Markeloth strode through columns of twisted crystal, dark now as the citadel slept. His brilliant white robe reflected ambient light into the hazy glass, marking his passage through the hallway with an escort of multi-hued light.
He was tall, even for a Glyff, with fine features and cold, steel grey eyes. His thin body moved with dancers grace, a sinuous, predatory motion. A deep scowl adorned his angular lips.
The crystalline hall ended abruptly, wall and door appearing suddenly out of the darkness. Markeloth wrenched open the massive door. It opened silently, perfectly balanced on unseen hinges.
The space beyond defied possibility when compared to the crystalline chamber behind him . A perfect, clear blue sky soared overhead. A light breeze ruffled Markeloth’s frosted hair, and the temperature noticeably increased. In all directions, endless grasslands stretched to the horizon, broken only by the occasional scrub or twisted tree.
Directly before him, a large oasis played host to dozens of animals, a variety of fish, and a large cloth pavilion. The bright teal cloth fluttered gently in the breeze as Markeloth advanced towards the open entrance.
The avian chorus sang at his approach, and the flapping of wings drowned out the larger animals whuffles when the birds took flight. Markeloth snorted in irritation, Gabrion had the most outlandish preferences.
He scowled again as he walked into the pavilion. The floor and tables were littered with papers filled with drawings and scrawled glyphs depicting a vast array of flora and fauna. Specimens in jars littered countertops, and plants, pots, and soil covered the floor and many of the tables and papers.
Gabrion himself stood near the center of the room, bent over a brightly lit table with his back to the entrance. Light crystals in ornate holders focused beams of pure white onto the table, and as Markeloth moved around the room, a large magnifying glass came into view.
Gabrion had a scalpel in one hand and the other held down a board, to which was strapped a wriggling razor rat. Gabrion, pointedly ignoring Markeloth, gestured and spoke a soft word. The animal’s motion ceased, only it’s darting eyes betraying any life.
Two slow, deliberate motions of the scalpel opened the rat’s torso. Organs, still writhing, lay exposed to air for the first time. Placing the razor carefully on the table, Gabrion picked up a stick of charcoal and a parchment board, busying himself with recreating the visible mass of viscera on the page.
Markeloth ground his teeth in frustration, he had far better uses for his time than watching an increasingly insane emperor perform ever madder experiments. He muttered a short spell, summoning the accoutrements of his station from his quarters.
Black, knee length tunic and charcoal leggings replaced white robe. Crimson silk accents molded from the sleeves, the fabric fusing to the woolen tunic. An ornate leather belt stained deep black tightened on his waist, and a circlet of bronze pulled the hair from his eyes. Blue and red moonstones chained together completed his official regalia, dropping around his neck in the symmetrical shape of Phidrian, his patron stars. Underneath, fitted greaves, sabatons, and breastplate of shaped steel dropped around his body.
Markeloth opened his eyes, Gabrion’s cocked head and amused expression less than a foot from his face. His curiously precise, clipped voice fell on Markeloth’s ears.
“You’re vainer than I remember child, once you were consumed with the pursuit of power...now though, there’s not much of the fire I recall.”
Markeloth bristled. True, he had hosted and attended many pageants in the last season, and while he had only one plot active at the moment, it was nearing glorious completion. In fact…
“Your little ritual was disrupted scant hours ago.”
Gabrion’s measured voice broke into his thoughts.
Markoleth focused fully on the man in front of him for the first time,
“How do you know about that? How did it fail?”
Panic shot through his body. Too much time, too much effort, too much money had been spent to find the perfect vessel, the perfect place and time.
“The Demon has his own champion it seems, and has had one for years if appearances can be trusted.”
Markeloth sagged into a chair. Gabrion set a hand on his shoulder, a dangerous, feral, accusing gaze boring into his lieutenants face.
“Now you will tell me everything. The Demon has broken the old oaths, and we are no longer bound by the folly of our revered dead.”
Kai’tan Tellis, First Paladin of Kersheyan, Defender of the Commonwealth, and Champion of Good let out a massive, drink-infested belch. Everything was disintegrating around him.
A victorious route a day earlier had become a slog through disease infested marshes. Shirg slime and their Glyff overlords harried the army at every turn. He had lost more men in the last day than in the previous month of engagements.
Jareed disappearing in the middle of a firefight had been the last insult. He had bowled his generals out of the command tent, sent a servant for drink and sat at the high table with an increasing number of empty flagons in front of him for the last few hours. He tossed a knife at the giant map spread spread on the table, idly aiming for Krusäre and missing by at least two handspan. Another burp bubbled to the surface and erupted from his mouth.
Scowling in discontent, the giant man wiped his red beard with gloved hand and paced back and forth like a caged beast. He needed to break through this blockade. His mages assured him the end of the swamps was less than a day of hard marching to the east, but a hard day's march in the unending marshland was next to impossible for heavy infantry and cavalry with their ponderous mail coats and plate. This would be exacerbated by the enemy forces and their damned hit and run tactics. Guerillas and savages the lot of them, no matter how refined the Glyff pretended to be.
He reached for another tankard, frowning down at the foamy dregs. Had he really consumed an entire keg of mead in the course of the last few hours? He barely felt the effects of the liquor, almost as if it had been watered down to the point of impotence. Distant shouts briefly roused his attention, but Kai’tan lapsed deep into thought again after a moments consideration. Anything truly worthy of his attention would come via messenger, or if incredibly important, from one of his generals in person.
He turned again to the problem of the marshlands. If he could send enough light infantry under cover of darkness, they might be able to find the enemy troops without engaging the main force. If Jareed was here, that would be even better. The man might be able to carve a path for the army on his own.
He turned to the great table again, heedless of the increasingly loud cries outside. The map of this region lay underneath three others of the Cairhain, the prize at the end of this slog. Kai’tan grimaced, reaching for another pull of mead.
The map held very few details about the marshlands ahead of them, although his personal cartographers had done an excellent job creating many detailed maps of the area behind the army; one of the few benefits of the snail-like crawl through the bog.
The shouts, cries of dismay and surprise really, crescendoed to a feverish pitch just outside the tent. Kai’tan turned, sword half drawn as Jareed blew through the hanging curtain over the entranceway, stumbling to one knee.
The man was covered in muck, panting harder than a stallion at the end of a grueling sprint. He carried a small bundle in both arms, sword in scabbard and hair in total disarray.
Kai’tan started forward.
“Jareed, what in all heaven happened?”
He started to speak again, but Jareed thrust the little package of cloth towards him, interrupting the flow of words. Kai’tan took it by instinct, and then gasped in surprise.
A little baby lay in his arms. A little baby struggling for breath. A little baby dying, handed to him by the greatest warrior in the realm.
Jareed spoke, gasping out words between breaths.
“Heal him,” a rasping breath sounded through the tent, “you owe me this you selfish bastard, heal the boy.”
Kai’tan drew a quavering breath, all thought of berating the younger man distant and faint. He looked down again, the little baby boy’s eyes were open, bright blue orbs with life force draining from them as he watched.
The panic hit him then, cutting through the light mead fog and clearing his mind of any thought or feeling except blank terror.
Could he? Dare he? If he called would Kersheyan answer? Jareed grabbed his shoulder, blank fury and desperation screaming from his black eyes.
“You have to Kai.”
Kai’tan Tellis, First Paladin of Kersheyan and Defender of the commonwealth drew in a deep breath. Dropping to his knee, he held the child in both arms and began, for the first time in many weeks, to pray.