Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Six Thegn Quean

Episode Seven

by David Ulnar-Slew


Slender Men

Pyn looked up into those angelic faces, those beautiful countenances full of dagger teeth and yellow eyes. They were so divine yet they could not possibly be benign, not with the hate that shone through those glances and grimaces.

The leader spoke to the others in some strange tongue, and one removed something from his jerkin. A little oval brooch with a black gem got passed along to the leader. He laughed and they all chuckled, but it didn't make Pyn feel mirthful; the joke was obviously not meant for him.

The dark figure leaned down and smashed the brooch onto Pyn's chest and he felt the pin pierce his flesh, then oblivion; he was gone.

Poke had heard the cries from the walls calling for aid to the back gate. He had signaled the Grinders and they rushed around the north side of the village. The squad of dead did not change course when they rounded the wall. It was probably their intent to just draw attention to the back to cause the defenders to fight on two fronts. The Warrant Officer's elite squad would make short work of them and be back to the front toot sweet. He would see to that.

The boys were already through half of them by the time he and Tril had caught up. If these fellows lacked anything, it wasn't enthusiasm for the kill. Tril cut down a straggler and Poke took one's head before the others got them all.

Once the field seemed clear, a corporal--Poke thought his name was Gul or Gil--grunted and pointed to the south edge of the clearing. Six figures exited the woods and began to make for the direction of the battle. Poke lifted his spyglass to his eye. He wasn't sure what they were; they weren't dead, but they weren't anyone he knew. He signaled the Grinders to charge them. If they weren't foes, they would surrender quickly to the mounted men. The boys were eager, but they would take surrender, or else deal with the old man. They were off like a shot, having already anticipated his order.

The six stopped. It seemed one spoke and gestured, then one of them broke off and charged right at the riders. He was fast; not horse fast, but quicker than any man Poke had seen. The stranger barreled right at them. At the last minute he jumped and cleared the heads of the mounted men by at least two feet.

"That was not possible." Tril's voice cracked as he spoke to his superior.

"Yet we just saw it, boy."

The Grinders were possibly surprised but kept charging the remaining five. The fact that one slipped by possibly not worrying them, as two men remained behind them.

Tril glanced at the old man. Poke nodded and they charged at the lone figure. The thin creature continued running straight at them, closing the distance almost as quickly as they did on horseback. As the distance closed Poke saw that the creature was covered in decorative lines, tattoo-like, yet something was different about them.

Poke kept pace right behind his young protégé, not because he was a coward; he had just learned that the second man to meet an attack usually had better odds than the first. The exuberance of youth often led to death on the battlefield. Folks often said, "Fear an old man who fills a billet where men usually die young." Poke was that man. This proved once again true as the svelte attacker leaped spinning overhead and ended Tril's life. It was quick; Poke saw him leap and land behind before he noticed the youth's body continuing on horseback, headless. The old man yanked back on his reins and jumped down. The kid's head lay in between him and the attacker. Speed was obviously not an advantage, so the need to be on horseback had passed.

The short lance he had been using when mounted dropped to his feet. He drew his sword, a relic of a bygone time, heavier than what was currently used, beaten and scarred. The weapon was a holdover from the last time war was actually fought on this continent, used for killing men badly and not at all quaint in appearance. The thin man across from Poke was paused knowingly. It was obvious he had no intention of charging until Poke was ready. He wanted to fight, and was intuiting that the grizzled old warrior was up to the task.

Screams and battle noises sounded loudly behind Poke, but he dared not turn to see how his other companions fared. The martial largesse of his opponent surely would not extend that far. It was best he did not know anyway. He suspected the outcome wouldn't be encouraging to him. His opponent began slowly stepping forward.

This strange warrior, this fae thing, was more than a match for the old man in a fair fight. Poke had one advantage; no fight he had participated in had been fair in his entire life if he could help it. He made as if he was going to stand his ground and wait for the inhumanly fast charge of his opponent. The slight man took his bait and dashed forward. At the very last moment Poke kicked a cloud of dust into the air as high as he could muster; it hit the creature in the face, causing it first to stop, then stumble back on its guard. The warrant officer followed but had no doubt the warrior was prepared. First Poke kicked Tril's head off the ground at him like a child's ball. The being sensed the movement and lashed out cleaving the head in two. Poke closed again, drawing his dagger with his off hand. Once he got in range he swung his sword overhand at the other's head. The sharp thin blade blocked it, but without the benefit of sight, it was not enough. The dagger flashed up a fraction of a second behind the sword and drove home through chin then head and brain. The thin man dropped, a victim of battlefield disinformation. He assumed he was being attacked with the same weapons that were in play when he lost his sight. He was in error.

The fatigue of this short melee had taken something from Poke. He had burned reserves expediting his attack to ensure the plan worked against his much quicker opponent. Leaning on his old sword, point-down into the earth, he turned to the battle behind him. It had ended prior to his victory, how long he could not be sure. It was likely they had watched most of the exchange. They had killed all his men, and not even needed to harm the horses to do so. Each of them now held the reins of one of the animals. The leader, or the one in the forefront of the group, nodded at him. They mounted and spurred the animals towards the main battle. Why they felt they needed the horses now was anyone's guess. They were quite swift enough without mounts.

Poke's horse had bolted off. He would have to walk back to the back gate of the village. At the rate the battle was progressing it would be decided one way or another before he would be in a position to again make any difference. This suited him just fine. Again, he was no coward, but the sudden addition of yet another strange inhuman race of killing experts made him take his time walking back. If any of the nek lingered between him and the gate, he would gladly dispatch them to contribute to the cause.

Defend Hearth and Home

Relchior stood at the well in the town square and stared at the action at the western wall. He could see the structure buckling from the sheer weight of the attackers. The undead were difficult to kill in ordinary circumstances; trying to put them down from above as they charged the wall was nearly impossible. As each finally expired it provided a makeshift ladder for his fellows to climb higher. After twenty or so had perished in one spot, the remaining were growing close to the top in the spot where Relchior's attention lingered. He could now see faces peering over the wall as the defenders thrust their weapons out at the creatures.

"That will soon be a problem, Father." Torg looked at the elderly cleric and let his attention drift from the same spot. Both their views had naturally drifted to the same spot without verbal collaboration.

The old man nodded solemnly. What was to be done about it though? He had no idea. The brave soldiers and warriors outside were fighting hundreds of these things. The fifty or one hundred they had destroyed had not stopped the village's undoing. The old woman, Crowley, had taken up a spear and was jabbing it between the slats of the front gate hoping to score a head shot. He admired her bravery, yet did not understand why she did not use the amulet again. Asking her why she acted this way caused him almost as much apprehension as approaching the gate itself. She was rather intimidating on a regular day; today she was a force of nature unto herself.

Torg saw where his gaze had wandered. "She fights well for an old bird. Yet why doesn't she use the amulet?" Relchior startled visibly when his apprentice seemed to read his mind. The young man smiled at this. He always seemed to enjoy getting the old man's surprised reaction.

"She has her reasons, I am sure. If it was to be used, then it would. Perhaps it is a question of waiting between uses or some other factor. Also she is hearing the voice of the Shen God while she possesses it, perhaps he counsels patience." The old priest said this as if he wanted to believe it as much as he wanted to convince his assistant it was so.

Both men turned their attention back to the most active section of the wall. The pressing of the attack was visible now as the weight of the attackers caused it to tilt inward. It would be mere moments till that section gave way. Already the men at the top of that section were jumping down to avoid the fall when it collapsed.

