Fan Fiction

26 May 2004, 13:49 PM

Part I: Flight of the Crane by Jonathan Goss []

"There," Thirteen Mountain Storm said with a burst, jabbing a gloved finger into the horizon.

Nine Crane Flooding Wind peered into the direction of his comrade's limb. Yet despite his excellent vision all he could see was craggy tundra stretching for miles. "I think the excitement of the past few hours has warped your mind, friend." He said bemusedly. "Either that or you're just getting senile in your old age." Of course, Thirteen was decidedly older than Nine Crane: two centuries older in fact, but to a Heron Guard it was grain on the beach.

Thirteen grunted with frustration. "Don't you see that shadow? What is that? Myrkridia?"

Nine Crane shrugged. "Of course it is. What else could it be?" The Heron Guard stood silently for a moment beside his brother at arms. "Maybe it's a Trow?"

Thirteen lowered his arm to his side, his eyes never leaving the distant mystery. "No, they're fighting for us now." He paused to rest his eyes. "Besides, it's not moving like a Trow."

"Well, I guess it can't be a Trow anyway." Nine Crane admitted with an amused grin. Thirteen turned to him. "The ground isn't rumbling."

Thirteen Mountain kicked a pebble at his feet out of frustration of the mystery. What would be a silent tumbling of the small rock across dusty earth was as clear as a mortar blast to Thirteen's gifted senses. It wasn't a Trow out there, he knew that. What was left of their shattered race had sided with the Light, and there was no such thing as a splinter tribe among the Trow. Their loyalty was flawless. So it wasn't them. But the shadow was bigger than a Myrkridia, which utterly perplexed the grizzled warrior. Regardless of what it was, something was out there. Something big.

Nine Crane shifted a bit on the sandy earth beneath his booted feet. It was strange to think that all those decades ago he had stood on this very spot. Of course, back then Muirthemne was a shining jewel of a metropolis, a brilliant and magnificent testament to the Cath Bruig Empire. It broke his heart now to stand in that same place in the former capital city and peer out over the dusty slopes and man high sections of wall that used to be the city's outer gardens. It brought visible tears to his eyes to think that he was not here to stay its destruction. But the same could be said for every Heron Guard. It was the kind of shame and regret that would have killed lesser men. But the Heron Guard persevered. They survived. And now, here they were, standing along the parapets and walls of their once great city, swords at their backs, banners flapping in the breeze.

It seemed only moments ago that Alric had been named the new Emperor of the Cath Bruig, and that the mighty Heron Guard were reinstated. Nine Crane would never forget the sensation of loosing the rope cords that held his tiles to him. The liberation of his back from their weight was as a phoenix of his very essence. Nor would the reassuring feeling of his sabres resting confidently in his hands soon be forgotten.

It was magnificent.

It was jubilant.

It was short lived.

No sooner had the former Journeymen cast down their tiles and dusted off their armor than Fulthir, a berserk, came racing into the palace courtyard, shouting at the top of his lungs that the Myrkridians were amassing outside the city walls. No words were spoken among the immortal elites. Every Heron Guard hastened their arming and proceeded without delay to Fulthir's position. Nine Crane could not help but feel a twinge of amusement tug at his lips as he watched the scarred and bare form of Fulthir twitch and fidget anxiously. The berserk waited, albeit impatiently, for the elites to gather themselves together, and Nine Crane could tell as he set his helmet over his long hair, that the berserk was young. The absence of gray from his beard gave himself away. Within moments the force of Heron Guards were racing as fast as they could for the outer walls.

The walls.

Get to the walls.

Behind them had joined three Trow and a pair of Dwarven Mortar brigadiers. As they sprinted across the uneven, broken terrain of the former city courtyards Nine Crane could not help but yearn for the company of some of his former comrades. So many had died in the early days of Balor's war. Nine Crane remembered in particular the first siege of Seven Gates, where twenty Journeymen had lost their lives defending the narrow passes and ravines. It was an appalling loss. Nine Crane remembered the tears that were shed by the surviving Journeymen over the loss of their brothers. The tears wept by them turned the earth at their feet to mud. And where blood and sweat had not moistened the ground, the sobbing of countless former Heron Guards at the deaths of so many alike had.

Nine Crane wished for their company now, if for nothing else than a simple joke as they strode with haste for the besieged walls. But Nine Crane would have to settle for the swarthy and sarcastic humor of the Dwarves. Uni and Duri seemed to let lose a foul comment or arrogant slur every other step as their short legs tried in vain to keep up with the rest of the troupe. And Umbra Tempest, a soot colored Trow, seemed to grow more and more agitated towards them with every word. Or every step. Nine Crane wondered for a moment if the gorgon would sweep each of them up into his calloused hands or simply stomp them into the earth. Luckily, neither occurred.

To Nine Crane's surprise, however, it was Mergus Crepusculum, another of the Trow, who offered to carry the Dwarves in his hands all the way to the front line in order to hurry their pace and alleviate their ill-fated suffering. What was even more shocking to the experienced Heron Guard was that the Dwarves reluctantly agreed. So here they were; dozens of Heron Guards accompanied by three Trow, one of which carrying a pair of Dwarven Mortar brigadiers in his arms like loaves of bread. All being led by a hyperactive berserk. Surely it was not an imposing sight for the allies of the Light. Certainly not a deterrent to the Myrkridian horde that awaited them.

"You know, Nine Crane," Thirteen Mountain began as they sprinted swiftly across the earth. "The last time we fought together I killed thrice as many enemies as you." He turned to his friend who was striding beside him, and gave him a devilish grin. "I bet you I can do it again."

"I bet you can, Thirteen." Nine Crane answered casually. "But you forget, ole chum, that you were on the front line in that one, and I was six columns back with the reserves. Hardly a fair comparison."

"Maybe, but let us not debate minutia. I still bet I can best you in notches on my belt."

Nine Crane only shook his head and sighed in exasperation. Why was everything always a pissing contest with Thirteen Mountain? Why was he always trying to one-up everyone he came across? Nine Crane could only scowl at his friend. It was his worst trait, and no doubt his biggest flaw. But, perhaps it was not that bad. Surely there could have been worse flaws in Thirteen's personality. He could have been a drunk, or a blood thirsty killer. Those traits were far worse, and usually reserved for lesser men, such as the Legion's warriors. But if the Heron Guard suffered from a singular disease it was that of arrogance, and pride. Though by no means a deadly flaw, it was one that had proven a problem in the past.

"You forget, Thirteen," Nine Crane added. "That the last time we fought together your bravado warranted my aiding."

"Yes, yes," the other admitted. "How could I forget? But I still say I never needed saving. No matter how many wounds I received."

As they drew closer to the walls Nine Crane and Thirteen Mountain could hear the distant tearing pop of mortar rounds exploding. It was a noise that pierced armor and flesh with its cacophony. Without a word the Heron Guard all but doubled their pace. Yet most of them knew that things were not yet dire. It was never the repetitive sound of Dwarven explosions or the clamorous ringing of warriors' steel that worried Nine Crane. It was when that repetition stopped that his hackles rose. For a ceasing of the noise meant that the allies were no longer fighting, which was never good. It usually meant that they were dead. But for now it seemed as though the Dwarf, whoever he was, was doing a good job of taking it to the enemy: the sickening sound of mortar rounds exploding onto the ground was as a tearing away of some daemon from the earth, screeching and howling in thunderous fury. Perhaps the outer walls were being held, despite the breaches. Nine Crane would know soon enough.

As the reinforcements drew in to the patch of rising mortar smoke and the light colored trail of a campfire, they beheld a near unbelievable sight: twelve berserks and a single Dwarven Mortar brigadier stood practically unscathed. In between them and the breach in the wall was a field littered with the chum and bloody parts of Myrkridia. Only a couple of berserks could be seen wrapping bloody wounds, and even as the Dwarf readied another round Nine Crane could see the archers coming in from the flanks to join them. The elite immortal was impressed. Perhaps they did not need to haste!

"That didn't take long." One of the berserks said to Fulthir as they approached the campfire.

Thirteen moved to the forefront. He observed the carnage wrought by the defenders with a stoic visage and hard expression. "It looks like we could have taken our time, Northman."

"The name's Algir." The berserk said with a seething tone. The animosity between certain berserks and Journeymen had always been prevalent within certain groups. The berserks resented the former Heron Guards for not fighting as they once had, and the Journeymen sometimes thought of the berserks as mindless barbarians with no sense of propriety or honor. Algir and Thirteen Mountain Storm exhibited this now.

"Algir," Thirteen repeated casually. "No doubt there will be more."


"Well, lets get to it." Within seconds the troupe was split up and sent to their destinations outside the wall. It was quickly determined that two ramps would be easier to defend than three sections of broken wall, so the berserks and Heron Guards went with the Dwarven Mortars to one ramp while the archers and the Trow, accompanied by Nine Crane and Thirteen Mountain, went to another. Time would tell if it would prove a worthy defense.

And now, it seemed, time was all Nine Crane Flooding Wind and Thirteen Mountain Storm had. It was nearly twenty minutes ago that they had separated out their forces and set up formations. And so far nothing. Except for Thirteen's shadowy delusions.

"I still say it's a Myrkridia." Thirteen repeated, this time with emphasis.

His companion shrugged. "You may be right." He admitted. "But that's going to be one hell of a big Myrkridia."

Thirteen laughed. "Good, then you can have him." Nine Crane bared his teeth in apprehension at the prospect. Thirteen chuckled at his friend.

In the distance Nine Crane heard the unmistakable sound of the mortars firing their shells. And that was just the beginning.

26 May 2004, 11:29 PM

Part II: Pride of the Mountain by Jonathan Goss []

"Stay with the archers, Human!" Umbra Tempest shouted as he thundered towards the approaching Myrkridia. It wasn't half a minute since the throng of ravenous demons appeared beyond the broken walls of Muirthemne's outer gardens that the Trow were rushing to meet them.

Three Trow against seven Myrkridia. If Thirteen Mountain Storm knew anything, he could bet on a slaughter. Those Trow were going to pulverize the monsters. But regardless, no one bossed the Heron Guard around, especially not Thirteen Mountain Storm... and especially not by some Trow.

"Don't throw orders around, you oversized salt pillar!" Thirteen shouted to the Trow descending the ramp. Umbra Tempest didn't acknowledge his retort, nor did his comrades. Thirteen grunted in frustration.

Beside him, Nine Crane Flooding Wind stood patiently, twin sabres in hand. His ageless face wore a look of bemused apathy. Thirteen had been his friend for countless years, and despite the endless time given to their deathless order, Nine Crane had noticed that his friend had not changed one bit. He still was an arrogant sot. Despite that, they were friends. They were brothers. They were Heron Guards. And Thirteen Mountain had saved Nine Crane more than once on the battlefield. Loyalty was a staple of the elite immortals, no one questioned that. Beside him, Nine Crane could see Thirteen begin to pace anxiously.

"Easy, ole chum." Nine Crane said soothingly. "It'll come."

Thirteen Mountain whipped his head around to face Nine Crane. "I know it'll come, Nine Crane, I just don't want those trunk-footed Trow to get all the glory." He spat for emphasis.

