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Rated: E · Chapter · Fantasy · #2222703
The Lord of Oblivion defends his castle, and then has a talk with a girl.
CHAPTER FIVE
LOVE




         "Since when is he so bold?" The Lord of Oblivion demanded angrily. He regarded most things he didn't understand with anger.
         As one of the members of the hastily reconvened council began to offer a possible explanation, Ceravic cut him off impatiently. "It was rhetorical. And it's the last thing we need to be worrying about right now." The Goblin King moved on to what he thought they did need to be worrying about. "Glate, I want you to get to the downstairs barracks. Brief the goblins and tell them I'll be at the front gates with Ferus, Sobgib, and Nex, they are to join me N.I.N.S." The Goblin King's personal mnemonic, it meant Now If Not Sooner.
         The goblin intelligence officer nodded briskly and set off to the goblin-training house located in the central castle's sizeable sublevels. There were three such facilities located within the confines of the city-castle; one in the center's underbelly, and one each in the corners of the massive outer wall flanking the entrance gate.
         "Ferus, Sobgib, you are to attend me as per usual." Ferus, a mountain of a man and a walking arsenal to boot: the Goblin King's Lord General, and Sobgib: tall, wiry, and exceptionally creative: his best strategist, both nodded and rose to their feet. "The rest of you will need to make yourselves useful in some other fashion, or disappear. I do not have time to assign you, as this is an unprecedented occurrence." Ceravic jumped to his feet, strode down the center of the table and hopped down to the floor. His voice rang out three times like the cracks of a whip as he headed out the front door without breaking stride or turning his head; "Nex! Ferus! Sobgib!"
         Ferus bunched his enormous muscles and pulled an enormous sword off his enormous back, about-facing to march after his King. Sobgib flinched when that sharp voice snapped out his name, adjusted his specially--and personally--designed, thigh-holstered crossbows, and followed suit as well. Nex had spent the entirety of the brief convening in an apparent state of utter disinterest, lounging in his chair and twirling his staff through his nimble fingers. As his King and his King's companions went out into the night, he continued twirling it, evincing not the slightest sign of doing anything else anytime soon.

- - - - - - -


         Glate banged his clawed foot against the door to the sub-barracks, kicking it open with a great deal of noise, and startling the hundred or so goblins who were just retiring for the night after a hard day of training. "Listen up, you grubs! We've got a barbarian army on the way, a castle that needs defending, and a king who needs an army to fight at his side! Let's get those sorry, pockmarked hides up and moving, N-I-N-S!"