An audible creak sounded as the strapping around the logs stretched under the weight of the pressing bodies on the other side. It was strong but certainly would lose the fight to contain the mindless press of the charge behind it. Men ran from the impending disaster, not so much consciously but out of a natural inclination to remove themselves from a impending accident. They were not cowards; it was just nature. Relchior stood his ground. Torg's hand gripped his elbow as if to lead him away. He did not budge. Running from what was coming was ludicrous at his age. Anything that could push down that wall could certainly catch him and end his life. Dying with some evil thing's claws in his back was not how he intended to end his long days. Death would have to come at his face at the very least.

"Go, Torg." His normally frail voice momentarily sounded strong and vigorous. It was reminiscent of when he was a young priest full of fire and brimstone. "Save yourself. I shan't be running from this and dooming us both. I love you like a son. Now go!"

The hand left his elbow as Relchior continued to stare at the leaning section of wall. It gave way with a groan. Dead men poured forth tripping over each other in a rush to claim victims. The fallen ones just dragged themselves upward to continue the charge with their brethren. It would only be moments now. A calm came over Relchior.

The first reached forward to grab him, a staff swept down knocking the hand away at the last instant. The young acolyte had never left his mentor's side. He stepped forward smashing the lead attacker in the teeth violently with his staff held the long way. The vile thing fell unceremoniously to the ground where Torg proceeded to smash its skull with the heavy knotted end of the staff.

"Wha ... I told you to leave, boy!" The elderly man lashed out at the next zombie in line with his own lighter staff, shaken from his fugue state.

"I am not leaving you to die with these ... abominations!" The youth swung his sturdy weapon connecting harshly with the head of one of the approaching monsters. Cold viscous drops of blood and brain sprayed back into his face as the creature's skull caved in.

The two fought back the pressing attack for a few moments till inevitably the press of bodies was too much. Torg spread his arms wide making himself as large a target as possible to block their access to his beloved mentor.

"Forgive me, Father, I won't be able to do my chores tomorrow." He glanced back over his shoulder as they grabbed his arms and chest. One bit him on the throat as his eyes met Relchior's and he smiled faintly. He mouthed the word, "Run."

Paralysis formed of fear robbed him of the chance the youth had given him. They rolled over him in seconds. He extended his arms to embrace death, putting aside any notion that he could successfully fight them off. His head tilted back and he closed his eyes. Light washed over him and the abominations squealed in pain.

When nothing tore him asunder and he couldn't bear to wait another moment, he opened his eyes. The ground was littered with them all unmoving. Torg still drew slight breath at his feet. Turning to look over his shoulder he saw Nana Crowley holding the holy symbol in the air.

Glancing down at Torg, torn, bitten and beaten, he shook his head sadly. "Why not use it sooner?"

"It requires sacrifice. It seems to know when a life has been given selflessly and craves vengeance. It speaks to the holder and demands the scales be balanced. It screamed in my head when he died, just as it did for the king."

The old man stood over his young apprentice. "He has been bitten and scratched badly. I don't know that he will live."

The old woman walked by him and without hesitation drove her spear down into the boy's eye socket. Relchior startled at the ferocious violence.

"Why ..."

"The boy is dead. Either that or he may get up like one of them. Either way he doesn't deserve to lay there like that. He was not living to the end of this to be tended to properly and he surely doesn't want to be one of those things. He deserved better, and I can hardly expect you to do what was needed. You loved him too much."

The old priest could only wonder at how this old woman became this way. He had known her for thirty plus years and she was still a mystery. His tears flowed freely down his face as he stood there, half looking down at the boy's body, half looking at the hole in the gate where villagers had rallied to fight the monstrosities trying to come through over the inert bodies of the amulet's powerful vengeance. No one noticed his grief; no one had time.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Five svelte figures on horseback rounded the southern side of the wall just as the flash from behind drew Tim Miller's attention back toward the village. They stood out immediately as they were vibrantly alive yet certainly not human, nor, he thought initially, anything else he had seen yet in his ever widening experience. They were lean, pale men with white hair. He stared directly at them, yet their gazes were fixed out toward the middle of the battle, deep into the nek force.

The commander turned and followed the general direction. They seemed to be fixated on either the nek leader on his dire mount or at the assortment of his companions who were now drawing close to the nexus of the dead force. He couldn't determine which it was entirely. They had yet to directly threaten anyone, but he certainly felt threatened by their presence.

Some of his men were also beginning to notice the approach of these odd beings. Miller had to decide if this was his fight, and if so how to handle it.

He signaled his aides to pass the order along to condense his force sideways out of the way of the newcomers. If they were friends they would fight the nek; if not, the two problems could solve themselves. The one thing he was sure of was that the way they were looking at the center of the battle, they were not friendly to what lay between them and their destination.

The king's men followed the signaled orders and the few barbarians and thieves mixed in flowed along with them, creating a gap of maybe one hundred to one hundred fifty feet in the defense line. The dead surged forward toward both pale men and the village wall. The leader of the strange party made some signals to the others and they briskly dismounted. Each took something from a waist pouch and jabbed it into the long neck of his horse followed by slapping it on the rear haunch. The animals took off into the oncoming press of undead combatants. The animals grew berserk, stomping and pummeling all things in their reach. Those surrounding them fell in rapid succession. Miller watched in awe. The pale men had just turned their mounts into organic siege engines, breathing weapons of war which were clearing a path better than any ballista could.

They followed in the path that was rapidly clearing, in what appeared to be a calm, relaxed fashion. One stopped here and there to behead one of the nek that escaped the equine carnage. The whole scene was surreally violent. To Miller it was like watching an execution more than viewing a skirmish. One of his aides grasped his shoulder bringing him back into the moment.

"Signal the men to fall in behind that ... those ... whatever they are. Leave them alone, though. Let them cleave their way through the enemy, for now." He paused, collecting himself momentarily. "Belay that order. I will lead the men up the middle myself." He rode over to fall in behind the strange newcomers as they moved away.

The soldiers followed their leader cautiously as he slowly paraded through the wake of destruction wrought by these beings. Whispers floated back and forth as men surveyed the scene. Things they had been fighting tooth and nail lay dispatched at their feet as simply as if they were wheat which had been reaped and left uncollected. It was becoming impossible to know what to fear more on this day.

Tim Miller was of a similar mind. This day had been one grotesque fear after another. Why, after a lifetime of a multitude of things hidden behind a veil of secrecy, were the freakish circumstances of the world outside this kingdom coming to light so quickly and aggressively around this little southern town? What external forces were at play for things to escalate so quickly and tumultuously?

His mind snapped back as he noticed the slender men pause in front of him in the distance. The leader obviously did not care for the army following them so closely. Miller agreed; tactically it was unsound. There was some sort of obvious exchange between the five, and one begrudgingly peeled off from the others and turned back toward the soldiers. There was no rush as he trotted back toward them.

Miller decided that this one was younger for some reason, though he could have just been projecting junior status upon him as he was obviously taking orders from the others. Now that one of them was close, it was much more uncomfortable to look at him. From a distance they looked graceful and slight. Now that one was near, Tim could see the ruddy eyes and harsh jaw line. Worse yet, the thing smelled horrible as the breeze blew from behind strongly. What may have been mistaken by some as the smell of battlefield and death grew stronger as the thin being got very near. It stopped several feet from where the troops had paused. It spoke gibberish, but its tones were melodious, almost angelic. This was very much at opposition with the sharp angular teeth in its mouth. They were slicing teeth, the most predatory by far any of the men had ever seen. Certainly, nothing that lived anywhere near here had a maw like that. Though no one had any idea what he spoke about, he made his point clear by pointing at the commander, then at the ground. He wanted Tim to dismount. Then he patted his chest and drew his odd sword. He intended to fight, and wanted single combat with who he rightfully assumed was the men's leader.

