Sitting within the Matriarch’s Lounge, an open book upon her lap, the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower smiled as she watched her beloved and her daughter chase each other about the lounge, their laughter filling her ears and warming her heart. It had been an age since she’d watched the pair play like this, an age filled with guilt and longing. But now, at last, they were a family once more, and she could not be happier.

“Ha! Got you!” her beloved cried, lunging at his daughter and wrapping an arm about her waist.

“No!” the young girl shrieked, reaching for the Matriarch. “Mother, help me!”

“Your mother can’t save you from me, little girl!” the Patriarch growled as he hugged his daughter close. “You are my dinner now!”

“Mother! No!”

Sighing at last, the Matriarch shook her head and raised her feet onto the couch she was seated upon before lowering her gaze to her book.

“You’re on your own, my dear,” she muttered before clearing her throat and resuming her reading.

“Really?” Naeve replied, dropping her arms as she spoke. “Really, Mother? You’d let your daughter get eaten, just like that? Your only heir. You’d let the monster from the deep gobble her up, just like that.”

Let him?” the Matriarch frowned, her gaze upon her book still. “My dear, I’d bloody pay him!”

“Hey!”

Just then, a knock came at the door, drawing all eyes to it.

“Ah!” the Matriarch said out as she sat up once more, a smile upon her lips as she waved the visitor in.

“Amala!” Naeve cried as the elven woman entered. “Mother said she’d let the monster of the deep eat me!”

“She said she’d pay him to eat you,” the Patriarch corrected.

“Yeah! Yeah, she did!”

Stopping, the elven woman frowned, her gaze darting from father to child. “Truly?”

As one, the pair nodded.

With her frown deepening, Amala turned to her Matriarch. “Can we afford that?”

“Amala!” the young girl yelled as the Patriarch stifled a giggle.

“What?” Amala cried. “The Tower’s coffers are running low!”

“What’re you–”

“Fret not, my darling,” the Patriarch said, hugging his daughter tight. “I would come to your rescue.”

“There, see!” the young girl said, a wide grin upon her lips as she stuck her chin out at the silver-haired woman. “Someone still likes me.”

The elven woman raised a regal eyebrow at the young girl, but said nary a word.

“So!” the Patriarch said, turning his gaze to Amala as he stood tall. “What grave catastrophe brings you over here?”

“What do you mean?” Amala frowned. “Why would there be a catastrophe?”

The Patriarch grinned. “Because you had that look when you came in.”

“What look?”

“The I have news of the gravest import, and I must be heard right his instant look.”

Amala’s frown deepened at this, her gaze hardening with each passing moment.

“And I know that look,” the Patriarch added after a spell.

“And what look is that?” Amala growled.

In response, the Patriarch turned to his daughter. “How about some iced cream?”

“What, now?” Naeve frowned.

The Patriarch nodded.

“But–”

“Come,” the Patriarch continued, gently ushering his daughter towards the door. “Amala wishes to speak to your mother in private. Come.”

The women watched father and child make their way towards the door in silence, and before long, they were alone.

“Your husband can be so insufferable sometimes, you know that?” Amala growled, turning to her Matriarch.

The Matriarch grinned. “Oh, I do. Believe me.” Then, her smile faded. “But he’s not wrong, though, is he? What is it?”

Taking a deep breath, Amala let it out slowly as her face fell, her shoulders sagging as she sat before her Matriarch. In response, the Matriarch leant forward, the worry in her eyes growing by the moment.

“What is it?” she repeated.

Amala sighed as she held her Matriarch’s gaze, as if weighing her words.

“Amala!” the Matriarch pressed. “What is it?”

“I know how Fellspire managed to best the barons,” Amala said at last.

The Matriarch sat up as her eyes went wide. “How?”

“You.”

“What do you mean, me?” The Matriarch frowned.

“She’s offering them your head, and I’m the blade she intends to sever it with.”

“You bloody what?” the Matriarch gasped.

“She knows what I am, my dear. The real truth.”

At those words, all blood rushed from the Matriarch’s face as her lips fell agape.

“How?” The Matriarch said at last.

Amala shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“You’re sure, though?”

Amala nodded. “Quite.”

“How can you be sure?”

Breathing deep, Amala let it out slowly and shook her head. “Naeve and I ran into her yesterday on the way to the Kitchens. She was hiding in the shadows with someone, talking to them in secret.”

“She was telling them about you?”

Amala shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not sure what she was saying. I heard snippets, but what I heard didn’t make much sense.”

The Matriarch’s frown returned. “Then, what makes you think she knows about you?”

“Because when her companion realised I was coming, they cloaked.”

Silence fell upon the pair, and as it grew, so too did the furrow upon the Matriarch’s brow deepen.

“Amala…” she said at last. “I don’t understand.”

“They didn’t just cloak from sight, they cloaked everything. Their scent, the warmth emanating from their skin, even the beating of their heart. One moment, I could sense them, the next…nothing.”

“An illusion complete,” the Matriarch muttered.

Amala nodded.

“What…does that prove, though?”

“How many times have you had to rely on an illusion complete when a simple cloak would suffice?”

The Matriarch paused and pondered her friend’s words, her gaze in the ether.

“They were in the shadows,” Amala continued, drawing her Matriarch’s gaze once more. “Naeve didn’t even know they were there. Against a normal being, a simple cloak would’ve sufficed, but they chose an illusion complete–”

“Because they knew a simple cloak will not hide them from all your senses,” the Matriarch interjected, her gaze in the ether once more.

“Precisely.” Amala nodded.

“Bloody hells,” the Matriarch gasped, turning to her friend.

Amala nodded once more. “Yeah.”

“No,” the Matriarch soon added, shaking her head as she gritted her teeth and sat tall. “No, you’re reaching. They may well be hiding something else.”

“Like what?”

“Gods, I don’t know! Something! Anything!”

Amala shook her head at this. “I have pondered this over and over. Nothing else makes sense. There’s simply no other reason to hide so utterly.”

“Did Fellspire say anything?”

“Yeah.” Amala nodded. “She’s planning a surprise for the both of us.”

“You what?”

Amala nodded once more. “To make amends for her behaviour.”

“What sort of surprise?”

Amala shook her head. “She didn’t say.”

“But you think she was gloating.”

Once more, Amala nodded.

The Matriarch stared hard at her friend for a spell, not knowing what to say.

“You really believe this, don’t you?” she said at last.

Breathing deep, Amala nodded.

“Then, how come she didn’t say anything last night? The whole Tower was at the banquet. If she wanted to destroy us, there’d have been no better time.”

“She wishes to give the barons your head,” Amala replied, “not the Tower.”

“Well, I haven’t gotten any missives from them blackmailing me with this yet, so she clearly hasn’t said anything to them.”

“Yes,” the silver-haired woman nodded, “I’d thought about that too, and the only reason that make sense is she still lacks the proof. And I wager this friend is meant to get it for her.”

“That’ll mean whoever this person is must be close to you. Close to us.”

Once again, Amala nodded.

“Bloody hells,” the Matriarch gasped as she fell back into her seat, her gaze returning to the ether. Then, she turned to Amala once more.

“Any idea who it is?” she asked.

Amala shook her head. “I caught a scent, but it was too faint, and gone too soon. It could’ve been anyone.”

Breathing deep, the Matriarch stared into the ether for a spell before gritting her teeth and turning to Amala once again. “What do you need from me?”

“I’ve drawn a list,” Amala replied,” and I’m working through it, eliminating who I can. Once I have whittled it down to a handful, can you send them on assignments?”

“What, at the same time?”

Amala nodded.

“How many are you whittling your list down to?”

“How many can you send on assignment?”

“Depends on how long you need them gone for.”

“Not long. Four weeks. Five at most.”

“In that case…” the Matriarch replied as she searched her thoughts. “Five, I think.”

“Five it is, then.”

“But what would that buy you?”

Amala smiled at this. “The highland barons are not known for their patience. If we send Fellspire’s informant away, it won’t be long before her desperation gets the better of her and she reaches out to them.”

“I see.” The Matriarch nodded. “You’ll be shadowing her.”

“Yes.” Amala nodded.

“Hrm,” the Matriarch muttered, pondering all she’d heard. Then, she turned to her friend once more.

“I’m still not convinced,” she said, “but you’ve been right far more often than you’ve been wrong. Let me know when you have the list.”

Amala nodded. “I will.”

Then, she rose and headed for the door.

“And Amala?” The Matriarch called out to her friend as she reached the door.

“Yes.” Amala frowned, stopping as she turned to her Matriarch.

“Be careful,” the Matriarch replied. “For both our sakes.”

Amala smiled once more. “I will.”

Then, nodding once more, the silver-haired woman turned opened the door and stepped through.

*****

“Amala!” came a cry through the open doorway as Amala walked past, drawing the silver-haired woman from her thoughts, and her gaze to the garden beyond.

“Look!” young Naeve beamed, then performed a near-perfect pirouette.

The silver-haired woman stood in stunned silence, staring at the beaming child.

“Good, hunh?” Naeve said.

“Where in the hells did you lean that?” Amala gasped.

“Been practising!”

The silver-haired woman stared hard at her young friend, unsure what to say.

“Well?” Naeve said after a spell. “Good?”

The silver-haired woman giggled. “My darling, that was more than just good, that was exquisitely done.”

The young girl grinned once more, then turned and began dancing in the sun.

“Where’s your father?” Amala called out after a spell, stepping into the garden and approaching the dancing child as she spoke.

“He said he had some papers to attend to,” Naeve replied, “but he’d come look for me before lunch.”

“Oh, I see,” Amala muttered.

Stopping, the young elf turned to her friend. “So, what did you have to talk to Mother about?”

Amala shrugged. “Tower affairs.”

The young girl cocked her head to the side, her brow furrowed deep. “How come Father couldn’t hear them?”

“Oh, uh…” Amala began as her mind raced, and as she searched her thoughts for an apt answer, the elven woman’s gaze wandered about her. It was then she noticed those staring at them. Turning back to the young girl, Amala forced a smile and sighed.

“Well, if you must know, it wasn’t truly a Tower affair.”

“Oh?”

“No.” Amala shook her head. “It was a…woman thing.”

Naeve frowned. “What kind of woman thing?”

Shaking her head, Amala neared the inquisitive child. “ The sort I shall discuss with your mother and no-one else.”

At this, the young girl’s frown deepened. “You’re not sick, are you?”

