purpose to the remaining seconds of life to prove or disprove the gnome. Too bad the gnome would never know the answer, but it did give Damur an idea to gain a few more seconds. He stopped flopping about and tried holding a prone position, with his cape and mantle providing a flapping brake. It would not save him, but it might make his funeral more of an open-casket one.

Curlavon Teilyssen streaked by under him, his griffon Endermeer being pursued by the larger of the two remaining dragons. His griffon was showing signs of battle and fatigue- and not a few wounds. It was not going to be a close race- the dragon would be in snapping range before Curly could get his griffon to the safety of the canyons below where he could possibly lose the beast following him.

Damur cut his mantle away and leaned forward to accelerate. Curly and his mount might not have a chance against that beast, but that beast would not have a chance against two hundred fifty pounds of steel and muscle driving a keen edge into it. Damur drew his sword and held it before him like a lance.

I am going to miss! Shit! He would pass by the beast, not land on it as he had hoped. Oh well, today was not his day. Then Curly dodged to the left and the dragon followed- directly under Damur.

The beast was so very intent on its future meal that it saw the danger from above too late. It reared back, but in doing so exposed its neck to the wicked slice of a muscle-powered sword traveling at terminal velocity. Scales shattered, and although the great vein that brought blood to the brain was not severed, another vital tube was. Phlogiston spread in billowing waves from the wound to cover the chest of the angered beast, who now whipped its head about in a vicious snap at the toad who dared strike it. Seeing the human falling past, now weaponless but raising a single middle finger and smiling, the beast became infuriated and forgot the wounded griffon before it and dove to follow its tormentor. Closer, and closer it flew. Then it opened its mouth to incinerate the peon laughing at it.

The dragon exploded. Its fiery breath was held back by the thick sword protruding from its neck where Damur planted it, and the spark of the nostrils ignited the viscuous liquid lapping its chest. The magical fire spread quickly, wrapping the hapless beast in a blanket of flame that penetrated through the wound to the supply of phlogiston inside.

The force of the explosion- and not a few armored chunks of dragonflesh- pummeled Damur Tilburca. The bloody horned clump that ricocheted from his helm knocked him senseless. In all, a fine way to die.

He awoke to a slender hand on his ribs. He was on his side, in bed.

“The same dream again, lover?” his wife asked from behind him.

His long black locks battered his forehead as he nodded, though his eyes remained tightly shut.

“It has been four months now, Damur,” his wife said.

“I lost my griffon, Chernysse. Zephyr escaped while in my charge,” Damur replied, then rolled over to face her. Honey-colored hair fell down the side of her head like the cascade of a beautiful waterfall, split only by the sharp point of her ear. Her eyes- large pools of liquid purple- were soft and wide-set. She was a classic elven beauty, and was much sought after before she married the human. He still did not know why she chose him. Chernysse could have had her pick of anyone, but she had chosen a human- and one who had four months ago lost a griffon. “They will never let me fly again. You know that.”

“Zephyr caught you and brought you safely to the ground before he escaped,” she replied. “Your act saved him; his act saved you. And you were unconscious- nobody can fault you that. Do you think my cousin would have made you a Captain had you been at fault?”

“Elfin logic,” Damur scoffed. “The fact is that I have not flown since- except in my dreams.”

“You single-handedly killed TWO DRAGONS, Damur!” Chernysse almost shouted. “Most riders would be lucky to claim a half-kill, or a full kill if they were extremely lucky, yet you slew two in your lonesome and saved your command. That was why you were promoted, and awarded those medals. You are a hero.”

“A hero of the Aero Corps who does not fly,” he repeated, this time with a small grin.

Chernysse smacked him lightly. “Now you are just being silly. Griffons do not grow on trees, you know. They take time to breed. And the war has been using up our stock faster than it can be replaced. You are not the only one grounded for lack of a mount, Damur, so stop this senseless self-pity and get back in the saddle!”

Damur laughed at her phrase. He had no saddle to get back into- Zephyr had flown off with his still on. Yet he knew what she meant. The priests had healed his battered and broken body, and though the dreams still plagued his mind, there was still a war on and he was still an officer. He kissed his wife deeply, and when the two had finished their morning rituals, he rose, dressed, and padded off toward where Anyllus was holding his daily war council.

Maybe today they would let him fly again.

A man had to have hope.

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Captain Tilburca dominated the council upon arrival. He was large even for a human, and stood literally head and shoulders above the elves with whom he served. The elvish nobles moved aside in a gesture of respect- and something else. Most elves mistrusted humans. Damur was no exception. Even after twenty years of faithful service, he was at best tolerated by the denizens of the forest realm. Only among the officers of the Inner Circle was he truly accepted, and even then only by a few. That may have something to do with the fact that the then soon-to-be governor Anyllus had twenty years ago taken the then seven year old human in and raised him as his own son, or the fact that five years ago Damur had won the heart and soul of the rich and noble Chernysse Olyshelljan and married her. Or the fact that he had four months ago personally slain two dragons and in doing so saved Duke Meneryll Teilysse’s only son Curlavon- and Duke Teilysse was a rabid foe of all peoples non-elven.

To Damur it was much simpler. The elves had driven off the orcs that had burned his homestead and killed his family. He was old enough to understand Clan honor, and wise enough to realize he owed the elves the Debt of Life.

Besides, where else could he go? To the human clans of the north? They too were locked in a struggle with the invading orcs. Worse, when the clans were not fighting the pigheads, they were fighting each other. Damur knew his clan’s name, but no longer knew with whom the remnants of his clan were allies, and with whom he was supposed to have a bloodfeud.

Or maybe to the dwarves of the west? He was six feet four inches- he could never fit in their tunnels and warrens. To the Skragg of the East? They fell to the orcs years ago- wiped out completely. Only the elves of the South had been able to stop the orckish horde. Until yesterday.

“Ornlyss and his entire army,” Anyllus was repeating. “Gone.”

“Let us hope he took a good portion of those blasted orcs with him,” General Rinselyr added. “Let us hope he took enough.”

Anyllus stared into the brazier lighting the chamber. His face was a chiseled mask of grim thoughts. Ornlyss and his five thousand elven warriors were gone. He had maybe another five thousand within the city defenses, and twelve thousand civilians who could pitch in. It would not be enough, no matter how many Ornlyss slew. Orcs had been bred from swine to be elven servants, and swine were fecund. An elven maid could give birth to a single elf after a two-year pregnancy; an orckish female could spit out a litter of two every six months. Simple math would dictate that the orckish population would very soon far exceed that of their masters, and then the inevitable revolt would come. And it did.

Elves live for centuries, and accumulate an impressive amount of wisdom and knowledge during their lives. Orcs live for maybe two score years, which limited their intellectual ability while emphasizing their physical prowess. It was this disparity that the elves had used for eons to keep the orcs in check. Until that fateful moment all had expected but none had foreseen. The revolt broke out in full swing across all provinces where elves had settled, and in most places it was being handled poorly despite the thorough plans and deep preparations of the best master elven strategoi.

Humans, bred by the elves from apes to replace the dimwitted orcs as servants, were both saviors and demons in elvish eyes. As human numbers grew, the orcs were pushed further and further out of elven society- who wanted a smelly, dimwitted, ugly muscleclump when one could own a slender, handsome elven-looking being that was capable of learning culture and etiquette? Humans pushed the orcs out of the slave markets and that helped set off the Great Orckish Revolt, which was crushed relatively easily as it was expected.

Then the humans too revolted. That event was unforeseen, and catastrophic. The elves tried the same tactics they had used so successfully against the orcs, but humans were bred to be thinkers as well as rock-movers. They learned the sorcery of the elves, and that evened the battlefield. Their wizards negated elfin mages, and human strength and numbers leveled out elfin skill and speed. The key to victory in such a match was innovation and surprise- and the humans had mastered both. The humans carved out their own realms upon portions of their former homes, and in a gesture of respect, expanded them away from elven realms. The elves caught the hidden message, and peace between the two races came into being.

But during that awful period when elf and human were embroiled in struggle, the forgotten orcs bred themselves strong again and now once again were the huge threat, and capable of defeating elven armies in the field if the fate of Ornyss speaks true.

“We need to know how many are left and where they are,” Anyllus decided. He turned to General Rinselyr. “Send out the Aero Corps and a squadron of cavalry. They are to scout and report. Do NOT engage. Understood?”

Rinselyr nodded.

“May I fly with that patrol, father?” Damur asked respectfully. He already knew the answer, but wanted it confirmed. It was.

“No, Damur,” the elvish governor replied with remorse. “We have need of you here in Serrilian, helping General Rinselyr prepare our defenses. Your presence would go a long way toward motivating the civilians to join in.”

“Humans serving elves again?” Damur said flatly. “Reminding the folk of past glory, perhaps?”

Anyllus snorted in scorn. “More like a vaunted hero and the adopted son of the governor getting off his high horse to pitch in to help a people most desperate in these awful times.”