Behind them the snap of bowstrings could be heard and felt, the six archers at their backs beginning to line up and take shots at the advancing Myrkridia. Volley after volley arched over Thirteen and Nine Crane's heads, plummeting towards their foe. But no sooner had the bowmen begun than the Trow had closed the gap with their prey. As the archers relaxed their yew shafts the maddening thud of Trow pounding Myrkridia reached Thirteen's ears. He and his companion watched in gruesome satisfaction as the hairy bodies of the Myrkridia were flung and splattered across the dusty tundra. The shrieks of the demons echoed in the still desert air. It was a manic chorus of hideous death.

Nine Crane could not help but wince a bit at the sight of the Trow kicking the Myrkridia into piles and puddles of goo. He had remembered what it was like to fight them seventy years ago, during Balor's war. The same fate had befallen countless warriors and berserks of the Legion, and now, in mirrored contrast the same fearsome fate was being dealt to the Myrkridia. The poor beasts never had a chance. For a moment Nine Crane thought that he felt a twinge of sorrow for the abominations. But it was fleeting. And false.

In moments it was over, and the Trow stood as a triad of silent pillars. Pillars of iron. The bowmen let out a chorus of jubilant shouts in triumph of the Trow's victory. Nine Crane heard Thirteen Mountain Storm scorn the jubilation under his breath.

"Damned luck," Thirteen muttered more to himself than to Nine Crane. "The bloody trunk-feet get first blood."

Nine Crane laughed a little. "I'm sure there will be plenty to go around." He looked at his friend. "You're such a glory whore, Thirteen." He teased.

Thirteen Mountain smiled with that same old devilish grin. He knew what he was. "I prefer the term 'glory hound.'"


The ground beneath their feet began to rumble as the Trow returned to the ramp where the rest of the defenders waited. Nine Crane gazed across the three massive hulks. Umbra Tempest's elephant like feet were covered in the crimson blood of Myrkridia all the way up to his knees. Mergus Crepusculum, another of the Trow, had bits of hairy flesh gooed into his belt of skulls. Blood speckled on his face, reflecting slightly in the hot desert sun. The other Trow, Magnus Caedes, stood most covered in the gore, bits of flesh and chum trailing behind him as he thundered with the others back towards the defense post. Behind the idle Heron Guards and bowmen stood the ancient and scarred walls of Muirthemne, a few feet away. To their fore was the wide ramp leading to the dusty tundra beyond. And the enemy. Nine Crane looked upon the faces of the Trow. None seemed to exhibit the pain of wounds, nor the exhaustion that comes from an intense bout. In fact, the Trow looked, for lack of a better word, bored.

Suddenly the sound of crackling thunder pierced the afternoon air. It came from the ramp north of them. It was the Dwarven Mortar Brigadiers. Another attack had commenced. Perhaps an ill-timed two pronged assault by the Dark? Regardless, the sounds of mortar fire reminded Nine Crane of the rolling thunderstorms that used to blast the coast in the spring time. It was a never ending cacophony of explosions, no doubt a shower of wrought iron death for the Myrkridia.

"Damn," Thirteen grumbled. "They're really getting it in the dog blossom, aren't they?"

Nine Crane laughed. A genuine, "limbs to the dirt" laugh. "Sounds like it! I hope they don't do too well over there, though."

"Why's that?"

"Because," Nine Crane explained mock-casually. "They'll think it impregnable. And attack over here."

Thirteen chuckled. "I think that's going to happen no matter what."

"Hey!" Shouted Lewis, a lanky, bearded bowman. "Check it out!" He pointed a finger into the distance, towards the sections of broken walls and sloping hillocks. There, mingled among the half visible crouched forms of snarling Myrkridia, loomed a shadow of noticeably enormous size. Far larger than the known Myrkridia. It seemed to pace steadily back and forth behind the wall, just as two ranks of six Myrkridia each gathered on the sides of the brick section.

For a moment Thirteen thought he met the gaze of one of those beasts. In the red eyes time slowed, and the Heron Guard's skin crawled in fearsome anguish. Even for this grizzled warrior, the meeting of eyes with a Myrkridia seemed to disarm him, rendering his lungs useless, and his heart pounding so hard it seemed to be trying to escape its cage. What hellish thoughts and desires festered behind those red eyes? Did any thoughts reside at all in their minds? Did anything except the need to rend and taste flesh linger in that psyche? Would it matter, in the end?

Like a flash of lightning the train of thought ended for Thirteen, and as quickly as the gaze was met it was broken. Half a moment later the beasts were rushing across the broken landscape, sprinting in manic fury towards the ramp.

Towards Muirthemne.

Towards the allies.

The things moved so quickly that the eyes of lesser men would not be able to comprehend their speed. But the Heron Guard were superior for a reason. Thirteen and Nine Crane easily tracked the throng of Myrkridia as they advanced onto their position. The dust they were kicking up obscured the landscape beyond, creating a storming wall of dirt and sandy earth. It seemed to roil and choke the space behind the running Myrkridia, as a sand storm issued forth from the mouth of the Darkness.

Mergus Crepusculum turned to the Heron Guard. "You wish to meet them?" He asked, his voice literally shaking the straps and metal links of Thirteen's armor.

The Heron Guard snapped his head up to them, a lustful smile creasing his face. "I wouldn't have it any other way." Mergus smiled slightly at the man, a look of coy amusement on his chiseled face.

Nine Crane watched the force close the gap between them. Two Heron Guards could not take twelve Myrkridia and prevail. No amount of pride would save them here. He turned to his comrade.

"I think it would be wise to have the Trow aid us this time." He said guardedly.

Thirteen wheeled on his age old friend. "They've had their turn, Nine Crane." He spat venomously. "It's our chance at glory!' With speed that sliced the air Thirteen Mountain reached behind him and produced the twin sabres from his back scabbards. He twirled them a bit in his hands, warming up the metacarpals for their use.

Nine Crane turned surreptitiously to the Trow who stood patiently aside from the pair of men. He met the eyes of Mergus. "You might want to come in a bit behind us, sons of Nyx." He spoke quietly, making sure not to let Thirteen hear him. The Trow captain simply nodded his affirmation, his arms folding across his wagon-sized chest in eased complacency.

Seconds later the Myrkridia were in range of the archers, and the sound of six bowstrings loosing their broad-head arrows one after the other wafted past the Heron Guards' ears. The arrows flew in at all manner of angles, those of the more experienced bowmen finding their marks in the flesh of their targets. The greener bowmen were not so accurate in their archery, their arrows either falling short of the prey or soaring high over their heads. Moments later, Thirteen charged.

Nine Crane rushed to accompany him, the two elites crashing into the wall of hellish fury. Chaos ensued. The glinting flash of unstained steel biting and slashing the dusty air. The howls and screams of their ancient enemy piercing Nine Crane's covered ears. The spray and splatter of blood as he and Thirteen Mountain carved their way into the throng of flesh-eaters. Time seemed to be nonexistent, only the swinging of Myrkridian claws and the plunging of Heron steel resided in Nine Crane's reality. He could no longer see more than six feet in any direction. The dust wrapped around him. The sand and dirt clogged his nostrils and scraped his eyes. It ground into his gums and tore into the small cuts and lacerations of the Myrkridian attacks. He felt his left arm pauldron sunder under the weight of a Myrkridian forearm. The cold, alien sting of claws sinking into his skin. Nine Crane turned in a furious flash onto his attacker, his left hand sabre coming skyward in an uppercut to the beast's sternum, the second sabre arching down across the back of its neck, severing the head in a clean swipe. Blood issued forth in a gruesome stream as the headless body of the Myrkridia slumped to the ground. Nine Crane removed his weapons and inspected his wound. It wasn't bad, nothing half a mandrake couldn't solve when the foes were dead and the fight over.

Thirteen Mountain found himself in a soggy spot: four Myrkridia lunging at him from all sides at once. With ageless agility and god-like speed the Heron Guard twirled and danced among the attacking throng. The world spun and wheeled as Thirteen torqued into a crouched position, his blades slicing effortlessly through three of the four attackers. The last, a small, wiry Myrkridia, halted half a meter away from the embattled Heron Guard. Thirteen Mountain turned to face the thing. And promptly found it useless. The beast was bristling with arrows, one even lodged through the cavity of its left eye. It just stood there, still in the red-soaked earth, still as a bronze edifice. Taking no chances, Thirteen plunged both sabres into its chest, sending the thing back to the hell that spawned it.

A moment later the two immortal men found themselves the masters of the field, a garden of gruesome death and carrion plowed into the earth at their feet. Nine Crane was breathing heavily, his chest rising and falling like a tide under the constraints of his armor. He looked over at Thirteen Mountain, a few meters away. He smiled at his comrade, who he could see was covered in blood. For a moment it reminded Nine Crane of the Emperor's crimson armor, and one could almost envision the man's face replaced by that of Alric, their new emperor. Thirteen raised his swords in honor to Nine Crane, who replied in kind to the salute. After a fashion the older Heron Guard wondered as to the extended gaze of his friend.

"What are looking at now, Nine?" Thirteen slurred through his heaving lungs.

"You just look a fitting candidate for the Crimson Mantle." Nine said, referring to the Emperor's armor. Thirteen grinned, all teeth. "I hope that'll wash off!" He said, pointing a sabre tip to the red stains on Thirteen's armor.

The other laughed. "They keep throwing their troops at us like that and we'll be sure to find out."

Both shared a hearty laugh. But a shadow lingered in the distance of the still rolling dust cloud. It grew larger and larger, until Thirteen and Nine Crane both were overshadowed by it. The two stumbled back a bit, a twinge of uncertain fear entering their armored hearts for the first time in countless centuries. The two Heron Guards began to back up, trying in vain to escape from the ever growing tower of shadow now looming over them. Neither said a word, and even Thirteen questioned the value of holding their easily won ground.

Suddenly it appeared. Out of the dust storm burst forth the most hideous and frightening image ever to sear itself into the eyes and minds of the two Heron Guards.

It was a Myrkridia.

A goliath of a Myrkridia.

Around its corpulent waist was draped a loin cloth made from the skins of lesser flesh-eaters. The thing was a cannibal, the blood and tissue of a Myrkridia still hanging in dripping tendrils from its claws and fangs. The thing was easily as tall as a Trow, and sizably wider. Its hating, vicious red eyes glared with a bloodlust from atop its foetid head. Nine Crane and Thirteen Mountain both felt their blood run cold. What in all of creation was it?

"Wyrd's Nightmare!" Screamed Thirteen Mountain. It wasn't a blasphemy, but a call to their god. A terror induced shriek of their very essence; their souls.

Without thinking the two ancient warriors closed the gap between themselves, drawing closer together. They moved, out of fear and obvious necessity, into a shoulder to shoulder stance, right knees pressed together. They would have to fight as a dias, a pair of interlocked, co-working soldiers. A maneuver used to maximize efficiency. A maneuver saved for desperation. Perhaps this was it? Perhaps the two Heron Guards would die here, in this blood-muddied earth?

As the thing bellowed stifling breath from its lungs, issuing forth a blood curdling howl, the two Heron Guards, Thirteen Mountain Storm and Nine Crane Flooding Wind, raised their swords and braced themselves for the inevitable. This was suicide.

