Chapter Fourteen: A Mad God Awakes

Ingvar stared as the creature lumbered down the broad street towards their position. This demon was so vast in its size and power that the blessing did not appear to affect it at all. The dragon, for lack of a better name, was covered in black scales that glinted with flashes of red and gold. The head was wolf-like in that it had a long snout lined with long sharp teeth, each as long as a man's forearm. The head sat atop a long flexible neck that would give the creature a tremendous ability to reach through their defenses. The body was long and shaped like a crocodile that Ingvar had seen once in a jungle where his troops had retreated when evading a pursuing army. The differences here were the size and the legs which stood much higher from the ground in proportion. All told, the creature loomed nearly twice the height of the mounted troops that rode at the beast's side. Ingvar thought he could make out large plates of shining black armor covering what he supposed must have been weak spots in the dragon's natural defenses.

Perhaps if we could get past that armor we might pierce its sides with long spears, he thought. I think we're going to lose a lot of men taking that thing down.

"Dear gods be merciful," Mikey said breathlessly as she caught sight of the approaching danger.

"Worry first about the knights riding with that thing," Ingvar shouted to those around him. "Archers, concentrate fire on the knights. There should be weaknesses in their armor at the throat and armpit." A horn sounded from the vicinity of the dragon. Ingvar squinted his eyes and tried to find the source of the horn.

"Is that someone riding that beast?" Niall's voice was incredulous. Ingvar looked where Niall pointed and saw that there was indeed a rider perched behind the dragon's head above the base of the sinuous neck. The plates of armor must be protecting the rider more than the beast, he thought. So what happens if we kill the rider?

The horn sounded once more, and Ingvar could see that it was the dragon rider that was winding the horn. The mounted knights broke ranks from their places around the dragon's sides and cantered forward. They broke into a full charge as they cleared the edge of the square, heading straight for their defenses. The city guards there formed a shield wall as best they could to repel their assault. Sergeant Bryant was shoving men into the formation as fast as he could.

"Hold the line… Pull! Pull for your lives!" Bryant shouted. His men pulled with all their strength back on their shields locking them into a tough wall before the knights could impact them. The lances struck the shield wall with an impossibly loud crash, and there was the flash and stench of an explosion. As the smoke cleared, Ingvar saw that half of the men had been thrown to their knees and that the knights were gathering for another assault on the line. Ingvar ran down the steps, intending to charge the breach himself and found himself surrounded by a flowing tide of fur as Thomas's dogs ran to the attack.

The demon knights were charging once more as Ingvar reached the breach in the defender's line. Mikey and Niall had followed and stood one to either side of him. As the knights hit the line again, Ingvar hit the leader with all of his strength behind the Ravens. There was another explosion, but this time it was the knights that were blown back by the force. The blessed blades wielded by the champions turned the force of the charge and the explosion back on the knights. The lead demon had taken the full force of Ingvar's attack and now lay on the ground in fiery ruin. Several others had fallen from their mounts and were now being savaged by the dogs. As Ingvar looked on, three demon knights erupted into flame and died and several others were showing gouts of flame from their armor. A sharp yelping cry announced the death of one of the dogs; one of the demons had drawn its sword and pierced the closest dog, running the blade straight through the animal's heart. As one, the other dogs turned on the offender and the knight went down under a wave of teeth and fur.

Mikey joined Niall in killing the remaining knights before they could find their feet and regroup. The dogs broke off the attack at a command from Niall, drawing close to him and Mikey as they backed slowly to where Ingvar stood. The only foe left before them was the dragon and its rider.

"Any ideas?" Niall asked Ingvar as the three stood panting from exertion.

"I've never fought anything like this," Ingvar answered with a shake of his head. "Have either of you?"

"Not me," Niall said with a mirthless chuckle.

"This is way outside my experience," Mikey added quietly. "Archers?"

"Aye, that's my only thought for now," Ingvar said. "Ronin! Have the archers focus on that beast's head."

