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It began with a single troll charging out from behind a tree. The lone creature wildly waved an axe above its head as it ran. Then, in the blink of an eye, fifteen or twenty more monsters followed, appearing from behind trees to the left and right. There seemed to be about equal numbers of trolls and ogres in the charge. Riding among the group, prodding them on, were the two red knights, brandishing pure black swords over their heads as they rode.
The mage in the black robe was nowhere to be seen, but a strange sight trailed behind the attacking party twenty paces back - a thick, dark, swirling cloud of dust and dirt that spun and danced its way across the field without ever touching the ground. Al heard someone gasp the words "air elemental".
As the group of ogres and trolls got within range, the archers behind the wall opened fire. Five arrows arced out across the field, but only two hit their targets, neither one causing a mortal wound. The charge was much closer now. A second volley of arrows was released, this time with three hits. Two trolls stumbled and fell to the ground in screams of pain. And the attackers were up to the wall.
The first troll, the one which had left the woods before its companions, attempted to leap over the pikes that stuck out at a forty-five degree angle from the ground by the wall. Its arms stretched out to reach for the top of the wall, but its jump was short and its left leg caught upon one of the wooden pikes, impaling its lower leg and pulling it back to the ground with a snap of breaking bone.
Most of the other creatures stopped in time to avoid the pikes, choosing instead to throw their weapons at the humans they saw poking out above the top of the wall. Four or five of the ogres swung massive clubs into the pikes, snapping them in half or knocking them to the side so they could get right up to the wall. One of the red knights hung behind the group, now with a crossbow in his hand letting fly bolts at the town defenders. The second knight ran parallel to the wall, weaving in and out of the monsters, slashing through wooden pikes here and there to make more room for the trolls and ogres to reach the wall.
The townsfolk swung axes, polearms and pitchforks out from the wall, stabbing at any creature that came too close; but the monsters did their best to knock aside or even grab and pull the weapons from the humans. Arrows shot periodically from the wall, and from the smithy behind, but they came slower than before - three of the archers had now taken up closer range weapons to fend off the beasts that were trying to jump up and scale the wall.
The air elemental was now gliding right up next to the knight with the crossbow, and it stopped there. The sound of a howling wind could be heard over the sounds of battle, and suddenly a pillar of flame grew out of the ground beneath one of the men at the wall. In moments it enveloped him. The man began to cry out, but he was dead before the full scream could escape from his lungs. As the pillar of flame dissipated, ashes fell to the ground among bone, and the smell of sulfur and burning flesh was heavy around the area on which the man had stood just moments before.
"Vas An Ort," Al heard coming from behind him, and he risked a quick glance back to note the speaker - one of the green-robed mages of the Council.
The air elemental bounced back two paces as if an invisible wall had struck it, but it immediately floated forward again back into its place. Again, a howling wind pierced through the sounds of clashing swords and axes, and a bolt of flame shot out from the middle of the dark, swirling cloud. As it flew through the air, it grew larger and larger, until it was a ball of fire half a meter in diameter, and a full meter long. It sailed right toward the roof of the smithy, where Anna stood raining her arrows down on the ogres and trolls along the wall.
"Anna!" Al screamed as he turned to warn her, but she was already bounding from her position, over onto the sloped portion of the roof, rolling as she hit it. Her bow left her hands and bounced down the roof, over its edge, and down to the ground where it snapped. Anna clawed at the shingles to avoid following the bow, but she could do nothing to stop her momentum, and she began to slide down toward the edge of the roof.
"Nooo!" Al cried out, jumping from his platform at the wall, but there was nothing he could do. Anna hit the edge of the roof and slid sideways off of it. Her arm shot out to grasp for the edge of the roof, and she managed to make contact. The weakest of grips left her dangling helplessly, and she cried out for help.
Her fingers slowly slid from their position. Al sprinted toward her. Just as she lost her grasp and began to fall, a crossbow bolt from the red knight landed right where she had been hanging a moment before. As her body fell, Al positioned himself right below her, arms held wide hoping to catch her.
She landed right in his muscular arms, but the force of the impact slammed his body to the ground, his thick chest cushioning her fall. The pair of bodies grunted with pain as they met the ground, and a bone snapped. Al tried to cry out, but the wind had been knocked out of his lungs, and he managed only a yelp of pain.
Someone helped Anna off of Al. Aside from some bruises and having the wind knocked out of her, she appeared okay. Al tried to reach for her, but his left arm stopped after half an inch, terrible pain shooting up the forearm.