Tim dismounted his horse. There was to be no fight. No choice was being made, he wouldn't fail his men. It was just inevitable that he was going to die. His skills were fairly exceptional, probably one of the best young officers in the standing army before all this began. They were nothing compared to others, though. Poke could shame him on his best day, and those twin sisters were machines of death in comparison. This man, this creature, was his better. There was little doubt. He had watched them dispatch nek behind their trick with the horses. The least of them handled their weapon like it was a finger on a hand. What was about to happen was no mystery, but it was his duty. Poke would either be proud or adamant that he fight in his young leader's place. Perhaps that was why he had sent him away. A time comes when a man must risk death if he is to ask others to die.

The lone figure stretched himself by bouncing and rolling his weight from foot to foot. He was preparing to fight, it was efficient and nonchalant. Miller drew his sword and gave a slight flourish salute. He lead forward in his prepared stance. The other came forward so quickly it almost defied logic, leaping in the air almost at head height. A light spear flew into him intercepting the arch of his attack, piercing him through the abdomen. This took the momentum out of whatever he was about to do to end Tim's life, and he fell to the ground. Rising despite being run completely through, the slender man seemed determined to fight on. Tim Miller was quick enough for this though, swinging his sword unceremoniously with both hands. A pale, white haired head full of razor teeth separated from its shoulders. Cheers erupted from his men as if he had been the victor rather than the recipient of some god's forsaken luck of the moment.

The noise caused the remaining four figures to pause and look back toward their compatriot. Seeing him skewered and headless seemed to have no effect. They glanced around, which caused Tim to glance around as well. All of them were looking for the source of the spear. It became evident in short order as the gazes swept over the center of the battle. A small man was balanced on the shoulders of yet another creature, different, yet most similar to the Ogrim, but thinner and more sinewy.

The little fellow was screaming words that sounded quite like what the headless man had spoken in his challenge, although the accent was more sibilant. This caused the four to react rather dramatically. Some exception was taken to what was said, and both they and the little man and his lanky companion seemed to redouble their efforts to kill a path clear to the middle of the battle.

Things seemed to be coming to a disposition somewhere in that vicinity. Commander Miller signaled his men to advance after the slender creatures. If things were to conclude it would be best if they ensured that it concluded in their favor, whatever that meant.

Hey Brother

Marti found his master standing on the abandoned cart, looking over the heads of the combatants. Occasionally a nek or two made the mistake of wandering over, having made the error of seeing the little man as a target. They were quickly and violently dispatched. A small pile of bodies grew at the side of the wagon. His master was thoughtfully considering something in the distance; Marti didn't want to disturb him. Sliding up alongside, he came to heel. When he sat back and to the right on his haunches, he still towered over the Kobol. Marti had always found that amusing. It was a sign of respect, so he tolerated it without showing his amusement. The Kobol was a great warrior and a not unkind master. It wasn't the little man who raided his village and kidnapped his family; he just benefitted from it. Snit had even tried to purchase his family under the pretense of keeping his prize war-mount happy. Marti knew this. His family was tracked constantly from master to master and he received updates from the Kobol personally. He also took no umbrage that his name was not spoken till today. Being nameless made him an asset to be used. It differentiated him from a pet. He was like a favorite spear or dagger, something to help his master kill his enemies. That all was fine with him. What now, though? He had essentially been freed by Snit. The Kobol was far from done with him. They still needed to procure the artifact and escape.

Snit looked over at him casually. "Marti. I trust our mutual acquaintance the eoten has been properly seen off."

Marti nodded. He was not in a habit of speaking to Snit. It was not in the nature of their relationship. Trul weren't chatty. He was quiet by even his people's standards before being enslaved.

"Spektah."

"Yes, quite." Snit was odd by his people's standards as well. He never put on that sing song little voice most Kobols did to fool other people. He even strained at the limitations of his own body and forced his jaw to move awkwardly when he spoke. This resulted in a rather good impression of human accent, though it must have been tediously uncomfortable. "Have I told you that Kre and I were acquainted?"

He shook his big tusked head. His braids whipped around.

"He was not new to slaving when he ruined your life. He took two clutches from my village. Of course we were purchased, not ripped away. We Kobol tend to overbreed, and that lessens the value of our progeny a bit. Still though, my experience with him was less than pleasant. He kept the entirety of the older clutch for himself as servants. The younger, larger clutch, which included me, was auctioned off. I am sure years later, when that oaf was put in charge of the Old Master's acquisitions programs, he was not happy to find me highly placed in the ranks of my liege."

This was the most personal information Marti had ever been provided about his master, by far. He actually felt himself lean in slightly, quite interested to learn more.

"I was not allowed to kill him. I asked, quite nicely in fact. He also refused to sell or release my remaining family. My clutch had died over a short period of years. Our temperament, it seems, did not lend itself to captivity. I believe I flourished because I have been killing all along, from the fight pits to my current position."

Marti could relate well. He had largely been able to tolerate slavery because he had been allowed to kill his enemies as his assigned task. Truly, he was not that much different than the Kobol.

"I promised to kill Kre one day. I was overjoyed when he failed the Master. To be sent after him was my dream. Unfortunately, my primary task is to collect my lord's property. I do not fail him. It is good that he is dead, twice over," he chuckled, "or four times over in his case. It seems you also don't fail your master."

"Bout dat ..."

"I can't free you here. I need to file the writ when we return. As far as I am concerned, you are no longer beholden to me. I will kill those who need to die, with or without you. If you stay with me, though, then you share in the reward."

"Reward?"

"Anything we want, really. He places the highest priority on this recovery. We can have anything, have anyone, we want."

"My family."

"When we return we will go to them and kill their masters if you so choose."

"En if not?"

"Then you may leave now and take your chances. I will not tell you where they are, or file your writ of freedom. If you try to attack me with hopes of getting answers, then I will kill you. So come along, run away, or die. Make your choice like a free being."

Marti made a show of brooding and being thoughtful. There was no decision to make in reality. He wanted his family back. He was standing here on a foreign continent, with no freedom papers, and a job to do that he was good at doing. Also he liked Snit; they made a good team. Eventually the riding thing had to stop. On second thought, no; it actually worked. It was efficient for killing, sneaking and getting places.

"Um in."

Snit smiled. Kobol smiles were repulsive, even to Trul with giant tusks. "Good. Good."

He pointed a little finger off in the distance toward the center of the battle, but led Marti's gaze back slightly away from the obvious target on the desiccated horse. He was pointing at a few of the village's warriors who were speedily dispatching nek on their way to the target. There was another Kobol with them, following two female humans.

"Huh."

"Huh, indeed my large friend. That is my brother, who I only assume is the sole survivor of Kre's ownership. It seems he has new allegiances. If he gets there first we may lose our prize, especially if he gets there with two Shen."

Marti nodded his assent. Something grasped lightly at his attention, just circling around his consciousness, a smell. It was a bad smell. Alves! He grasped Snit's arm, a move which would have been horrifically bold earlier that day. Luckily the smaller man was an adaptive sort and didn't react poorly.

