Civil war isn’t civil.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Niran swept his icy gaze over the wizards and soldiers gathered together before him in his throne room. There were thirty exactly. He’d take more if he could but thirty was the most he could transport along with himself through the power of the bloodstone gem. “Storm must die,” he grated in harsh, angry tones. “No matter what happens, kill him first. We’ll kill the others once he’s gone, but Storm dies first and foremost.”
He clenched his fist around the gem at the memory of his near-death experience at Storm’s sword point. If he’d been a fraction of a second slower, he’d have been skewered like a wild boar. The gem was powerful but it had no healing properties. He’d had to squander precious potions to recover from the battle. For all that, he could still feel where Storm’s sword had laid open his back.
“We’ll appear behind Storm.” He held up a human hair he’d recovered from the demon’s body. Since Storm was the only one who’d fought the demon it had to be his. His gem would home in on the owner with unerring precision. “It doesn’t matter which way he’s facing, when we appear we’ll be behind him. Attack the moment you see him,” he hissed. “If he’s inside, we’ll be very close to him so don’t use any large area spells. If he’s outside, we’ll be further back and I order you to use the most powerful spells you’ve got,” he said to the wizards.
He turned his eyes to the soldiers. “If they miss,” – his eyes flickered to them – “and they better not, then you’ll kill him. Cut him to pieces!” He paused to collect himself. “Kill him any way you can, just be sure you kill him!”
He turned away to still his anger. He always prided himself on his icy self-control, but his hair-breadth escape (escape!) from death had cracked something inside. The only way to regain what he’d lost was to see Storm’s dead body with his own eyes.
His racing heart finally slowed and he turned back to his troops. He moved into the center of them where a circle was drawn on the floor. “Everyone get inside the circle, facing the same way I am,” he ordered them. There was a brief shuffling movement as they pressed close, then they were still again.
He allowed himself a twisted, evil smile. “Ready then. Three, two, one!”
The top of the carriage was on hinges, allowing it to open up like a pirate’s treasure chest. Then the front opened like double doors, swinging the driver’s seat out of the way, letting the occupants look out from the throne-like interior, comfortable and cozy even in the cold winter air while a gossamer thin, transparent veil hung down from a bar to hold in the heat. Roderick, who’d gained at least a hundred pounds, since the last time Storm saw him, sat in the middle on what was obviously a mobile throne, his two oldest sons standing on either side of him.
Although the brothers were twins they were fraternal twins rather than identical ones. Alaric was shorter and heavier set than his taller, thinner brother, Jeffery, but both had Roderick’s features and (formerly) jet black hair. Each of them wore a royal armband on their right arm, but Alaric’s had a large ’A’ in the middle of it while Jeffery’s had an equally large ’J’ in the middle. Looking around at the soldiers, Storm couldn’t help but notice they wore armbands indicating their allegiance to one brother or the other. They were nearly equally divided between the two. Ralt’s speculation about a civil war in the event of Roderick’s death seemed born out.
He shook his head, reminding himself it was none of his business. If Roderick wanted to throw away nearly eight hundred years of internal peace in the kingdom because he couldn’t decide which one to choose for his replacement, that was his problem.
Roderick leaned forward with difficulty because of his bulk. He waved a sheaf of papers at them. “Baron Frayen in Breckinridge said you’d be coming, sent me these papers, said you’d broken my laws! Went to Mount Coldfire in defiance of MY orders!” He paused to huff and puff for a moment. “How dare you!” He bent over in a sudden, racking fit of coughing.
Storm activated his Sight. Not only could he see magic with it, but because of his ability to heal, he could also see any sickness in a person. His eyes widened. Roderick wasn’t just sick, he was dying. He had a few days left, maybe a week at the most.
He caught Ralt looking at him questioningly. He compressed his lips, indicating the king with his eyes then shaking his head grimly. Ralt nodded in silent understanding.
Roderick finally recovered. Alaric gave him something to drink but had to steady it when his father’s palsied grip couldn’t hold it. Red liquid, wine most likely, ran down his chin unheeded. He finally waved the cup away peevishly.