From behind them the ground rumbled, the familiar sounds of tree trunked feet growing more distinct at their backs.

The Trow were coming to aid.

28 May 2004, 12:30 PM

Part III: Call of the Eagle by Jonathan Goss []

Nine Crane Flooding Wind plopped down onto the ground beside his comrade, Thirteen Mountain Stone. The two had returned to their station at the top of the southern ramp leading to the walls of Muirthemne. Moments earlier they had charged in with the surviving Trow, Magnus Caedes and Mergus Crepusculum, to hack up yet another of the seemingly endless waves of Myrkridia. The demon-beasts had been attacking the walls of Muirthemne for about an hour straight now, sometimes attacking the southern position, held by the two Heron Guards, the two surviving Trow, and six bowmen, and sometimes attacking the northern ramp, held by two dozen Heron Guards and half as many berserks.

It was the first time in over a hundred years that the Heron Guard allowed themselves to take up arms and fight on the front line. It was the first time in over a century that the flower of Muirthemne's armies was again unleashed upon the forces of the Dark.

A part of Nine Crane wished he were at the northernmost ramp, with his fellow brothers at arms. The sight and sensation of fighting with so many of his comrades was something the ageless warrior had not known in a long time. A part of him wished it dearly. But solace was found in the company of his longtime friend, Thirteen Mountain Storm. This older, grizzly Heron Guard was as tough as he was arrogant. A maelstrom of ferocity and vengeance, Thirteen had garnered for himself a reputation of one who cared only for victory, and in many cases, glory. In no way was he the most virtuous of their elite order, but Thirteen possessed a certain sense of leadership, albeit in his own maniacal way. He was the kind of prideful warrior that inspired others to excellence. And that was invaluable.

Of course, now Thirteen was simply trying to catch his breath, while Nine Crane sat on his rear end in the dust, chest heaving. The two had come close to dying more than once out there. And as the day drew on their strength, though far superior, was starting to wane. Nine Crane had lost count of how many Myrkridia he had either killed or helped killed. Even Thirteen had long since given up matching the notches on his belt with the corpses on the ground. It was madness. They just kept coming.

The image of Umbra Tempest, the third Trow, dying in the midst of the third attack was still gouged into Nine Crane's memory. He had watched helplessly from ten meters away as the mighty Trow warrior was surrounded by eight Myrkridia, each tearing off slabs of clay-like flesh. But what finished it for the ally was a Myrkridian Giant's explosive skulls. Their enormous power had showered Umbra Tempest with liquid fire, immobilizing him with the tell tale pain and shock that heralds the near death of a Trow. It was a noble end to the gorgon, but a gruesome one nevertheless.

But Umbra Tempest had made a good dent or two in the ranks of the Myrkridia before he fell. Nine Crane's memory recalled in particular the instance after the second attack when they beheld the Myrkridian Giant. It shocked him that, only moments after first beholding the horror that was the oversized Myrkridian, the three Trow seemed to thunder right over the dias of frightened warriors. The Heron Guard would never forget the site of those goliaths going at it; the Myrkridian Giant clawing furiously at Umbra Tempest, swathing ribbons of dry flesh from his mammoth body. Of course, the fight itself was over in a matter of seconds. No sooner had the Giant began tearing away at Umbra than the Trow landed a fist right into the Myrkridian's teeth, causing the thing to yelp in pain. In a flash the other two Trow were on either side of him, each wrapping themselves around the Myrkridian's man-length arms. They held the beast down while Umbra Tempest pulverized the thing. When it was nearly dead, the three Trow literally tore the monster apart, essentially drawing and quartering it right there in the dust. As a warning to the others the Trow hurled the limbs and torso of the monster hundreds of meters away into the distance where the other Myrkridia were waiting. The head they saved, bringing it back to the ramp as a souvenir. Thirteen laughed openly at the nauseous bowmen who vomited when the Trow returned with the head and dropped it, sloshing gore and all, into the sand and dirt at their feet. After a moment of regarding the thing the Trow silently returned to the left front side of the ramp, ready and waiting for the next attack.

Nine Crane asked Umbra Tempest moments later if he desired one of the mandrake roots the Heron Guard possessed for such wounds and ailments. The soot colored Trow refused the offer as politely as any of his kind could: with a shaking head and a waving hand. With a shrug Nine Crane returned to his post close to the bowmen.

Now he was glad that he still had the healing plant, for his wounds had grown too egregious to further withstand, much less carry with him into the fray. He had to heal himself before the next attack. He looked up at Thirteen, who was still breathing hard. His armor was covered in blood, and in more than one place Nine Crane thought he spied the marks of torn skin and flesh between Thirteen's armor. He suddenly became worried for his friend. Of course he knew that even if Thirteen was wounded the man would never tell him, nor let it show as best he could. Again, the flaw of pride that seemed to run rampant in the Heron Guard. Nevertheless, Nine Crane reached behind him and produced from his belt the small brown miracle twig. Biting into it he felt the surge of energy issue forth into his mouth, and then down his entire body. He convulsed slightly, then froze in that helpless trance all fell into when healed by the mandrake. A shower of light seemed to course over his body, and for a moment he didn't know who he was or where he was at.

"You're going to need more of those, brother." The distant voice of Thirteen Mountain Storm seemed to say. In a rush to his ears and his blood stream the world returned to Nine Crane, and he suddenly remembered everything. "Look." Thirteen pointed to the area beyond the rampart. "They're coming again, this time with friends."

It was true, Nine Crane looked out and saw what had become an expected familiarity. Ten Myrkridia, one Myrkridian Giant, and three ghols were racing for the alliance defenders. The ghols were the swiftest, covering the distance in a handful of seconds. The defenders had by now learned the purpose of these attacks. The ghol would throw various satchel charges and explosives onto the remaining weak points in the wall behind the allies. Then, in a blitzing rush, the Myrkridian Giant would hurl its fearsome skulls at the pile of charges, thus creating a breach in the wall and sending showers of stone and shards of mortar into the backs of the defenders. So far it hadn't worked. Every attack had been repelled by the bowmen. And now the time had come for them to do it again.

The two Heron Guards flung themselves out of the way of the archers as they began loosing arrows in the direction of the ghol. The bowmen didn't really have the patience to wait; the excitement was too much for them, and more than once a soldier found himself clutching at an arrow lodged in his back from an overzealous bowman. Thirteen and Nine Crane had come too far to let this happen to them now.

In no time the ghol were dead and the Myrkridia were again upon them. The Trow mustered and charged headlong into them. Within seconds half the Myrkridia were nothing more than piles of chum and carrion in the dirt and sand. Thirteen and Nine Crane rallied themselves as well, and lunged into the fray. The Myrkridian Giant was still a good twenty meters away, leaving time for the Heron Guard to hack up some foes of equal size.

Nine Crane swept his left sabre across the chest of a Myrkridia, opening up the thing's chest. Its pain induced howl was cut short in a gurgling rasp by Nine Crane's other sabre, which buried itself through the neck of the thing. In a flash the elite warrior removed his blades and ducked the attack of an oncoming foe. The second Myrkridia slashed madly at the Heron Guard, only to be launched ten feet into the air by Mergus Crepusculum's well placed kick. Nine Crane never saw where the thing landed.

Far to his right, on the other side of the field, Thirteen Mountain Storm was "limbing" two Myrkridia at once; hacking off the hands, arms, and legs of the beasts until there was nothing but a pair of snarling torsos writhing on the ground. Shouts of triumph and joy erupted from Thirteen's lungs as he finished off the helpless monsters. In his zealous rage the grizzled Heron Guard turned to face the next threat: the Myrkridian Giant. The Trow, however, were already closing in for the kill. Thirteen gritted his teeth, determined to bring one of those gorgons down before the day was out. He rushed forward towards the trio of raging giants. Dodging sweeping claws and hurtling kicks Thirteen Mountain moved in to the right side of the Myrkridian Giant. He plunged his right sabre as deeply as he could into the hairy thigh of the monster, then aiming low, rammed the left sabre upwards into its shin, severing the calf muscle from the inside. The beastly horror lurched and faltered, still clawing at the Trow. In a move of lightning speed the foe torqued to its left, jerking Thirteen's sabre-clutching hand forward.

With a sharp ping the sabre broke, blade lodged still in the Myrkridian's thigh.

In a fury Thirteen retracted his good sabre and began carving the Myrkridian's hips up like he was skinning a deer. But the beast was possessed with bloodlust. It swatted at Thirteen with its left hand, claws ripping the Heron Guard's right breast plate off completely, and plowing into the muscle of the man it protected. Thirteen flew backwards, landing on his back scabbards. He felt his back banners snap, and the wind rush out of his lungs. Time froze again on the field of war. The Myrkridian, somehow free of the Trow's fury, now stood over the defenseless Heron Guard.

Phobos gripped the ancient warrior.

The thing seemed to smile at Thirteen Mountain; a hideous, gore begrimed grin. It seemed to herald Thirteen's death.

"Muirthemne!" Came the howling battle-cry of a familiar voice from behind the beast, and out of sight of Thirteen Mountain. It was Nine Crane. Like a sprinting gazelle he fell upon the giant, slashing away in six successive strokes the muscles that controlled the Myrkridian's shoulders. All before the thing could turn and face him. Then the Trow came. Magnus Caedes, no longer the burnt sienna color of his native pigment but a deep and carrion crimson, landed a haymaker blow right over the brow of the Myrkridian, sending a stream of blood out of its nostrils. It shrieked and faltered uncontrollably, stunned by the blow. As Thirteen rose he saw that the force of the Trow's double-fisted attack had popped out the right eye of the Myrkridia. It hung, swinging, from the thing's face.

"Wyrd's figs!" Was all Thirteen could muster to say. That time it was a blasphemy.

The allies- Heron Guard and Trow alike- worked the Myrkridian Giant over for the next thirty seconds, slashing and cutting away at the thing until it eventually died, disintegrating into the ground leaving only a dark, meter sized stain upon the earth. To a normal man's eyes it looked like a giant ink blot spilled by Wyrd himself.

Nine Crane and his comrade surveyed the scene. In front of them laid a near endless field of Myrkridian remains. The ground looked like a plow field of gore and death. The recognizable black patches of earth left by defeated Myrkridian Giants were found in more than one or two spots. And even the crumbled form of Umbra Tempest, his head cleaved in two, was present in the mess. His one visible eye still stared lifelessly into the void, a haunting expression of rarely seen fear etched into his face. Or what was left of it.

As the four allies made their way up back the ramp to consolidate their lines Thirteen began complaining about his sword.

"I had that thing for six hundred bloody years, Nine Crane." He groaned through blood-stained coughs. "To think I had to break it on that slop-sucker."

Nine Crane shrugged. "Better it than you, my friend." Thirteen only grunted. "At least you're alive."

"If you can call it that."

Nine Crane suddenly caught movement from the north. It was a contingent of Heron Guards. Three of them were coming towards them. They weren't sprinting as they do when there is urgency. They were more just running, or perhaps even jogging. Nine Crane couldn't tell, his vision was getting a bit blurry from exhaustion. Thirteen saw it too, after a fashion.

"I wonder what's going on?" Nine Crane muttered.