"What ..."

"Alves!"

"Drenkaka, not now! Where?"

Marti sniffed and turned. As he focused in, they both saw them. They had stampeded animals over many nek and were making time toward the target further south. One broke off and started back toward the human soldiers.

Marti bounced on his haunches preparing to take off. "Me?" Killing Alves was fun. They were vile, probably more vile than any other creature. Well, there were two exceptions, but nek were already here and weren't much sport. The others were very unlikely to show up here; they weren't the type to travel.

"No. Let me climb, and hold still. If I can free up those humans, they will harry the Alves enough for us to get there first." The little assassin drew a javelin and scurried up Marti's back, then he stood to his full height allowing the maximum perch for the throw. It was a well-practiced move on the part of both participants.

Marti spoke again as Snit got his aim and windage, the first time certainly ever in their relationship while the latter was trying to concentrate. "Least dey aren't ..."

"Don't you dare say that! The gods must not be tempted! Every other damn creature seems to be appearing on this accursed continent."

Snit stood stock still even when admonishing him. "Not Uger. Not Gublins."

"Worse than Uger, one of the posh ones from the north. Gublins don't go anywhere unless they are dragged."

"Just sayin.'"

The spear flew and pitched a high arc, then the little fellow responded. "You have gotten awful chatty for a Trul."

Marti just shrugged which Snit took advantage of as a boost to vault down to the wagon. A split second later the javelin landed and the Alves looked back at their comrade. The human officer wasted no time beheading the Alv once it was wounded. The remaining four looked over toward them and reacted unsurprisingly angry. They began to run, not toward them but toward the high Nek. Snit hopped on Marti's back and they were off toward the target.

Family Affairs

Eve was concerned with Lilith's behavior. More so, she was concerned that she was concerned. The only thing that made sense was that she was growing soft from reading the healing texts recovered from the Shen treasures. Their focus on the softer side of her birth-people's mysticism was clouding her own focus on battle. The Ki she was studying was different, yet the same as the Ta that her sister was learning. They were two sides of the same coin. The Ki represented bringing all things together and mending, the Ta separating all things. That Lilith could work with the forces at all meant she should be studying Ki; Shen mystics used both, but trained with Ki. lay warriors studied Ta. Having an attuned person study Ta was volatile and dangerous. The sisters did not know that when they began. They divided the scripts as a simple division of labor. Nor did they know that they were both capable of using the mystic force behind it all to influence the world around them.

Now as Eve became more and more balanced, Lilith became more enraptured with destruction. This was significant, given where they started from when they found the Shen belongings. More concerning to her was that she was softening. She still killed quite equally with Lilith, it was just a slight change in her thinking, she acknowledged now. She felt the balance of the Ki making her whole. The Ta was fueling Lilith's rage and making her powerful, but tearing her apart.

Now Eve battled alongside her sister, leading the way for the forces who resisted these abominations, yet her mind kept turning over the higher ramifications of their new learning. Being the more thoughtful and reserved of the twins had been a negligible designation before. It usually meant that Eve stabbed you a fraction of a second after Lilith. Now her attention was constantly drawn to the wounded and a growing urge to stop and heal. Each burned in her mind. She felt compelled to fix what was broken, to mend.

Her attention snapped fully back to the battle when the Kobol, Ugle had to spear a nek through the face that might have gotten the best of her had he not interceded.

"You good now den?" He wasn't criticizing, the concern in his voice sounded sincere. As indentured servants go, he was quite odd. The loyalty he showed was unflappable, yet he would consider it an honor to kill his mistresses if it fit within his set of rules for how the relationship operated.

"I'm good." She found herself speaking aloud more and more frequently, especially to the little Kobol. Lilith still spoke very infrequently. It kept her divisive and separate. It suited the nature of Ta. The books said many Shen warriors took vows of silence.

"You betta smarten up. My brotha coming from over dere. He wants da big baddie. We need to get dere first." He gestured with his head toward where a small fellow rode on the back of a much larger figure as they cleaved their way toward the sisters and their Kobol.

"Your brother?"

"Yeah, mistress. He here to clean da mess for the big Master. Kre screw up. He here to fix it."

"I am not even sure what that means. Is that really the worst thing that could happen?" She drove one of her hooks through the eye socket of a nek, defending herself with the other hook on the opposite side while asking Ugle.

Ugle's laugh was a slurpy wet noise that wasn't entirely pleasant. It was loud enough to hear even over the sounds of battle. "Well it ain't gud for uz, but worse for da Nek. Also he not da the worst thing. Dat be da Alves."

"Alves?"

"Yeah, dey yuckier den nek. Dey working for sumone else probably, or worse dey jez up to sumthin."

She shook her head. This situation grew more complicated than was believable. How could this be any more volatile? "I suppose they are the worst things out there then?"

"Meh. Sum peeple tink so. Me, nah."

*****

The other little figure and his companion--or was it his mount?--were closing with them quickly. Ugle threw up his free hand and waved and bellowed in their direction. "Snit-Snit. Dis good fight huh? Not too bad?"

"There are Alves here, Ugle. Alves!"

"At least dey aren't ..."

Eve heard the other scream as if he were next to her. "Don't say it!"

"... Warves."

*****

The exclamation of frustration coming from afar was audible. Whatever Warves were, it seemed mentioning them in these circumstances was to test fate, which was understandable in the context that every other creature that was previously unknown to Eve seemed to be making an appearance lately. The abundance of things and people was overwhelming even to her stoic warrior's sensibilities recently. If there was another set of things out there and Kobols found them repulsive, it was probably best they weren't there. Well, weren't there yet, so far.

Lilith had gotten ahead of them, but a small distance, due to all this thinking and talking. That was the problem with those two things, they got in the way of fighting. You could do both, but really would do neither as well as you should if doing the other.

Eve watched her sister take the head from one nek while summoning the force of the Ta to pulverize the head of another. If they were anything other than nek it would be sacrilege to use it like that. Her studies of Ki led her to believe that it would still be frowned upon in Shen society, even used like that on dead abominations. It was possible that once all this was over, she and her big sister needed to speak solemnly about their path down the ancestral learning. She had the feeling Lilith was going down a dark path indeed.

Lilith looked back at Eve and Ugle, finally realizing they were falling a bit behind in the violent drive to their goal. She looked more hostile than usual, which was quite a feat. "Less talking, more killing, sister. Kobol, get up here and assist me!"

Ugle broke his gaze from his brother's direction, risked a glance at Eve, and hurried forward to her sister's side with a shrug. Eve was left alone just as the other Kobol and his Trul reached her. She kept a wary guard as they got within reach.

Snit waved his free hand at her. "Be easy. I am not here to fight with you ... yet. My business is with the Nek master. We won't quarrel unless you stop me from getting what I am here for."

Eve considered for a moment that having his assistance may be more beneficial than antagonizing him. "Can you kill it?"

"No, but I can stop it and remove it."

"What difference?"

"Vast. I assure you."

"What do you need from me and mine?"

Snit smiled at her menacingly. "It would seem I require little less than I am already going to receive. I need the abomination distracted. Your sister will prove very distracting once she cuts through his remaining bodyguard."

Eve looked up to see her sister had reached the edge of the Nek's circle of protection. The former Elite guardsmen of the king were all that stood between her and the Nek master. The dead thing seemed unconcerned. Obviously, he had underestimated what was assuredly imminent.