"Aye," Ronin shouted back. Seconds later the archers sent a sheet of arrows arcing over their heads to slash down upon the head of the dragon. The beast responded by hissing metallically and rearing back on its haunches. What Ingvar had taken to be armor behind the head and covering the sides was revealed to be a great armored frill behind the thing's head. The extent of the frill prevented any arrows from reaching the rider on the creature's back. That rider laughed at their attack, sending chills through every defender.

"My turn," the rider said loudly. They could see him clearly for the first time as he pulled the reins tight and swung the dragon to one side. The rider was garbed in black silk robes trimmed in crimson. His white hair flowed over his shoulders. A polished steel mask covered his upper face, leaving his mouth and chin uncovered. As the rider swung a staff above his head, Ingvar was already shouting for the others to fall back up the steps.

The warning was nearly in time. Ingvar, Mikey, and Niall raced back up the steps safely. The dogs followed, obeying Niall's command without hesitation. The city guard tried to draw their line closed and reform their shield wall, but they were ill prepared for what came their way. The masked rider pointed his staff at the guards before him and streams of black energy shot from the tip to strike the guards. Five guards were struck by the energy directly and they dropped their weapons and shields and began screaming.

The other defenders watched in horror as the afflicted men's features shrank and withered as though becoming sun dried corpses before their very eyes. Within seconds their comrades had become shrunken dead husks within their armor and fallen to the stone pavement, leaving a broad gap in the defensive perimeter. What was worse, the rider appeared to drink the energy back into his own body, seeming to grow stronger as the men died.

Men stood still and gaped at the fallen corpses and the dragon chose that time to gain nourishment of its own choosing. Its great head snaked out and snatched a soldier from the line, the vast jaws clamping about the man's knees as everything higher disappeared into the dragon's maw. In two bird-like gulps the beast swallowed the hapless soldier whole and turned to look for another snack. Its head darted out again and Ingvar leaped forward screaming in anger. The dragon's neck was protected by impregnable scales, and never had it feared attack from melee weapon. Thus it failed to react when Ingvar charged, but the Ravens was no normal weapon and now that it had been blessed by Celora's spell, it was able to pierce the hardest scales.

Ingvar swung his axe in an overhand attack that utilized every muscle in his massive body, driving the axe blades deep into the dragon's neck. There came a brilliant flash of golden light as the Ravens sheared through the neck scales of the huge beast. The dragon, too late realizing its peril, tried to rear up on its haunches and pull its head from danger. The sharp movement nearly pulled Ingvar from his feet. As it was, he very nearly lost his grip on the axe handle. He wrenched the Ravens free and stepped closer for another strike. Black blood was spraying everywhere from the huge gash cut in the thing's neck. The dragon's jaw hung limp on one side revealing the controlling tendons had been severed. The dragon tried to snap at him, wanting to rid itself of the puny being that had harmed it.

As the head closed the distance between them, Ingvar danced to the side and struck a hard blow at the dragon's face. The Ravens slashed through the beast's left eye, causing it to rear back once more. Ingvar edged backward, fearing that the beast would fall on him and crush the life from his body. He saw movement behind the dragon's head, saw the rider preparing to cast one of those black waves in his direction, and then saw something he would remember to his dying day.

Mikey had worked her way behind the dragon while Ingvar kept its attention. She got into position as he fought the beast, and then when it had been blinded and mortally wounded she ran up the creature's tail and back. As the rider prepared to release the deadly black magic that would kill Ingvar, Mikey reached his place on the dragon's back. Ingvar watched, unable to move even to save his life, unable to tear his eyes away from the spectacle of the master thief charging the dragon's master. Before the magician could drop his staff and fire the energy at Ingvar, Mikey struck with a sword in each hand crossed blade over blade. She swept the blades apart like lethal scissors and removed the rider's head from his shoulders.

Mikey paused only a fraction of a second to see the head bounce free, and then she turned and vaulted through the air to land a safe distance away from the dragon as it began to thrash in agonized death throws. Ingvar felt as if time had slowed and he was able to see everything happen; the dragon thrashed, the head bounced to one side and the body began a slow topple to the other side, and Mikey vaulted to safety. Ingvar could hear people cheering on all sides, and he could hear the hammering of his pulse begin to slow as the berserk rage subsided. He felt tired suddenly, and began to hope their battle was won. Mikey flung herself into Niall's arms, spinning him around in her excitement. The couple's laughter rang in the quiet that followed the battle.