"Probably want us to come up there and save their hides!" Thirteen joked, forcing a chuckle through his hacking.

In a moment the Heron Guards were near their two companions. Nine Crane recognized all of them. They were all of equally imposing height and build. All still carrying both twin sabres in their hands, the red streaks of bloodshed striped and blotched on their ancient armor.

Seven Fury Iron Wolf

Four Bloody Dire Stone

One Eagle Morning

These three both Nine Crane and Thirteen had known well. They had all fought together in wars previous.

"They've hit us with Soulless." Said One Eagle Morning, the eldest and most revered of the three. "With think they're getting desperate."

"Glad to hear it's them that's getting desperate!" Thirteen remarked. "We were afraid you were coming down here to ask for our help." He began laughing at his own words, to which Nine Crane followed suit.

"We are."

The laughing stopped.

One Eagle Morning continued. "We think they're getting ready to hit us hard up there. We keep seeing the shapes of at least twenty Myrkridia and four Myrkridian Giants." Thirteen whistled in amazement. "It's coming."

"Well," Nine Crane began. "If we have to go we have to go, right?" He turned to his brother in arms. "You want Mergus and Magnus to stay here?"

"Is there a choice?"

Nine Crane turned to his relative superior, One Eagle. "Lead the way."

Seconds later they were racing for the northern ramp.

28 May 2004, 1:57 PM

Part IV: Song of the Heron by Jonathan Goss []


That's how many Heron Guards Nine Crane Flooding Wind and Thirteen Mountain Storm beheld when they reached the northern ramp, accompanied by One Eagle Morning and the two others.

Fifteen. And a mere four berserks remained.

It gave Nine Crane a sick feeling in his stomach, and made Thirteen wince visibly. The mood was somber among the Heron Guards and their allies. Things obviously had not gone as well for them.

Out beyond the ramp, into the stretching tundra of Muirthemne's outer gardens, there remained a sight so gruesome it was almost too hard to comprehend. Nine Crane's mouth gaped open at the sheer size of it, at the magnitude.

Things had been worse over here. Far worse. Out beyond the ramp, and indeed at the very tip of the bottom slope, there seemed to be nothing but dead Myrkridia. Hacked and severed limbs were intermingled with such cold horror that one could not tell where one body ended and another began, much less where the ground was. The strange, almost ethereal shadows of defeated Myrkridian Giants dotted the landscape like a leopard skin.

But the worst was directly at the ramp. Obviously this had been where the fighting was the worst. Bodies of Myrkridia, interspersed with those of berserks and Heron Guard, were so thick that it seemed to form a wall the height of a grown man. In fact, to call the thing a "ramp" anymore would be wholly inaccurate.

It was a bridge.

A bridge from Muirthemne to Hell.

Thirteen Mountain, for once, didn't even have words to speak. The sight was too terrible to utter a sound. Silently, the man looked at Nine Crane. The two shared a look of both repulsing horror and sheer bewilderment. How could this have been when the southern ramp was attacked as it was? How many were still out there? Could the Heron Guard stand another assault such as this? To his left Thirteen spied a queer sight: a line of clustered bones all crumpled together in a snaking pile dusted with purple powder. The Soulless. In front of the line were the forms of two fallen berserks quilled with poisoned barbs. One of which Thirteen recognized as Fulthir, the herald who lead the Heron Guard to their first battle in over a century. He pointed the corpse out to his friend, Nine Crane.

"Always, the young must die." Nine Crane said sadly as he viewed the dead man's bristling body. Slowly, Nine Crane tore his eyes away from the scene and set his mind on orders. He turned to One Eagle. "Where do you want us?" He asked.

"Protect the Mortar Dwarves." One Eagle said darkly, pointing a gore slimed sabre to the right flank of the bowl-shaped formation of defenders.

Nine Crane nodded and moved, without hesitation, to the two Dwarves on the right flank. Thirteen was not far behind.

As the two companions passed along the line of men Nine Crane could not help but look at their faces. The men, both berserks and Heron Guards, looked exhausted, fatigued beyond awareness. They had fought, for the first time, the greatest horrors ever to walk the earth, and in the greatest numbers any could remember since their imprisonment during the time of Connacht. They looked aged, haggard, and with blood on almost every inch of their skin. Their armor was broken and torn in numerous places on every Heron Guard. The berserks had red-soaked cloth bandaged around more than one limb. Every one of them had sustained wounds. Even the diminutive Dwarves showed signs of fatigue, though their packs now seemed almost bare.

As Nine Crane neared the two Dwarves he asked them how many shells they still had for their mortars.

"Enough to make those daisy-biters think twice." Duri remarked.

The other Dwarf was not so optimistic, or perhaps, he was more realistic. "I've got enough to cover your retreat into the city." He said gravely, but with that swarthy half-smile, half grimace the Dwarves were known for.

Nine Crane nodded solemnly. "With any luck that won't be the case."

Duri laughed suddenly at Nine Crane's feigned optimism. "We're gonna get our fruit handed to us, Heron Guard." With that the little thing waddled off, towards the opposite end of the battle line.

"Where's he going?" Asked Thirteen Mountain.

"He's going to be with Baugi." The other Dwarf answered.


"Are you kiddin' me?" The Dwarf, Uni, looked at Thirteen with a face of annoyance. "It's a whole lot safer over there."

"Ah, I see." Thirteen remarked. For a long moment all was quiet between the three.

Nine Crane listened to the wind singing its song, whispering its message. He remembered what it was like to stand here, along these gardens, and feel the wind brush against his ageless face. The smells of honeysuckle and rose bushes always wafted to him, along with that of tree sap. The lush green vines and roots of fauna would hang and sprawl endlessly off of the small garden walls. The sight of two thousand rose bushes in full bloom again found its way into his psyche. But it was the sounds that he remembered most, that he longed for most. The sounds of children and their parents picnicking, of dogs playfully barking at squirrels and birds, of men and women laughing as they courted.


Sweet Muirthemne.

How Nine Crane's heart broke at her dried, desecrated corpse, at what the seat of Imperial power had become. Nothing more than a dusty, craggy shell.

But that shell was his charge. That corpse was his home. His fealty rested in it, and with the man who sat on its throne. He would die for it today if he had to, as would all of the men around him. Some of which already had.

"Ghol, on the second ridge!" Nine Crane heard a berserk yell, pointing his giant claymore in the direction of the approaching threat. Within seconds the shearing pop of mortar rounds was being issued forth from the left flank, round iron shells arching high overhead towards the loping ghol. The small, dog-like beast jerked to the right just before the shell landed, avoiding its blast unscathed. A heartbeat later a second shell fired from the left, this time in a low altitude heading straight for the ghol. But again the swift scout dodged the attack, the shell exploding harmlessly behind the attacker.

"Shoot the sonofabitch!" Thirteen shouted with manic fury to the Dwarf at his side. Uni snapped out of his apparent daze and loaded his mortar cannon. Both Thirteen and Nine Crane stepped back before Uni fired it. The recoil nearly sent the little Dwarf backwards onto his hind quarters. The small projectile whistled through the air towards the ghol who was now no more than fifty meters away. With a tearing pop the shell exploded, sending bits of rancid ghol in every direction. Uni let out a grunt of satisfaction, clenching his fist and gritting his teeth in a vicious grin.

"Here they come!" Another berserk shouted.

In the distance approached what looked to be a single snaking line of dark gray horror. The Myrkridia were so numerous, so thick, that it did not seem as individual monsters, but as a single roiling line of death and chaos.

Thirteen Mountain could only shake his head. "Why do I have the feeling that this is it?" He asked grimly.

"Define 'it,' my old friend." Nine Cane mumbled.

Thirteen turned to him, that same devilish smile on his face. "I think we're going to meet Wyrd today, Nine Crane." He placed a hand on his friend's shoulder pauldron. "I'll see you on the other side."

Nine Crane looked down at the elite immortal's free hand. "Do you want to go get another sabre, Thirteen?" He asked.

The man shook his head. "I'm not going to pilfer the dead, Nine Crane. Besides, I only need one of these pig-stickers to get the job done."

"Fair enough." Was all Nine Crane could say.

Suddenly from both sides the Dwarven Mortar Brigadiers unleashed their fury onto the Myrkridian horde. Round after round soared, screeching, high into the air, then came down to shatter their enemy. The explosions burst Myrkridia apart, punching holes and pockets in their thick lines. The Heron Guard watched as those that were near death went into a state of possession, as the Myrkridia do when close to death, and began tearing at anything they could. They clawed at their fellow monsters, at the Giants that strode behind them, at the earth, and even at the clear open air. Yet they still drew closer, closer, closer, until they were under the range of the Dwarven elites. Nine Crane only grimaced at the insanity of it. Those things truly were "nightmare made flesh."

Moments later One Eagle Morning ordered the charge.

With a resounding chorus the Heron Guard, all nineteen of them, rushed to close the gap between them and the enemy. In front of them the berserks leapt into action. All four of the brave men were torn to ribbons in moments, surrounded by the abominations. Then the Heron Guard met them.

Nine Crane found himself in a world of madness. Claws ripped at the air, or any space where there might reside human flesh. The screams of dying immortals and the howls of Myrkridia mixed into an operatic ode to hell and anguish. Blades of sabres slung dark blood in showering sprays. The burst of small bits of flesh and armor ricocheting off of Nine Crane's form. He strode into the battle as best he could: swinging and cutting at the enemy with god-like agility. Beside him Thirteen was doing much the same, his one sabre dismantling every attack the enemy brought near him. The two Heron Guards gave everything they had, dodging lightning fast attacks only to counter with graceful forms of their own. The death was endless. The carnage insatiable.

In the midst of this fury the Myrkridian Giants committed to battle. There were three of them. Nine Crane watched as a pair of Heron Guards, fighting as a dias, cut the legs out from underneath a Myrkridian Giant. And even though the two decapitated the thing it still clawed madly at the open air in a vain attempt to kill.

For an eternity the Heron Guard fought, moving in and out of range of the Myrkridia's claws and teeth, countering with agility unknown to normal men. Their swords bit and cut like a wheat thresher, chewing the lines of Myrkridia to pieces. The Giants, now doubled up to each others' backs and trying to hold their own, began throwing their subordinates in front of them, to catch the edge of the immortals' blades.

In a moment of tremendous heroism Nine Crane and Thirteen Mountain witnessed One Eagle Morning, his helmet gone and his left arm severed below the elbow, leap into the air, his feet nimbly launching off of the embattled Myrkridians' heads, and plunge his sabre into the collar of one of the Giants. Immediately the ancient and honored warrior fell beneath the Myrkridian, and was lost to Nine Crane's eyes in the chaos. But regardless, the massive beast lurched, blood gushing from the wound, until at last it turned to dust, sinking with such speed into the ground as to make one think that relief waited for it in the earth.

Thirteen Mountain found himself standing atop a pile of dead Myrkridia, carving like a windmill into Myrkridia after Myrkridia. It was endless. It was hopeless. They just kept coming. At one point Thirteen Mountain looked down to see a Heron Guard, someone he did not know, punching and biting at a Myrkridia who was clawing his face off. Seconds later the man was dead. A heartbeat after that Thirteen plunged his sabre into the spine of the enemy, sending it into deathly convulsions atop the piled dead.