“You’re under arrest,” he said in a weak, quavering voice. “You’ll be hung tonight at sunset as a warnin . . .” His voice trailed off in shock as his eyes shifted to something behind them. Startled exclamations broke out behind their backs along with the sudden scrapping of metal on metal. As one they spun around.
Niran and an entire platoon of soldiers and wizards had appeared out of nowhere, right in the middle of the troops surrounding them. They obviously hadn’t been expecting the soldiers to be there and confusion reigned while they tried to push them aside. The soldiers instinctively pushed back; swords clashed, men shouted, a horse whined in pain, and a raging battle erupted in an instant.
One of the wizards, closer than the rest, managed to break into the open. He aimed a staff glowing with power directly at them. Storm bellowed a warning and they broke apart, diving frantically out of the way. A fiery streak erupted from the wizard’s staff, shot past where they’d been standing a fraction of a second earlier and continued on until it hit the king’s carriage head-on. It exploded in a gigantic fireball that blew it into a million pieces.
Alaric and Jeffrey, young and in shape, leaped to safety just in time but Roderick never had a chance. He died in the fiery explosion before he even grasped what was happening.
Shouts of “The king is dead! The king is dead!” rang out everywhere.
Alaric rose up beside the burning wreckage, sword in hand, bellowing, “To me! To me! Long live King Alaric!” On the other side, Jeffery was yelling his own name as the king. The melee dissolved into a general battle of everyone against everyone as the two sides threw aside their unity of a moment before to turn on each other with ferocious wrath.
Storm shoved a dying soldier off him and sprang to his feet, sword in hand to see the offending wizard crashing to the ground with two of Krista’s blades growing out of him, one in his throat, the other in his heart. He grinned wolfishly. Ralt hadn’t been kidding about her fighting ability with knives. The slender wizard, standing by her side as if he’d been planted, swept his own staff back and forth over the enemy, cutting them down with deadly blasts.
A quick glance showed Lorelei and Thomas standing back from the battle, coolly sending arrow after arrow winging toward Niran and his men. Durin appeared at his side out of the battle, Fenris Fang burning with power in his hands.
Without a word they sprang together toward Niran, cutting their way through the ranks, uncaring if the men they killed were Niran’s, Alaric’s or Jeffery’s. They were simply obstacles to be overcome on their way to kill the treacherous Sword Master.
Niran saw them coming but he was occupied swinging his double swords at the mounted soldiers trying to kill him. He couldn’t break away without lowering his guard, couldn’t even reach for his gem without risking sudden death.
Storm bellowed at Durin, “Keep everyone away from us. He’s mine!”
Durin grinned savagely, “Get ’em, laddie!” He rolled away to cut a horse’s legs out from under it then reversed his mighty axe to slice the thrown rider in half.
Storm whipped out his second sword and came together against Niran with a crash. He gave a mighty heave that sent the Sword Master skidding backward in the slippery snow, flailing for balance. Storm leapt after him, swords cutting the air in a blur.
Once, twice, three times they cut a red line across Niran’s chest before he could recover enough to defend himself. He riposted then spun away in a fighting crouch, blood dripping down his clothes.
Storm grinned tightly. “First blood,” he announced grimly, indicating the cuts.
Niran spat curses at him. “You should have been the first one I used the gem on,” he snarled, bringing his swords around so fast Storm could barely parry them. “You would have been my greatest prize!”
Storm bared his teeth. “I’m no one’s prize,” he grunted, bringing one sword down so hard Niran’s blade vibrated painfully in his grip, then launching a circle-spin attack with the other. The Sword Master shuddered as another cut opened on him, this time on his upper arm.
Storm saw the fear in Niran’s eyes and laughed triumphantly. He sucked in a huge breath as he prepared his final attack – only to be knocked back by a falling horse. He staggered wildly, windmilling his arms to stay on his feet.
Niran started for him, then stopped when Storm managed to recover, his swords coming up én guard. They eyed each other warily as the battle raged around them. Niran feinted, then lunged for him. Storm met his attack, blade against blade. It left them facing each other barely a hands breadth apart.
The sword master spat in his eyes.
