[THE WILDLANDS, SOUTH OF THE ORDAS SEA; JUNE 21, 2019 [WR])
The mood in the clearing that night was as bleak as the night sky above their heads. The camp fires crackled, but not a single person chosen for this deadly mission felt its warmth. Each group stood in its own quiet conversation and waited for the immortal Vallah to make his appearance. Only when he arrived would the strategy meeting begin.
They were vastly different, in garment and in skin color – some glittered with the moon, some red, some blue, and even some with the softest looking feathers. A large banner boasting a dragon and a shield hung at the far eastern portion of the camp and beside it were a few humans and an elf from the Chivalric Kingdom. A Priest among them spoke a prayer to their Seven Gods whilst they knelt and listened.
The Ishtari took the northern portion, the three silken banners of their three goddesses prominent among their people. Like the Ishtari, the Dammerungers were seated in prayer – they took the northeastern portion, grim and drab in garment and in temperament, each face ensigiled with the scythe and gavel of their faith save for one. He stood watch over the prayerful, bearing shield and hammer.
The Labyrinthium were loud and boisterous, playing a strange game that involved cards and knives – they had no banner but each carried bloodstained black feathers upon their person. An older woman from the Golden Fleet watched them play and cackled at their injuries, liquor in hand. The other members of that Fleet were the Golden Scribe and wise Zorya– they were with the two Dwarves from the Iron Kingdom. All four, plus a Dwarf from the Free Tribe, were fussing over several Runic Apparatuses — these runed, stone cubes were no bigger than a human head but they were integral to the mission.
The other Free Tribesfolk were by the camp fires, trying to get cold and nerves out of their shivering hands. They belonged to no Kingdom but this battle was no less their own.
The crowd went silent as Vallah made his appearance, followed by what seemed to be his own personal squad of black and white clad mercenaries known as The Brotherhood of the Sword and Cross. Trailing behind were a few green-clad Verdant Druids and a furtive looking Houndkin named Fiona – a few of his followers that Vallah had personally picked on this lethal expedition.
“You all know why we’re here.” Vallah addressed them all, his voice carrying with authority to every individual in the meeting. “You are the Blessed Forty – you all know the risks. We are here to strike at Fang-zhara in the heart of her Storm-cloud and take from her the Divine Focus. Let’s not waste time with meaningless niceties, and instead discuss strategy.”
They all moved as one, closing in the Immortal in a tight circle.
Over the night, the Brotherhood kept a tight hand on the meeting, making sure each group had its equal voice, but also cutting off snags or complicated monologues. At every step of the plan, Sister Bones of the Brotherhood would pause the proceedings and turn to the brotherhood’s rotund monk-like strategist Brother Ocho, for guidance. He would shake his head yes or no, and sometimes mumble a vague but inarguable idiom of guidance.
The fatality reports of the Immortals were touched down upon, as well as the odds of survival in this battle. Fang-zhara had more than a few advantages, including a knowledge of the Brotherhoods’ tactics and callsigns – it was believed that she had killed then forcibly converted at least one of their number to her golemic armies.
During a break in the discussion, Sister Bones quietly asked her colleague. “I know it’s not a cake walk, but how does it look? Our exit. ”
“Not good.” Brother Ocho replied grimly to the sudden quiet. He looked away from the eyes of the people around him and they sombered immediately at his words.
“THREE GROUPS!” Bolt Anvilsmith from the Iron Kingdom spoke at his normal tone of voice, jolting the rest of the Blessed Forty from their despair. Sister Bones barely contained her yelp of surprise, but inwardly thanked him for the guidance.
“Yes, there will be three specific groups in the battle,” Sister Bones confirmed, “Group one is the vanguard of the main attack. Group two will try to bring down the defenses Fang-zhara has built around the divine foci, mostly spell casters and artificers. And group three—”
“Is us!” A Labyrinthium Gnome at the edge of the inner circle piped up, drawing one of the dozen daggers from her person and twisting the blade between her palms. Her voice was shrill. “We’re gonna hit her so hard she’s gonna… uh… um…LINE?”
A looming Troll behind her placed his hand on her shoulder and spoke with a low rumbling bass. “Shiv will lead us in a whisper step attack. Hit the target with all the Banes we got. Might kill her but more’n likely it’ll just slow her down.”
“That don’t sound right, Sharky. Why would I tawlk in the third person like that? I’m not a Drak.” A blue-clad knight from the Pendrakken contingent muttered in protest but he was immediately quieted by a red-garbed woman beside him.
“It seems,” Vallah interjected, parting the group with a wave. “That everyone is well aware of their roles in this upcoming battle. We will make our attack in the morning. Now is the time for rest.”
[CENTRAL STORM-CLOUD, OVER THE SEA OF ORDAS; JUNE 22, 2019 (WR)]
As Brother Ocho predicted, the battle would not go as silkily as the Blessed Forty hoped.
