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All the Heavens - Title

Chapter 55

They paused to catch their breath in the hidden tunnel. “Take a break,” Aaren suggested. “We need to rest and relax.”

The Knights gratefully slid to the floor and pulled out their flasks, quaffing a cold but invigorating drink of water. The priest examined Horace afterward. The fighter was making a fast rebound. The color was coming back into his face and eyes. His movements were sure instead of shaking and he was regaining his strength.

“You’ll want to take it easy for a little bit longer,” Aaren warned him. “You’re still not really back to normal.”

“He never was,” Jon snickered.

“Off my case, shorty,” rumbled Horace. He flexed his arms and windmilled them experimentally. He stomped up and down the tunnel, bending and stretching, getting the kinks out of his newly healed muscles. His armor had suffered minor damage from the intense heat generated by the lightning bolt that nearly killed him and he set about oiling it and wiping the soot off it.

After a brief rest, Katrina pulled out her map and spread it on the floor. The Knights huddled around it. The narrow passage they were in ran some 600 cubits in a straight path down to a large cavern deep underground. According to the map, the cavern made the room the warriors were in look tiny. Illene’s cell appeared to be an alcove on the far side from where the tunnel would deposit them. Five other doors emptied into the vast chamber, one of them big enough to accommodate two wagons side by side.

“That place is huge!” Elric exclaimed. “What do they use it for?”

Mira ran a critical eye over it. “I don’t know what they use it for,” she said, “but if this scale is right, I could use it for a great archery range.”

“Maybe they do that too,” Horace shrugged. “They’re a military brotherhood, after all, they have to have somewhere to practice.”

“Does that mean we’re going to run into more warriors?” Aaren asked in concern.


“Then we go in fighting,” Aaren said grimly. “Battle Master? It’s all yours.”

Horace took over smoothly. “Elric, I want you to lob one of those exploding pearls at the first group of warriors you see the moment we break out of the tunnel. Don’t wait for anything. Throw it right away.”

Elric nodded in determination.

“Katrina, stay close to him. I don’t want anything happening to him; we’re going to need his magic when we confront Blanrus.”

Katrina bobbed her head quickly. “No one will get near him,” she promised, her voice unusually intense.

“Good. Mira, stay behind us. Put that bow of yours to good use, but keep one of your vampire arrows handy. We might need it at a moment’s notice.” He turned his attention to the slight rogue at his side. “Jon, you’re our over-watch, high and out of sight. Targets of opportunity, use your own judgment.”

Jon nodded silently, all arguments put aside.

“That leaves the three of us,” Horace sighed, addressing Aaren and Gronk. “We’re the heavy infantry. We hit ’em fast, hard, and up close.”

“Good fight,” Gronk rumbled eagerly, impatient with all the running and sulking they’d been doing so far. He was ready and chomping at the bit.

Horace and Aaren exchanged an eye-rolling look. “Uh, yeah, right,” the priest said, patting Gronk on the arm. “Hang on for a little bit longer, then you can fight all you want.”

The big creature grinned happily down at him and settled back.

“I guess that’s all,” Horace finished. He looked around the circle of strained faces. “Anyone want to say anything before we go?”

After a long moment of silence, he nodded. “That’s it then, let’s move out.”

Wordlessly they gathered up their weapons, shouldered their packs, and headed down the dark tunnel to war.

*     *     *     *     *

“We’ve lost them,” Arick reported, looking out from the crystal ball hanging in the air in front of Blanrus.

“They can’t have gotten far, find them!” Blanrus flared at mercenary. “Search the whole place.”

Corporal Arick’s eyes narrowed at Blanrus’ presumptive tone. “It’ll take time,” he warned. “I don’t think you realize how big our headquarters are. There are rooms here that haven’t been used in over twenty yea–”

“I don’t care how big it is!” the mage stormed, interrupting him. “I want them found!” He waved his hand, cutting off the magic link with a savage gesture. He turned away from the crystal ball, fuming inwardly, looking for something to smash. First Kasrah’s incompetence and now this, he raged. Was everyone around him turning into dolts and fools? What was wrong with them? He lifted a fist to hurl lightning around the room and caught Altman watching him. “What’s your problem?” he snarled.

“Just watching you,” he smiled insolently. “Just watching you.”

“Well stop watching!”

