Ogre Battle - Part One
Red Palladin

Part 1 - Prelude to Zenobia

The warrior stopped, poised to take a step on a path he had no desire to follow. His garb, fashioned after the barbarians of his distant homeland, was travel-stained and worn. His oft-used sword lay in a beaten leather scabbard at his side, and a mace hung from his belt. He sighed; and left the city. His path was chosen for him, chosen by fate and by cards.

He swore, an oath unfamiliar to the land, but one that still had force and flame behind it.

"Well seer, let's see if you're really honest about me being a 'chosen one.'" He turned west, towards the castle. He loosened his sword in its scabbard, and his footsteps were sure as he walked towards fate.

Chapter One

The warrior entered the courtyard, after a long day's walk through scenic farmland. The land and the small towns around the castle were picturesque, the farmers all happy, and no one really giving a second glance to him in the city. He preferred it that way. His eyes, ringed with dark circles, scanned the bleak castle, it's only definitive feature being the tall spire rising from the back of the castle. He figured that's where the seer would be.

"Wizards," he sneered. He shook his head, and unclasped his sword from its scabbard. The guards at the gate didn't look too much, old men with worn pikes held still strongly in their aged hands.

"Who goes there?" one boomed from the recesses of his helmet.

"What? You're not serious. I mean, come on, that is so clichˇ! You can't say something like that and not expect to get the shit kicked out of you," the warrior, a full hand above two paces, towered above the wizened guards.

"Listen friend, we don't care for your tone. Either you tell us what you're doing here, or we make sure you aren't here anymore. So get lost." The guards lowered their pikes towards the stranger, whose gaze immediately darkened.

"This isn't the day for this, boys. You're making a mistake you don't want to make." his gravelly voice turned to steel, and he drew his sword in an economic fashion.

The scuffle was short, ending with the two knights unconscious in a heap, by the warrior's feet. He wiped a small cut on his cheek, surprised to find the blood on his hand. He grunted, and stepped over the two bodies.

He pulled the large ring on the door, and stepped into the dark and gloomy hallways. The hall stank of torches and pitch, with rats scurrying in and around the debris on the floor.

"Homey," the warrior sheathed his sword, squinting through the darkness. He grimaced, and stepped from the light of the noon-day sun into the blackness of the castle of Warren. * * * *

"NO!" the warrior slammed the table, dust flying off its worn surface.

"Whether or not you wish it, warrior, your fate is cast. Whining about it will not change what you are fated to do." The wizard's face, not as old as expected, was set in a harsh scowl.

"Listen, I'm not your hired sword. I don't know where I am, and I'm not fighting a bloody war for you!" the warrior stood, his tired eyes taking on a hunted cast.

"Before anything, I must know your name. It begins with a name." Warren stood, not even reaching mid-chest on the warrior. His eyes, shining blue in the darkness, fixed on a point deep within the shadows of the study.

"A name? You mean the all-mighty and powerful seer can't even glean my name from the stars, or tarot, or whatever you glean stuff from?" the warrior's tone, normally stony and deep, took a surprisingly ironic cast.

Warren's bushy eyebrows met above his eyes. He turned away from the warrior, and picked up a staff from the corner. "If you will not chose a name, then one will be given to you. Your obstinance is surprising, and disappointing. If you will not cooperate, then I will force your hand!" With that, the wizard chanted a quick phrase and a bolt of lightning leapt from the tip of the staff.

The warrior, reflex taking over his actions, dove to his side. His sword flew out of it's scabbard, blocking an overhand swing of the wizard's staff. He grunted with effort, shocked that he had to do so. He responded with a swing at Warren's knees, which was surprisingly dodged. Rolling backwards to evade a stab of the staff, he regained his footing.

"This is crazy! What are you doing?" panting to regain his breath, he tried to calm himself. Circling the wizard, he pulled the mace off his belt. Assuming a balanced stance, he blocked a swing of the staff on his sword and pushed the wizard into a bookcase. When it came crashing down, he lowered his sword. When the wizard came out with a fireball spewing in his direction, he got very angry.

Sheathing his sword, the warrior held his mace level with his heart. Closing his eyes, he said strongly; "right, this is enough. Don't be angry at me when I kill you."

Gathered around the outstretched mace, a white discoloration of space lit the room. As the warrior made to throw the mace at Warren, the discoloration followed his motion. Streaking across the intervening space, the white ball struck Warren squarely in the chest, and exploded in a flash of electric light.

The warrior grimaced, his face draining of colour. "There? You happy? You're dead. Damn." He slowly crossed over to the wizard's body, and knelt to examine it. Finding the wizard still breathing, he dropped to his knees and immediately started a resuscitation attempt.

"You're made of sterner stuff than you look, Warren. Hold on, I don't want a bookworm's blood on my hands." He sat back on his haunches as Warren started spitting up blood.

"Happy, you ass? I had to floor you before you did something stupid like get me angry." The warrior's tone was disproving, but he helped the wizard to his chair.

"This was a test, my burgeoning friend. Your heart is bigger than your coldness, and I have chosen a name for you."

"Oh?" the warrior grinned.

"Since you have defeated me, I shall name you 'victorious one.'" He extended his hand, expecting a handshake in response.

"Wizard, that's a handle if ever there was one. In my homeland, the word 'nicholas' means 'victorious.' Is that close enough?"

"Warrior, if you so choose, it is."

"Then I guess my name is Nicholas." Ignoring the outstretched hand, the newly named Nicholas instead knelt before the wizard, drawing his sword.

"You may not realise this, but I am what in your land is known as samurai. Because of this, I must swear myself to a lord." He placed his sword on the ground before the wizard, and lowered his great head.

"Nicholas, you must rise. For in this war, you, and you alone, are the lord of this rebellion. It is I who should be bowing to you." Warren grasped the sword, and gave it to Nicholas.

The warrior stood, and sheathed his sword. He turned to the table, and sat.

"Well, we'd best start some type of strategy, then."

With that, the stage was set, the war had begun.

Chapter 2 (Takes place within the halls of Usar's castle)

Lans ran the rogue through. His sword, already bloodied by numerous Empire soldiers, was slick in his hand. His sworn liege lord, a giant of a man, red-gold hair spilling from the circlet around his brow, plowed into and bowled over the group of warriors in front of Lans. Twenty minutes ago, Lans would have worried about the young man. But upon seeing his swordplay, he realised that they were going to win this war, on the skill of his lord alone. It was a disturbing thought for the knight.

"My lord, the perimeter is secure. All the surrounding towns and forts have been liberated, and the mage Warren has a gift for you." Lans' tone was still crisp and icy with the young man, who had been curt to his troops. He respected his skill with a sword, though.

"Good. Get me some water."

Lans turned sharply on his steel toed boot. He hated being addressed in such a fashion. He had not been talked down to since he was a squire. He walked up to one of his own squires, a young man named Duff, and relayed his orders. Looking up at the keep, he snorted. Empires were made to be broken, he silently told himself. Hopefully not by a callous brute like Nicholas, though.

* * * * * *

"Through there! That should be the governor's chambers!"

The soldiers ran through the hallway, each intent on the doorway at the end. Meeting some slight opposition, Lans reached the doorway first, despite his great armour. He yanked on the chain, and ran into the room. Twenty swords faced him. He yelped, and parried the first couple of swings. His troops followed him in, evening the playing field. In the back of the empire's troops, he thought he heard a familiar voice, but couldn't place it. He also had better things to deal with.

The two forces raged across the chamber, tearing it to shreds. Eventually, due to some major magical support from Warren and his magical corps, the Rebels knocked the last Empire soldier to the ground. One man still stood, firmly planted in front of the governor's chair. He was largish, with thick greying hair and a large mace hanging loosely from his powerful grip. He grinned at Lans, whose Zenobian armour, being cut differently, was quite noticeable.

"Hello, Lans." He raised his mace, which was stained brown with old blood. "Been a while since we've seen each other. I bet you still have scars."


"Oh, come now. We're too old for all this posturing. Just you and me, pig. I want to feel your skull crack myself." Usar assumed a wide stance, his mace held squarely in both hands. "Or are you too honourable to throw down with a true warrior?"

"This isn't about honour, you vile piece of refuse. This is about vengeance, and my slain lord. I will feed you that mace before it touches me!" With the words of his challenge still ringing in the air, he dove at the larger man.

The duel, if it could be called that, was viscous to an extreme. Lans, being much smaller than his opponent, had to primarily defend himself while not making too many offensive moves. Halfway through the duel, he discarded honour, and kicked Usar in the knee. As the large man's knee buckled, Lans swung his sword downward and chopped deeply into Usar's off shoulder. The sword bit deeply into the armour plate on Usar's shoulder, and stuck fast within the bone. Finding his blade immobile, Lans tugged, ripping a scream from the berserker on the ground before him.

Usar, whose eyes now raged, swung his mace and buckled Lans' knees out from under him. Hitting the ground hard, Lans tried to roll, but found he had landed oddly on his cape, which had twisted, and couldn't. Damn. Seeing Usar rise and his mace falling directly for his head, Lans blinked. His last thought was one of happiness, and service to King Gran.