Smiling, Amala shook her head. “No, Naeve. I just…needed another woman’s perspective, that’s all.”

Then, the young girl grinned, the glimmer in her eyes unmistakable. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

At those words, all mirth drained from Amala’s face as hushed whispers rippled about the pair. and as the silver-haired woman stood in utter silence, the young elf’s smile slowly began to fade.

“Hrm,” Amala said at last, her face as stone as she turned and headed towards a nearby bench.

“It was a joke, alright?” Naeve called out, forcing a smile to her lips.

Amala held her peace as she went.

“Amala?”

Still, Amala said nary a word, sitting at last with her back ramrod straight.

As her smile faded once more, Naeve wandered over to her friend till she stood before her.

“It was a joke,” she soon said.

Still, Amala remained silent.

Huffing, the young girl sat beside her friend before shouldering her softly. “Hello?”

The silver-haired woman turned to the young girl, and as their eyes met, the young girl slowly sat tall as a frown twisted her lips.

“There are some jests that will never be funny, Naeve,” Amala said at last. “Ever.”

“I didn’t mean–”

“You know I can never bear children.”

“Yes, I know, but–“

“So using it as a jest will never be funny.”

The young girl moved to speak, but as she stared deep into her friend’s eyes, she instead fell silent, her shoulders sagging as her frown deepened till, at last, she lowered her gaze to her feet.

Amala stared at the young girl for a spell but soon sighed and threw her arm about young Naeve’s shoulder before hugging her tight and kissing her forehead.

“I know you didn’t mean any harm, my darling,” she soon said. “And heavens know I should be used to it by now, after all these centuries, but…”

Then, she sighed once more and rubbed the young girl’s shoulder before letting her be.

“But that’s probably not the worst bit,” she soon added.

“What do you mean?” Naeve replied, raising her gaze at her friend.

In response, Amala nodded at the group of mages grouped not far from where they once stood. “You’ve given Herta something new to gossip about.”

“Oh, bollocks!” Naeve gasped, her eyes going wide as she followed Amala’s gaze. “Don’t tell me Mistress Darkriver heard me.”

“Sadly so.” Amala sighed before nodding at the group of mages, who nodded back with smiles, then turned inwards and began speaking in hushed tones.

“Bollocks!” Naeve repeated, then winced as the mages hurried indoors. Then, she turned to Amala. “Sorry.”

“Eh.” Amala shrugged. “I’m used to her nonsense. It’s Aeden you’ll have to apologise to.”

“Ugh!” the young girl groaned, shutting her eyes tight and raising her face to the heavens.

Grinning at last, Amala rubbed the young girl’s back before hugging her tight once more.

“Lesson learnt, then?”

With a pout, Naeve turned to her friend and nodded. “Yeah. Lesson very well learnt.”

“Good.”

Then, the young girl frowned. “But you’re okay, though. Right?”

“Yeah.” Amala nodded.

“What’s wrong, then?”

At this, the elven woman shook her head. “I’ll tell you some day, when you’re a woman yourself.”

“But didn’t you say you no longer get woman issues?”

Once more, Amala shook her head. “I don’t get most of them, but some will forever plague me.”

“Oh,” Naeve said after a spell. “But you’re okay.”

Amala nodded at her friend.

“Good!” Naeve grinned at last before resting her head upon her friend’s arm. As she did so, the smile upon the elven woman’s lips faded. No matter how many times she did it, lying to her young friend still tore at her heart.

“So!” she said, eager to change her thoughts. “What do you intend to be doing till your father’s free?”

“Mh.” Naeve frowned as she sat up. “Don’t really know.” Then, she turned to Amala once more. “It’s lunchtime soon, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Amala nodded. “Shouldn’t be too long now.”

Then, the twinkle returned to the young girl’s eyes. “Then, I suppose I should find something simple and easy to do till then.”

“I suppose.” Amala nodded.

“Like reading a story, maybe…?” Naeve said, a slow grin parting her lips.

Amala held her young friend in a pointed stare. “You read a tale yesterday.”

“I know.” Naeve nodded.

“And you want to read one now.”

Once more, Naeve nodded.

The elven woman stared for a spell longer, then sighed and reached into her pocket.

“Which one, then?” she said as the tome shimmered into view before the pair.

Grinning, the young girl swung her legs onto the bench before placing her head upon her friend’s lap. Then, she paused.

“Hrm,” the young girl muttered, turning to stare at Amala. “I don’t know, you know.”

“Truly?”

“Well…what races haven’t I read about?”

“This is a tome about your ancestors, Naeve, not the races of the world.”

“Oh, you know what I mean!”

Sighing once more, Amala began flipping the tome’s pages. Then, she stopped.

“How about humans?” she asked

“No.” Naeve shook her head, turning to the tome. “Read loads with them in it already.”

“Hrm,” Amala muttered before turning the pages once more.

“You’ve read about the irunai…” she muttered as she went, “and the highlands…”

“Yeah.” Naeve nodded.

Then, Amala stopped once more. “Our woodland cousins?”

The young girl pulled a face and shook her head.

“Hrm,” Amala muttered and turned the pages for a spell once more.

“Dwarves?”

Once again, Naeve shook her head.

“Well, we don’t many other options left, Naeve.”

“What other options do we have, then?”

“Well…” Amala muttered as she searched her thoughts. “I have a couple of tale with gnomes, another with orcs and–”

“Orcs!” Naeve gasped. “Oh, yes please!”

“Very well, then,” Amala replied, turning the pages once again. “Orcs it is.”

“There,” she added after a spell.

“Linnette,” Naeve muttered, staring at the tome before her, and as Amala began stroking her hair, the young girl turned the page sighed and nestled into her friend’s lap, then began to read.

*

*

*

With her lips twisted into a deep snarl, the orc rested upon the open doorway, her fierce gaze upon the band in the distance.

“Come, Karei!” came a voice behind her. “Your father will not wait for you.”

Breathing deep, the orc kissed her teeth at the elven party and turned to wander deeper into her home, but as her eyes fell upon the orc standing within her bed chamber she stopped and glared, her sneer returned.

“What?” she barked.

The orc smiled and shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Don’t tell me you’re also beginning to agree to this madness.”

Breathing deep, the orc let it out slowly and wandered forth.

“Karei, my beloved,” he said as he went, “I’m the hot-headed one here. You’re supposed to be the one telling me to have faith in your father.”

“So, you do agree to this stupidity.”

Reaching his beloved, the orc sighed and grasped her hand in his before holding it to his chest.

“Our tribe is battle-worn, Karei, the truce won’t hold for–”

“I know our state, Demus!” the orc woman snapped.

Demus smiled, raising a soft hand to his beloved’s face. “I know you do. Just as you know the old man carries more than he lets on. If he thinks an alliance with this Shimmering Tower is the safest route out of all this, we must trust in him.”

“But they are elves, Demus,” Karei replied. “Elves!”

The orc named Demus gasped at his beloved, his smile widening. “Are they now? I hadn’t noticed!”

“Demus…” Karei growled. “Do notprovoke me.”

“What?” Demus grinned. “It’s not my fault you’re so adorable when you’re incensed.”

The elf named Karei took a step forth, the fire in her eyes burning brighter as she snarled at her beloved.

“I am also within reach of your manhood,” she seethed.

All at once, the grin on Demus’s lips faded, his gaze darting to his loins before returning to the woman before him.

“You think we have time?” he said. “I mean, I can be quick, but–”

His words were cut short by the fist crashing into his cheek and sending him staggering to the side as a deep chortle escaped his lips.

“You’re so infuriating sometimes, you know that?” the orc woman growled.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Demus replied as he straightened and turned to his beloved once more, “I thought you found me adorable.”

Rolling her eyes as a deep sigh escaped her lips, the orc woman turned and made to head for the doorway again.

“Karei, Karei,” Demus said, hastening to the woman and throwing his arms about her before kissing her neck and resting his head upon her shoulder, hugging her tight as he did so.

“Get off me, Demus,” Karei warned.

“Listen to me,” Demus replied, his voice soft and his mirth gone. “Your father knows what he’s doing. He always has.”

“Demus…”

“You all doubted him when he claimed we should ally with the Haldurn tribe, and yet that alliance has benefited us in ways no-one imagined.”

“I’m well aware of–”

“And let’s not forget, when that shadow-witch cursed the Ketarin tribe’s chieftain, all tribes save yours abandoned them, and now look who controls their mithril mines.”

The orc woman fell silent at this,

And, it was thanks to your father, and only your father, that we are wedded. Left to your brothers, I’d have lost my head for daring to even touch you.”

“Why do you bring that up? You always bring that up!”

“Because it’s true.”

“Well, yes, but–”

“Your father has never set this tribe on the wrong path, Karei. If he thinks we need this alliance, we need this alliance.”

“Yes, but…”

Demus kissed his beloved’s neck once more, his kiss soft and longing, then rested his head upon her shoulder once again. “Trust him.”

Karei moved to speak, but fell silent, her gaze upon the party in the distance still, till at last, she growled and, pulling herself free of her husband, turned and headed for their bed chamber.

“I’ll finish the packing,” she growled as she went. “You go see to the gifts.”

The orc named Demus grinned and watched his beloved a spell, then turned and headed for the door.

*****

Rising from her seat, the elven mage wandered to the window before her and stared down at the Tower grounds below.

“Must you fidget so much?” came a voice from behind her. “They will arrive when they arrive.”

Rolling her eyes, the elf turned, a soft smile upon her lips.

“I don’t know how you can remain this calm, Mother,” she said. “We haven’t had orcs set foot on Tower grounds since…”

“That may be so,” the seated elf replied, a regal eyebrow raised as she raised a her cup to her lips, “but you wandering to the window every few moments isn’t going to make them arrive any sooner.”

Rolling her eyes once more, the elven woman sighed. “Yes, Mother.”

“Did you practice the speech?”

The elven mage nodded.

“And the gifts?”

“Arrayed in the Ceremonial Hall as you requested.”

“What about the whetstones? Are those enchanted now?”

The mage nodded once more. “I saw to it this morning.”

“Good.” The seated elf nodded. “Now, all that remains is to wait.”

The Archmage shook her head and wandered to her seat.

“How can you be so calm?” she said as she sat.

The elderly elf smiled at last, turning her gaze to the Archmage. “Who said I’m calm?”

The Archmage grinned.