Blushing and chastised, Damur nodded. Meneryll might be a bigot, but Anyllus was not. Damur accepted the rebuke and the unsaid dismissal. Once he departed in the wake of Rinselyr, Meneryll Teilysse hurried after Anyllus, who was walking briskly toward his chambers.

“When are you going to tell him the true reason he may no longer fly,” the nobleman asked bluntly. “Or does this council need to take a vote on that as well?”

Anyllus turned stone-cold and faced the chubby nobleman. “He is not the enemy, Meneryll. However we may yet make of him one.”

“So?”

“You ungrateful idiot,” the governor muttered. He reached his door and pushed the portal open. “Damur saved your son’s life. Your only son. Why do we fight at all? To pass on our way of life to our children. Our children are our future. He is mine.”

“A rather short-lived future, do you not think?”

“I thought you did not want to bring work home with you, Anyllus?” Chernysse said as she rose from the couch.

“It followed me, like the stench of a warhound’s feces once stepped in,” the governor replied to his step-daughter. “I assume Damur was just here?”

The elven beauty nodded. “He traded his riding boots for walking ones and exited toward the Irrilian Gate. Shall I scrape this from your boot?” she asked, glaring at Meneryll.

“Please,” Anyllus replied. And then he disappeared into his office.

Chernysse gestured to the door, then pushed the chubby elf in that direction when he failed to take the hint.

“I do not understand you at all, Chernysse,” Meneryll said as he shuffled toward the door. He could hear guards coming, and did not trust her not to have him ejected by force. “You could have been queen- Anyllus admires your commitment and beauty. You could have been a merchant queen as my wife- I too admire your beauty and intelligence.”

“And wealth…” she added viciously.

“And wealth,” he admitted. “You studies into sorcery rank you a queen of mages, yet you choose as a mate that human, that orphan, that barbarous clump of-”

She smacked him across the jaw, silencing him.

“Damur Tilburca is tall, dark haired, and handsome, with eyes like the northern sky on a summer day and the gentleness of a silken robe when he caresses my skin. He cares deeply for me- not for my beauty, or my wealth, or my magic, or my intelligence, or any single asset, but for me, Chernysse Olyshelljan. He has more honor and devotion in a single toenail than you do in your entire overweight body. That is why he has my heart.”

Meneryll backed until he was in the doorway. Her devotion to the human was uncouth. She was uncouth, despite her long and noble ancestry. “You are a traitor to our race,” he said thickly.

She held the door easily in one hand as she smiled sweetly. “I do not care what you think. Oh, one other thing, dear Meneryll. Do not fool yourself. You could never measure up to him, by any standard. And Meneryll… Size does matter,” she said cattily, holding the fingers of her free hand a thumbs-length apart as she slammed the door.

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It was not long before the gates of Serrilian opened once again, this time to allow entry to three battered troops of elven cavalry. Damur had been nearby when the alert was given; he now dropped from the wall to the street to catch the attention of one of the lieutenants.

“Where is the Aero Corps?” he asked, pointing back towards the outside. “Where is Curlavon? Slanahan? Childeric?”

The elf first disdained to answer, until he noticed the human was wearing the epaulets of a captain, dressed with the wings of the Aero Corps. His questions suddenly became personal. “Gone, captain. All gone. There was a dragon, and Curlavon decided to go after it.”

“The fool!” Damur cursed.

“Agreed,” replied the elf. “I guess he thought if a human could kill two alone his patrol could kill one together. The dragon taught him otherwise, then came after us.”

“Shit,” Damur cursed. The Aero Corps was no more, destroyed for ignoring its mission in a vain attempt to better a human. “Did you learn that which Anyllus requested before Curlavon engaged the dragon?”

The elf nodded. “The major shall be reporting to your adopted father shortly. A quick word, captain- it will not be pretty.”

It wasn’t.

“We found the bones of the army of Ornlyss,” the major was reporting. “Cooked and eaten. And where it happened. It was as you suspect, my lord- the orcs used magic to conceal themselves and their last remaining dragon, then ambushed Ornlyss while he was in marching order.”

“Impossible!” Meneryll shouted. “Ornlyss always marched with outriders to prevent such a thing. His men were drilled for years to react to ambush- face outwards, lock shields, soldiers draw swords while sergeants unleash fireblast spells to break up the charging enemy while officers use selected lightning bolts to strike orckish chieftains. The army of Ornlyss would become a solid wall of wood and flashing steel upon which the waves of orcs would break themselves.”

“Quality is nice, but numbers annihilate,” Damur said lowly. “They can afford heavy losses. We cannot. Whoever the orckish king is, he knows this.”

“Normally I would disagree with you both,” the major said with a shake of his head, “but not now. Not when the bastards used sorcery against us. Ornlyss and his army never had a chance. We found some orckish bodies- a few thousand. Also cooked and eaten- the bastards let nothing rot. So there was a bit of a battle. We also found the campfire sites of sixty thousand. Ornlyss never had a chance.”

“I see,” Anyllus said primly. The capital city of the elven realm on the continent of Illiarna was about to be besieged by an enormous army of flesh-eaters who had just recently been fed a taste of elven flesh. The elvish realm here was lost. It was just a matter of time.

With a heaviness on his heart, he dismissed the officers and withdrew back to his chambers. His king would not like the decision he was going to make, but he knew the king would support it. He only hoped the fleet and its captains could make the transoceanic passage before the orcs consolidated their victory.

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He was in a much better mood the following morning. Damur met him in the governor’s courtyard, where a winged warhorse was nibbling on some carrots it was ripping from the Royal Garden.

“What is that?” Damur asked, hoping against hope for an answer other than “a Pegasus, you fool.”

“A Pegasus, you fool,” Anyllus said with a grin. “With the death of the Griffon patrol and its commander Curlavon Teilysse, the House of Teilysse ran out of soldiers. So old Meneryll brought this over an hour ago. He claimed to have raised it since a foal for his lad, until you selected Curlavon to the Griffon Patrol. Thereafter the young elf would have nothing to do with ‘lesser beasts’. But I think you too smart to let a little matter of species keep you from the air. True?”

Damur’s face broke open in sheer joy. “This is for me?”

“I have a mission for you, son,” Anyllus said solemnly. “We will soon be besieged by many thousands of orcs. General Namelor Urusalom probably knows this already, and should be evacuating the other cities. This province is lost with the death of Ornlyss and his army, but we elves still have a chance to survive. We are going back to our homeland, to add our strength to those of our ancestors. This realm here is lost to us, son, but with luck and a good fist of steel, our homeland may yet be saved.”

Damur was confused. Was he being given this magnificent beast to bring word to Namelor, or not?

Anyllus dropped all emotion. “The Council has voted to give you this mission, since you are the last remaining Aero Corps officer still alive. You are to take word of our predicament to the Human King of the Northlands, and inform him of our imminent defeat and departure. I know this is a shock to you, my son, so I wrote it down on a scroll and placed it in this scrollcase. Let nothing and nobody touch this unless it comes from your hand to his.”

“But Father,” Damur stammered.

He was brutally cut off. “No buts, son. That is your mission, as decided by the Council. I have done what I can, now it is up to you. Do you promise to carry out this mission given to you by the High Council?”

“I promise,” Damur said, and accepted the scroll. He glanced furtively about, glad that his hair had shaken loose and covered one eye. Through the fallen locks he could see a shadow. The Council was watching, making sure Anyllus fulfilled his duty to his fellow elves, even if it most likely will cost him his son. But the governor did not flinch, nor did the governor’s human son. “When do I leave?”

“Immediately,” Anyllus said gruffly. This was even harder than issuing the command. “Three troops of cavalry are going to try to break through to Namelor. Their attack and rush should draw all orckish attention to the Irrilian Gate, giving you the opportunity to fly off unseen from the western wall.”

“You cannot let me wait until dark, giving me the chance to say goodbye to my wife?” Damur asked.

Anyllus shook his head. “You may not see well in the dark, my human son, but we elves and the orcs do. We see heat. A warm-blooded pegasus and rider against a cold night sky? You would be a flying torch. Much better to go in daylight, which blinds the beasties somewhat.”

“And Chernysse?”

“I am sorry, son,” the governor said with a drooping head. “You will see her again if the gods are kind. If not, then know that she has loved you true and faithful during your time together. No man can ask for more than that.”

More damned elfin logic. “I understand. I hope she does.”

Anyllus laughed. ”Of course she does! She is an elf.”


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A zillion things were racing through his mind as the beast plummeted from the city walls. First among them was how to get the Pegasus to spread its wings and fly. The ground racing up was in itself not enough of an incentive, so Damur kicked off his stirrups and desperately extended his legs. That put a nasty pressure pinch on the underside of the wings, which the beast extended as a means of relieving the pressure. The wind caught the wings and lifted the beast out of its suicidal dive and back towards the heavens as its rider searched desperately for the stirrups.

What the hell is wrong with this animal? Damur thought viciously. It cannot be the stench of griffons- he had not near one since Zephyr escaped. It came from the stables of Teilysse- it should be glad to escape the reek of Meneryll. Despite his animosity toward humans, Meneryll had a good reputation as a breeder and trainer of war mounts. Yet this beast refused to fly higher than tree-top, and took every opportunity to plunge into meadows- even those filled with orckish troops. It took all of his will to kick those pressure points to make the thing open its wings again before hoof hit turf.