The blow never landed.

Lans peeked open one eye, seeing a thin blade straining between his helmet and Usar's mace. Nicholas, veins raised all along his arms, struggled against the berserker, his teeth exposed, a bestial expression of rage on his face.

"You're gonna have to do a lot better than that to hurt one of my soldiers, slimeball. Time to die!!" Nicholas grunted, and threw Usar off his blade, sending him careening into the governor's chair. Usar landed hard, his mace falling from fingers slack with shock.

Nicholas' swordpoint touched the ground, and Lans saw what looked to be a playing card fall from his right hand. As the card hit the ground, a rumbling was heard deep within the halls of the castle. As the entire building began to shake, Nicholas raised his blade to the sky and slammed the hilt into the ground.

The entire chamber collapsed, burying Usar and the remnants of the empire with it.

As the clerics within his forces cleaned up his somewhat ragged troops, Nicholas considered what had transpired today. If a warrior, no matter how superior in skill to himself, had interfered with a duel of his own, he would have challenged the disgrace as soon as he stood up. However, Lans had done no such thing. He simply stood, with the help of one of his squires, and said 'thank you.' Nicholas had no idea how to answer the thanks. He had shamed himself by interfering, and needed to atone. His mind was set.

As Lans watched the tall warrior stride towards him, he felt a finger of fear grip his heart. Never had he seen such a brute display of strength from one man. Usar had for a very long time been considered the strongest man in Zenobia, but his distaste for his low station had caused his turning to the empire with relish. Nicholas had thrown him aside as if a child. And there was also the matter of the earthquake... discussion for another time. Lans steeled himself for the scathing issue he expected from the warrior for such a sloppy display of swordplay, but instead dropped his jaw as Nicholas dropped to one knee and presented the hilt of his blade.

"With this blade, I offer atonement for my disgrace. I give unto you all responsibility of my blade, and with it, my life." His head lowered, Nicholas looked almost regal in his pose.

"I have no idea what you are talking of, milord. What disgrace do you speak of?" A great sigh issued from the large warrior kneeling in front of him, and Lans was suddenly struck by how young the man was. Barely into his twenties, if even that. A child was leading this war! And he was offering Lans his blade in atonement for what?

"For interfering in a matter of honour. I should not have interfered."

"Milord, had you not interfered, I would now be dead. I am honoured to fight by the side of a man who would challenge one such as Usar for the welfare of a simple knight, milord." Lans gently pushed the hilt away, and looked intently at the shaggy mane of his lord.

"You are too quick to pass judgement on what I consider 'simple,' warrior. You dispatched over twenty men today. Including a giant. I interfered where I should not have, and will atone for it."

"Milord, if atonement is what you desire, than consider the service provided to so many of my countrymen here atonement enough. We have started on the path to freedom, milord! We have struck a small but noticeable blow to the empire this day!" Lans' fervour caused Nicholas to raise his head, and he smiled at the knight lying on the pallet in front of him.

"We did at that. Soon, I think, we'll be a bit more than a mosquito to the empire. I can't wait until they think us a real threat. Then at least we'll be getting some exercise."

"Milord, I find your idea of 'exercise' a bit disturbing, if your displays here were any indication of it." Lans honestly sounded worried, which caused Nicholas to throw back his head in laughter.

The fireworks that night were simple, a peasant's attempt at a celebration. Tomorrow, he would worry about tomorrow. Tonight, he worried about the stitch in his side. Stretching, Nicholas smiled at the revelling citizens in the square, and looked west, towards the Empire proper.

Chapter 3 (takes place within the halls of Sharom's Castle, specifically in the War room of Gilbert of Sharom)

Nicholas fumed. Never in his life had he met such a stubborn pair. The hawkman was a pain, and Gilbert was a child. He continued to pace, idly kicking a helmet out of his path. He gagged slightly as the head still within the helmet fell out.

"I think we need to clean up a bit here..." he grimaced, and turned to the double doors leading into Gilbert's chambers. He pulled the left door open, and clapped his hands over his ears as the screaming heard from within the chambers suddenly escalated in volume.

"If you weren't such a stubborn idiot, we wouldn't be here at all!"

"Well, if you weren't so ugly, maybe the empire wouldn't have decided to take you under it's wing!!"

Nicholas shook his head at the two "friends" still fighting. He was impressed by their endurance, this was now the third hour. But he was a bit tired of it all.

"Uh, guys..."

"You can take that spear and shove it-"

"Unwind the whip from your throat, you're cutting of circulation to your brain!"

Nicholas punched Gilbert in the mouth, and swung his foot in a roundhouse, knocking Canopus from his chair. he was fairly sure both were tough enough to take it, but didn't really care at the moment.

"If you two are quite finished with this, I think we have some things to discuss about our plans. I'm commandeering this room, and re-dubbing it our 'war room.' Any questions?" He glared at the two sprawled figures, who shook their heads no.

Canopus stood, and hesitantly raised his voice. "Actually, I do have one question..."


"Could you show me how to do that?"

Nicholas shook his head, and called for his captains.

* * * * * *

"I think we should continue into the Pogrom, milord." Nicholas didn't really think him the boardroom type but sure as anything, Lans had a bamboo pointer. Whatever.

"Both paths are viable, Nicholas, but the Pogrom leads directly into Zenobia Province proper. Jansenia isn't horribly important, I must say." Gilbert stood, his leathers crackling as he did. "It only leads into the Valparin mountains, which due to out of season snowfalls, aren't passable at this time of year."

"See, this is the dilemma I'm faced with." Nicholas stood, taking the pointer from Lans. "One, I hate pointers." He snapped the bamboo shaft in two, "secondly, we're not in this for 'strategically important.' We're in this for the people of the Empire. You 'generals' seem to forget this. I don't, because I'm a commoner. We have to free everyone, not just the 'strategically important' ones."

Warren started laughing. "Nicholas, what's this, compassion? Not from a warrior such as you!"

"Shut up, Warren."

"Yes, milord." Warren covered a snicker with his voluminous sleeve. "If we're going to go to both areas, I would honestly suggest the Pogrom first. While it is a more direct path, it is also closer. And I'm tired."

Groans went up from the table. Lans shook his head at the seer, and Nicholas rolled his eyes.

"Just so we're all certain of Warren's laziness, let's go with that. It is closer, but unlike our esteemed seer, I'm not concerned about saddle sores. I'm concerned about them being on our tails, so let's be logical about this." Nicholas sat, opening the floor for another speaker. One of Nicholas' valkyries stood, her helmet slipping over her eyes. The captains grinned and snickered, but a glare from Lans silenced them.

"If logic is what we're concerned about, milord, then may I suggest we bolster our forces somewhat?"

Gilbert answered this. "While I am new to this outfit, I think that Nicholas' reasoning behind the smallish force is sound. We are not properly equipped, nor do we have the support from the populace to supply an army. For the moment, guerrilla tactics seems best." Nicholas nodded at his newest general.

"Plus, if today is any indication, if we have more people, it will get to the point where he can't personally discipline every soldier in a day." Gilbert gingerly touched his blooming black eye, wincing at the pain.

"Hey, you deserved that."

"Sure, Nicholas. Sure."

With their goal set, Nicholas dismissed his captains. As everyone filtered out of the war room, he went to a window. He was surprised to find Canopus' sister hanging outside of it.

"Hello, Yulia. Can I help you?"

"No, not really. I was just curious as to what you were planning, milord." she bowed her head, and entered the room.

"Oh, don't be respectful. Your brother isn't. So, now I have to ask, why do you want to know what we're going to do?" He levelled his gaze with hers, and she quickly turned her head. "This isn't helping your position, Yulia. I don't need to deal with spies."

"I... I'm not a spy. I'm worried about my brother and gi... the others. That's all."

"Right. Does he know?" Nicholas' eyes took on a sceptical glint.

"No. He's pretty oblivious."

Nicholas threw his head back and laughed. Wiping tears from his eyes, he placed his hand on Yulia's shoulder. "Don't worry, he won't find out from me. I'll make sure he comes back in one piece, too."

"Thank you." Yulia turned and left the room.

Nicholas turned back to the window, watching a marvellous sunset over the river. His eyes turned west. He fingered his blade, and continued to watch the sun set. Chapter 4 (takes place within the woods surrounding Kapella's stronghold within the Pogrom forest)

With the circle's components scattered and strewn about the clearing, the clerics began a cleansing rite. Nicholas shivered; his eyes darting to and fro about the clearing.

"This place gives me the creeps."

Canopus walked silently up behind Nicholas, and grabbed him by the shoulders. Nicholas jumped, and spun on the winged man, his eyes aflame.

"That wasn't necessary."

Canopus grinned. "Sure it was. We're safe here." He gestured around the clearing, his hands taking in the four clerics working their magicks. "We'll do fine. Now all we have to do is assault the castle, and I think doing that at first light would be best."

