Erin and Byert sat in the cobbler’s shop, sipping tea his wife had brought to them. It was dark now, and the cobbler had been out for several hours letting the other faithful know that there would be a gathering that evening. He had told her they may not be ready until late into the night. Some of the faithful would need to cancel plans or make excuses in order to sneak away for an unscheduled meeting such as this. She tried to act as though that’s what she had expected–but truthfully the thought hadn’t occurred to her. Though she followed the god of secrets, she’d spent most of her life among the god’s followers, and never needed to make excuses for pursuing his ends.
The cobbler’s wife–Nara, if Erin recalled correctly–entered the room with clasped hands.
“They’re ready for you now, mistress” the woman said. Erin thanked her. No need to be haughty when someone was already showing you the proper respect. She stepped out of the room, gesturing for Byert and ‘Nara’ to follow. They descended the hidden staircase, not bothering to close the shelf behind them as it was well past midnight. The walk through the tunnel was brief, and they emerged into the meeting room to find it filled with a scant handful of people. Erin took count, there were only nine, including the cobbler and his wife. Nine faithful to help her conquer a town of over a thousand. She’d known her resources were scarce when she made her plans with Immar, but seeing their numbers in front of her made the task seem all the more impossible.
She did her best to put her uncertainty aside. She needed to appear confident, and authoritative. Again she strode to the center of the room, and stood behind the altar.
“Do you know who I am?” she asked, hoping she sounded intimidating. Every head in the room nodded, and she hoped that was a good sign. “Good. Then here’s what you need to know: the government of Heathrop has been deemed corrupt by The Bite. It must be cleansed by the brilliance of the Hidden Lord. Tomorrow night, during the festival of high summer, we shall take the town as our own.”
Erin paused for their reactions, and she wasn’t disappointed. They looked shocked, and rightfully so. She had not, nor would she, mention that several ‘Trenche‘ of Illumian warblades would be coming in to handle most of the fighting. They didn’t need to know that. Immar trusted the faithful of Heathrop, but he wasn’t willing to let his entire plan hinge on their discretion.
Erin continued, without acknowledging their trepidation. “I was told that one among you is a local brewer, is that correct?” A thin young man stepped forward, clasping his hands nervously.
“That would be me, ma’am.”
“Excellent,” she said. Loatie hopped out of one of her robe’s many pockets with two plants in his mouth. She took them and held them up to the young man. “Are you familiar with these two flowers, brewer?”
“Well, the red ones grow just outside town.” he replied. “I’m not familiar with this thorny one, though.”
“It grows in the woods, about half a mile south near the edge of the stream. Tomorrow I want all of you to gather as many of these flowers as you can before mid afternoon. Once you’ve got them, you’ll crush four of the red ones and two of the thorny ones into each barrel of ale you’ve got. Together with the alcohol, they form a powerful sleeping agent. During the festival tomorrow evening, you’ll be giving away as much free ale as you have. Do you understand?”
“Good. Now who is the priest that leads this congregation?” The eldest of the group straightened up
“I am Erbon Illad, a Thought of the Hidden Lord.”
“And our lord has blessed you with the ability to raise those who have fallen as our allies?”
“Then you and I shall travel to the graveyard as the festival begins. My magics have not yet granted me that ability, but my warblade companion and I can protect you as you chant your spells.”
“Perhaps you overestimate my power, ma’am.” the priest said, choosing his words carefully so as not to offend her, “I cannot raise enough to subdue the town’s guard.”
“I don’t expect you to.” Erin replied, “I merely expect you to raise as many as you can.” The priest looked unsure, but bowed in submission.
Erin looked out over the room again “The remaining seven of you will also have a task to perform during the festival. As you know, there are three armories in town for the militia to arm themselves from, should the town come under attack. These buildings are locked, but not guarded. As twilight approaches, shortly before the festivities begin, you will force your way into the armory nearest the town square, and barricade it from any entry. With everyone in the town square for the festival, the other two armories will be too far away to do them any good.”
“I assume everyone understands what I’m asking of them. Are there any questions?” Another young man, this one more broadly built than the brewer, spoke up.
“That’s hardly enough for us to take the town, ma’am.”
“No, it is not.” Erin agreed. “But it is what you will do.”
The man snarled “And why should we think this girl speaks for the Maimed Lord?” he shouted, half turning to his fellows. Byert began to step forward, but Erin was already moving. Swinging her duom spear in a wide arc, she brought the steel shaft across the blaggard’s temple, hard. He dropped to the ground with an ugly thud, some blood dribbling from his slack lip.