“Whatever you say, Your Majesty.”

Blanrus ground his teeth swung away from Altman’s hatefully happy face. He stalked over to the altar with all its preparations and began pacing back and forth. Dolgaron materialized out of the darkness to stand beside Bashaak behind the altar. There was fresh blood on his lips. Blanrus wondered briefly who he’d drained, then dismissed it. It wasn’t important. The only important thing was those ‘Knights of Gaia’.

Running footsteps interrupted his angry brooding. A patrol of warriors thundered into the room and spread out around him in a protective circle. The leader marched up to him and saluted. “Sergeant Kline, at your service.”

Blanrus glared at him. “What’s this all about?”

“Warlord Number Four fears for your safety, my lord. We were ordered to protect you,” the sergeant replied stiffly. None of the ranking leaders of The Sword ever revealed their true identities to outsiders, or even to lower members of their own order, preferring to go by numbers instead. The lower the number, the higher the rank.

“Fears for my safety?” Blanrus echoed incredulously. “In the middle of your own headquarters?”

“Our headquarters have been invaded,” Sergeant Kline retorted, “and the invaders have eluded capture. Their current whereabouts are unknown. Warlord Number Four assumes they are coming to stop you from performing the ceremony, so we were ordered here to see to it that nothing untoward happens.”

“And keep an eye on us outsiders at the same time,” Altman drawled sarcastically.

Kline eyed him with distaste. “Not everyone agrees with your presence here,” he said noncommittally.

Blanrus puffed out his cheeks angrily. Warlord Number Four had led the opposition when the matter of his working for them was broached, and ever since his arrival here, had done everything possible to make his stay as uncomfortable as possible. This was just one more example of his infernal meddling.

“Take your men and get out of here, Sergeant. I don’t need your help.”

“We were ordered by Warlo–” Kline began.

I’m ordering you!” Blanrus roared, cutting him off. “GET OUT!”

Kline’s face turned white with anger, for an instant, he looked like he was ready to attack the furious mage. The moment passed though and he saluted stiffly. “Yes, sir. Patrol! Form ranks!” he yelled, marching away from Blanrus.

His warriors formed quickly into tight ranks about 20 cubits away and snapped to attention, most of them as white-faced with anger as Kline. The sergeant was getting ready to order them out of the vast chamber when a faint, grinding noise caught his attention. He turned with a puzzled frown. In the nearby wall, a concealed door had swung open and the Knights of Gaia spilled into the room. Kline’s eyes shot wide. “Look out!” he shouted, pointing at them. He started for them, pulling his sword as he went – and saved his own life.

An explosion behind him lifted him up and flung him violently forward. He struck the ground with bruising force, losing his sword as he rolled helplessly across the floor.

Horace let out a whoop of joy at the fireball’s immense success. Half the troops were dead on the spot and the rest were badly burned. “Forward!” he yelled. “ATTACK!”

Altman froze when the fireball went off. Had those spoil sports gotten that much stronger since he’d last seen them? Maybe discretion was the better part of valor, after all, he thought. Let’s wait and see what happens. If it turns out they’re not that strong, well, I can always attack later. He pulled back into the shadows.

Mira loosed an arrow at Blanrus then nocked and loosed another without waiting to see its effect. He cursed in sudden pain and she smiled grimly, reaching for another shaft. Then she saw the vampire and went white with fear. Her fingers were suddenly cold and clumsy as she reached desperately for the magic arrows.

Unmindful of the undead creature bearing down from overhead, Gronk charged forward with a bull roar at the shattered formation of warriors. He plowed into them like a raging barbarian run amuck, his sword and axe glittering in the air.

Horace limped after him, wincing as his still tender muscles protested the sudden exertion. From the corner of his eye, he saw a sword coming at him and ducked, taking it on the armor. He brought his own weapon up and closed with Kline in ringing clash of steel.

Aaren dashed forward behind Gronk, intending to close with the dazed warriors, then he saw Bashaak and cursed feelingly. The evil priest was casting Art at him. He whirled, putting his holy symbol between them and grimaced as Bashaak’s spell seized at him with an iron grip. He clenched his teeth, fighting the spell with everything he had. The Lord of Light smiled on him and the spell faded away. He grinned ferociously at Bashaak and swung his hammer violently. The dark priest of Ashima staggered from the blow, snarled defiance, then unlimbered a black mace.

