A hundred funeral pyres shoved back the encroaching twilight, saturating the air with an unpleasant mix of burnt leather and funeral spices. When the last revenant's head flew free, Nathaniel's purifying flames set it ablaze and laid another pyre upon the desert floor.
"Does the Prince have no worthier servants to welcome us?" Helena said as she cast her helm aside, eager to be free of its stifling confines. The tall Geraldian woman stifled a yawn and wiped her spear against her stained tabard. Her dehydrated muscles were sore from exertion. "Revenants are such wretched and uninspired creatures."
"They succeeded in running our animals off," Roland said. His expression was grim as his eyes followed the tracks into the distance. "The poor beasts will likely not see another sunrise."
"We had little need fer 'em, lad," Charles said. The dwarf pulled at his long braided mustache with an expression like anxiety. "An' I fer one am none too sad ta see tha ass of tha ass. A foul tempered brute that one was." Helena turned away to hide her smile, pretending not to have seen the forlorn look on her companion's face at the mention of the mule.
The familiar chill of the desert night had lent its bite to the waterless air as the sun began to disappear below the far western wall. Long twilight shadows began to dance before the flames, as though the souls of the city's people celebrated the destruction of their cursed shells. Then Helena's eyes found the dead eyes of the city labyrinth. The ruins of the ancient homes had grown all the more sinister with the fading light though the dead no longer stalked them. A dire chill sliced through her heart at the sight. No, the dead of Taniis would never have peace so long as the Sable Prince stalked the land. Her gaze passed over her comrades with eyes of loving sadness. Not a single soul.
She pulled her azure cloak tighter as she moved to check on the rest of her comrades. She found Vesta and Galen busy sorting through the bags.
"How are the supplies?
"Not good," Galen said. Only the barest hint of worry was betrayed within his deep, even tones.
"Not good at all, Captain," Vesta agreed, her beautiful face mired by sour lines. She stabbed a slender finger at the pack she had been inspecting with the animosity of deep, personal offense. "You tarried a moment long with your order. I could not remove but one of my own bags before the horses scattered, while Sir Stewart," she hissed the name through her teeth, "lost everything."
Helena silenced the approaching dwarf's arguments with a glare. He muttered something to his boots about it being the mule's fault.
"Our supplies consist of no more than what we have here and what water we might dredge up with Brother Nathaniel's magic. And because the mule had what we brought for our return, we have no more firewood, and perhaps four days worth of rations."
"We'd have more if you'd used your knife," Galen said as he weighed a water skin with his hand.
"Cut up selkie leather? Are you mad?"
"Well ye're such a well educated lady, I'd expect ye to know enough not to bring nothin' ye're not willin' to give up to war."
"I brought you."
The banging of spear and shield was deafening.
"I said that was enough." Helena's blazing eyes kept them both transfixed, the noblewoman sitting amidst the scattered parcels and the dwarf held back by Galen's strong arms. "Look at you. We were chosen because the grandmasters thought us the best of the five orders. Instead we're here in the enemy's camp, squabbling like pages and making a mockery of ourselves." She breathed deep to regain her composure.
"We came here to avenge our brothers and sisters, did we not? Have you already forgotten our comrades being displayed like trophies before the gates?" They all shuddered at the memory. "We are only mortal. Even a paladin cannot cast aside her prejudices just by donning the colored mantle. But as your commander, I demand that there be no more quarreling until the Prince has been slain. Is that understood?"
Neither of them spoke. Charles sat and began to polish his claymore, and Vesta returned to filling the packs while Galen joined her. A dark silence held sway over the hearts of the paladins.
"Vesta," Roland called. The second in command stood at Nathaniel's shoulder, propping the weary cleric up as they hobbled into the circle. "I don't believe any of us would like to spend the night in this place, even if it means spending it within the enemy's stronghold. Perhaps you would lend Brother Nathaniel your knowledge so that we could find it while there is still light left?"
"If the captain will agree," she regarded Helena with an unreadable expression.
"Gods willing, we should have a more defensible position should the Prince send his creatures after us again," Roland said as he watched Vesta and the cleric move towards the temple. "Isn't that right, Charles?"
The dwarf mustered a grim smile for the human knight.