Storm staggered back, blinded by the unexpected attack. His sense of danger shrilled at him and he brought his swords around to counter Niran’s blades, trusting his enhanced senses to guide him. His swords met Niran’s in a perfect riposté. He heaved, sending Niran sliding backward in the snow-covered street.
He wiped his eyes then countered as Niran came back with another attack. Once again it was speed versus strength as they struggled against each other.
But Niran’s speed was diminishing as Storm’s earlier cuts weakened him. When Storm’s next attack nearly succeeded in taking his head off, the sword master’s expression turned from arrogance to fear.
Then, before he could recover, Storm leaped forward, pressing the attack, putting the sword master on the defensive for the first time. The fear in his eyes turned into terror as he backpedaled frantically, trying to put enough space between them so he could drop one sword and grab his gem to activate its power.
“Not this time, you filthy traitor!” Storm snarled, advancing after him, swords singing their song of death. “You’re not getting away this time!” He redoubled his efforts.
Suddenly there was a sharp twang! as one of Niran’s swords snapped under Storm’s furious assault. Before he could do more than give it one horrified look, Storm’s blades pushed aside his only remaining sword, and slide directly on into his heart.
His jaw dropped in surprise. “No! You . . . ca . . . I . . .” Blood gushed from between his lips and his eyes rolled back in their sockets.
Storm held Niran in place with one sword, then pulled the other one out for a great swing at his neck. His blade sliced cleanly through Niran’s neck, severing his head, and the thin chain that held the bloodstone gem in place.
At Niran’s death, the gem flashed greenly, a faint pulse that spread out faster than the eye could follow. As the pulse touched each person who’d been enslaved by the gem, there was a corresponding flash, as of something breaking free. Storm saw warriors and wizards alike leap back from their opponents to stare around them in confusion, then dawning triumph.
“We’re free!” one of them shouted above the battle between Alaric and Jeffery’s men. The rest of them took up the shout, then fled in every direction away from the battle raging in the street.
Storm didn’t have time to gloat over Niran’s ignominious death. He scooped up the fallen gem by its chain, taking care not to let it touch him. He dropped it in a small pouch, then secured it at his waist. Ralt and Durin said artifacts couldn’t be destroyed without extreme difficulty, but maybe they could hide it somewhere.
Metal glinted and he nearly turned to attack before he realized it was Durin.
“I think we won,” he rumbled with a wide grin.
Storm blinked, utterly nonplussed for a second then burst out laughing. “Wise words, O King of the Dwarves! I thank you for them.”
Durin grinned. “I dunno about the ‘king of the dwarves’ bit, but yer welcome laddie.” He glanced around. “Now wot do ya say we git outta here before we git drawn into another fight?”
Ralt had been fighting nearby; now that his opponent had run he off turned to join them. “You want to stay out of a fight?” he queried in a mock incredulous tone.
“Something like dat,” the dwarf shrugged good-naturedly.
“And people say dwarves are just mindless killing machines,” Ralt grinned with a wink to Storm.
Krista was daintily wiping blood off her knives as she moved to join them. “Or maybe it’s just you saying that,” she smiled, defending Durin. “But what’s this ‘king of the dwarves’ business? Where did that come from?”
Ralt shook his head, “I’ll tell you later, but right now, all kidding aside, we need to get out of here.”
Lorelei and Thomas were high-stepping over bodies, recovering arrows as they came. “Looks like they’ve forgotten about us,” she said, indicating the struggling factions battling around them.
“For the moment,” Storm returned, casting a jaundiced eye on the fighting. “Let’s make ourselves scarce before they remember.”
“We’re not going to help them?” Krista asked.
He shook his head, leading them out of the park. “Ha! Roderick and his idiot sons did this to themselves. Did you see how fast they turned on each other when he died? This had to have been building for years for them do that.” He led them down one of the side streets he’d been avoiding before, flattening himself against the buildings when armed groups ran by toward the fighting. They followed his example.
After one such encounter, Lorelei asked, “What about Niran’s followers? Some of them followed him of their own free will. Won’t they try to pick up where he left off?”
