No Heroes

I – The End

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The dead world: A scary story told to children by children. But before the scary story came the cautionary tale, before the cautionary tale came the  legend, and before the legend came the fact. Embellished over time perhaps, gaps filled in by the imagination, exaggerated for a captive audience, but fact nonetheless. And before the fact, there was life in the Dead World. Some scholars maintain that there still might be life after the fact. However, it would be most unfortunate.

-- Verdance Lasce, The End of a World

 

“Now, detective Horne...”

      Franklin Horne sat in the witness stand. It was one of those aspects of the job which you can’t help but hate, where you have to stand up in front of the whole world and show them your little macaroni painting of evidence and circumstance.

      But what he hated even more than that was the lawyer in front of him, one mister Jenkins, the sort of smug, self-satisfied waste of carbon who had built a whole career on destroying good, well-meaning people for the sake of his paying clients. He hated the man’s voice, he hated the man’s mannerisms, the man’s… Aura, if you will. To Franklin, the man positively oozed malevolence wrapped up in fake concern and scripted indignation.

      He wondered if he was the only one who noticed.

      “Tell me…” mister Jenkins continued. He reached inside his jacket and produced a piece of paper, which he unfolded theatrically. “Is it true that at one point in time you referred to my client, mister Delao, as…” The lawyer focussed his attention to the paper, put on a pair of reading glasses, and articulated slowly as he read. “a puke-stained bag of piss? And that,” he continued, “God created him when he flushed the toilet?”

      Franklin looked at the lawyer. His face, he was certain, was chiselled from solid rock.

      “I don’t know,” he replied in as neutral a tone as he could manage.

      “You do not,” Jenkins said. “Do you regularly call the citizens of Varsity a puke-stained bag of piss, detective?”

      “I mean, I don’t remember every word I say,” Franklin said.

      “Really?” The lawyer feigned surprise. “Yet you recall word for word what my client told you!”

      “It was a confession and a threat.” Franklin said.

      “Ah yes,” Jenkins said. “And so you testify that my client told you, upon his arrest, that he would ‘gut’ Juan Rodriquez just as he had ‘gutted’ Dewey Cole. Correct?”

      “Yes.”

      “And only you, detective Horne, heard him say these words.”

      “The rest of the squad was in the building--”

      “Detective Horne,” mister Jenkins spoke severely, “did you or did you not call my client” – at this point the lawyer referred to his note again – “a puke-stained bag of piss, and did you not say that God created him when he flushed the toilet?”

      “I may have, yes,” Franklin said. He could feel his façade cracking as he struggled to get his words right. “I don’t know that I did.”

      “Detective Horne,” said Jenkins, ever so civilized, “would it be fair to say that there is animosity between you and my client?”

      Franklin froze. Animosity… Delao was not even a cold-blooded killer, he enjoyed it! People like him were the reason he got up every single morning to deal with one depressing case after another. Why he poured his heart and soul into a job with a poor hours and poor pay for a city that is nearly bankrupt. To keep the bad people away from the good people!

      To make this a better world...

      And then there are the people like Jenkins. Animosity!

      But he didn’t say any of that. Instead he said:

      “Yes.”

      “So, let me get this straight, detective Horne,” Jenkins said. “You do not like my client. In fact, you seem to utterly despise my client, is this not correct?”

      “Yes,” said Franklin, because he was an essentially honest man.

      “And as you arrest my client,” Jenkins continued, “he just happens to conveniently confess to you, a confession that, as it so happens, only you are witness to.”

      Jenkins paused, and drew in a deep breath.

      “Is this correct, detective Horne?”

      “Yes,” Franklin said.

      “Then I have no further questions, your honour.”

 

And that pretty much summed up the day of detective Franklin Horne, before it got worse.

 

* * *

 

A large, flaming boulder was flung through the air, momentarily lighting up the battlefield below. Above it, the skies were stained with smoke, below the ground soaked with the blood of warriors. Defiantly, the unified forces of mankind pushed on, inch by inch, towards what had once been the ruins of Issyldir, Black Stone Tower. Now, a new tower had arisen to mark the end of the Age of Man. It trembled as the boulder impacted against its dark, freshly hewn stones, raining fire and death on the undead forces below.

      Upon this impact, black dust trickled down from the ceiling and landed onto the broad head and broader shoulders of a large, stone creature. A thin black film had already accumulated there; a troll at rest often requires more effort to start moving than it cares to expend.

      “Hey, Bek?” it asked.

      Fifteen feet away, on the other end of a large cast iron fenced door between them, a small griffin stood holding a pike. It had a deadly looking, serrated double blade. He leaned lazily on it.

      “Yeah?” it asked.

      “D’ya think we’ll be paid extra?” the troll asked.

      “Blood money?” the griffin asked, moving the pike to its left claw so as to shift his weight to his other foot.

      “Yeah.”

      “Well, Lark…” the griffin said. It leaned further to the left, catching a momentary better glimpse of the battlefield below from the nearest window before pulling back towards safety. “I think that really depends on whether Scyce is here in time.”

      The troll processed this for a moment.

      “Not going well, huh?”

      “Nope,” said the griffin. It took a few slow steps towards the door and peered into the darkness behind it.

      “Hey you guys!” he called out, to no response. The troll looked at him.

      “They awake?” he asked.

      “They’re always awake, Lark,” the griffin said. He changed the grip on his pike by tossing it up and catching it by the end of the handle. “I think the boredom just shuts down their minds.”

      With a broad, slashing movement he ran the sharp end of the pike along the bars of the door, filling the room with an earsplitting racket.

      “Hey!” he called out.

      The darkness responded with: “Beeeeeuuuuuh…

      “Tha’s better,” said the griffin, putting down the pike. “Hey, there’s some people coming up the stairs. You know? Human flesh? Yummy yummy?”

      “Beeeeeuuuuuh…” said several voices in the darkness.

      “So you better get ready, okay?” the griffin added.

      From the darkness several figures lurched forward. Zombified human remains, toothless, hairless, occasionally even skinless or armless, pressed themselves against the door, reaching fruitlessly through the bars while watching the griffin with dead, rotting eyes. Behind them movement suggested that a large pile was shrinking as it turned into shambling silhouettes which pressed themselves into their peers up front as they tried to reach through the bars..

      The griffin leaned back, pulled his head back to protect his beak.

      “Right,” he said. He let out a deep sigh and said to no one in particular: “I hate these things…”

      “They don’t look so different from regular humans to me,” the troll said.

      “Sure,” said the griffin, walking away from the door in disgust as the zombies began to moan quietly among themselves. “Except for the dead part.”

      “Hey, remember that undead griffin?” the troll asked, with all the added enthusiasm that comes with the act of reminiscing.

      “You think I’d forget? You could see his skin! Like my grandfather just crawled out of an egg.” The griffin involuntarily brushed off his arms with his claws. “Gaw….”

      “He was very strong,” the troll noted.

      “Right, fists like bricks,” the griffin said. “And he flew like one too! Ol’ Askelter wasn’t the sharpest beak in the rookery, was he?”

      “Guess not.”

      The griffin walked up to the troll. His chagrinned beak was at about waist height.

      “I said I’d never work for a necromancer again, and here we are… ”

      “Yeah, but--”

      “BLEEEUUUUURRRH!”

      With that, the moaning of the undead suddenly gave way to excited guttural hollers. The undead up front began clawing excitedly at the open passageway that led into the room as the ones in the back tried to climb over the ones in front.

      “You know,” the griffin said, gripping his pike and narrowing his eyes. “I think someone’s coming.”

      He spun around, aiming his spear at the passageway, perking his ears to try and listen over the moaning and hollering from the cell behind him. The troll lifted a leg and planted its foot two feet to the side, bracing himself for clobbering.

      A figure appeared, running up the stairs. It wore shiny metal armour and a cap adorned with a plume of large, fancy feathers. It continued running into the room and stopped somewhere halfway through. The griffin and the troll relaxed.

      “They’re right behind me!”

      It was an orc, a young lieutenant in the army of Gizmet. The living branch. He made a valiant effort at a display of authority though his voice was shrill and his body scrawny, and he leaned on his bloodied halberd, panting heavily.

      The griffin smirked up at the troll, and they exchanged a glance.

      “Oh deary me,” he said.

      “We have to hold them!” the orc spoke both forcefully and fearfully at the same time.

      “What, the three of us?”

      The young lieutenant glared at the griffin before his eyes were drawn to the undead horde. He struck a pose, pointing his halberd at the door.

      “Unleash the undead!” he ordered. “Now!”

      “… Sure,” said the griffin. With a single stroke he swung his pike at the door’s latch and knocked it open. Under the force of the impatient undead horde the door immediately gave way, swinging open to unleash a flood of zombies that engulfed and then trampled the unfortunate orc.