He got his answer a meadow later. A starry halo formed around the pegasus, which intensified before flaring out. In its wake, Damur was left riding a horse-sized saddle tied to a small furry bundle that quickly fell out toward the ground below, leaving him to follow. The spell holding the beast had finally exhausted its power and released the beast back to be the rabbit it had been before the spell was placed.

The rabbit crashed into the earth below and lay still. Damur followed a few minutes later. His momentum was enough to crash into the trees lining the far side of the meadow. The breaking branches broke his fall enough for him to be dazed but not dead. The orcs that surrounded him a moment later gave him a good wallop on his head to keep him that way while they tied him up.

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By darkness he was in the center of the orckish encampment. Two orcs threw him to the ground before the feet of a giant warrior.

“This tried to fly away,” the smaller of the two said with a bow. “We caught it anyway.”

“You caught it, you may eat it,” grunted the massive orc. He waved dismissively and turned back to where his companions were dipping crude mugs into a smashed-open barrel of elven beer.

“Wait,” called another orc. This one was skinny where its master was muscled, and bald where its master was covered by a bush of tangled hair. It was also decorated with a mouth full of filed teeth- a goblin fashion coming into popularity among orckish warriors. Yet this was no warrior and no goblin.

“This is no elf,” he said in awe after a detailed examination of the captive. “The clothing and armor are elven- but look at the size of this one. The ears. The eyes. No elf this- a hu-man.”

That caught the giant orc’s attention. Its eyes narrowed as it spoke.

“You promised me the elves were alone, and that the humans were too scattered and too diverse to help.”

“Look at the clothes, my king,” the small one said. “Not gifts. Too worn for that. No, this is no bringer of aid. This human lived among the elves.”

The orc king smacked the smaller one aside and thrust his own piggish snout toward the human’s face. The foulness of his breath could wilt a forest fern, but Damur did not flinch. His mind was racing. The orcs had a king! They had united! Ornlyss had been banking on hitting warbands one after another- not all at once.

“Make it tell us that, wizard,” the orc king growled. “And after that, why he was out here.”

The wizard cackled. “That we already know, Ormaz my king. It was how we caught it.” The wizard turned to the two captors. “What was it carrying?”

“It had this in its belt,” said one of the orcs. He ignored the spindly sorcerer and presented a slender silver cylinder to his king.

Ormaz grabbed the cylinder and eyed it closely. It was a slender and oblong and shiny like a thigh bone with the ends cut off, and smooth like the breast of a female. One end was made solid, while the other was capped by a small relief of a dragon, exactly as described. He grabbed the dragon and twisted, applying all of his famed strength.

The tiny thing did not even budge.

He yelped in surprise and handed it to his wizard. “Open it.”

The magic-user waved his hands and mumbled over the object, but nothing happened. “It has power, this thing.”

“Maybe it can open this?” Ormaz said, gesturing to where Damur lay bound in a heap of rope.

“Maybe,” said the wizard. He skittered over to where Damur lay. He thrust the scrollcase at the bound human and commanded, “Open it.”

Damur struggled then lay still. “Elfin lock,” he said. “It will only open for its messenger.”

“You will open it for us.”

“I will not.”

“We shall see,” cackled the wizard. He gestured to the guards. “Bind him to that tree. And thrust a spear into the fire. I would brand this meat with our mark before we eat him.

“If you eat me, you will never get the scrollcase opened,” Damur cackled.

A few minutes later, Damur was bound to the tree, with a glowing spear held by the shaman before him. The human stood still as a rock while the orc brought the spearpoint closer, first toward his eyes, then toward his genitals, then toward his heart before laying the smoking spearhead along the left side pectoral muscles.

Damur did not groan, though he so desperately wanted to. He did grunt, though, enough to encourage the magic-user to try again, branding the right side of his chest this time. Damur let out a howl this time, but otherwise stood firm against the pain.

“Now I will singe off those useless balls of yours,” the shaman cackled. “Roasted, they are a delicacy, and you do not need them to open the case.”

“Enough, wizard,” Damur grunted. “You win. Give me the case.”

“Untie him,” the wizard said to the guards. Once the ropes were off, Damur took the scrollcase from the wizard. He gripped the dragon’s head as had Ormaz and gave a slight twist counter-clockwise. A hiss was heard, then the case fell open. Damur let both case and cap fall to the ground.

The wizard dove for the falling objects, and caught them. But as he rose in triumph, he saw the human had disappeared. Worse, Ormaz was clutching his abdomen in pain and his sword was gone.

“No no no no no!” the wizard cried in fear. “You must not die, Ormaz! The Horde needs you! My magic attracts us, but your strength binds us!”

Ormaz fell over. His arms came away from his gut- which was pristine- and he lay still. The only drop of blood on him was on the palm of his hand. He had not been stabbed by the escaped human.

His eyes were drawn to the scrollcase. There, on the dragon carving, he had his answer. A tiny drop of orckish blood adorned one of the fangs of the carven dragon. Poison. The elves had poisoned Ormaz!

Desperate now, he removed the parchment hidden within the case. He unrolled it hastily. The parchment was blank.

It struck him then. The messenger, the scroll case, all of it. He thought he had been playing with the elfin traitor, but it was the traitor who was playing with the orcs. It was all an elaborate ruse to end the one life binding the orcs together.

“Evil elves,” he muttered. He was about to crumple the parchment and throw it away when he caught something in the corner of his eye. It was a flash of magic. He stooped and laid the scroll on the ground, and pinned it down with a few stones.

Yes, I see it now, he thought. A double-blind. A real message carried by a fake messenger. He drew some runes in the dirt around the scroll and fished a foul powder from a sack on his belt. He cackled as he mumbled, then lifted his eyes to the stunned guards surrounding the body of their slain king. “Now my magic will reveal the elven message. Akitothetkri!

The powder glowed then flashed, revealing a single elven word. That word suddenly exploded in the face of the wizard, burning his flesh away and flash-cooking his brain inside his skull. He hit the ground as dead as his king before that word even registered within his mind. That word was BYE.


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Damur Tilburca was four hundred paces away and running at full speed when the orckish sorcerer blew his own head off. Though he was invisible to the orckish eye, the footprints and broken branches he was leaving were not. Already orcs were sniffing at the foliage and pointing to the footprints, and gathering into hunting parties.

Damur did not care. The powder in the scrollcase would last for only a few minutes once exposed to air. At least that was what Anyllus had told him a long time ago, when he had come home and found the human lad playing with the scrollcase. The human had remembered, and the elf had given that particular scrollcase to his human son for just that reason. But magic was never his strong suit, and he could not recall if the powder grew stronger or weaker with age. So with little time unseen, Damur had to sacrifice stealth for speed, and damn the consequences. At least his primary mission was completed- the orckish wizard was dead, and as a bonus, the orckish king as well.

He nearly collided into a trio of orcs heading towards the rousing wailing behind him. Luckily he saw them, and they saw nothing. The sword he took from Ormaz took two of their heads off cleanly before being stuck in the vertebrae of the third. But that orc was dead with the strike, so Damur ignored the corpses and rifled them for weapons before dashing off with his sword, a bow, and a quiver of elven arrows.

He continued northwest. The city was to his south, and that was where the majority of orcs would be. Directly away was north- the direction they would expect him to take. Thus northwest offered the protection of the night-time forest and safety in the unexpected.

He slowed, and began to take stock. The sword he had taken from the orckish king was a good one- noble elven quality, and probably belonged to General Ornlyss himself. Likewise the bow was excellent- another souvenir of the downfall of Ornlyss. Damur shivered. There were upwards of sixty thousand orcs, now armed with elven weapons. The elves would not have the advantage of superiority of weaponry they had previously enjoyed, not with the arms of the army of Ornlyss in orckish hands. And with the orckish numbers…

He glanced south, towards his city. An orange glow illuminated the sky, one able to be seen with human eyes, so bright was it. A tear rolled down his cheek as he understood. His city was burning. All he loved- his father, his darling wife, his friends of the Aero Corps, all were now dead if the orange glow meant anything. His success in his mission no longer mattered. It has been burned to ash with the death of his city.

There was but one thing left to do. The last surviving officer of the Army of Serrilian was going to kill as many of the bastards that killed his city as he could before going down.

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Dawn was breaking as Damur sent an arrow through the throat of his eighty-third victim. Hunting orcs had been ridiculously easy once he decided to do so. They moved in packs of eight or so, trying to follow tracks in the dark. Evidently their night vision, of which Anyllus had spoken, allowed them to see in the dark only in shades of grey, and not very far at that. His human vision in the moonlight- even below the canopy of the forest, was better than theirs. He shot them down in their squads, sometimes loosing an arrow based on sound. Other times he left an obvious trail and waited with the sword of Ornlyss in his right hand and a bowman’s short sword in his right. The sword of Ornlyss gave a strong glow when held, but experimentation quickly revealed that glow was invisible to all but the eyes of the wielder. He could see them long before they could see him, and he used that to great advantage.

