Characters converge on Fangog, and information is given. Alliances shift.
Word of Capture
The doors closed and the portcullis drew down, and Tyollis was gone.
Branston scowled. What had Tyollis meant? “Does this mean you’ve had a bad time as well?”
Branston turned and strode across the courtyard, Aclaides at his side. The man stared ahead, eyes distant. The night was quiet save for the sounds of the camp beyond the wall. The soldiers guarding the keep watched them approach.
The four armored men flanking the large double-door looked to the dragon pin on Branston’s shirt.
“May we enter?” Branston asked. He longed for sleep, but Tyollis’ words wove a knot in his gut.
A soldier handed his halberd off and slipped through the door. A man spoke loudly within the chamber. Branston could make out no words before the door shut.
They waited in the cool air, Branston tapping a finger against his thigh, Aclaides staring at the door. The man bore a stiff expression but for the rage in his eyes. Branston knew that rage, in a sense.
The doors opened, showing a chamber filled with soldiers. Upon the dais in the center of the room, framed by two wide columns, sat a lone man behind the wide table where just the other day sat many. On either end of the table, the braziers burned bright, throwing the man’s shadows across the wall behind him. Beside him stood a man in a loose coat and wide brimmed hat, his arms crossed.
A dozen soldiers poured from the chamber, surrounding Branston and Aclaides.
“What is this?” Branston stepped back, hand inching to his sword.
One man lifted his visor. “You’re safe, just come in with us.”
“What’s happened?” Branston asked.
“We’ll let High Commander Visicleus tell you.”
The soldiers in front gestured for the Guards to enter the keep. Branston stepped hesitantly forward, and the soldiers surrounding him and Aclaides followed.
The crowd of soldiers ahead of them parted, and a line of men beyond them moved to stand next to a pillar.
As the Guards drew closer, the soldiers gave them more spaces, opening up their ranks completely in front.
The man who sat behind the table watched them approach with cautious eyes, which glinted in the firelight. His square jaw held stiff. He lifted a gloved hand for halt. Every man obeyed.
“When I sent you out,” the man said, “there were three.”
Aclaides stared at the man, teeth grinding. Branston spoke. “We were attacked. We lost a Guard, and his dragon. The soldiers died as well.”
“Attacked by what?” The man–Visicleus, it seemed–leaned forward.
“I have no idea,” Branston admitted. “They were large beasts, like men, but bigger. They used crude weapons and armor, and rode boats. They attacked us at the river. But worst was a flying beast. It was bigger than our dragon, and spit a substance that melted through armor and men.” Branston remembered the men burning and clutching at their flesh, tearing off their armor as if an invisible fire burned at them.
Visicleus took a shuddering breath and ran his hands through dark curls of hair. “Of the beasts, I believe I know. The day you left, I sent men to combat an army to the north. The flying beast, I have no idea.” He looked to the man at his side, who Branston realized had only one hand.
The man shook his head. Visicleus scowled and looked at Aclaides. “I believe you lost your brother. I am sorry for this.”
Aclaides looked to the man. “We need to end this threat. If you saw what happened, you might be marshaling the armies to strike right now.”
Visicleus nodded. “I might. Now it’s time you two know what happened here.” He leaned back and sighed. “A wraith got into Fangog and killed every Dragon Guard, and most of the wizards.”
A lump formed in Branston’s throat, and his eyes blurred. “Where is it now?” He blinked his eyes clear. Olivar….
“Dead, apparently.” Visicleus intoned. “Tyollis found it.”
“So,” Branston swallowed away the lump. “What will we do?”
Visicleus stared at the tabletop. “I don’t know.” Barely a whisper.
A lean man slipped through the entrance, shutting the door behind him. The man’s steps echoed as he jogged past Branston and up the dais, bending to speak in Visicleus’ ear.
The High Commander’s face grew hard, and he straightened in his chair. He whispered, and the man jogged back through the chamber, slipping out the entrance.
Each man watched Visicleus, who stroked the stubble of his chin. “Commanders, to my back. Soldiers, form two ranks before me, and the rest form a path. You two,” he pointed to Branston and Aclaides. “At my sides.”