"Good call. We'll get right on that. Who should we sneak into the castle?" Nicholas turned to Canopus, his eyes questioning.

"Don't know. Maybe the clerics? They seem right pissed about the entire 'possess and use the spirits of the forest' thing, so let them at him." he flipped a dagger into a nearby tree, and shrugged at Nicholas.

Nicholas pursed his lips, and nodded slowly. He turned towards the clerics, and began to talk quietly with their leader.

After a bit of deliberation, the cleric gathered her robes up around her, and bowed to Nicholas.

Gilbert and Lans looked at Nicholas, their expressions mirrors of confusion.

"Right, I'll bite. Why the clerics?" Gilbert, attaching his whip to his belt, sat on a nearby treestump.

"Not just the clerics, my burgeoning assassin. I'm 'volunteering' you to accompany them." Nicholas grinned.

Gilbert glared at him. "Assassin? Methinks that's a poor choice of words, friend."

"Not at all, Gilbert. Hate to say it, but right now that's all we are. And anyways, I think you'd prefer going and abusing a necromancer as opposed to assaulting the front gate with Lans and I."

Lans took a step back, his expression trapped. "Hey..."

Nicholas grinned wickedly, and said; "get a move on, eh? We've got to get going soon."

Lans and Gilbert started grumbling, and walked off quietly complaining.

* * * * * *

As the cloud of ice and debris cleared from the room, Gilbert shook his head. He had weathered the blast, but many of his troops had not fared as well. His knight was holding his arm at an odd angle, and his clerics had all been knocked either unconscious or killed outright by the initial wave.

"This isn't good." He pulled a six inch shard of ice from his lower leg, and tested it for balance. Finding it still usable, he crouched, glaring at the mage.

"I'll give you the opportunity to surrender, you know. A viable specimen such as yourself would be a great bargaining tool." Kapella's voice was surprisingly pleasant, it having a very even tone.

"Right. And I suppose that I'd even get to be conscious for all it?" Gilbert rolled, avoiding a blast of fire and coming up close to Kapella. His whip snaked out, snagging the magi's ankle, and pulling him to the floor.

"That was not bright, Gilbert. I'm not going to let you off easily, now."

Accompanying this statement was a bolt of lightening that shook the room. Gilbert heard shouts from outside the castle, and prayed that the rest of the force was doing well. As he turned his head towards the mage once more, an answering crackle of lightening struck from one of Gilbert's valkyries, knocking Kapella to his knees. Gilbert flashed a grin, revealing a predatory set of canines, and leapt at the fallen mage.

"Time to die, monster!" As Gilbert's knee connected with Kapella's head, he chuckled evilly. Kapella groaned and rose to one knee, and Gilbert sent a viscous kick towards his midsection. As Kapella coughed up some blood, Gilbert drew a small knife from his belt.

"I'm not heartless like you, Kapella. I'll make this fast." As he slashed quickly across the magi's throat, he stood and surveyed the room. He was sickened by the demonic glyphs and crusty bloodstains about the room, and shuddered. He helped the lone surviving cleric to her feet, and glanced at the knight.

"Let's get out of here." he glanced once more at the still twitching form of Kapella, and continued, "we'll burn the place down. There is nothing here that should see the light of day any more."

* * * * * *

As Nicholas finished tying the bandage around his arm, he glanced around the dour castle. It being built of dark stone, the entire building was depressing.

"Milord, we've finished clearing out that skeleton infestation. It vexed the clerics mightily." the valkyrie grinned, Nicholas knowing full well the competition between the clerics and the valkyries. Sometimes it almost reached an amazonian level. He shook his head.

"Quit making fun of them. They have their duties, and you have yours. Like what about the stable I told you guys to clean out?"

The valkyrie stammered, unable to respond. Nicholas grinned. He turned her around, and pushed her gently in the direction of the stable. He had every intention of going and helping them later, but had to deal with the surviving demons that Kapella had called. Sofar, Warren's magicks had been fully capable of holding the demons within a circle of protection, but he was still worried.

He strode purposefully towards the circle, which had been drawn within the courtyard. He was stunned at the size of the circle, and the number of demons held within it. All were of a relatively uniform size, being just over two paces tall, and were muscled like steel cables. Scythes seemed to be the weapon of choice, but he saw swords and flails mixed in as well. Lans was leaning against a wall, lost in thought staring at the prisoners.

"Well? What are we going to do?" Nicholas stood just behind the older knight, looking over his shoulder.

"I have no clue." Lans turned to his lord, "the way I see it, we have a couple of options. One, we can turn them loose." Nicholas sighed, and gave Lans a sarcastic look.

"Yeah, I'll get right on that."

"Two, we can kill them all. I don't like that, because they are living beings. But I can't for the life of me figure out how we'll banish them."

Nicholas sighed again, and shook his head. "I'm just supposed to kill things. How come I have to choose?"

Lans smirked. He glanced up, and said, "because you're the idiot that took prisoners."


"Warren says that his circle will hold until morning, but I don't want to wait until then. We should decide now." Lans turned back to the demons.

"I agree. We should handle this." He paused, and continued, "how many monks can we gather in the next six hours? Couldn't we do a mass banishment thingy?"

"Sometimes your diction is quite amusing, Nicholas. No, I don't think that's feasible. They'd charge too much."

Nicholas smirked. "Yeah, the church would do that. They tend to." He clapped his hands, and strode towards Warren. "Get me the head monk, or pope, or whatever it is out here in the boonies. We're gonna banish the demons. That's the only honourable option."

Lans shook his head, and shrugged at the seer. Warren shook his head, motioning as if to count out a lot of money.

"Guys, you're supposed to be volunteers here. We're freedom fighters! We don't get paid! Honour and glory!" Nicholas continued ranting for a moment, which brought a smile to the older warrior's faces.

"Yes, honour and glory. Honour and glory." Lans smiled outright at Nicholas. "It sounds better the more you say it, you know?"

"You guys are starting to learn. Now let's start ransacking the castle so we can pay for this damn stunt." The three warriors turned towards the dark hall, and the sun set around them.

As the three, continued walking, Nicholas started snickering.

Lans asked, "what?"

Nicholas smirked, and said, "oh, I guess the stables will have to wait."

Chapter 5 (within the halls of Sirius' castle)

Lans swung his new axe, marvelling at the sheer power the weapon itself radiated. The runes carved into the head of the axe glowed with a faint white sheen, lending the entire weapon an unearthly glow. Regardless, Lans had better things to worry about than a pretty weapon. Like getting the arrow out of his shoulder.

The battle that raged through the halls of Jansenia Castle was bloody and viscous, both sides taking no prisoners and being quite vile all around. Lans was not impressed. Having been given command by Nicholas, who had pushed ahead into the Valparin mountains on the rumour that monsters were popping up and terrorising the populace, Lans was hard-pressed to keep his soldiers in line. As he parried a blow from a berserker, he thought to himself that Nicholas probably took the valkyries because they were more disciplined than his knights. He found it ironic.

As he shouted an order across the demolished dining room, he heard a growling noise from deep within the moonlit shadows of the hall.

As a soldier turned towards where the growling emanated, he jerked slightly, and fell to his knees. Lans gagged as his head slid cleanly from the rest of his body.

Standing in front of the body, at a full three paces tall, stood a shaggy humanoid figure, revoltingly bloodied and holding a ruined human arm in one hand. The creature shook itself once, and glared around the hall. It took a large bite from the arm, and loped towards the nearest grouping of soldiers, killing both empire soldier and rebel indiscriminately.

Lans, whom at the moment had been 'duelling' three berserkers, quickly dispatched one of the men in front of him, and started yelling orders at his archers. They quickly filled the canine figure with arrows and quarrels, to no avail. It kept killing.

Disengaging from his battle with the two remaining berserkers, he rolled quickly to the side, and felt rather than saw a firebolt from Warren pass above him to scatter the berserkers.

He came up next to the wizard, and looked quickly over to his friend. "I assume that would be this Sirius we heard so much about?"

"I would safely assume that, Lans. This does not bode well for our remaining troops. Should we fall back?"

Lans quickly scanned the room, finding that now his troops greatly outnumbered the empires', and had herded most of them into a corner of the hall. Which left Warren and Lans to the mercy of the werewolf.

"I quit. Where's my pension?" Lans turned on heel, but instead of stopping and walking away, pirouetted and met the expected blow of the werewolf full on his axe. Surprisingly, the blade met no resistance at all as it sliced cleanly through the humanoid's flesh and bone, leaving it's hand writhing on the floor.

The wolfman howled, and leapt back, glaring at the knight.

"So I see you have suitable weaponry. It's not going to help, you know." Gutturally, the wolf chuckled. It stood, showing a new hand which had grown in the intervening time. It flexed its hand, and leapt once more at Lans.

Only to be met by a fireball which knocked it flat on it's back. Lans, capitalising on the opportunity, flew at the prone werewolf, his axe whistling through the air and landing squarely in the centre of the wolf's chest. Once again, it met no resistance, and pulled a horrifying scream from the lycanthrope. Lans pulled the axe out of the ghastly wound, and chopped again at the creature. As he kept swinging his axe at the creature, he gagged on the bile raised in his throat. It wasn't dying.