- - - - - - -


         Draven was growing increasingly irritated watching the steady cycling of Nex's staff as the sorcerer spun it carelessly through the air.
         "Are you aware," the elf said at length, and quite scathingly, "that you were just ordered into action?"
         The fingers kept twitching, the staff kept spinning.
         "And that the King, to whom I assume even you must have sworn fealty at some point, is expecting you to be at his side, providing him with whatever use it is that you can possibly be to him?"
         The black-clad arm jerked, and the staff soared up into the air in a graceful arc that ended when the sorcerer caught it again. The shade-shrouded eyes examined its crystal for a moment, and then a mocking voice drawled out from the shadows, "I am aware, Draven. I am aware of a lot. I think you might even do well to consider the possibility that I am aware of a few more things than you are." He sent the staff twirling again.
         The elf seemed unappreciative of his advice. "Your behavior would not go over well in Hope Forest. The Elfsage doesn't like it when people--"
         "Think for themselves?" Nex asked. "Ah, but you see, Ceravic does like it when that happens. Which is the reason that I am more useful to him than any other. I'm not just another obedient soldier."
         Draven, apparently taking offense, rose and drew his sword. "Wars are won with obedient soldiers."
         "This war isn't a war. It's a game, and games are won by skilled players."
         "Says the Player who doesn't Play."
         "Oh, I play. I just play a different game than the others. The game of self-improvement. Raging battle zones are great places to test new spells." He rose himself, and flicked his eyes to Draven's drawn sword. "Delicate-looking thing you've got there."
         "You think so?" Draven began making his way around the table. "We'll see if you still think so after I show you how it works."
         Nex made a hard, slashing movement with his left hand. He twisted his thoughts around his magic, and the blade broke cleanly in two. "I warned you," Nex said, ignoring Draven's cry of outrage. "So fragile, elven blades. Here. Let me do you a favor."
         "I think not," Draven said haughtily.
         "That was a courtesy. I don't really need you to let me do anything."
         The elf raised his fragment of a blade and watched Nex's advance suspiciously. "The battle's the other way," he said, trying (and failing entirely) to mask his fear in a sarcastic reprimand.
         "Scintillating, as ever. I can see why Ceravic keeps you around. But, your impressive direction-telling abilities aside, you would probably be of even greater use to him with a whole weapon." The sorcerer came to a halt before the elf. Draven looked up into the shadows that surrounded those eyes and found he couldn't look away. He was close enough to Nex to be able to see the bright green eyes that stared down at him from that thin, pale face, entrapping his gaze. A white hand reached out to touch the weapon that trembled in the elf's nervous grip. At Nex's touch, the sword flashed green, and grew out into the same length that it had boasted before Nex had broken it.
         The sorcerer appraised his handiwork and took a step back, raising his staff over his head like a club. Without preamble, he swung the staff down on Draven. The startled elf blocked the blow out of instinct more than anything else. There was a flash, (green) reminiscent of lightning, as the wood hit the steel, and Draven gasped in shock. Nex's strike had crashed down on his sword like a thunderbolt, numbing his arm and smashing his blade out of his hand with overwhelming and entirely unexpected force. Wondering why Nex had bothered to repair his weapon only to immediately deliver a blow that had surely destroyed it, Draven bent down to pick the sword up off the ground with his left hand. His right arm was numb, with feeling slowly returning to it. He lifted up the sword to stare at it in amazement.
         The steel was smooth and unblemished, and gleamed faintly green. It was no longer the delicate, intricate work so beloved by the elves, but straight and simple, unadorned but for the minutest of backward notches at the end.
         "I'm afraid it's not quite as fancy as that bit of glass you used to twirl around so prettily," Nex said with an effort at sounding apologetic that was less than convincing. He turned away for the door, adding disparagingly over his shoulder, "In fact, the only thing it is good for is hacking stuff apart, but I suppose you'll just have to try and imagine how that quality might be useful in a sword. Don't strain your mind on that one. Now, as some self-righteous, sniveling little elf recently pointed out, I do believe I have somewhere to be."
         And he strode out into the night.

- - - - - - -


         Glate was having a very bad time of rallying the goblins. It wasn't that they were in any way reluctant to join the fray, or that they at all resented being awoken and sent forth to relatively certain death. It was just that it was proving difficult to get across to them exactly what was happening. Following his initial pronouncement, he was bombarded with a smattering of laudable queries and erudite comments:
         "The barbarians already attacked today."
         "Hi Glate!"
         "How big is the army?"
         "What's 'pockmarked' mean?"
         "Attacks never come at night."
         "What's Glate doing here?"
         "Whose castle do we have to defend?"
         "Night is for sleeping."
         "What did Glate say?"
"We're getting more grub?"
"Hey look, it's Glate!"
         The goblin intelligence officer, supremely mentally capable though he was, was, just for a moment, overwhelmed. He had planned to come down here, gather the goblins, and return to Ceravic. That was not what was happening, and he was at a loss to explain the gap between what he had planned to have happen and what had happened. Luckily, at some point amidst his internal embroilment, inspiration struck. He grappled with a cord he wore around his neck for a moment, then succeeded in producing a small, peculiarly twisted bit of metal. A gift from Sobgib, it was somehow (by magic, he thought sagely) capable of amplifying the sound of air blown on it into a shrill blast of teeth-jarring sound. As the screech tore its way through the air in an almost visible explosion of sound, the goblins all ceased their dissertation to stare in wonder at its source.
         Glate took advantage of their silent attention to instruct simply, "Everyone, pick up your weapons."
         Everyone picked up their weapons.
         "Everyone, follow me."
         Everyone followed him.
         Quite pleased with himself, Glate led the army up to the gates.

- - - - - - -


         The Lord of Oblivion stood atop the ramparts on the very outer wall of his eponymous city, robes stirring restlessly in the night breeze, his long tassel of hair rippling gently. His eyes raked the valley far below him, narrowing in cultivated distaste, in slow-burning outrage at the way the inhabitants of the world refused to behave in the way he could see so clearly that they should. The barbarians were a wild, savage people. Ceravic absolutely loathed them. And one of them, in particular, filled him with such gut-churning, fist-clenching fury that he sometimes lost himself when he dwelled too long on him.
         Rade was Ceravic's antithesis, the bane of his existence, a creature who to him seemed to be the physical, living manifestation of what a person should not be. This was a fact that he knew confused his staff, for at first glance, the Lords of Wrath and Oblivion had much in common. Both ruled their eponymous regions without challenge. As the goblin hordes ranged the Oblivion Mountains, Rade's primal warriors roved the Sands of Wrath to the west. Both were supremely powerful individuals who believed firmly in survival of the fittest, that the strong were meant to rule, the weak: to serve. And both had zero patience for the sentimental drivel spouted by the quixotic, idealistic fools with bleeding hearts who had the naivete or perhaps sheer stupidity to proclaim otherwise. They both even had the same favorite color.
         But while Ceravic had his primal side, he viewed it as something of a luxury, which he allowed himself to indulge on the battlefield or in other contests. While he believed in power and assertion, he also believed in control, and of poise, things of which Rade had not a scintilla of understanding. In all areas where the Goblin King was regal and elegant, the Savage Chief was a snarling brute who acted on every animalistic urge, without forethought or consideration of the consequences. Ceravic had tried numerous times to use this difference in mentality to his advantage, but every occasion on which he had tried to use subtlety to overwhelm his simple-minded nemesis, Rade somehow seemed aware, and had responded with overwhelming force applied both precisely and devastatingly.
         It's a waste of a Player, he thought with disgust.
         And oh, how I abhor waste.
         "It is a waste, isn't it?" the shadows around him asked in a dark, sardonic voice.
         Ceravic smiled briefly as he looked over at the nearly invisible black-clad figure that had, for all intents and purposes, just materialized next to him. "Sorry, was I thinking out loud?"
         "In a manner of speaking." Nex gestured with a pale hand towards the general vicinity of Ceravic's face. "Loudly enough for those who know how to listen, anyway. And it's written all over your face, for those who know how to read it."
         "And you know how to listen and read, I suppose."
         "I am uniquely talented."
         "So you're fond of saying."
         Nex's lips quirked, and he turned to regard the distant masses steadily gaining ground across the valley's charnel floor. His fingers slid beneath his robes, and two of them reappeared holding a thin slab of stone. For a moment he just stood there, staring at it. The representation of his magic, his one great love. "So I am," he murmured in absent response to the King's last comment, and started reading the words cut into the stone. As he did so, he angled his staff at a point in the sky somewhere over the valley.
         He read the sharp, cutting words smoothly, concisely, biting out each word with controlled focus. "Nec strithec ashcaishra sorcs cortric scre caith."
         An indefinable red aura grew around him. Barely noticeable at first, it intensified the longer he recited. Beside him, the Goblin King watched with his usual cool composure, but with a trace of mounting excitement just barely palpable that Nex, even distracted as he was, still managed to pick up on.
         Nex reached the end of his spell. He paused to revel in all the power with which he was engorged. "Operation Conflagration," he remarked wryly, "is go."
         Ribbons of flame erupted from the end of his staff. Twisting and writhing skyward in a chain of fire, they struck the clouds and vanished from view, a concentrated inferno with no end in sight. The black sky started turning red as the blaze surged out of the staff. The advancing army halted to gaze up in awe at the reddening clouds. The flames poured out of the staff for a considerable time with no hint of stopping. Nex's face, which had, at first, been enraptured by the power he was wielding, started to sweat. His look of rapture faded into focus, then grim determination, a fact that Ceravic, standing beside him, did not miss.
         "Nex," he said coolly, with perhaps a hint of concern, "is there a problem?"
The sorcerer did not respond.
Ceravic wasn't surprised. Even with the spell-slabs to handle the storage of the spells' power, maintaining spells of the high caliber that Nex had selected must have been causing him considerable strain. Ceravic scoffed mentally, eyes reflecting the scorching stream that still swelled the skies with flame. Personally, he thought Nex had probably bitten off a bit more than he could chew.
         Nex's grim determination had by now faded into glaring refusal to succumb to fatigue. He had both his hands on the staff now. I'm in no real danger, he said to himself, this is just a little more... taxing... than I thought it would be.
         He had assumed Sinder's invention would take the edge off, but all it seemed to have done was save him the trouble of reciting the spell from memory. He still seemed to need all the mana he would normally.
With that being the case, he wondered, is this even worth the while?
         The advancing army watched the red-orange threads issuing forth from the castle's ramparts for a while, first in mesmeric awe, then just waiting for them to end. After a full minute, feet started shifting impatiently, eyes wandered around surreptitiously, and eventually they decided to put the phenomenon, inexplicable as it was, out of their minds.
         The chieftain of this particular band roared, shook a sword that reflected the eerie bands of red and orange in the sky, and rushed forward to the abode of the legendary Goblin King.
         Finally, the flames abated.
         The sorcerer staggered forward in something of a collapse, clutching his staff for support. Head down, he a pile of dust at his feet, and realized the spell-slab had disintegrated after use. Sinder had made no mention of that.
         Head still down, he was in a position to see the city-castle's front doors burst open, and a horde of shrieking, excited little monsters rushing forth, utterly ecstatic at the prospect of battle. In spite of his fatigue, and the realization that his grand plan might not be so grand after all, he managed a faint smile. The goblins had arrived in time to supply an audience that would survive to relate in hushed whispers the second half of the spell.
         The gibbering little psychopaths had barely burst forth from the main gate when it started to rain fire.
         Nex wrenched his exhausted head up to watch flurries of flame fulgurate to the ground at a steep angle, bombarding the barbarians. The bonfire he had just forwarded to the heavens was now deluging the castle's intrepid and extremely unfortunate attackers in a cataclysmic pyre.
         "Naiisca!" he hissed, and his staff's crystal burst into bright green light. He wanted the credit for this occurrence to be his, and his staff's telltale green light was well-known enough to be sure that the goblins would associate him with the fiery devastation before them.
         Beside him, and very much beside the staff when it lit up, Ceravic grimaced in irritation as its light flooded his unprepared eyes. Glowering as Nex smirked, the Goblin King hopped up onto the ramparts' defensive crenellations and drew his sword. A quick flash of red flared through the night as he did so.
"Blykstoks gect uglrushneft gaf grantatch!" his voice rang out in guttural, resounding, and infectious fervor. Gibberish to the sorcerer, (though he had always meant to learn some goblin, he could never seem to find the time) but apparently the height of inspiration for the goblins, who let out an enthusiastic battle roar and charged forward in the highest of spirits.
         Ceravic glanced back at Nex just long enough to say "Well done," offhandedly, and then leapt clear off the balcony.
         Nex watched his descent with a tired sort of delight--this was a trick he never tired of seeing--as the Lord of Oblivion's lordly robes of stylized red and blue billowed tightly around him, somehow (impossibly) catching the air rushing past him in such a manner that allowed him a light, harmless, and all-around impressive crouched landing in the midst of the goblin army.
         He straightened regally and rushed forward with inhuman speed to meet the barbarians, followed by his delighted army, sword held out behind him. He plunged into the flaming mass that was the opposing army with no visible regard for his own safety. His sword flashed in all directions, flickering this way and that like a swarm of striking, metallic snakes, cleaving a path through the burning flesh of his enemies. He cut his way through the living blaze in a swath of flying limbs and trails of blood, felling a score of enemies before his army caught up with him. Red light flashed around him frequently, and a keen observer might have noted these flashes corresponded with every life his sword claimed.
         The goblins will be called many things (a sample list might include the terms pugnacious, dim-witted, craven, mindless, smelly, unpleasant... to name a few) but they will never be called brave. Nevertheless, it was easy to see that they were at least somewhat emboldened by the facts that a seemingly unstoppable killing machine led them, and that there was an extremely high likelihood of all their foes burning to death within a matter of minutes, regardless of their own combative adequacy. Or lack thereof.
         As the Lord of Oblivion tore through the enemy at the center, Ferus and Sobgib led detachments of the goblin army to their left and right flanks, respectively. Here was visible a fascinating and three-pronged juxtaposition of strategy, as each of the three attacked their opponents with different priorities. Ceravic was all blinding speed and blurring steel, utterly indifferent to the presence or absence of supporting troops.
         Ferus towered over the tribal warriors, intimidating and physically bullying them into tactical positions that resulted in their being hacked apart by the goblins. He dispatched heavy numbers himself, but all the while tactically maneuvering the enemy into getting overwhelmed by the largest pockets of goblins.
         Sobgib was behind his faction, protected by an entourage of larger-than-average goblins, occasionally firing off bolts from his crossbows into whatever openings presented themselves. He wore a special neck brace that positioned a sophisticated cone of metal in front of his mouth. He yelled out instructions into it, and his voice came out amplified tenfold, loud enough for the goblins to hear and act upon his directives.
         Above the chaos, a tiny globe of green light winked out as its conjurer vanished to his laboratory, to ponder whether he had succeeded or failed.

- - - - - - -


         As the delighted denizens of the city-castle reflected on their spectacular triumph, their king was nowhere to be found, but such was the intensity with which they focused on their celebration that none missed him.
         Well, almost none.
         Nex waded his way through the crowd with distaste, ignoring the indignant yelps that rang out as he cleared his way of clutter (as he saw the goblins) with negligent sweeps of his staff, looking around for His Majesty. Their yelps quickly subsided to sullen mutters as they recognized the black-clad visage that stalked their midst.
         The sorcerer's eyes flicked hither and thither, eventually riveting themselves to the monstrous form of Ferus, who was guffawing heartily at something the goblins were passing amongst themselves. Figuring the Goblin King's military hand might have been apprised of the former's whereabouts, Nex swatted clear a path to the gaggle of goblins that were amusing Ferus so. His hearty guffaws became considerably less hearty when he happened to catch sight of the unnaturally intense green eyes focused so unwaveringly upon his own. The goblins, noticing Ferus's abstraction, turned to see what he was looking at for themselves, and a ripple of shudders seemed to pass through them as they saw who approached. They were enjoying themselves, and they didn't need the disconcerting presence of the sorcerer ruining the fun.
         "Ferus, my good friend!" Nex called with a passable imitation of sincerity. The goblins parted in the approach of those black robes, the revelry they had so recently been evincing vanishing with startling alacrity.
         Ferus regarded Nex warily, like the goblins, but without fear, unlike the goblins. "Good friend you say, Nex?" he rumbled dryly. "I had no idea we were on such intimate terms."
         A lazy smile appeared briefly on the thin face in appreciation of the big man's wit. It was far better, in his mind, for someone to have the brains (and courage) to make fun of him than the lack thereof to be incapable of doing so. "My friend is necessity," the sorcerer responded, "and right now, I need Ceravic. Where is he?"
         Ferus cast his gaze around the room. His vantage point was unrivaled by anyone else in the castle. Possibly the city. Nex was quite tall himself, but within the scope of normal tallness. Ferus was downright massive.
         As he searched, Nex, who was easily bored, inspected the assorted goblins who had been hobnobbing ever so mirthfully with Ferus, seeking the source of their recently (and abruptly) silenced laughter. His eyes came to a rest on the severed head of a barbarian, that the goblins had been passing amongst themselves in the height of glee. The wretch that happened to be holding the head in its filthy claws tensed when it felt itself come under the unwavering scrutiny of those green eyes. The claws tightened protectively around their grisly prize, and, glaring mistrustfully at the sorcerer, the goblin slowly passed it behind his back.
         Nex wasn't entirely sure how to respond to the assumption that he could possibly want the demented trophy, but he was spared the necessity of reacting at all when Ferus rumbled, "His Majesty doesn't seem to be here."
         "What? Why not?" Nex demanded coldly, abandoning all pretense of camaraderie.
         Ferus blinked, stung by the sudden edge in the mage's voice. "I don't know," he said coolly. "The King does not report his comings and goings to me."
         When the sorcerer did nothing more than glare at him in expectant anger, Ferus felt compelled to add, "Last I saw him was in the main gateway. He dropped back, telling us that he would be along shortly."
         Nex held the glare a moment longer, delving into the big man's recent memories, using them to verify his words. There was Ceravic all right, laughing pleasantly. Coming out of the laugh, his gaze seemed abstracted for the minutest of moments, and then he did indeed say for them to go on ahead, and that he would be along shortly. Unintentionally maintaining eye contact, Nex pondered. Ceravic had seen something in the dark, massive tunnel that he must have felt needed his attention. Would he still be there? Perhaps Nex could yet catch him. Then again, he supposed he did not really need the King. He just had wanted to mention to him his next plan, though was certainly under no obligation to do so.
         Ferus, who was still on the other end of the his none-too-gentle stare, unaware that the attention of those green eyes was elsewhere, cleared his throat loudly. "That's all I know. Read my mind or something, if you don't believe me."
         Awareness of his surroundings returned to the sorcerer. He registered the man's words and smirked. "There's no such thing as mind-reading," he muttered disdainfully, turning away.
         Before his next step touched his foot to the ground, he had vanished, leaving behind only a faint ripple in the air.

- - - - - - -


ESCAPING DREAMS

I do not wish to wake
To reenter the world of light
From which I make nightly escape
To a world much more bright
Hazy shapes swim before me
Coalescing in the first light of dawn
Into the depressing familiarity
Of all that I wish gone
As the sun, uncaring, continues its rise
Its inexorable ascent
And I try to follow, but cannot,
My dreams, to wherever they went.


         Xandra, having slept the afternoon away, woke from all-too-pleasant dreams at sunset. Unable to think of anything but her meeting that day with the Lord of the city, she paced the small living space until her mother and sister said she was becoming annoying, and if she insisted on pacing about, she do it outside.
         She did so insist, and so it was that she was walking past the front gates of the outer wall when the alarm trumpets blared, enormous horns that were connected via underground passages to the central castle. Men in dusky red robes--Ceravic's Gateguard--came out of secret passages in the ramparts surrounding the main gates, to ensure that all retreated to a safe distance. The Goblin King chose to use humans for purposes of mingling with other humans, as he had found the majority of the populace had some unfathomable aversion to his minions of choice.
         Xandra, however, decided not to go with the pull of the crowd. She often wandered the city at night, and she knew full well how to avoid the Gateguard. It wasn't that hard, really. She had made a game of it, once, and had, in fact, charted out the surprisingly simple pattern of their patrols.
         And for now, she was curious about the alarm trumpets. They had never before blared twice in the same day.
         So she waited, hidden in the alcoves of the main gates, until the crowds receded and the city emptied. She watched the Gateguard carefully, staying out of their sight without much difficulty, and after they had gone their supposedly recondite ways, she emerged, watching for the army that must soon be dispatched. She was in for another wait, but at least it passed interestingly. There was an inexplicable arabesque of orange light slowly pervading the sky, as if someone had set the clouds on fire. It swelled for a time, then plateaued. A tiny point of green light drew her eyes upward, but what its source was, she could not tell. Distracted by the sky as she was, she almost failed to see the goblins coming.
         She ducked back just in time (goblins didn't seem to be particularly observant) and the army marched out. To her surprise, she did not see Ceravic, who would, she figured, be leading the march out. There had been exactly two humans at the front of the line. One had been rather wiry and the other had been positively enormous. She shuddered without knowing why. It was a mystery to her, but the sight of a heavily muscled man had always filled her with some unreasonable dread. The two were dressed in fine armor of reddish tint.
         The goblins, she noticed, wore no sort of uniform. They each carried a different kind of weapon. It was kind of surprising; weren't armies supposed to be steeped in discipline and uniformity? Of course, this was Ceravic's army. The Lord of Oblivion preferred things to be as inchoate as possible. Chaos, oblivion, instability... these were the conditions under which Ceravic thrived. Which was, of course, why he got on so well with the goblins.
         The massive gates swung open smoothly, perfectly timed so as to not slow the advance of the army. She remained in the shadows until they had passed, and stayed there after the gates had laboriously sealed themselves again, wondering what to do then.
         I suppose I could just go home, where I'm supposed to be.
         That idea came and went without making much of an impression. She settled on a far more arresting idea: watch the battle. She had no idea of how to do this, but she figured there was a way to the top of the great walls that currently shadowed her. She adjusted her thin black cloak around her and slinked into the massive alcove after the army, before the gates closed behind it. She kept her eyes on the walls, looking for the doorway she supposed must exist. Her search was impeded by the absolute lightlessness that existed in the huge tunnel.
         "Shraic silcrest scorcset ectrecsit scalithric," she said, and her upraised fist became a torch of red-gold flame. She rather hoped none of the goblins turned around. Presumably, the threat they were rushing out to face would keep their attention focused forward. For her part, she kept her attention on the walls around her, looking for a doorway, or a staircase. Or an arrow. Something. She had to get very close to the stone in order to actually be able to see anything: the light generated from her Fire Globule spell didn't reach very far.
         After a search that was permeated with the not-too-distant sounds of battle, she managed to find a doorway with a staircase in it. Ascending the staircase brought her to the top, and the edge, of the city. And from there she could see the attack, and the defense. Though, as far as she could tell, the only difference between attack and defense was direction.
         She moved to the edge of the crenellations. Her shoe scraped through a small pile of rock dust. It seemed like the enemy, a rove of barbarians, was doing pretty badly. She could see three reasons for this, and could explain only one of them. There looked to be at least three times the number of goblins as there were barbarians. That was the one that made sense; this was, after all, the center of the goblin horde. Xandra could explain that one. She could not explain the fire, or the way Ceravic moved. The battlefield looked like it had been set on fire before the armies had met. Like the clouds had ignited, and then fallen. She could think of no mechanism by which such a thing could have been accomplished.
         As for Ceravic, it was common knowledge that the Lord of Oblivion was possessed of abilities that defied all explanation. There was a semi-regular event he hosted called "Challenge Day" where he demonstrated the exact depth of his superiority to anyone who cared to partake. Xandra had never gone herself, but the stories circulated.
         Down below her, he was a blur of red and silver. Scarlet rings of energy erupted from him near-constantly, shredding through all opposition. For all his energy and apparent indifference with it, it was a wonder that he didn't hit any supporting forces. Goblins were at his back and at his sides, and not one of them fell. It occurred to her that, counter intuitively, the safest place down there was right next to the most dangerous person in the valley.
         The fight didn't last long. Within a short handful of minutes, there was nothing left for the goblins to hit, or for Ceravic to shred. The Goblin King let loose a high, clear call, in a harsh, guttural language, and everyone in earshot (excepting Xandra) turned around back to the gate. He collected the two humans to himself and moved through the mass of goblins to lead them back inside.
         Xandra made no move to hide herself, because she had long accepted that people never looked up. Besides, she was wrapped in her thin black cloak, and it was night. She should have been invisible. But Ceravic's eyes pinned themselves to her from the valley, as if he had been expecting to see her. His gaze held her immobile until he vanished into the entranceway beneath her. Then she was free to wonder frantically what to do. She couldn't exactly hide, and she would feel foolish trying, because she could tell he would find her. She couldn't go down back the way she came, because that was, no doubt, the same way he was coming up. So...
         I guess that leaves waiting.
         She kept her eyes outward, looking to the valley without seeing it. All her focus was diverted to her ears, as she waited to hear the footsteps she knew she would be joining her soon. The footsteps of the Lord of Oblivion.
         Boot heels sounded off stone and echoed through the air. Red fabric entered the right side of her periphery as he crossed his arms on the ramparts and joined her in her vigil.
         "I've never gone to Challenge Day," she said to the valley. "That was quite a show."
         The valley did not answer. Ceravic did, though.
         "It's what I do. It's what I live for, really."
         She had been wondering if a reprimand of any sort would be coming from him for being here. She now felt it was safe to dismiss that notion. She could feel his eyes on her, and she didn't sense an iota of disapproval. "So, let me ask you something, Your Majesty. You're always--"
         "Please call me Ceravic, Xandra," he said in his voice that was smooth and sharp all at once. "That's twelve," he added, and unvoiced laughter thrummed beneath his words.
         "Cer-a-vic," she said exactingly. She turned to meet his eyes, which were blue and green and beautiful. She couldn't help but smile. "Ceravic, you're always fighting off these attacks. Why do the barbarians hate you so much?"
         "Jealousy, perhaps," he said easily. He smiled ephemerally and shrugged. It was all very disarming. "Who knows?"
         "You're saying you don't even know why they attack you over and over?" She raised her feathery eyebrows. "That seems a little... unlikely."
         His aquatic eyes tightened slightly. "It's not really knowledge I want made public."
         "Oh. Well. I'm not the public. I'm just one person."
         "With a family. Possibly with friends, even. Each of whom, in turn, has family. And friends. The chain continues to make up the whole city."
         "So you're not going to tell me?" Xandra asked, a little surprised. All indications were that this man--the Lord of Oblivion--was under the effects of her charm. Most men seemed to have a real hard time denying her anything. Of course, Ceravic was obviously a very powerful person. If he was in any way addled by her spell, he was no doubt capable of offering a resistance to it. If there even was anything to resist. Xandra had no real reason to believe in the phenomenon she called her charm. It was just her best explanation for the interest she engendered in people. She supposed she could simply be extremely good-looking, but she had a hard time reconciling that theory with her ragged self-esteem.
         Not without reluctance, Ceravic seemed to decide to confide. "It's actually quite a long and involved tale," he said softly. "I am one of several... Players."
         "Players?" Xandra repeated. "What's the game?" When no answer seemed forthcoming, the guess, "War?" was made.
         "Players is the word we use for ourselves. It fits, for the most part. Although it does imply a certain friendliness, and between us, there is none. We are more contenders than anything else. It is a power struggle between us, that we refer to as the Game."
         "Is it fun?"
         "It is for us. The Game is what we live for. One great love that unifies us, even as it divides us. We are all... gifted, you see. Magically. And thus, it takes a lot to challenge us. We are, in fact, the only sources of challenge to each other. Which makes us invaluable to each other." He fell silent then, and frowned, as if displeased by the words he had just said. "Or at least, it did."
         She was confused, and she let it show, and he explained, "Earlier today, I learned that one of the Players--Marin, the Lord of Caprice--was dead. And it was another Player--Teth, Lord of Deception--who had killed him. I think."
         "You think?"
         "It had to have been Teth,"Ceravic said, as if trying to convince himself. "There was a mark of frostbite on his neck. Teth's sword is made of ice. He and Teth were allies; Teth practically prides himself on breaking promises. It fits."
         While Ceravic had been speaking, Xandra had been thinking. "I didn't know there was anyone else in the world like you. These contenders--the other Players--are as strong as you are?"
         Ceravic thought before answering. "Basically. Though we all tend to gravitate towards different specialties, as per our natures. Shun, for example, is the finest necromancer this world has ever seen, while Vishesque knows healing spells that practically enable him to defeat death."
         "Is any of the other Players stronger than you?" Xandra asked, trying to imagine someone as dangerous as Ceravic had been, down in the valley.
         "Simble is the strongest of us--the Silver King, over to the north. He fancies himself our leader, and he is, effectively, if only because none of us has the power to openly resist him. He's gone so far as to make rules that he insists we follow."
         Ceravic quieted again, and then added, "One of those rules was, 'no killing other Players.' Teth, however, was already Playing against Simble, so I suppose he felt he had nothing to lose by breaking his rules."
         "How would you win this Game?"
         Ceravic laughed musically. "You might think it strange, but winning the game has never been the goal. We all only desire to keep Playing."
         "But how would you win?" Xandra pressed. "I'm not idly curious. I have a point to make."
         "Is that right?" Ceravic surveyed her with renewed interest. Then he shrugged. "The same way you would win any game, I suppose. Remove your opponents from play."
         "Which, in this case, would mean killing them, right?"
         "It would."
         "Maybe Teth's decided that he doesn't just want to Play anymore. Maybe he's decided to win your Game."
         The warmth faded from his eyes and he gave her a long, hard look.
She stiffened, recoiling from him by slow inches. "What?" she asked.
         Unfathomably, he said. "I think you should come by the castle sometime."
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