Visicleus lets loose the secret.
Chapter Thirty Two:
Teeth From The South
Branston woke, hours after leaving Chesdan and the Margolad army. He sat up in his bed, running a hand over his face. He paused as rough linen ran under his fingers. The bandage. The pain returned to his head, as if beckoned by memory.
He lit a the candle beside his table, staring at the flame for a moment. His heart quickened, but he felt less afraid. He raised his left hand, reminding himself the wound was gone.
“I have bigger things to worry about.”
He sat up and shaved at a washbasin, then gathered a new pile of clothes off a shelf on the wall. They were Dragon Guard attire, and fit well. The baggy sleeves allowed his arms quick movement, but the long black cape might weigh him down. Nevertheless, he wore it.
Gathering his sword and boots, he extinguished the candle and left the room. Four soldiers stood outside his door. Visicleus had warned he would have guards.
Branston welcomed the extra protection, now that a wraith had gotten into the fortress.
“Good evening,” one soldier muttered. His visor sat atop his helmet, and a middle-aged face brandishing a thick mustache looked at Branston.
“Good evening,” Branston rested a gloved hand on the pommel at his waist, squaring his shoulders. “Has Visicleus spoken on the King?”
The mustachioed man’s face grew solemn. “He announced plans to lie.”
“How do you feel about that?” Branston asked.
The man heaved a breath through his nose. “I disapprove, I think. A commander should not lie to his men, but I understand his reason for doing so.”
Another man spoke. “All within the fortress know the King is dead, and not a man abandoned his post. Visicleus does not give us enough credit. For whatever reason he believes us dishonorable men to abandon the war.”
Branston’s shoulder’s tensed. I told Visicleus to lie. If the ruse went poorly, the High Commander might blame him. No matter what I do, I step into some potential trap!
“Well, I expect you will obey the High Commander?” Branston asked, assuming the demeanor of a lord. He spoke as if expecting to be followed. No other answer was acceptable.
“Of course,” said the mustachioed man. “He ordered it.” The other three nodded and muttered similar words. The mustachioed man continued. “In fact, he is set to inform the outside force. I was close to waking you.”
“Well, lead the way.” Branston gestured with a hand, and followed the men through the halls. Two strode in front of him, two walked behind.
The little sleep he had gotten was too little. His legs threatened to give out and his eyelids felt like a wet rugs.
The halls were empty but lit with candles and lanterns. Here and there dried or congealed blood marred the stone. Branston wrinkled his nose against the foul stench of death that clung to the walls.
They came across soldiers walking the halls. One group spoke quietly of Visicleus.
“...not fit. He will lead us to die,” said one man. Branston and his guards turned a corner and he heard no more.
“Will the Fangog soldiers be joining the announcement?” Branston asked.
“No,” said a nasal-voiced man behind Branston. “We will be guarding the fortress.”
“Ah, good,” Branston said.
They came in time to the courtyard, where torches lit the evening air. Clouds of purple spotted a sky of deep orange, and the still air was warm. Soldiers spread across the square courtyard paced or sat against the stone. Others leaned against the high walls and spoke in muted tones. No man looked at Branston, or if they did, the faint light did not show their flickering eyes.
The buzz of a lively crowd emanated, beyond the wall and down the ridge, like the sound of a kicked beehive. Branston followed the guards toward the gate.
“Open up,” one soldier called up to the guardhouse. A man peered down through a slit in the stone before disappearing. The doors drew open. The hinges creaked as the doors drew open, men on the inside of the walls pulling the great handles.
With a polite nod, one of the two soldiers waved the group through the gate. The doors closed as Branston moved down the ridge. His guards moved hands to swords, looking around at the darkness. Through the branches of the treetops to Branston’s left, the glow of a large fire shone bright. The sky darkened as they descended the slope.
As the ground evened out, a stage came to view. A wide platform of wood, quickly and crudely constructed, sat near the face of the ridge. Torches lines the sides and back of the structure, and a dozen men stood upon the top. It was twice the height of a man, with a ramp leading up the side. In front of the stage, two columns of men stood with spears aimed at the canopy of trees. They stood as statues, staring at the army laid out before them. Those men faced the stage, looking upon the dozen men atop the structure. Some muttered among themselves, others called out to the stage; none were distinguishable among the storm of voices.