“When you’re Matriarch, my dear,” the elf continued, “learning to hide your feelings becomes paramount.”

“Yes, well,” the Archmage sighed, “I clearly have a long road ahead of me, then.”

“Oh, don’t fret, my dear,” the Matriarch replied, raising her cup to her lips once more, “if I can master it, you can certainly–”

“Matriarch!” came a cry from beyond the open door way as hurried footsteps echoed from the corridor beyond. “Matriarch!”

“They’re here!” the Matriarch said, placing her cup upon its saucer and rising.

Then, she turned to the Archmage. “Ready?”

The elven mage breathed deep and nodded as she let it out slowly.

“Good.” The Matriarch nodded. “Come.”

Then, she headed for the door, the elven mage in tow.

*****

“Smells funny,” Karei growled as they wandered through the grand corridor of the Shimmering Tower.

“Everything smells funny to you,” the orc to the right of Karei whispered, a smile upon his lips.

“Shut up, you,” the seething orc hissed.

“Now, now, Brother,” the orc to the left of Karei whispered, “where’s your compassion? She’s merely pining for her darling Demus.”

“If you say that one more time, Narum,” Karei seethed, “I swear, I’ll–”

“Quiet, all of you!” the grizzled orc at the fore snapped, spinning about to face his offspring square. “This is a sombre affair!”

Startled, the three bowed as one.

“Forgive us, Father,” they intoned.

The grizzled orc glared at the three for a spell, then turned to the elves leading the procession.

“Forgive us,” he said. “My children are…nervous.”

“Hold, w–” Narum began, but his sister’s sharp elbow into his side silenced him in an instant.

“Of course, Chieftain,” one of the elves replied, a smile upon his lips. “This way please.”

Before long, the group resumed their march, and as Karei fell in step behind her father, her gaze began to wander. Only, what she saw did little to lighten her mood, for wherever her gaze went, it was soon met with the curious gaze of yet another elf staring at her like she was some specimen fit only to be poked and prodded.

“Wish they’d stop staring,” Narum whispered, drawing his siblings’ gazes to him.

“I know,” the orc to the left of Karei muttered. “So stupid.”

“You’d think they’d never seen an orc before,” Narum growled.

“Well, as I understand it, “Karei replied, “we’re the first to set foot in this place in centuries.”

“With a welcome like this, I’m not surprised. Uncultured idiots.”

Karei smiled, turning to her brother as she did so. “What was it you called that elf woman this morning? And to her face no less.”

The orc named Narum fell silent at this, choosing instead to glare at his sister.

With her smile widening, Karei raised her gaze and wandered on, her mood lifted at last.

*****

Standing beside her mother’s seat, the Archmage cleared her throat and smoothed her robe as her gaze lay fixed upon the door beyond.

“Oh, for goodness sake, Linnette,” the seated Matriarch sighed, “you need to relax!”

“I am relaxed!” Linnette hissed in response.

“You look like your heart would stop if a mouse so much as farted beside you,” the elf seated on the other side of the Matriarch replied.

The Archmage turned and glared at the seated woman. “My, aren’t you all smiles and cheer today.”

The seated elf grinned, but as she moved to speak, a loud knock came at the door.

“Gods, they’re here,” Linnette whispered.

“Breathe, girl,” the seated elf said, her smile now gone. “Try not to think of them as some curious wonder. They’re orcs, not golden dragons.”

The Archmage glared once more at the seated elf, but said nary a word.

The knock came again.

“Come!” the Matriarch ordered.

In response, the grand doors of the Ceremonial Hall slowly swung open, and as the procession walked in, the Archmage’s gaze flew to the four orcs at the rear, and as she stared at each in turn, the butterflies within her stomach began fluttering all the more.

Then, the procession stopped, and the elves at the fore bowed.

“Matriarch,” one of the elves began, “allow me to present Gedur Agunar, Chieftain of the Agunar Tribe, Protector of the Aredast Plains, and Bulwark against The Gathering Dark.”

At those words, the eldest of the orcs stepped forth and bowed, and as he did so, the Matriarch and her companions bowed in turn.

“You honour me, Matriarch,” the orc said, his booming voice echoing about the room.

“The honour is ours, Chieftain Agunar!” The Matriarch grinned. “Though we’ve had a few orc allies in the past, it has been many decades since an orc has walked these halls.”

“All the more reason to thank you for granting me this audience.”

“Ah! The pleasure is all mine, I’m sure,” the Matriarch replied, then turned.

“Allow me to introduce my Magister, Magister Lera Dreamspring…”

The seated elf bowed slightly, a soft smile upon her lips.

“…and my daughter, Linnette Earthchild.”

The Archmage bowed at this, a smile upon her lips.

“A pleasure to meet you both,” the orc replied. Then, he too, turned.

“Allow me to present to you three of my War Council. Second Warlord Narum Agunar, Bane of the Agumirs…”

The orc to the left of the Chieftain bowed, his back stiff and his face as stone.

“…Third Warlord Kedar Agunar, First of the Shaman Lords…”

At those words, the rightmost orc bowed, a wide grin upon his lips.

“…and First Warlord Karei Agunar, First of the Berserker Lords.”

The orc to the right of the Chieftain bowed, and though her back wasn’t as stiff as the first orc’s there was no warmth in the smile upon her lips.

“Welcome.” The Matriarch smiled, her gaze drifting from one orc to the other. “To have such noble warriors in our midst is such a great honour.”

Then, the Matriarch turned to the Chieftain. “You must be proud to call such as these your children.”

“Unlike you, we make our children earn their place in life,” the orc named Narum growled in his native tongue.

As those words reached Linnette’s ears, the butterflies within her stomach faded at last, burned in the fires of the rage that now gripped her.

“And unlike you,” she snarled, “we teach our children to show their guests respect. Shame such simple courtesy is beyond you.”

A deathly silence fell upon the room as all within, elf and orc alike, stared open-mouthed at her.

“Oh, I like her!” the orc named Kedar said at last, drawing the gaze of his siblings.

“What?” he added.

“Chieftain Agunar,” the Matriarch began, turning to her daughter as she spoke and crushing the Archmage’s spirit with a single glance before returning her gaze to her guests, “pray forgive my daughter, she’s–”

“Forgive her for what?” the orc named Kedar interjected. “Narum spoke his mind, your daughter did the same. What’s the harm?” Then, he grinned. “Other than to Narum’s pride, I mean.”

“Kedar…” Narum growled as the Linnette fought back a smile.

“Matriarch,” the Chieftain said at last, “pray forgive my children. They’re not accustomed to such civil company.”

“Hey!” the three orcs cried in unison.

“Well, if you ask me,” the Magister replied, “I’d rather be stuck in a room with your children than be around some of the civil company we face.” Then, she rose and turned to her Matriarch. “Might as well get on with it.”

“Uh…yeah,” the Matriarch replied, rising as well. “Let’s.”

Then, she turned and headed for the grand table within the hall, the others falling in step behind her.

*****

Pacing slowly about the room, the sun glimmering off the wondrous suit of plated armour that adorned him, the seasoned warrior stared deep into the ether, his hand gripped tight beneath the cloak upon his back as his mind whirled.

“Oh, for goodness sake, Dramus, sit down!” gasped the robbed figure seated not far from the pacing warrior, his words halting the warrior’s steps and drawing his gaze.

You might be able to sit and relax, Thelix,” the warrior growled, “but I’m not so stupid as to think our being called here was for anything other than dire news.”

“Well, dire news or not, your blasted pacing isn’t going to make the damnedest bit of difference, now is it?”

The warrior glared at his companion for a spell, then turned and resumed his pacing.

“Very well, then,” the robbed figure seethed, “act the child!”

Stopping once more, the warrior spun about to face his companion once again, but as he moved to speak, the door swung open, and as the men turned to the door, their faces greatly whitened as one as their gazes fell upon the first man to enter.

“Divine Paladin Rothgar!” Dramus gasped and saluted as his companion scrambled to his feet. “It is an honour, sir!”

“Be at ease, Paladin.” The grizzled warrior smiled. “We’re all the same in Eilden’s eyes.”

“Of course, Divine Paladin,” Dramus replied, then, clearing his throat, he folder his arms behind him once more and stood tall.

Then, the warrior turned to the robbed figure, the sun’s rays catching on the gold etchings upon his plated armour.

“I see you’ve made yourself at home, Inquisitor,” he said, as two others entered the room. “Unsurprising.”

The Inquisitor’s gaze dropped to the goblet in his hand, then as he gazed upon the Divine Paladin once more, he cleared his throat and placed the goblet upon the table beside him.

“For…forgive me, Divine Paladin,” he stammered, “I was parched, and–”

“Stop talking.”

The man fell silent.

“Now, I’m sure you’re both eager to know why you’ve been summoned back to the Citadel.”

The men exchanged glances before turning to the man named Rothgar and nodding as one.

“Good.” The Divine Paladin nodded, then turned to one of the two men who’d entered.

“This is High Inquisitor Wrexis. He has a…small problem you’re going to assist him with.”

“But,” Thelix frowned, “we are on a campaign–“

“No, you’re not,” the Divine Paladin interjected, his voice soft and his words absolute. Then, he turned to the High Inquisitor. “If you please.”

“Of course, Divine Paladin,” the rotund man wheezed, then turned to the pair. “Sit, please.”

The two men did as ordered.

“Now, what you are about to hear is not common knowledge,” the High Inquisitor began as the third man closed the door, “and thus what you hear must remain between us and only us.”

The seated men exchanged glances, but said nary a word.

“This is Prince David Faramound. His father is currently waging a campaign in the orc lands to liberate those lands from the oppressive clutches of those vile creatures.”

“What, Thrace is waging war against the entire orc nation on her own?” Dramus frowned.

“No,” the High inquisitor growled. “Thrace is marching with allies, but I see no reason to burden you with who those allies are, or the hows and wherefores of the campaign.”

“Oh,” Dramus replied.

“May I continue?”

“Please,” Dramus replied with an eager nod.

“Good. Now, while Thrace’s intentions are noble, King Faramound failed to seek His divine guidance before beginning his campaign and before long, they came unstuck.”

“We did not come unstuck,” the prince growled, “we merely faced a few minor set backs. That’s all.”

The High Inquisitor turned to the young prince, staring down his nose at the man.

“Continue, please,” the prince hastily added.