“You had led me to believe that my credentials were well understood, but let me repeat myself. I am Erin Wallcraft, sent on behalf of Immar Twistfinger, known to you as The Bite. I speak for him. When this brute wakes, I trust you’ll inform him of why my orders are to be followed, yes?” She turned immediately and strode to the exit, trying to hide the smile creeping on to her face. Her delivery of that speech had been much better this time.
She caught only a glimpse of their frightened nods as she left. They were…satisfying.
Erin took a room at the Heathrop Inn and got as much rest as she could. She instructed Loatie not to wake her, and without him she slept well into the midmorning. When she woke, she studied her spellbook more carefully than normal, knowing the incantations selected would be the ones she took with her into battle. It took her over an hour to meticulously lay the pathways for each spell in her mind, focusing the complex energies of the arcane so that when she needed, she would be able to release them with a snap of her fingers, rather than a twenty minute ritual. It was very nearly noon before she walked out of her room to meet Byert downstairs.
With her plans already set in motion, there was little to do but wait for the evening. The pair spent their time walking through the streets, examining the guard’s movements, and the festival preparations. They hoped to spot some of the paladins and take their measure, but the two of them had no more luck on that count than Erin had the day before. They checked the armories to ensure no guards had been posted there as part of the festival preparations, and did their best to familiarize themselves better with the streets which would soon be their battlefield.
The waiting was interminable. Erin’s stomach was twisting itself into knots, and she frequently caught herself gritting her teeth. She just wanted the fighting to start already. The danger couldn’t be any worse than the waiting was. She had skipped breakfast, and wasn’t feeling hungry at all. If anything, the thought of food nauseated her. It took Byert an hour to convince her to join him in a small meal purchased from a street vendor. The two sat by the side of the cart. Byert ate vigorously, and Erin envied his calm. Young though he was, this would probably not be his first time in combat. The best she could manage was to nibble at the steamed vegetables and sweet bread.
Suddenly, she was struck from behind, and nearly bowled over. Regretting that she left her spear in the Cobbler’s shop, she brought a spell to mind, and nearly cast it before she noticed a man’s form tumble to the side of her. She righted herself, dropping her food to the dirt road and leaping to her feet. She noticed Byert was already up, clutching a small dagger she hadn’t realized he was carrying. The tumbling man was sprawled in the street, face down. With a quiet hiss and a nod, Erin indicated Byert should put the dagger away, and it disappeared into his sleeve.
“Are you alright?” she asked the man, trying to sound like someone who hadn’t been convinced she was under attack a moment ago. He made it to his knees, and Erin offered him a hand to help him to his feet.
“I’m fine, but what about you? I’m so sorry, I ought to look where I’m going!”
“It’s no problem, you just startled us is a-” Erin trailed off as her eyes met his. He was gods-damned gorgeous. He stared back at her, and it seemed as though a long time passed before he spoke again.
“Well…if you’re sure you’re alright, I won’t impose on your time.” he said, offering her a small bow before turning and taking a step away. He didn’t get further than that before he stopped, and turned around to face her again.
“I’m sorry for being so presumptuous, miss, but will you be attending the festival tonight? Would it be possible for me to meet you there? I am told the local cuisine is particularly superb during festivals, and I would be happy to treat you and your companion by way of an apology. I clearly owe you that much.” He indicated Erin’s lunch lying in the road. Her lip quirked a bit. This would have been a pleasant surprise at any other time.
Vecna did love his irony.
“You’ll see me there.” she said, trying to sound alluring rather than ominous, and not sure she succeeded.
“Excellent. I’m glad.” he said with a smile. He reached out a hand to shake hers. “I’m Sarin, by the way. And you are?”
Erin returned his smile “You can meet me properly tonight. Much more fun that way.” It took a significant force of will not to visibly wince at her own pitiful attempt at dodging the question. She wasn’t even sure why she’d done it, it’s not as though her name would give anything away. Fortunately for her, he seemed oblivious to just how awkward she was being.
“Then I’ll meet you tonight. Good day, miss!” he said cheerily, before bowing once more and turning to leave. She stared after him for a moment before Byert stepped up beside her,
“We should get moving” he said in a low voice. “Twilight is approaching, and we should equip ourselves before meeting with the others.”
Erin nodded, returning to the grim present.