Elric’s heart leapt at the fireball’s fiery power and Mira’s attacks on Blanrus, but when the ranger turned to deal with the vampire and left him facing the enraged mage, his hopes sank like a stone. “Gods preserve me,” he whispered.

Blanrus raised his hands, fingers writhing like snakes and Elric blanched with fear. His mind went blank and he stood frozen in terror as Blanrus hurled Art at him. An unexpected grip at his collar yanked him aside a split second before a lightning bolt cleaved the spot where he’d been standing. The bolt struck the wall behind him instead, blasting a hole in it, spraying him with pieces of razor-edged stone as a crack of thunder rolled across the room. He stumbled and almost fell.

Katrina yanked him back up. “Fight him,” she screamed. “Don’t just stand there! Fight him!”

He turned woodenly and saw Blanrus preparing to cast Art again. His mind yammered in fear. This wasn’t like last time! The enemy had already been exhausted then, his spells almost run dry. But now he was in full battle condition, casting Art with effortless ease. I can’t do it, he thought in panic. I can’t!

Katrina shook him. “Elric! He’s trying to kill me! Do something!”

Kill Katrina?

His panic vanished and rage took its place. Kill Katrina? “Never!” he bellowed with sudden power. He turned back to Blanrus. The mage was getting ready to hurl lightning again, but he was faster. He uttered an arcane syllable and sizzling missiles took the mage full in the chest.

Blanrus staggered backward in pain, his spell lost. “So,” he sneered, “the mageling wants to play. Alright then, let’s hurl Art against Art, and see who is left standing in the end.” He crooked his fingers again, then arched his back and screamed in agony. He lurched awkwardly, trying to pull a dagger out of his shoulder. The dagger pulled itself out and sailed up into the darkness overhead.

Elric seized the opportunity. He tore another pearl off the necklace and threw it at Blanrus’ feet. The explosion lit up the gigantic chamber with a blinding light and threw the mage 20 cubits backward like a rag doll.

“Got you!” Elric exulted. “Bang! You’re dead!”

“I don’t think so,” Katrina said. “Look!” She pointed, Blanrus was getting to his feet, his robes falling around him in tatters, his flesh black and burned.

Elric goggled at the sight, fear rushing back over him. “He survived?”

“That’s right, mageling. But you won’t!” And with that, the mage hurled another lightning bolt.

Gronk was undeterred by the flash and roar of the magical battle taking place. He was truly in his element, reveling in the carnage that surrounded him. Blood ran freely from dozens of wounds, but he ignored it and fought on with unflagging enthusiasm.

Horace couldn’t help but admire the half-ogre’s stamina and wish he had some of it. He was still weak from his near brush with death and his opponent was the toughest he’d ever fought. Already Kline had penetrated his guard several times and he was finally forced to face the unthinkable. I’m losing, he admitted to himself, grunting as he parried another attack. He retreated, trying to get some maneuvering room, but Kline pressed him relentlessly. His arms felt leaden and it was all he could do to fend off the warrior’s increasingly vicious attacks. He backpedaled again.

Mira crouched beside the wall, searching the darkness overhead. The vampire had managed to catch one of her magic arrows and shattered it, the other lay in plain sight on the cavern floor about 40 cubits away where it had fallen after missing the horrible creature. Her last arrow was nocked and ready, but where was the monster? A flash of white caught her eye and she shrieked in panic, ducking as the vampire swooped down, his outstretched talons missing her by a handsbreadth. She fired blindly and watched in despair as her last shaft arched harmlessly away into the vast chamber. Over the sound of the battle around her, she barely heard a distant clatter as it hit the stone floor.

“So, you’ve lost your last weapon against me,” the vampire’s voice mocked her from somewhere overhead. “Isn’t that too bad?” it chuckled. “And now, I feel so . . . thirsty!”

Mira’s heart stumbled inside her chest. She looked wildly at the lone arrow laying on the floor just inside the circle of light. There were 40 cubits of empty space between her and it. 40 cubits where the vampire could attack her from any angle, from behind, above, or from either side. At least here, against the wall, her back was protected. But out there, there was no safety at all.

“Damn you!” she screamed. “May the gods damn you to hell!”

“They already have,” the vampire hissed. “They already have.”