"Lans! Cut off it's head!" Warren hollered, and started a chant. The spell took shape over the werewolf, tiny lightningbolts striking the creature over and over again. Lans took this opportunity to circle around the beast.

"NO! You don't want to do this! I can help you out! I'm in good with the empire! I can get information..." the creature's piteous howls died off as Lans brought his axe above his head, and swung hard. Sparks raised all along the floor as Lans decapitated the beast.

"Excellent. We must burn it now," Warren said matter-of-factly. He pulled the body away from the head, which had been twitching on the ground.

"Burn it? What are you talking about?" Lans stood, his hands on his knees, panting. He squinted, shaking his head as he saw the severed head of the beast move slightly. I'm getting tired.

Warren grunted, and shifted the body aside. "Quickly, you fool! It will heal shortly!" he chanted quickly, and a spurt of flame erupted from the tip of his staff. The body of the werewolf quickly burned under the magefire, and Warren turned to Lans, who held the decapitated head askance.

"It will survive unless we burn both separate pieces. Hold it out a bit further, Lans. My aim isn't very good."

Lans blinked under his heavy helmet. He didn't quit hear that last part, it almost sounded like Warren was shooting a fireball at him...

"Damnit! That hurt!" Lans shook his hand, ripping his gauntlet off. He stared at the raised pink and black burns on his hand, and glared balefully at Warren.

"I assume that being chewed on by the werewolf would have been pleasant, Lans? Because that is exactly what would have happened. Werewolves are nasty business." Warren distastefully shifted the already burnt ashes of the body, and looked up at the angry knight.

"It could have been worse. I could have actually hit where I was aiming for. Then you'd be really be put out with me." The wizard grinned at his friend.

Lans just fumed.

Chapter Six (Valparine Castle)

Nicholas caught the jaws of the small dragon, and pried them apart. He panted a little, and eviscerated the knight accompanying the beast. Without it's tamer around, the dragon thumped off to lick its wounds. Nicholas nodded, and turned to his Valkyrie troops.

"Watch the back. We can't afford to have anything sneak up on us here."

The warrior women were all high strung, and held their lances level. All were prepared for battle. Nicholas wished he had some knights in plate mail behind him.

As a shadowed figure turned the corner, a valkyrie swung her lance sideways at the movement. As sparks raised along the wall, Nicholas heard a curse from the shadowed hallway.


The winged man glared at the sheepish woman who had swung at him. He turned to Nicholas and saluted him, moving out of the way as Gilbert trailed around behind him.

"Right, this place is a tomb. I can't find anything, and neither can Gilbert." after announcing this, Canopus immediately started picking something out of his teeth.

"It doesn't make any sense, Nicholas. We had to fight like demons to get through the pass to this castle, and we've seen one dragon in here. I can't figure out this governor's logic." Gilbert scratched his scruffy beard, and leered at one of the valkyries.

Nicholas sighed. He rubbed his jaw, and shrugged at the valkyrie closest to him. She raised her hands in ignorance.

"You pay us to fight, milord. Not to think." she grinned at the large man, and continued, "however, since the people in the surrounding villages referred to the governor as a woman, I'd suggest looking in the bedchambers. That's where I'd be."

Nicholas, tongue in cheek, turned to the two men in front of him. Tiredly glancing at the friends, he asked, "so why didn't the high and mighty commanders think of that?"

Canopus guiltily glanced at Gilbert. "Well, honestly, the only thing we saw there was a maid changing. She was really pretty, though..."

Nicholas dropped his chin to his chest. When he raised it, he was shaking his head at the two warriors.

"Okay, then we'll go to the bedchambers. However, just so they can keep their minds on their work rather than stare at a maid changing, Gilbert and Canopus can pull rear guard." He smirked at the two, who both visibly ground their teeth.

Nicholas, after sifting information about the locale of the bedchambers, continued to stalk through the halls. After a short hike, the party circled around the double door, and Nicholas asked for a volunteer to scout out the room.

The same valkyrie who had suggested the bedchambers raised her slight hand. Nicholas nodded at her, and she adjusted her helmet, and strongly strode through the doorway.

The party waited a beat, and Nicholas cringed as he heard a sickening crunch from inside the chamber. As the broken and bloodied body of the valkyrie flew back through the door, he barely glanced at it. He hollered for a medic, and dove through the door with his sword drawn. Canopus and Gilbert quickly followed.

The sight that met their eyes was a mixed pleasure, at best. At the far end of the room, a statuesque blonde woman stood, a bathing robe tied loosely about her over-ripe figure. Her ethereal beauty illuminated the small room. Surrounding the angelic figure, four horrific monstrosities stood in half-moon formation. All large and muscular bodies, the hideous creatures all had a full-grown pumpkin in place of a head. One held a valkyrie's lance, gripping the long shaft awkwardly.

"Gentlemen." The woman's voice, smoother than silk and richer than honey, wafted through the chamber. "I am Deneb." She strode forward, her robe untying as she walked. She made no motion to re-tie the now open robe, and was fully naked underneath.

Nicholas tore his eyes away from Deneb, and whispered to Gilbert, "is this the pretty maid?"

Gilbert, stunned by the vision in front of him, barely managed a nod.

"You didn't look close enough to miss this, Gilbert..."

Deneb, now about a pace from Nicholas, unabashedly looked the foreign warrior up and down. Barely hearing a muttered "decent," Nicholas managed to avoid stabbing himself with his already drawn sword.

"You're not bad. Why are you leading such ugly men?" her voice flowed melodiously around the three warriors, lulling them all into a slumber-like state.

"I generally don't appraise my warriors in that fashion, madam." Nicholas' voice was a little stronger, as he had lowered his gaze.

"Oh, don't be a child," Deneb scolded. She planted herself, hands on hips, and continued, "if a pretty face is enough to stop this 'rebellion,' than Rashidi will be doubly pleased with me for also returning his vagrant governor." She pouted in Gilbert's direction.

From the hallway, a screech was heard. As a somewhat bloodied valkyrie flew through the door, Deneb started. Gilbert and Canopus simply stared as the wave flowed up and down her exposed body.

"That's why he has us, witch!" the valkyrie, whose name Nicholas sadly did not know, grabbed Canopus' spear from his slack grasp and levelled it towards the bare midriff of Deneb.

As the blow streaked towards her, Deneb howled, and the four creatures behind her sprang into motion. Nicholas, whose attention had been diverted from Deneb via the valkyrie's attack, swung his sword and parted one cleanly in half. The remaining four valkyries outside the doorway flew into battle, lightning bolts singeing the stones of the room.

Gilbert and Canopus chose cover over chivalry, and avoided the melee completely.

As the five valkyries quickly danced around the much-stronger creations, their spears and superior reach gave them the advantage. Nicholas, whose first strike had left his back uncovered, was struggling valiantly to dislodge a creature from him.

After a disproportionately short time, the pumpkin creatures were no more than bloody masses staining the rich carpets of the chamber. Deneb, who had controlled the creatures from behind, now crouched amongst the shredded sheets that had once been her bed.

"Please! Have mercy on me!" her voice had changed throughout the scuffle, and now was no more than a piteous wail.

The massed valkyries surrounded Deneb, who now was a pathetic sight on the bloodstained floor.

"Put some clothes on," the lead valkyrie spat.

"Don't kill me! I'm sorry! They told me to do it!" Deneb was now crying, tears staining her ivory skin.

The lead valkyrie turned to Nicholas, who had been watching the exchange detachedly.

"I'm sorry, girls, but this is your call. I disgraced myself here, and will atone for it. As we wouldn't have won through without you, I'll let you decide her fate." He bowed towards each valkyrie respectfully, and backed away from the gathering.

The lead valkyrie spun towards the now-pathetic woman on the floor. Her eyes afire, she raised Deneb's chin with the tip of her spear. Maliciously, she growled: "give me one reason I shouldn't kill you."

"I'll help you. I'm a great researcher, one of the best within the entire Empire. Ask me anything, and I'll do it for you." Deneb's voice broke, her tearstained face shaking, but her gaze level with the valkyrie's.

The valkyrie looked towards her companion warrioresses, and raised an eyebrow questioningly. The smallest, who was also the valkyrie who had been bloodied first by the creations, stepped forward.

"We can't kill her, Tess. Not in cold blood." Her eyes, distastefully avoiding looking a the woman on the floor in front of her, let a single tear slide down her face. "We're not murderers."

The lead valkyrie, newly identified Tess, sighed and nodded. She lowered her spear, and glared at the woman in front of her. "If we're not going to kill you, we're at least going to make your life a living hell." She smiled wolfishly. "Get some clothes on."

Deneb, whose face now had taken on the sheen of a trapped animal, glanced nervously around her. Her voice shook, barely croaking out a strangled, "what are you going to do to me?"

