Chapter Eleven: Something Broken, Something Mended

The sun was already up above the tops of the buildings when they emerged from the thieves hall and began the trek across town to the Broken Temple. There were many people on the streets this morning, unlike the other days that they had been here. Most folks were moving in the same direction that they were going. By the time they neared the edge of the plaza surrounding the Broken Temple, there were dozens of people walking with them.

The citizens of Kor Opan were curious. They'd been told that something extraordinary was going to happen today, something that would make a difference in their lives. They weren't sure what that could mean, but much of the city's populace had turned out to witness this change. Celora walked in the center of their group, her white hood drawn up over her head and concealing her face from view. Melissa had done the same with her dark blue cloak. The group was protecting these women as if they were the most precious treasure in the entire world, which as Mikey supposed, they probably were.

Ingvar was clinking as he walked, which made Mikey grin from time to time. She never saw the point in wearing much more armor than hardened leather, but Ingvar had added quite a few steel plates to his leather armor. He would be able to stand up to a lot of punishment when the fight began, which was probably a good thing for all of them. The more demons he could keep focused on him, the more the rest of them could kill. Niall had chosen to emulate the big barbarian somewhat, though he couldn't bear as much weight. Ingvar had forged a few plates to add to Niall's armor, and they were now strapped in place over his arms and over his chest and back. Mikey knew they weren't as think or strong as Ingvar's, but she was glad they would help protect her lord. He wore a steel helm with a thin band of gold just above the brow. Thomas had kept his old helm and brought it when they came to join the fight.

Mikey herself was wearing a hardened leather jacket with her weapons belts strapped tight over the top. Her leather pants also had a few extra panels of hardened leather sewn on. She still thought it was silliness, but Niall had insisted that she wear what armor she could and still be able to fight. Mikey's style of combat depended much more on speed and agility than taking hits. If anyone managed to land a blow against her she was in serious trouble.

There were very few children to be seen. Only the ones that still lived inside the city would be here. Jane was hosting a couple hundred children at the inn. They were packed to the rafters this morning, but they also gathered a few extra adults to help defend the place. Jane had told them that she would lock the door once they had everyone inside and not open again until the day was over one way or the other.

Cara was walking with Ronin and he was giving her more advice on being an archer. The woman had decided to join Ronin's bowmen for this fight, and he had spent hours the night before refining the skill she already possessed. She would be standing up behind Ingvar and helping to keep the demons at bay while the spell was cast. Here and there among the crowd that walked with them, you could see someone bearing what weapons they had and knew how to use. There were many archers, but most had spears or rusty swords. These people weren't warriors, they had always trusted to the city guards to protect them.

The guards they had seen were mostly just standing aside and watching the people pass. They seemed mildly curious as to what was happening but not enough to question anyone yet. Bartolli's thieves had reported that some guards at the gate had tried to delay people trying to enter from the shanty town outside the walls. They had gotten rather involved trying to shake down a small group of farmers and failed to notice the growing group behind them. The citizens had finally decided they'd had enough and thrashed the guards, leaving them lying on the ground, nursing their bruises.

Mikey had laughed when she heard the report. "I'm just proud that my people would stand up for themselves after all they've been through," she said when Niall asked why she'd laughed.

"Your people? I thought I was the king?" Niall asked teasingly.

"You are the king my love, just as long as I permit you to be," Mikey said, laughing even harder.

"Be careful Niall," Cara said. "Don't make her draw her knives this early or she'll get cranky."

"-Er," Niall said.

"What?" Cara asked, puzzled.

"Cranky-ER," he said. "Mikey's always cranky." They both laughed and now it was Mikey's turn to narrow her eyes at them both. Cara stopped laughing and found something else to be interested in. Niall just grinned at Mikey impudently.

Melissa smiled beneath her concealing hood. She enjoyed the banter of her friends even though she seldom joined in. She was too busy worrying about everything that could go wrong. Melissa was dreadfully afraid that many people would give their lives this day, and she wondered in the end how much difference their efforts would make. She knew many things about what was and what is. What she didn't know was what would be. She was unable to tell what needed to be done before they could open the next portal to their next task, for instance. Here she was operating on faith in Charlie and in the love they shared as much as these heroes were trusting their faith in Melissa. It was a heavy burden to carry, but she wouldn't complain. Instead, she watched the vibrant lives of these people and drank in the way they cared for each other and all the people around them.