By the time it was light enough to see, he had acquired through stripping the dead a decent cavalry shield, an excellent spear, two full quivers of arrows, and a helmet- all of elven quality, thanks to the defeat of Ornlyss. He was ready for his last stand- there was no chance he could kill all the orcs, nor could he elude them for long in the daylight. Nor did he want to live when his city, his father, and his wife were dead, or worse. It was not for nothing the orcs call elves the “long pig”, and consider them a delicacy- especially when roasted alive.

He killed and ransacked another squad before running south, away from the squad’s oncoming mates. The orcs had him boxed- smart thinking on their part. Was Ormaz dead? Or was the poison on the fang- like the dust inside the case- too old to function properly? It did not matter. He had made his decision, and where he wanted to die was to the south.

******* ******* ******* ******* ******** ******* *******


The Shrine of the Sky was sacred to the warriors of the Aero Corps, and where Damur first met his wife. It was a round hill, appearing like the breast of a buxom woman sprouting from her supine body. The nipple at the top was an altar within the meter-deep pit of a wall-less open-air temple, and the hill itself was barren of all forest in deference to the Sky above. In aesthetic terms it was a lovely place to die.

In military terms, the treeless area around the shrine gave him a wonderful view of his attackers and a clear field of fire. Four of the six quivers of arrows he now carried would serve him well stashed near the altar as a resupply, and the small fountain which washed the altar would serve to give him water to drink and with which to wash his coming wounds. The low benches would serve as a makeshift parapet. In all, a lovely place for a last stand.

The orcs did not keep him waiting long. They emerged, a ragged band of several hundred. Damur did not worry about the rest- he knew where they were, and these few hundred would be more than enough to extinguish his light before the sun fell and to open the gates to his afterlife. He strung the bow, nocked an arrow, and drew the feathers to his cheek before letting loose. Below, an orckish chieftain clapped his hands suddenly to his chest and fell wordlessly. Then another fell, transfixed through the neck.

The orcs gave a sudden shout and charged en masse. Damur shot his quivers empty then drew the Sword of Ornlyss and jumped onto the altar.

“Gods of Elves and Men!” he shouted in his native tongue. “Hold your gates open! A warrior worthy of the title will be coming to you shortly!”

The leading orcs stumbled as they charged, but that only slowed the mass, not stopped it. It was almost an omen. Then the first orcs reached the altar to be cut down- one by the thrown spear, another by a thrown dagger. Then the Sword of Ornlyss was in his hand and he charged forward against the ancient enemy.

A loud shriek from above and behind him alerted him to a closing death. He bolted suddenly to his right, slicing down the orc standing there before lurching forward to crush the head of that foe with the shield he now bore. It did not help. Firm claws grabbed his shoulders and lifted him from the Altar of the Sky with a familiar shriek.

“Zephyr!” cried Damur as he recognized the griffon that now carried him. He barely had time to sheath his sword before Zephyr flipped him bodily up and forward, then flew under to land him in the saddle he still wore. Damur strapped himself in, then directed his mount to fly back to the altar. One quick pass and the spear he had thrown earlier was back in his hand, and two more beasts were dead in their wake.

The orcs howled in frustration. So much blood spilled, and no long pig reward. The grievous howl elicited yet another shriek of victory from the griffon. That, in turn, elicited a response better left alone. From a faraway hilltop came an answering shriek- this one deeper and throaty, as if singed by many fires. Only one beast could evoke such a smoky sound. Damur couched his elven spear under his arm and brought his shield up in response to the dragon’s call.

He was not disappointed. There was indeed a dragon- the last of the clutch- and it had been nearby. It had been directing the orcs in their hunt, not dead Ormaz. It was a dragon that could speak, and that made it infinitely more dangerous than any other. He suddenly understood so much more about what happened than he did a moment before.

“Come on, boy,” he whispered to Zephyr. “We’ve taken out two of these things last time we flew. Now it is time to finish the task. You up for it?”

The griffon snorted and bobbed his head. Like his master and friend, he knew that he could outfly the dragon, but not forever. It was fight and die, or run and die later. Like his human, he chose to fight. He lowered his head to level flight and beat his wings harder to thrust him forward faster and faster. Atop him, the elven lance jutted forward like a spar torpedo, hopefully strong enough to pierce dragon flesh before the jaws of the beast close in upon them both.

The dragon belched a cloud of fire at the speeding griffon, then opened its mouth to catch the crispy morsel. It received a painful sting in its hind leg instead, as the griffon masterfully rolled under the firebreath to recurve its flight to the dragon’s hindquarters, where Damur stabbed it good and proper right in its right ham. The dragon howled in fury at the disgraceful wound, then whipped about to search for his snack anew.

Zephyr and Damur were now above the dragon in a loop that would bring the lance back into play just as they passed the head. The evil creature was searching to the left and below, and was just swinging its massive head to the right when it caught sight of the griffon an instant before the lance smashed into its eye.


The impact ripped the lance from Damur’s hand. He did not mind losing it- half its length jutted from the dragon’s ruined eye. If it had been a solid hit, the other half should be clear through the eye and into the braincase. But he knew that it went in askew. The eye was ruined, but the spearpoint was now lodged in the nasal cavity, not the brain.

He did not have much time to think about that. The dragon’s reflex to the wound was not to dive away, but to dive toward him, with claws extended. Razored talons ripped chainmail links from his back as they carved deep furrows into his skin- deep enough to expose ribs and draw a cry of pain, but not deep enough to incapacitate him. He swung a feeble blow that managed to sever one of the talons, but overall it was a weak response.

The dragon rolled away to its left. Zephyr banked the opposite way. That’s when Damur laid eyes on the second dragon.

“I am sorry, old pal,” he said to the griffon. “One we might manage; two will be the death of us. I am honored to have served with you, Zephyr my friend.”

The griffon grunted, and banked to face the new threat. To his left, the dragon copied the movement. Both were now headed toward the second dragon. Damur signaled Zephyr to climb. The griffon obeyed, yet the two dragons continued on towards each other, claws extended. From the above, the second dragon was not the black and green of his nemesis, but rather a white-and-gold mix he had never seen before, but one which reminded him of his wife’s flaxen hair. For that, Damur decided to kill that dragon second.

“Dive, buddy,” he signaled. Zephyr lowered his head and tilted his tail to accelerate downward. Damur loosened the belts holding him in as his mind replayed the last time he thought this a good idea. He liked the results then, and hoped for the same now.

“I shall wait for you on the other side,” he said, and leapt from the plummeting beast with sword in hand to fall to the dragon below. He planted the Sword of Ornlyss deep into the back of the reptilian braincase, snuffing the life from the beast in a single heartbeat. Then he yanked on the sword to complete part two- jumping from the dead to the living dragon for kill number two. But the sword was stuck, and the golden dragon past.

Zephyr made a clawing pass at the dragon, but suddenly tucked and dove, plummeting before opening his wings in a power dive. The golden dragon turned about, and followed.

Zephyr paid it no mind. His sole focus now was to rescue his rider. He reached his claws forward… and missed!

But the dragon did not. It flew beneath the griffon to catch the falling man upon its back before slowing its descent. The griffon executed a barrel roll, placing itself inverted atop the dragon. Damur leapt up and fastened his grip upon the hanging straps just as the griffon rolled upright. He swung into the saddle just in time to see the earth rising fast…

Two dragon claws caught both him and the griffon and arrested their fall, slipping them gently to the ground as speeds dropped.

Then the dragon collapsed in on itself.

“Chernysse!” Damur exclaimed as he recognized the shape the dragon became- or as with the rabbit, the original shape to which it returned. He left Zephyr to sweep his wife into his arms once again. He kissed her deeply, a thing he never thought he would do again. Then what happened gripped him, and he gripped her by the shoulders and shook her gently. “I could have killed you!”

She laughed. “Now I see how Zephyr got away!” She glanced to the griffon, who was now gliding over to the carcass of the dead dragon. Probably making sure. Zephyr always was a good mount for the Aero Corps.

“Oh, woman of mine!” Damur exclaimed as he crushed her to his chest in a tight embrace. He still could not believe he was holding her once again. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking the same as you thought when my cousin gave you this mission,” she said. “I did not want to let you go, but duty called. Now I no longer have that duty.”

“The city?”

Chernysse sighed. It had been a long day and a longer night. She pulled away from her man’s embrace as the pain of the memories rocked her mind. “There was much death and destruction this past day and a half. Too much.”

“Meneryll betrayed us, did he not?” he asked. “Like he betrayed my father in giving me a rabbit as a Pegasus.”

“Meneryll lost faith in the High Command,” she confirmed. “And had made a deal with one he then made into the Orc King. Meneryll was to rule our lands as satrap to his Orckish King, but you put paid to that, lover.”

“That deal died with the Orckish King,” Damur agreed bitterly. “The scrollcase did its work well. I assume Meneryll is dead?”

“He opened the gates to the orcs, claiming a pact with their king. The leading orcs ate him alive, literally. He died screaming as they devoured him.”