“Thank you,” the High Inquisitor replied, then turned to the seated men. “Well, King Faramound came seeking the Grand Inquisitor’s blessing, and, in his eternal wisdom, he has granted the king support, but in secret, and over the past few months, many of your brothers have fought under Thrace’s banner, and, by His light, we have begun forcing the barbarians back.”

“Excellent news!” Dramus grinned.

“So, why are we here, then?” Thelix asked.

“Cease the interruptions, and you will have your answer,” was the High Inquisitor’s curt reply.

“Oh,” Thelix muttered. “Forgive us.”

“Hrm, quite,” the High Inquisitor growled. “In any case, we are now faced with a quandary, and you two have been chosen for a special quest to help put an end to it.”

“Yes, those damned orcs have sent delegates to the Shimmering Tower to seek an alliance,” the prince growled.

“Eh?” Thelix frowned.

“That can’t be right,” Dramus added, his brow furrowed just as deep.

“Meaning what, Paladin?” the Divine Paladin asked.

“Well…uh,” the seated warrior began before clearing his throat and swallowing hard. “Well, the orc nation are a proud lot. If they’ve come together to repel Thrace and her allies, seeking outside aid would be the last thing they would do.”

“Yes.” Thelix nodded. “You’d need to utterly crush three or four tribes at once before they fear you enough to even consider it. And I don’t see us having the strength to accomplish that.”

“Is that so?” the Divine Paladin replied, a smile dancing on his lips.

The seated men exchanged glances, then nodded at the grizzled warrior.

“So, then, tell me,” the Divine Paladin said, folding his arms before him as he spoke, “if this was your campaign, how would you see to its success.”

“Well, for one thing,” Thelix replied, “facing the full might of the orc nation full square is sheer folly. Even with our support, Thrace will crushed.”

“You don’t know who stands with Thrace,” the High Inquisitor threw back.

Thelix shook his head. “I don’t need to. You’re facing orcs on their lands, on the fields where they’ve honed their skills. Their lands are harsh, unforgiving. Bounteous, true, but Thrace is not used to such climes. That alone will weaken their might greatly.”

“So, I ask again,” the Divine Paladin replied. “How would you conduct the campaign?”

“I’d hide my numbers and my intentions,” Dramus replied, “face one or two tribes at a time, use their pride against them.”

“Sooner or later, they will realise what I am about,” Thelix added, “but, with luck, I would’ve weakened them enough to mean when they do rally, it’ll be too late.”

“And which tribe would you face first? Assuming victory was guaranteed, that is.”

The seated men exchanged glances, then turned to the Divine Paladin.

“Agunar,” they said in unison.

“But it won’t be an easy fight by any means,” Thelix continued. “Their warriors are the most feared of all the tribes, and with good reason.”

“Their berserkers most of all,” Dramus said.

“And their Chieftain the most cunning of the lot,” Thelix intoned. “He sees war differently to the other Chieftains.”

“Only problem is you’ll have to contend with two or more tribes before you can face them,” Dramus sighed.

“Unless you can somehow turn the tribes on one another,” Thelix offered, “create a safe corridor to march through to face Agunar.”

“But if you can cow them,” Dramus continued, “you’ll not only claim a strong rally point from the orc nation, but the fear you’ll strike into the hearts of the other tribes will be enough to make some of them consider surrender outright.”

“Yes, precisely.” Thelix nodded.

As silence fell upon the room, the Divine Paladin’s smile broke free at last.

“I knew I was right to pick you two,” he said.

The seated men exchanged glances once more.

“Pick us for…what?” Thelix asked.

“The campaign has indeed focused on breaking the Agunar tribe,“ the Divine Paladin replied, “and yes, we have indeed incited war with their neighbours, but–”

“I do not see the relevance of sharing such knowledge with them, Divine Paladin,” the High Inquisitor interjected in his haughtiest of voices.

The grizzled warrior turned to the portly man, his gaze soft, but his eyes cold.

“Never interrupt me again. Understand?”

“I will not…”

The Divine Paladin glared at the portly priest in silence for a spell, and soon the priest fell silent, cowering before the warrior as sweat ran down his face. Then, standing tall, the Divine Paladin turned to the seated men.

“But, as you say,” the warrior continued, “their Chieftain is a wily one. I know not how he managed to make his way over to the Tower unseen, but he and his children are there as we speak, entreating the Matriarch for an alliance.”

“Yes,” Thelix nodded, “sounds just like what he’d do. If he gets the Tower involved, Thrace will need to withdraw. She shares too many allies with the Tower to risk open war with them.”

“Precisely.” The Divine Paladin nodded. “And if they withdraw, so must we. We cannot be seen to be waging open war in such a manner, heathen though they may be.”

“And without us hounding their borders, I wager they’d put their war with the other tribes to bed soon enough,” Thelix added.

“I’d imagine so, yes,” the Divine Paladin replied.

“What do you need from us?” Dramus asked.

The grizzled warrior breathed deep, his smile returned. “There is a rumour we have heard many times. The Gathering Dark. Do you know of it?”

“Who doesn’t?” Dramus replied. “Gedur’s rumoured to have had a soft spot for some ageing tribe, Ketarin or somesuch. They were cursed by some shadow-witch for some slight or other, and the curse is meant to have turned their warriors into lumbering blood-thirsty monsters. Those few who survived the curse are rumoured to have joined Gedur’s tribe, and Gedur and his tribe forced the cursed ones into their mithril mines somewhere, had his shamans seal them away in there, and now he’s supposed to be some great protector watching over the orc nation in case they break free.”

“You don’t believe it?” the young prince asked.

Thelix shook his head. “It’s all nonsense. Clever nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. The tribe existed, for sure of it, but I wager Gedur simply put them all to the sword, claimed their mines and used this Gathering Dark garbage to keep the other tribes from making a play for the mines.”

“Not that I can blame him,” Dramus said. “The mithril from those mines are of exceptional purity. Almost as pure as elven mithril.”

“And they run deep,” Thelix added.

“Yes, well,” the Divine Paladin replied. “The rumours are mostly true.”

“What?” the seated men said in unison

“Except, there was no shadow-witch. We believe it was a vampire instead. And we’re not so sure he forced them back, more like waited till daylight and trapped them where they slept.”

“I…see,” Thelix mused.

“Trapped them in the mines?” Dramus asked.

The prince shook his head. “We believe that part is a ruse, like you say.”

“So, where are they?”

“That’s your task,” the Divine Paladin replied.

“Yes,” the High Inquisitor added. “You are charged with finding these…Gathering Dark vampires and unleashing them.”

“What?” the pair exclaimed in unison.

“You heard,” the Divine Paladin replied. “Unleash them on Agunar. Those vampire have been trapped for decades. By now, their thirst would’ve driven them beyond mad, made them more than a match for ten Agunar berserkers, perhaps even twenty. Unleash them on the tribe.”

“Then, when they turn on the other tribes,” the prince continued, “we shall take Agunar’s lands and make it our own.”

“With the mines going to us,” the Divine Paladin added.

A heavy silence fell upon the room.

“They’ll be slaughtered,” Thelix said at last.

“And that is your concern, how?” the High Inquisitor asked.

“If this goes as you say,” Dramus replied, “you will be surrounded. No supply lines will be safe with vampires prowling those lands.”

The Divine Paladin smiled. “You let us worry about that.”

“I don’t know,” Thelix muttered. “I don’t think–”

“I understand–” The Divine Paladin began.

“You’re not here to think, man,” the High Inquisitor interjected, his countenance fierce, “you’re here to do as you’re told!”

The heavy silence returned, and as it drew on, the grizzled warrior turned to his portly companion and held him in a pointed stare, till at last, turning, the High Inquisitor swallowed hard as he realised at last what he had done.

Clearing his throat, the man wiped his hands upon his robe and nodded.

“Apologies,” he said. “Apologies.”

The Divine Paladin smiled, and though neither Thelix nor Dramus were the target of the smile, both felt their souls freeze nonetheless. Then, the Divine Paladin turned to the seated pair.

“I understand your concern, but I must ask that you trust me, trust the Grand Inquisitor. There is much here that I have not mentioned, much more. Should things go as planned those vampires will all be dealt with, and we will be left with far more than just the Aredast Plains. But none of that will come to pass lest you find those vampires and unleash them. Quickly. Should the Tower send a sizeable contingent to those lands, their presence will be more than enough to tilt the scale in Agunar’s favour, and all our plans will be for naught.”

“But we don’t even know where to begin looking,” Dramus said.

“You two know those lands better than any of Eilden’s Children. You know the people, you know the tongue, and you, Dramus, used to walk in His Shadow.”

“Well, yes, but–”

“So, walk in His Shadow once again. There is much to gain here, Brothers, but without you, none shall be ours. Can I count on you?”

The two men turned to one another, then shrugged as one.

“When do we start?” Dramus sighed.

Smiling, the Divine Paladin turned to the High Inquisitor.

“Follow me,” the portly man muttered, then turned and headed for the door.

*****

As the carriage rumbled on, the orc that was Karei Agunar stared out the window beside her at the rolling tundra beyond.

“I still can’t believe that stupid white-face actually agreed to come,” Narum growled from the other side of the carriage.

“And I still can’t believe you’re still smarting from what she said to you,” Kedar threw back, turning to grin at his brother seated beside him.

“I am not smarting!” Narum spat in response.

“Looks like you’re smarting to me.”

“I’m warning you, Kedar…”

“Or what, hunh?”

“Kedar…”

“Yes, that’s my name. You wish me to spell it for you? Or maybe have that white-face spell it for you?”

“That tears it!”

“Enough!” Karei barked at last, turning to her brothers. “Both of you.” Then, she turned to Narum.

“Kedar is right. The white-face got under your skin, fair, but that was how many days ago. You’re Second Warlord. Get over it.”

“This has nothing to do with that, Karei, and you know it!” Narum seethed.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah! She had no right to talk down to me like that!”

“Get. Over. It. Father needs this alliance. I won’t lie to you, the mere thought of us bedding down with those damned elves leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Even saying it is enough to turn my stomach. But Father has yet to steer us wrong. So, for his sake, and for our people, you need to get over it, Narum. Can you do that?”

The orc growled for a spell, then, huffing, turned to stare out the window beside him.

“And you,” Karei continued, turning to Kedar.

“Hunh?” Kedar frowned.

“What in the world has gotten into you?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean? Why were you so insistent on her joining us? What’s wrong with you? Have you forgotten what they are?”