Tess replied, "You'll see, wench. Get your naked ass moving, or I'll show you a new use for Gilbert's whip over there."

* * * * * *

As the two forces met in a shaded mountain pass between the two areas of the now liberated Valparine Mountains, Nicholas grunted under the weight of a yoke. He ground his teeth, and pulled harder.

The valkyries, gathered on a sled behind the semi-naked lord, laughed uproariously, genuinely enjoying their leader's plight. Tess, leader amongst the women, had decreed that in reparation for his disgrace Nicholas be "their packhorse for a day." Bowing and accepting his fate, Nicholas had unabashedly peeled off his tunic amongst whistles and catcalls of the gathered women, and himself yoked the cart that pulled the ten women and their gear.

Lans and Warren, standing at the gates of the camp, shook their heads.

"Tell me why he's disgracing himself like that," Lans asked of the shorter mage.

"Nicholas has a somewhat skewed sense of honour. I'd assume that he somehow failed to serve this honour in some fashion, and is atoning for it." Warren yawned, and turned from the spectacle. "After he's done impressing everyone, tell him to come to my tent. I have something for him."

"Warren, how much would you say that wagon weighs?" Lans questioned, glancing back at his friend.

"Too much for me to honestly believe he's moving it. A giant would have trouble pulling ten people, you know that."

Lans sighed, and nodded. He waved at his friend, and strode towards his struggling lord.

As Nicholas huffed his way into the gate, he pulled up alongside the knight. Shaking the beads of sweat off of his bronzed back, Nicholas grinned at Lans.

"Morning, Lans." Lans was disgusted; he wasn't even winded.

"Do I want to ask?" Lans chuckled at the young man, who now was acting as a porter and helping each of the women off the wagon.

"Not really. It's been handled." Tess nodded towards Lans, who returned with a courtly bow.

As he finished the bow, a smelly and rag-clothed figure strode past him. After quickly dismissing the vagabond, Lans spun his head around following the movement within the rear of the battered rags that enshrouded the figure.

"Who was that, and why do I get the feeling that I don't want to know that either?" he asked of the tallish woman in front of him.

She replied, "That is our handmaiden. She will not be allowed to bathe until she has shown proper humility. For now, she does not have a name, but will willingly complete any service that an honourable knight such as yourself would ask of her." Her gaze narrowed at Lans, who raised his hands as if to ward off a blow.

"I wasn't going to say a thing."

Nicholas chuckled as he walked up to the knight, and slapped the valkyrie on the back.

"These girls are the heroes of Valparine, that's for sure. When their 'handmaiden' is a bit more decent, I'll show you why." He gave a sympathy grunt to the valkyrie as she elbowed him in the stomach. He grinned as she rubbed her elbow.

"You're disgusting, by the way. Why do you have veins sticking out all over your body?" the valkyrie asked, her sisters coming up behind her and echoing similar sentiments.

"Because I'm in really good shape. I get a lot of exercise." Nicholas emphasised the last word, pointedly ignoring the wagon behind him.

Lans cleared his throat.

"While this is all amusing, Nicholas, I sincerely hope that you're going to be in decent shape tomorrow morning."

Nicholas raised an eyebrow towards his second-in-command.

Lans pointed west, towards the setting sun. His face hardened as he did so, taking on a hawkish expression of hatred and, almost as visibly, want.

Nicholas turned, to see amongst the last rays of the setting sun, the majestic towers of Zenobia Castle on the horizon.

* * * * *

As Nicholas wiped his brow with a borrowed towel, he pushed aside the flap of Warrens' tent. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw Warren seated amongst cushions piled haphazardly around the tent.

"You requested my presence?" Nicholas' voice was respectful of the mage, as he knelt a distance from the mage.

Warren contemplated his lord for a moment. Seeing Nicholas' sense of honour in action was a pleasant shock for the seer. Warren's summons scarcely five days ago had been a last attempt at finding a warrior strong enough to lead his rebellion. While Nicholas was obviously physically strong enough for the job, Warren still had doubts about why Nicholas was taking the path set before him.

"Why did you accept my call?"

Nicholas blinked. "Because you said you wanted to see me."

"Not that call. The call from me to summon you from your home."

Nicholas sighed. He gathered his thoughts, and raised his shadowed eyes towards the wizard.

"While I have no desire to get into the specifics of why I was... disillusioned with my homeland, suffice it to say that I had no place there. I had done deeds that had ruined my sense of self worth, and seek a way to atone for my evils."

Warren nodded. "Why do you still cling to your honour, if you know that you are dishonourable?"

Once again, Nicholas lowered his head. After a long pause, he raised it. Warren was shocked to see tears glistening on his cheeks.

"All I have left is my pride, wizard. I have no honour, no family, no friends. All that I have is pride, and in my pride, I see myself leading this rebellion towards greatness. I see a place for myself here."

Warren blinked, surprised at the husky tones of the young man. He twirled a twig among his fingers, and reached inside his voluminous sleeve.

He pulled out a small pendant, a golden sunburst, held by a thick gold chain.

"I have held this for some time, as I was unsure what to do with it. While this means nothing to you, as you are a foreigner, suffice it to say that this is a very important piece of Zentengenian folklore."

"This is the 'Herostar.'"

Warren threw the small pendant at Nicholas, who, despite his surprise, deftly caught it out of the air.

Nicholas stammered, "B-but I am no hero!"

Warren smiled. "Which is precisely why you deserve it. Whether or not you have pride, Nicholas, you also have honour, despite anything you say. You will see us through this rebellion, and you will become a hero."

Nicholas blinked, and gently placed the star within a pouch on his belt.

"I sincerely hope that it won't offend you if I choose not to wear such a treasure until I feel worthy of it?"

Warren's smile warmed. "You are so perfect for this that is frightens me. By all means, Nicholas." As his smile turned somewhat downwards into a smirk, he continued, "now go sleep. I don't want you participating in tonight's festivities. Not after your copious... exercise... today."

Nicholas returned the smirk, and bowed at the wizard.

Chapter 7 Zenobian Nights

"This sucks."

Nicholas threw a stone into the lake, staring out into the fields of Zenobia District, and watched the Zentengenian Legions in the distance.

Lans and Tess stood behind their lord, also watching the legions.

"We're not going to get through them. Not a chance." Tess' gravelly voice cut through the morning air, an unwelcome disturbance to the tranquillity of the scene.

Lans sniffed. After a night of revelry amongst the troops, he was feeling a bit under the weather. He turned to the woman, and squinted in the morning sun.

"We don't need to 'get through them,'" he yawned, and continued, "our forces are small enough that we can sneak them through the forests, and reach the outlying fortresses. Those fortresses were designed for a small crack fighting unit to repel astronomic odds. We'll pull through." He yawned again, blinking at Nicholas.

"And what will we do when we get bottled up in those little fortresses, eh? Seen that wall around the castle, Lans?" Nicholas handed a seeing glass to the knight, who peered at the castle in the distance.

"It's wooden."

Nicholas smirked. "So? It's forty feet tall. We can't burn it down without getting slaughtered, so we're up the creek without a paddle." He hawked and spit over the small embankment on the lake, and was promptly slapped by Tess.

"That's disgusting. Learn some manners." Lans erupted into peals of laughter, and was not silenced by the glare Nicholas gave him.

Nicholas sighed, and looked towards the ocean to the north. "We could flank them, that would work..."

Lans nodded. "I'll start the troops moving in small groups, and we'll meet at the gates of the castle. We'll communicate via the wizards."

Nicholas stuck his hand out towards the knight, who shook it firmly. "Don't get dead, eh? I won't have anyone to make fun of if you die."

"Yes you will. Remember, the valkyries are your troops." Lans grinned, and walked away.

"What did he mean by that?" Tess asked suspiciously.

"I'm not certain, but I think it was pretty direct." Nicholas was straightfaced, and turned towards his griffon. "Let's boogy, eh? We've only got twelve hours."

* * * * * *

Canopus and Gilbert slinked stealthily around the guard. He was quite lax in his guard, which Gilbert pointed out, and which Canopus pointedly ignored. As they approached the wall, Gilbert motioned up over the wall. Canopus nodded, and quietly spread his wings. Gilbert grabbed onto special straps designed into Canopus' leathers, and was carried onto the wall by the winged man.

"Right, why are we here?" Gilbert whispered as they crept along the wall.

"Because it looks interesting, and Tess was getting a look on."

Gilbert snickered. "You have such grace with women, my friend."

"Shove it, Gilbert. You aren't winning any prizes either."

Both men silenced as a guard came out of the tower. Clad in unfamiliar colours, the soldier missed them as he was engrossed by the empire garrison outside the walls.

"I really want to know what is worth 50 legionnaires around here." Canopus glanced quickly at his friend, who nodded. As the guard approached them, Gilbert leapt up in front of him and punched him square in the face. The guard fell bonelessly to the floor.

"Nice punch."

Gilbert shook his hand. "Remind me not to punch the noseguard next time." The pair crept into the guardhouse, and found it empty. Checking the cupboards quickly, Canopus tossed a wineskin at Gilbert, who quickly pulled back on it.