“Good riddance. Anyllus?”

She nodded solemnly, and spoke with respect. “He died well. He used the unwilling sacrifice of Meneryll to gather forces. We annihilated the orcs that entered our city, but it was a bloody fight. Anyllus died in the battle, and the Priestess was unable to restore him. But he died successful- though half the city was in flames, his stand allowed the people to flee to the citadel and the forces of Rinselyr to counterattack. The orcs were driven out, and in the morning those of the horde which had not dispersed were battling amongst themselves for supremacy. That should last a week, and by the time the High Fleet should arrive. Serrilian and the province are to be abandoned- we no longer have the strength to hold it against the orcs, and need our strength in our homeland. So the King and his High Council will donate this land to the Human King, that he may prove better to control the beasties than we were.”

“There is no Human King,” Damur said bluntly, then was confused. She of all people should have known that, even if the Council of Serrilian did not.

“There is no Human King as of this moment,” she said, coming in to his arms again to nuzzle his neck, ”but there will be. An elven-trained king, who rides a griffon, wields sword and spear of the finest adamantine, and has a beautiful elven mage at his side as his mate.”

Damur looked at her in shock and surprise.

“Do not be so thickheaded, lover,” she admonished. “Why else would Anyllus allow his best Aero Corps warrior to be grounded for so long? And why did he send you on what was obviously a suicide mission? Because the Council said so?” She chortled in disgust. “You know him better than that, lover. It was a test, and a gift. Should you pass, you would have earned what he left you- our lands. And you did.”

“Bloody elfin logic,” he cursed. “And you, Chernysse? You abandon your wealth and your status and your longevity to serve a human. Why?”

She smiled broadly. “Because I love you, silly human.”

She gazed off into the setting sun, where Zephyr was picking at the dragon’s carcass and gulping down long strips of bleeding flesh. And she hugged her husband, content to once again be at his side. He was going to be a great man, the first Human King, and she was going to make damned sure he lasted longer than Meneryll’s Orckish King did.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
DominicusUltimus
Legate
posted 22 September 2014 15:07 EDT (US)     3 / 3       
A little forword regarding my entry. The Scarlet Shields is a sellsword or mercenary company based in what I call the 'Deathshard Universe', which is basically the Hellenistic Age set in a fantasy setting. Because of this, you may recognize a few names as well as anagrams or shortened versions of others. There are also several Hellenistic military terms that you may recognize from my past stories as well.

My main inspiration for the Deathshard Universe and the Scarlet Shields' side-story is the Hellenistic Age and the Wars of the Successors. Inspiration for the fantasy and magic elements comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. The concept of the Deathshards themselves and their unique abilities was inspired by the Green Lantern comic series and an anime/manga series named Rave Master. The concept of the Scarlet Shields themselves was inspired greatly by Glen Cook's The Black Company series as well as the Golden Company from George R.R. Martin's ASOIF series.

Finally, I'd like to thank my fellow writers Terikel and Sajaru for their incredible patience and allowing me to finish this entry to my satisfaction. This is my first time actively participating in a Sepia Joust since the original one many years ago, and I hope everyone finds my submission to be both entertaining and inspiring in some way.

*********



The Scarlet Shields

A story from the Deathshard Saga


22 A.E.F. (After the Empire's Fall)

The Rasa Plains, on the world of Boreas

"I still don't understand why the chiliarch accepted this job Coenus." the young man griped annoyingly. He leaned back in his chair and ran his right hand through his black hair lazily as he effortlessly twirled a dagger with his left hand.

"Because the pay from this Successor was better than what any of the other ones were offering Acamus." the veteran mercenary growled. He took a long draught from the bottle of Borean wine clenched in his hand before speaking again. "You've been with the Scarlet Shields for nearly a year Acamus and I know you've seen your fair share of skirmishes, raids and battles against rebels and overly ambitious sorcerers, but you've never seen a battle between two Successors. I've been fighting on one battlefield or another non-stop for twenty-two years since the empire tore itself apart, and I still get chills the night before one of those battles."

Acamus cast a doubtful look at his scarred companion. "I was fighting alongside the chiliarch himself when the company fought and defeated the necromancer Ephialtes the Mad and his army of undead abominations. One of them, who made quite an impression on me, was a seven foot tall behemoth wielding two swords, a war hammer and a morning star in his four arms with a face that was a twisted combination of a Dwarf and a girl no older than thirteen. The monstrosity managed to kill or gravely wound seven of our shield brothers before the chiliarch and I succeeded in dismembering and decapitating it. I think I'm perfectly capable of holding my own in a battle between two of the Fallen Emperor's Successors."

Coenus laughed heartily, almost hysterically, at Acamus' boast for several moments before regaining his senses. "Before I go and verbally take apart your triumph over Ephialtes the Mad and explain to you why that doesn't mean jack shit tell me, what do you know about the Successors?"

Acamus sat down firmly on his chair and appeared to puff up slightly before answering Coenus' question. "There were twenty-seven of them originally and they were the greatest generals of the Fallen Emperor and also his closest friends. When the emperor was killed in battle against the Great Usurper and his children and only heirs were murdered during the Sack of Aegae, the Successors chose to turn on one another instead of trying to keep the empire together or uniting to destroy what was left of the Usurper's forces."

"You know more than I expected you too." Coenus said approvingly with some light clapping for emphasis. "But do you know what it was that made these twenty-seven men and women turn on each other and why only the ones known as 'The Seven' are alive today?"

The young man lowered his eyes to the table and rubbed his upper lip as he thought over the question. Coenus silently drank his wine and waited until Acamus looked up at him and smiled confidently. "The reason why there are so few of them remaining is because the Seven are the most martially and politically talented as well as naturally gifted in the arts of eldritch sorcery. A careful glance at the fortunes of Lagos after the emperor's death will reveal that he's subtly manipulated many of the other Successors and poised them against each other while he's rested comfortably on his throneworld of Aegyptus and conserved his strength. And our current employer Polyphemus commands both the largest splinter kingdom and the largest army amongst all the Successors."

"Fine points Acamus, but you're only half right about why the Seven are the exception and why they're still alive today. They're all undoubtedly gifted in the ways of war, politics and the arcane arts as you said, but the true reason they're still alive and ruling their own personal empires is this right here." Coenus raised his forearm slightly and showed off a golden bracelet on his wrist with a blood red gem glittering in the center.

"Their Deathshards," Acamus said in a low voice laced with fear and awe.

"Correct my boy, but the Deathshards worn by the Seven are in a league miles above my own. Compared to them, my shard is nothing more than a worthless pebble." he raised his arm a little higher and stared at the crimson gem fondly. "You've seen what the shards allow me, the other syntagmatarchoi and the chiliarch to do when we use them yes?"

Acamus gulped and nodded his head slowly. He had indeed seen Coenus and the other senior officers use their Deathshards before and the abilities they gave them. Coenus' shard gave him both the strength of a dozen men and limited mastery over the element of earth allowing him to create weapons, armor and even fortifications out of simple dirt and clay. The most impressive display of Coenus' ability that he'd witnessed was when the grizzled veteran had once jumped into the air after being surrounded by close to thirty soldiers and summoned a forest of razor sharp stalagmites the moment he landed. The poor fools had been impaled and eviscerated before they even knew what hit them. Thankfully, depending on your point of view, the only ones who had Deathshards were men like the chiliarch, Coenus and the other syntagmatarchoi who had fought for the Fallen Emperor in the Royal Army before the empire's fall.

"Good, now imagine that power multiplied by a thousand." Coenus lowered his forearm and took another drink from his bottle. "The Deathshards worn by the Seven were personally made for them by the Fallen Emperor himself, but that's not the only reason why they're so powerful. When the Fallen Emperor was making them he added a few small drops of his blood to every shard. Each of those drops carried a small portion of his power and since the emperor was basically a physical god, the drops magnified the power of each stone a thousandfold."

"Sweet mother of mercy..." Acamus muttered with slack-jawed astonishment. "So basically you're telling me that the Seven have god-like power and we're going to be right in the middle of a battle between two of them?!"

"Not quite god-like, more demigod-like if anything." Coenus said nonchalantly. "But now you understand why I'm getting the chills and drinking so much tonight."

Acamus shook his head mournfully as it sunk into his clammy palms. "So tell me, which of these 'demigods' are we fighting tomorrow?"

"Malychus is his name. He used to be one of the personal bodyguards of the Fallen Emperor so that should already tell you how dangerous this son of a bitch is. According to our employer's spies, Malychus is seven feet tall, covered in muscles and wields a sword almost as tall as he is. And if that wasn't bad enough, his Deathshard allows him to inspire his soldiers and multiply their physical strength which means we're going to be facing an army of superhuman madmen tomorrow!"

Coenus took another drink and laughed madly into the night as Acamus stared blankly at the ground.

*****


A sharp kick to the gut proved to be Acamus' morning wake up call. He muttered a curse and looked up to see Coenus staring down at him dressed in full battle panoply. "Thanks for that," he grumbled sarcastically as he rose from his cot and rubbed his stomach slowly. "What by the emperor's balls is going on?"