The orc’s smile returned. “No, Karei, I haven’t forgotten.”

“Then, what’s your obsession with that white-face?”

“When was the last time you met a white-face that would speak so plainly? No veiled insults, not condescending manner, just simple, hard truth?”

Karei moved to speak, but no words came.

“Precisely. She’s different to the others, her eyes far less clouded. I asked her over because I’m sure if she sees us, truly sees us, she’ll be enamoured by our ways, and with all that they’re demanding of Father, it wouldn’t hurt to have a sympathetic ear in that Tower, wouldn’t you say?”

Karei stared in silence at her brother, but soon smiled and nodded. “I suppose it doesn’t.” Then, she turned to Narum, who was staring at his brother.

“Do you not think so, Narum?” she asked.

The seething orc turned from one sibling to the other and back again before sighing.

“Fine,” he growled. “I’ll stop plotting retribution.”

“Good!” Kedar and Karei said in unison.

“Just be sure to get her fully on our side before carting her off back to the Tower.”

“Oh, I’m sure Karei will do that easily enough,” Kedar replied, turning to his sister.

“Wait, what?”

The orc nodded in response.

“You little shite! It was your idea!”

“Well, yeah, but Derax isn’t here, which makes you eldest, so…”

“Now, hold on a–”

“Oh, so you want me to stop plotting retribution, but you don’t want to get your hands dirty, is that it?” Narum added.

Staring from one brother to the other, the orc woman seethed and snarled, but in her heart, she knew there was no winning this.

“I hate you two, you know that,” she muttered at last.

“Yeah, we do,” the brothers replied in unison.

Karei growled in response and sat deep into her seat.

“What do you think they’re discussing back there, though?” Kedar soon asked.

“Hells if I know.” Karei shrugged. “Details of the alliance, probably.”

“Yeah, probably,” Narum replied. “Just wish he’d share a bit more with us.”

“You and I both.” Karei sighed.

Then, as the carriage began to slow, the siblings stared out the windows and smiled as one as their gazes fell upon the imposing walls surrounding their home.

“Finally!” Karei gasped as the carriage came to a halt and the sound of grinding steel filled the air.

*****

Standing with his back to the sun, the Inquisitor held the crystal in his hand aloft, his gaze fixed upon it as it revealed the scene in the distance.

“Well?” came a voice from behind him.

“It’s them alright,” the Inquisitor said, lowering the crystal as a sigh escaped his lips.

“How many?”

“Twelve, maybe sixteen battle-mages.”

“You’re sure?”

The Inquisitor shook his head and turned. “No.”

“Then, why twelve or sixteen?” the Paladin behind him frowned.

“Because there are five carriages. One or two for the orcs, the rest for the Tower. Four a carriage…”

“I see.” The Paladin nodded.

“Yes,” the Inquisitor replied. Then, he frowned. “You really think we can do this?”

“Listen to me, Brother,” the Paladin named Dramus said, wandering forth and placing a soft hand upon his brother’s shoulder. “We can do this. We can.”

“But we still don’t know where to look.”

“Then we pick up the pace and we hope our spies uncover something new, and quickly.”

“I suppose,” the Inquisitor muttered.

But there was something in his tone, an undercurrent that put Dramus ill at ease.

“You’re not still doubting the righteousness of our cause, are you?” the Paladin asked.

The Inquisitor raised his gaze to this brother before lowering it once more.

Sighing, Dramus placed his other hand upon his brother’s other shoulder.

“Thelix, listen to me closely,” he said, staring at his brother square. “We’ve been sent here by Mad-Dog Rothgar. Even that High Inquisitor was sweating around the man. Don’t get any funny ideas, alright? Now is not the time to develop a conscience.”

“Dramus, we’re here to slaughter an entire tribe.”

“Would you rather Rothgar slaughter us?”

The Inquisitor fell silent at this.

“Besides, it’s the Agunars we’re talking about. How’re you so sure they’ll be slaughtered? For all you know, they’ll be the ones doing the slaughtering!”

The Inquisitor remained silent still.

“Listen, Thelix,” Dramus sighed, “if we don’t…”

Movement in the corner of his vision stilled the Paladin’s tongue, however, and as he turned, he frowned and stared into the horizon.

“What’re you…” Thelix began, turning as he spoke.

“Someone’s coming.”

In response, the Inquisitor rose his crystal once more.

“It’s one of ours,” he said after a spell. Then, as he lowered the crystal, he frowned. “She seems uncommonly happy.”

The brothers exchanged glances, then hurried forth to the spy, and before long, they could see the grin upon the approaching orc’s lips and the unmistakable glimmer in her eye.

“Well?” Dramus barked once she was in hearing. “What news?”

In response, the orc reached into her tunic and pulled out a rolled parchment, creased and yellowed with age. Then, in silence, she handed it to Dramus.

With trembling hands, the Paladin took the parchment and unfurled it, and as a tense silence fell upon the three, Thelix stared at his brother with bated breath.

Then, Dramus rose his gaze, the glimmer in the orc’s eyes now in his as he stared at his brother.

“Pay her,” he said. “Pay her in full.”

Then, with a wide grin, the Paladin turned and hurried forth.

*****

Sitting before the roaring flames of the tribe’s hearth, Linnette smiled as she watched the orcs dance about the hearth’s flames, their songs a roaring melody that soothed her heart and stirred her blood. Raising her tankard to her lips, she drank deep of the sweet nectar within before burping aloud and wiping her lips on her sleeve.

“Can you do magic?” came a young voice behind the Archmage.

Frowning, the Archmage turned, but her smile returned as her gaze fell upon the precocious orc standing behind her, his head cocked to the side.

“Yes,” Linnette replied, turning to face the little orc square.

“Bet you’re not as good as Uncle Igmar!”

“Is that so?” Linnette grinned.

The little orc nodded.

“Well, can your Uncle Igmar do…this?” the Archmage said as she raise a hand before calling forth a soothing breeze to surround the wide-eyed child, lifting him off his feet as his giggles filled the air.

“Stop, it tickles!” the little orc gasped.

“Oh, so you tickle easily, do you?” the Archmage replied before softening the breeze till its touch was as a gentle feather, and before long, the little orc roared with laughter, his friends racing over to his side.

“My turn, my turn!” the first to reach the Archmage clamoured.

“No, my turn!” cried the second.

“I was here first!” snapped the first.

“No, me first! Me first!” begged a third.

“Children!” boomed a commanding voice, drawing the children’s gazes, and indeed the Archmage’s.

“She’s not your entertainment, she’s your guest,” the orc named Karei said and though her gaze was stern, the smile dancing on her lips told a different tale.

“But–“

“Go!”

“Aww,” the children moaned as one.

Turning to give the children a sad smile, the Archmage undid her spell, freeing the floating child, and as his feet touched the soft earth, the children shuffled away, their heartbreak plain for Linnette to see.

“It truly was no issue,” the Archmage said, turning to the orc behind her.

Karei shook her head. “Trust me, I just did you a favour. Left to them you’d be casting that same damned spell all night long.”

Linnette couldn’t help but smile at this.

“Though I must say, you do have a way with children. How’d you get them to come to you so quickly?”

“Oh, it’s not I, it’s uh…” Linnette began, then spun about, her eyes searching.

“Him,” she soon added, pointing to the precocious child who’d first approached her.

“Oh?”

Mh.” Linnette nodded. “He came over and dared question my arcane prowess, and…well, I couldn’t let a slight like that go unanswered, now could I?”

The orc’s smile warmed at Linnette’s words. “I suppose not.”

Grinning once more, Linnette turned to the children as they ran and played.

“Any of them yours?” she asked.

Breathing deep, the orc shook her head as her smile turned wooden. “I can’t bear any.”

“Oh, forgive me,” Linnette stammered, “I didn’t mean–“

“It’s alright,” Karei interjected, smiling, “you didn’t know.” Then, she cocked her head to one side. “You?”

Linnette shook her head, her smile returning. “Not yet.”

“Oh?”

The Archmage nodded in response.

“But you want one?”

Once more, Linnette nodded. “Some day. But right now, I have neither the time not the mate.”

“Hrm,” the orc muttered. “I have both.”

A heavy silence fell upon the pair, draining the Archmage’s smile as she cleared her throat and turned her gaze forward.

The orc named Karei stared at her for a spell till, smiling once more, she shoved a gentle elbow against the Archmage, an act that called forth the Archmage’s smile once more.

“You know, you made quite an impression on Kedar,” Karei soon added..

“Did I?”

“Oh, yes,” Karei nodded. “The way he kept insisting you come with the first contingent, that’s so unlike him.”

“Oh.”

“Though, I can see why. I don’t think I’ve ever met an elf who didn’t immediately think themselves better then me.”

“Ah, yes, well…we do have a lot of pride as a people.”

“That’s one way to put it, I suppose.”

Linnette smiled and shook her head at the orc. Then, she sat tall.

“So, what’s Kedar like?” the Archmage asked.

“What’s he like?”

Linnette nodded.

“Well,” Karei began, sitting tall herself, “he’s….” Then, she smiled. “He’s a brilliant tactician. Often sees details we’ve all missed. Not as good a strategist as Derax or my father–”

“Derax?”

“Our eldest. He’s Warchief.”

Oh?” Linnette frowned. “Have I met him?”

“No.” Karei shook his head. “Life doesn’t halt around here, especially with the truces with our neighbours being as shaky as they are. He’s seeing to things so Father can enjoy the festivities.”

“Oh,” Linnette muttered.

The orc’s smile returned. “I’ll be sure to let him know you care for his well-being, though.”

Shaking her head, Linnette sighed and tutted at the orc.

“What? You mean you don’t?” Karei frowned.

“Well, yeah, of course I care!” the Archmage threw back.

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Well, you made it sound so…intimate.”

“And it wasn’t?”

“Gods, no!” the Archmage gasped, an act that elicited a deep chuckle from the orc.

“Sorry,” Karei said at last, “I couldn’t help it.”

“Well, you should be sorry.”

“But if you were to mean it, I could intro–”

“Oh, shut up, you!” Linnette spat as she gave the orc a playful shove.

“I’m sorry!” the orc cried. “I’ll behave!”

“And I’m supposed to believe that now?”

“Hey! We’re allies now! How can we call ourselves allies if there’s no trust?”

Huffing, the Archmage rolled her eyes and shook her head before muttering to herself.