They are more truly alive than anyone I've ever met, Melissa thought. Charlie punishes himself for the pain he caused them in the stories he writes, but he doesn't see them living the way they live each day. If only he could see the way they love their lives, in spite of the pain, or perhaps because of the pain, maybe Charlie could forgive himself.

Melissa thought about what Mikey and Ingvar had reported experiencing when they scouted the temple the day before. She was excited by the idea that Charlie might be somehow aware of what they were doing, and she hoped that he would help them. They emerged from the shadowed street into the plaza and Melissa beheld for the first time, the Broken Temple. She stopped walking when she saw it and just stood staring.

Melissa? Is that really you?

Melissa turned quickly around, looking for the person who had spoken. She was sure it was Charlie, but she couldn't see him anywhere. Yes Charlie, I'm really here, Melissa thought.

Now even you are inside my head, Charlie's voice said to her. Why is everyone inside my head? Why won't you all go away and let me be normal again?

My poor love, Melissa thought in reply. That's why we're trying to fight our way to you. We're trying to set you free… Trying to help you, Charlie.

That's what HE said, too. But he hurts me, Missy. He frightens me.

Melissa felt Charlie withdraw from her mind, almost as if they had been standing in a quiet room and he had turned and walked away. She felt that if she closed her eyes she would hear the rustling of his clothing as he moved. "Oh Charlie," she whispered miserably. "Don't leave me alone…"

"Melissa?" Mikey asked from alongside her. "Are you alright? You're weeping."

Melissa didn't answer at first. She didn't care about the tears streaming down her cheeks. She was lost in her feelings of longing for her husband. After a minute, she wiped the tears away and sniffed loudly. "I'm alright, I think."

"You heard Charlie, didn't you?" Melissa looked up sharply at Mikey's words and found the thief looking at her with tears of sympathy in her own eyes. Mikey didn't say anything more, she stepped forward and embraced Melissa, holding her for a long moment before whispering to her. "We will do absolutely everything we can, and we will give everything we have to help you both."

"Thank you Michaelina," Melissa whispered back. Mikey stepped back and smiled at Melissa, and then pulled her gently forward.

"This is right where I was standing yesterday when I began hearing his voice," Mikey said. "It might get worse as we get inside the temple; especially if his statue is there."

Melissa thought back to what Mikey and Ingvar had told her the night before. How they'd heard Charlie's words in their minds. It seemed that only the key heroes from Charlie's novels had this link with him. Melissa happened to be watching Celora's face when she first heard her creator's voice. She couldn't see all of Celora's face under the hood, but what she could see suddenly drained of the little color it had and the young priestess looked side to side to discover who might be speaking to her. When she lifted her head and looked directly at Melissa, Melissa nodded and smiled at her in reassurance. Celora began to whisper a prayer of some sort with a faint smile on her lips. Melissa wondered whether Celora prayed for herself or for Charlie, but didn't interrupt her to ask.

Melissa looked for the first time upon her husband's temple. This was not something he'd written about in anything she had read; it seemed to be completely new and unique to this version of Kor Opan. Melissa was struck by the idea that this might be a sign of Charlie's struggle to believe in the goodness of his own soul. Could this be the manifestation of his self-image? Melissa thought. She knew that Charlie had felt tortured by the idea that he'd unwittingly created many people and then set painful events in their lives that they must endure for the sake of the story he was telling. He felt a terrible and dark guilt for the pain they'd endured, but Melissa knew there was more to their stories than pain. That was the message she wanted to deliver to her husband if she could find the way. She believed that they could be reunited if she could just get him to see the happiness each of his heroes had found in spite of the pain. Perhaps even because of the pain.

There was no more time to ponder the long term issue with Charlie. They had reached the steps that led in to the Broken Temple. It was time to begin their work, and Melissa sensed there would be precious little time before the opposition discovered what they were about.

The people that had reached the temple before them had been at work fortifying the approaches using the many tumbled blocks of stone. There were work groups of men using ropes and pulleys to move some of the larger blocks into lines of stone that would prevent the attackers from approaching in wide areas. As she had learned from listening to Ingvar explain the best way to defend the place, they would create one wide entrance on this east side of the temple, and then block off the other directions. They would leave the defense of the three blocked entrances to the archers. By leaving one avenue open, they hoped to draw the attackers into the easy path and place the bulk of their forces there.

As Melissa entered the temple itself, she saw many large piles of fist-sized rocks ringing the interior. She was puzzled as to what they might be for. Ingvar saw her staring at them with a questioning expression and explained briefly that they had many people present without weapons training, but that they could all throw rocks. Melissa had laughed and agreed. Indeed, there were more than a thousand people gathered. They were mostly inside the temple, but the better trained among them were on the steps in the open eastern entrance.

Melissa looked to the center altar, half expecting to see the twisted statue of her husband. Thankfully, it wasn't present, and his voice was still absent from their minds. She wasn't sure that she could focus on the magic if Charlie were talking to her at the same time. Melissa turned from the altar to find Celora gazing at her.

"Are you ready?" Melissa asked her.

"Yes," Celora said simply. "Shall we begin?"

"The sooner we start, the safer these people will be," Melissa said. Celora nodded, and together they moved to the altar.

The two women took up positions side by side at the altar. They had decided to work with their backs to the space where the fighting was most likely to take place. Melissa hated the idea of people fighting behind her, but Celora had pointed out that they wouldn't be contributing directly to the fighting anyway, and facing away would help to reduce the distractions. It would already be very difficult to focus so deeply for so long, and Melissa knew that she had to trust Celora's experience in this. As they had done in Jane's inn when they cast the blessing circle there, Celora began chanting the prayer and then as the golden light began to spill forth from her hands to fall to the stone altar, Melissa intercepted the flow and let it pass over her hands. Melissa kept the image of light and fire in her mind and pictured them burning the demons to ash. The light overflowed Melissa's cupped hands to flow over the stone of the altar.

In moments, the golden light had extended all around them and begun to flow down the central dais onto the floor of the temple proper. People were wary of the flow of liquid light at first, edging back against the walls. Mikey and Niall ended their fear by bolding stepping into the light and even dancing a few steps together, laughing. Many people soon stepped forward fearlessly and joined them. Their laughter filled Melissa's ears and heart, sending shivers up her spine. She felt for a moment as if another pair of hands joined hers and was peripherally aware of the golden light spreading up the walls of the temple. The light continued past the point where the walls and the dome were shattered, climbing high into the air along the lines of the previous domed structure until it met at the highest point.

"Well that's the fastest way I've ever seen to build a temple," Ingvar said from nearby. Melissa smiled and tried to continue focusing on their work. There was a sound of fighting nearby, and Melissa shivered briefly, and then shut the sounds out of her mind. Celora's chanting continued and the golden light continued to flow.

"Mikey, Niall," Ingvar called. "Time to go to work." Mikey and Niall stopped their cavorting and nodded to the big man, following Ingvar as he strode out to the battle that was beginning. Ingvar stopped beside Cara and swept her into his arms. "In case anything should happen, I love you more than anyone or anything in my life. I want you to know that."

"You just stay alive and everything will work out just fine," Cara told him. She had tears in her eyes even though she was smiling broadly at him. "I love you too, so don't you dare make me live without you." Ingvar laughed and then kissed her soundly for a long minute. The sound of Niall rushing past them brought his attention back to the task at hand, and Ingvar stepped back and released Cara. She took up a bow and slipped a full quiver over her shoulder. Ingvar turned to see where Niall had gone to and found the man finishing off a stalker in the shape of a city guard. As Niall's sword struck past the thing's armor it exploded into flame and was gone.

There were groups of guards approaching them from all sides now. Some of the men looked bewildered by the fate of the guard Niall had dispatched, and Ingvar realized that many of them must be human. "Don't engage them until they cross the blessing circle," he shouted. "If they are human, give them a chance to switch sides. If they refuse, kill them." The others nodded and prepared for the approaching guards. The golden light of the blessing had reached the top of the steps where they waited for the guards. It would be a close thing to see whether they would have enough room to permit the guards to cross the line before they engaged.

"You up there!" The guard that shouted had the insignia of an officer. "Stand down and disperse, and only a few of you will be hurt." Several guards laughed at his pronouncement.

"I'm sorry," Mikey called back. "I couldn't quite make out what you said. Your voice is so feeble and weak that it couldn't reach this altitude." This time it was the people surrounding the heroes that laughed loudly at Mikey's taunt. She stepped down a few steps closer and called again. "Maybe I can hear you now, grandfather, what was that you said?"

"That's enough! Ten gold crowns to the man that brings me that woman," the officer shouted. Several of his men hooted and ran forward thinking to simply grab Mikey and shake her into submission. Mikey pretended to be afraid of them and ran back up the steps.

"Oh no! Someone save me," Mikey called plaintively as she stumbled on a step. She recovered and stepped across the golden line that had spilled down a few of the topmost steps now. The first guard up the steps must have been human; he made it safely across the line. The three guards following him weren't so lucky; they exploded into flame as soon as they crossed the line. The first guard didn't seem to notice, though, he continued to reach for Mikey with a look of pure lust in his eyes. "You can still join us if you change your mind," Mikey said quietly to him.

"The only joining I plan to do involves tearing off your…" He never completed his thought because Niall lopped his head off his shoulders, sending it bouncing back down the steps. Mikey kicked the guard's body backward down the steps so the spraying blood wouldn't make their footing any worse. There was a roar of anger from the assembled guards.

"Thank you my love," Mikey said cheerfully.

"Consider it a little gift of my deep affection," Niall answered with a bow. Mikey just laughed.

A small group of about fifteen guards made a rush up the steps. Only ten of them made it over the golden line, and they were again given the ultimatum to join the rebels or die. One of their number tried to lower his sword, but he was immediately cut down by the guards on either side of him. Ingvar grimly signaled the archers and they cut down those that remained. The light of the magic circle was growing wider with every passing second. Already it was nearing the bottom steps. Ingvar noted that many of the guards that were milling out beyond the range of their bows were looking rather uncertain. Frequently, these could be seen urging their comrades to attack, and yet not leading any assault themselves.

"Ronin, do you think you could hit a couple of the stalkers in that crowd?" Ingvar asked the hunter. "They don't seem to be willing to commit themselves to an attack. Ronin grinned at him and stepped forward next to Ingvar.

"I take it you mean those guys that are pushing their fellows forward from a safe distance?" Ronin asked.

"Precisely," Ingvar replied with a grin of his own.

Ronin was carrying two quivers; one quiver held a large supply of normal arrows, like those that the other archers carried, and the other was his own quiver holding those arrows that Celora had blessed. He fitted one of the latter to his string and drew the string back to his jawline. Ronin held the shot for an instant to aim and then smoothly released. The string thrummed and arrow went streaking high into the sky. Both men watched with interest as it fell in a graceful arc and embedded itself in the forehead of one of the suspected stalkers. That one burst into flame in mid shout, the guards that had been listening to his commands stopped moving and looked at the small pile of ash where their commander had been standing and then they looked at each other. As one, they turned and ran toward the temple. They made it across the blessing line at the bottom of the steps and came rushing up the steps screaming battle cries intended to strike fear in the hearts of the people waiting there.

What they met instead were the flashing blades wielded by Mikey and Niall. The two heroes stood halfway down the steps with their feet spread wide, waiting for the charge. When the guards reached them, they both began to spin, slashing out to deflect the guards' swords and then striking with their own. Within seconds most were down; a minute later all of the guards were dead and silence had fallen. There was a respite then, as none of the remaining guards in the plaza were brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to make another charge.

Celora's blessing had moved out into the plaza now, and the people inside the temple that planned to fight had now moved outside the temple in the front. Ingvar remained at the head of the steps to direct the defense; Ronin and Cara were beside him. Mikey and Niall moved down to the foot of the steps and waited for the next assault. They wouldn't be forced to wait long. They heard the sound of bells ringing across the city, mostly centered near the palace. There was also the sound of a horn being sounded somewhere in the distance.

"Thomas," Niall called. "I think you'd better summon our furry friends before they have to fight their way in to us." Thomas simply nodded and lifted his hunting horn. Putting it to his lips, he winded a long clear note, paused, and then a second note. There was a howl in the distance answering him.

"They shouldn't be too long now," Thomas told Niall with a grim smile. "And I pity the man or demon that tries to stop them." Niall grinned right back at him, having long experience with the dogs.

They had no more time to joke about the efficacy of the dogs, for a troop of soldiers could be seen marching down one of the avenues leading from the north. There were easily two hundred men in the formation and they showed discipline as they marched in perfect step. They each wore blackened chain mail hauberks that hung to their knees. They wore conical steel helmets and carried long shields. Most of the soldiers carried swords but there were three rows in front that bore pikes. Niall frowned at the sight, realizing they would have trouble reaching the pikemen with their swords. He turned to look up at Ingvar, only to find that the barbarian king was already ordering up a double rank of archers along the steps to both sides. Niall nudged Mikey, and together they retreated back up the steps to stand a few steps below Ingvar.

"Ingvar," Niall said. "Those men are part of the Royal Army. They would be very useful to us if we could persuade them that they should be fighting for us instead of against us."

"Do you think they would listen?" Ingvar asked.

"They might, especially if I address them as their king," Niall said. "I'd appreciate it if you would have your archers shoot anyone that tries to kill me, though."

"Oh I suppose so," the big man answered. "But only as a favor to Mikey."

"Why me?" Niall asked of the blue sky. Ingvar tipped his head back and laughed loudly.

The soldiers were crossing the blessing line now, and not a single one exploded into flame. No stalkers in that bunch at least, thought Niall. He scanned the faces of the men, looking for someone he recognized. He thought that the man marching alongside the formation in the sergeant's position looked familiar, and he wracked his memory for a name to go with the face. There was a man coming up behind the formation, riding a tall black horse. He must be the captain of this troop, Niall thought. As the captain crossed over the circle behind his men, Niall could see him flinch and grimace in apparent pain. He smiled then, thinking this one was one of the greater demons they were expecting. He was powerful enough to cross the circle, yet still affected by its power.

Niall stepped forward to be seen clearly by the soldiers as they formed up into a long skirmish line. The sergeant gave his commands briskly, and soon there were three long lines, pikes in front and swords behind. Niall suddenly remembered the sergeant's name, and a time when the man had been promoted to his current rank after serving as a common footman for years.

"Well met, Sergeant Bryant," Niall called to him. He smiled as he saw the man pause, obviously recognizing the voice. Niall reached up and took off his helm so that the men could see his face. Murmurs of recognition broke forth from several places in the line. Sergeant Bryant barked an order and the men fell silent immediately.

"As your king, I call upon you men to stand down and join me," Niall called loudly. Several soldiers looked at their compatriots, seeing what the feeling was there. The captain rode forward to confront him.

"King Zavius is in the palace," the captain shouted. "Do not listen to this demon-spawned imposter."

"Hah! Demon-spawned!" Niall shouted a laugh. "That's rich coming from you, Wraith. I see your pain as you stand on consecrated ground." The captain wrenched his horse around and rode back along the line of his men. Niall could see the men watching their captain, and sometimes gazing down at the golden light flowing across the ground at their feet.

"Sergeant, make ready to attack," the captain shouted. "There will be no quarter for the people up there, but I want the leaders taken alive; especially the priest that is casting this abomination of a spell."

"Sergeant, ask yourself why your captain wants a priest removed," Niall continued. "We of Kor Opan have never feared the holy power of our priests. We have taken comfort in their powers, and their healing ways. It is only the members of the Wraith Army that fears their holy power. You men all know this to be true." They were openly muttering now, refusing to be curbed by the raging of their captain.

"How can you be King Niall?" Sergeant Bryant called back. "Our king was killed over a year ago."

"It's difficult to explain," Niall told them honestly. "Your King Niall was killed, yes. But I am Niall nonetheless, come from another version of this place by the grace of the Creator to set you all free of the demons that are feasting upon our city." The soldiers were silent now, gazing at Niall and at their sergeant, weighing his words and not sure whether he could be believed or whether he was a madman that happened to look like their fallen king.

"I have had enough! Sergeant, you will attack at once," the captain shouted. Niall could see smoke rising from the demon's armor now, and realized it wouldn't take very much to expose him for what he was.

"Captain, you are even now showing your true nature," Niall taunted him. "Or do you always smoke when you stand on holy ground?" The soldiers stared at their captain as Niall's words sank in. The captain, however, wasn't prepared to take the taunting any longer. He viciously kicked his horse's flanks and drove him ahead in a charged directly at Niall.

Niall waited with apparent calmness in the path of the charge until the last possible second, and then he threw himself across the path of the horse to the captain's left, thus avoiding the sword stroke. As Niall tumbled to the side he slashed at the belly strap of the saddle, nearly slicing it through, and leaving a bloody gash along the horse's belly. He hated to harm the beast, for it was merely serving as it was trained. He hoped it would be alright, but forced himself to think of the fight at hand now.

The captain flashed past him, his mount screaming from the cut. He tried to turn his mount sharply to follow Niall, and the belly strap snapped. The saddle continued straight as the horse turned, sending the captain flying to the ground, leaving the captain momentarily hanging from the reins. As Niall gathered himself to face the demon, Niall saw the pack of huge dogs that normally guarded the royal estate come flooding into the plaza. There were cries of alarm from the soldiers, but the dogs paid them no mind, instead coming to circle their king and the demon he confronted.

"Sergeant Bryant," Niall shouted. "Keep your men out of this and none will be hurt. You know what these dogs can do to anyone that harms the king." Any further speech was impossible for the demon attacked Niall. Thomas gave a command and the dogs stepped away to form a ring around the combatants. The captain lunged at Niall as if he would rid the world of another version of the king as they had the first a year before. Niall slashed at the demon as it closed the distance, remembering the one that Mikey had fought in the guild hall. The first pass resulted in blocks by both combatants, neither scoring a hit but each content to measure his opponent's ability. Niall was focusing on the lessons learned through years of practice under the tutelage of the royal bladesmen, but also on the street fighting techniques he'd learned from Mikey.

As the two opponents locked blades, standing close to each other, Niall used his free hand to jab two fingers at the captain's eyes. The demon swore a bitter curse at the pain and broke free. He immediately rushed Niall again swinging wildly, hoping to wound what he couldn't clearly see by moving his blade as quickly as he could in wide arcs. Niall simply stepped back and let the demon go by him, and then slashing him across the back drawing fire from a long gash.

"Sergeant Bryant," Niall called in an instructor's tone. "Please note how the demon bleeds fire rather than blood. Have you ever seen a human bleed fire?" The men were freely murmuring now, obviously swayed to their king's cause now that they saw the evidence for themselves. "Lesser demons, such as the Wraith stalkers, are easily destroyed by the holy energy passing beneath your feet. Once that blessing is complete, no demon of less stature than your captain here will ever set foot in Kor Opan again."

The captain's renewed attack showed that his eyes were recovering from the abuse Niall had inflicted. He was regaining his accuracy and forcing Niall to work much harder to avoid being wounded. The demon was losing strength moment by moment, bleeding in bright fire from his wounded back and smoking from his entire body as though he was about to burst into open flame. Niall was stalling for the most part, letting the wound do its work and Celora's blessing do the rest. He was partly curious as to how much damage they needed to inflict before the demons would die from the blessing.

The captain stepped into range and began a series of blows that Niall knew would lead to a wide open strike to his abdomen. The captain would alternate between overhead blows to the left and right of Niall's head, drawing his defense up around his head. Once they had settled into a pattern, the demon would spin and strike across Niall's middle instead of going high once more. Niall counted the patterns and was ready when the captain began the turn that would normally lead to a fatal strike. Instead of stepping in or trying to defend himself, Niall dropped straight down into a full split and stabbed. As the demon captain completed his turn and sliced across where Niall's body had been seconds before he received the tip of Niall's sword deep into his belly. The demon shrieked, fire erupting from its mouth and quickly spreading to burst forth from numerous points over his body. In seconds it was burned to a small pile of ash.

"Nicely done, love," said Mikey from nearby. Niall smiled at her. "I've not seen you do splits quite that well before."

"It seemed like a good idea," Niall said, his voice strained. "Help me up, I think I strained something." Mikey laughed and reached down to help pull him to his feet. They turned to find the sergeant walking up with his sword drawn. Mikey started to draw her own blade but Niall stopped her.

"Thank you for revealing the truth, my lord," Bryant said as he went down on one knee and offered his sword hilt first to Niall. "Forgive our insolence in drawing weapons against you." His men all went down on one knee echoing his submission.

"Keep your weapon Sergeant," Niall said warmly. "And all of you rise and join us to free our city." The soldiers sheathed their weapons and marched forward to form up behind their sergeant.

"What are your orders, Sire?" Bryant asked.

"Deploy your men in a skirmish line around the temple," Niall commanded. "No one is to get past us until the spell is complete. Once the blessing has reached past the city walls we will be done, but we expect heavy resistance until then. I doubt the demons will leave easily after feeding here so long."