"That was quite possibly the most amazing attack I've ever seen," Ingvar told her. "I've never known a warrior, man or woman, who could have done better. I salute you." Mikey smiled broadly at his accolade and made a courtly bow in his direction.

"That was quite an attack that you made, too," she said. Ingvar chuckled grimly.

"I think we had best move back and leave the congratulations for later," Niall said worriedly. "Something is happening over there." He gestured toward the heap of dying dragon. It had lost the ability to do more than twitch due to blood loss, the light fading from its eyes as its life fled. But now there was a black, inky smoke gathering around the body. Tendrils of darkness like hellish fog crept around the dragon's damaged body. The twitching became crunching shudders, the body moving as though it were a ball of paper being crushed by unseen hands. The black fog clutched the ravaged form, drawing tighter as the body shuddered and began to collapse with terrible sounds of crunching bone and sinew.

"What… What's happening?" Mikey's voice trembled even though she herself stood bravely, her hand on Niall's arm as though she would either draw him to safety or seek comfort from him.

"Sergeant Bryant," Niall called. "Pull your men back until we know what we are facing here."

"Yes Sire," Bryant replied. He strode forward and gave the command to pull back closer to the temple. Bryant had been hit by debris from one of the earlier explosions, and blood was streaming down the side of his face from a scalp wound. He paid little attention to it, other than to wipe the blood away when it threatened his vision. "Sire, I recommend you and your companions withdraw behind our line."

Niall seemed like he would refuse, but Mikey's hand tightened on his arm and she pulled him back. He wisely closed his mouth and went with her. Ingvar also stepped back, not so much out of caution but to let the guards form their shield wall without interruption.

There came a sound of rushing wind from the dragon's compacted form, and energy crackled and flashed as the dark fog crushed the once huge body into a compact mass of whirling blackness about the size of a large man. There came one last booming crash that knocked several guards from their feet, and staggered the heroes standing behind them. Then all fell silent in the square aside from the guards returning to their positions and preparing for whatever emerged from the blackness ahead of them.

"Is that a man?" Mikey asked.

"With an entrance like that?" Niall returned. Ingvar frowned at the two of them, willing them to be quiet as he tried to determine if the strange apparition posed a threat.

As the black fog dissipated they could see the shape of a man standing where the crumpled body of the dragon had been moments before. He looked vaguely like the rider that Mikey had dispatched, wearing white silken robes and a white half mask that concealed the upper portion of his face. Ingvar had the strange feeling that he had met this man somewhere before even though he knew that he had never seen this form in his life. Still, there was something familiar about the way the man stood and observed them. Perhaps it's that crooked smile that seems familiar, Ingvar thought. As if in response to his thought, the man's smile widened.

"Well done Ingvar," the man said with an amused tone. He spoke softly yet his words carried clearly to them. "I must confess to being surprised at your ability to destroy my pet."

"I merely removed its head," Ingvar replied. "You seem to have done a more thorough job of destruction." The stranger in white laughed.

"Perhaps," he said.

"It looks like I needed to do more than just remove your head," Mikey snarled.

‘Yes my dear Rat. You are so fierce with my illusions while all the time the things that matter most to you are in greatest danger." Mikey felt a chill run up her spine. Is Jane in danger? Are they attacking the inn after all? She glanced sideways at Niall and saw from his expression that he was having similar thoughts. Niall looked at her and Mikey saw his jaw clench in frustration.

"Mikey, you and Niall should go and see to the inn," said Kevin Bartolli from directly behind them. "We can hold out here, but they could use some experienced blades to defend them." Mikey smiled at him, tears coming to her eyes. He frowned at her show of emotion, causing her to chuckle and wipe her eyes.

"You finally sound like my father," she told him.

"Oh fine," he said sharply. "Now I'm an idiot, too." He laughed as she started to reply. "Never mind, woman. Take your man and go help those children. We'll handle this one." Mikey nodded, and then impulsively stepped close and hugged him. Bartolli's eyes went wide in surprise and then softened as he pushed her away.

"Do we take the dogs or leave them to fight here?" Mikey asked Niall.

"They stay here with Thomas," he answered. "We will have Sapphire with us, and Bob stayed at the inn." Mikey nodded and the two of them stepped back through the guards and ran for the street that led toward the inn with the large black dog leading the way. The stranger in white watched them go with amusement. They will be too late to save their friends, Haven thought. And they will be too late to save their friends here where things matter most. They are too late to do any more than bear witness to the ending of this world and the rise of the People.

Haven sampled the minds of those barring his way, feeling a carnal pleasure at the fear he found there. The currents of terror were almost as heady as wine as he drank them in silently. I lost a good deal of strength when they killed the dragon and his rider, he thought. But the remaining energy from the beast and the warriors the rider killed provided as much as I lost. I suppose there is no risk to me here, no one that can touch me with their puny weapons. The Scarlet Rat was the greatest risk in this place and she has left to attend the party I arranged just for her. Haven smiled broadly, feeling the triumph of his plan.

"Which of you wishes to die first?" Haven asked with a diabolical chuckle. "I have all the time in the world. You, however, do not so choose swiftly."

*     *     *

Mikey and Niall ran swiftly through the narrow streets that led away from the Broken Temple and to the Eastern Gate. There were people looking out from shuttered windows here and there, sensing the difference in the city perhaps. Mikey thought briefly about trying to get them to come along and help, but decided they could ill afford the delay. Besides, she thought, if they didn't come to defend the life of the city at the temple they surely won't come along to defend an inn full of children. Sapphire was doing her usual scouting ahead, sometimes disappearing completely from view around corners before coming back to reassure them and herself that there was no danger.

Niall was beginning to breathe heavily from the long run. Mikey slowed her pace to make it easier for him. "Are you going to make it?" Mikey called softly.

"I… think so," he puffed. "I would certainly welcome a horse to ride, though." His wry smile was infectious and Mikey smiled back in spite of her urgency.

"Maybe Sapphire could find you a carriage to ride in, if you ask her nicely enough," Mikey teased. She was still running easily though she was sweating freely from the exertion now and the fighting earlier. But then again, thieves are used to running long distances if they want to live. Our exploits around town the last year or two haven't fully hardened him up from the life of a prince, though he certainly handles his blade better than any man I've known.

Sapphire came back for them on one of her usual contacts, but this time, she simply stood at the corner of an intersection and waited for them. Mikey and Niall exchanged a look as they approached, wondering if they would have to fight after all. Sapphire watched them approach, her tongue lolling out one side of her mouth in a broad doggy grin. "She looks pleased with herself, doesn't she?" Niall said.

"What did you find for us, sweetie?" Mikey asked the big black dog. Sapphire woofed once in reply and wagged her tail a couple times, then turned down a side street and led them away from their intended course. "Hmmmm. Not what I expected, but I'm curious. Do we follow her?"

"Aye," Niall said between panting. "She's damned smart, maybe she found us something we need to see."

"Alright then, let's see what she found for us." So saying, Mikey led the way down the side street in pursuit of her dog. Niall groaned quietly and forced his feet to follow. After moving a block along their new path the two heroes could hear the sounds of shouting breaking out somewhere ahead. They saw Sapphire poke her head back around the corner a block ahead and watch them approach. Again, the big dog was waiting when they reached the corner. This time, the dog was watching something down a short dead-end street. They looked around the corner to see where the dog was looking.

"It's a guard house," said Niall in surprise. "I didn't think there was one in this neighborhood."

"They must've wanted more guards here to keep things in line," Mikey said. "The new king seems to have liked control." Mikey backhanded him in the ribs and he looked at her in surprise.

"Think they would have horses in that barn next to the guard house?"

"I think we should find out," Niall answered with a growing grin. The sounds of commotion rising from the guard house grew pronounced, and with it came the sounds of combat. "Look! Is that the line of Celora's blessing coming through the walls down there?" Niall pointed to the walls of the building near the guard house. Mikey could see a golden radiance creeping along the ground there like glowing water seeping from beneath the building walls.

"Alright troops," Niall said. "Let's go see what kind of trouble is brewing in there." He stepped out around the corner and walked down the street in plain view. Mikey and Sapphire exchanged looks that spoke volumes about the foolishness of men and then followed him. Mikey's shoulders kept twitching as she expected an arrow to find its mark directly between them. I hate walking out in the open like this, she thought as she followed Niall up the short street. Sapphire whined so softly that Mikey caught herself staring at the dog, so surprised was she at the sound.

"I know, sweetie, but we have to go keep him out of trouble don't we?" Sapphire didn't answer.

Niall leaned his ear against the door of the guard house, one hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword and the other hand on the door handle. He turned and grinned at Mikey as she caught up with him. "They appear to have been shocked by the sudden disappearance of two of the guards when the blessing circle passed through," he said to her. "Let's play this cool."

Before she could answer, Niall turned the door handle and walked inside. Mikey rolled her eyes heavenward as Sapphire pushed past her, and then the thief followed her lord inside. Mikey blinked her eyes twice, willing her vision to adapt to the low light inside the building. She found that they were surrounded by four visibly frightened guardsmen, who were holding drawn swords, but not pointing them at Niall. At least not yet, she thought grimly. Mikey kept a hand loosely held near the hilt of her own blades but didn't draw them.

"Good day gentlemen," Niall said calmly. "It looks as though you have had some difficulties."

"They just went up," one guard muttered. "Fire, smoke… and then gone. Gods have mercy."

"Who are you?" Another guard demanded.

"I am Niall Martinson and this is Michaelina Bartolli," Niall answered. "We need your help and your horses."

"Is that so," the second guard returned. "Why should we help you?"

"Why are you here instead of attacking the Broken Temple with the other guards?"

"We were assigned to stay behind and protect people from the rebels," the guard said. "I… Has anyone ever told you that you look like our late king?" Mikey began chuckling softly.

"Frequently," Niall said with a smile. "Especially at my coronation, which proved useful I'm sure you would agree." He smiled at them and watched the wonder brighten their faces.

"But… You're dead?"

"We don't have time for the complicated explanation," Mikey said. "He is the King and he has returned to free the city from the Usurper. Will you stand with your lawful king or not?"

"We will stand with you, Your Majesty, of course." The other three guards were still befuddled but nodded in agreement.

"Who is in charge here and what are your names?" Niall's voice easily fell into the tones of command and the men responded without question. I wonder if I get people to follow me if I used those tones? Mikey thought. Probably not, I think. Niall has some familiarity going for him and I don't outside of the Guild.

"My lord, I am Corporal Barret," the talkative guard answered with a quick salute. "I think I am in charge after…" His voice cracked and he swallowed hard before continuing. "Our sergeant is there on the floor, or at least the ash he left after burning is there on the floor. What is happening in the city, Your Majesty?"

"It's a long story, but the short version is that the Wraith Army has successfully infiltrated the city. Zavius Gray is dead as are those that supported him. Those who are loyal to me are holding the Broken Temple while a priest casts a prayer of blessing that is driving the demons from the city."

"Those that are caught unaware, or who fail to flee in time, burst into flame," Mikey added. "I suspect that is what you saw here with your companions."

"Demons, you say? That makes sense, though if I heard that tale without having first seen the fires with my own eyes I would doubt your sanity," Barret said with a half-smile. "What are your orders?" Barret asked Niall.

"Some citizens have taken refuge in Jane's inn, in the outer town," Niall said firmly. "They are mostly children and we believe they are in great peril. We are running to their aid. Horses would make that aid more timely and your swords will help defeat the demons there."

I hope they don't look at the logic too carefully there, Mikey thought wryly. As shocked as they appear to be, though, Niall might just get his way. They seem to want a clear direction and he is good at giving the impression that he knows what he's doing. Mikey felt a surge of pride seeing Niall work his magic with these men. Maybe being a noble isn't so bad after all.

"Aye my liege," Barret answered. "We have six mounts in the stable. We can have them saddled in a few minutes."

"I fear for the safety of those children, Corporal," Niall said, letting urgency tinge his voice. "Bridles will be sufficient. We will have to ride without saddles for this trip. Quickly now, let's get the horses moving."

The guards saluted and moved quickly out the door. Two men pulled open the doors of the stable attached to the guard house. Mikey could barely see the horses waiting in the shadows within the stable, but the guards quickly bridled the horses and led them out.

"Will you be alright riding bareback?" Niall asked her as she waited for a horse.

"I'm not happy about it, but I'll manage somehow," she told him.

One of the guardsmen brought a pair of horses for Niall and Mikey, passing the reins to each of them in turn. Niall started to ask Mikey if she needed help mounting to find that the thief had already vaulted easily to the back of the animal. Niall mounted as easily, even if with less grace.

"Alright," said Niall. "Let's go save our friends."

*     *     *

"Sergeant Byant, ‘ware your left flank!" Ingvar shouted. The sergeant looked where Ingvar indicated and saw their peril. There were more soldiers approaching. These were no chimeras, no false guards. These were full Wraith soldiers. Ingvar stopped counting after two hundred. It won't really matter how many there are, he thought. We grow weary and our numbers are decreasing rapidly. We may succeed in casting the blessing only to protect a city empty of all life.

Sergeant Bryant rallied his weary guards with sharp commands and a few well-placed kicks. The embarrassed men drew themselves up straight and seemed to regain their professional composure. Ingvar could hear Ronin organizing the archers. He wondered briefly how many arrows they had left and how many Wraith they could dispatch before it came to melee fighting on the upper steps of the temple. An horn sounded somewhere and the black wave of armored soldiers rushed at them. Over the battle cries, Ingvar heard Haven laughing.

"Fall back!" Ingvar shouted. "Defend the entrance!" Sergeant Bryant shouted orders to his men and the picket line around the temple began to contract inward toward the entrance where the fighting was concentrated.

"Phalanx formation! Shields to the fore!" The Royal Guards were weary but the familiarity of the commands and the years of training washed the fear and doubt from their minds. They formed a phalanx with the point of the formation at the bottom of the upper steps. The archers formed a tight group directly behind their topmost row. Behind them were a few frightened townsfolk preparing to throw rocks. Ingvar stood at the top of the steps and began directing people to fall back inside the temple as the Wraith knights impacted the phalanx below him. Haven began to send his black lightning out again, striking here and there among the guards, leaving gaps in their line. The Guardsmen pulled inward and close the gaps as quickly as they could, but there were still several intrusions by the Wraith; single black armored warriors would plunge in among the Guardsmen dealing terrible damage before they could be brought down.

At this rate we will lose our entire defense before we can protect the city, Ingvar thought. This may not work after all. He thought for another moment, absently swatting an arrow down that had been streaking past his head and saving the life of a civilian behind him.

"Sergeant Bryant, pull your men back inside the temple," Ingvar called. "We will hold the opening and try to close these doors. Perhaps we can buy some time."

"Aye lord," Bryant answered. His remaining men pulled back, keeping their shield wall tight as they came. One by one they would peel off the upper edge and duck inside the doorway. At last they were all on the very top space between the door and the steps. Some of the men who had already dropped their shields to make room now set their efforts to moving the giant iron doors of the temple. Those doors hadn't moved in many years and they resisted any attempt. With more then ten men straining on each door they gave shrieks of rusted protest and began to close. The Wraith tried their best to prevent the doors from closing, but they were unable to bring enough swords against the defenders in the confined space, and the doors moved toward the center. Guardsmen kept moving off the line, their discipline giving them a chance to survive, but even so they lost several men before the great iron doors closed with a booming sound.

The defenders stood panting and silent, overwhelmed by the ferocity of the fight and just beginning to wonder how long they could hold this meager defense before the fight began again. The only sound for the moment was the chanting of Melissa and Celora at the altar. The only within the temple came from the glowing radiance of their combined blessing. I wonder how much longer they have before they cover the city, Ingvar thought wearily. Cara came to his side and laid her head against his chest as his arms encircled her. They had no words to spare before a dull thudding boom sounded at the doors.

The Wraith had found a battering ram.