State of Decay

Inom saw the approach of the humans, and was even pleased to see Shen warriors. It had been so long since he had seen people of his homeland. The two women coming toward him were divinely beautiful. The lead warrior shone with rage. The Ta emanating from her body was tremendous. His dead eyes could see it like waves of heat leaving her body. He suspected she did not even know, herself. No one let that much energy loose into the world around them knowingly, especially not the more chaotic of the mystical energy. Even he would not dare such dangerous blasphemy. Those around her didn't even seem to realize she was by far the larger threat in the immediate area. Of course, they wouldn't. Most pathetic, blind morons walked around each day barely able to wipe their own asses, unknowingly wasting resources prolonging their own lives, while oblivious to the greater movements of the world around them.

He watched as she tore into his elite guard. She no sooner put her sword through the chin of one before turning on another and disintegrating its skull with the destructive force around her. The other Shen worked much more consciously removing guards from the fray with her hooked blades. She unsurprisingly emanated a slow, contained aura of Ki. She held the weapons of a Shen priestess and reeked of sympathetic magic. The strangest thing of all was that they seemed to be working with at least one Kobol, possibly two, and one of the Kobols was riding a Trul. The ridiculousness of it all made him infuriated momentarily. The prejudices of his past life seeped through the fact that in his current state he was as much abomination as those creatures.

An idea came upon him in a startling wave. He would take the ravishingly violent Shen as his queen. It would be perfect. When she got near he would infect her, then kill her companions. He would need someone to keep him company while he conquered the world. The others shouldn't be a problem. Yet he found such a motley crew working together unsettling. He knew that non-humans were present in the village, but assumed they were slaves. The fact that they were here in the breadbasket kingdoms at all was surprising, but he assumed much had changed while he slept.

"Come, let us meet our opponents." He gestured to the two bodyguards that remained by his side. Sliding down from the dire mount he released his mystic grasp on it when he landed, letting it crumble limp to the ground. It was only an affectation anyway. An undead horse did not contribute anything to his power, nor follow his battle plan.

Turning toward the heroic charge happening feet away he drew his odd blades from their sheaths on his back. Obviously these few were the best that his opponents had to throw at him. Soon they would be dead or subjugated and then this would be all but over. He would have made Eker the governor of this entire continent, but he was ended. A new protégé must be groomed in addition to his queen so he could travel by ship to annex the other lands. There were scores to settle in many places but none more urgent than with the old man up in his swampy fiefdom up north on the big continent. Just because he was now capable of ruling the world didn't mean he held no grudge for being made into this. The world would burn and he would stand atop it while it smoldered, and he would do so on the corpses of the old Great Masters.

He shook himself from his thoughts and continued to the edge of his guarded circle. The wilder Shen woman was just about through the last of his perimeter guards. She had stopped using her sword and was just tearing them asunder with Ta. She was so angry, so violent, so very ready to be Nek. He would most certainly turn her into a higher creature. This would mean he would have to rely on her compliance afterward rather than beguiling her, but so be it. It would be torturous to spend eternity with a mindless vessel doing his bidding. Even if it went badly, having another High Nek of such power around would certainly further his purpose just by upsetting the Masters. He would have done so sooner, but had yet to come across anyone of significant enough power since his making. The Master had always been very sure to keep him separate from anyone with a hint of Ke or Ta, especially the latter. It was inevitable that it would occur eventually, but he was a weapon held in reserve and that was the aftermath, not something to occur before the desolation of his release. Also there should not be someone of this caliber wandering around these rural backwater nations. Did the Shen know? Did the Chosen of the Shen even know that someone of this level existed off the island, and a woman no less! Actually two, and sisters without a doubt, now that he was closer to them. At that moment he had no doubt whom he was looking at.

"Shatar."

Both girls shrank back from this word, this name. The aggressive one recovered first leaning back forward and posturing.

"What did you call us?"

"Just what you are girl, Shatar. Without question the daughters of Jh'taia Shatar. I am only guessing, but I believe you are Li'Etet and that would be E'va. Both of you I have not seen since you were very small, but you could be none other. What you are doing here without Jh'taia or your mother is quite a mystery to me. No matter, it will soon be moot; you will serve me or die. Well, technically, you will die either way. Let's not complicate things though with long explanations."

He readied himself with a slight bit of reserve that wasn't there previously. If these were Shatar's children they may be a more worthwhile fight than he thought, particularly if they had been trained then sent up here looking for him in his stead.

The one he called Li'Etet, the angry one, screamed, "Father is dead, Mother is dead and you will join them." She lashed out with the Ta like a fist. He braced himself and projected outward with his own corrupted yet potent energies. The force rolled over him like a wagon gone rogue, yet he stood like an old-growth tree resisting the wind of a violent storm.

She seemed surprised that he was not obliterated. Once he got his balance back completely he smirked at her with his grisly rictus slightly open. "Come now, girl, you didn't think you were the only one with power, did you? You aren't even the most formidable thing on this continent right now. There are things out there that would eat you alive without stopping to belch."

It was time to close with these children and show them true horror. There were places to go and people to see after he was done here, and he was anxious to begin his real vengeance now that he had seen Jh'taia's brood. It reminded him too much of his old life, and that made him angry. When he grew angry, others had to suffer.

All Good Things ... and This Too.

Raz and Cammi had long ago let the Twins and their little servant outpace them. These things were everywhere. Each one you crushed was replaced by another. Realistically there had to be an end to them but it never seemed to come. Chances were he and Cammi could keep this up for hours more and not be much worse for the wear. They couldn't be everywhere at once and save everyone, though. They could smash half the force, and the other half would still overrun their friends.

"Cammi, we need to do something more. We have to find the twins."

She gestured with one hand to her left while using her other hand to pulp the skull of an enemy. Was it wrong that her destroying an enemy was arousing to him? Old racial programming, no doubt. Once his race was Uger, and before that ... well, who knows. As advanced as he was, his genes wanted war.

He looked where she gestured. The twins were visible when the combatants moved just right. He also saw a little man on a Trul. What the what? They were all fighting zombies, that was clear, but really ... a Trul? Then they gestured over to the south. He turned and looked in that direction, quite curious what drew their attention away from the battle center even for a moment. Alves!

"Turd-covered gods on a broken crutch!"

Cammi swept a wide berth with both fists so she had a moment to look his way.

"What is it, darling? You Ok?"

He fought his way a little closer to her. Once he got shoulder to shoulder with her he cocked his head closer to her ear.

"There is a Trul here and a bunch of Alves!"

"So?"

"There almost is no race left to make an appearance in this brouhaha. It's fine. It's fine. At least others haven't shown."

"Who?"

"Nope. Not saying it. Demons are summoned by the sound of their names."

"DEMONS? They exist too?"

No. Well, maybe. Erh ... it is a saying. Not real demons in this case, just really vile things. I'll tell you later. Let's just join up with the others."

"Whatever you say, sweetie." She blew him a kiss and turned toward the center of the battle to do as he suggested.

They steeled themselves to plow their way to their companions, both taking an audible breath in preparation. Then all the nek just stopped and turned away from them. Well actually they stopped and turned away from everyone else. They all turned toward their master, their master and his friends. They all faced center.

Cammi cleared her throat because Raz had ignored the last two things she had said. "Sweetness? Is that bad?"

"Very. Quite." He knew that this was going to be over one way or another before they could ever cover enough ground even if it wasn't full of obstacles.

Don't Just Fight ... Stand There!