"Aye. We did well enough last time, but if we're attacked in earnest on this parade ground, we won't stand a chance. Those temples o'r there have so many holes in em, ye couldn't hold em against a mouse. The houses might be better, but," the barest tremor was in his voice as he looked to the south, "but they gimme the spooks."
Galen nodded in earnest.
"They certainly don't look very accommodating," Roland agreed with a humorless smile.
Not accommodating was a gross understatement. Even at a distance, Helena could feel the chill of dread. Since they had entered the city she had found fear in those crumbling skeletons, but now on the edge of hearing they whispered, the crawling agony of the damned. A black chill slithered down her spine to think what sort of travesty could have occurred to entomb so many souls in this place. A few ghosts were little threat, but the hatred and pain of an entire city could create a phantasmal collective that devoured all life within its path. To walk amongst the dwelling places would be death for any living thing.
"Do you remember that mission to Carthia?"
"Aye. Now thar was a gloomy place. Old Galen here had just joined up, an' was still makin' signs fer wardin' off evil at every shadow, ain't tha' right, Galen?"
"It helped with the vampire, didn't it?"
"I'm afraid that was coincidence, my friend. If it hadn't been for Vladimir, we wouldn't have made it out of there."
"How is that daft wizard pal of yers?"
"Not good. His family hasn't quite given up on making his respectable. The last that I saw of him, he was being put through marriage rituals." Roland's smile was anything but sympathetic.
"The poor bastard," Charles laughed. "I ne'r understood yer need fer makin' marriage complicated."
"Civilized humans, you means," Galen had one of his rare smiles, "So called."
Helena laughed with the others. Taniis had long been a place where laughter was forbidden, and they laughed all the harder for it. Even so, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy towards her lieutenant. She had never had questioned her appointment as the commanding officer, but she often found herself missing the camaraderie of the rank and file soldier. The captain was meant to be the iron core of the troop, who the men looked up to. When on mission she could not afford to be too friendly. But still…
A too familiar moan called out from the labyrinth. It was answered at once by a hundred more. Weapons leapt into their hands.
"Och, naw again."
"Sounds like there are more this time," Galen said. There was some trepidation in his voice. "I hope we don't have to go in there."
"There is no fear of having to scour that decrepit place," Vesta said as she and Nathaniel returned to the dying fire. The shadows cast by the guttering flames added a sinister quality to her thin, aristocrat's smile.
"Can I assume that you two have deduced the Prince's stronghold?"
"Yes, you may, Captain."
"It was Sister Vesta who realized it," the pride Nathaniel carried was evident in his voice. "I was merely able to confirm it."
"Gather everything, we're running out of time and daylight. Is it far?"
"Not at all." Without another word she began to march, pausing only to sling a bag over her shoulder.
"Don't strain yourself with that enormous bag, lass," Charles grumbled, waving off Galen's hand on his shoulder.
Thus laden, they followed the knight of Shala at a fast trot. At first Helena thought it would be to the temple, but Vesta glided through the broken archways and crypt-like shrines without a glance. The approach of the gap of the missing palace soon brought understanding to the captain's mind, and as the sun was completing its everlasting circuit and bathed the world in its last dazzling blaze of color, Vesta began to lecture.
"It was Brother Nathaniel who inspired me. He had asked if the family crypts might reach below where the acropolis was meant to be, but then I began to wonder. Why should Taniis be here at all? It sits here amidst these dunes like a hamlet in a mountain valley when it should be buried."
"The Unliving Lords do have a reputation as powerful spellcasters," Roland was quick to answer. The Palanthian's expression carried a small, inspired smile. As perceptive as ever, Helena beamed.
"Yes," and now Vesta heaved a melancholic sigh, "and since no one knows the extent of their power, I feared that he might have simply destroyed the acropolis to deny access to the tombs. But as we drew near, I noticed that the edges of the walls were too smooth. Even after centuries, there would be some sign if such a large landmark had been obliterated. The temples certainly showed no sign of it."
"And when we tried to stand where the acropolis had stood—," Nathaniel tried to speak.
"—And when we tried to search the acropolis' position, we repeatedly found ourselves turned about. Then we began to experiment and— here we are. Show them, Brother."
Nothing stood between the paladins and the dunes but an empty stretch of desert and the tumbling wall, but the whole of the horizon contorted as Nathaniel hurled a ball of light into the gap. The vibrating air was suddenly as unyielding as a wall, and held fast as the ball burned itself out and evaporated into the now still evening.