      The griffin, meanwhile, walked in the other direction.

      “Come on, Lark,” he said, beckoning at the troll. “Let’s go see what’s upstairs and guard that.”

 

The tower shook again. Acting Commander Ferrick, several floors lower, raised a small leather shield over his head to catch the falling dust.

      Ferrick was a Acting Commander because he, well, Acted like a Commander. He was fair-haired and lean bordering on scrawny; no one had ever appointed him, nor had anyone presented him with any symbol of authority, but on the battlefield all this tended to be a small hindrance. How could a man shouting orders be anything but a commander? At this very moment three sergeants and one lieutenant were below holding the line against the undead forces seeking to come after them, on his personal order.

      Surely only a commander would have that kind of authority.

      Currently he paced along the cleared path of the tower with three young foot soldiers in tow; when he found them separated from their group, he had decided to adopt them. Their names – Ferrick made it a point to remember names – were Darren, Weth and Astor – soldier second class Astor. The huddled behind him at a permanent five foot distance.

      “Sir?” one of them, Weth, said. “That was very close, sir.”

      “Not really,” said Ferrick, inspecting some shadows for unsuspected passageways to plug up.

      “Sir, what if the tower collapses, sir?” asked soldier second class Astor in forced even tones.

      “Well, that would be perfect, wouldn’t it?” Ferrick replied. He prodded a motionless, rotten body lying on the floor. “Solve all our problems all at once, it would.”

      “Ferrick’s ears tended to take people by surprise. The were slightly pointy; some said that they gave him a somewhat elfish quality. What they also did, though, was hear really well. He heard Darren’s whisper. He knew it was Darren because Darren was taller than the others, and the whisper seemed to be aimed downwards.

      “Excuse me?” he said.

      He could hear the little troupe freeze even before he turned around.

      “Go back?” he said. “Go back? Turning back is death, gentlemen. Death for you, death for your mothers, for your friends, for everything and everyone you have ever known…”

      He stepped closer and spoke slowly.

      “The world rests on our shoulders now,” he said, glaring at each one of them in turn. They shrank away from him. “No,” he said. The tower shook once more. “We won’t be going back down.”

      He turned their back on them to face the stairwell ahead of them.

      “We’re moving up.”

 

“Bek?” Lark said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been this far up.”

      “No,” Bek said. This was as troubling as it was true; so far they had passed two small columns of orcs charging in the opposite direction. This was how he had known they were headed in the right direction. But now the spring of orcs seemed to have run dry completely, and while up ahead the tower seemed disturbingly silent, behind them the battle only seemed to be catching up. It was starting to make him nervous.

      Using his pike as a lethal walking stick the griffin pushed himself further up the steps of yet another winding staircase.

      “Lark, new rule,” he said, “No more necromancers and no more godsdamned towers.”

      “Okay,” said Lark.

      “I mean, why do people make these things? What’s so important about being a frigging mile above ground?”

      Lark said nothing.

      “And what’s with all the damned black anyway?” he added. “You can hardly see what you’re doing…”

      “There’s light up,” Lark observed.

      Bek stopped. He squinted past the torches lining the wall. Lark was right: there was light up ahead; a different light, cast under a different angle.

      “Come on,” he said, and headed further up the stairs.

      Though Lark the troll walked – or rather, thumped – several steps behind him, their difference in size meant that Lark’s head surfaced first into a wide-open space at the end of the staircase. Bek only surfaced just in time to hear a prickly voice say:

      “And why is a troll entering my eyrie?”

      Bek gaped for a moment. The voice added, with a bit more interest this time:

      “And a griffin. Well well…”

      They had entered a large, round room as wide as the tower itself at this height. Unlike the rest of the tower this room was circled by wide, tall windows, bathing it in the light of the setting sun. In fact, there seemed to be more window than wall, reducing most of what walls there were to mere pillars supporting the top of the tower.

      A large nest lined with down told him to tread very carefully indeed...

      Just as he turned his head towards the voice, its owner walked into view. A large, female griffin walking on all fours circled the opening of the stairwell observing him from above.

      “I’m sure there’s a very good reason for this,” she said. “Yes?”

      Bek knew he was a small griffin even for a male, but she, she was enormous even for a female. He could probably fit two Larks inside of one of her, provided he pushed hard. And they had entered her eyrie. You never enter an eyrie without permission!

      “We were ordered up here,” he said, because ‘someone told us to’ was often the most effective lie in the tookit of a mercenary.

      The female griffin gave him a contemptuous look. Bek returned an indifferent stare; he pegged her as someone who would sooner believe in someone’s stupidity than his disloyalty.

      “By who?” she demanded, sitting down.

      Bek shrugged. “Orc sergeant,” he said. “All look alike to me. We had set up defence up here.”

      The large griffin looked him over. Bek remained impassive.

      “So,” she said, after what seemed like an eternity. “It has come to that, has it?” She turned away and took a few steps towards one of the lofty windows.

      “Scyce, you idiot,” she muttered.

      “Erm,” Bek said.

      “You may enter,” the griffin said sharply. She turned back to them and sat down.

      “I,” she said, “am Arda. I am your supreme commander. From now on you take no more orders from anyone other than myself and Getlar himself. I assume you know enough monosyllabic words to explain the situation to your friend there.”

      “Yes ma’am,” Bek said. He bowed with the required reverence and turned back to Lark.  “Don’t get near the nest, don’t get near Arda,” he said. “Oh, and don’t fall out the windows.”

      Lark nodded dutifully, and Bek was grateful that the troll was smart enough to play as dumb as people expected him to be.

      As they stepped into the eyrie proper, he took a quick inventory of his surrounding. He had already noted the windows and the nest, but another interesting feature were the bones. Bek knew of griffins who would on occasion eat any person or persons straying too close; this was in a way to be expected, and he tried never to judge.

      Arda, though, from the looks of it, did not seem to eat people so much as entire villages, and it seemed unlikely that entire villages would have strayed too close to the Black Stone Tower. Of course, the sprawling piles of bones  and skulls could mean she was merely untidy rather than an insane maniac.

      Looking at the human and orc graveyard that was the eyrie, Bek could not help but wonder is any griffin bones had found their way into the piles, but decided not to press the issue. Instead he focused on a spiral staircase, circling a thick pillar up to the next floor.

      “What’s up there?” he asked, looking at it.

      “Up there?” Arda said. “Nothing,” she answered bitterly.

      “Nothing.”

      “That’s right,” said Arda with a fake little smile. “Nothing. What should be there is the Sky Horde, but Scyce wished to take them on his precious campaign in Greater Enton…”

      “Ah,” Bek said. It seemed to him that if Arda’s could spit fire, the tower would have combusted in an instant.  He thought to change the subject again.

      “And… Beyond that?”

      “Beyond that?” Arda said. Her vexed features now twisted until they formed a mean, mean smile. “Beyond that,” she said, “lies the Dead World…”

      “Ah,” Bek said. And then: “Wait, you’re kidding!”

 

Lying against the outer wall of a winding staircase lay an unfortunate soldier. His stomach was a mess of blood, the worst of it covered by his hand, pressing down desperately on the wound. He used his other hand to stay upright, so as not to slide down the steps.

      Ferrick squatted beside him. He gently took the man’s wrist between his fingers, and raised the hand off of his stomach for a few seconds to look under it.

      “I’m sorry,” he said.

      The soldier nodded.

      “I need to know if you were with the paladin,” Ferrick said.

      The soldier pressed his lips together, and shook his head weakly.

      “Alright…” Ferrick said gently. “But do you know where he is?”

      This time the soldier turned his head to look up the staircase. He uttered a grunt while doing so.

      Ferrick breathed out slowly, looking down at the man.

      “Darren, Weth, Astor,” he said. “Up the stairs. Look for the paladin and join him. Go on.”

      Wordlessly his little army of three proceeded up the stairs, squeezing past him. When they had turned the corner, Ferrick drew his weapon, a long, thin, lightweight sword.

      “Would you like me to help you?” he asked.

      The soldier nodded.

      “Very well,” Ferrick said. He stood up and looked down at the young man. “What’s your name?”

      By the time Ferrick rejoined his adopted little squad the next battle was already underway. In a hall too small for any real battle the remaining forces of the Light made a valiant, if chaotic stand against the next wave of undead pouring in from the staircase ahead. The mindless animated bodies threw themselves into the fray, onto swords and into shields, pushing back the attackers only by sheer force of numbers and willingness to die a second time. Ferrick stepped aside and ducked to avoid a slap from an undead rotting hand, currently without owner, and ran into the battlefield. Almost immediately a terrible arm of shredded flesh and chipped bone clawed at his face. Ferrick rolled on his back and saw a bloodied sword swish overhead, cutting into the head of what was once a long- and grey-haired woman, but now only an animated harbinger of death.