Suddenly Nine Crane was there, at Thirteen's side, his swords singing in tenor glory of struggle and combat. Without a word the two formed the dias and set themselves for a final stand against the onslaught. In the midst of all of this Nine Crane felt Thirteen falter, a Myrkridian claw slashing his ribcage. Yet they fought on.

Wave after wave of menacing Myrkridia fell upon the exhausted warriors. The two men fought on in known vanity, moving as a single entity, their swords protecting one as the other dealt death. The dias had saved men in times past, perhaps it would save them now.

The Myrkridia seemed to plunge themselves onto the two Heron Guards' swords, one after the other. And as time drew on the two began to notice an ever growing span of seconds between attacks. Five seconds, twenty seconds, forty seconds, on and on until rarely a Myrkridia attacked them.

Then they saw it.

The field had grown nearly quiet.

The light could again be seen from the sky.

The Myrkridia were retreating.

In the first time since their unleashing upon the West the Myrkridia were turning around and running for their lives. The Heron Guards watched in unbelieving joy as the half dozen monsters limped back into the distant horizon dotted by the broken walls and sand dunes. A moment of reverent, exhausted silence fell upon the field. No one could believe what they were witnessing.

Then, from behind, Nine Crane, who was standing protectively over Thirteen's wounded form, heard one of his comrades bellow a single word.

Then another.

And another.

And another, until the entire contingent of Heron Guards were chanting, shouting, bellowing at the top of their lungs a single word.

The battle cry of their order.

The song of the Heron.

"Muirthemne! Muirthemne! Muirthemne! Muirthemne!...."

The End.

6 June 2004, 10:46 AM

Part I: Egil's Charge by Jonathan Goss []

Egil knelt to the cold, wet earth, his keen eyes tracing the shallow dents in the snow. At the raising of his hand the entire troupe of eighty berserks halted their march and fell in behind him. Tyrfing, his lieutenant, drew up beside him, kneeling in the snow to add his sapphire eyes to Egil's scrutiny. For a moment the two were silent, examining the tracks that they had been following for two hours. It was mid morning, and as the distant sun began to melt the tops of the snow the tracks became weaker and weaker. But this was the Stair of Grief, there was sure to be more snow, and more tracks.

"They were joined by Ghol." Egil said darkly. "Maybe twenty."

Tyrfing traced the tracks. They seemed to be bunched together, as if the Ghol had milled about for a while before heading further east. He shook his hairy head. "Twenty'll be nothing unless they're carrying bits o' Wight with 'em."

"Aye," Egil replied. "But they've covered a lot of ground. I'm sure the Ghol have outpaced the Soulless. We'll have to split our forces to catch them both."

Tyrfing ran his fingers through his thick auburn beard. "I can take just as many with me, we can cut them off if we hurry." He looked at Egil with hesitation. Would the veteran take the chance with Tyrfing as their leader?

Egil thought for a moment. Tyrfing was invaluable. He couldn't afford to lose him. Finally, he nodded. "Take Gwyon and his kin, and whoever else has experience with the Ghol. Leave the rest for me."

Tyrfing nodded with a smile hidden under a thick beard. "Aye," with that he rose from his leader and strode back towards the throng of tireless Northmen. Egil watched him as he was eventually lost from sight amidst the snow drifts and howling winds. Things just got more complicated.

Of course, that was no new thing for Egil, or the rest of the armies of the West. For five years now they had been fighting the Fallen Lords, Balor's relentless push over the mountains resulting in more than one blood-soaked peak. And now it seemed there would be another added to the list.

It was not of Egil's choosing, however, that had him here with his brave warriors. No, it was a mandate of the Nine. The Avatara, in all of their infinite wisdom, decided that a picked force of eighty or so berserks be sent to retake the Stair of Grief from the throng of enemies passing through it. No one had survived the last attempt, but that was nearly a year ago and led by Ajax, a captain in the Armies of the Province. At least he was, until a Wight blew up, scattering him across the mountain passes. Needless to say all the others met a similarly gruesome fate that day.

But Egil was determined not to let that happen again. His eighty berserks were the hand picked men of his own clan, all with as many notches on their belts as hairs on their heads. They knew how to fight, and they knew how to win. Unlike his weaker, scrawnier comrades in the West and the South, Egil had taught his brethren how to fight and kill, not fight and survive. Survival was a concern for the foolish, and the weak. Egil only cared about victory, no matter the cost.

And now was the perfect time. He rose from his crouch and turned to address his men. By now two groups had formed, a small one of eighteen or so with Tyrfing at their helm, and a larger one with all eyes on Egil. He grinned toothily at them, like a jackal.

"The Soulless are not far." He shouted over the howling winds and snowstorms. "Whoever is leading them has sent Ghol to intercept us. But we're not going to buy it. I'm sending Tyrfing to catch the scythe-wielding runts before they can encircle us. They'll watch our backs while we take care of the Hollow Men." Numerous nods confirmed his observations. By now Tyrfing had the full contingent of twenty Northmen. He stood twenty meters down the slope, listening to his leader's orders. "Now I know some of you are worried you won't get to kill much, but don't worry, there'll be enough for everyone. I promise." He looked downward, at Tyrfing. "Now go, before the cold freezes our prey!"

With that the groups parted, bare, scarred forms disappearing in the raging snows. Tyrfing and his group sprinted with haste across the slippery, icy slopes between the passes, trying to take whatever shortcuts they could find, no matter how dangerous. Egil and his large force of sixty raced further along the pass, following the fragile, purplish haze left by the floating Undead. Long years of harsh wars and harsher winters had given Egil a keen set of senses. His beady grey eyes could pierce the densest fog and his hooked, broken nose could smell the scent of decay and wormrot. The past five years it had come in handy. The war had not gone well for the Armies of the Province, and the berserks had been all but begged to pick up the slack.

Glory drove them south.

To the aid of the West.

And now, ironically, it was glory that had driven Egil and his men north, towards their homelands. And here, today, there would be a chance for much glory. He would soil the snow with the bones of the Soulless. Today was going to be magnificent.

Egil raced as fast as his legs could plow through the shin-high snow. He was almost fifty, and covered in scars and grey hair. The color of his beard did not change much with the snowfalls, nor did the braided locks of hair that fluttered behind him as he ran. Of course, many of the men he commanded were younger. Much younger. But out here, in the miserable ice and snow, one could hardly tell the difference. Not to mention the fact that Egil was steadily outpacing his own men in their race. Even with the wind pushing against his front and the snows numbing his bare skin Egil was slowly distancing himself from the sixty berserks following him. His fisted arms pumped in front of him, his large claymore secured tightly to his back. It had been nearly half an hour since he could feel his feet, and he was pretty sure frostbite was somewhere in his future. Not that it mattered, only victory mattered. Only glory.

Egil reached the end of their mountain pass, and was met by the craggy, snow covered slopes and rock faces of the Stair's indomitable terrain. High into the mountains as they were, Egil was cautious to set foot upon the cresting tops: a wrong step could send one to a most undignified end. But he had no choice, the sent was getting stronger. He was gaining on them. They were gaining on them.

Quickly Egil leapt onto the icy ledge and began sprinting across its broken length. The others followed suit without hesitation. To their right lay the inlet of the upward sloping terrain, to their left was the descending mountain side, a sheer rock wall covered in ice. Egil pumped his legs harder and harder, fighting against the wind. Then something else happened, something he did not expect. Another scent was now present though, one that did not seem to follow the Soulless necessarily, but came from their direction no doubt. It was fainter, subtler, as if it had drifted from the southern side of the mountains. It was the strong scent of death, and rotting corpses.

Egil knew the scent well.

He had smelt it many times before.


The Soulless had backup. With a grimace Egil began scanning the terrain for signs of tracks, while trying to to take his eyes off of the dangerous precipices. He saw none, and the lack of excited shouts from his comrades confirmed that there were none there. Unless of course the precarious terrain kept them from looking all together. Egil peered into the hazy snows, the wind blowing flakes across his eyelashes. For an instant he thought he saw something. A thin black line standing upright and moving to the left. It disappeared beneath a crest of white dust and powder.

Suddenly Egil stopped. He knew what it was. Without thinking twice he threw himself down onto the inlet at his right, burying himself in the snow. His men did the same, looking like a long line of fleshy dominos tumbling into the wet cold. Egil gazed down the line for a scout, someone he knew was experienced enough.

"Tyrgeis!" Egil shouted. "Tyrgeis!" A moment later a hairy blonde head poked out from the line of crouching men. Egil motioned for him to come over. The berserk rose to his feet quietly, feet sinking into the snow. He was short for a berserk, a mere five feet seven inches, and covered in war paint. Tyrgeis Of The Iron Gale. That's what they called him. His spirit was unstoppable, his tenacity on the field like a rushing wind. He was fearless. He was dire. He was perfect for the job.

"Tyrgeis," Egil repeated when the subordinate was closer. "The Hollow Men are not far; just below that crest." He pointed to his right, the crest a mere thirty meters beyond. Tyrgeis followed his leader's direction with his eyes, his head jerking towards the crest with an excited fury.

"Then we can catch them!" He said hurriedly. "Quickly, Kahn Egil, let me meet them! I want to be the first to-"

"No!" Egil refused. "I need you to spy their number, then come back to us. Do not let them see you, and save the Hollow Men your wrath for a moment or two."

"Aye," Tyrgeis replied. A moment later he was sprinting, half crouched, towards the crest. As Egil watched him go the other men slowly began to draw around their leader, clustering together in the cold.

"What's going on?" Asked Hervard Of The Bloody Stump. His face was contorted mass of wounds, ugly beyond repair. And his left arm was severed at the forearm, a wound inflicted long ago and earning him the title he now held.

"We're right on their backsides." Egil replied, his eyes never leaving the crest. "But they've got Thrall with them. I just hope we're in time to catch them before the Thrall move in between."

"Our luck has held so far, if we move quickly, we might be able to get in between them." Said Hervard. The burly hulk then proceeded to blow snot out of his nose, freezing instantly in the snow at his feet. "Damned Stair." He complained.

"If our luck holds." Egil repeated softly to himself. Suddenly Egil saw Tyrgeis approaching. The young berserk was racing with all abandon back to the line of comrades. In a swooping rush he flung himself into the snow where Egil and the others lay crouched. His eyes bulged and his chest heaved. "What is it? What did you see?"

"The Hollow Men!" Tyrgeis panted dramatically. "The Hollow Men, there are so many."

"How many?" Egil asked warily.

"So many that their spears would hide the sun!"

To that Hervard chuckled, his hideous grin exposing rotted and missing teeth. "Good!" He laughed. Egil turned to him with confusion and slight annoyance. Hervard saw it and subsided his laughter a bit to explain the source of his joy. "Then we shall fight them in the shade."

Egil smiled at his haggard comrade. What a demented fool.

"What about the Thrall?" He asked Tyrgeis. "How many of them did you see?"

"Myriads." Tyrgeis responded. "But they're all standing still, like they've got nowhere to go."

"Good, then we can still hit the Hollow Men." Egil decided. "Are they still moving?"

Tyrgeis shook his head. "No, they've stopped in the pass, now they're just milling around, maybe moving into formation. Almost as if they're resting."

"No need to rest when you're undead." Hervard remarked.

"Then lets not waste any time." Egil said suddenly. He rose to his feet to face his now shivering men. "We've caught our prey! They're just below this crest. But they've got Thrall down there so lets be careful and quick. In and out! We're here for the Hollow Men, not for those blade-blunting Thrall." A chorus of "Aye!"'s went up from the line of men. A moment later they had drawn their swords and were forming a vanguard behind the crest.

Egil looked behind him down the two lines of the vanguard. They were ready. Each sword drawn, each berserk hopping and anxious for some killing. Like a storm of pure rage the sixty berserks erupted from the crest, descending the slopes and filing into the gorge where their prey waited. The snow seemed to melt into rain from the hot-breathed shouting and bellowing of the charging Northmen.

But as they came into the gorge the vanguard was met by a wall of poisoned barbs. The javelins hurtled through the air as numerous as rain from the sky. Egil could not tell how many there were, only an endless sea of Soulless, with a throng of Thrall standing to their right a hundred meters away. The Hollow Men were not that far, luckily, but still the barbs were coming, like a wall of anguish and death. Egil ordered his men to break formation and instantly the bare skinned warriors began dodging the javelins. They ducked and weaved as and endless barrage of missiles coursed through the air towards the troupe. But they were too close, too tightly packed. The gorge did not have enough room for the berserks to space out, and within minutes the poisonous attacks had found their marks. The shouting of men's battle cries quickly turned into the screams of dying anguish. Blood spilled onto the snow, and more than one berserk fell face down, sinking into the earth as his blood melted the ice.

Egil found himself stuck in the shoulder, a javelin shooting straight through and out his back. In an instant another landed in his left thigh. The pain was intense, excruciating. It burned his whole limb, and drained it of strength. They had misjudged the distance of their enemy, and now they were paying for it. But they were Northmen. They continued. The desire for glory, for victory spurned them on. It didn't matter that the poisonous barbs left unhealable wounds, or that they were outnumbered four to one. Egil and his men would slay the Soulless. No matter what.

The barbs, for some unholy reason, seemed to only further enrage the berserks, and they quickly found themselves rushing up underneath the range of the Soulless. In an instant Egil and his men had sprinted, bristling with poisoned spears, up to the Soulless' lines and immediately began hacking away at them with their claymores. The first two ranks turned around to get some distance but were quickly turned to purple powder and piles of bones. The third line of Hollow Men began chucking barbs at the berserks with manic fury. Yet they continued. Suddenly it was as if a wall of flesh and iron had slammed into the ethereal line of bones and barbs. In no time the snow was thick with skulls and quivers and for a moment the berserks were the masters of the field, the remaining Soulless trying to regroup, backed against a cliff face.

During the momentary pause Egil turned to catch a glimpse of the Thrall's position to see if they were about to be outflanked. To his surprise, he saw them standing exactly as they were when his men had entered the gorge. They seemed to be terrified, frozen stiff and wholly incapable of advancing into the fray. Hervard saw it too, and a second later could be heard laughing maniacally, pointing at them with his powdered claymore. He bristled with javelins, one even sticking directly into the stump where his wrist used to be. Egil could only imagine the pain that awaited him if he survived.

Ten minutes later it was over, and the Soulless were nothing more than powdered remains in the snow. Not a single one had escaped. But it had cost Egil dearly. Nearly half of his force was now doubled over on the ground or lying in the cold wet earth, their wounds too painful to withstand. More than one was not moving. He found Tyrgeis lying on his back, staring blankly at the sky as his guts spilled out of his stomach. Three blood soaked barbs lay beside him. Obviously the young man had the strength to remove the things before he died. Egil found Hervard as well. He was pacing back and forth along the front of their lines, jumping up and down and shouting at the Thrall.

The Thrall.

They were coming.

Egil saw them begin to advance, bound by sorcery to their master's will. He was sure that even in their decayed and rotted minds the Thrall were hesitant to obey.

"Rally!" Egil shouted across the gorge. "Form the line!" He screamed as the Thrall drew closer. Egil's heart sank as he watched no more than thirty-five berserks moved into position between the Thrall and the acre of wounded men. "Fan out! Fan out!" He shouted. The Northmen spaced themselves out into three groups, one in the center and two flanking wedges. Eight men in each flank and nineteen in the center. Egil hobbled over to the front, trying to tie a bandage around his bleeding thigh.

"Here they come, Kahn!" Hervard shouted gleefully, blindly unaware of the dire situation before them. "Here they come! Come and get it worm food!"

Egil gritted his teeth. He barely had the strength to stand. His eyes were already growing dim from the poison. It wouldn't be long before he was convulsing and vomiting all over himself. Delirium would set in, and then the true nightmare would begin. He made it a point not to let that happen. He would sooner die than suffer that disgusting fate. Salvation awaited him across the icy tundra amidst the horde of Thrall. Glory was already achieved, victory secured. Now it was time to release himself from the prison of poisonous death that had trapped him and the others. It was time to die with honor.

Egil raised his sword. "Charge!"

7 June 2004, 5:34 AM

Part II: The Fall of Gwyon by Jonathan Goss []

The contingent of twenty Ghols raced through the thick snow drifts, their sinewy forms pulsing as they loped through the mountain passes. At their helm was Strangler, the pack leader of the Ghol. He was long and white, with a black "X" across his brow. He was the fiercest Ghol of the pack, and the sack that hung around his neck was testament to that fact. It was filled with as many Ghol skulls as human and fir'Bolg. Which is why he and his pack were perfect for the task ahead. None of them looked back, only forward, towards their goal: The Sickled Foot, the lowest point of the Stair of Grief. There they would set up a picket and wait for the scattered Armies of the Province to try and retake it. The Ghols would sit and wait for however long it would take, and then the second some hapless warrior or berserk came traipsing near they would send back a scout to warn the Hollow Men who were amassing in a gorge. It was the first of several groups Balor was sending over the Stair in three years. And Strangler had been chosen to lead the way. It was late morning, and already the snow storms were letting off a bit, opening up the visibility of the Ghols.

But another force lingered in the icy mountain passes. A force of men, matched in number and valor. Berserks. Twenty of them. Led by Tyrfing, Egil's lieutenant. They had been tracking the Ghol pack for nearly an hour now, tracking them on a steadily south-westerly course. If only the Ghols had turned their heads to look behind them they would see the moving shapes of twenty stealthy berserks following not far away, hidden in the craggy icy cliffs and slopes.

But they didn't, and because of it Tyrfing was getting ready to pounce upon his prey. Like a pack of timber wolves the berserks stalked their prey hungrily. All of them had been chosen for their experience with Ghols, all with enough kills to warrant them the title of veteran. There would be more today.

Eventually they came to a small alcove in the pass, where two other passes converged. Ten meters up resided the track that Tyrfing and his men were following. Below, in the oval shaped alcove of roughly forty meters, the twenty Ghol paused for a moment, their loping arms and feet kicking up waves of snow, some slipping on the ice. It looked as though they were trying to determine which path to take.

As they sprinted and ducked between snowy cover Tyrfing searched for Gwyon and his kin. Egil had ordered them to go with Tyrfing, and for good reason; they were experts at dismantling Ghol attacks. No other group of berserks could dodge a rain of puss packets like Gwyon and his five brethren. They were well seasoned at the art.

"Gwyon!" Tyrfing called with a hushed tone. "Gwyon!" In a moment the young berserk was racing at a crouch towards Tyrfing's position. "Move 'round to the southern pass, we'll push 'em into it and you trap 'em."

"Aye," Gwyon replied, nodding. In a moment he was sprinting towards his brothers who sat huddled together not far off. Seconds later Gwyon was giving the plan to them, and without hesitation they began the trek south, towards the southern pass.

When he was gone Tyrfing turned to the rest of his men. There they waited.

"Alright, lads, Gwyon's goin' to wait for 'em down at the mouth o' that southern narrow. We're goin' to attack those dog-strokers from the rear, an' push 'em right into Gwyon's blades." A chorus of "aye"'s erupted from the sixteen berserks in the upper pass. Tyrfing smiled at them. This was going to be a slaughter.

Gwyon and his brothers leapt down from the upper ledge to the lower pass in a series of sloppy thuds. Within minutes they were shooting to either side of the pass, the Ghol pack lumbering about in the alcove a good ways off.

"Warm the snow, brothers." Gwyon ordered as he dove into the wet cold. His brethren did the same, burying themselves in the caked snow and ice along the walls of the pass. In seconds they were lost from sight. Now all they had to do was wait. Slowly Gwyon drew his claymore out from the baldric slung at his back, the sharp singing of iron scarping against itself. His brothers followed suit.

There they would wait, Gwyon Whose Sword Sings of Carnage and his brothers:

Eirik Who Jams the Gates of the Underworld

Luh of the Long Arm,

Tyrolf Flame of Battle,

Bran of the Iron Skin,

and Thrend Atop the Piled Dead.

Strangler knew now that it was time to wait a bit. Hopefully, if all went according to plan, there would be a force of equal or larger number of Ghols that would meet him here, or close to here, and direct him to the quickest route to the Sickled Foot. But he couldn't wait long. The Ghols were sill trying to decide which path would be the quickest when suddenly Strangler snarled at them to be silent. All barking and growling ceased as they obeyed their pack leader. Strangler flung a sinewy arm out towards them, scythe slicing through the air for silence. Immediately he began sniffing the snowy air. Something was not right. There was a warmth in the air, a scent of heat and hunger that was not his own. Suddenly the snow storms started to pick up again, driving wave after wave of wet cold into the alcove. Visibility would not remain for long. Strangler sniffed furiously, jabbing his pink colored snout into the air as far as it would reach. He couldn't place the stench, only that it was fresh. Was it men? Had they been followed? Surely not. His beady black eyes scanned the terrain. Ahead of them lay the eastern path, leading to the Sickled Foot. To their south lay the other pass, leading to warmer weather and an auxiliary route. They could not linger much longer, every moment wasted was one spent on freezing death and borrowed time. It was possible that the Light was already sending forces north to retake the Stair of Grief, and if that was the case Strangler would have to hurry.

Then it happened. Out of nowhere one of the Ghols in the rear screeched maniacally and started jabbing its wicked scythe into the air behind them. Strangler turned in a rage to see what all the noise was about. Snarling, the white Ghol wheeled around to see Biter, one of the older, more senile Ghols, barking and snapping at the pass they had just exited. It looked back at Strangler with a hating, fearful expression. It was the kind of look that he gave whenever he saw the enemy. But Strangler knew there wasn't anyone behind them. How could there be?

In a fury Strangler loped back down the line of his pack to where Biter was still raging. Strangler took one look at the rear passes and saw nothing. Biter was wasting their time. As punishment Strangler swatted the old Ghol's long neck with his fist, causing the thing to yelp. He left it at that, and quickly raced back to the front of the line. As Biter rubbed his vertebrae he squinted painfully towards the icy past. Fifteen berserks were racing towards him with swords drawn.