"A new and rather unpleasant development," Coenus answered humorlessly as he took Acamus' breastplate off its stand and handed it to him. "Somehow, one of the other Seven managed to pull off a forced cross-world march last night and link up with Malychus' army."

Acamus' eyes grew to the size of manticore eggs. He quickly put on his breastplate and strapped on his greaves, vambraces and the rest of his armor with equal celerity. "How many men did this bastard bring with him?"

"Twelve thousand cavalry and four thousand infantry from what Polyphemus' scouts tell us and the army is supposedly a mixed force of Humans, Elves and Dwarves. Hard to believe anyone other than the Fallen Emperor could've managed to unite the Dwarves and the Elves together with our people under one banner, even if they're one of the Seven."

After Acamus finished equipping his armor, both men grabbed their respective weapons and made their way out of the tent. Coenus' personal weapon was a massive two-handed war hammer that could crush a horse's head with a single blow, while Acamus' preferred weapons were a round bronze shield painted a light shade of scarlet, a single-edged falcata sword and a clutch of javelins that could double as spears in a pinch. Once outside, the two men were greeted by the sights and sounds of half-awake soldiers hastily arming themselves for battle and officers shouting at them to finish and get into formation before they ripped their balls off with their bare hands.

"The calm before the storm," Acamus joked as he followed Coenus who was shouting at the men of their syntagma to get out of their tents and join them. There were two hundred and fifty-six men in a syntagma and four syntagma in a chiliarchia, which was the full numerical strength of the Scarlet Shields. There may be only a thousand and twenty-four of us, but every shieldsman is worth a hundred of any enemy. Acamus thought with a bit of pride in his heart. Well, any enemy except for maybe giants or dragons. Gods I hope we don't have to face any of those today. "So which of the other five was the one that joined up with Malychus?"

"Leucus, ex-commanding officer of the Silver Shields which is the infantry corps whose name served as the inspiration for the title of our own merry band of murdering mercenaries." Coenus explained with a hint of macabre cheer in his voice. "From what I remember from past reports and rumors, he rose to the position after showing exemplary courage and ability in the emperor's last campaign against the Mauriai orcs and was given his Deathshard just a few months before the emperor was killed fighting the Usurper. He's spent most of the past fourteen years campaigning on the breakaway worlds in the eastern half of the old empire so no one knows exactly what his Deathshard can do, but I have a feeling we're not going to like it when we find out."

It didn't take long for the men of Coenus' syntagma to arm themselves and form up. Coenus may have had a light touch when it came to fraternizing with his men and he may have indulged in the drink often, but when it came to discipline and order the man was Hades incarnate. Every man stood at attention with impeccable posture and their armor and weapons had been cleaned and honed to spotless perfection.

Coenus looked over the men in the foremost ranks and barred his teeth in a wolfish smile of approval before addressing the syntagma. "It seems the enemy is in such a hurry fight us today that they decided to attack before we had a chance to break our fast! Well good on them I say! We can fill our empty bellies with their blood and feast on their camp followers for dessert!"

Cheers and shouts of approval greeted his words as the men began to beat their weapons against their shields in salute. The soldiers fighting in the armies of the Successors brought a specific set of weapons into battle which usually included the sixteen foot long sarissa pike and a short sword such as the single-edged kopis or the double-edged xiphos, but being a part of an independent mercenary company unbound by conventional rules and regulations gave the men of the Scarlet Shields a bit more leeway when it came to their equipment.

The company's version of the syntagma battle formation was an infantry square sixteen ranks wide and sixteen ranks deep, but with a few key differences from the original formation used by the Fallen Emperor's army and the armies of his Successors. The men in the first five ranks were protected with large hoplon shields and armed with weapons with considerable reach such as spears, glaives and tridents. This gave the formation solid standoff power against the pike walls of Successor armies and the ability to form a formidable shield wall when they closed ranks. The men in the next six ranks carried body length rectangular shields and were armed with various kinds of short swords, axes and maces. Their job was to kill anyone who made it through the spear wall and to fan out and protect the flanks of the spearmen if a gap opened between the adjoining syntagma. The final five ranks were filled with archers, crossbowmen and the company's precious few battlemages. Their job was to provide support and covering fire for the men in the preceding ranks, literally in the case of the battlemages, and to counter the enemy's own missile troops and spellwork. All in all, the syntagma formation of the Scarlet Shields made them both flexible and reliable, which was why they were constantly employed by one Successor or another for the past twenty-two years and counting.

The sharp call of a war horn suddenly pierced the sky followed shortly by thunderous cheering from the direction of Polyphemus' camp. A moment later another horn answered it, but instead of a short and piercing sound it was drawl, slow and mournful. It was the chiliarch's horn, the rallying cry of the Scarlet Shields.

"I guess that's our cue," Coenus said confidently. "Remember the company's words men; 'With crimson blades and scarlet shields'!"

"With crimson blades and scarlet shields!" they shouted as one.

Coenus smiled wolfishly and turned towards Acamus with a hint of bloodthirst glittering in his eyes. "Ready to get that pretty sword of yours nice and bloody boy?"

Acamus laughed at the question and smirked at his commanding officer confidently. "Ready and willing syntagmatarch. Not even the emperor could save those bastards from me."

*****


Acamus breathed a sigh of annoyance and poked the ground with the tip of one of his javelins impatiently. His example was followed by several of his comrades who were scratching at the dirt with their own weapons. Some had even gone so far as to sit down and talk to one another in pleasant conversation. Normally such breaches of discipline would've been punished with a flogging or at the very least a beating, but Coenus had unofficially given permission for them to do it when he grew weary of standing and sat down as well. It had taken little more than thirty minutes for the company to move out and position themselves on the arid plain opposite Malychus and Leucus' army, but it took several hours for Polyphemus' massive army to leave their war camp and form up alongside them.

"This is what I hate about fighting with armies almost as big as their commander's egos." Coenus growled. "Takes so damn long for all the bastards to deploy and form up that by the time they're done our muscles are sore and cramping from standing around like statues."

"At least we're at the position of prestige and honor on the right wing." Acamus said optimistically.

"Pfft, "prestige and honor"," Coenus parroted with a derisive snort. "The right wing might be that boy, but it's also the most dangerous place to be in a battle like this. From what I've learned from talking with his officers about his previous battles, Polyphemus' preferred tactic is to mass his best troops on his right and send them thundering forward to rout his opponent's left wing in a single, massive charge before having them turn around to stab straight into the flanks and rear of the enemy center. Both Malychus and Leucus have fought against with Polyphemus before so there's a good chance they'll expect it and reinforce their left flank accordingly. We might be the tip of the spear, but we're going to get blunted and chipped a bit before this fight's over."

Coenus rose to his feet and had just begun stretching his stiff arms and legs, when a trio of riders suddenly rode down the line and stopped in front of him. Two of them were adorned in the finest sets of silver plate armor that Coenus and Acamus had ever seen, but they paled in comparison to the armor worn by the lead rider. His was golden plate and scale trimmed with ivory white detailing with a golden starburst design on his chest plate. A brilliant purple cloak flowed down his back and made Acamus immediately realize that the man towering over him must've been of the highest nobility. A moment later Acamus' instincts proved true when the golden knight removed his gilded helmet to reveal the face of a ruggedly handsome man who appeared to be only a few years older than Acamus himself.

"You honor us with your presence Crown Prince Demetrius," Coenus said as he bowed respectively to the prince. Acamus and the men of Coenus' syntagma followed their commander's example and showed their respect by bowing as well.

Demetrius smiled at their gesture and laughed mirthfully. "It is you who honor me Coenus, you and your fellow shieldsmen who will no doubt perform courageously today and win a great victory for my father. I go now to join your chiliarch and the rest of my cavalry. You remember the strategy for today don't you?"

"Yes crown prince," Coenus replied curtly. "We're to hold our position here on the right wing alongside you until the centers of both armies engage one another. When they do, you will lead a cavalry charge into the enemy's left wing followed closely by me, the chiliarch and the rest of the Scarlet Shields. We will then join you in a charge into the flank and rear of the enemy center once we're certain their left wing is sufficiently routed and dispersed beyond recovery."

"Couldn't have said it any better myself Coenus!" Demetrius crowed happily. He turned away from the syntagmatarch and glared viciously at the army standing in the distance. "There's eighty thousand of us and just as many of them as far as I can tell, but I'd bet on my father and us every time. I'll see you all again in the enemy's camp when we're fighting over the spoils of victory!" He donned his golden helmet and reared his horse harshly before riding off to join the chiliarch.

"The crown prince makes victory sound easy." Acamus quipped with a bit of doubt and suspicion in his voice.

"He knows it won't be, but it's better to follow a pompous wolf into battle than a cowardly lion."

*****


The battle of the centers was taking place hundreds of meters away, but the sounds of clashing steel and dying men filled the air and hung heavily over the Scarlet Shields like a woolen blanket over a newborn babe. The smell was worse though. A macabre mixture of blood, piss and shit, it glided away from the melee and filled the nostrils of every man in the company. The more experienced men shrugged the smell off and breathed it in as if it were no different from the aroma of a freshly bloomed rose, but the younger men gagged and retched whatever was left of last night's dinner onto the ground.