      Rolling on his knees Ferrick cut into the creature’s ankle with a swipe of his sword. He got up and stumbled forward, into a cluster of soldiers occupied with protecting each other’s back. A hoarse bellowing behind him alerted him just in time to duck behind the protective line. The attacking zombie fell to the floor beside him, on all fours, and prepared for another leap when a single finger touched its forehead.

      “You may rest now,” a lady’s voice said. In an instant life seemed to leave the creature’s body, and the remaining corpse fell face-down onto the flagstones.

      “This is a tower of death,” said the owner of the finger both matter-of-factly and grimly. It was a small woman, with long black hair. She wore no armour but seemed to wear several layers of clothing. She was also covered in blood.

      “How are we doing, Kara?” said Ferrick, losing little time.

      Kara turned back to the body of a soldier lying beside her. He was breathing heavily, his breastplate had been torn off, and a ghastly wound covered most of his chest.

      “Galen is up ahead carving us a way,” she said, producing a small green bottle of unidentified liquid from one of two leather pouches. “But our numbers dwindle.” She poured some of the liquid onto the wound, and as she did so the soldier screamed out in pain.

      Ferrick pressed down hard on the body as Kara calmly washed the wound clean. As she did so, she not only seemed to wash away the blood, but actually the wound itself.

      “Will you have enough strength left?” he asked.

      “Yes,” said Kara, sifting rapidly through the contents of her pouch, holding one hand onto the wound. “But this one will not fight anymore today.” She screwed the top off a little brown jar and proceeded to tap a light brown powder onto what remained of the wound.

      “We will need your aid,” she said.

      “Not much longer now,” said Ferrick, concentrating on holding the man still.

      “And yet, perhaps too long,” said Kara reproachfully.

      Ferrick pushed himself back onto his feet and tried to peer through the brutal chaos of battle. The undead were perhaps not the most skilled warriors, but their mad, unthinking, unfearing nature and sheer number had worn down their invading army to a near-standstill. And waiting beyond every horde of these crazed monsters lay a horde of only slightly less crazed orcs in waiting. There was no telling how many were still left.

      For a brief moment he spotted a red tunic amidst the sea of metal, flesh and bone. He ducked into the battle, back to back with one of their own, and wove his way towards it.

      Galen’s armour shone even now. It shone with the light of the righteous. It shone with the belief of his order, the faith he carried into battle. This was the power a paladin carried into battle; the prayers of an entire order to protect him, and a mace like a sledgehammer to take down the unrighteous. The tears and cuts in his tunic only allowed more of the armour’s light to shine through.

      “Galen!” Ferrick called out. “This must stop now!”

      “Protect the wizard!” the paladin called back. He caught a leaping zombie on his shield. It may as well have leapt into a wall face first: it hit with a sickening crack and dropped motionless to the ground. Behind Galen a wizard in his battle robe stood meditating with his forehead rested against his staff.

      Ferrick sped over and pressed his back against that of the wizard. On the edge of hearing he could hear the wizard muttering his spell even as Galen crushed the chest of another undead creature with a mighty blow. Not even the speaking stone he carried around his neck allowed him to understand the words; these were old words, the meaning of which he did not know in any language. He caught a zombie on his sword, and kicked it into the sword of a fellow warrior. The hairs on the back of his neck were beginning to stand on edge.

      Suddenly the wizard roared out words he did understand.

      “Those who are not the sons of man, the heavens strike you down!

      It was too late to brace himself. With a stunning blow against the back of his neck, Ferrick’s world went black.

 

      Ferrick was drowning. At least, that’s what it felt like. A great pressure on his chest pinned him down. As he tried to push against it, he was simply pushed down even harder.

      “Hold still,” he heard Kara’s voice say. “I said hold still!”

      “Is he alright?” asked another familiar voice.

      Ferrick opened his eyes to find himself on the ground, and greeted by the face of Weth, peering at him with curious concern. He glanced down at his chest, where Kara’s hand was pressing down hard.

      “This’ll only take a moment,” she said. “Just lie still…”

      For one confused moment it almost felt as if Kara’s hand reached all the way down into his chest. Then the weight on his chest was lifted. Kara’s hand closed around a small, bright purple dot, which she carried with care.

      “Help him up,” she said. A pair of strong hands grabbed him under his armpits and hoisted him up onto his feet. The world came into focus, and a dull red anger began to fill his mind.

      “What was that!?” Ferrick demanded, wavering slightly.

      “A smite spell,” said Kara. She placed both hands around the purple dot and quenched it with a quick squashing motion.

      “Diluted for a large number of recipients,” said another voice. Ferrick turned around. Next to Galen stood the wizard, looking exactly as tradition prescribed. He sported a long white beard, a thick blue battle robe and a matching blue cap. His staff was as long as he was tall; apparently this was important, though Ferrick did not know why.

      “It seems, mister Ferrick, that you are either more than human, or less.”

      “You don’t say,” Ferrick muttered. “And you are?”

      “Master Trellas,” said Galen. “Come to join us from the Order of Indar.”

      “Four of us entered Issyldir,” Master Trellas said. “Of which I am the last.”

      “And the best, I hope?” Ferrick asked. Amidst the many slain undead bodies he noticed a disturbing number of their own.

      “A point of debate, mister Ferrick,” said the wizard. “And a moot one at that. I suggest we move with speed.”

      Ferrick nodded. His thoughts were racing back in place now.

      “Yes. Galen, we--”

      Through the window, from the battlefield below, the sound of a lone clarion drifted in: a long low note, two high notes, another long low note, two more high notes, again a long low note and finally three more high notes. Shortly thereafter various clarions repeated the pattern in a cacophony of high an low notes.

      Ferrick’s mind did not freeze, because it rarely did. But its thoughts now ran around in wildly, bumping into each other and running in circles. He looked at Galen, and then at Kara, and finally at Master Trellas. It seemed they had all understood as well.

      “… Sir?” Weth asked, rather meekly for one who had just survived a slaughter by the forces of the undead. “… Is something wrong, sir?”

      And Galen said:

      “Scyce.”

 

Bek peered out of one of the large open windows. The slaughter that passed for a batllefield below continued unabated, but something was amiss on the human side. New command flags were hurriedly raised at the human command tents. Chaotic troop movements seemed to be the result, and the line they had been was beginning to be pushed back.

      “Something’s going on!” he called back over his shoulder. Arda, who had been consulting with the last remaining orc captain, immediately ignored him and headed over to the window.

      “What is it?” she said.

      Bek pointed at the troop movements below.

      “There seems to be in some kind of panic,” he said. “They’ve been raising new flags.”

      Arda studied the battle of the ants below with an intent gaze. Then she looked up, stepped back, and headed to the west side of the great aerie. Stepping on a pile of bones she looked out the window, and a nasty smile appeared on her beak.

      “This could turn out to be a good day after all,” she said. In the distance, over the horizon, a small swarm of specks hovered up in the sky, approaching fast.

 

      “Everyone upstairs!” Galen boomed. “Now!”

      Ferrick felt like he woke up. He turned sharply to what remained of the invading forces of Light.

      “You three!” he bellowed. “Go with the wizard! The four of you protect the healer at all costs. The rest are with me!”

      If there was movement when the paladin bellowed his orders, it was nothing compared to the frantic motions of the miniature army upon Ferrick’s command. Within seconds three chaotic columns charged up the next staircase. Ferrick paced to catch up with Galen, a large man and a siege engine in his own right.

      “We’re running out of time. We will have to break through the last lines,” Ferrick said. “Can you do this?”

      “You will have the time you need,” Galen said firmly.

      “I will come back for you when I can,” Ferrick promised.

      Galen nodded, and no more words were spoken.

 

The Sky Horde approached fast. Dragons as large as a cart, red, green, blue and gold; griffins, large and small; a single roc– a giant eagle – ridden by an extravagantly scarred orc the size of a small horse. Above them hovered a dragon, sleek as an eel, as black as the approaching night. For a few moments it seemed as if the entire human army held its breath.

      Then it exhaled, its breath taking the form a hail of arrows tearing the clear sky into pieces.

