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|Credit: Roy Lathwell|
Several soldiers peered around the corner, while the rest listened to the Imperial Keep’s collapse, then flinched back. “It’s gone,” one said. “The walls buckled, and one—” Stones tumbled and bounced by, showering the sheltered expedition with small debris.
“We need to go back,” one of the Strikers said. “Acrom jumped. If nothing else, we need to recover his remains.”
“Why?” Anlayt demanded.
“He was the one bitten by the walking dead,” the Striker explained. “One of the men tells me Acrom was growing sick. Acrom told him he would die but once, then when the wall fell away, he dived out. Head first.”
“Likely a fruitless pursuit to find him,” said Phylok, “as with this entire expedition so far. But we should at last make the attempt.”
As expected, Acrom’s body was buried under the rubble that was once the Imperial Keep. They sang his name at the place they guessed the stairwell had been, offering his soul to Heaven and beseeching the Creator that his body lie still, then returned to Harbor Street and marched west.
Passing through a poorer part of the city, Jira thought of her namesake, Jira the Brown. That Jira had come from such a neighborhood, perhaps this one. She and her friend Pyanya had become Thurun’s apprentices, so legend went, after they stole his staff. Pyanya the White was the more noted, a Protector revered as the Lady of Isenbund in the North. But the original Jira had done well enough for herself, a strong sorcerer and enchanter by all accounts. I will be happy, Jira thought, if they say of me that I was able to keep a remnant of the Empire alive.
The Western Gate was destroyed, and they clambered over the remains to reach the Western Road. “Looks almost normal out here,” one soldier grunted.
“If you don’t look behind you,” said another.
Indeed, for those who only faced west, it could have been an unusually quiet afternoon outside the capital. Grasses and brambleberries grew wild, but the clear zone around the city walls was allowed to grow and seed itself. Two years ago, the poor would have been gleaning the seeds and fruits, or tending small garden plots granted by the crown. The nearest villa was beyond the first rise, where the road disappeared on its long journey to Westmark.
“Patrol formation,” Anlayt ordered. “Captains on point.” The Bronze Circle formed around Jira once again. After what they had seen in the last few hours, she found the protective ring a small comfort. “For Camac… forward!”
The Captains called a halt before they topped the hill. Phylok sent two scouts forward; they slipped through the tall grass and returned after a short time. “The villa is damaged, but inhabited,” they said. “Windows are boarded up. There’s debris piled around the perimeter, and gardens inside. We saw the smoke of a cookfire.”
“Did you see anyone?”
“They must be there,” said Phylok. “I would venture that the noise of our difficulties in Camac carried outside the city here, and the inhabitants are hiding. Perhaps watching us, while they gauge our intentions.”
“Strikers, form a defensive perimeter,” Anlayt ordered. “Protector, can you scry about us? Can you locate these residents?”
Jira nodded, and sent her vision outward. “There are no ambushes,” she said, her voice distant. “Nobody stands between us and their makeshift ramparts.”
“Are they in the villa?”
After a long silence, Jira smiled. “In an upper room. They appear to be having a heated argument. One woman is watching from the window, but as engaged as any.”
“How many?” Phylok asked.
“Eight… eleven. They do not carry weapons, but I saw crossbows in the receiving room. Implements that can be used as weapons: axes, scythes. A few hunting spears.” She came back to herself. “A young man looked around as I scryed the upper room,” she warned. “I would assume he is a sorcerer, but I don’t remember him from my earlier visits.”
“I am sure that Protector Jira is more than equal to any mage they have,” said Phylok. “I suggest we form up, and request a parley.” He nodded toward the bugler.
“I have no better idea,” said Anlayt.
The soldiers lined up along the Western Road, staggered formation, so that arrows or other missiles could only strike one at a time. The Captains stood before the villa’s makeshift gate, with a few of the Bronze Circle shielding Jira; she in turn covered them with a fender.
The bugler winded his horn, sounding the “parley” signal. Minutes passed, with no response from the villa.
“Give them another,” Phylok suggested, and the bugler blew again.
After a long minute, the front door cracked open. The Captains felt, rather than saw, eyes upon them.