"What are we waiting for?" Acamus asked anxiously. "Why hasn't Demetrius signaled the charge?"

"I don't know Acamus." Coenus replied with surprising honestly. "He should've given the order over an hour ago, but he hasn't for some reason. He might be waiting for orders from his father, or he might've learned something new from his scouts that made him reconsider his battle plan."

A cacophony of horn blows suddenly erupted from the extreme right as the Demetrius and his cavalry surged forward and charged towards the left wing of Malychus and Leucus' army. The speed and vigor of their charge was so great that the Scarlet Shields were soon left quite literally in the dust left in their wake. Acamus stared dumbfounded at their now distant figures and even Coenus' eyes were swollen in surprise until a familiar horn call woke them from their stupor.

"The horn of the chiliarch!" Coenus cried. "Forward and onto glory men!"

"Forward onto glory!" the shieldsmen echoed as the company moved forward and chased after Demetrius' cavalry. Their pursuit of the cavalry wasn't set at an all out run, but a carefully measured quick-step set at a steady pace to ensure that they gained ground as swiftly as possibly without overly exerting themselves. A soldier would be worse than useless if he ran after an enemy only to be out of breath at the end of the chase.

It didn't take long for the Scarlet Shields to catch up with the hot-headed prince, and when they did they were greeted by the sight of Demetrius' cavalrymen clashing with the enemy as fiercely and mercilessly as a pack of rabid dogs. Most of them were still mounted and slashing and stabbing eagerly at their opponents, but several men had been dismounted and were now brawling in dirt that was quickly becoming mud thanks to the copious amount of blood being shed upon it.

"Loose formation!" Coenus roared. "Spread out and support the cavalry, but maintain discipline and don't leave our bowmen and battlemages exposed!"

The shieldsmen of Coenus' syntagma followed their leader's orders to the letter and advanced menacingly forward. The men of the first five ranks pierced and impaled unsuspecting or exhausted enemy cavalrymen on the tips of their spears, glaives and tridents, while the men of the following six ranks hacked, cleaved or smashed in the heads of every foe they came across. The bowmen and battlemages did their own share of butcher's work as they shot down or incinerated anyone within range. Coenus was in the thick of the fighting with his men, crushing in the skulls and chests of any man within reach as he led the syntagma forward. Acamus was right behind him, gutting and cutting down anyone who tried to attack from the syntagmatarch's blindside.

The cold and methodical march of the Scarlet Shields was an inspiring sight that made the allied cavalrymen stare with both fear and wonder. Even Demetrius paused to admire their work before rallying his scattered cavalry and reforming them for another charge into the enemy's broken ranks.

While the Scarlet Shields were inspiring to Demetrius' men, they were absolutely terrifying to Malychus' and Leucus' troops. Seeing their comrades mercilessly killed like sacrificial pigs to the altar proved too much for their already shaken morale. A handful of men tossed aside their shields and weapons before running away in headlong flight towards their camp, but their fear proved to be infectious. A dozen became a hundred and a hundred grew to a thousand until nearly every man in Malychus' and Leucus' left wing was consumed with terror and running for their lives. A lone cavalryman seized a tattered standard and attempted to rally his comrades as the Scarlet Shields advanced inexorably towards him.

"Whoever that bastard is, he's got balls." Acamus said admirably.

Coenus nodded sharply in agreement. "That he does Acamus, that he-"

"Antiochus!"

Demetrius had screamed with the fury of a man possessed as he rode up to Coenus and Acamus. "The man trying to rally the enemy's left wing is Antiochus, the eldest son of Leucus and heir to his kingdom! If we kill him and Leucus in this battle their entire kingdom will be ours for the taking! To me men! Follow me if you would have glory and riches to rival that of the gods themselves!"

A mad cheer rose from the ranks of the cavalry as they followed Demetrius in his bloodthirsty charge. Antiochus seemed to realize discretion was the better part of valor as he tossed aside the ragged standard and began leading the few troops he'd succeeded in rallying in a hasty retreat. Demetrius and his men were right on their heels as both forces raced away from the battlefield.

"Come back you stupid son of a bitch!" Coenus howled after him. "What happened to following the godsdamned battle plan?!"

"I'm pretty sure he's taken a solid piss on that Coenus." Someone said stoically.

Coenus' back stiffened as he turned away from the dust storm left by the now distant cavalry and discovered who that someone was. "Chiliarch! I thought you were with Demetrius and the cavalry?"

"I was, until my horse was killed under me by one of Malychus' soldiers." the chiliarch replied coolly. His plate armor was normally spotless and painted scarlet in honor of the company's name, but after the rigors of battle it was dented and stained brown by the drying blood of his enemies and probably a few of his men as well. His light brown hair with its streaks of grey here and there was matted against his skin by a combination of sweat and blood, but his face was unharmed save for a few old battle scars. "We can thank Malychus for Demetrius' sudden bout of bloodthirst. His Deathshard gives him the ability to inspire bloodlust and battle madness in anyone he wishes whether they be friend or foe. It doesn't sound too powerful, until you see it for yourself and realize how dangerous men who have lost control of their senses can be."

Coenus nodded his agreement with his commander, while Acamus drank several gulps from his water skin. "What do we do now sir?" Coenus asked concernedly.

The chiliarch motioned for Acamus to pass the water skin and drank a long draught from it before returning it and saying a quick word of gratitude. "We reform the company and charge straight up the ass of Malychus' center. We can't do anything about Demetrius but it looks like nearly a third of his cavalry were dismounted in the melee, two thousand men from what I can tell. I'll send runners to spread the order for them to rearm and rally around us. Take heart old friend, there's still a chance for us to win this thing."

Coenus smiled hopefully as the chiliarch gave him an encouraging slap on the shoulder before walking away and calling out for men to pass along his orders to Demetrius' dismounted cavalrymen.

*****


Demetrius' men were initially hesitant to follow orders from anyone other than their prince or his father, but once the chiliarch explained the situation to them they immediately came to attention and followed his orders to the letter. Many of them had lost or broken their spears and other weapons in the previous melee, but they were able to scrounge plenty of replacements from the bodies of their enemies and their fallen comrades. The Shields themselves had suffered several dozen wounded, but no fatalities thanks in no small part their iron discipline and the solid leadership of the chiliarch and the syntagmatarchoi. Once he was certain that all of Demetrius' men were properly rearmed and steeled for battle, the chiliarch had them reform in a new formation with the Scarlet Shields in the center and themselves on the flanks.

Coenus had just finished speaking with a pair of cavalry officers when the chiliarch approached him. "Having problems with our dismounted allies Coenus?"

"No sir, just giving them some final words of encouragement to pass along to their men."

"Very good then," the chiliarch commended as he turned to look at the seething mass of men lying in the distance. "This will be remembered as either the greatest victory in the company's history or its worst defeat. I'm fine with either one to be honest."

"Truly sir?" Coenus asked curiously.

The chiliarch turned towards his friend and smiled mischievously. "If you can't be remembered as a glorious winner, then you might as well be remembered as a graceful loser. But there's one thing about this battle that worries me."

"What's that sir?" Acamus asked as he joined them.

"Polyphemus' scouts reported that Leucus' army had a considerable number of Elves and Dwarves in their ranks correct?"

"That's right sir..." Coenus answered with dawning concern.

"Well I don't see any dead Elves or Dwarves lying around here, do yo-"

The chiliarch's words were drowned out as a hundred nightmarish roars tore through the air.

"What in the emperor's name was that?!" Acamus cried. He looked at the chiliarch and Coenus and was shocked by the looks of horror on their faces.

"Dragons..." they both muttered. "Dragons!" they screamed as shieldsman and cavalryman alike uncovered their ears and turned towards the direction of the enemy camp.

From behind the camp's palisade of earth and wood rose a hundred screaming dragons. Their armored scales glittered green, black, red and a dozen other colors and their vast wings swung mightily as they took to the sky and flew towards the battlefield. As they moved ever closer to the Scarlet Shields, the chiliarch could see large unroofed carriages mounted on their backs and in those carriages stood more than a dozen archers dressed in brilliant emerald armor and armed with richly gilded longbows.

"I think I've found the Elves," the chiliarch remarked coolly. "All Scarlet Shields are to about-face and reform into a square formation! Spearmen are to form the shield wall on the side facing the dragons and brace themselves for incoming fire and arrows. Shieldsmen in the middle ranks are to form shield walls on the three other sides around the bowmen and battlemages! All archers, crossbowmen and battlemages are to take up positions behind the earth walls raised by Coenus and to hold their fire until the enemy is in range!"

Coenus placed his hands to the ground and muttered a few words to himself as the Deathshard on his bracelet shined brilliantly and the earth rose and reformed around him into four shoulder high walls facing each of the cardinal directions. The battlemages and missile troops immediately positioned themselves behind each one as Coenus slowly rose to his feet and wiped a cupful of sweat off his brow.