"Hey, Zenobian blue! they know what to drink, at least." Gilbert stoppered the skin, and shoved it deep into his mixed leathers.

"Where should we go now?" Canopus glanced around the room, suspiciously.

"I'd wager the keep. It's a small one, but this fort is really put together well. I bet that it could take fifteen to one odds."

Canopus directed a lazy look at his long-time friend. "Oh, come off it, Gilbert. This fort's probably twenty years old. Ten to one is the best that most /modern/ forts can hold."

Gilbert waggled a finger at the winged man. "Don't forget your training, Canopus. Look at the wall placement, and the ballistae we saw on the walls were superb. It's snuggled up against a mountain, and the river slows down incoming troops. If I was in command here, I'd have mostly archers and a few golems to guard the gate, and you could stay in this fort indefinitely."

Canopus' gaze narrowed. "Shut up, Gilbert."

"Actually, he's right." A voice carried through the stairwell from the ground level, causing both fighters to draw weapons and spin towards the well. Both immediately regretted it, seeing a mage and two crossbows levelled at them.

"Whoever you are, you know your tactics. We only really plan for twelve, but fifteen is a good estimate if we're having a good day." The mage was young, barely twenty-five.

Gilbert, sheathing his dagger, gestured to the walls. "But with magical support from within the walls, and archers to guard from aerial attacks, you might be able to take twenty to one!"

Canopus spun on his friend. "I highly doubt this man wants to discuss the particulars of tactics while he has crossbows levelled at us, Gilbert!" his tone was sharp.

"If he wanted us dead, he'd have done it already. Who's in charge here, young man?" Gilbert addressed the mage courteously, and was rewarded with the bows being lowered.

"The commander will want to see you, actually, so you can meet him." He motioned to Canopus to hand over his spear, but made no effort to fully disarm the two intruders.

"What's going to happen to us?" Canopus asked, suspicious of the treatment.

"We know you're not empire. If you were, you wouldn't of knocked Mitch out." the mage grinned at Gilbert. "If you hadn't of punched his noseguard, and if he hadn't of faked unconsciousness, we wouldn't of known you two were here for another good half- hour. We lucked out."


"Anyways, we know for a fact that the empire doesn't employ eaglemen in this region. So you're not empire. Which means that you might be useful." The mage motioned to the two, indicating they should follow.

Gilbert blinked. "Useful for what?"

* * * * *

Within the war room of the fort, Gilbert and Canopus both paced, uncomfortable.

"What's going on here? We've been here almost an hour. We're going to be late for the rendezvous!" Canopus wrung his hands, angry.

Gilbert pursed his lips, and waved away his friend's worry. "Nicholas knows that we're here. He won't move without us, because we're the only ones that can control the gryphons. We just have to be cool about everything, and we might get out of here alive."

Canopus sighed.

"Why are you always calmer than I, Gilbert?" the eagleman smiled warmly at his friend, and took a seat at the table. Gilbert followed suit.

"One of us has to be, Canopus. And it was your turn to fly off the handle."

Both men waited quietly for a few more minutes, then stood at attention as the door opened from the connecting hallway. Gilbert gasped as the group finished coming through the narrow hallway.

"You!" he hissed.

The leader, and older man with a grizzled beard and deep, sunken eyes glanced tiredly at Gilbert. He blinked, and shook his head.

"Sorry, chap, but I don't recognise you. You obviously recognise me, however."

"I thought you were executed!" Gilbert's tone had turned hard, and Canopus glanced nervously at his friend.

"Obviously not. Sit down." The man sighed and went to the head of the table, sifting through a sheaf of papers.

"My intelligence has given me some interesting news, and my gut tells me you two are stuck right in the middle of it." he glanced up, and his gaze immediately hardened, going right through both men.

"That depends on what your intelligence has told you, sir." Canopus' tone was neutral, and he leaned forward in his chair.

The man leaned back, casually examining the two men. His eyes had one again turned tired, and he rubbed them once.

"Why is there guerrilla troop movement through the forests of Zenobia?" he asked outright, pointing the question like a barb.

Gilbert sucked in his breath, and Canopus rocked back in his chair. Both echoed sentiments of ignorance, and were quickly silenced by a chopping motion by the man.

"Don't play stupid. I could easily have both of you executed, and really don't have a reason not to." He shifted the papers in front of him, and continued, "we know that the two of you are not empire soldiers. They would not be as lax in their attempt to break into the compound. You both obviously are soldiers; but are not accustomed to stealth work. You are wearing Sharom colours, and my information states that Sharom was recently... liberated... by guerrilla forces. I can make assumptions from there."

Canopus sighed, and looked at his friend. Gilbert gave a curt nod.

"Sir, we both are members of the Zenobian Liberation Front. Breaking into the compound was my idea, as I reasoned that something worth fifty empire legionnaires was worth a look." he blinked, and continued, "oh, and sneaking into the compound itself past fifty legionnaires is no small feat, in defence of our stealth capabilities."

The man smirked. "True." He stood, and strode to the window.

"Tell your friend who I am, young man."

Gilbert, taking a second to realise that he was being addressed as 'young man,' blinked and turned to Canopus. "This is Ashe Hamiltine di Zenobi. He was the Captain of the Guard of the House of Zenobia, when they were all killed." Gilbert's voice hardened. "Some say that the assassination itself was an inside job and he was the one holding the sword."

Canopus rolled his eyes, and questioned to no one in particular, "what happened to him being the cool one?"

Ashe turned to the two men. "Yes, I was Captain. No, I did not kill my liege. I am a better man than that. However, now that we all are chummy, I can speak freely."

"I am tired of fighting the empire from behind closed walls. I have been trapped in this fortress for twenty years, and am sick of losing men and not being able to replace them."

"I am tired of living with the phantoms of Gran and his family, and am tired of being useless."

"I wish to join this rebellion."

Both men were taken aback. They glanced at each other, and Canopus stammered, "I don't know... I can't speak for anyone..."

Ashe silenced his protests quickly. "Don't be foolish. I know that your troops are in great danger, for the empire is ready for your ambush. The forests around the castle have been used for that before. They will be crushed."

The two rebels stared at each other for a long time, and Gilbert quietly asked, "are you certain of that?"

"If my intelligence was enough to know of the liberation of Sharom three days ago, I believe I know what is going on three miles away."

Gilbert stared at his boots. When he looked up, Canopus met his gaze directly, and nodded.

"If you swear to serve the rebellion, and swear again in front of our lord, then we will accept this help. If you're a decent human being, we'll get moving soon to save our army." Gilbert stood, extending his hand towards the older man.

Ashe smirked. "Wise decision, Gilbert of Sharom. I can see that you are a shrewd man, and pray that your fellows are of the same mettle."

Gilbert blinked. "I thought you didn't know who I was?"

Ashe's smirk widened into a grin, and he slapped Gilbert on the shoulder. "Don't ask what you don't want to know. Now, we must hurry if we are to catch the legionnaires off-balance."

* * * * * *

Nicholas grimaced as he tightened the makeshift bandage on his arm. It would have to do, and he was going to have to stop watching only the ground troops here. Archers on gryphons were deadly.

His small fighting unit had been "caught with their pants down," as Lans had put it, on a small trail between a temple and the two small towns outside of Zenobia proper. At the moment, Nicholas estimated that they had about four to one odds against them. Which didn't fill him with enormous amounts of joy. He called to Tess, whose valkyries had taken the centre of makeshift formation they had to take. She looked up, and started waving her hands frantically, pointing behind him.

Doing the wise thing, Nicholas ducked as a spear went flying over his head. Tess glowered, and a lightening bolt streaked from the sky, striking the spearthrower. Nicholas waved and faced the woods out of which the empire troops still were pouring. Seeing a likely group of what looked to be pikemen, Nicholas brandished his sword and leapt howling into the group of five fighters. His sword flashing, he cut three of them down before they could react to his presence. The remaining two circled around him, and drove at him simultaneously. Nicholas dropped his right shoulder and impaled the soldier to his right on his thin blade, while the one on the left swung harmlessly over his head. Nicholas spun and decapitated him effortlessly. As he took a breath, he saw Lans go down with a spear through his leg.

Things didn't go well from there.

As Nicholas ran towards his fallen knight, the ground erupted in a spray of acid. Nicholas hacked and coughed, clawing at his eyes. As he fell to his knees, he glimpsed a two-headed dog circling him. Great.

As the dog went for his throat, Nicholas groped in his pouch, and found a card. Not knowing what the card was, he recalled Warren's words as he dropped the card to the ground: "these cards have been passed down for generations within my family. They are powerful tools of summoning, and should only be used in the most dire of situations." Well, this was pretty dire.

As the card touched the ground, Nicholas heard the dog whimper. As he looked up, he hazily saw a hooded figure towering over the dog. Pouches hung from the figures' cloak, and a poker-straight staff was held strongly in it's grip.