      “Go!” shouted the black dragon, and upon that single command the Sky Horde pointed its trajectory downward. Splitting apart they wove through the hail of arrows, dodging them, deflecting them, catching them. A single golden dragon caught several of them in his wings and plummeted down into the raging mass of human warriors. A large griffin was caught in the stomach by a large steel harpoon and screeched to its doom. A green dragon fell lifelessly from the sky. But now the Horde reached the human army. They tore through the lines with claw, tooth and beak, spreading panic and disorder as bodies flew. The distant siege weapons now helplessly pointed towards the very army they had intended to defend. A blue dragon soared low towards the command tents, shaping crackling lightning between its front claws which it conducted through its throat at the defending bodyguards. Now a red dragon flew overhead, blasting fire and engulfing the tents in searing flames. The flag poles snapped under the combined might of the dragons’ claws. Further ahead a small deployment of griffins and dragons were tearing the siege engines apart, bombarding the owners with the broken pieces.

      Up in the sky, beyond the reach of projectiles, the black dragon surveyed the progress of battle. Hovering without the aid of its wings, it spread its claws, which vaguely began to glow.

 

Inside the tower the remains of the army of light ran up the staircases. The battle below was distant, but the screams were still too close.

      Turning a corner they were faced by the orcs’ last line of defense.

      “Charge!” Galen roared without breaking his stride for even a moment. With his mighty mace raised he ploughed into the lines, sending orcs piling into each other. Almost immediately the orc army enveloped him, but the mace swung violently and the armour glimmered with the sheen of faith and power.

      Then the rest of the army charged in with a collective primal, desperate roar. The orc lines broke as their weapons, shields and flesh met. Pushing aside the orc forces a smaller number of them emerged on the other side.

      “You will have your time, Ferrick!” Galen called out. The paladin now stood between them and the orcish defenders. His red tunic and shimmering armour clashed as violently as his mace with the dark and green armour and skin of his assailants.

      “I’ll come back when I can!” Ferrick called back as he rushed their army to the top of the tower.

 

The black dragon’s eyes scanned the sky. The energies that magic bends were everywhere, but the trained eye could see the flows. They wound and wove their way through the sky like currents of air, part of an invisible climate. This was were true power lay.

      The flows moved. They curled and wound and shifted their way towards the dragon, curling around his body, flowing over his spread wings. One such flow crossed through his right claw. Another flowed around his left. In between, the dragon began to glow a white light, first faint, but very quickly bright until he was a bright star against the twilight sky. The tower, the battlefield and all that surrounded it lit up in the beautiful glow of the dragon.

      The Sky Horde scattered. The tower defenders backed away fast, flowing like water around the tower base to the other side of it. Within moments the battered and shattered human army found itself completely alone under the light in the sky.

      The dragon dove. At first he simply fell, but then fell faster, accelerating beyond mere gravity. That the approaching point of light would blind those standing under it was, in a way, only merciful.

 

Bwarck!” cried out Bek. A bright explosive flash blinded him and the deafening shockwave of the impact knocked him off his feet and into a pile of bones. The entire tower seemed to shake so violently that for a few moments he feared that it might snap in two. Even Arda seemed to need all her strength simply not to fall over.

      “Scyce, you fool!” she screamed at the window when the worst had passed. “I will murder you!” she added, making the word ‘murder’ somehow sound much worse than the mere killing she usually seemed to busy herself with.

      Bek groped around uneasily to find some footing amidst the bones before Lark picked him up and gently placed him back on his feet.

      “What happened?” the troll asked.

      Bek blinked a few times as his eyesight returned and walked back to the window. He looked down.

      “I think… We won,” he said rather bemusedly. Of the battlefield below only a few scraps at the edges remained. The human army had been reduced to a steaming shallow crater. Even the siege engines had been removed from sight, though upon further inspection he saw a few remaining pieces scattered what seemed like more than a mile away. The Sky Horde returned one by one and lined the edge of the crater.

      “Not yet,” said Arda, and she turned her head towards the staircase into her aerie. Running footsteps rapidly approached. The few remaining orcs swiftly encircled the opening with pikes and swords.

      “They will be desperate now,” said Arda. It should have been a warning, but it sounded like an added bonus.

      Bek reached for his pike and aimed it carefully towards the circle orcs. Lark spun around with surprising speed for a walking rock, and planted his feet firmly onto the ground. Arda, meanwhile, padded slowly towards the stairs, keeping well behind the orc defensive line, but with the corners around her beak turned up in a sadistic little way.

      They waited in silence, and there was a lot of it now. With the battle over, the only thing to reach the ear were the wind and the approaching footsteps, which seemed to take forever.

      Finally there was a unified battle cry, and a gaggle of dishevelled humans burst from the staircase. The pike of the front orc was knocked down by a swift blade, disappearing between the feet of the front runner. The human was cut down by another orc, but not before the first orc had been struck across the face by the same blade. The defensive little circle broke up quickly, and about ten humans poured in.

      “Crap,” Bek said. “Lark!”

      As a trained team, they moved quickly. They strategically circled the battle and took up defensive position near the staircase leading further up, far away enough from the main battle, but close enough not to draw comment.

      Arda, however, leaped into the fray. She stabbed her claws into the back of a human warrior engaged in battle with an orc, paused for a moment to savour the scream, and then swung him over her head and into the flagstones so hard that Bek thought he could hear the bones crack. Arda’s chest heaved a bit with a silent snigger before scanning the room for her next victim.

      What she found was a small human woman with long black hair, giving her an intent, threatening stare.

      Arda cocked her head and smirked slightly.

      “You are not a warrior,” she said to the woman. “And you are not a wizard,” she said, taking a step closer. She smiled. “Pray tell, what are you?”

      “I heal,” said the woman, with a voice that could cut to the bone.

      Arda’s smile broadened.

      “Then you are weak,” she said, “and you will die,” she added slowly, savouring each word.

      “We are all weak,” the woman said simply. With that, Kara stretched out her arms and spread her fingers upwards. She closed her eyes shut and said, as if speaking to someone else: “Your time is now.”

      There was motion in the edges of the aerie. It clicked, it shifted and it shuffled. From the piles of bones rose creatures made of the remains of others. Orc skulls on human chests on orc legs, human skulls, orc arms, they all combined and rose and stood, watching Arda with a malice that should not be possible with mere eye sockets.

      Arda hissed furiously.

      “Dark arts!” she spit at the healer. “You are no healer!”

      “No art is dark,” said Kara. “Merely the intent.” Her eyes were closed, but there was no doubt in Bek’s mind that she was watching through every eye socket in the aerie.

      “I’m not liking this…” he said, circling slowly around Lark to stand back-to-back. Lark raised his fists. But the skeletal remains seemed to have no interest in them. They approached quickly at Arda. She slashed at them with her claws, furious more than anything, screaming indignation. The first few creatures fell at her feet before they overtook her. As she struggled, more and more piled on top of her, tugging at her wings, clawing at her face. The griffin fell to her knees.

      “You are dead!” she screamed at the unflinching healer. “I will murder you! I will slaughter you!” She pushed herself back on her feet and, half staggering, half running, propelled herself into one of the narrow walls. Bones shattered with a loud, collective crack. The remaining skeletons yanked at her, dragging her to the side as her claws scraped across the flagstones. Screaming profanity, she teetered over the edge of the aerie and, skeletons clutching at her wings, fell out of sight.

      “Guess we make a stand then,” Bek growled. He shifted his feet, lowered his head and raised his pike, and with a screech he launched himself at the nearest enemy soldier. A swift swing of the human’s blade pushed the pike upwards. Bek pushed back down, and with the aid of his wings leapt up over the blade, kicking both legs into the man’s chest. The soldier landed on his back with a meaty thud, with one griffin leg on his chest and another on his stomach. Bek tossed up the pike and caught it near the blade, about to thrust it down when another body impacted in his side, sending him and his assailant tumbling across the flagstones.

      Bek kicked back his attacker, scrambled on claws and knees and looked up into the face of a somewhat scrawny human, with long white hair. He was already getting up and about to swing his sword when Lark’s fist came down on him.

      Ferrick only just managed to roll to the side before the mighty troll fist smashed into the aerie’s floor with a sharp thud. What trolls thankfully lacked in stealth, they made up for in brute strength and toughness. Holding on tight to his useless sword out of sheer instinct, he jumped up on his feet and faced the troll. He cast a quick, impatient glance out one of the many windows, and readied another leap for safety.

      Bek picked up his pike and barrelled at the attacker with a primal screech. Ferrick quickly side-stepped the blade, spun around and swung his own blade at the griffin’s face, but got the wind knocked out of him by the wall that was Lark’s body before it could connect. The griffin fell on its back, and Ferrick quickly pushed himself away from the troll, narrowly missing the swinging fist, spun in the direction of the griffin and, with both hands at the heft, brought his sword down tip-first at the griffin’s chest. The troll’s rock arm swiftly inserted itself between the blade and the griffin’s chest, deflecting it with a painful clang, and in one swift motion grabbed Ferrick by the clothing on his chest. The world swirled past and Ferrick found himself struggling high above the battlefield, looking down at the angry features of the troll’s face.