A lady pushed him back to the ground, and after a moment he recognized Marabelle, the apprentice of Kyla the healer. She called out to a young assistant boy standing behind her holding a large pack, and he brought forward a splint. She attached it to Al's left arm, asking if he was hurt anywhere else. Anna stood over Marabelle's shoulder with a worried look in her deep blue eyes.
"I'm fine," he managed to grunt through the pain, "really, I am. Just my arm. Really, I'm fine." After the splint was firmly in place, he tested the movement of his left arm, then stood up with Anna's help. The two exchanged a quick hug, and a whisper of thanks from Anna, before turning back to the wall to rejoin the battle.
Along the wall, men had fallen to the clubs, axes or claws of the attackers, and the ogres were presently attempting to smash their way right through the gate itself. To his left, Al heard the green mage chanting another spell. "Vas An Ort," the sorcerer spoke as he waved his hands out toward the field. Al heard a man off to the right shout with shock that the air elemental had just vanished.
Anna had already found and discarded her broken bow, and was now brandishing a short sword that one of the dead townsmen had dropped. She jumped up onto the man's empty platform just in time to plant the sword in the neck of a troll that was slipping over the unprotected wall. Al grabbed a one-handed axe and readied himself right behind the shaking gate in preparation for its breaking. I have to keep the beasts out of the town! If they break through into town, all Hell will break loose!
A woman stood beside him, firmly gripping a long pitchfork in her hands, a look of both desperate fear and desperate courage in her eyes. Moments later, Malic was beside them, a pair of blood-covered old swords in his hands, and a few paces behind him stood a pair of boys, barely twelve years to either one, holding hatchets.
Thud, the gate shook as a pair of large ogres slammed their whole weight into it. Thud, it came again, and with it the cracking of a few boards in the gate. Thud, a third hit, this one snapping the barrier lock in half. The gate doors swung open, and in charged three ogres and a troll. Al brought a quick slash of his axe down along one of the ogre's legs, then fell back to avoid its spiked club. The woman with the pitchfork stabbed at another ogre, but the beast seemed unafraid, and knocked the weapon aside with his huge bare fists, stepping forward after each deflection. Malic was circling the third ogre, looking for an opportunity to strike with one of his swords. The troll darted by the group and came around from the side to attack the young boys.
Al jumped back first to one side, then the other, trying to avoid the heavy spiked club that kept barely missing his head. He could find no chance to get in another slash with his axe, and he noticed he was backing slowly toward the wall of the smithy, where he would find no place to fall back from the ogre's onslaught.
He renewed his attempts to get in a strike of his own, but failed and left himself off balance. The ogre raised its club overhead, ready to send it falling right into Al's skull, but before it could do so, a short length of metal shot right out of the thing's belly, stopping it cold. The ogre swayed back and forth a moment, looking down at the sword tip poking out of its stomach, before falling sideways to the ground and dropping the club. Right behind where it had stood was Anna, a big grin spread across her elfin face.
"Now we are even," she said, then stooped to remove her blade from the ogre's corpse. The pair of them hurried over to the aid of the woman with the pitchfork, who was now backed against a wall and holding her arms up to shield herself from the ogre who was just about to send its fist through her. Al yelled at the ogre, and threw his small axe toward it. The axe sliced a shallow cut through the thing's arm before bouncing off and falling to the ground, but the attack managed to draw the its attention away from the woman.
Anna quickly darted in before it could react, and slashed her blade in a deep gash across its thigh. An upstroke sent the blade clean through the ogre's already wounded arm, dropping the bloody limb to the ground. It tried to take a swinging punch at Anna using its other arm, but its injured leg slowed it enough for Anna to dodge the blow. By now the other woman had retrieved her dropped pitchfork, and she plunged it right into the ogre from behind. A second deep stab from the pitchfork sent the massive monster lifelessly to the ground.
The third ogre's corpse lay on the ground not five feet away, and neither the troll or the boys were anywhere to be seen. A flash of motion and the sound of clashing blades drew Al's attention to the gate, where old Malic tried in vain to hold back the pair of mounted red knights, each deftly parrying his thrusts with their pitch black blades. Malic stumbled backwards, weary not just of the two blades that kept searching for his head with each counterstrike, but of the very horses upon which the knights sat, obviously experienced horses trained for close battle.
Al, Anna and the other woman rushed forward to aid Malic, but before they got in close, the green-robed Council mage came darting around the corner of the smithy and immediately began a spell.