Branston’s guards led him to the ramp, and they joined the other men. Visicleus stood in a bright white coat with a high collar. Dark gloves rested on hips as he looked upon the army before him, torchlight blazing in his eyes. His mouth bent in a slight frown, and he glanced briefly at Branston before returning to the soldiers.
To his left stood the Warden Talisan Kalmet. A feather protruded from the short crown of his wide-brimmed hat. His deep blue coat reflected light, and the left cuff was folded and pinned over his stump.
Two men stood to Talisan’s left; one an old man with a thick white mustache and shining bald head. Wide eyes peered down a bent nose at the army, and gnarled hands leaned on a cane. The second was a younger man with a receded hairline, and a scowl that suggested he smelled the sour stench of the men and the noxious odor of the waste pits stronger than others.
The other eight men were soldiers who stood with hands on swords and visors obscuring their face. Their angled armor shone.
“Where is Aclaides?” Branston whispered, taking his place at Visicleus’ left.
Without looking away from the army, Visicleus answered. “He disappeared at some point during the day. My men have been searching for hours, but he’s gone.”
Branston frowned. He had watched Aclaides enter Fangog at the same time as him. “Where would he go? Why?”
“I don’t know.” Visicleus’ voice was cold. “His brother died out there, somewhere. Maybe he went to bury the body. At least he didn’t take the dragon. Worse, the foreign armies are gone.”
“What?” Branston looked at the man.
“Well,” Visicleus winced. “the Margolans are here, but the Veressans and Dasorens are gone.”
“They left?” Branston’s fists balled. “Where did they go?”
“Tracks say north.” Visicleus’ hand tightened around his sword. “They discovered we hid the King’s death, and they left. I’m sure of it. Fine. They went north, so they must be in the war still. If they truly wanted out, they might go south.”
Branston wet his mouth. He looked to the army. Though they were not hostile, they were loud; and many.
This was my idea. The thought bit at him like fleas. His stomach twisted knots. Would these men attack Visicleus, thinking him a usurper?
“Well, I think it’s time,” Visicleus said. He leaned past Talisan to speak to the bald man. “Carry my voice. Make sure all can hear.” The bald man aimed his hands at Visicleus’ face. Branston had seen this before. The bald man was a wizard, and would carry
Visicleus’ voice across the army.
Visicleus cleared his throat, then spoke. “Last night, a terrible thing happened.” The army went silent, the High Commander’s voice carrying along the mass like a wind.
Visicleus continued. “Last night, a wraith got into the fortress. Silence! It killed many men. Soldiers, wizards, Dragon Guards….King Krassos.”
The army roared with sound, but no words could be understood.
“Quiet, please!” Visicleus raised his hands and ushered the army to silence. “His last son has died. After much discussion, I have been set as the new head of the war force. I’m working on allying us with the Margolan army camped on the other side of the river, and plans are in the works to end this campaign as quickly as possible.”
Branston watched the army as Visicleus spoke, looking upon their faces lit by the lanterns and torches spread across the mass of men. Most men held wide eyes, while others scowled and bared teeth. Men gripped their belts and ground spears into the dirt, or clasped the hilt of their swords. He could not read them completely. Whether they would listen and obey or storm the stage he could not tell. Many faces held fury, while some filled with tears.
Visicleus continued. “The wraith is dead now. We must continue on as we can, and I believe you all understand the importance of this war. We can not fail, or our world will fall. I ask that you put your faith in me, and follow me as you would our king. I will–”
A screech rang out. Past the army, far into the blackness of the forest. The screech was inhuman, yet could belong to no horse.
The army turned, bringing weapons to hand. Branston peered into the darkness as a man riding a horse rode through the parting army at a gallop. He shouted repeatedly, but distance muffled his words.
“Hargor,” Visicleus hissed. The wizard aimed his hands at the rider, one hand moving as if drawing in the end of a rope. The man’s voice sounded on the stage, though he was too far.
“Wolgs!” he cried. “Wolgs! Wolgs!”
Visicleus cursed. “Branston, get the dragon.”
Branston looked to the High Commander. “Pardon, Commander?”
“Tyollis warned of an army of wolgs.” Visicleus turned his blazing gaze on Branston. “Get the dragon. Burn the beasts to ash!”
“The forest, Comman–”
“Do it,” Visicleus hissed. “A wraith leads them.”
Branston’s stomach lurched, but he nodded and turned on his heels. As he sped down the ramp of the stage, Visicleus shouted orders.
“Soldiers, stand your ground. Form tight but do not move forward.”