“Tell you what,” Karei said, turning to stare square at the elf beside her, “how about you and I get some more mead? I’ll introduce you to the others on the War Council, perhaps even to my husband, and then…I don’t know…we gorge till we can’t gorge anymore.”

Linnette stared at the orc in silence for a spell, unmoving.

“Oh, come, you!” Karei gasped, springing to her feet and pulling on the seated elf’s arm till she rose at last.

“Good!” The orc grinned, then hooked her arm with Linnette’s.

“Why do I feel like I’m going to regret this?” the Archmage growled.

“Oh, hush!” Karei threw back. “You’ll enjoy this, you’ll see.”

The seething Archmage growled in response, but didn’t resist as her orc friend pulled her towards the hearth.

*****

Lying prostrate in the dirt, Thelix stared at the group of orcs in the distance as they stood guard about an orc mausoleum as the sound of wondrous song and hearty laughter drifted to his ears.

“You’re sure it’s beneath that?” he whispered, turning to his brother.

“Quite sure,” Dramus whispered, his gaze upon the parchment before him. “According to this, one of the walls beneath is false, behind which is some rune-trapped corridor leading to a second false wall, and behind that is another rune-trapped corridor leading to a rune-sealed door. Gods, these orcs weren’t taking chances.”

“You blame them?”

Dramus grinned. “No. Just glad this thing shows how to unlock them all.”

“You have your ring, though?”

The Paladin reached into his pocket and pulled free a plain ring.

“You?” he asked, turning to his brother.

Thelix pulled free one similar to the one in his brother’s hand.

“You’re sure these things will hide us from those things?”

“Why’re you asking me?” Dramus hissed. “You’re the spell-caster!”

“I’m a priest, not a mage!” Thelix threw back.

“And I am?”

“But–”

“Look, now’s not the time for regrets, alright! The High Inquisitor said it’ll hide us from the creatures, and in that we must trust.”

“But–“

“Not now, Thelix!” Dramus snapped. “Focus!”

The Inquisitor fell silent.

“So, what’s the plan?” Dramus demanded.

“What, you mean you’ve forgotten already?”

“Of course I haven’t bloody forgotten! I want to be sure you haven’t!”

“Oh.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing!”

“Then, what’s the plan?”

“I wait here for you to make your way around them, and when you’re near, I trigger the smaller ward.”

“Good. How long till you trigger the second one?”

“Till the count of twenty.”

“Good.” Dramus nodded, turning to the orcs once more. “Good.”

“Dramus?”

“What?” the Paladin spat.

The Inquisitor moved to speak, to plead with his brother one last time, but he hadn’t the heart, so instead, he breathed deep and smiled.

“Good luck,” he said.

Dramus smiled. “You think I need it?”

“Don’t be an arse!”

“Ha!” Dramus grinned. Then, turning to the orcs once more, the Paladin slipped his ring onto his finger.

Thelix did the same, his gaze darting from the orcs to his brother.

“Right,” Dramus whispered, “here goes.”

Breathing deep once more, the Paladin hugged the earth and began crawling towards the ridge on the blind side of the mausoleum. Thelix watched his brother in silence as a deep and nauseating wave crashed against him. This was wrong. In so many ways. This was not Eilden’s way. His way was to bring light to the world, not to cast it into darkness. And to slaughter and entire tribe…what would his Lord think of him? But what could he do? What in the hells could he do?

On and on, the questions filled his thoughts, but no answers came forth. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, Dramus reached the ridge and turned to him.

Meeting his brother’s gaze, Thelix nodded, then closed his eyes and triggered the first ward. As it triggered, the air was filled with a sharp crack, with the dirt placed upon the ward thrown high, and as expected, the orcs on guard turned to the direction the ward had been. As they did so, Thelix watched his brother dart for the mausoleum.

Then, he began to count.

As he counted, he watched all but one of the the orcs slowly make their way towards where the ward was. As he counted, he watched as his brother snaked round to the mausoleum’s front door. As he counted, he watched his brother kneel and begin picking the lock, and as he counted, he watched his brother bend over and raise his hands to his ears.

Then, he finished counting, and breathing deep, Thelix closed his eyes and placed his hands to his ears and triggered the second ward. In that instant, a blinding flash filled the air followed by a deafening crack, and as the orcs fell to the earth, Thelix opened his eyes in time to watch his brother swing the mausoleum door wide and race in.

But the mausoleum’s door was old, and as it was opened, its loud creak drew the dazed orcs, and though blinded, they lumbered as one towards the entrance.

“Hurry, Dramus,” Thelix hissed. “Hurry!”

For what seemed like an eternity, the prone Inquisitor watched in silence as the orcs stumbled towards the mausoleum. For a mercy, none could make the their way to the door immediately, but as their senses returned, they soon turned and lumbered towards it, their weapons drawn.

“Gods damn it, Dramus!” Thelix spat. “Where are you?”

But then, the most hideous of screams pierced the air, and the instant he heard it, Thelix knew it came from his brother, and as he heard it, his heart raced up his throat.

“No,” he gasped as he rose. “No!”

The scream had frozen the orcs, their weapons gripped tight as they stared at each other. But soon, their courage returned, and as one, they neared the mausoleum’s door, and, reaching it, the orc at the fore slowly opened the door.

The orc was not prepared for the speed at which the vampire that lunged at him leapt, the fell creature sinking its teeth into the warrior’s neck before he could even scream, and as more leapt from the mausoleum, the remaining guards turned and screamed at their companion furthest from the mausoleum before charging as one at the fell creatures.

Thelix could only watch in horror as the orcs were set upon, their screams swiftly drowned out by the cries and snarls of the vampires. But that which truly held him rigid was the sight of his beloved brother feasting on the fallen orcs, blood dripping from his lips.

“Who the bloody hells are you?” came a cry, drawing Thelix from his thoughts and his gaze to the fleeing orc. “Nevermind, run!”

Turning as if in a daze, the Inquisitor stared first at the wide-eyed orc gesturing madly at him, then back at his brother. But then, the creature that was once Dramus raised his gaze, and as their eyes met, it snarled, sneered, and charged forth, its new companions charging behind it.

Coming to life at last, Thelix turned, his eyes wide as he raced forth. But even as he ran, he knew it was too late, and as he ran, he wept, his eyes pleading as he stared at the last of the orc guards.

As their eyes met, the orc swallowed hard and gritted his teeth. It was clear every fibre of his being begged him to run, to leave Thelix to his fate, but he stood, his gaze filled with pain, till at last, gripping his weapon tight, he roared, orcish words filling the air as he charged forth, and with his greatsword swinging wide, he leapt past Thelix and barrelled into the charging darkness.

“Run!” he roared as he stood his ground against the vampires. “Warn them! Warn them!”

The heartbroken Inquisitor paused for a spell and turned to the orc, but it was clear the warrior’s life would soon be at an end, and with his heart in his stomach, the broken priest turned and ran forth with all the strength he could muster.

*****

Resting upon her new friend, Linnette’s whole frame quivered as she laughed long and loud.

“I’m serious!” Karei said, her grin wide and her eyes darting from Linnette to her pouting husband. “He was standing there holding this…”

The orc’s words were cut short by the rapid booms of heavy drums, its sudden sounds draining all mirth from her lips, and as swiftly as it began, it ended. But it mattered little, the message had been passed, and after the briefest of silences, the orcs erupted in symphony, with many barking at their children to run and hide, and many still clamouring for arms and armour, with Karei and her husband standing tall and barking orders at those about them.

“What’s happening?” Linnette called out. “What is it?”

“The gate’s been breached,” the Magister replied, grabbing Linnette by the arm. “We’re under attack. Come.”

“What?” Linnette gasped, turning to her Magister.

“Come, Linnette!” Lera replied, dragging the Archmage. “We must prepare!”

“No,” Linnette replied, shaking her head as she stood her ground. “You go! I’ll stay here with Karei.”

“Child, we stand together! Come!”

“But…”

It was then the first howls filled the night.

“What in the hells…?” Linnette began, but as her gaze fell upon Karei, a cold hand gripped her heart as she watched the blood drain from the orc’s cheeks.

“They’re coming!” shrieked a robed figure in the distance, racing forth with orcs about him, each and every and every one of whom as wide-eyed as the robed human.

“Run! Run! They’re coming!”

Then, at last, Linnette saw what it was that had filled the racing men with terror, and as her eyes fell upon the mob racing after them, the Archmage felt the hand gripping her heart squeeze tight, it’s frozen claws digging deep.

“Vampires,” she whispered. “How?”

“Berserkers of the Agunar!” Karei barked, raising the great runic blade in her hands aloft as she turned to the many orcs that had rallied about them. “We are the bulwark of our people! We are the line in the sand! Let none pass!” Then, she turned to the broiling darkness. “Charge!”

Roaring as one, the berserkers charged forth, and as they ran, Linnette made to charge after them, but an iron hand gripped her arm and held her rigid.

“What’re you doing?” the yelled, rounding on her Magister.

“I need you at the rear,” the Magister replied. “Cater to the children and protect them from any that slip past us.”

“I will do no such–”

“You will do as you’re told!” the Magister barked. “This is no time for your nonsense! You may have the greatest knowledge of the arcane of us all, but those are greater vampires, possibly even vampire lords! With your battle skill, they’ll make short work of you! Get to the rear! Now!”

The Archmage glared at her Magister, but remained where she stood.

“Now, child!”

Relenting at last, the seething Archmage lowered her gaze and stepped aside.

“Volunteers!” the Magister demanded turning to the mages gathered behind her.

A few stepped aside and stood behind Linnette.

“Good.” The Magister nodded. Then, breathing deep, she turned to the carnage and stood tall.

“Lera,” Linnette called out, drawing the Magister’s gaze.

“Don’t die out there,” she added.

The Magister smiled. “I don’t intend to.”

Then, she turned her gaze forward once more

“Mages!” the roared. “Advance.”

As one, the mages charged forth, and in silence, Linnette watched her companions race to the fray. Then, gritting her teeth, she tore her gaze from the battle and made to turn, only for her eyes to befall a cowering human whose robes she’d recognised the instant she first laid eyes upon him, and with an open snarl, she marched forth till she stood over the human.

The human turned and rose his gaze, and as their eyes met, the man whimpered and began crawling away from her.

“Oh, no you don’t” Linnette spat before grabbing hold of his collar and pulling him to his feet.