Branston glanced curiously to Aclaides, who bore a slight frown. They obeyed, striding up the dais and flanking the High Commander, while the other commanders stood at the man’s back. Branston stepped in between Visicleus and the man with one hand.
Twenty soldiers stood in two rows before the dais, and the others broke into two groups, standing stiff besides the columns. There might have been a hundred men between the groups.
The doors opened, echoing through the chamber. A column of ten Takinthad soldiers strode in with a man between them. As he drew closer to the flames, Branston saw him. He was a short man with close cut blond hair and a shaven round face. Beady eyes looked up at Visicleus, and his nose was long and pointed, so the shadow flickered across his face. No emotion touched him, though his thin mouth curved in a permanent frown. The man bore faint lines of age at the corners of his eyes, and along his neck.
What caught Branston’s gaze, though, was the man’s attire. An empty scabbard belted over a Margolan surcoat. The storm-cloud colored surcoat held a wide patch yellow and blue striped embroidery across most of his chest, and mail sleeves peaked out at the wrists.
Branston looked down at Visicleus; he had forgotten to tell him of the Margolan army. Branston rested a hand on his sword.
“A Margolan?” Visicleus asked. “Our king told you not to cross our land.”
The short man looked up at Visicleus, face expressionless. “I’ve met the king. You are not him. Nor are you his son.” His voice was light, but sure.
“Why are you here?” Visicleus’ hands tightened to fists atop the table.
“I have an army, and have come to fight with you against the Dreadforce.” The man crossed his arms. “I have bad news, as well.”
“Out with it.”
“Before I speak further,” the Margolan said, “I’d like to know who I’m speaking to, and why it is him rather than King Krassos.”
At length, he answered. “I am High Commander Visicleus. I am here because the king is dead, as is his son. I’m leading all soldiers here.”
“Well.” The man did not look shocked, but his voice was hesitant. “I am General Chesdan. I’ve brought an army to help, as I said. And as I said, I have bad news. I’ve captured the Dragon Keep.”
The chair scraped against stone as Visicleus shot to his feet, and Branston pulled his sword half-free.
“Wait!” Chesdan raised his hands as the soldiers stepped closer. Branston gaped at the man. The Dragon Keep was wear men went to gain the ability to control dragons. Bolthos had warned of this.
The chamber was quiet but for the crackle of the braziers. At length, Chesdan spoke. “I captured it because nobody cared to protect it. I had the larger force, and they knew it. The power source was gone.”
“What?” Visicleus spat.
Chesdan nodded, fear in his eyes. He slowly lowered his hands. “I tried to capture the Keep because I needed Guards. I would make my own men Dragon Guards, and take the dragons within the Keep. But the power source was gone. Upon questioning the men, they said that the object of power had vanished, while a Breach Warden had sensed a wraith in the chamber that very night.”
“You are saying,” Visicleus hissed. “that a wraith stole the Dragon Pillar?”
Chesdan nodded. “That seems to be the case. I did not harm the men there, I enlisted them. That day I knew the world needed to go to war against the Dreadforce. The Dragon Keep is empty, the men in my army. I come in peace, wishing to merge forces.”
Branston slid his sword home as the tone of the room lightened. Visicleus sank into his chair, and the soldiers stepped away from the Margolan.
“I want to inspect your forces,” Visicleus said. “Tell me your numbers.
Chesdan bit his lip. “Five hundred cavalrymen, seven hundred swordsman, four hundred archers, six hundred crossbowmen, two hundred pikemen. The number is rounded, whether down or up depends on the force. But there they are. We approached you from the west, in plain view. Many of your men spotted us, and a runner was sent. We will help you fight, and do as you command. Which you must be worthy, to be in your position. If you accept us, I have a few requests.”
Branston flinched as a log collapsed in the brazier. The heat of the flames washed over him, but he ignored them. His hand was healed. Aclaides eyed him curiously.
“Well,” Viscleus said. “What are your requests?”
Chesdan clasped his hands in front. “My army needs time to rest. A few days. More, my niece is with me, and she’s is due to have her baby any day now. I request for her a room in the fortress.”
“That’s all?” Visicleus sounded skeptical.
Chesdan cleared his throat. "Before I swear fealty, I also want to know you first. I want to know the kind of leader I am following under."