      Suddenly there was a mighty blow to the troll’s chest; the grip on Ferrick’s clothes was released, and he fell to the ground as the troll stumbled back several steps. In between himself and the troll stepped Master Trellas, swinging his staff at the creature in a threatening manner.

      Instinctively Ferrick leapt back, thereby only narrowly avoiding the blade of the griffin’s pike. He circled away from the rest of the battlefield, around the snarling griffin, and readied his sword. The griffin bent its knees slightly, raised his wings in an instinctive display of physical superiority and aimed the pike’s terrible blade at his neck. They stood motionless for a few seconds, testing each other’s defences with their eyes. When Ferrick only briefly glanced over the griffin’s shoulder he saw Master Trellas delivering blow after blow on the troll’s body.

      The griffin began to growl softly, raising its feathers slowly, spreading its wings further, capitalising on the most basic human fears of tooth and claw, perhaps even without any awareness of doing so. To some griffins, human beings were no more than prey, and the very place they were in had been littered with bones. Ferrick spread his feet slightly further, ostensibly for added balance, but mostly in defiance of his inner instincts. He took comfort in the knowledge that there was more than one predator in this room.

      … He could sense it. He could feel it. He could not explain how, but he always knew. It was there. Night had fallen.

      The moon.

      He looked at it, through one of the great windows. He could not help not to, even if it was just for a moment. His blood turned warm. His heart started to pound like a hammer on an anvil. His mind felt like it were in a vice, squeezing out nearly all senses. The floor and everything on it sank away before his eyes. A sense of euphoria came over him, which he suppressed with great discipline. Before the eyes of the griffin, Ferrick grew, changed… In mere moments his arms turned into a mass of muscles, his hands turned to claws, his feet angled and grew to burst out of his shoes. His face extended, his teeth became sharp and plentiful, his ears grew out. Silver grey hair grew out of every inch of his skin. The leather armour stretched, the straps that held it together unfastened.

      And at the same time the griffin’s feathers settled back down, his wings lowered to the ground and its ears flattened against its head.

      It looked up at the great, fearsome werewolf with an expression of unashamed self-pity.

      “Oh… Man,” it said.

 

Below, Galen swung his mace once more, and the last orc fell to the ground, amidst its slain brothers. Now there was silence. The paladin waited for a moment, his muscles tense and his senses on alert, and then relaxed. Covered in the blood of his enemies, he allowed himself to rest back against a wall, panting wearily as he dropped his mace to the ground.

      He thought better of it, reached down to pick up the mace again, and instead sat down on a small set of steps that elevated part of the corridor. With a tired sigh he wiped the blood off his face.

      And waited…

      He heard the footsteps already, the heavy thuds, the click of talons. He had hoped for a little more time, but he was a man who performed the work of gods, and simply had to deal with whatever they put before him.

      He rested a little while longer while the footsteps approached, and then stood up and faced their general direction. They moved urgently, but with restraint. They moved… Angrily. And there were other, much lighter footsteps.

      Scyce turned the corner, around him a small entourage of undead warriors. For a moment the black dragon paused, taking in the sight of the bloodied paladin amidst the bodies of the Black Stone Tower’s army. Galen glared back, and allowed his heart to be filled with a burning hatred.

      Scyce, slayer of armies.

      Scyce, destroyer of Avadera.

      Scyce, scourge of the righteous, burden of the weak, harbinger of the undead blight… Murderer!

      Galen raised his mace and shield and thus issued his challenge.

      “Hold,” said the dragon, his calculating eyes trained on the paladin. His zombies obediently shambled back. The dragon Scyce, on all fours, took a few steps forward, lowering his head, flaring his wings and swinging his tail threateningly.

      “Mm,” he growled. “A hero. Making a stand.”

      Galen said nothing.

      “Your army is dead,” said Scyce, still approaching. “Your cause is dead.”

      Galen remained motionless. The dragon stopped and studied the remains of his tunic, displaying the crest of the Order of Alissa.

      “And before today’s end,” Scyce said with a grin, “Your order is dead.”

      With a scream that seemed to be uttered from his very soul, the paladin threw himself at the dragon.

 

Bek leapt up, flapping his wings wildly to get away, but the werewolf leapt after him and grabbed him by the leg.

      “Bwarck!” he uttered as the sudden change of acceleration travelled down his spine and yanked the pike from his claws. An enormous hairy claw smashed into his chest and pushed him down to the ground. In a moment of sheer panicked instinct Bek dug his claws into the werewolf’s arm and bit down hard as he climbed up towards the shoulder. Though its skin seemed to be made of hardened leather, the werewolf roared in pain. As it flung its arm violently, Bek held on for dear life, digging and biting as hard as he could while the world became a blur, and then a wall coming straight at him.

      “Yeep!” he exclaimed. He quickly let go, spread his wings, landed with claws and feet on the wall and jumped off of it away from the massive creature. He landed with scraping claws, and jumped for his pike.

      “Yeah, not that easy, is it!?” he snarled with a tinge of pride as he grabbed his weapon, only to see two rows of sharp teeth coming straight at him. With an instinctive flap of his wings he raised himself over the wolf’s head and rolled down its neck, hooking the pike’s staff under its snout. He quickly grabbed for the other side of the pike and yanked hard, pulling the staff into the wolf’s neck. It reared on its hind legs, and Bek quickly dug the nails of his feet into the wolf’s back for balance, biting into the base of the neck for good measure.

      The wolf seemed to go into a rage. It hooked its claws behind the staff, pushing it away from its neck, but Bek pulled at it for fear of his life. It staggered back, growling fearsomely, and slammed into a wall. This knocked the wind out of the griffin. He lost his grip on the pike, and in a swift moment the wolf grabbed him painfully by the wing and swung him through the room. Bouncing off an orc he disappeared screaming through a window.

      Ferrick breathed heavily and cursed under his breath. The little—His ears perked up and he quickly turned to face the charging troll, caught its fist and pushed it back with a pound in the chest, where Master Trellas delivered a blow with an upwards swing of his staff that sent the troll flying into the ceiling, which it hit with a loud, dusty thump. It then remained there, lying on the ceiling.

      “Always tricky work, gravity,” Master Trellas said, slightly out of breath. And then: “So… More than human then, mister Ferrick?”

      “Some would say…” said Ferrick, and he leapt into the battle at hand.

 

As the battle raged in the aerie, so did it below, where the paladin and the dragon engaged in combat. The dragon side-stepped the paladin’s initial attack with surprising agility for its bulk. In turn it opened its mouth and spewed a green streak of acid from between its horrible jagged teeth. Galen managed to catch it on his shield, from where the terrible liquid sprayed all around him; where it touched rock it began to bubble, and a suffocating gas started to permeate the air.

      Next, the dragon’s massive claw slammed into the shield, propelled by all the bulk of the dragon itself. It connected with a loud, dull thud. The force of the blow resonated through all of Galen’s armour as his boots slid several inches across the corridor’s flagstones.

      The dragon retracted its claw and stepped back, giving the paladin a calculating glare. A human several orders of magnitude smaller than him had successfully blocked a blow that would have felled a tree. In turn, Galen stepped back as well, away from the acid spewing mouth and away from the corrosive gas that was slowly attacking his lungs.

      Scyce lowered his head back to the level of that of Galen’s, and observed him carefully. The paladin was breathing audibly. The dragon slowly moved his head left, then right, and dragged three deep gouges into the corridor’s stone floor with his claw, growling menacingly. Galen regarded him with unmoving stubbornness.

      Then, in an instant, Scyce charged forward. His claw lashed at the paladin’s face, and was caught on the shield with another blow that vibrated through his bones. His other claw immediately lashed at the paladin’s legs, but Galen had already started to jump back, narrowly avoiding the dragon’s rock-gouging talons. He landed a few feet back and immediately resumed his unmoving stance. Scyce charged forward again, this time landing blow after blow on the shield. It should have bent, or shattered, or torn from the paladin’s grip, but it held, and so did the paladin. Every blow was fiercer than the last, and pushed Galen further back down the corridor, his armour ringing in his ears as it vibrated with every blow.

      Finally Scyce dropped back on his front legs and, retreating a few steps to a safe distance, panting slightly.

      “Indestructible armour.” he snarled. “Your order’s faith must be strong.”

      Galen glared at the dragon over the rim of his shield. It had held against the mightiest foe he had ever faced, and insofar the dragon was right: it had taken everything that was thrown at it. But even faith had to falter at some point.

      “And what is it they believe in?” the dragon asked. “The goddess Alissa? Or maybe their champion?” He took a small step forward, keeping his eyes locked with that of the human.