"In Ex Grav," the mage chanted and a seven foot wide row of spikes composed of bluish energy shot up from the ground, touching and bloodlessly penetrating the bellies of both horses. The animals' eyes bulged with shock, and they completely stopped moving. The spikes of energy appeared again coming right from the top of the knights' helms. Both armored men froze in midswing, unable to move. The spikes that rose from the ground between or beside the horses just struck straight upward before coming to a stop about nine feet above the ground. As soon as the spikes reached the top of the nine foot field, they dissipated, and appeared again at the ground, once again rising upward and passing through both horses and riders.
Malic hesitated only an instant before striking out with both his swords, one at each rider. His swords easily found the vulnerable chinks in unmoving red armor, and blood trickled slowly out of very deep wounds in the knight's sides. However, as Malic's swords passed into the knights and through the field that held them, Malic himself stopped moving, frozen leaning up and forward with his arms stretched out in stabbing motion.
When the field of paralysis the mage had created wore off a few moments later, the two red knights dropped their black blades in shock and clutched at their injured sides. Malic fell forward to the ground, letting go of his blades, which were still sticking out of the mens' sides. Both knights swayed in their seats, life draining from their features, but one made a move for a short sword strapped to his back.
Before he could pull it free though, Anna dashed forward and jumped at the rider, sending her own short blade into the hole in his faceplate. The man fell from his mount, and his companion soon followed. The horses backed away, still terrified of the paralysis that had shocked them, and now without riders to guide them. One of the animals turned and galloped out the broken gate, and the other followed right behind.
Al helped Malic to his feet, and they turned around to thank the mage for his quick thinking and help. The man nodded to them with a thin smile, then suddenly his eyes widened and the smile melted from his lips as he looked up behind the townsfolk. Al and the rest turned around to see a horse had trotted back up to the gate, but this one held a rider, a woman in a black mage's robe.
The mage from the woods! Al recalled with dread, the memory of a black-robed rider at the end of the invading party flooding back into his mind. She must be the one who summoned that air elemental!
The mage behind Al tried to begin an incantation, but the sorceress on the horse had already casted a spell of her own, and the forefinger of her right hand was pointing right over Al's head at the Council mage. A swirl of yellow sparkles enveloped her hands for a moment, then disappeared.
Behind him, Al heard a painful half-grunt, half-scream. He turned around to see a pillar of flame enveloping the green-robed man just as the elemental's earlier flamestrike had enveloped the man at the wall. Where the Council mage had stood moments before, now was a charred pile of bone and ash, bits of green cloth and blood scattered here and there throughout.
"Vas Ort Grav," the black-robed sorceress began another spell. In the middle of her chanting and flourishing of fingers, as Al, Malic, Anna and the other woman were slowly backing away in fear, something struck the woman from the side. The butt of an arrow stuck out of the side of her torso, and she stopped her spell with a gasp of pain, swinging her head in the direction the arrow had come from.
Al took the advantage of the moment, plucking up one of the black longswords that sat on the ground next to the red knights' corpses. He swung it back over his head, and brought it down with all his might right into the back of the woman's left shoulder, slicing deep into her armorless body. She tried to raise her hand and mumble the words of a spell, but it was too late, life was already draining from her pale face.
Al let go of the dark blade as the woman tumbled backwards off the side of her horse right toward where he was standing. He stepped back as she fell to the ground, twisting to fall right onto the arrow in her other side, further impaling herself. Al stepped back further from the body, still holding some fear she might yet live. But the figure in the black robe moved no more, and Al finally brought himself to peel his gaze off of her and look around.
Down the wall to both sides of the gate, men were stepping down from the platforms they had been fighting upon, apparently clear of trolls and ogres outside the gate. Unfortunately, every three or so platforms had a corpse instead of a man. The healer apprentice Marabelle and her young assistant rushed from body to body, from man to man, treating the worst of the wounds.
Some of the men that were still in good shape started toward the east gate, where fighting could still be heard. Al, Anna and Malic followed in the same direction, while the woman who had been with them stayed to cautiously prod at the dead Minaxian mage with her pitchfork.
Before they reached the area of the east gate, they encountered a pair of men with bows, one of them Alaric, coming from the direction the earlier arrow had been fired. The men looked disheveled and frightened.
"Don't go back there," Alaric pointed behind him toward the east gate. "That thing is unstoppable! That monsterous beast smashed down the gate with a single blow of its huge fist, and killed nearly every man at the east gate with ease! Arrows litter it like a pin cushion, but it doesn't even seem to notice them! No man with a sword or axe can get close enough to it without falling to a gigantic fist. That thing crushes full-grown men as if they were rabbits!"
Al nervously surveyed the buildings to the northeast, looking for signs of this thing that had Alaric so spooked. If what he says is true...how can we possible stop such a thing?!
Malic tried to stammer out some words. "An...an...ogre...lord?" he asked.
