Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 2
Jorth caught the blow on his shield. It was a good blow, solidly delivered to impart the maximum energy straight through to his arm. It also tied up his opponent’s sword for a crucial moment, and in that moment, he counterattacked-
-And his opponent stepped inside his guard, delivering a vicious head-butt to Jorth’s own helmet-
-Only for Jorth to move forward in turn, hooking his foot expertly behind his opponent’s and delivering a full-body shove-
His opponent went tumbling. Jorth was delighed.
“Well done, Albus!”
“Not well enough.” the scholar-turned-warrior grumbled, picking himself up.
“Hey, you didn’t embarrass yourself that badly.” called one of the neary Queensguard seeing to a wagon.
“Yeah. For a raw recruit, that wasn’t terrible at all!”
“And since you two louts have the breath to comment, you can see to the next set of wagons as well.” Jorth shot back cheerfully. He had missed this. When he had left the Guard and joined the Knights of the Blue Rose, he had left behind friends and occasional lovers, but more than that, he had left the camaraderie of the corps, it’s rituals, it’s duties, it’s frequent inanities and inanities. Of course, there was plenty of that infiltrating cults and tracking gone-to-ground darkspawn with a small team of Adepts and experts, but it was different.
Albus stood, getting back into a guard position. The soldiers had been right. Albus’s brief brush with Jarek had lead him to re-examine his life, and eventually to leave the Guild and take up a new career, where he could do more good. And as the Guard was starved for soldiers with any kind of magical expertise, and artificing in particular, he’d been snapped right up. He’d be promoted fast, Jorth knew, and wanted to make sure that he’d get expertise befitting his rank. Happily, Albus seemed just as dedicated on getting that expertise himself.
But more than that, being able to resume his role as Liutenant Jorth, managing a complex, far-reaching op on the borders of Aldis and training a subordinate, had let him hold his old identity fast. And that was necessary, because if he let himself slip, if he let himself remember his role as Sir Jorth, he’d start thinking of Nycillia, of the last three months of preparation…
He sighed, swearing under his breath. Nycillia would return in two week’s time or she wouldn’t. She’d have fallen victim to some dark sorcery of Jarek’s or she wouldn’t. She’d be leading a train of a hundred refugees or she wouldn’t. She’d have tricked the lich-king into standing under a waterfall she could freeze and would be fleeing with his purloined evil crown-phylactery or she wouldn’t.
Two weeks. I’ve done ten. I can do two more. Besides, he knew the best way to make the time to an upcoming deadline fly by. Where, Jorth considered, haven’t I spent enough time in preparation…
– – – –
It was two weeks later. There was a high, almost hysteric note in his troop’s jokes. Jorth kept his own reactions as calm and level as he could. It was hard. When the dark armies of Kern had poured forth into Aldis before, this was where they had entered. Things were different now. The great siege crystons which had studded the wall had been removed; either as a gesture of peace, or (more likely) to reinforce the border Kern shared with Jarzon. There had been strange noises on the other side of the great wall for some time now, but before the armistice, it would have been sheerest stupidity to camp out this close to the Gate, and so Jorth had no idea what Kern was supposed to sound like.
The gates opened. It was disconcerting, disorienting even. Watching those gigantic gates, set into a mountain tunnel, suddenly swing inwards silently, confused the perspective, until seconds later, a thunderous crash rolled out over the formation, showing just how far away the giant gates had been, and large they truly were.
And there, in the tunnel…
There was a wall of refugees, all running desperately for the morning light. “Plan alpha! Go!” a voice shouted. It took Jorth a moment to recognize it as his. Many drills and many more mental rehearsals had paid off; his soldiers were now moving to meet the refugees with carts obviously laden with food and supplies (and, beneath them, shackles and restraints, and beneath them, weapons, if the refugees gave any sign of being magical monsters or darkspawn).
Twenty, forty, sixty… Jorth counted off in broad estimates the refugees ran. It wasn’t really an attack (at least, he really hoped it wasn’t), but old habits died-
Something was wrong. There were too many refugees. There were far too many refugees. Many of the ones after the first rush had been stumbling, or supporting ill or injured, or children, so he had lost his accurate tally, but there had been well over two hundred. One twenty into twelve thousand is a hundred. I know that dead bastard didn’t give us those numbers by accident…
And there, at the very back of the crowd, walking with the very slowest refugees, were Jarek and Nycillia.
“AH. PUNCTUAL AS EVER, JORTH.” It was Jarek’s dead voice, amplified a hundred-fold, and as it rang out over the well-cleared plain, refugees stopped, or scattered. It sounded a lot less cheerful than Jorth had remembered.
“AS FOR YOU, YOUR DEBTS HAVE BEEN PAID, YOUR OBLIGATIONS FULFILLED. YOU OF COURSE REMAIN CITIZENS, SO IF ANY OF YOU WISH TO RETURN-”
Nycillia spoke up then, although at over a thousand feet away, Jorth had no idea what she might have said.
“YES, WELL, IN YOUR CASE, I WILL CONSIDER A SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT. A DIFFERENT, MORE FORMALLY NEGOTIATED SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT.”
Nycillia spoke again.
“I AM NOT MY PREDECESSOR.” Jarek’s voice was icy. “I WILL NOT ALLOW MYSELF TO BE CRIPPLED BY HUBRIS. I SHOULD BE THANKING YOU, REALLY. IN FACT, I SHALL.”