      “How strong would their faith be without you, paladin?” he asked scornfully. “The hero in the glistening armour, behind the unbreakable shield. How strong is their faith in you?”

      Galen took a careful step back. The dragon raised his head, looking down at the paladin with what looked like the beginnings of a humourless smirk on his snout.

      “I’ll tell you how strong,” it said.

      The dragon leapt back, reared on his hind legs and in one swift motion wove a bright blob of energy between his front claws which he tore in two and threw at the walls on either side of the paladin. The explosions upon impact blasted in Galen’s ears as his armour rang, absorbing the impact. He stumbled back too late to dodge the ceiling coming down on him, and hid his head behind his shield as he fell back and black rock rained down on him.

      It took a while for all the sound to truly die away; small bits of debris continued to rain down even as the dust settled. Scyce stepped towards the pile of black rock, placed a front claw firmly there where he expected the paladin’s chest to be, and brushed some of it away. From underneath the rock emerged the bright red shield. He latched a single claw around its top edge and ripped it from the paladin’s hand so hard that he screamed in pain. It clanged down the corridor.

      Now the paladin’s face was visible, part defiance, part fear. Scyce placed his other claw onto the pile of rubble, leaning down hard on the paladin’s chest, and stretched his neck to look the paladin in the face.

      “Not. Strong. Enough,” he said.

      Galen struggled, but the rock was uncaring and unforgiving. The combined weight of the rock and the dragon was weighing heavily on his breastplate. He looked up at the dragon’s face, with its acid-spewing mouth with its sharp, jagged rows of teeth.

      “A hero,” huffed the dragon. “You parade around in your beautiful armour, and the world loves you. They believe in you, and you believe them. Where would you be without their love, hm? Who would you be? Their champion? Their protector? Their saviour?”

      Scyce lowered his head, and the tip of his snout touched Galen’s nose. The dragon made a face carved of hatred and disgust.

      “You are no hero,” he growled. He raised his head again and looked down on the paladin, now but a pitiful face at the mercy of the mighty dragon.

      “This world has no heroes…” said Scyce. “Just people like you.”

      And with that he opened his mouth wide, and the streak of corrosive green acid was the last thing that Galen ever saw.

 

At the same time, Ferrick’s silvery furry claw was the last thing the orc saw. The impact flung it at least 15 feet from its original position before it even touched the floor, only to bounce and slide to a halt beside the giant nest. Bearing his teeth and growling ominously he looked around for any more foes, but found two swords and a halberd trained at him, held by the three human warriors still standing. Two of the weapons were trembling noticeably. One of them belonged to Weth, alive against all odds. He looked the very picture of divided loyalties.

      “Weapons down,” said Master Trellas soothingly. With the weight of his staff he pushed down the sword of a young yet battle-hardened soldier.

      “As you may notice,” Master Trellis lectured, “mister Ferrick is a lycan, colloquially known as a werewolf.” He walked up to stand beside the great wolf. “I can assure you, however, that – like many – mister Ferrick retains control of his faculties. He is, still, on your side.”

      The eldest of the three soldiers looked up sceptically at the giant wolf man. He looked to be a veteran, if such a distinction could be made under all the blood and grime of battle.

      “That true?” he asked of Ferrick.

      Ferrick nodded once, after a brief pause.

      “Mister…?” began Master Trellas.

      “Jonas,” said the man, not letting the werewolf out of his sight.

      “Mister Jonas,” said Master Trellis firmly, “If he wasn’t, you would not be alive to ask the question. Shall we go before the actual monsters show up?”

      Ferrick looked over the head of the one yet unnamed soldier, behind whom Kara was kneeling beside one of their fallen.

      “Kara…” he said.

      “You were too late,” she said bitterly.

      Ferrick grunted, which in his current state had a definite growly flavour to it. He looked down at the soldier below his line of vision.

      “What’s your name?”

      “Beddick, sir,” said the soldier, and he promptly twisted himself in an uncertain half salute.

      “Beddick, you and Jonas join Master Trellas and guard the rear. I’ll take point. Protect the healer… Er, Weth…”

      Now Ferrick looked at Weth. In a battle that had ground up the combined armies of four different states somehow this young man, this… Boy… Had managed to stay alive. It was as close to a miracle as you could hope for on a day like this. Ferrick’s heart nearly sank at the thought of losing him now.

      Weth stood to a sort of attention and said: “Sir?”

      “You’re with me. Stay right behind me,” Ferrick said. “Kara!”

      The healer put something back in one of her pouches and stood up in almost stately fashion.

      “I gave him something that will help him,” she said as she walked past stoically. “for so long as it will be necessary.”

      Ferrick looked at her back as he headed for the spiral staircase to the next level, and rumbled an aggravated sigh.

      “Let’s go,” he said.

      It took only a few seconds after the party disappeared up the staircase for a small claw to latch itself onto the windowsill of one of the windows. A pair of eyes under a feathery cranium scanned the aerie carefully, and then turned into a full griffin head. Bek carefully climbed back in and surveyed the room.

      “Lark?” he asked quietly, trying to identify any horizontal slabs of rock amidst the human and orc bodies.

      “Bek?” came Lark’s deep, rumbling voice. It came from above him. Bek took a moment to process this particular piece of information, and then looked up. Lark lay spread-eagled, faking death, which was not the first time a troll employed that particular trick. To Bek’s knowledge, though, they did not often employ it on the ceiling.

      “What are you doing up there?” Bek demanded in panicked, whispery tones. His wings flared involuntarily at a sudden attack of vertigo. Lark returned an annoyed stare.

      “Alright, hang… Up… There,” said Bek. “I’ll get you down.”

      He looked around the floor and, to his immense pleasure, located his pike. He ran over to it, snatched it off the ground, and leapt at Lark, flapping his wings awkwardly. He made a few efforts to get close to Lark, and hit his head on the ceiling.

      “Ow!” he hissed.

      “You okay?” asked Lark.

      “How do you land on a ceiling!?” Bek hissed in frustration. “Alright, give me your… Reach… No, grab my claw. Yeah…”

      “Ow.”

      “Sorry.”

      Bek now dangled from Lark’s arm, clutching his pike in his free claw.

      “Bek?” said Lark.

      “Yeah?” panted Bek, flapping his wings carefully to get closer to the troll. “… Arch your back.”

      The troll did so.

      “What if I’ll always fall upward now?” it asked.

      “You won’t, Lark,” said Bek as he managed to slide the staff end of the pike under the troll’s back.

      “But what if I do?” insisted the troll.

      “Then we can rent smaller rooms at the inn, now can’t we?” Bek said. “Very efficient.” He swung himself under the troll’s body and managed to grab the end of the staff that came out on the other side. “Now push,” he added.

      Lark pressed his hands down onto the ceiling and pushed hard. Bek, at the same time, pressed his feet up against the ceiling and yanked at the staff as hard as he could. For a few moments it seemed like something would give, and then it did. The troll’s back swung away from the ceiling and Bek was launched at the ground with a yelped “Wark!” and a thud that sounded more like a splat.

      “Bek? You okay?” The troll’s voice was worried.

      The griffin groaned a few times, squeezed his eyes shut, and then opened them. Lark loomed over him. He was standing on his feet again, which was a definite improvement except that they were still connected to the ceiling.

      Bek allowed himself an extra groan, and pushed himself back on his feet with the pike.

      “Alright,” he sighed. “We’re making progress here. Give me your arm.”

      Lark obediently lowered his arm within reach of the griffin. Bek jumped up, grabbed it, and tried yanking at it a few times, to no discernible effect.

      “Great,” he muttered.

      And then there were footsteps. Most of them were the familiar ‘splat-splat’ footsteps of the undead hoardes, but one set was larger, heavier… Both Bek and Lark turned their heads towards the staircase that led into the aerie. Four zombies stepped out, with a kind of menacing obedience that was normally difficult to attain from an undead shell of a man.

      Amidst them, the heavy footsteps stopped, and with it a sleek, black dragon.

      Standing in the staircase, Scyce looked at the spectacle with a look that could mean anything, but mostly bad things.

      Very slowly, Lark raised his arm to bring the hand to his temple in a salute, dangling griffin and all.

      And Bek said: “Reporting for duty, sir,” and grinned.

 

As this was going on, Ferrick led his troupe up the last staircases. He knew now that they were near, and he knew there would be no more opposition.

      He could practically smell it.

      Still, to be sure, he made sure to keep some distance between himself and the rest of the group, so any trap would be sprung on him first. Still trailing right behind him, occasionally beside him, was young Weth.

      “Sir?” he asked.

      “Mm?”