Tyrfing crossed the wintery alcove, his numb legs slinging snow everywhere as he raced to the Ghols. Behind him were sixteen other Northmen waving their giant claymores in the snowing sky and howling through frost covered beards. In an instant he ordered his men to fan out in an effort to block the eastern pass. Six berserks raced off to the right side of the alcove, ignoring the howls and barking shouts of angered Ghols. Angtyr the Sword Lover led them. In moments they had successfully cut off access to the eastern pass, filling its open gap with ten sweaty, scarred, bare forms and hungry claymores dancing in their hands.

Strangler saw the cut off and immediately ordered his pack forward into the southern pass. Closer and closer they drew, slowly outpacing Tyrfing and his men. If they could reach the southern pass then they could create a bottleneck and start hurling puss packets at the enemy. But they would have to hurry. Trying it now would be useless with all of the open terrain; the berserks would just dodge them. But in the narrow southern pass they would have no where to go, and Strangler would butcher them.

Gwyon threw a glance back at his brothers. Half of them he couldn't even see, they were so well hidden. The others had their eyes fixed anxiously on the approaching Ghols. Gwyon saw Eirik, by far the tallest of his kin, practically doubled over with his knees in his beard behind a snow drift. Thrend waited not two paces behind, his body pressed against the pass' wall, snow showering over him. Gwyon smiled. This was their turf, their playing field. They knew how to survive and thrive in this kind of terrain. What was more was that it was totally alien to the Ghol. They thrived in the dusty, craggy landscape near the Great Devoid and the Dwarven cities. They couldn't maneuver as well in the slick ice and sludge. And the winter climate was known to have claimed more than one pack of the dog-beasts. It was going to be perfect.

By now Gwyon could make out the racing forms of Tyrfing and the others, albeit hazily through the torrent of snow. He could only see nine of his fellow Northmen chasing the Ghols, who were running more out of determination than fear. He traced a finger along the flat of his claymore. Once again it would be time to descend upon the Ghols and gorge his weapon on the flesh of the enemy. Like the great swords of so many of his kin, Gwyon's claymore was simple and rustic. There was no fancy filigree on its handle nor any engravings on its hilt. And certainly no precious stones were set in its pommel. It was a sword, a weapon, meant to cut, chop, maim and kill. Nothing more, nothing less. About five feet tall and weighing a good ten pounds, the claymore was heavy enough to chop anything in two, especially with the first fourth of its blade wrapped in thick leather. allowing Gwyon to grip it higher for better leverage.

It would all be used today.


Gwyon met the eyes of Eirik, and raised his left hand. Three fingers rose, and then fell, one at a time. It would be the signal to spring the trap. Eirik nodded his understanding and began passing the message down to his brothers. Five up turned thumbs raised slightly above their respective covers, alerting their leader that the plan was a good one. Gwyon nodded and turned back around to the Ghols. They were a good forty meters away now.

Thirty-five meters.

Thirty meters.

Gwyon's heart pounded in his chest. It never got old. He never got over it. The few moments before a battle always gave him butterflies, always made him nervous. He could never tell the others, it would be considered a sign of weakness. The culture of the Northmen demanded the showing of strength even when no strength could be found. He chewed his tongue a bit. Just a few meters closer. Closer. He slowly raised his left hand. Three fingers. Two fingers. One finger.


Without a word Gwyon and his brothers leapt from their respective covers amidst the snow and rocks. In a blaze of terrible fury they erupted from their positions, snow and water showering everywhere as they burst forth. The Ghol froze in their tracks. For a moment. Gwyon then caught sight of him. There was a Ghol of particularly enormous size, about waist high, and weighing as much as any man. He was covered in white with a peculiar black "X" mark across his brow. The thing had to be the pack leader. Gwyon immediately sprinted for it. His brothers were not far behind.

In a tremendous thundering clash the six berserks met the twenty Ghols. A chorus of yelps, screams, and ringing metal. Scythes met claymores in a furious cacophony. And without hesitation Gwyon and his brothers started wheeling their swords around, limbing everything that got in their way. Eirik flanked out to the right with Thrend, the two fighting back to back and turning circles together as they fought. They looked like some spinning top of carnage. At least four Ghol were hacked to pieces by the two lanky brothers. Luh of the Long Arm wasn't too far away, spreading his arms wide and laughing maniacally at the pair of approaching Ghol. When the two beasts were in range Luh swathed through one with a single stroke, its legs crumpling to the ground and its torso flying over Luh's head. Right after that the long limbed berserk buried his equally lengthy claymore through the ribcage of the second Ghol, its arms flinging madly at its side. A shower of blood erupted from the thing's body, covering Luh and melting the snow around him.

Behind Gwyon Bran of the Iron Skin and Tyrolf Flame of Battle each had skewered a couple of Ghols. But no sooner had they retracted their blades then another pair of the beasts lunged at the brothers. One Ghol fell right on top of Bran's broad shoulders, its scythe slicing through the air and its jaw clamping madly into the berserk's crown. Tyrolf was attacked by the other, the Ghol launching itself through the air towards him. He caught the thing with his hands and dropped to the ground, wrestling with it. A moment later he had pinned the thing down and lopped its head off. Tyrolf could still hear the thing whimpering as he severed the spinal chord.

Gwyon had found the leader of the Ghol pack. The thing was larger up close than he had expected. And sufficiently meaner. Its scythe was almost the size of Gwyon's claymore, and it swung the thing with such quick ferocity that it took all the berserk had to duck out of its way. He dove to the earth, snow clumping into his mouth as he fell. in an instant he was off his belly and onto his feet, crouched and searching for the leader of the pack. He was easy to spot.

In a blinding fury the Ghol swung its blade downward to Gwyon. He leapt again to the left, barely dodging the wicked, curved scythe. It landed with a sloshing thud into the snow and rock at his feet. Gwyon wheeled about and brought his claymore across in a horizontal sweep. The Ghol, despite its enormous size, deftly hopped over the claymore, its scythe torqued at its back left for another strike. Gwyon saw the muscles contract on the sinewy Ghol and knew what was coming. Without warning Gwyon jerked his body upwards and away, winding his sword around to the sky to get out of the way. The Ghol's right leg shot forward in a kick, but met only air. Gwyon dropped to the ground and wheeled his sword up. It caught the beast squarely in the right hip. Blood spilled out onto the snow, followed quickly by the wounded form of the Ghol. But the thing did not die.

Gwyon jerked his blade out from underneath his prey and held it ready over his right shoulder for a thrust. But the Ghol was ready. It slung its scythe around with a shadowless velocity. Gwyon felt his legs give out, and promptly found himself landing in the red snow. For a moment he was woozy and couldn't feel a thing. His vision went dark a little and the sounds of combat raging around him subsided. He lost control, and fell over onto his side. Time then seemed to slow. He saw Eirik and Thrend, surrounded by Ghols. Thrend didn't have a sword, and was clawing madly and punching anything that got close enough. A Ghol leapt for him, and the brave warrior tackled the thing, wrestling it to the ground and beating it senseless. Above him, Eirik's sword was broken, and he was fighting with his shattered hilt in one hand and the broken blade in the other. Their faces were fearless, blood-stained teeth bared in unison snarls. Moments later they were lost from sight, engulfed by Ghol.

Gwyon saw his brother Luh as well, and it broke his heart. Luh's right arm was gone, torn at the shoulder. Red sinew and glistening white bone jutted out of the torn socket. But it did not slow Luh down, not until a Ghol knocked his sword out of his hand and buried its scythe into the berserk's stomach. He dropped to the ground, dead. A few meters away Tyrolf was trying to stand up, his legs filleted with wounds. He was trying to carry Bran on his back, who didn't have any arms. His left leg was gone too, severed at the knee. Gwyon thought he could see Bran's mouth moving as Tyrolf tried to carry him. A Ghol raced for the two, but Tyrolf still had his sword in his right hand, and slung it end over end at the monster. It landed straight through the thing's body: entering through the mouth and exiting out the back. Gwyon watched helplessly as his two beloved kin were cut down seconds later.

The last thing he saw was the enormous white Ghol, with the black "X" across it's brow, crouching over him, drooling and grinning devilishly. Gwyon tried to swing at it, but he could no longer feel his arms.

Tyrfing and his men raced onto the slope where Gwyon and the others had met the Ghol. The brave Northmen could not take a step without tripping over a Ghol head or a piece of tissue. Limbs were scattered everywhere, and the ground had been turned to a sloshing, red mud. More than one berserk slipped on entrails, and those Ghol that survived the first attack were met with killing blows from Tyrfing's contingent. He raced as fast as he could to the sight where Gwyon was fighting. But he wasn't fast enough. None of them were, they couldn't keep up with the loping Ghol, and by the time they arrived to aid in the attack he could see no signs of his fellow Northmen.

Then he saw the pack leader, standing over a fleshy heap. The thing was huge, bigger than any Ghol Tyrfing had ever fought, that was for sure. It was all white, with a black "X" across its brow. In its hand had to have been the largest scythe Tyrfing had ever seen. But the thing was bleeding, obviously wounded. As Tyrfing drew closer he saw the remaining half dozen Ghol begin to form up for a defense.

The berserks descended on the pack in a blitz.

Within seconds the Ghol were embroiled again in fighting. The berserks fought with a vengeance for their fallen comrades, who they now could spy amidst the carnage. Tyrfing even saw the body of Gwyon himself, his legs chopped off above the knees, his head decapitated. It was time to return the favor. Tyrfing knew that it was this pack leader that had slain brave Gwyon. It would certainly pay. He lunged at the beast in a fury, at the same moment that the beast lunged at him. The two met blades first, a sharp "clang!" erupting from their weapons. But their ferocity got the best of them, and the two slammed body to body into one another. Moments later they were both dizzily shaking their heads and picking themselves up off of the ground. The Ghol lurched a bit, stunned and still reeling from its wound. It was all the time Tyrfing needed. He swept his claymore up towards the air, arching its tip into the chin of the Ghol. Its pink face split in two, and the thing fell backwards. Tyrfing leapt onto it but was met by the thing's massive feet, which caught the berserk and launched him into the air. Tyrfing flew back into the red snow, the breath knocked out of him.

As Strangler picked himself up he grabbed his scythe and lunged for the berserk. Reaching into his sack he produced a puss packet. It wouldn't do that much good in the snow, but it was better than nothing. Clasping it with his left hand he reared back to throw it.

Tyrfing shook the snow out of his eyes to see the Ghol bearing down on him. Its left hand held something he could not discern, but obviously a projectile. The Ghol were notorious for throwing all manner of battle field detritus at their opponents, most feared of which were the puss packets. If that's what that was then Tyrfing was in trouble. Not wasting any time the bulky berserk rolled onto his knees and flung himself to the right, just as the projectile landed in the ground where he lay not moments before. It promptly exploded into a sulfurous, diseased jelly, spilling sickly residue everywhere. Tyrfing narrowly avoided it.

Strangler snarled at the agility of his opponent. He landed on the lick ground with a harsh thud, his legs nearly giving out from the wound at his hip. To compensate the dog-beast flung its weapon around to the berserk at its left. But the man caught the blade with his own, and seconds later Strangler was dead on the ground, a claymore buried in its brow.