Viscleus nodded slowly. "And how would you get to know me?"
"Perhaps I spend tomorrow at your side. I watch how you work, how you interact with people. I'll have questions, as well."
Visicleus scratched his chin. "That can be done. I intend only to lead us against the enemy. The Dreadforce, you call it? Why is that?”
“Because that is the name given when it was created.” Chesdan’s eyes grew distant, though he looked at the High Commander. “It’s almost reached our world. Farther north, the Divide is weakening. Soon, it will break.”
Branston’s stomach twisted. His father had spoken briefly of the Dreadforce, before they fled Sal’Tathern. He spoke of it as an enemy made for the gods.
The entrance opened, and the messenger jogged back through the chamber, again whispering in Viscleus’ ear. This close, Branston heard the words.
“General Evroor has returned, asking an audience with the king. Apparently Lord Robert has something to show the king.”
Visicleus pursed his lips. Branston remembered briefly speaking with Evroor. He had almost let slip the king was dead.
Visicleus growled his response through clenched teeth. “Let them in.”
The messenger nodded and retreated.
The High Commander looked down at Chesdan. “Have you anything else to say?”
Chesdan scratched his chin. “No.”
"Go then. Your niece will have a room, and when the time comes, we will march to war.”
Chesdan bowed. “Thank you.” With that, the Margolan general turned and left, flanked by the Takinthad soldiers. As a servant leaped to open the doors, and the company left, three men walked into the chamber. Before the door shut, the soldiers gaped after them.
One was General Evroor, shorter than most men in the room and wearing a flowing green cape and green Veressan tunic. His gaze fell on Visicleus, and his lips parted slowly. Beside him walked a young man with dark wavy hair. A fresh scratch ran along his cheekbone, and his left arm rest in a sling. He was dressed in a brown surcoat with a black bear standing on hind legs and roaring. Branston remembered seeing that emblem in Murindin. Is this Edson Taroy’s son?
The third man was large with bulging arms, holding what looked like a body wrapped in a rug.
They stopped before the dais, and Evroor spoke. “What is this? Where is King Krassos?” He met Branston’s gaze briefly.
Visicleus leaned back, projecting a relaxed air. “The king is dead. His son, too. I’ve taken command, by vote of the other commanders.” He pointed with a thumb to the men lined behind him. “It was my order that sent you north.”
General Evroor’s eyes grew fierce, but his mouth clamped shut. Lord Taroy looked confused. His gaze ran along the men surrounding Visicleus.
Evroor spoke. “May we know what happened?”
“The Veressan, Faldashir, killed him. Along with one of the Dragon Guards, who is now dead.”
Lord Taroy’s eyes widened. “What happened to Faldashir?”
Visicleus looked to Taroy. “He was executed four days ago.” He held up a hand, forestalling the words of Evroor and Taroy, whose mouths hung open. “What is that?” He pointed to the rug held by the servant.
Evroor smoothed his face, and spoke stiff. “Lord Robert killed it.” He nodded to the servant.
The man dropped the rug, and the object rolled out, startling everybody.
Branston pulled his sword free and looked to the wraith that lay on the floor. The head was separate the body, which was still. No red eyes lit the head. The thing looked to be made of black glass, rather than the deep shadow Branston had seen.
Visicleus stood slowly, looking to Lord Robert Taroy. "You killed this?”
Lord Robert nodded. “Yes. With my own sword. No magic, no help. They can die. We won the battle in the north, but the Warden told us that the main Carlassen force has not yet left the Second World.” Anger burned in Robert’s eyes, though his voice was calm.
Visicleus gaped at the body of the dark being. “Well done, Lord Robert. And Evroor, congratulations on the victory. Have you anything left to say?”
Evroor crossed his arms. “You lead us now?”
“May I ask your plan?”
Visicleus settled into his chair, eyes on the dead wraith. Branston could not look away from the thing. Visicleus said, “I am working on a plan. Until then, rest. You both did well. Leave the wraith. Dismissed.”
Evroor and Lord Robert looked to the wraith, then bowed and left.
“Now,” Visicleus said. “It’s time to inspect these Margolans.”
END OF CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT