Not entirely happy with this yet, but OK enough to post for people to see.
|As an acrid scent seared his nose, Kai snapped alert. He blinked his burning eyes and looked up to see a worried old woman peering down at him. He instinctively shoved the evil smelling vial in her hand away from his face. She vanished, only to be replaced by the dark, grim face of the baron.
"Up, man! We need you now! My scouts report that thousands of the Gorangan scum surround my lands, led by those hell priests who cannot be killed!"
Kai sat up, head spinning. "Gorangan scum, are they now, my lord Baron? I believe, last we spoke, you claimed they were your innocent neighbors and ordered me to be silent."
The baron's face reddened. "Aye, you can gloat. I should have listened to you. I am listening now, lad."
"And now, of course, you want my aid and advice, after it is too late." Kai sighed. "Tell me why I should not just vanish through the between ways and leave you to your doom?"
"My keep is packed with townsfolk and visiting masters and apprentices. We have a fine well, but not enough provisions stockpiled to support so many. We are not prepared to outlast a long siege. If the mages abandon us, the Keep will fall, and all within it will be slaughtered on their altars like pigs! Would you leave so many innocents to die out of spite at one old warlord's angry words?"
Kai rose from his bed and walked to the window to view the smoldering ruins of the town's main street. He could hear the clamor of warning bells ringing from the watch towers at the outer edges of the city. A steady stream of refugees, men and women, old and young, was pouring through the gates from all directions. Many pushed handcarts filled with beloved possessions. Soldiers escorted much more valuable carts loaded high with sacks of grain and other supplies. The courtyard below was a chaotic mess, as the baron's folk tried to organize the incoming human masses.
A sharp pang of sorrow wracked him, and he bowed his head, fighting tears. He felt a hollow emptiness inside, where his too brief link to her had once been. His heart ached at the loss. He wondered where, down there, Misty had breathed her last. He had not saved her, but he would save her people. He swore it!
"Yes, Baron, I will aid you in any way I can. I could never live with the deaths of innocents on my conscious, even human ones. Be very grateful that is it I who am here, and not one of the full blood brethren. They would have left you to lie in the bed you made. So, what would you have of me, Baron?"
"I need to know what you can do--besides throw that lightning of yours that seems to be the only thing that can kill the priests. Can you devise a way to get our women and children to safety? Can you get us supplies and reinforcements? Can you summon other mages to help us?"
"I can certainly move the refugees through the between ways portal to the Mage Citadel. I do insist that the wounded, and the women and children go first. Moving such massive amounts of people will take a great deal of my strength. I will require some rest between shifting them, especially if I need to hold defenses against the priests as well. I will have the refugees carry a message summoning the council also, and..." Kai fell silent and his gaze sharpened as he scanned further out though the city. Something was wrong--the bells! They had fallen silent. A curse from the Baron made him jump.
"Gods help us! The watch towers have fallen. The army must be nearly at our gates!"
Kai heard the slow beat of the Gorangan war drums, throbbing like a heartbeat. Flames flickered up anew at the edges of town. Screams rose from the city as the people fled for the gates, trampling each other in their haste. Carts and supplies were abandoned. The soldiers struggled to keep order, but were swept up in mad rush for the gates.
Kai followed as the Baron ran from the room, and down into the courtyard.
The baron bellowed orders as he ran. "Hurry, get them all inside! We must close the gates! Archers to the walls, now! Ready the catapults!"
From the walls they could now see wave upon wave of robed soldiers marching down the market street, cutting down stragglers as they marched steadily forward. Racing before them were several riders, the last of the Baron's scout force. Folk scattered as the warhorses thundered into the courtyard. The great bronze gates were slammed shut and barred behind them, nearly in the faces of the invading force.
Kai touched the "Get as many to the Portal now as you can, Baron! I will meet them there and begin transferring them. We have little time left before you will need my strength to combat the priest's magics."
Kai left the walls and descended down into the Keep's depths. He entered a vast chamber, to find the grim view of rows of stretchers containing the injured, each attended by two strong women to be their bearers. Everywhere, crowds of women and young children stood, clinging to each other. More and more entered the room behind him. Cries of pain and sorrow echoed through the Portal room. "And this is only the beginning," Kai sighed to himself.
He picked his way through the stretchers until he reached the far end of the chamber, where two towering white pillars framed a mass of roiling dark clouds. He ran his fingers over the intricately carved marble. Only a few of the oldest fortresses had such a gateway. The Portal to the Between Ways connected them to the Mage Citadel, and this was one of the most beautiful. Most portals were scattered about the land--hidden from all but the Mages. Those were little more than rough-hewn cave openings that allowed the mages to come and go to collect tithes and commissions without the tedium and hardship of travel.
Even in this grim situation, Kai's lips quirked in humor as he contemplated the faces of the Mages on the other side of the Portal when this bunch of bedraggled humans invaded their pristine towers.
"Concentrate, Kai!" he whispered. Then he closed his eyes, shutting out the noise and confusion, and began to pool his power. He felt the surging of the sea within, and reached out to touch the mists between the two carved pillars. It cleared instantly, revealing a scene of a vast white marble hall lined with hundreds of pillars framing cloud-filled doorways.
Misty woke in confusion as she was jolted about. "Why is my bed moving?" she thought muzzily. She struggled to sit up, nearly knocking her basket onto the floor. A young, darkly beautiful woman passing alongside her caught the basket and placed it back next to her.
"Relax, young lady. We are almost to the Portal chamber. The Archmage is going to evacuate us. Just lay still, and you will soon be safe." She hurried on ahead.
Her bearers entered a cavernous room. The pallet was lowered to the floor amongst rows and rows of others. Her vision swirled and darkened as she tried to rise again. She collapsed back again into unconsciousness.
She was jolted back awake as her pallet was again lifted into the air. She came to full alertness as she heard Kai's voice.
"You may now pass. Hurry, my good people, for I am not sure how long I can hold this portal open for so many. "
The women and children milled about uncertainly, obviously terrified of passing through the Between Ways. Cries of worry and protest filled the air, only to be cut off by a loud roar as the Baron entered the room.
"Don't stand there like a bunch of gawping fools! Get moving! I need the Archmage on the walls now! Wounded first, then children, then women. Or would you rather all stay and be slaughtered by those demon priests?" He turned to Kaimana. "They are at the gates, and they are up to something. It smells of fire and brimstone!"
Still no one moved, until Jess stepped forward. Misty smiled to see him. "Ain't nothing to this!" He grinned and gave a cocky bow to the Baron and the watching women and then stepped through the Portal, instantly appearing in the hall. He turned to wave to them. Misty was jolted again as the bearers trudged forward.
A explosion from above rocked the chamber, sending cracks snaking through the walls and showering the women and children with stone dust.
The women panicked and began pushing past the lines of stretchers and through the gate.
"Gods, what have those priests done to my Keep! Archmage, to the walls as quickly as you can, if they still stand!" The baron whirled about, drawing his sword as he ran from the room.
"Kai!" Misty cried out as she and her bearers were swept through the portal with the mass exodus, but she never knew if he heard her over the noise and confusion.