Alaric nodded grimly. "One of those green mages let loose a volley of spells at the thing. It seemed to be working, the monster was slowing down and in visible pain. But it turned its assault on the mage, chasing the man as he frantically casted spells to teleport him around the area. Eventually the ogre lord caught up to him and...and crushed him."
Alaric's eyes were wide with fright, and he kept darting glances back at the sounds of destruction coming from the east gate. "Where...where is that second Council mage? He came to the east gate to help us for a short time, then suddenly dashed back this way. We followed, and found only you and that bitch-mage of Minax. Where did that cowardly green-robe go?"
Malic pointed back down the short road at the side of the smithy. "...that pile of bones there is where he went. The black sorceress...burned him alive."
Alaric groaned loudly. Al and Anna exchanged nervous glances.
What can we possible do now to stop this ogre lord? Al asked himself despairingly. Before he could voice his question to the group around him though, he noticed something beyond Alaric and the other bowman. A vertical shimmer of blue waved through the air, began to twist and widen. Al just pointed at it with disbelieving eyes, mouth hanging open. More invading mages he thought. It's over, it's really over.
The rest of the group turned to watch the blue gate widen fully and open up to reveal a large, dark, torch-lit room out of which stepped a man and woman, both in plain colored tunics and trousers, with light gray traveling cloaks draped over their backs. Each held a book in their hand, a spellbook.
As soon as the man and woman were free from the gate, it snapped shut, and the pair of them looked around. They immediately found Al's group, and approached.
They bowed to the townsfolk, and the woman spoke: "I am Selene, and this is my husband Corlan. We are the protection your mayor Caine hired. He called for us on the communication crystal my husband left. Where is he?"
"I know not," Al spoke, "it's been utter chaos here and I've not seen him. But we have other problems now, and we need your help." Al pointed toward the east gate. "An ogre lord is laying waste to the east end of-" he broke off as a huge chunk of stone came flying out between two buildings in the direction he pointed, and shattered against another building.
Moments later, a creature bigger than any Al had even seen came out of the buildings from the direction the chunk of stone had. Its head easily matched the height of the two-story buildings and then some. Its width of blobby fat, or more likely muscle, took up half the road, and its legs and arms were as thick as tree trunks. Anna gasped, and Malic let loose a string of curses. Alaric was starting to back away, and the bowman he had been with was in a full out dash running away. The ogre lord turned its enormous, fat head in the direction of the crowd, and opened its huge slobbering mouth to bellow angrily before starting towards them.
The group backed away quickly, on the edge of turning and running, except that they all noticed the newcomers, Selene and Corlan, standing their ground. The two mercenary mages exchanged looks, then began incantations.
"An Ex Por," spoke Corlan, holding his palm out toward the hulking beast that charged thunderously down the street toward him.
"In Jux Hur Ylem" chanted Selene, waving her arms above her head in a precise figure-eight pattern.
Just as the ogre lord was twenty paces (five steps with its amazing gait) from the two figures it so obviously dwarfed, a blue circle appeared around its massive belly, a second and third following at its feet and neck. The menacing monster stopped its charge as if it had ran into a gigantic invisible wall. The three blue chains, relatively thin as they were, held the gigantic body in place with ease. Rage filled the ogre lord's eyes, but for the time being it was powerless to release that rage.
Selene's hands suddenly stopped their figure eight motion above her head and dropped down in front of her, now fists held side by side pointing right at the feet of the ogre lord.
A few steps in front of its legs a cloud of thick, gray smoke appeared, and began to spin. With the spin, the smoke dissipated to reveal a large metal object with huge blades sticking out of it in every direction, slicing menacingly through the air as it twirled along the ground. The thing immediately slid right up to the legs of the ogre lord, its countless sword and axe blades making contact one after another.
At first they appeared to just scratch the beast's impressively thick hide, but in moments black-red blood was streaming down its thighs and shins. The circles of blue energy that had held it paralyzed now disappeared, freeing the ogre lord to move. It tried to back away from the whirling blade spirit at its legs, but the thing stayed right with it, sabotaging the movement of its legs and leaving it unable to escape.
The beast's huge fist came sailing down on the metal form from above, snapping off two or three of the blades but leaving the monster with deep slits running up and down its hand. It kicked at the blade spirit, but doing so only caused further pain and a loss of balance. Blood was now gushing from its wounds and pooling up in lakes of black-red on the ground.
In unison, Selene and Corlan spoke more arcane words of power. "Corp Por," they both chanted, and pointed arched fingers straight at the massive beast that now flailed wildly at its metallic assailant with roaring cries of excruciating pain and infinite rage.