She saw the monster diving at her out of the shadows and sprang away from the wall like a frightened deer. She fixed her eyes on the arrow, running as fast as she could, legs driving like mad. She had to get it, she had too! She saw the vampire gaining on her and dove, fingers outstretched for the arrow.

Horace saw Mira diving for the arrow on the floor, the vampire scant cubits away from her and despaired of victory. We’ll never make it, he thought, retreating yet again from Kline’s unceasing attack. Jon was right, we are in over our heads. We’re dead.

Kline laughed viciously at him. “Poor, little puppy. Outclassed and outmaneuvered. Bit off more than you could chew, didn’t you? You weren’t strong enough and now you’re going to pay it!”

He swung a two-handed blow that nearly tore Horace’s sword out of his numb fingers. “You’re going to pay and die!”

Horace stared at Kline in surprise; strong enough?

Suddenly his father’s words were running through his head. There’s more to fighting than just strength, lad. A lesson you’d do well to remember. I do remember, father! I do! I almost forget, but I remember now! He came back to the present with a rush, in time to parry Kline’s next attack with a twisting riposte. The warrior stumbled at the response and Horace whipped his blade over Kline’s ribs, drawing blood for the first time.

Kline stared at him in shock.

“You bit off more than you could chew,” Horace grinned at him, and launched a whirling, enveloping series of feints. Kline was forced on the defensive for the first time. He parried one of Horace’s attacks, sword point down, hilt high in the air. Horace’s heart leaped. That was perfect! Now it became almost a dance. Each move, attack and parry, led inevitably to the next move. Each move left Kline’s blade a little further out from his body, left him more extended.

Faster now.

Pick up the pace even as his muscles screamed in protest.

Don’t let the enemy sense his predicament.

Horace stomped his foot and advanced, his sword glittering in the air against Kline’s. Almost there, just a little bit further . . . NOW!

He lunged forward in a long, extended thrust (all attack, no time for defense; dead if it didn’t work) and skewered Kline square in the chest, his blade going all the way through the enemy warrior.

Kline stiffened, staring down at the sword in his chest in disbelief. His mouth moved but nothing came out, then he collapsed in a heap.

Horace almost collapsed with him. He was weak and trembling with reaction. He forced himself to stay on his feet. He’d learned a valuable lesson today. A lesson he’d never forget.

Bashaak and Aaren were locked in mortal combat, standing toe to toe. They were hammering at each other with tremendous blows, drawing blood with every bone-shaking impact. Even though Bashaak had vastly more priestly magic than Aaren, he didn’t have nearly the experience in battlefield combat than the Knight did, so the fight was nearly equal. Neither could seem to gain an upper hand. Bashaak kept trying to put enough distance between them to enable him to use his greater magic, but Aaren kept closing to prevent it, preferring to settle the matter with force of arms.

The vampire almost had his hands on Mira when a pair of magical daggers buried themselves in his back. The monster bellowed in pain and fury, twisting in mid-air. Mira grabbed the arrow as she hit the floor. She rolled over and up on one knee. She scanned quickly, saw the vampire, nocked and loosed all in one fluid movement. The enchanted arrow hummed through the air like a living thing and buried itself in the vampire’s chest with a heart-stopping thud.

Dolgaron coughed in surprise.

“No, you can’t . . .” He fell to the floor, blood welling up from the wound. He plucked feebly at the arrow in his chest. “No. It’s not fair . . . not . . . fair.” He crumpled in a heap and was still.

Lightning flared over the scene and Mira blinked her eyes from the searing flash. When she could see again, Katrina was sagging in Elric’s arms, her flesh burned and charred where she’d leaped to protect him from the bolt and taken it herself. Elric screamed in rage and hurled the last pearl at Blanrus.

The mage paled and dove frantically for cover. The pearl sailed past him and detonated in the shadows just beyond. Mira caught a brief glimpse of someone caught in the middle of the exploding fireball then lost sight of them in the glare.

The blast caught Aaren by surprise and threw him to the floor. But before Bashaak could take advantage of his good fortune, Mira began firing one arrow after another at him. He staggered beneath her onslaught, then broke and ran. He reached a dark pile on the floor and pulled it up, revealing a still living Blanrus. The mage muttered something weakly and the two of them vanished.

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