There was a horribly amplified rattle as Jarek took a deep breath.
“THANK YOU, NYCILLIA, FOR DEMONSTRATING TO ME A FACET OF CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS I HAD NOT PREVIOUSLY CONSIDERED.”
Nycillia spoke one more time, and then Jarek turned, stalked back into the tunnel, and gestured, and the Black Gates slammed shut, with a thunderous crack far louder than Jarek’s amplified voice, and enough force to stagger Nycillia and knock to the ground the frailest, slowest wave of refugees.
“Double-time!” Jorth shouted, once he had recovered himself. It was with less-than-military discipline that he advanced, offering only cursory glances and aid to the still-fleeing Kernish refugees…
It was Nycillia. She was exhausted, he could see as he approached, but barely able to stand herself, she was still stooping over to help up the fallen refugees closest to her. As he approached, she looked up, and spared him a glance, and a smile, but an elderly refugee’s cry for help drew her gaze back immediately. And that was the Nycillia he knew.
– – – –
It was a day later, and Jorth felt how Nycillia had looked. She had attempted to pass on various bits of information while both falling asleep on her feet and being carefully inspected by Albus for any sign of magical influence, or any hint that she was an impostor. Once Albus had pronounced her clean and genuine, Jorth had ordered her immediately to sleep, and had spent the rest of the day cataloging, organizing, and figuring out how to extend supplies meant for a hundred refugees to feed and clothe 437. There had been fights, panic, one knot of a dozen refugees who had attempted to flee before they could be examined by Albus and who had to be restrained, and Shari had shown up in the middle of the night demanding to see Nycillia immediately, but now, it seemed like it was time to move out.
He ran through the checklist, not bothering to stifle a yawn, and stopped only when he heard a giggle behind him. Nycillia and Shari lounged behind him, Nycillia looking much recovered and Shari looking much relaxed.
“Out of bed at last, Ny?”
“I have slept quite adequately, thank you. But you, my friend…” she replied.
“I’ll sleep on the march. Old soldier’s trick.” Jorth replied, drawing another chuckle.
“Ah, I missed this. No one bullshits quite like you do, Jorth.” she said, yawning and stretching herself.
Jorth’s gaze dropped for a moment before he pulled it back up. He caught Shari doing a similar head-nod to track the languorous movement of Nycillia’s torso, and shot her a quick, conspiratorial grin. “Also an old soldier’s trick.” he said.
Nycillia’s face grew grave. “Jarek…he does not. He went to great lengths to convince me that he does not. I don’t know if he is doing all this to conceal some great lie, some grand strategem, or if he genuinely believes everything he says about trust and decision theory and so forth. But I will say this; he gave me no cause to doubt that he wants to repair Kern, and make it rich. As for his ancient horrors…”
She sighed, stretching again. “To be honest, I feel I know less than we did three months ago. He showed me some of the vaults, and even reviewed some of the magical principles for his so-called ‘world-ending Arcana’. And nothing was provably false. But nothing was proven true, either. Always with an excuse. This vault was sealed by his predecessor and he lacks the capacity to open it without breaking it. That vault contains a plague so virulent it is transmitted merely by understanding how it works, and so can’t even be explained. The other spell could move mountains, but requires a power source far beyond all the shas in Kern. But I do know this, my friends; whether or not he has the power he claims…if he has only the power he has shown, if he moves against Aldis, only the Hart could stop him before he slew tens of thousands.”
“Right. So, definitely dangerous, maybe honest…not the best at math, from what I’ve seen…” said Jorth, gesturing at the refugees.
Nycillia burst out laughing. “Ah, yes. My friends, you know how it is often said that those of the Shadow always bear the seeds of its downfall within them? Well, it seems to have been true in this case. You see, I laid a trap for Jarek in my contract. The term was for three months. I began a number of projects that would just barely fail to finish by that time period, but which would require the services of a Nature Adept to complete. Jarek, while pretending not to notice this, requested that I train up some apprentices, to help speed along the more routine Healings and Purifications.”
She sighed again. “So much lead. You have no idea…by the gods, I had no idea you could get that much lead into an ecosystem… But I digress. So I chose apprentices, and I trained them. And at the appointed date, Jarek smugly informed me that he did not wish to renegotiate for my services, that he had found replacements for me. And that was when I told him that I had chosen my apprentices entirely from the population of refugees whose debt I had paid.”
“Some left with me, but most turned around and renegotiated their continued service to Jarek in exchange for…well, offers and demands differed, but you can see the result. And a few of the people, about a dozen or so, are people who had skills of their own, and who had managed to pay off their debts independently, and wished to leave Kern and become citizens of Aldis. I am sorry, my friend, I could not send word ahead, but as you saw, once my strategem was revealed, Jarek became…petulant.”
“The power of an archmage in the hands of a youth.” mused Shari. “That doesn’t sound stable at all.”
“No, it doesn’t.” said Nycillia. “But, for the moment, it is not my problem. And now, after having spent the last few months working great Arcana trying to keep up with a wizard who doesn’t sleep, I am going to relax. I am going to enjoy relaxing. In fact, I think I’m going back to bed.”
“I thought you said you had enough sleep for a bit.” said Shari.
Nycillia stood, and took Shari’s and Jorth’s hands in her own.
“Who said anything about sleeping?”
It was probably best to push off the start of the march for a little bit, anyways.