"Run, puppy." The voice was like music, having a bard's timbre and a singer's pitch. The figure raised its staff, and incanted a phrase that Nicholas couldn't quite hear.

As the incantation ended, a bolt of lucent energy leapt from the figure's staff, and struck the dog. The dog died instantaneously, and the beam leapt from body to body, healing Nicholas' soldiers, and killing the empire's. As the beam passed through his body, Nicholas felt his ruined eyes knit back together, and saw Lans stand up, testing his newly-healed leg.

As the beam of energy passed through the last rebel's body, the robed figure disappeared.

Lans limped towards where Nicholas lay, and flopped down next to him on the soft soil. They both could hear their troops cheering and hollering, knowing full well that they had survived only on a divine whim.

"You lucked out there. What, exactly, was that?" Lans asked lazily, massaging his leg.

Nicholas sighed. He blinked twice, staring at the bodies of the imperial force. "Something Warren gave me. A card of summoning. It's what I used to collapse Usar's castle."

"I figured that wasn't just a coincidence. How many more do you have?"

Nicholas looked through his pouch, and looked up guiltily. "Canopus has them. I didn't want to rely on them."

Lans stared at Nicholas. He blinked a few times, not knowing what exactly to say to the larger man.

"...Canopus?" he finally managed to croak out.

"Yes, Canopus. I couldn't trust you with them, because you'd want to go charging up to the gates of Zenteginea with the proverbial 'trump card' up your sleeve, granting us all rather messy but heroic deaths. Warren didn't want the damn things, and just guess what would happen if I gave them to Tess."

Lans gurgled slightly. Managing a slight nod, he turned from Nicholas and limped away. Nicholas managed to at least look a bit sheepish. He then turned and barked orders for bodies to be retrieved and a perimeter to be made.

* * * * *

As Gilbert and Canopus rode into the rebel encampment, Gilbert chortled slightly.

"I knew they could take it."

Canopus raised an eyebrow as he turned to his friend, and motioned to the gigantic pyre in the corner of the camp. "They didn't do that by themselves, Gilbert. There was only about thirty of them."

Gilbert growled something and turned to Ashe. The older knight was visibly sulking in his saddle, and Gilbert grinned at him. Ashe made a rude gesture.

As the party approached the command tent, Ashe leaned over to Gilbert.

"What sort of man is your commander? I have absolutely no idea who or what he is," he fidgeted slightly. "That worries me immensely, by the way."

"Nicholas is... a great man. One that things will happen to, just because of who he is. He is a superb swordsman, and honourable enough to make you sick. I pray that our world is prepared for him." Gilbert smiled slightly, his eyes reflecting the sunlight.

Ashe nodded, pursing his lips. He blinked, and turned towards an abrupt bulging in the command tent. As a scream tore the camp, and a body flew out of the tent. Nicholas came flying after it, his eyes afire and muscles rippling across his bared chest.

As the body stood up, Gilbert sucked in his breath as they saw a blue-skinned demon shedding a skin in front of them. Nicholas assumed a low defensive stance, and advanced at the demon. The demon's claws flashed in the crisp air, and Nicholas caught the claw on his shoulder. Grunting with pain, Nicholas grasped the demon's arm, and twisted it cruelly up and around the demon's back.

"See, that would work on a human, but Nicholas is forgetting that thing has... ouch, see?... wings." Gilbert pantomimed jabbing and dodging, obviously enjoying the display being put on by his commander.

"Aren't you going to help him?" Ashe asked incredibly.

"No. Nicholas has some sort of personal grudge against the world which dictates he can only participate in single combat. He'd get angry with us if we interfered, which as you'll see, is a bad thing."

While this exchange had been going on, a crowd had gathered around the wrestling match. Nicholas had been thrown off of the demon by its wing, and had a nasty gash along his forehead. The demon didn't seem to be worse for wear, but was favouring its right arm. Nicholas scowled, and charged at the demon, hitting it squarely in the midsection with his shoulder. As an explosive blast of air escaped the demon, Nicholas immediately crouched and leapt high into the air, holding the demon squarely, and smashed the creature to the ground with such force that the impact could be heard across the camp.

The demon didn't move after that.

Gilbert and Canopus applauded loudly, leaping off of their horses and striding towards the huffing Nicholas. Gilbert helped him up, and Canopus took a cloth to the gash on his forehead.

"How did that demon get in your tent?" Gilbert asked, peering suspiciously at Nicholas.

"I got bored, and had Warren summon it," Nicholas grinned, and brushed Canopus away. "We've been here for a day already, waiting for you."

Gilbert shook his head. He motioned to Ashe, saying: "Well, at least we brought reinforcements. We'll need to storm the castle now."

Nicholas nodded, slowly approaching the older knight.

"I know that armour."

Ashe clambered down from his horse, looking the young warrior up and down.


Nicholas squinted, and called loudly for Lans. Ashe turned bone white, and took a step back.

"Not quite, O elder one. Lans said that he was the only Zenobian knight of the realm left. Who the hell are you?"

As Ashe stammered a response, Lans strode out of the command tent, and dropped the map case he was holding. He gasped slightly, and took a staggering step towards the older knight.

Ashe turned from the younger man, obviously struck. As Lans neared him, he turned, with his jaw set.

Lans, his face set, looked at Ashe's feet, and as he was bringing his head up, brought a mailed fist around and punched Ashe squarely in the face. As the older man landed on his back, Lans stood high over him, and pulled the red-garbed knight into a bearhug. Tears streamed down both their faces, intermingling with the blood oozing from Ashe's mouth.

Nicholas turned to Gilbert, making confused gestures. Gilbert shrugged, and turned to Canopus who also shrugged. All three turned around as someone cleared their throat behind them, and saw Warren standing alone, a small smile on his face.

"Lans is Ashe's half-brother."

* * * * * *

As the commanders gathered in the main tent, Lans and Ashe sitting next to each other, quietly talking, Nicholas shook his head.

"This country is fucked right up." he said, to no one in particular.

Warren quirked an eyebrow at Nicholas.

"I mean, this guy gets locked in a fortress for twenty years, he's this big deal general and tactician, the Empire leaves him alone, and lets his little brother who just happens to be a Royal Zenobian Knight run around loose for twenty-five years? Hell, that's just irresponsible."

Warren smirked. "I'm not certain if I would phrase it quite like that, but the Empire has never been what I would term tidy. Ashe was never one to draw attention to himself, either. I would wager Ashe chose that little fortress because it could take a lot of punishment."

Nicholas shook his head. He muttered something under his breath, and stood up, drawing the attention of the command force of the rebellion.

"Okay, we've got some problems now. One, the empire knows where we are. Two, Ashe's forces are now going to slow us down majorly. Golems? Whatever. Three, We still haven't figured out a way to knock down that bloody wall. Any suggestions?"

Tess cleared her throat. "While I was in the market in one of the smaller farming communities, I ran into an interesting fellow. Dragon tamer, named Lyon. He had two massive red dragons with him, and he was hawking his and their abilities. Maybe we should look into some dragons?"

Canopus glowered. "Do you realise how expensive dragons are to upkeep? They eat more than Gilbert does." Gilbert then smacked Canopus.

Warren pensively tapped his fingers on the table. "I think dragons would be the way to go. Gilbert's wyverns aren't big enough to dent the wall, but red dragons would just set the wooden barbican on fire, and melt everything else."

Ashe and Lans agreed with Warren.

"Well, what kind of price was this Lyon asking?" Nicholas queried, pursing his lips.

"Twenty thousand."

Groans and mutterings rose around the table. Gilbert rolled his eyes and stood up, leaving the tent with his pipe in hand.

Nicholas coughed once. "Twenty thousand would outfit a small army. Isn't that a bit pricey?"

Tess glared at the red headed man. "Go ask him yourself. I just work here."

Ashe dabbed at his swollen nose with a handkerchief, and managed to say around his loosened teeth, "twenty thousand is a good investment for the fortress, though. We knock down the walls, and not a single force in this area could stop your troops. I must say, they are superbly trained."

"What about the legions?"

"The legions are mostly for show. Minor noble's younger sons, or merchant's children, they aren't real soldiers. Let three or four mages into them and we won't have to worry about them at all."

"Ashe, have you noticed how the populace tends to distrust higher-level mages? They don't spark a whole bunch of trust, what with Kapella running amok and that idiot in Antalia dabbling in necromancy. I say we hit them fast and hard with the dragons and artillery, and fly a unit into the citadel. It seems to be the most effective tactic. Take control of the citadel, and their forces will collapse."

Ashe nodded at Canopus. Everyone turned to Nicholas, who smirked.

"It's already decided, folks. My turn for the citadel, though. Lans and I had a hell of a time with the last time we did this idiot stunt."

It was decided that Lans, Nicholas, and Ashe would accompany the wyverns into the citadel, with Warren and Canopus hiring the dragons. Tess and Gilbert were the last to speak up, and were left with the gate assault. Nicholas commented that Tess would have a career in making sailors blush after the rebellion.