“Citizens of Camac!” Anlayt bellowed. “Come forth, in all peace and harmony! We seek only survivors and information!”
Finally, the door opened. “Nine,” said Jira. “I expect the other two are covering us with crossbows.”
“Who are you, and what do you want?” It was the young man that Jira had noted during her scrying.
“I am Protector Jira, of the North,” she replied. “With me are Captain Phylok of Isenbund, and Captain Anlayt of Koyr, and four strikes of Camac’s army. We hoped to find other authority here.”
“Protector.” The young man bowed, hand to forehead, in the salute to a superior; Jira and the Captains noted how the others shed their wariness. “I am Arbul the Blue, of the Camac Conclave, until the recent trouble. Fortunately, I earned my sash before all that happened.”
“Are you all that is left of the population of Camac, then?” Anlayt asked.
“Indeed, sir. Many others fled the city, by road and by sea, so they may live on. You had no refugees arrive in Koyr?”
Anlayt frowned. “Neither by road, nor by sea, mage,” he said at last.
“So there is no authority,” said Phylok.
“We are the emperor!” An older man twisted free, and pranced forward. Arbul and several others gave each other exasperated looks. “Grand and glorious Camac lives on, so long as ourself!”
Arbul stepped forward, close enough to whisper, “Forgive him, notables. The others say he was mad long before The Madness, imagining himself to be His Sublime Majesty.”
The mad “emperor” joined them. “Good Captains, worthy Protector,” he purred. “Together, we shall conquer the other half of the world, then all will know the benevolent rule of glorious Camac. My court shall accompany us on this grand quest, and all will sing our praises.”
“Majesty,” said another, gently tugging the madman back, “your servants have just returned from an expedition on your behalf. Let them find their barracks, and take the rest they have earned, before sending them forth anew.”
“Wise counsel,” said the man who would be emperor. “Go, in all peace and harmony. Captains, your men have earned extended leave with pay. See that they reacquaint themselves with their… with their families.” He paused, looking confused. “You are all that… no.” He turned and stalked back to the villa, muttering all the way.
“Authority,” said Arbul. “I did not think to see this many sane people in one place, ever again. Let alone any remnants of governance.”
“Do you know who awakened the Cave Wyrm that was under the Keep?” Jira asked.
“No. I presume it was Nisodarun, or perhaps another mage gone mad.”
“Whoever awakened it, had control of her faculties,” Jira countered. “It told me that it swallowed Nisodarun by his own request, then allowed me to dispel it as commanded by the one who awoke it. The Wyrm, I presume, undermined the Keep. It collapsed.”
“That’s what we heard, then. I hope you did not unseal the Library.”
Anlayt grimaced, and Jira nodded. “We did. The walking dead are no more, but I did re-seal the entrance.”
“One of the mages was bitten,” said Arbul, his face twisting. “He lured the remaining walking dead into the Library, then I sealed them all together. If you released him, then… then I thank you. He was a dear friend.”
“He, and the others, are at peace,” Jira assured him.
“Protector,” said Anlayt, looking at the sky. “If we march now, we can reach the pier before sunset. I suggest we do not spend the night in the open, nor in the city.”
“And we would be an undue burden on the villa,” Phylok agreed.
“Arbul, you and your companions are welcome to come with us,” Jira offered. “North Keep has plenty of room.”
“As does Ak’koyr,” Anlayt insisted.
“And Isenbund,” said Phylok, “although you may not want to go that far.”
Arbul looked at his companions, then turned back to Jira and the Captains. “We will stay here,” he said. “For better or worse, Camac is our home. Our gardens, and the gleaning fields, are sufficient to feed us. We did rescue some livestock as well.”
“Arbul, I name you Protector of Camac,” said Jira. “I charge you to keep the peace, to train those who have Talent, and defend your home.”
“I…” Arbul fought to control his emotions. “On the name of Her Sublime Majesty, I do swear to these things. And, come winter, we shall bury the dead and clear the rubble. Perhaps, by next summer, the living will again dwell within Camac’s walls.”
“Strikers, marching formation,” Anlayt ordered. “For Camac… to the pier, then home!”
Here ends Season 1. Season 2, “Dissolution,” will begin soon.