Branston’s guards followed on his heels as he sprinted up the ridge, heart hammering. Another screech sounded out, and his skin prickled.
The howls of wolgs sprang into the night, but Branston pressed on.
“Open the gate!” Branston called as he approached the top of the ridge. The gate opened, and men poured out, some holding torches and swords, others holding bows. Branston sprinted passed them, boots beating on stone as he carried himself across the stone floor and to the dragon tower. The howls ceased as he sprang up the steps, curling up the tower, coming in time to the top door.
He hammered on the door with a fist. “Open up. On order of High Commander Visicleus open this door!”
The eye-slot opened, and blue eyes peered through. “What is it?”
“We are under attack. Open it, I need the dragon.”
The man cursed, and the door came open. Branston stormed in, guards close behind. Cages lined the round walls, and massive doors led outside the tower.
“Open the cage,” Branston commanded, stepping before the cage wherein stood the slender gold dragon. It stood as a dog would, its scaly tail hanging to the floor.
“Take its mind,” said the man. “Then I’ll open the door.”
Branston whispered a curse and reached, sliding his arm between the bars. He felt a door in his mind, like another presence almost touching his mind. The dragon lowered her neck, head extending to Branston’s hand. He touched palm to her snout, and the door in his mind opened.
The dragon’s mind merged with his, as if his body were wrapped in a blanket. He felt hunger from the dragon.
Branston rounded on the man, staring past his guards. “Open the door.”
The man hurried forward, hand fumbling through his coat pocket. He produced a key and opened the cage door. Branston leaped to the door on the wall, pulling the massive handle. The door was a dozen feet high, and twice as wide. It slid open, revealing the long bridge of stone protruding from the tower. The stone ran three dozen feet out, ending in open air.
Branston sent a message through the door in his mind. Fly for the howls. The cries of the canines filled the night, but were distant at this height. The forest stretched out before him, but he saw no creatures. Another high-pitched screech rang out, bouncing off the hills and running through the trees.
Branston stepped from the doorway as the golden dragon charged for the opening, running along the stone path. With a leap, the dragon took to the air, wings beating.
“What’s happening?” asked the doorkeeper, coming to Branston’s side.
Eyes on the dragon, Branston spoke. “An army of wolgs have come, as well as a wraith.” The man cursed under his breath.
Branston turned from the door, sinking to the floor. He stretched his legs out before him, leaning back against the wall.
One of Branston’s guards stepped forward. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” Branston held up a hand. “I’m fine, and I will be. I’m only moving into the dragon’s mind. I will not be here, so to speak.”
“We will protect you, then.” The soldier pressed first to heart, and pulled out his sword.
“Thank you,” Branston said. He closed his eyes, and stepped through the door in his mind.
Through the eyes of his dragon he saw the land. Hills covered in trees ran for miles. The moon shone upon the leaves; the river glittered to the east. He flew south along the still air. He was a visitor in this dragon’s mind, sensing all she sensed. He saw through the canopy of trees. The stench of the camp and the wolgs reached his nose this high in the air. Or rather, the dragon’s nose. He was only a passenger.
Below him the Takinthad army stretched out, spearmen rushing toward the southern end, bracing against the ground with broad tips angled out to the onslaught of approaching beasts.
They came as a thick wall of teeth and fur and muscle. They moved forward swiftly, howling and barking and snarling.
Search for the wraith, he told the dragon. Her neck craned, searching beneath the trees. The wraith did not lead the wolgs, but it was around. What else would that screech be?
Branston changed his priorities. The head of the wolg force. Burn them.
The dragon turned, her wings aloft and body twisting. She looked down upon the wolg force, angling closer to the ground. The swift movement of the dragon did not bother Branston. He was in her mind, adjusted to her stronger senses and movements.
Her jaws opened and she let loose a jet of flame.
The fire roared toward the ground, blasting past the path of trees and engulfing a rank of wolgs as she flew forward, the flame rushing along the line. The light of fire lit the ranks behind the head. The wolgs faltered as their front rank burned. The animals ran around disorganized, yelping and howling in pain.
The front rank of soldiers ducked and looked to the flying beast. Wolgs fell dead as she torched them, flying above the trees.
Branston’s mental form smiled, watching the destruction his dragon caused among the enemies. She changed direction, trailing fire through their force, which scattered. Trees burned and the mile of forest which held the wolgs was lit in a bright orange glow.