* * * * * *

Nicholas strapped his pike onto the back of the wyvern, tightening straps and buckles as he mentally prepared for the assault. He wasn't looking forward to this offensive, as most of his troops were not positive about their chances. He grimaced, looking over at Lans and Ashe. Now that he looked closely, he could see the resemblance, but still couldn't bring himself to care all that much. He'd worry about familial niceties after they pulled out of this one alive.

"Well Ashe, you're so informed about the area, what will we have to worry about inside the fortress?"

Ashe cleared his throat, and glanced towards the far-off gates of Zenobia Castle.

"Probably dragons."


"They are very tight with security around the Castle itself. It's not easy to break in. I know for a fact that an old friend is commanding the troops, but other than that, I have no idea."

Nicholas sighed. "What old friend?"

"Kaus Debonair, one of Endora's Divas."

"Is that supposed to impress me?"

"Debonair is arguably the finest strategical mind in the Empire. That's how they found out where you were, I'll wager. He is also one of the finest duellists in the world."

Nicholas snorted. "I've never had much use for duellists. All show; no go. Speaking of going, let's be off." With that, he mounted his wyvern and kicked it into the sky.

Ashe looked at Lans, quirking an eyebrow. Lans grinned.

"Nicholas is one of those people that tends to lead by example, rather than by words." Lans continued smirking as he mounted his wyvern. Ashe shook his head and followed his brother.

* * * * * *

Gilbert ducked an inept swing of a broadsword and gutted the foot soldier in front of him. Sofar; the assault on the gate had gone surprisingly well, what with the rebels being better trained and having the element of surprise.

The one thing that hadn't worked out was that Warren and Canopus hadn't shown up with the dragons yet. Gilbert could see the wooden gates, tantalisingly close, but strong enough to sustain even a concentrated magical attack. The dragons would be the only thing able to breach them. His troops sofar had run rampant through the Empire's soldiers, the valkyries a whirlwind of death and destruction. He'd have to have a word with Nicholas about curbing some of their excesses in battle, but that would come later. Kicking a lightly armoured knight in the kneecap, he dove to the side and avoided one of Warren's numerous magical assaults. The mage had been quite prolific today, as well. He had started many small fires on the wall, which had occupied enough of the Empire's troops to even out the odds of this battle.

As he avoided another swing, he heard a gigantic roar from behind him, and an intense wave of heat slammed into his back. He glanced behind, grinning evilly at the two massive reds igniting the wooden wall around the castle. Things were going to work out now.

* * * * * *

Nicholas lazily parried the samurai's swing, and unhurriedly ran him through. Calmly looking about the room, he cleaned his blade off on a handy rag, and sheathed the weapon. He grinned lopsidedly at Lans, who was fussing over his axe.

"Quit worrying it. I highly doubt that it will get chipped or nicked." Nicholas then looked towards Ashe, who was standing over the body of an older guard.

"I knew him. Local man; been a guard for thirty years. He should have been retired. We used to train together."

Lans walked up behind his brother, and put a hand on Ashe's shoulder. "We didn't sign up to be soldiers for the long lives, my brother. We both know time is fleeting, and he did too. He died well, if it means anything."

"It better. That's all we have left, Lans."

"Ye gads, you two are gloomy." Nicholas glowered at the brothers, and motioned sharply to the twenty rebels that had accompanied them. They gathered around the double doors at the far end of the hall, and flanked the three commanders with crossbows. Nicholas quirked an eyebrow at the two knights, and then pulled one of the doors open. The room inside was brightly lit.

Sitting on a small wooden chair next to the vacant Zenobian throne, a tallish blond man was polishing a sword. He calmly eyed the rebels flitting into the throneroom, and continued to polish the blade. As the last rebel filtered in, the doors slammed shut, and Ashe hollered "Ambush!" and chaos ensued.

The battle was short and ugly. They tended to be. The empire troops, despite them being the best of the best in this area, were no match for the sheer ferocity of Nicholas' blade, nor the cold calculating fighting style of the twin-armoured Zenobian knights. They were also outnumbered two to one.

Nicholas cleaned off his blade again, making a moue of distaste as he pulled a strand of intestine off the blade.

"That's really attractive, chap. You might want to shorten your foreswing, it leaves you open on your left side." The blond man's voice echoed throughout the chamber, a slight steel hiss emanating from his now-ready blade.

Nicholas snickered. "I don't need to worry about an open side. Nobody moves quick enough to hit it. I assume I have the pleasure of Kaus Debonair?"

The man executed a slight bow. He flourished his blade, assuming a ready stance in front of Nicholas. Nicholas' eyes narrowed, and he also assumed a ready position. He then was roughly shoved to the side as Ashe shouldered his way past the larger man.

"All this posing is making me ill. We're too old for this idiocy, Kaus."

Debonair's eyes widened slightly, and he lowered his blade somewhat.

"I had thought you dead, Ashe. I... am pleased you are not. Your name was tarnished with Rashidi's illusions, and I hope before you are executed for treason that you have an opportunity to clean it."

Ashe smirked. "Still a snotty courtier, Kaus. I thought you grew out of that." Ashe drew his heavy sword, not anything at all like the duellist's blade Debonair wielded, an ugly killing tool with no graces to it at all.

"Don't think you're going to fight me, Ashe. I don't want to have to kill you. We have enough good memories for that."

"Who says you'll kill me? This isn't what the empire should be, Kaus. Look around you. You're a poseur, attempting to hold together a rebelling state by sheer willpower! You're nothing but a pawn out here!"

"Hold your tongue! I don't see you noble rebels helping the populace. I don't see any one of you sacrificing your meals for hungry children, or fighting off bandits in the hills! These people need a strong hand to govern them! Endora trusted me with that."

"Trusted you? Endora wanted you out of her hair, Kaus. You're too honourable to fit in her empire. You remember Karl? The young chap we used to train with? We had to kill him, because he was now an empire soldier! You remember the bazaars that used to be held in the square? The laughter of the children? The feeling that maybe we were fighting for something? Where is that now, Kaus? Where is your pride, your honour? Endora wants us to kill you, because she can't stand to look at you because you're too bright for her!" Ashe's impassioned speech had brought the rebels up short, they were all gathered around the red-clad knight, quietly reflecting the righteous anger emanating from him.

Kaus emitted a strangling, choking noise, his handsome face twisted in a red rage. He saluted Ashe once; and dove towards the knight.

Their duel was titanic.

Both men were not young, both had passed their primes years ago. Ashe had been tired before he started fighting, his nose still sore, his arm lagging behind where it should have been. His armour was too heavy; and his helmet blocked his vision. But he wasn't going to lose to this man. This man who at the moment represented all that he hated in the Empire, all the evil that had occurred in the past quarter century, and he wasn't going to lose to him.

Blow by blow they hammered across the throneroom, sparks flying from their blades, their breath harsh on the air. Debonair raised his blade in a certain fashion; Ashe parried in a fixed state, and their blows took on a practised, rhythmic cadence. It ended with the corps a corps, glaring into each other's eyes, their tired arms struggling to overpower the other. As Ashe glared hatefully into Debonair's eyes, something changed. It resonated in the room, it echoed through the souls of the men surrounding the duel. Debonair closed his eyes, and let himself be pushed off the knights' blade. He then dropped his sword, and sighed.

"We're too old for this, I'll agree to that."

Ashe stared at the blond man, confused. Never in the thirty years they had known each other had Debonair wilfully given up. Ashe lowered his blade, and raised the visor on his helmet.

Debonair smirked slightly. "We can't keep this up, Ashe. I don't want to die, and I don't want to kill you. I could, you know. You're slower."

"You're not in prime condition either, Kaus."

Both men smiled at that. "You are right, my old friend. I am no longer the warrior I strove to be, I am no longer pure. The Empire has become jaded and corrupt; and I did nothing to stop it. If even I could stop it. I will confront Endora, I will try to reason with her. This path will only lead us to destruction."

"Kaus, I... don't want to have to fight you."

"Ashe, my old friend, I swore an oath to serve my empress until the day I died." Ashe lowered his head to this. "However, I'm not entirely certain if this empress is the one I swore that oath to. I will persuade her, I swear it. The rebels have won the day in Zenobia!"

Ashe raised his eyes to the tired blue eyes of his friend. "We reclaim what was wrongly taken from us."

Kaus smiled. "Gran would have laughed out loud, Ashe. He would have loved this." Both men smiled, and Kaus bent to pick up his blade. As he stood, his body slowly started to glow, and the air whiffed to fill the void where he was standing as he teleported away.

Lans blinked, staring at his brother. Nicholas smiled, and walked to the throne of Zenobia. Upon it, lay a single glistening skull, its teeth rotted, its eye sockets staring emptily around the room. He picked up the skull, and carefully handed it to Ashe.

Ashes' eyes filled with tears, as he gently held the sole remains of his liege lord, Gran of Zenobia. As they streamed down his face, he turned to the troops gathered around, and his cry echoed throughout the entire citadel.

"The day is ours!!"