Storm and Ralt shook their heads simultaneously. Storm indicated for Ralt to go ahead while he busied himself leading them through the streets and avoiding the fighting which appeared to be spreading like wildfire. The slender wizard kept his staff at the ready as he explained.
“In civil wars, everyone is suspicious of everyone. If you’re not on their side you’re the enemy and it’s the gallows for you, if not the sword. Niran’s plan depended on taking over the kingdom one step at a time. You can’t do that when there’s wholesale fighting going on. Everyone is aroused and on guard.” Ralt shrugged. “If he’d had a bigger army it might be different, but his death set most of them free, and whatever is left, won’t be enough to make any difference – assuming they can figure out who’s in charge now that he’s dead.”
“Then maybe that’s what he needed Krista for,” Lorelei mused.
They ducked out of the way of a huge war wagon rumbling down the street surrounded by dozens of mounted warriors. Some cast suspicious looks at them but didn’t stop.
Krista swiveled her head around. “Needed me how?”
Storm broke into a slow jog, cutting through side yards and dingy alleys to stay out of the fighting. “Well, Niran’s gem can only control so many people at a time,” Lorelei puffed as they ran. “Maybe there was some way he could use your soul to increase those limits.”
They paused at an intersection while Storm looked both ways. He waved them across. “You may be right,” he told Lorelei. “I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure it out and that makes more sense than anything I’ve come up with.”
They turned a corner and saw their hotel a block away. He led them in a mad dash for it. The doors were locked and barred but Durin’s axe made short work of them. They crashed on through. Storm grabbed Ralt by the shoulder. “You and Thomas get the horses ready. We’ll get our stuff from the room.”
“Pegasi,” Ralt corrected absently but he was already moving down the hall.
Storm snorted. “Whatever.” He barreled up the stairs. When Durin started fumbling with the key, he simply lifted one leg and kicked the door in.
They went through the room like a whirlwind, grabbing bags and pouches, thankful for their earlier preparation. An explosion outside drew him to the window. Lorelei peered around his shoulder at a fading fireball.
“It’s getting closer.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Come on, let’s get out of here. Fighting someone else’s civil war isn’t my idea of a good time.”
“What about this?” Durin tapped Krista’s ‘coffin.’
He looked at her. “Anything special about it?”
She shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
He activated his Sight but now that she was out of it and reunited with her soul there was no lingering magic. It was just a box. “Leave it.”
Durin nodded. “In that case, we’re ready ta git.”
They ran down the stairs to the stables. Ralt and Thomas were tightening the last cinches. Throwing bags and bundles on the pegasi they mounted up and rode out the main doors of the stable.
Ralt took the lead. “We have to get out to the main street for them to have enough room to spread their wings.”
Another magical explosion sounded. It was closer, and they could hear swords clashing and men shouting.
Storm tightened his lips. “Make it fast!”
Ralt kicked his pegasus into a trot then a gallop. The others followed. They skidded around a corner, hooves clattering on snow-covered cobblestones. They burst into the main street in front of the Watchman’s Keep. Ralt’s mount sped up then leapt into the air, wings thundering in the close quarters between the buildings. In moments all of them followed him into the sky. Looking back, Storm saw the fighting spilling into the street where they’d been just moments before. He shook his head in relief.
“Just barely made it!” he shouted to the rest.
Ralt gave him a thumbs up over his shoulder but kept urging his mount to greater heights away from Robling until they were out of bow shot and the reach of any magic. He finally slowed down and began circling to let the rest catch up.
Each of them joined him in turn, forming a ring of circling mounts in the sky. Storm figured they were about two miles from Robling and a couple of thousand feet higher. From this vantage point, he could see the curvature of the world. The last time he’d been this high had been in the Swiss Alps after Lydia died. He looked over at Lorelei. Well, here he was again, but this time his wife was with him.
He laughed aloud, earning quizzical looks all around.
He shook his head. “I’m just feeling good. I’ve got everything I need right here.” He spread his hands to indicate all of them.
Durin chuckled. “There might be hope for ye, after all, laddie.” A general round of delighted laughter echoed across the brilliant sky.