"Ex marks the spot you bastard." Tyrfing grunted as the beast toppled to the ground with a whining whimper. Exhausted, Tyrfing observed the field. Six berserks remained stranding, covered in blood and bandaging their wounds. Two others were knelt or lying on the ground in pain. One was not moving at all. It was a victory. They had won. But at a dear price.

Tyrfing walked over to the corpse of Gwyon and looked down. The man was practically torn to pieces, as was most of his brothers. Tyrfing felt a pang strike his heart, if it were not for Gwyon's brave charge and the sacrifice of his noble brothers then the Ghol would have escaped, and Tyrfing's mission would have failed. But the brothers had managed to all but stop the Ghol in their tracks, and though Gwyon and his kin were all dead, they had bought enough time for Tyrfing and the others to reach their prey.

And now it was over. The day was won. He only hoped Egil's men had succeeded as well, or the sacrifice of everyone would have been in vain.

"Tyrfing!" Shouted a berserk from far off. Tyrfing searched with bleary eyes through the heavy snowfalls for the source of the call. "Tyrfing!" It came again. He saw who it was: Gymir Battle Seeker. He was calling from the mouth of the eastern pass, about fifty meters away. Tyrfing moved towards him.

"Wha' is it, Gymir?" Tyrfing asked, shouting over the howling winds.

Gymir cupped his mouth with his left hand, and with his right jabbed a finger into the unseen direction of the eastern pass.

"Ghol from the eastern pass! They're comin' this way!"

The other shouted. Were they up for another battle? Would Egil and his men return in time to aid? Were they even alive? "How many?" Tyrfing asked.

"So far," Gymir said with a dire tone. "Hundreds!"

The End.

12 June 2004, 12:15 PM

Part I: No Heroes Here by Jonathan Goss []

October 25th, Plain of Scales

Captain Arkan stood in the dank, candle lit basement, hunched over the broad oak table. A map of the West, drawn on rotting parchment, draped over the thick edges of the wooden slab. The inkings seemed to grow and fade with the flickering, dying candle light. Perhaps it was just because Arkan was tired. Or maybe it was because he was well past his prime. But for whatever reason the topography inked on the cloth seemed to shift and shudder with every wafting flicker of flame. The man gritted his teeth in frustration, a grimace of gnarled rotted teeth and grey, bristly stubble twisting on his dimly lit face. His standard Province surcoat and mail suit tugged at his gaunt, worn frame.

Three weeks. He had been here, near the coast south of the Plain of Scales, for three bloody weeks with a regiment of men. Their mission was simple: retake the old Hellespont Bastion that rested only twenty leagues from the mountains. But "simple" did not mean "easy." The fortress was lost to the Dark about three months ago, and as the Dark continued to pour over the southern mountains unchecked it was quickly determined that the tide needed to be ebbed. So Maeldun sent Captain Arkan along with the Fifteenth Provincial Regulars, a sturdy regiment of the avatar's Southern Garrison. They had survived the defeat at Forest Heart and had somehow managed to survive through countless other seemingly doomed engagements. While not considered the best regiment in the Southern Garrison, the Fifteenth Regulars, or The Iron Foot as they had become known as, were sent in to dislodge whatever force had occupied old Hellespont. Their nickname had been acquired for their refusal to retreat six years earlier at the first battle for Bagrada. It was their journeymen alone who rallied the warriors and others to stand their ground, and because of it the entire Southern Garrison was able to reform on the western side of the mountain passes near Silvermines. And somehow the rock hard fighters managed to survive the battle.

The Iron Foot was a tough regiment. But something had gone horribly awry in that towering fortress over the past three weeks. No matter how many men Arkan sent in it still remained in the foetid grip of the Dark. Countless ranks and companies of warriors had been sent into that place, and not one had returned. And with each passing defeat the number of the Undead only grew. Of that the grizzled captain was sure.

It was a losing battle. And for all of its simplicity the reason for the outcome continued to elude Captain Arkan. Of course, he had his theories, but that's all they were: theories. His gut told him that there was something greater, more powerful than mere hordes of Thrall residing in the place, and no matter what the man tried it continued to best him. Whatever it was. And to make matters worse the Thrall, now strengthened by the corpses of the slain Iron Feet, had actually emerged from the keep and pushed Arkan's men back all the way into the Plain of Scales. They were now camped six leagues away from the bastion, in the ruins of a long abandoned hamlet, completely befuddled as to what should be done next. The morale was shot and the men were exhausted. Some were even beginning to show signs of fear; knowing the fate of so many of their comrades who had ventured into the place, knowing that should they be ordered to go in the same fate would await them as well. The dreaded thought of mutiny tickled the back of his mind, even now as he gazed harshly at the map. Would they obey his orders? Would they attack again if he ordered it? Something told Arkan that they would not.

So now the old officer was having to contemplate alternate routes and plans of auxiliary, even paths of retreat should the occasion call for it. The thought of running pained him greater than any wound of flesh, or any nightmarish memory. But with each passing day it seemed an inevitability. Not to mention the cool days of autumn were passing, turning into the cold, rainy days of winter. This far south they would surely not see snow, but would be met with the cold, drizzly rain and torrential downpours that accompanied the coast. It would turn the area between the Plain of Scales and the mountains into a veritable bog. He had to finish this before the weather trapped them in the mud. But he didn't have the foggiest idea how.

As his eyes started to blur from staring at the map he heard the sudden sound of the basement door being opened. The creaking of rusted hinges and rotting planks of wood heralded the form of his lieutenant, Marcus.

"Sir," the small, wiry man began as he neared the table. "I think we have a problem."

With a sigh of frustration Captain Arkan turned to his subordinate. The man had a look of apprehension on his face. He knew the man knew it was no time to bother their leader unless it was urgent. Marcus had his own troubles to worry over, Arkan figured. If he was down here with a look of fright smeared across his face then it must truly require the attention or presence of the captain.

"What is it, lieutenant?" Arkan grumbled.

"It's the fir'Bolg, sir. They're threatening to leave." Marcus chirped, his black goatee swirling around his gaunt face as he spoke. "They say that if we aren't going to attack then there's no reason for them to be here. They're packing their equipment now sir, as we speak."

Arkan looked up from his map and met the man's gaze. Marcus was a head shorter than Arkan, and all skin and bones. Their wiry frame was all the two had in common. "Is everyone okay? Have there been any fights?"

Marcus shook his head. "Not yet sir, but it'll only be a matter of time. Cayle's platoon is all but frothing at the mouth, their so angry. When I left they were striking up an argument with the fir'Bolg. And it doesn't look like anyone's trying to stop it."

Captain Arkan nodded his head. "Alright, lets go."

Without hesitation the two men were ascending the rickety staircase and making their way into the camp. Outside the old farmhouse stretched sixty acres of neglected farmland now dotted with pockets of tents and clusters of weapons caches. Horses were in short supply, as were most of the necessities a well honed regiment needs. Smiths, mess halls, nursing stations, equipment repair tents, few of these remained in working order for the men who worked them were all dead, rotting in the Hellespont. It was a sad, grim scene, supplemented by even gloomier weather. Grey, sickly storm clouds seemed to blanket the sky, the sun a distant memory. This was the scene met by Arkan's old eyes as he exited the worn down flat. It was a dire monotony.

He and Marcus drew closer to the cluster of men now gathered around Cayle's twenty-five warriors and Nge'Tu's sixty fir'Bolg archers. Of course, one could simply follow the sounds of shouting and cursing if they desired to locate the spot. As Arkan and Marcus drew closer to the crowd they began to make out the words being exchanged.

Cayle was doing his usual par for the course cursing and insulting, his men echoing their sergeant like squawking parrots. And in response the fir'Bolg were throwing subtle insults and left handed compliments at the men in order to confuse them, taunt them. The archers milled about easily, some taking seats in the cool ground or resting on their blanket rolls. Only Nge'Tu and his immediate cadre of veterans were standing, attentively facing the persecutors. This was obviously not serious business to the archers. But Arkan wouldn't have it. He couldn't have it. He needed the archers just as much if not more than he needed Cayle's men. It wasn't a matter of saving one of his platoons, it was a matter of preserving the alliance of Nge'Tu's fir'Bolg.

"Alright, alright," Arkan began, bellowing over the shouting as he moved into the crowd and between Nge'Tu and Cayle. "What the hell's going on here?"

Cayle, naturally, was the first to chime in. "These back stabbing twig-shooters are talkin' about turning tail!" Cayle spat as he spoke, and Arkan could detect the distinct stench of gin on his breath. Great, a drunk sergeant and a platoon of equally sloshed men, just what Captain Arkan needed. "A little bit of down time from this butchering and they get all impatient. It's pathetic." He hocked a glob of alcohol soaked spit into the direction of Nge'Tu. "You know what I think? I think they like shooting us in the back and watching us get chopped up like meat in a slaughter house. 'Cause that's what ol' Hell's Pot is, a damned slaughter house! And I think if they're not seeing us get our asses handed to us then they get bored!" That was the new-found nickname for The Hellespont Bastion: Ol' Hell's Pot, or Hell's Pisspot, depending on how drunk one was.

"I don't necessarily care what you think, Cayle." Arkan said firmly. "Why don't you just go lie down somewhere and snooze it off." Not waiting for his response Arkan turned to Nge'Tu. "Now, what do you have to say?" He asked with as much composure as he could muster.

"We're not going to sit around waiting for you men to find your courage." Nge'Tu explained. "There are battles to be fought and a war to be won. If we are idle here then we are useless while our brethren die in the north. If you are not going to attack The Hellespont then release us so that we may make use of ourselves. If you do not we will simply leave." After that the archer captain folded his arms across his chest and peered at Captain Arkan with all the nonchalant patience a fir'Bolg contained.

Arkan took a minute and scratched the stubble on his cheeks. It was time to act. He couldn't afford to lose the aid of the fir'Bolg, especially not now. Whether he had a plan or not it was time for action. Any action.

"Give me time to formulate a decent attack-"

"You have had five days!" The archer exclaimed. "Let us act. Now."

Arkan turned to Marcus who was now standing to his left rear. The old man turned to his aide and leaned in to speak quietly. "How far away are they?" He asked softly.

Marcus was silent for a moment. "Less than a day." He replied with equal quiet.

"Can we afford to move out? Will they catch up with us?"

Marcus smirked a bit. "Are you kidding me?" He remarked with a coy expression. "It won't be a problem, I assure you." That seemed to satisfy the captain. He had reinforcements coming. Not many, but good ones. Men that he had found by chance and had begged to aid him. Of course, none of the men knew about this, it would only further enrage them, crushing their already dying pride. But if they could just hold out for the reinforcements then the tide could be turned, and the bastion retaken.

"Okay, fine." Captain Arkan said, resuming his original volume and turning back around to face his troops. "We'll move out." He turned to the throngs of warriors crowded around him. "Pack it up! We'll leave at dusk and get within a half league of the fortress. From there we'll try and launch an attack."

A moment of sheer uncertainty passed through the crowd. They had gone from four hundred men to one hundred and fifty in three weeks. And now they were being asked to go back? It would take a full on attack just to punch through the Thrall-filled fields surrounding The Hellespont. An attack now would be suicide.

It would take a miracle.

And those were in short supply these days.

~ You have reached your journey's end ~