Within the storm-cloud was a floating island covered in glyphed trees and runed boulders, as they expected. It was heavily warded with magic and guarded by golemic monstrosities, also as they expected. But their every step and stratagem was waylaid with devilish acuity by the Eternal Architect or her constructions.
Their Artificers moved to disarm traps with their Runic Apparatuses, yet doing so triggered more traps. Their Defenders stood fast against the waves of her minions, only to find themselves outflanked. The Blessed Forty’s healers rushed to mend those that fell to steel and spell, but even the bodies of their comrades were trapped with an insidious magic that punished any aid that would be given.
The forested island was inundated by smoke, the crank of spinning gears and the clangour of battle — utter chaos, one wrought by Fang-zhara’s fiendish machinations. But the Blessed Forty pushed on to their target, bloodied but unbowed.
Fang-zhara herself appeared only once during this time, a gigantic crossbow in one hand. She fired a single, vorpal shot from it and vanished amidst the fray.
They were a dozen and a half, Blessed and wounded, when they retrieved the Divine Focus – a pyramid of glass and stone, it seemed so tiny in Vallah’s bloodsoaked hands. Dragging the Immortal along, the remaining survivors grouped up around a chipped Runic Apparatus, bereft of defenders and runes barely visible in the afternoon light. This particular Apparatus weakened Fang-zhara’s Dimension Locking magics and could even allow them short jaunts. If properly prepared, it would allow them egress.
The sounds of Fang-zhara’s maniacal laughter and the screams of her would-be assassins could be heard through the wooded expanse of the floating island – the Labyrinthium’s ambush had failed but at least it gave them a few more minutes.
“She won’t let us leave.” Fiona’s eyes brimmed with tears. “There’s no way she’ll let us leave, and Vallah can’t… He can’t…” Her words were lost to a sob as she reached out to the wounded Immortal and snapped her hands back.
The ballista bolt had speared right through Vallah’s torso. It had sought him and him alone with devilish intent after Fang-zhara launched it forth. Those who attempted to remove it were struck down by vile magics. Meanwhile, it drained him of energy and color with alarming alacrity.
“She’s right…if any of us hope to escape…”
“We’ll have to attack.” Adrianna Pendrakken, clad in the crimson of her house and the blood of her allies, had a voice both somber and firm. She shrugged off her cracked shield and readied her blade. “A single decisive strike will distract her and cover the retreat -”
“No, Knight-General.” Pelavir Vard, the blue-garbed Knight shook his head and the survivors from his Kingdom stood beside him in agreement. “This is our charge, but you have to go – our Kingdom will need you. Remember: Honor, Duty, Valor–”
“…and Vengeance…” Grimacing with reluctance and knowing the meaning of his words, Adrianna took his offered shield and stepped away from the pained Vallah.
The three Ishtari women nodded, though their sentiment was different. They spoke to the only man in their contingent, Shikshak Dalik who wore white masks upon his mantle. “It will take the Goddess’ Grace to help us now. It must be that a Sinner sees the Divine Focus safe — prepare the Runic Apparatus for exodus, the device must be ready as soon as we engage the enemy and not a moment after.”
One of them grinned grimly as she drew her praying knives. “Let our Deaths please the Goddess and give you the time that you need.”
The two of the four Gotterdammerung were alive, but barely in one piece. They were dour and silent, saying nothing except with their actions: they moved to stand alongside Vallah. The remaining Brotherhood mercenaries followed suit, having made their decision before the mission even began.
The old woman from the Golden Fleet, Boss Karasu, laughed a crow’s laugh. It was harsh with decades of spite and smoke. “Well, I’m not staying here to die! I survived Portia and I’ll surely survive this one! The rest of you need to stop crying and moaning. You most of all, Vallah. Are you gonna be a little sissy and let a scratch like that stop you? Do what must be done, shaman!”
Fiona growled at her but Vallah answered with choking laughter instead. He waved his hand, as if to ward away any doubt, and rose to his feet, ragged and wracked. Fiona moved away from him at his gesture, though the Houndkin remained stricken by the very sight of his pain.
Vallah painstakingly channeled energy to himself and to those around him, careful to not let anyone else suffer from the bolt that impaled him. As he did so, Pelavir stood side to side with Brother Ocho and the rest of those that would remain. They were quiet as they readied weapons and channeled spells of their own. They were mercenaries and champions. They were saints and killers. They were faithful and unholy.
One of the Dammerungers gave Pelavir his shield and the knight nodded with thanks before strapping it to his arm. He looked to the serene mercenary beside him. “What do you think, Brother Ocho? Is today the day we die heroes?”
The Brotherhood mercenary shared a slight nod and a smile before Vallah Jaunted them to their final stand against Fang-zhara. They left behind nothing, not even their regrets — there would be time enough for those and for remembering the sacrifices of tens of thousands when Midworld was saved.
For the remainder of the Blessed Forty, there was still the last stretch before they managed an exodus from this accursed Storm-cloud.
— Written by Kori Ciminera, with assistance by Jobert Aquino and Catherine Rachfalski