      “Is the healer mad at you?” Weth accompanied the inappropriate question with a sincerely curious frown.

      “Kara… Thinks I can change whenever I want,” Ferrick said.

      Weth seemed genuinely surprised.

      “Is that true?” he asked. But Ferrick said nothing.

      After the second flight of stairs, there were no more. They found themselves in a circular room, about as big as the aerie, again with large, open windows. But this time it was really only a circular hallway, encompassing a smaller circular room on the inside. It had no windows, and a pair of small but heavy doors as its only entrance. They were closed.

      “We’ve made it,” said Ferrick, noting the relief in his own voice. He tested the doors, first by rattling them, then by punching them with a flat claw, and finally by dragging claw marks in the woodwork. They were unyielding.

      “Master Trellas!” he called down.

      Master Trellas was an accomplished wizard. It took only a few calculated knocks of the wizard’s staff to make the doors swing around their hinges. The inside of the windowless round room was…

      Not dark at all!

      At the precise centre of the round room within the round corridor atop the Black Stone Tower a globe hung motionlessly in the air. It looked like a bubble of water, suspended in the air. Or perhaps more precisely, it looked like a bubble of air, if all the air was water. And it was beautiful: it shone with a perfect light that illuminated all surfaces around it equally, no imperfections. The shadows it cast on the walls as the party slowly filed in were crisp and dark as the night.

      “What in Freck’s name…” breathed the oldest of the soldiers.

      “Gentlemen,” said Trellas, “We lucky few have reached the source of our foe’s power. Without this, Getlar will be nothing but a minor menace.”

      “Kara,” Ferrick said softly. The healer knelt down before a round altar, located precisely under the great ball of light, and the only thing in the room other than the globe itself. It had a spherical indentation at the centre which would fit the globe perfectly, around which were carved various runes.

      “But what is it?” the soldier asked. He reached out very tentatively at the globe, and stopped immediately as the wizard held up his hand in a halting gesture.

      “This,” he said, “is an entry point to another world. We call it the Dead World. I suggest distance.”

      “The Dead World,” breathed Weth, in awe. Kara was producing small, black stones from under her many dresses, and placing them evenly around the perimeter of the altar.

      Ferrick, meanwhile, padded to the doorway. He grabbed each door with a claw and faced the party inside.

      “Stay here,” he said solemnly. “Protect the healer. This is what we came to do.”

       He gently closed the doors, leaving the rest of the party in only the light of the Dead World. Then he turned around, dropped to all fours, and bounced towards the staircase. There was a friend in need down there.

      “You are familiar with the Dead World, young man?” asked Master Trellas after a few moments of silence.

      “I read a book,” said Weth, gazing up at the shimmering globe. If he looked well, really well, it was almost as if he could see starlight, captured and ordered inside black rectangles like a collection of butterflies. Almost…

      “From this point on,” said the healer, breaking the spell. “I may not be disturbed.”

      Using his staff as a momentary delineation, Trellas led the rest of the party back towards the wall, away from the healer. Kara sat down cross-legged, hid her hands into her sleeves, and began to gaze intently at the wonderful ball of light.

      “That was with the Yssildrian wars, wasn’t it?” whispered Weth.

      “Yes,” said Master Trellas. “The Yssildrian city discovered a fissure to another world. Its wizard kings began to harvest this world’s energies for their own, and became the mightiest power in the world.”

      “I thought it ran out,” said Weth.

      “No,” Master Trellis said. “The wizard kings destroyed themselves. But not before draining this poor world of most of its energies. That was millennia ago. Nothing can live there now.”

      “What if something does?” the veteran soldier asked, and he regarded the globe with a healthy amount of distrust.

      “Then it is very unfortunate,” Master Trellas stated.

      “How do we destroy a fissure to another world?” asked Weth in whispering tones.

      “We don’t.”

      The group fell silent. The healer had spoken up. Her eyes were now ablaze with a white light, as if defying the light of the globe itself. She looked intently at it.

      “We will heal it,” she said. “Please do not disturb me any further.”

      There was a noise outside. A thump, a clang, and then a roaring voice.

      “Barricade the doors!” it called out.

      Master Trellas was the quickest to react. He swung his staff to horizontal position against the door in time to catch the first blow against it. His boots slid across the smooth stones that made up the floor, and he stumbled forward only just in time to catch the second blow. The third, however, sent him flying. The doors swung open, under the force of Ferrick’s massive body being shoved into it by an equally massive troll. Instantaneously four zombies leapt in after them. One found itself flying face-first into Master Trellis’ raised staff, while another splattered into Lark’s flying stone body as Ferrick kicked him back out the room. The other two piled on top of Jonas, the veteran soldier, who had been the quickest to position himself between them and the healer.

      “Aargh!” he screamed, pushing back with hands and halberd as the zombies clawed at his face. The remaining two soldiers immediately leapt into action, of which Weth was yanked back by a great claw that grabbed his armour around the back of his neck.

      “Stay here!” Ferrick commanded as he deposited the young man next to the healer. She still defiantly glared at the bright globe; it now glowed in a pale green light, growing brighter by the second. Weth bit his lip, took a deep breath and raised his sword defiantly in defence of the healer.

      Ferrick, meanwhile, stepped forward and roared furiously at the dragon in the doorway, grabbing one of the undead and flinging it into a wall for good measure. Scyce growled back in a low tone, and for perhaps a second their gazes were locked until the troll threw itself back at the werewolf, knocking him down to the ground.

      “Hold’im down! Hold’im down!” cried out the small griffin, now appearing from behind the dragon, brandishing his horrible pike as he ran up to the werewolf.

      “Aside!” commanded the wizard as his outstretched hand smacked Bek into the surrounding wall in a thin floating streak of feathers ending in a pathetic squeak. In turn the dragon’s black wing knocked the wizard through the room.

      Scyce growled in frustrated tones as he now descended upon Weth, looming thunderously over the boy. Weth stared up into the dragon’s mouth, as mobile as a block of granite.

      Ferrick once again pushed the troll off of him, reached out his right claw to catch the once again charging griffin and with a single fluent motion swung Bek to send him flying into the side of Scyce’s head. A streak of corrosive green slime flew past Weth’s cheek, some of it disappearing into the globe – Now glowing a bright green –, the rest smearing itself across the flagstones with an audible hiss. The griffin landed next to it and whimpered softly.

      With a furious roar the dragon, after perhaps a mere second of confusion, launched himself at the werewolf. Ferrick, still lying on his back, caught the dragon’s front claws in his own and the rest of it on his knees, rolled with the motion until he was on top, and leapt off as another acidic streak flew past his cheek.

      Lark already advanced once again, but Scyce cut him off by stepping between them.

      “Stop the healer!” the dragon snapped, keeping his eyes on the werewolf. “I will take five seconds.”

      “For Gavin!” Ferrick roared, flinging his mighty claw at the dragon’s face. Scyce caught the blow with a swing of his front claw, and with the other blasted the werewolf in the chest with a stunning burst of energy. For a few seconds Ferrick felt nearly every muscle in his torso contract as he stumbled back. Scyce growled joyously and charged forward, thumping the werewolf in the chest with the top of his head and shoving him into the wall. The impact knocked the wind out of Ferrick, and he slumped to his knees.

      At the same time both Bek and Lark advanced on the healer from opposite sides. Kara now glowed from the inside out, pure light flowing through her veins, as green as the bright sun that the globe seemed to be becoming. She was trembling with effort. And in the middle of this triangle stood Weth. He looked at the griffin, then at the troll, weighed his chances carefully, and then hurtled himself at Bek with a raised sword and what he no doubt thought of as a blood-curdling scream. Bek caught the sword’s swing on his pike. Clutching the heft of his sword in both hands Weth landed blow after blow, causing the griffin to inch backwards.

      Then Lark grabbed Weth by the pants and yanked him up in the air, away from his quarry. With a lazy but swift motion Bek spun his pike so that the blade at the end ended up mere inches from Weth’s face. The soldier stopped struggling and stared at the tip.

      “Second rule of fighting: pick your opponents.” Bek said. “Third rule of fighting: pace yourself. Who taught you to fight, kid?”

      “S-sergeant Kinnicky,” Weth said with a clenched throat.

      For a brief moment, amidst the battle, both Bek and Lark stared at the young man. Then Lark said:

      “Them’s a rhetorical question.”

      “Oh…”

      Scyce counted down. “Three… Two… One… Five seconds…”

      Ferrick was on his knees. His chest burned, and he could not find that gasp of air that would return his strength. He managed to look up hatefully at Scyce, who was watching him with a mixture of mockery and distaste.

      “A lycan in the Light,” said Scyce. “Thinking himself human.”