"Indeed. The undead are creatures of the past. Those whose time is the present, the living, are as abhorrent to them as they are to us. Those that think— vampires and draugr— have been noted to have great attachment for things of their previous lives. If one believes the stories about him, it would make more sense to conceal the acropolis rather than destroy it."
"And it would take less energy," Galen said, rubbing a coarse finger through the thick stubble of his chin.
"The undead recover power slowly, and the five orders of the paladins have been his enemy almost since his birth," Helena amended. "Can you break through it?"
"But of course," Vesta said.
"Then do so. Brother Nathaniel, provide whatever assistance you can. The rest of you, take position." The stench of death clogged Helena's nostrils. From the distance came the groans of a hundred shuffling feet. "The day has passed."
"Don't blow us away now, lass," Charles said, laughing in his throat.
Vesta, eyes closed as she muttered over a silver headed arrow, did not reply but a slight smile graced her lips.
Here the city walls had narrowed, and the broken causeway was carpeted by sand and shattered obelisks. One of these had long ago fallen across the path and shoved its neighbor down with it, leaving two gaps through which one could walk. At the height of a human's chest at the point, no revenant had the coordination to climb over the obelisks, and so it was to either of these gaps that Helena directed them.
"We'll need light, Sir Roland."
"Of course." At a word, a dozen orbs of pale light rose up from the knight's hand. He chuckled as he drew his sword and raised his shield. "You know, Captain, I've been criticized for keeping friendship with a wizard."
"But then you wouldn't have useful tricks like this," Helena had replaced her helm and was crouched behind her big hoplon. She glanced back once to Vesta and Nathaniel, bent over the shimmering arrow and chanting in Elven. At their station Charles and Galen stood shoulder to waist, their faces undimmed by fear. Ahead, the shapes of the dead danced on evil puppet strings. "I'd like to thank you, Roland."
"For what?" She kept her grey gaze upon the marching abominations, but the puzzlement was evident in his voice.
"For rallying the others, getting their minds off of this. You know I don't empathize well with others, all I can do is bark orders and spout grand ideals. I can scarcely keep order—."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Captain." Though the tide of dead was almost upon them, she could not help but turn to him in surprise. She saw trust in those blazing eyes. "Dame Vesta and Sir Charles have ever been at one another's throats; and this desert has broken many an army's spirit. But not ours.
"My father taught me that when marching off to certain death a stern commander, who reminds us of our duties with her actions and a few simple words, becomes a source of stability. She'll hold any company together, because such a person's soldiers will trust her to remain with them, and push them on until the very end." The snapping jaws of death were nearly upon them, but he continued to hold her gaze with his crooked smile. "Tyrannus the Dragonslayer would gladly have followed you into this."
The first of the revenants was upon them. To the right she heard the harsh battle cries of the dwarf and the mountain man. With a cry of her own, she staggered the vile thing back with her shield and plunged her spear into its eye socket.
"You're a damned liar, Roland Cavalong," she said as the blade of the war god's paladin scattered leathern limbs in each direction, "but I thank you, just the same. Now let us finish with this tedious business, I'm tired of sleeping outside."
A few seconds or a few hours, it didn't matter in the anarchic swirl of battle. Without err, the shaft of her lance plunged again and again into eyes, nostrils, mouths and age-worn skulls, severing the black cords of magic which animated them. Her less-elegant comrades were mad dervishes, hewing limb and neck with furious abandon.
It was only when her boot slipped and a revenant caught hold of her helm that she noticed the mountainish weight in her limbs and the cold fire in her lungs. She heard her name called out in panic, and a silver flash sent the thing's head bouncing off her foot. She returned the debt at once, stretching out to plunge the tip of her spear into another creature's ribs told hold it in place for the half instant for its head to disappear as well.
"Brother, how much longer?" she called.
"Soon," came the weary reply.
"How soon is soon?" The voice of the dwarf was rough with battle roaring.
Helena heard the crack of bone and the rustle of mail the familiar creak of bowstring and the less familiar crackle of energy. Vesta's voice rose up, almost singing as she chanted the final verse of her prayer-spell in Geraldian.
Oh, Gentle Goddess,
Oh Lady of Magic.
Grant your holy sight upon mine arrow.
May it pierce this veil of fantasy,
And drive back the night.