“You’re coming with me,” she seethed, then dragged the terrified priest behind her as the sounds of battled raged on about them.

*****

Sitting within the Great Hall, the Archmage’s gaze wandered about the many children huddled within, some huddled in groups, others on their own, their haunting cries and soft wails filling her ears and drowning out the sounds of battle.

Then, she turned to the human beside her, his gaze in the ether, and in silence she sat till his gaze met hers.

“Why?” she asked.

The human shrugged, his eyes red. “Because I was told to.”

“You were told to?”

Sniffling, the human wiped his tears and nodded.

“You unleashed horrors that have no place in this world, to destroy an entire tribe. Because you were told to?”

Once more, the human nodded.

“What manner of monster are you?”

The human moved to speak, but as his tears fell anew, his words failed him.

Just then, loud cries from the door drew the Archmage’s gaze and, springing to her feet, she hurried forth as a band of orcs hurried in, carrying between them an orc whose wounds were deep and dire.

“We need a shaman over here!” one of the orcs yelled. “The Warchief is wounded!”

“There are no shamans here,” Linnette replied as she reached the men. “Put him down. Let me see.”

“What?” the orc cried. “Where are they?”

“Where do you bloody think they are? Put him down, I said!”

“Put me down, you blasted fools,” the wounded orc gasped.

The orcs paused for a spell, but soon did as their Warchief has commanded, and as they stepped aside, Linnette darted to the man’s side as two elves reached her.

“How bad?” the wounded orc asked after a spell.

Linnette moved to speak, but instead swallowed hard and held her peace.

“Heh, that bad is it?”

The Archmage knew not what to say.

“My father did that to me, you know.”

“What?”

The Warchief nodded. “He’s turned. Turned right before my eyes. I should’ve cut him down, ended his misery, but I couldn’t do it.”

“How bad is it out there?”

The Warchief shook his head. “It’s bad. They’re turning us so fast it’s… Kedar and his shamans are holding our eastern flank. He thinks he can hold them till daylight, but I’m not so certain. Father and I were holding the south and Narum the west, but I long since lost word from Narum and his axe fiends, and the south…well…they’ll hold as long as they can.”

“What about Karei? And Lera?”

The Warchief smiled. “They’re where the fighting is fiercest, but they’re holding. Thank the gods.”

Linnette smiled and nodded. “Thank the gods.”

“Can’t you do anything?” one of the orcs pleaded.

“Uh…” Linnette began, turning to the Warchief’s wounds. “I–”

“I can,” the human behind them said.

The others turned to him.

“I’m a priest,” he said. “A healer. Let me try.”

“Who’s he?” the Warchief asked.

Swallowing hard, the human turned to Linnette, his eyes pleading.

Linnette stared in silence at the man for a spell, but soon rose.

“He’s the man that might just save your life,” she said, then stepped aside.

The human smiled and stepped forth, but as he reached the prone Warchief, he gasped and turned to Linnette.

“Here,” he said, removing the ring upon his finger and giving it to Archmage. “It should protect you from those things.”

Linnette lowered her gaze to the ring and stared at it for a spell, then rose her gaze to the man, frowning.

“How?” she asked.

“It’s enchanted wi–“

“No, it’s not.”

“What?” The human frowned.

Linnette shrugged. “There’s no enchantment on this thing.”

The human stared open-mouthed at Linnette as the blood drained from his face.

“Hello!” one of the orcs cried. “Warchief dying here!”

“Right!” the human said, spinning to face the prone orc. “Right.”

As the human knelt by the injured orc. Linnette stepped aside and left him be, the elves with her following in her wake, but barely had she stepped afar when the eastern door burst open as elves and orcs poured into the Great Hall.

“They’ve broken through!” the Magister cried as she shuffled forth, a deeply injured Karei held tight between her and another wounded orc.

“They’re right behind us!” Kedar roared hurrying in behind the elves. “Get back!”

At those words, the Great Hall erupted, the children screaming as they raced away from the door. But soon the hungry cries of the vampires filled the Hall, drowning out the children’s screams, and as the orcs and elves gathered at the Hall’s centre, the vampires burst in and raced for the gathered.

“Linnette! Dome of the Ulimier!” the Magister yelled. “Now!”

In response, the Archmage clasped her hands tight and whispered words of arcane, and as the vampire lunged forth, a dome of light and pure arcane might burst into being about the gathered, holding the vampires at bay and blinding them all for a time.

“Well done,” the Magister said, her eyes darting from the snarling monstrosities to the Archmage whose head was bowed, and whose lips moved in silent chant.

“Will it hold?” Karei gasped, her lips blue and her breath laboured.

“It’ll hold,” the Magister replied, her gaze upon the chanting Archmage. “So long as we don’t break her focus.”

Then, she turned to the orc with whom she held Karei aloft, and as one, the pair gently placed the Warlord upon the ground.

“Easy, Karei,” the orc soothed.

“Move, Demus,” Kedar said, hurrying to his sister’s side. “Karei, look at me.”

“How is she?” the Warchief asked as he pulled himself to sitting.

“Warchief!” the orcs about him gasped, but he waved their words away in anger.

“How is she?” he repeated.

The kneeling shaman shook his head and turned to his brother. “She’s wounded, and badly.”

“You heard from Narum?”

“Narum’s fallen, Derax,” Karei gasped. “They overran us from the west. Only way that can happen is if no axe fiend still stands.”

“Damn.”

“Where’s Father?” Kedar asked.

The Warchief turned to his brother, his gaze greatly pained. “He’s turned.”

As the Warchief watched the anguish in his siblings’ eyes grow, he sighed and lowered his gaze. Then, he turned to the Magister.

“How many of my people can you portal out of here?” he asked.

The Magister turned from the Warchief to the chanting Archmage, then returned her gaze and shook her head. “None.”

“What do you mean, none?” Kedar snarled as the Warchief frowned.

“The Dome of Ulimier is a powerful spell, beyond my ken even…”

“What does that–“

“…but its etheric signature is similar to a simple portal spell. If we so much as begin casting a single one of those while under the Dome, the spells will cancel each other, and neither will work.”

“Ha!” Karei cried, a bitter smile upon her lips. “So we either sit and wait for this Dome to fall, or you all cast portal spells and we see how many escape the mauling that’ll follow.”

“How in the hells did they get out?” the Warchief spat, turning to his brother.

“I don’t know, Brother!” Kedar cried. “I’ve wracked my brain over and over! It makes no sense!”

“When last did you check the seals?”

“The morning we left!”

“And they were all in place?”

“Yes!”

“Then, how?”

“Because we freed them,” the human said, his voice soft.

“What?” the gathered said, turning to him as he rose.

With a sad smile upon his lips, the priest nodded, then turned to face the shaman.

“You have a scroll, don’t you? That details the seals.”

“How did you–”

“My brother had a spy here. A woman, angry scar behind her right ear, and another across her throat. She gave it to us shortly after you arrived.”

At those words, the orc named Kedar’s shoulders fell as he slowly sank to his knees.

“Kuni,” he whispered. “Kuni, what have you done?”

“Nevermind her!” Karei snapped, her eyes as fire as she glared at the human. “What in the hells possessed you to–”

“We’re wasting time!” the Magister interjected. “The Dome will not last forever.”

“The white-face is right–“ Derax replied.

“White-face?” Lera snapped.

The Warchief grinned. “Apologies, old habits.” Then, his smile faded. “If we were to buy you the time, can you get all our children out of here in one spell?”

“Did you not hear me?” Lera replied. “The spell will–”

“Your mage will drop the Dome, and we’ll shield you from the onslaught.”

The Magister balked at this.

“You’ll die!” she gasped, before turning her gaze onto the other orcs. “You’ll all die!”

“And?” the orc named Demus replied, a smug smile upon his lips.

“Can you do it?” the Warchief pressed.

“Uh…” the Magister began, her gaze drifting to the terrified children.

Then, her eyes grew wide, and with a grin, she turned to her mages.

“Gather as many children as you can into a circle about each you. Let them form a tight circle, an arm about the other’s neck. I want their skins, and only their skins to touch.”

“You wish us portal them as one being!” one of the mages gasped.

“Yes!”

“But we can’t portal far like that! The etheric poisoning will be lethal!”

The Magister shook her head. “We’re not portalling far. Do you all remember the boulder we passed on the way here? The one that looked like a minotaur’s head?”

The mages nodded.

“We portal to there, let the children heal, and portal again. Little hops till we’re safe.”

“It could work,” the mage who’d spoken replied. “It could just work.”

“It better work!” the Magister replied. “Go! Quickly!”

As one, the mages headed for the children and began forming the circles.

“You’re going with them, Karei,” the Warchief said.

“Like hells I am,” Karei gasped as she rose to her knees. “My place is here.”

“Now is not time to be pig-headed, woman,” Demus replied.

“Shut up, Demus.”

“Warlord!” the Warchief barked. “Your Warchief has given you an order. Do you refuse?”

“You’re damned right, I refuse.”

“Damn it, Sister!” the Warchief snarled before hobbling over to his sister. “Our children need someone to protect them! Our name can’t die here! Go with them. Protect our children, and avenge us.”

“I’m! Not! Running!” Karei replied. “You’re Warchief! You go!”

The Warchief smiled and stared at his sister for a spell. But then, as his smile widened, he breathed deep and spoke up once again.

“By my life, or my death,” the Warchief said, “you shall survive this night.”

The orc woman’s eyes went wide at those words as she shook her head at her brother. “Don’t you dare.”

“By my life, or my death,” the orc named Kedar intoned, rising to his feet as a soft smile parted his lips, “you shall see through to the light.”

“No!” Karei pleaded, her eyes glistening. “No!”

“By my life, or my death…” the orc named Demus began, rising as well.

“No, Demus! No! Not you too!” Karei begged, grasping her beloved’s hand tight and pulling with what little strength she could muster.

“…you shall see home once again.”

“No! Gods damn you, no!”

“The vow had been said, Karei,” the Warchief said. “Will you refuse us now?”

The wounded orc turned to her brother as her tears fell at last. “Damn you, Derax. Damn you.”

The Warchief smiled. “Remember us, Sister.”

Then, he turned to the Magister. “Take her.”

The Magister nodded. “I will.” Then, she turned to the chanting Archmage. “Linnette, you take the human.”

The Archmage nodded in response, her teeth gritted hard as tears ran down her cheeks.