From each mage's hand shot a bolt of blue energy, which sailed straight toward the ogre lord's heart. The spells collided with the beast, and sent it stumbling further back, where it was now pinned against a building wall by the blade spirit, and trying desperately not to fall to the ground.
"Por Ort Grav," the two hired mages spoke again in unison. The blade spirit at the ogre lord's feet had finally slowed its spinning to a stop, and its magic was now beginning to fade away, metal fading with it. Just as the blood-soaked beast began to straighten itself and return its gaze once more to the mages down the road, their next spells took effect. Peels of thunder cracked in the sky above, and out of the empty air over the ogre lord's head appeared two bolts of lightning, both of which descended straight into the creature's upper body.
It shook with electricity, and its body convulsed and seized even after the lightning bolts had gone. The colossus that had terrorized the town let out one final bellow, and then toppled to the ground like a huge tree, unmoving and lifeless.
The entire group of townspeople, who had frozen in place to watch the display of arcane power with awe, now breathed one big collective sigh of relief, and a few of the men managed a cheer. The mercenary mages turned around, exertion obvious in their faces.
"We thank you," Al managed at last to speak. "You have saved our town. We are in your debt." Al managed a clumsy bow.
"Just doin' our job," Corlan spoke with a smile and a heavy accent, "as promised ta yer man Caine."
"Speaking of which," Selene added, "where is he? And where are your healers to see to the wounded? We will gladly lend our limited abilities to the task, but I fear from the looks of things," she surveyed the area by the smithy behind Al's group, "you require more than just a couple tired mages to heal the injured."
As if summoned, Kyla the healer came striding around a corner, with a young assistant girl on her heels. She quickly assessed the scene - townsfolk, mages and ogre lord corpse alike - and at the lack of serious injury on the people, strode right by, off toward the east gate. Selene and Corlan exchanged smirks and glances, then followed Kyla and her assistant.
Al wearily sighed, turning to Anna to say something. But as he opened his mouth, he froze in place, and his eyes shot wide open. Oh no!
He spun around toward Malic. "The boys! The troll!? There was a troll in the town! It slipped in with the ogres at the gate! It was after the boys!!" Fright washed over Al anew as he remembered the detail that had slipped his mind in frenzied events that had just taken place.
Malic's eyes widened as well, and he spun to look around for any hint of the boys or the troll. Nothing in sight.
"Well, find them!" Al shouted at both Malic and the rest the group, and with that he darted off toward the shops northwest of the smithy, Anna right behind him. Malic and another man darted for the smithy itself, and the rest of the group split up and all ran off in different directions.
Al and Anna threw open the door of Serevon's reagent shop and found it empty. They charged back out and checked the butcher shop. Empty. They ran down the short road of shops along the west side of town, darting into each shop and right back out after finding it empty. When they came to the weaponsmith's however, Al got the feeling that they had found the right place. The door hung slightly off its hinges, and there were deep claw marks around it.
Al threw the door open and charged in, Anna right behind him. He slammed his feet to a stop as fast he could, coming to a halt just inches short of a pair of spear points. By the time he gathered his wits, he realized what was at the other end of those spear points. Not a troll as he had feared, but a pair of boys. The pair of boys that had been at the gate.
Upon recognizing Al, they darted glances at each other, then lowered the spears. Their young eyes were wide with fear and excitement. Behind them, Al noticed the body of a troll, soaking in a pool of its own dark green blood. Three hatchets were planted firmly in its back, two short swords stuck out of its side and a bloody mace lie on the floor next to the beast's smashed head. Apparently the boys had made use of ending up in a weapon shop.
With some calming words and assuring smiles of comfort, Al and Anna were able to talk the nervous boys into setting down the spears and coming out of the shop. The two adults accompanied the children back to the grass-covered town square to the west of the smithy, and yelled to Malic and the others that the boys had been found. The group gathered together in the town square, and a few of the men gave a report of the damage. Eighteen killed, at least as many injured; and still six or seven people unaccounted for. One of those was the mayor Caine, who apparently no one had seen since he went to his house to call Selene and Corlan when the watch had first warned of the attack.
The group quickly made its way to Caine's house behind the inn. When they arrived at the residence, it looked undamaged from the outside, and as they made their way in, calling out Caine's name, the house looked peaceful and normal. Just as they were about to give up and look for him elsewhere, Alaric called out from a room downstairs. Al rushed down the stairs, followed closely by Anna and the rest of the crowd behind her.
What he saw when he got to the bottom of the stairs stopped him dead in his tracks.
Caine lay on his stomach in the middle of the floor, a thin poison-stained dagger sticking out of the center of his back.