The twang of the bow was lost to the snap of bones beneath Helena's shield, but all sound was lost to the tortured shriek of clashing spells and the noise of shattering glass. Roland's fairy lights were candles before the sun as holy light flooded the night, spreading a soothing through her body that invigorated life and drove back the dead. The voiceless groans of the dead turned to pained shrieks as they staggered back as one. With a moment's reprieve, Helena called the retreat.
Vesta was resting against her bow and out of breath. That breath returned in fury as Galen scooped her up over his shoulder along with his share of the baggage, but the big man ignored her as they pounded towards the gap. Where before there had been nothing, a painted arch stood amidst the wall and opened to the narrow path of a high, steep hill. Helena stopped at the gate, waiting until only she and the cleric had passed through. With the fading of the holy light, the dead began to advance, and Helena could spare only a moment to admire the handiwork of Shala's disciples before she turned to Nathaniel.
"Can you place a barrier that will hold?"
"All of Taniis is desecrated, Sister, but it should give us time to reach the gates." The paleness of the cleric's face was not from exertion. His hands shook as he drew the tiny crystal bottle all clerics wore from around his neck and undid the stopper. A few drops of holy water across the threshold and a hasty prayer in Elven, and the cleric hiked up his robe to dash up after their comrades. Helena waited only to see the mummified hoard slam against an invisible wall at the threshold. Once sure that it would hold, she turned on her heel and ran to catch up.
The acropolis was a hundred spans and would have ran nearly vertical had it not been submerged in a cone of sand. A path of crushed stones ran in zig-zags up the slope to provide traction, but the sand which lay so thick as to make it almost indistinguishable from its surroundings made it slick and treacherous. Helena would have thought they were scaling a dune were it not for the malicious shape that watched them as they climbed. A luminous ball hovered over the tip of Roland's sword and Vesta's palm as they led the way.
Conversation was muted, for the air grew heavy and oppressive as they ascended and the wind was unnaturally absent. Too soon they reached the summit, and for the third time that night the chill of fear touched Helena's heart. The palace's ghost was a high double pylon, its walls painted corpse pale in the crescent moonlight. A pair of sweeping eyes was painted above the iron gate; the fortress' gaze was cold and unwelcoming. From below, the cries of the dead drifted upon the desert wind.
"Should we knock?"
Charles stomped his feet and pulled his cloak tighter.
"We're in the demon's hand, and the northman wants to crack jokes."
"It's been too grim of late," Helena said. "Some more laughter would do us some good." Her grey eyes were drawn to the stars, a rare feeling of sadness springing up within her. "Such a tedious thing, to die surrounded by fear."
"None of that, Captain," Vesta's expression was stern.
"Of course," she started. "Get this door open."
Vesta whispered something below Helena's hearing as she placed her hands upon the time-smoothed gate, and at once a seam ran down the middle and the doors a crack. Stale air escaped with a hiss, filling her nostrils with decay and a hundred other horrid things. She and Galen grasped one door, Roland and Charles the other, and as one they heaved. A carpet of sand and squealing hinges resisted their efforts, but they soon had an opening wide enough to pass.
"Sir Galen takes point. Sir Roland, give him cover. Sir Charles, you remain with me in back and help me get the doors closed." There was no time to fear the solid blackness or shiver at the chill touch of the tomb. She had heard the snap of the barrier giving way, the sound of an army of dead elves growing closer. Adrenaline burned through her veins, but voice and mind were empty of all but her steady conviction. The time for doubts and fears had passed. "Let's not tarry at the doorstep, our quarry awaits."
To Be Continued…
Author's Note- Paladins are my favorite of the common roleplaying classes because they're the representative of the idealized heroes of my childhood, Sir Lancelot and the like. Unfortunately, they're infamous for not always being played that way. Being lawful good is far too often interpreted as upholding the letter of the law and policing the party, and so end up becoming lawful stupid. I try to avoid this like the plague, preferring to play characters who follow the spirit and intent of the law. Because, of course, paladins are as human (or dwarven, elven, Halfling, or whatever) as anyone else and make mistakes. It's about the journey towards the ideal, not about being ideal. Therefore, I work hard to make sure that the paladins in my literature are like this as well, rather than a pompous and ineffective jackass. Except when I need such characters.
Next chapter: Back to the main plot!