"What about Demetrius' cavalrymen?" Acamus asked unsteadily.

The chiliarch hissed in annoyance as he realized he'd forgotten about them. "Send word for Demetrius' soldiers to form squares of their own and to lock shields. If any of them have some skill with a bow, tell them to arm themselves accordingly and to loose arrows at the dragons and Elves as best as they can!"

Acamus nodded his understanding and shouted at his shield brothers to pass the chiliarch's orders to the cavalrymen. A moment later the Scarlet Shields dressed their ranks and reformed into their new formation just before the horde of dragons flew over them. Remarkably, most of the dragons and their passengers ignored the soldiers huddled together below them as they passed but three of the great beasts suddenly broke away from the others and made a beeline for the three square-shaped formations.

As the shieldsmen angled their shields upwards and braced themselves, the Elves unleashed a flurry of silver arrows upon them and Demetrius' men in the other infantry squares. The scarlet hoplons and tower shields of the shieldsmen easily deflected and endured the impacts of the Elvish arrows, but the smaller shields of the cavalrymen were nowhere near as sturdy. The arrows pierced the small shields as if they were fresh parchment before sinking deep into the soft flesh of the men hiding behind them, but the pain and suffering inflicted by the arrows paled in comparison to the horror that followed.

With disturbing coordination, all three of the dragons unleashed their fire upon the infantry squares at the same time. The dragonfire poured onto the shield walls of the Scarlet Shields like the waters of an ocean over a rock. Several men were overwhelmed and consumed by the flames, but the gaps left by them in the shield wall were quickly closed by one of their brothers in the rear ranks as several others attempted to smother the flames that were eating away at their comrades. The heat was practically infernal, but despite its intensity the shieldsmen stood strong. Unfortunately for their allies, Demetrius' men had barely recovered from the deadly rain of Elven arrows before they were suddenly engulfed by the tide of dragonfire. The nauseating smell of charred meat filled the air as hundreds of men were turned into screaming pyres of death. The poor bastards tried in vain to rid themselves of the unholy flames by rolling in the dirt madly and tearing at their armor until they started to tear away chunks of their own roasted flesh.

The sight of nearly a thousand good men being burned alive was an unsettling one even for a man as scarred by war as the chiliarch, but he quickly regained his senses and ordered his men to avenge their fallen comrades. "Knock those sons of bitches out of the sky boys!"

The archers and crossbowmen rose from behind the earth walls and loosed their arrows and bolts at the Elves and the underbellies of the dragons, while the battlemages joined them a moment later and shot a volley of fireballs and bolts of arcane energy at the great beasts. Most of the arrows bounced harmlessly off the dragons' scales, but the crossbow bolts succeeded in knocking several scales loose and the Elves showed themselves to be more fragile than their mounts as many were soon slumped over the sides of the carriages in limp poses of death. The fireballs and arcane bolts proved to be far deadlier to the dragons as they seemed to home in on the weak points exposed by the bowmen's missiles and explode into them with terrifying force, but it was three of the syntagmatarchoi that delivered the killing blows to two of the beasts.

The Deathshards of the three men glowed with crimson energy as they unleashed their full power upon their airborne enemies. One syntagmatarch created a dozen silver spears out of thin air before sending them hurtling towards his target, while another summoned six spheres of energy as black as the abyss that raced towards the same dragon with remarkable speed. But the most impressive display of power was by Coenus who formed a fourteen foot long spear out of the earth and hurled it through the air as easily as he would a common javelin.

One of the dragons was impaled and ripped apart by the silver spears and jet black energy spheres, while another had its wing ripped off by Coenus' earth spear and crashed into the ground like a gruesome comet. The last dragon had the harnesses of its carriage blown away by the battlemages' spellwork, and the Elves strapped inside screamed in terror they fell to their deaths. The dragon however, was unperturbed by the loss of its passengers and rider and roared furiously as it circled around and prepared to make another run at the Scarlet Shields.

The bowmen, battlemages and syntagmatarchoi were preparing themselves for the attack when the chiliarch suddenly raised his hand. "Hold your fire brothers, this bastard's mine."

The chiliarch emerged from the safety of Coenus' earthen walls and had the men in the shield wall facing the last dragon part ranks for him as he walked out of the defensive square and stared up defiantly at the airborne monstrosity. The dragon looked down at the chiliarch and roared eagerly before shooting a burst of fire into the air and flew towards him lustful hunger in its eyes.

"This is for all my boys who fell today and for our allies who bravely stood with us till the very end." he said mournfully as he unsheathed his sword and raised it toward the sky.

The Scarlet Shields stared in awe as the air around their commander suddenly began to hum with energy. The ground around the chiliarch split violently and the sound of static began crackling through the air. As the humming of the power coursing around them reached a crescendo, the shieldsmen staring at the chiliarch finally noticed the blood red gem shining in the hilt of his sword. The dragon noticed the buildup of power around the chiliarch as well and raced towards him with even greater speed.

The humming suddenly stopped as the chiliarch pointed his sword at the dragon and uttered a single word; "Die."

An earsplitting thunderclap tore through the sky as a lance of white lightning shot out of the chiliarch's sword and engulfed the last dragon in a brilliant flash of light and energy. The dragon screamed a wordless cry of pain as the lightning raced through its body and cooked it from the inside out. The sheer power of the electricity was so great that hundreds of its scales cracked and shattered until the dragon looked like a half-skinned lizard. Ravaged and broken by a power beyond its understanding, the once terrifying creature fell from the sky and crashed into the ground in a massive heap of charred flesh and broken limbs.

The rank and file of the Scarlet Shields stared at their commander with mixed expressions of astonishment, wonder and awe, while the syntagmatarchoi smiled as if they'd seen their firstborn son walk for the very first time. After sheathing his sword and spitting in the direction of the dragon's burnt carcass, the chiliarch walked back towards the company and was welcomed with cheers and friendly slaps from his men. Coenus and the other syntagmatarchoi praised him as well and voiced how impressed they were by his incredible display of power.

"A few dozen Elves and three dragons dead, one of them killed single-handedly by you!" Coenus said cheerfully.

"Yes, it's a great victory worthy of being recorded in the annals of the Scarlet Shields." the chiliarch replied with a sorrowful smile. "How many men have we lost today?"

Coenus' cheerfulness evaporated as swiftly as a drop of water in a scorching desert. "So far the chirurgeons report that we lost seventy-nine men from wounds inflicted by the Elves and the dragonfire. We also have fifty-four wounded, twelve of them critically which means we may lose them before the day's over. I don't even want to guess how many of the cavalrymen were killed by those dragons, and those who were survived the dragonfire have turned tail and fled the battlefield."

"So more than a tenth of the company is wounded, dead or dying..." the chiliarch said mournfully as he looked towards the great battle being fought in the distance. The dragons were strafing Polyphemus' army with bursts of dragonfire, while their Elven passengers were no doubt raining arrows down upon thousands of soldiers who barely had any chance to defend themselves from their vicious attacks. "This battle's over," the chiliarch stated coldly. "Have the men make stretchers out of the wreckages of those dragon carriages for the wounded, and assign burial detail to as many men as you see fit. I would've preferred to have a proper funeral ceremony for our fallen brothers, but we can't afford to linger here any longer than we have to. We must retreat from this battlefield as quickly as possible before Malychus and Leucus' forces finish annihilating Polyphemus' army and turn their attention towards us."

Coenus and the other syntagmatarchoi saluted their understanding to the chiliarch before they began barking orders to their men. Acamus however, remained where he was and looked at the chiliarch with a pained expression on his face. "We're just going to leave those men to die? Didn't we sign a contract and swear to fight beside Lord Polyphemus and his men?"

"That we did son but we were paid to fight, not to sacrifice our lives needlessly or die trying to win a battle for a cause that none of us here, including you, believe in." the chiliarch answered cynically. "Despite what the syntagmatarchoi and I may say when we sound a charge or address the men we, do not fight for honor or glory Acamus nor do we fight to satisfy the egos and ambitions of megalomaniacs like Polyphemus, Malychus or Leucus. We fight to earn enough gold to buy us whatever we need to survive and we're loyal to no one but ourselves and our shield brothers. If you cannot accept that, then a life amongst the Scarlet Shields is not for you and you're free to leave whenever you wish. But if you decide to stay and remain true to the company, then I promise you that your shield brothers and I will return your loyalty a thousand times over. Now tell me before someone or something else makes that decision for you, which will you choose?"

Acamus gulped nervously and watched the hopeless battle being fought a few miles away from him before he turned back and looked straight into the eyes of the chiliarch.

"I choose to be a Scarlet Shield."


*********

"Life is more fun when you are insane. Just let go occasionally".- yakcamkir 12:14
"It is not numbers, but vision that wins wars." - Antiochus VII Sidetes
"My magic screen is constantly bombarded with nubile young things eager to please these old eyes. This truly is a wonderful period in which to exist! - Terikel Grayhair
Cherub of Total War: Rome II Heaven and the Total War: Attila Forums

[This message has been edited by DominicusUltimus (edited 09-22-2014 @ 03:09 PM).]

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