“Good,” the Warchief nodded. Then, he spun about to face what few orcs remained.

“Orcs of the Agunar!” he bellowed. “Will you stand with your Warchief one last time?”

A thunderous roar erupted as each and ever single orc rose to their feet, their weapons raised high as their voices cried out to the heavens, all save one, who wept on her knees, her gaze upon all that remained of her tribe.

“Form, warriors!” the Warchief commanded, hefting his great axe and marching to the fore. “Protect the mages!”

At his words, the orcs stepped forth, forming a circle about the elves.

“You, human,” the Magister said.

“Hunh?” the human replied.

“Stand by Linnette, and don’t move.”

“Alright.” he nodded, and hurried to the chanting mage’s side.

“By your mark, Magister,” the Warchief said, his gaze upon his father and his axe gripped tight.

“On three,” the Magister replied. “One… Two… Three!”

In that moment, as the Dome dissipated, the mages and their charges began to fade from view, and as the writhing horrors charged forth, the orcs stood strong and met them in glorious combat one last time.

*****

Biting back a snarl, the Divine Paladin wandered into the darkened alley, his temper as fierce as his gaze.

“I’m going to have to do something about that man,” he growled as he went, his guards walking in step behind him. “Summoning me to a vile place such as this. How dare…”

The seething warrior’s words were cut short by the sight of the three figures at the end of the alley, one robed, one clothed in finery and a third on her knees, gasping for breath.

“What is this nonsense!” the Divine Paladin barked as he marched on. “Why did you call me here?”

At his words, the figures turned to the approaching warrior.

“What are you talking about?” the noble that was Prince David Faramound replied, his brow furrowed deep. “You summoned us here!”

“What?” the Divine Paladin said, coming to a screeching halt.

“Yes!” the portly priest beside the nobleman growled. “And you were none-the-subtle about it.”

Slowly, the grizzled warrior stood tall as his mind raced. Then, as his gaze fell upon the cowering figure, he glanced at the priest standing before her.

“Who’s that?” he demanded.

“This?” the High Inquisitor replied, turning to the kneeling orc. “She was here when we arrived. Said something about being summoned.”

“And just how did that animal get inside the Citadel?”

“How in the hells should I–”

“We were in the middle of interrogating her when you arrived,” the nobleman interjected.

“Her name is Kuni,” came a voice from the entrance of the alleyway as footsteps reached the men’s ears. “And she’s here to die, same as all of you.”

“What?” the High Inquisitor gasped.

As one, the Divine Paladin’s guards stepped to the fore, blades drawn as they stood firm to protect their leader, but as they stood their ground, the figure charged forth, her runic blades weaving through the air and slicing through the men till none stood before her.

“Oh, gods,” the nobleman whispered as the Divine Paladin stared at his men. Five in all, all highly trained, all utterly deadly, and all lying dead at the woman’s feet.

“Hrm,” the Divine Paladin muttered, raising his gaze to stare square into the fiery gaze of the orc before him.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Karei Agunar,” the orc replied, “ last Warlord of the Agunar tribe.” Then, she sneered at the man. “And I’m here to kill every single one of you.”

A stunned silence fell upon them all, one broken by the soft whimpers of the orc named Kuni as she cowered behind the men who, mere moments prior, were eager to pummel her into oblivion.

“So,” the Divine Paladin smiled, “one of you survived, it seems.”

Then, he sighed as he gripped his blade. “No matter. I shall put an end to that soon enough.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Divine Paladin Rothgar,” came a voice from above.

As one, the men raised their gaze skyward.

“What are you doing here?” the High Inquisitor cried as his eyes fell upon the Archmage standing upon the ledge above them, her smirk deep as she stared down her nose at them with eyes as cold as death.

“And you!” the portly man added as his gaze wandered to the human standing beside the Archmage. “How did you–”

“Surprised to see me alive, you bastard?” the man named Thelix seethed.

“You do realise your actions here will cost your Tower dearly, do you not?” the Divine Paladin said. “I mean, bringing this filth into our city to slaughter five Paladins, a High Inquisitor, and a Divine Paladin? My dear, I fear–”

“I find your stupidity fascinating, Rothgar,” Linnette interjected, her smirk deepening.

“What did you say?”

“What your Citadel knows, and what they can prove, are two utterly different things, you decrepit little fool. Before the day is out, your Grand Inquisitor will know your death was not only by Karei’s hand, but the Shimmering Tower aided her, you can be certain of that. But he will also know he can never prove it”

“It is you who are stupid, woman,” the Divine Paladin seethed. “All we need to is demand your Matriarch–“

“My mother has no idea I’m here,” Linnette said. “None in the Tower does. Your Grand Inquisitor can demand as many public Compellings as he wishes, he will get nothing from my mother.”

The Divine Paladin swallowed hard, but said nary a word.

“But I must thank you, though,” Linnette continued, “for, by your actions, you taught me something of great value, something I thought I understood, but, I confess, I never truly did. Evil does come in many forms. I understand that so much better now, and for that, you have my eternal thanks.”

“Child, listen to me,” the portly High Inquisitor began.

“I’m not your child, you degenerate little pig.”

The High Inquisitor fell silent at this, his lips moving but no words coming forth.

Then, Linnette turned to the cowering orc and laughed.

“It’s funny,” she said, “Kedar died on his feet, and yet, here you are, cowering behind…that! What did he see in you?”

As the orc whimpered where she knelt, the Archmage carried her gaze about the men. “Feel free to scream. No-one will hear you, but it’ll be entertaining to hear nonetheless.”

“You can’t do this!” the nobleman cried. “My father is the king of Thrace!”

“Oh, I’m not doing anything,” Linnette replied, grinning, “Karei is.”

“Karei?” she added, turning to the orc.

As she turned, the leather armour adorning the orc began to shimmer, and breathing deep, the orc stood tall and crossed her blades before her.

“This is for you, my brothers,” she whispered, “and for you, my love.”

Then, she charged forth.

*

*

*

As a gentle sigh escaped her lips, the young elf rose as the tome before her faded from view.

“Enjoyed it?”

Nave turned to her friend, her gaze fierce.

“Did they suffer?” she asked.

Amala stared deep into the child’s eyes, then nodded.

“Good.” Naeve snarled.

Amala smiled in response before placing a gentle hand upon the young girl’s shoulder.

“Why did she cry when her brothers said those things?” the young girl soon asked.

Amala sighed. “It’s the Protector’s Vow. They were, in essence, laying their lives down for her. To refuse and stay would mean she didn’t think their lives worthy of such sacrifice, a great insult to any orc.”

“Oh.” Naeve nodded, then frowned. “What happened after?”

“Well, the other tribes rallied, of course, most of them anyway. Some chose to hide behind their walls, which didn’t bode well for a few of them. The months that followed were brutal for the orcs, but with Karei at the helm and the Tower by her side, they turned the tide in the end, and when the vampire horde was finally purged, the tribes agreed to return the Agunar’s lands to Karei unchallenged. After that, Linnette and a few mages lived with her, helped her raise the children and reform her tribe. And when her tribe was finally able to stand without Tower aid, she re-named them Akunedar.”

“Oh!” Naeve cried. “That’s them?”

Amala nodded. “Yeah. That’s how our alliance with the Akunedar tribe was formed.”

“Woah!” the young girl gasped. “I didn’t know that!”

“But now you do!” Amala grinned.

“Yeah!” the young girl giggled. Then, she frowned once more. “What happened to Thelix?”

The silver-haired woman’s grin widened. “He became a shaman, believe it or not.”

“You what?”

“Mhm.” Amala nodded. “Became Karei’s…fifth Warlord, I think. Or was it fourth? Anyhow, he became First among the Shaman Lords.”

“Woah,” the young girl gasped.

“Ah, you’re still here!” came a cry from the entrance. “Excellent!”

Turning as one, the pair watched as the Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower hurried over to them, but as they watched him approach, Amala’s gaze fell upon the elf behind him.

“You ready for lunch?” the Patriarch added as he reached the seated pair.

“Mh,” Naeve replied, a wide grin upon her lips as she nodded at her father.

“Excellent!” the Patriarch repeated before reaching out and grasping his daughter’s hand.

“You don’t mind me borrowing her, do you?” he added, turning to Amala as Naeve rose.

“No.” Amala shook her head, turning to the Patriarch. “Not at all.”

“Actually, do you want to join us?” Naeve asked.

“Uh…” Amala began as she returned her gaze to the mage that had accompanied the Patriarch. “In a moment. First, I’d like to speak to Mistress Fellspire.”

“What?” the mage said, her confusion plain.

“Mhm.” Amala replied, forcing as soft a smile as she could to her lips. “If you don’t mind, that is.”

“Uh…” the elven woman began, her gaze darting from father to child before returning to Amala. “No. Why would I mind?”

“Very well, then,” the Patriarch said. “I’ll leave you both to your talk. Come, Naeve.”

As they left, the young elf held her friend in a worried stare, but as Amala stared back, her smile warmed as she nodded at her little friend. Then, as they disappeared from view, she turned to the Archmage.

“So, what’s this about?” the elven mage began, a tight frown upon her lips.

Amala kept a firm hold on her smile as she breathed deep.

“Yesterday, you said you wished to make amends,” she said. “Did you mean that?”

“What?”

“Did you mean what you said yesterday?”

“Of course I meant it!” the elven mage replied.

“Good.” Amala nodded.

“But what has–“

“Have lunch with me,” Amala interjected.

“What did you say?” the mage gasped.

Amala forced her smile wider. “We’ve never spoken as equals. Have lunch with me. Let’s bury the past together.”

For a few moments, the mage stared in utter silence, her lips agape and her gaze locked upon Amala.

“You’re serious,” the mage said at last

“Yes.” The seated elf nodded.

“Well, I…uh…I’d be honoured, but the Patriarch wished me to join him for lunch, so…”

“Tomorrow, then?”

Smiling at last, the mage smiled. “Very well, tomorrow.”

Amala nodded at the woman. “Tomorrow it is.”

“Good,” the elven woman replied, nodding. Then, smiling still, she turned and headed back indoors, glancing behind her as she went.

Amala watched her leave in silence, her smile as if etched upon her lips. Then, when she was alone at last, she turned her face forward as her smile slowly faded.

“The hunt begins,” she whispered.

Breathing deep, the silver-haired woman closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun before letting it out slowly and settling into her seat.