      The dragon placed a claw onto the werewolf’s head and, in one swift motion, slammed his head down onto the stone floor. Ferrick’s world became a split second of agony, followed by a woozy headache as the dragon stood on his head, glaring down at him with its snout near his ear.

      “Thinking doesn’t make it so,” he spat.

      Scyce stepped off the werewolf. He turned around. He paced over to the healer. She was aglow in her own little world, a human flame burning next to the little green sun.

      Ferrick struggled to get on his feet. He saw the dragon raise a claw.

      He saw the dragon swing it down on Kara.

      And he saw the world shatter.

 

Scyce could not move. In fact, it seemed like there was no world to move in, no time for the movement to take place. And yet at the same time there was time to be. All around was the blackness of nothingness. The only source of light in the world was the healer, flaming as bright as ever.

      She briskly turned her head and looked up sternly at the dragon.

      “You have disrupted the spell,” she stated.

      She looked down and reached into her chest, and when her hands emerged they crackled with a bright blue energy. With narrowed eyes she looked up at Scyce again, and she thrust her crackling hands at the dragon’s chest.

      The blue bolt hit him like lightning. Scyce yelped as he was flung upwards, and momentarily he balanced on his hind claws before he fell on his side.

      He coughed as the healer stood up. She looked down at him.

      “What…” he growled. All others remained frozen in emptiness: The troll clutching the human and the griffin threatening it. The human warriors and their undead counterparts battle. The wizard, lying to the side. The werewolf, casting a desperate, hateful stare towards him. They were like insects in resin, floating motionlessly in nothingness.

      “In a few moments time and space will heal,” stated the healer. “The rift to the dead world will be open, an unstitched wound in the world. And it will swallow us.”

      Scyce climbed back on his feet, which was remarkably hard. His legs were still shaking, and there was a distant rumbling on the edge of his hearing. He felt strange.

      “What did you do?” he managed to groan. The healer seemed to ignore him for the sake of her lecture.

      “In there you will protect me, Scyce, destroyer of Avadera,” she said. She spoke with certainty, as if it were a command that cannot be disobeyed. “You will be my guardian. You will be my saviour.”

      “Over my… Dead…” Scyce breathed. The rumbling became louder. It was not merely something in his mind. Something approached, something as big as… As big as… The world itself! He struggled against disorientation and lack of control.

      The healer rummaged under one of the several dresses she was wearing. After a few seconds she produced a small, harmless looking knife. Nevertheless Scyce watched it suspiciously as he took a small step back. The healer rolled up her sleeves, one at a time, and in a demonstrative fashion put the sharp end of the blade on the skin of her arm.

      With a swift motion she slashed a cut in her arm. A sharp and burning pain in Scyce’s front leg surprised him, and he fell down with a yelp.

      When he looked down at it, there was a cut. It bled mildly.

      “Yes,” the healer said emphatically. She held up her arm; the cut there was similar to the one on his leg. A single drop of blood ran down her sleeve.

      The rumbling had become quite loud. Scyce clambered back on all four legs and glared at her with a more panicked expression than he had wished.

      “I will not be a slave!” he called out over the noise.

      “No, perhaps some day you won’t be,” the healer spoke up. “But for now,” she continued, as her voice was being drowned away by the noise of the approaching world, “you serve the forces of the Light!”

      Scyce’s reply was lost in the roar of the oncoming world, but he screamed it with foul, foul eyes, and then, with a bright green flash and a terrible clap, the world snapped back into place.

 

Wind whipped around Scyce’s ears, and the first instinct he had was to dig a claw into the stonework of the floor. With an immediate second thought he grabbed the healer’s arm just as the wind lifted them both off the floor and left them flying like a wind fane towards the bright green light of the rift. There was screaming all around, barely audible over the wind that was tearing at his ears.

      Human bodies, alive, dead or undead, flew past and into the rift. The werewolf lasted little longer. The healer screamed, and he could feel the pain in his own front leg where he was clutching her around the arm. It made it difficult to hold on…

      The troll slid towards the rift, a human soldier and the griffin both wrapped around its face. It struggled, tumbled back and fell in, followed only moments later by the last of the zombies as it clawed impotently at the flagstones.

      Scyce held on with only the tips of his talons as they slowly slipped out of the grooves. A small part of him cursed the way how everything had suddenly gone so wrong. Another part was afraid of what the Master would say. But most of him feared the future.

      His claws slipped, and through the rift it embraced and enveloped him.

      It was an open sky, and it was full of stars.

 

* * *

 

Ferrick felt like he was falling.

      He had been in a tower. He had seen the world shatter. He had seen… Other things; he wasn’t quite sure anymore. And now his senses were telling him he was falling.

      With a snap his mind put itself back together. He was falling!

 

“ShitshitshitshitSHIT!” screamed Bek. The ground had vanished; hell, the whole world had vanished! Lark was plummeting like the rock that he was and the human was grabbing at both Lark’s head and Bek’s legs in a state of utter panic.

      “BEEEEEEUUUUUUUHhhh” uttered a zombie as it soared past. Bek rolled his eyes at it and paid it no further mind. Instead he grabbed the pike right by the staff right under the blade, absentmindedly kicking the human in the ribs, and stuck the other end out in front of Lark’s face.

      “Lark!” he screamed. “Grab hold!

 

Scyce spread his wings as the momentum shot him tumbling through the sky, and felt the mild jolt of pain in his own wrist as he yanked the healer up against his chest. There were stars above and lights below, this disoriented him and in turn enraged him. With a frustrated roar and a few mighty beats of his wings he stabilised himself. With a wide arc he turned back towards his entrypoint.

    “Where is it!?” He roared. Clutching the healer to his chest he swooped erratically through the night sky. His wings beat frantically to keep up with his mind, battling gravity that seemed to be pulling him down harder than he had ever experienced.

      In a single broad motion he swung Kara in front of him, dangling her by the cloth on her chest. He regarded her windswept and twisted face with furious panic.

      “Where!?” he demanded.

 

A wall soared past Ferrick, positively exuding light from its windows. Ferrick tried to grab it, but his claws bounced off painfully. Next he tried his feet, kicking down with all his might. A sharp pain stung his toes as he hit his mark and he propelled himself away. For a moment he flew, until his back slammed into another wall. He scrambled at the wall as he toppled further down, and yelped as a ledge broke yet more of his fall.

 

“Be-e-ek!” Lark uttered wide-eyed. Both his mighty hands were clumped around the staff of the pike, now horizontal, as Bek flapped his wings with all his might. It worked only about as well as could be expected.

      “Lose the human!” Bek commanded with a strained voice.

      “No!” screamed Weth, as Lark grabbed him by the back of his tunic, letting one hand go of the staff in the proces. The makeshift contraption instantly lost balance.

      “Wark!” Bek yelped as it yanked him down even faster, spinning helplessly towards the unyielding ground.

 

Down below detective Franklin Horne shifted gears and gently depressed the gas pedal. The engine lowered its tone and raised it slowly as the brightly lit windows of shops and eateries moved past a little faster.

      “It’s bullshit, that’s what it is.” This was his passenger and partner, Pete Watson.

      “And what would you have’em do, hn?” Franklin shot back. “After the little show today?”

      “It’s bullshit!” Pete reiterated. “We need you!”

      “You don’t need me,” said Franklin, irritated.

      “We need everyone we can get,” Pete said.

      “Thanks.”

      Pete sat back, but did not relax.

      “You know what I mean,” he said. He spoke quickly, the tone of impotently angry men. “This whole case is falling apart.”

      “Which is why I’m off it!” Franklin said angrily. “Goddamnit, I should learn to keep my fool mouth shut.”

      “It was low,” Pete asserted.

      “And it worked!” Franklin countered. “Look, can I drop you off at--”

      There was a silvery streak from above, and with a crunching smash Ferrick slammed back first through the roof of a parked car in front of them.

      “-- Holy shit!” screamed Franklin as he slammed the breaks. “Jesus!” Pete added immediately.

      “Call this in!” Franklin exclaimed. He swiftly unbuckled his seatbelt and practically leapt out of the car. A small crowd was already forming around the wreck, and his mind already raced through the steps: get them at a safe distance, assess, assist. He pulled out his badge and held it out in front of him with an outstretched arm.

      “Police! MPD!” he called out, running towards the flattened car.

      The words drifted into Ferrick’s consciousness even as he was losing it. His fading eyes were fixated on the moon above.

      It was the wrong moon. Hew felt himself shrinking, losing strength and fading away.

      He saw Scyce.

      His vision dimmed.

      He heard:

      “Aw geez… Pete! It’s some guy!

      And then the world went away again.

Next: Night Shift!

Chapter List---No Heroes Fan Art---B!'s Library---Main
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