"Yes, Sire," Bryant said with a crisp salute. He turned and began dispersing his men to form a picket line around the temple.

"Nicely done," Ingvar said as Niall and Mikey walked back up the steps. "That last part looked a tad painful, though."

"Trust me," Niall said, stepping gingerly from side to side. "It was."

"You didn't seriously injure anything, did you?" Mikey asked.

"Why do you ask?" Niall asked her in response. "Do you really think we spare the time right now to find out?" Mikey actually blushed. Niall stared at her a moment, disbelieving what he was seeing, and then crowed in victory. "I finally got you to blush!"

‘That isn't what I was talking about, you idiot," Mikey said, punching Niall in the bicep. "I was only worried that you wouldn't…"

"Be up to it?" Niall suggested, ducking another punch.

"Be able to fight," Mikey finally said angrily. Niall was nearly howling with laughter, and Ingvar was having trouble keeping a straight face. "I don't think you need to worry about doing what you're thinking about. Ever again." Niall stopped laughing, but Ingvar lost control and started laughing loudly.

"Oh thank the gods," Niall said. "Here come more demons for Mikey to fight. I was afraid I'd survived one fight just to be gutted by the woman I love."

They all turned to look in the direction that Niall pointed. There was a large group of warriors riding down the street that led to the western gate. They wore black armor with visored helmets and flowing black capes. They couldn't tell if they were human or not by looking at them, but they had already crossed the blessing line and none had vanished in flame. As the black-clad warriors entered the plaza Mikey thought she could see smoke beginning to rise from a few of the riders.

"It looks like you are going to get away with your jokes," Mikey said to Niall. "For now, at least; but don't think I will forget it mister. We are talking about that disrespectful attitude of yours later."

"Yes, dear," Niall said with a deep sigh. Ingvar grinned at him behind Mikey's back.

Niall relayed Ingvar's orders to Sergeant Bryant, who then passed them along to his men. They kept the skirmish line around the temple, but supplemented it with groups of archers who would stand on the steps behind the soldiers and fire over their heads into the Wraith riders. The goal, as Ingvar explained, was to take out as many riders as possible before they could mount a serious melee attack on their defenses. The Wraith simply rode on around the temple, stringing their numbers out into a long line of warriors. Eventually, they nearly encircled the entire temple, riding at a canter and surveying the defenses for a weakness to exploit.

"Archers at the ready!" Ingvar bellowed. "Fire at will!" Bow strings twanged and arrows raced outward from the temple to strike the many riders circling the structure. They could see fire erupting from wounds where arrows found their marks, yet none were destroyed right away. "I wonder…" Ingvar muttered. He took out his own bow and dipped an arrow's tip into the flowing golden light beneath his feet. Then he drew and fired the arrow in one smooth motion, striking a Wraith warrior in the juncture of his armor between the helm and pauldrons. The demon exploded into a shower of flame and sparks.

"Archers, hold fire," Ingvar commanded. He quickly explained his idea to four young men that served as his runners and then they sped off to pass the word to dip arrows into the light of the blessing before firing. He waited for about five minutes, while tensely watching the circling demons. From time to time, a demon would lean in close and swing a blade at one of Sergeant Bryant's men forming the picket line. He couldn't see any injuries yet, but that didn't mean there were none, only none that he could see from his vantage.

As soon as he saw the runners returning from their errands, he gave the command to fire. This time, most of the riders exploded into fire at the same instant, only a handful remained. Those few gathered into a group and charged the defenders, trying to force a gap in the line. The archers kept up their deadly fire, and the warriors raised shields and pikes to meet the charge. The archers killed all but three of the riders by the time they met the shield wall. Those three, however, managed to inflict some minor wounds before they were killed. Ingvar watched one of the warriors on the line laugh about the line of blood down his arm where the chain of his hauberk was sundered, then stiffen and turn ashen. The man simply fell over and lay senseless.

"Tell the men on the line to focus on their defense and not to try to damage the demons," Ingvar told his runners. "They are using poisoned weapons. Go; pass the word quickly before more arrive." The boys ran off to spread his warning. Several of the citizens inside the temple ran out to pull the wounded inside the building. Ingvar hoped they would be able to help the men fight off the poison long enough for the spell to be completed. The safety of the entire city was more important than that of a few men. Though he was troubled by the thought of what might happen if one of their group of heroes was to be wounded. The choice might become different then.