While the dragon torched the scattered clusters of wolgs, Branston used her field of vision to find the wraith. He peered with her stronger vision down into the trees beyond the storm of flame, seeing more wolgs trailing down hills. They rerouted upon seeing the destruction, scattering into thinner lines and charging around the area of flame.
The dragon kept the flame going, while Branston kept a vigilant eye out. As the dragon looked to the east, he spotted the Margolan army a mile away and across the river. Men ran about preparing formations. Soldiers mounted horses and took up lances, while others ran to the tops of hills, fitting arrows to strings. The ridge close to the Margolan camp held a thick rank of archers that peered down among the forest. A few pointed to the dragon.
But no wraith. Branston’s mental self ground is teeth. Where was it? There were spots of forest where the growth of the canopy was too thick. He could not see past those patches, even with the dragon’s superior vision.
Her fire halted, and he felt her weariness. She turned, heading toward the front of the wolg army. Branston spotted the Takinthad force, their torches and lanterns a dim candle compared to the inferno left in her wake.
Search for this, he told her, sending an image of the wraith. The image was of the slim wraith, standing in a dark forest. He reconsidered, remembering the wraith Lord Robert had brought in. This form held the outline of armor, wide at the shoulders and thicker in the arms.
Find either of these.
The dragon flew over the forest, her head swiveling. Her gaze passed over the trees and the hills, the light of the inferno a half mile behind her lighting the area.
Branston’s mental form searched as well; two sources of vision peering through the same eyes.
Wolgs still charged through the forest, but they avoided the blaze. That broke their force, and the Takinthad men rushed forward on horses and on foot. Spears tore through the chests of beasts, and arrows zipped between trunks.
Branston ignored the battle, judging the men to succeed. He held the greater power, and needed to find the wraith.
The beat of the wings sounded in the dragon’s ears; he heard that as she did, just as he heard the battle below. Men shouted fury and pain, while wolgs barked bloodlust and death.
His mental self froze, holding a breath he didn’t have. Something moved in the trees. The flames lit the ground for a mile, and a dark shape slid through the forest.
It looked to be a man, but could be seen only as it moved over the ground. Branston frowned as it stepped into a shadow and disappeared.
He could not see the detail of the form as it moved between the trees, disappearing behind the flickering shadow of a tree.
Whether it was the slim form or the armored form, he could not tell.
Torch the area. He sent an image of the spot where he last saw the wraith, and expanded to an image of the surrounding forestry.
With a roar, fierce flames flew toward the ground. The leaves burned to ash and the wood blackened as the geyser of fire struck the land. The ground tore beneath the dragon’s power; dirt flew through the air, and the land grew brighter as flames erupted among the fallen leaves and grass.
Branston spotted the wraith again, fleeing in the opposite direction. Its dark body blazed as the forest did. It passed beneath shadows but did not vanish.
Torch it! Branston commanded. Burn it to ash. He sent an image of the fleeing creature. The jet of flame halted before continuing, crashing into the wraith.
It ran at the speed of a man, arms flailing and feet unsteady. The fire followed it, engulfing it.
A screech cut through the night, and the dragon winced. Thunder roared from the ground, beneath the pillar of flame. At the tip of the fire, where the wraith lay, the fire expanded abruptly. Trees flew through the air, crumbling before the expanding blazing dome. The screech continued, growing higher in pitch as the flame grew larger and higher.
The dragon shook her head, ceasing her fire. But the dome continued, burning the land. The screech dug deep into her head, and through hers’, Branston’s.
As abruptly as it started, the dome of flame stopped. A massive black crater a mile wide marred the land, the edges burning with wildfire. That flame slowly spread through the forest as Branston watched. There was no sign of the wraith.
A mile from the crater, men fought wolgs, and won. They beat the animals down with spears and arrows and cavalry.
Return to the tower, he told the dragon. He stepped back through the door in his mind, returning to his body.
He found himself shaking, bones weary and jaw clenched and sore.
“We saw what happened,” said the mustachioed guard. Each man in the room looked down at Branston, shock and worry on their face. “You did that?”
Branston nodded, standing. His legs shook, and the guard helped him to his feet. He leaned against the wall, staring out the wide doors. Pillars of black smoke choked the sky, and a fierce inferno burned through the forest.
“The wolg army is defeated,” Branston told the guards and doorman. “I think the wraith is dead.”
END OF CHAPTER THIRTY TWO