Ugle noticed first but only by a second. Everything stopped. Every nek just let off what they were doing simultaneously and turned toward them. The effect was unnerving. He had to assume the others felt similarly. It wasn't a question or bravery or cowardice. The action was just unnatural. Then possibly it was a little scary because hundreds of eyes were focused on them simultaneously. That was creepy. The others seemed to be uncomfortable too, even Lilith, and she was in some kind of berserk rage unlike anything he had seen previously.

Eve spoke first. "What is this?"

"What it is, sister, is a good day to die." Magic built around Lilith in throbbing waves. A holocaust was brewing.

Eve shrugged. Death would solve a lot of the current dilemmas facing them. If it went that way, at least her sister wouldn't end up cursed with uncontrollable Ta, lashing out violence into the world unchecked. They just had to make sure the Nek master went with them.

Snit chimed in next. "Brother, I need to be free to help them deal with the high Nek. Can you keep these things off us for a time?"

Ugle smiled. His grin was fairly horrible even to his brother. He remembered this when the sibling smirked back. He didn't always recall he was fairly ugly for a Kobol. This was a distinction that was meaningless to anyone but a Kobol, so it was easy to forget.

"I can do lots, but not can't be two places, brudder!"

Snit nodded. "Marti? Can you help my brother?"

"Ya boss. How many you want wrecked?"

Snit had his face wraps covering his mouth but the movement of his own toothy vile smile was evident, an uncommon occurrence to be sure. "Kill them all if you have time, my friend. Just be ready to go when I call."

If Kobol smiles were hideous, then Trul smiles with their long tusks were beyond description. Even the Twins shuddered when Marti grinned. It was wide when Snit said "Kill them all," but it was disconcerting even to a few of the nek somewhere deep in whatever grey matter still responded when he called the Trul 'friend.'

Inom had been close enough to hear quite a bit of this and waved his hand. The human flotsam under his control surged forward. Marti and Ugle shot in different directions and started dropping bodies immediately.

That left Snit, the twins, Inom, and two bodyguards. It was numerically fortuitous. Snit went right to a bodyguard out of necessity. Eve went left to another guard. Somehow everyone just understood Lilith would be first to clash with Inom.

Snit jumped high in an attempt to bring his spear in to end his opponent quickly. It should have worked. The dead man wasn't there when the point drove home. Impossible, yet obviously not quite. The nek was behind him so quickly he almost didn't realize it. He felt the sting of the blade on his leg and vaulted to the side with his other leg. The mistake was unforgivable. He let his overconfidence lead him to believe one of these things was as easy to put down as any other. He would chastise himself greatly in the future if he survived.

Eve was not full of such false confidence. If anything she grew more controlled the more she embraced Ki. It changed the way she fought. It still seemed as martial, just more controlled. She stepped forward to meet her opponent and he swung overhead savagely. His blade was stopped by her hooks as she parried. Additionally to her surprise his blade rebounded and flew away out of his grip.

"What ..."

The nek bodyguard was taken by surprise as well. Eve also noticed his hands were smoldering, but why? The high Nek had obviously put much more of his power into these servants so they should be even more resistant to damage by her and her friends. What was different? It seemed like it was right in front of her but she couldn't put her finger on it somehow.

Lilith came forward like a demon from one of the hells. All the Ta she could muster washed out from her in a wave. It was a wave that passed over her opponent almost meaninglessly. There was still the matter of her blade though. She lunged in viciously. Inom countered by hooking her weapon with the curved part of his weapon. He dragged her in closer. She stumbled forward, unprepared for this.

Snit recovered from his folly and turned toward his opponent. He threw his spear and it pierced clean through the neck of the burly bodyguard, an inconvenient wound, but certainly not meant to end this fight. He reached in his robes and brought out a curved dagger his master had given him. It had remained secreted for months as he rode far and then traveled over an ocean, just to ride far again. It had not seen the light of day and no other had seen it the entire time he traveled. Now that he was this close he could see little harm in wielding it. The die was cast. He would be victorious or fail in the next few moments. His master had not forbid he kill others with it, only said that it was to be used on the high Nek.

Eve reached in with her hooks and snagged the nek bodyguard. They burned him where they touched him. She had seen her sister's magic wash over the great creature to no effect. Why was this thing effected so? Was she stronger than her sister? Then it occurred to her--not stronger--different. Ki, not Ta. Ta was violence, creation torn asunder, war. Ki was creation, joining, and hardening. Both were strong, even violent magics sometimes, yet were opposites. The Nek was a thing of great Ta. The Ki made its opposite rebel and wince. Perhaps it was time to end this. First she had to clear this obstacle.

Inom smiled as Lilith stumbled slightly forward completely unprepared for this invite into his defenses. He dropped his swords and grabbed her shoulders roughly and leaned in. Before she had time to react his lips were on hers. The moment seemed to freeze on the field of battle. Dark energy spread from the kiss as dark venous lines spread out along Lilith's skin. A contagion that he had been saving and thought he would never use infected her. She grew limp quickly and he held her up while it continued out of him and into her.

Eve screamed, "NO!"

The nek nearby were so enraptured by the residual glow of Inom's joy at the feeling of this bonding that they stood still yet again. Snit wasted no time in taking his dagger and plunging it up through the chin of his opponent. This registered with Inom.

He broke the kiss. Its job was done. He was just enjoying the ecstatic afterglow. "A relic."

He looked over at Snit.

Eve watched her sister now wasted and black-skinned fall to the ground. A rage beyond anything she ever felt when berserking flooded over her. It was different though. Berserk felt red, like blood, like Ta. This wave felt blue, grey. It felt like granite falling; it felt like the sea. The last thought happened so quickly, yet was so odd because she didn't think she recalled the sea.

Ki poured out from her in a throbbing wave in every direction. Every lesser nek in the distance that she could have thrown a stone to dropped like a sack of flour. Inom turned to her. The look of fear he had when he felt the artifact became a look of sheer terror.

"My, sister."

He projected a bubble of Ta around himself as he himself went to his knees under the effort of its creation. He was obviously extending himself to his limits.

"No. I think not, abomination. The God with no name will grant me power this day. The God of the Shen will take his pound of flesh."

Another wave of Ki lashed out from her, this only in one direction. It lashed down on him and battered the Ta around him. Her power relentlessly pummeled his shield once, twice, then a third time. His power faded and he was on both knees staring at her.

Eve was spent. Blood trickled from her nose. She had forced him to submit, but had nothing left in her to even approach and finish him. She dropped to her knees as well, looking into his eyes. It seemed whoever recovered first would be the victor today. Her vision tunneled and focused on the high Nek. She only noticed at the last minute the other little Kobol coming up behind him.

Snit watched in awe as power like he had never seen was thrown around like spears. His goggles allowed him to see the Ki and Ta whereas others just saw the effects. As soon as the Nek was beaten he made his move. On his way in he saw that the Shen priestess was spent as well. His brother was running toward her from behind, probably also on his way to his other mistress, torn between seeing them both fallen in so close a time. Marti was already coming toward him. Snit came up behind the Nek and ran the dagger across its throat, hard and deep. The knife cut like the undead flesh and bone was made of treacle, and he came away with his prize. He had a bag out from under his robes with thief-like quickness and the deed was done.

"Marti!" The Trul had grabbed him and lifted him to a mounted position without further instruction. "South! We have it. Let's sail and get your family."

The big creature huffed and growled agreement as he took off to the south. A moment after the head was removed, each standing nek which was possessed dropped like a stone and did not stir. It cleared a path for the exit of the duo.

Ugle had run up along the side of Eve as his brother did the butchering. His first concern was this girl who he had grown quite attached to and her sister. As he took hold of her shoulders to hold her upright his eyes drifted down to the ground where the headless body of the high Nek sat next to the black body of her sister. He knew it was where her eyes fell as well. He felt the weakness in her. She had given all of herself in whipping the evil thing down like that. At first neither spoke, then he heard her whisper something.

"No."

She gestured weakly. He assumed she took exception to his brother absconding with the Nek's head. His gaze slowly tracked up and he saw where she looked. Her sister was moving, slightly, but most definitely moving. What, how? Gods!

The thought hit him about the time the arrow hit him in the chest. He flew through the air taking in the remaining Alves, the Alves that everyone had seemed to forget about. The four of them arrived close to her body just as it started to stir. The eldest looking, who reeked of authority, pulled a brooch of some kind out of a belt sack and pressed it on Lilith's body. And just like that Lilith was gone. Each Alv reached under his tunic and pulled out a similar piece of jewelry worn as a pendant and held it in his hand. Then they were gone as well.

Eve fell. Ugle moaned and a soft whistle came from the hole in his chest which was badly plugged by an Alvish arrow. This was what Raz and Cammi had left of their friends in the moments it took them to get to them. Raz helped Eve up off the ground and she gently lifted Ugle over her shoulder. Then she turned and went back toward the village fortress as gently as she could. All around them, confused soldiers, villagers, barbarians, and thieves wondered what had just happened. Most just stood there perplexed.

Settling Up

The companions met back in the village, Eve was the last to arrive. She came into earshot just in time to hear Grenda yell at a group of barbarians. The one at the front looked bigger and more commanding than the others. A man who was undoubtedly his second stood nearby.

"The fight is over. This is ridiculous." She was yelling at Naomi by the time they got really close.

Naomi for her part looked sullen and cowed. "It is something I must do. The saga between he and I must end. This is the only way."

She put her hand on the pommel of her sword and leaned in to Grenda to kiss her cheek. The other woman stood still and accepted the gesture but grabbed her friend as she leaned back away from her. They stood for a moment looking into each other's eyes, then Grenda released her and walked back to where some others stood nearby. Several barbarians and assorted horde members backed away from their leader giving him room as well.

Eve was tired so she placed Ugle down on some sacks that had been filled with sand but didn't make it outside the wall before the fight. She felt she might need to be ready to fight once again soon.

Tuhn Brid drew his massive sword; momentarily he looked as if he too might call the whole thing off. After a momentary flash of weariness was dispelled, he steeled his gaze and nodded at Naomi. She nodded in return and drew steel herself. Both looked angry, tired, yet they also looked sad. He may have had a change of heart if the moment lingered. She decided for them both by coming forward hastily and thrusting at him.

His parry forced her sword far to the side and his riposte sliced her leg badly. She leaned back and scurried out of the way. Her sword came back up to full guard and she quickly glanced down at the wound. It seemed no matter how good a warrior she was her energy wasn't limitless. He was probably in a similar state. This fight would be coming to a conclusion with whoever had the better reserve of energy left. Naomi looked over at the barbarian chieftain, certainly the biggest, hardiest human she had ever known. The outcome was not definite, but it was likely to sway in his favor.

Tuhn could have pressed his advantage but seemed to stall. After a moment he advanced and his swing was clumsy for him, they were both aware. She dodged to the side and came up and around to cleave down into his shoulder. If her strike was left to right rather than up and down he would have been headless. The sword stuck in his shoulder slightly and she pulled. Once he got over the shock of being cleaved, he assisted her by kicking her in her unguarded stomach.

The kick sent her flying back, her grip remained on the sword. The combined force of her tug and his blow ripped the weapon out of his shoulder cutting as it went. Naomi hit the ground still holding her weapon covered in his blood. An audible huff escaped from her as all the air in her lungs was forced out by her fall.

Tuhn's wound was grisly. The arm precariously attached to his shoulder would never be much use again. His left side was drenched in blood. The sword had missed any major arteries though. It was a giant wound despite that and plenty of blood was coming from a hole that large. He deftly turned his sword upside down like a giant knife and walked over to her.

She gazed up at him too stunned to even bring her sword to the ready. They looked at each other for a moment, yet it seemed to stretch on for an eternity to those watching.

"I loved you, Naomi. I did what I did out of duty." His face grew sadder as he spoke.

Naomi looked up and made a small nod accepting this as true. "Yet I never loved you ...", she nodded toward Ret Unif, "... nor him. If I had to do it over, I would still choose neither of you."

Tuhn closed his eye for a split second and shook his head. It seemed to those watching that he was considering being merciful. The crowd was in error. He thrust his sword point down through her chest pinning her to the ground. She had no dramatic last words, she was just gone quickly.

Before almost anyone took in the gravitas of her demise, Grenda had already sprung forward. The dagger in her hand wept with the ichor of poison. It was a needless extravagance. The blade took him right in the eye on his poor side. He had no chance of a proper defense. He dropped like a stone in a well. His death was added to the tally of the day, all before anyone had time to consider how to respond.

The barbarians finally realized what was happening. The villagers and their allies realized as well. Weapons were draw and cries of war began. Ret Unif was knocked over and Eve stared down over him. She looked as if she too had little left to give. It did appear she had enough to finish him though.

"STOP!" Grenda's voice bellowed loudly enough that most turned from both lines of men.

The assorted combatants then realized she was screaming at Eve. They all followed her gaze down to the man who was now the chief of the horde and his impending doom.

"Eve, there has been enough killing. No more vengeance is necessary. Those two both understood that their lives were forfeit to their egos when that fight began. One could not kill the other unanswered, but that is where it ends. We need that man."

The Shen priestess released him and stood, carefully. "Explain."

"He is the commander of one of the biggest armies on this continent. Bad things are stirring. I don't know what is coming but we can't afford to fight each other anymore. Look at those things outside the gates! What if they return? What if worse comes? Naomi told me to make peace if it came to this."

Ret climbed to his feet. "Tuhn Brid gave me a similar speech. We need to change the way we think. There are worse things out beyond our land and it seems they intend to come here. We must stand together."

Eve shook her head, no one knew if it was in dissent, fatigue, or just plain frustration. She achingly walked over to where Ugle was weakly trying to get up off his bed of sandbags and threw him back over a shoulder. She turned and headed toward her quarters without another word.

Grenda and Ret turned toward each other and she shrugged. "We need to convene some sort of counsel. Everyone should order all those at their disposal to start piling those abominations outside in piles. Then we should take a torch to them to ensure there isn't anything left to move. Just in case." She added the last bit as an afterthought but it wasn't far from anyone's consideration.

All is Well

The majority of the leaders and heroes of the battle turned toward the welcoming gates of the village. Snigin had run ahead of most of them in an effort to catch up with Eve. He had no idea what he should say about what happened to her sister but felt something was necessary regardless. Eve and Ugle were within yelling distance and he was about to shout to gain their attention in hopes they would slow or wait. That was when he felt a strong grip pull on his shoulder from the side. He turned scowling, it was Mazur, his brother's general.

"Your highness, we must speak."

"Go bother my brother, Mazur, I told you before I am not your master."

"If you are not, sire, then no man is. Your brother died defending a child, one of his subjects."

The shock passed in a moment, at least initially. Death was common enough and he was a pragmatist.

"Take me to him."

The old officer gestured and Snigin followed, thoughts of Eve temporarily replaced by sadness and fealty to his brother, his king. They went to the side of the wall not very far from where Stefan made his stand. The girl was there standing near the body, her parents stood vigil as well. They saw him approach and by now word had spread who he truly was. An entire family made to bow to him. He waved it away.

"No. Please do not bow. He is still your king."

The girl's father stepped forward. "Sire, I cannot repay what was done this day. I am your man in your brother's stead from this day on. You are my king now regardless of what you decide. I owe the young king that."

Snigin nodded. It was difficult to read whether it was assent or just a gesture of acknowledgement that the man had spoken. Snigin bent and placed his hand on his brother's chest.

"You say he was a hero?"

Mazur nodded. "Of the highest order, sire. None could ask for a braver death more suitable for a righteous king."

"Then that is how he shall be remembered always. Have the remaining men prepare the body for travel to the capital." He reached down and took the crown slowly and gently from his baby brother's head.

"Sire?"

"Call me Liam, Mazur. You have earned that right."

"Yes, King Liam." He paused, then turned. There were quite a number of people watching. "The king is dead. Hail the king. Hail Liam, protector of the land."

Many echoed the chant. Some cheered. Liam did not care. His brother was dead and his people needed him. Nodding to Mazur, he walked off back toward the entrance to town. There was much which needed settling.

*****

The meeting hall was full. All of his comrades were there and then some. The barbarian chieftain, the former second, had joined them. It was this man that he rushed up to first.

"You."

The man looked up at him. "Your Majesty."

"Quite, but the question I need answered is more so whether I am your king?"

"Yes. I think you are. The tribes are very far to the north and most of these men with me are not thegns. I will not be returning home and I will not leave my men."

"But will your men leave you?"

"For the most part I do not believe so. You need an army."

"Yes. And you have an army."

"It would seem at first glance very straightforward, your highness. Need we complicate it deeply?"

"No. You are not the type to be sitting around my throne room. Mazur is the Lord High Commander of my kingdom. He will be in the capital with me. I would be very grateful if you would be the Field Marshal of the kingdom. Commander Miller will be leading my personal guard and the home guard. Does this satisfy?"

"As much so as if I set the terms, my king. But I am afraid that our troubles are not yet completely over."

"No. More likely just beginning. I am glad we are so in agreement. If you would excuse me, I have much else to attend to here." He glanced over at Eve and Ugle. They had cornered Relchior and Nana Crowley and were listening intently. He swept over to join them.

Relchior spoke as the old woman stood holding an amulet.

"He gave me the name of your uncle, that is true, but I have no evidence for you it was truly him. He entrusted me with this relic, and apparently left knowledge with Dame Crowley. I am afraid you may already know more than us about these matters, from your studies of the tomes you found that the Eoten had stolen."

The old woman handed the amulet forward and Eve took it from her. She immediately tied it around her neck. It was then that she saw Snigin next to her crowned.

"Snigin?"

"Liam."

"My condolences." She knew what likely had happened to make him turn to wearing a crown and forgoing his thieve's name.

She turned back to the elders. "Where did he go?"

Relchior made as if to speak but was interrupted by Nana Crowley.

"We think he went back to your homeland or at the very least across the ocean. He said he had scores to settle and penance to perform."

Eve looked down at Ugle. He just stared at his mistress.

"We will go to the ports. We will find my uncle. There also remains a matter to settle with your brother. We leave tomorrow."

The Kobol nodded. He had nothing to add to that plan; it suited him perfectly.

Grenda yelled alerting everyone that a dinner had been laid out and they should come and eat. They would speak while they dined. They all accommodated her invitation.

The band of heroes sat around the table. Grenda addressed the man who was now the king, a man she felt deserved the title.

"Your Highness, would you like to lead the discussion?"

He nodded at her and smiled knowingly.

"I need to know what everyone intends to do. The kingdom is scarred. Most of the best and brightest are right here in this room as far as I am concerned. Please let me know where we go from here, friends."

Tim Miller started the report.

"Your Highness, I have spoken with your new Field Marshal and the Lord High Commander. I am comfortable with your plans for me and graciously accept your appointment."

The king smiled at his friend. That was an easy one.

Grenda stood. "I think I like it here. My plan to settle at this village has not changed, if they will have me."

"Have you? You will live with me or you will live nowhere!" Nana Crowley smiled when she said this. Grenda returned the smile.

Katlyn stood then looked down at a seated Ren. "I, too, will stay here."

Liam knew what Eve intended and wasn't ready to discuss it yet, so he turned his gaze to Cammi.

"I intend to go with Raz to the north. We have questions for Malik the Old Master. Things are afoot which require more knowledge. We will let you know what we find."

This was something the new king had not even thought of. He wished he had. It was not only a good idea, it might be essential, the way the current winds of change were blowing.

Poke stood in the corner and the king glanced at him. The old soldier cocked his head incredulously. Liam knew it meant there was no need to ask. That man was with him till he died, most likely.

Eve stood. They all became silent.

"I will go south to find my traitor uncle. Along the way I will find the Kobol who took the abomination's head and destroy it and him. This one will come with me." She scratched Ugle's head. He seemed to approve.

Liam stood. "Change your mind. Stay and I will make you a queen."

Her face did not express the emotions most women felt when offered a kingdom.

"I will not. I also will not punch the king in his mouth, because I know you meant well. I have things to finish. I will not stay here and be your mewling queen."

"Then be my queen anyway. Relchior, stand and marry us this instant."

Eve made to argue. He raised his voice, "No. You will be my queen. Then you do whatever you desire. When you are done, return to me."

This premise seemed to appeal to her much more. She smiled at him.

"Yes. I think like that I would like it."

"What of ..."

"She is dead, Liam. If she still walks and I see it then I will remove her head and burn her to ash myself."

He nodded sternly. "I swear the same."

Relchior had ambled up to them in the meantime. "Do you mean to do this, then?"

Liam looked at her. "Yes, I do."

"Miss, are you in agreement?"

"Yes. I will marry him."

"Perfect. We have all these witnesses. We are done. May the one God or the many bless your union. All hail the king and queen."

Laughter and cheers erupted throughout the room as the old man walked back to his place and began to eat.

The king looked at his wife as he sat. "Tomorrow, let me send an army with you."

"No."

"Some men?"

"No."

"Poke." He said this loud enough that the old Warrant Officer sprang to attention.

"Yes, I think I will take him. Come with your queen and kill some who do not deserve to live."

"Yes, ma'am." He looked quite pleased with the turn of events.

"We leave tomorrow at dawn. You, the kobol, and I."

"Gods help them, ma'am. Gods help them all."



Copyright 2015, David Ulnar-Slew

Bio: David Ulnar-Slew was born in Innsmouth, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents of the famous Diepeen family, grew up in Newburyport, MA, and moved to an undisclosed location in the woods of VT in 2010. For ten years he taught Dark Magic to cannibal dwarves in the American Southwest. His first book, "Possible Flash Damage" is what he calls, "the beginning of Humankind's indoctrination into the ways the Elder Gods want us to think."

The truth:

David Ulnar-Slew is the nom-de-plume of Ed Sullivan. He is the former flash fiction editor at Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Editor-in-Chief at Cheapjack Pulp. He needs a pseudonym because his given name is not terribly good for him in terms of search engine placement.

He would also be pleased if you were to visit:

http://www.cheapjackpulp.com

E-mail: David Ulnar-Slew

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