The two made their way back to the cobbler’s home, where they’d left their more obvious combat gear the night before. Adventurers passed through town often enough that she doubted anyone would have found it terribly suspicious if they had kept it with them but there was no need to risk undue attention. Byert donned the light leather-and-chain he had brought, strapped his sword to his side, and his shield to his back. Erin, meanwhile got out of her non-threatening robes, and changed into her more comfortable breeches. She was relieved to take possession of her Duom back from the cobbler’s wife. It had only been a few days since it had been given to her, but she’d felt naked without it.
When they emerged from the back room, the old priest from the meeting was waiting for them. Erin stepped forward and nodded curtly.
“Good eve, Thought.” she said, addressing the priest by his formal title.
“And to you, Tooth.” he replied, using hers.
“Does your congregation understand my instructions?”
“They are being implemented as we speak. We all spent the day gathering the herbs you showed us. When I last saw Horace, he was beginning to add your concoction to his brew. The rest will meet at the armory 15 minutes after the evening lamps are lit and the festivities begin.” He smiled a wicked smile “And I am here to lead you to the graveyard. At a casual stroll, we should arrive shortly after full darkness.”
“Lead the way then, Thought.” Erin said, giving him a smile of her own. “And may the hidden lord see our victory in his right eye, and our failure in his left.”
“Let us pray it will be so.” replied the priest.
The three moved casually through the streets, taking side roads and avoiding any paths with the sounds of people coming from them. Not that there were many people to be avoided. Everyone had already gathered in the center of town for the festival of high summer, leaving the side roads deserted. As the priest had estimated, they reached the graveyard not long after dark. It was a modest plot of land a few hundred feet away from the nearest building of the town proper. The local custom of planting a small bush on each plot was the only indication that anyone was buried there.
The old priest nearly skipped as he approached. Despite his earlier trepidation, he seemed eager to begin. If Erin had to guess, she’d say he had rarely had the opportunity to reanimate the dead. Immar had told told her the feeling of power was an intoxicating experience.
“They’re too deep for us to dig up quickly” he said. He was trying to keep his voice low, but Erin could hear the excitement in it. “They’ll have to dig themselves out, but the spell will take longer if I can’t touch the bodies. I’ll raise as many as I can.”
“Be quick about it, Thought.” Erin said, turning to look back towards the town. “Our time is limited, and The Bite is relying on us to do our job well.” His only reply was to begin chanting the reanimation ritual behind her.
“Byert,” she called the the warrior, standing just a few feet away. “Keep your eyes peeled for anyone who might be within sight or hearing. If the town is alerted to this before we’re ready, then the entire plan will fail.” The warblade nodded. He’d already subdued his lighted runes to help his night vision, and was peering out at the town intently.
A quarter hour passed, then another, then a third. The edges of the town remained dark, and the sounds of the festival remained distant. Every few minutes Erin heard the squish of dirt as another skeletal creature clawed its way out of the ground to stand behind the chanting priest. It was a half hour longer before Erin saw it—a flare of light. Red and yellow dancing around each other as they flew into the air, and paused just past the treeline.
The Illumians had entered the city.
“Alright!” Erin called behind her, so terrified it was a wonder her voice didn’t crack. “The signal has been raised. Thought, lead your skeletons towards the center of town and drive anyone you come across back that way. Don’t let anyone escape!”
“Yes, my lady!” the priest roared. To his newly raised minions he commanded, “Now, through the city! Drag any who flee back to its center!”
Silently, the dozen and a half skeletons slinked towards town, with the priest behind them shouting praises to his god as though the battle was over, rather than just beginning.
Erin chanted a spell of protection for herself, running through the words and gestures quickly to surround herself in a magical field. It wasn’t as good as a suit of armor, but it was better than going into battle in nothing but her breeches and blouse. And, unlike armor, it wouldn’t hinder her movement enough to make the gestural aspect of spellcasting difficult.
“Byert, my magic is best used from a distance. We need to find the closest area of heavy fighting so I can assist.”
“Lets climb to a rooftop, then.” the warblade suggested. “It will give us a better vantage point, and provide us with some cover if any bowmen spot us.”
“Good thinking.” Erin replied, already running off towards the buildings. Byert was close on her heels. They dodged through the streets, moving closer to the town square, and trying to avoid any minor skirmishes as they approached the center of the fighting. They found a nice two-story building–the Inn they’d stayed in the previous night, actually–which would give Erin a good vantage point to cast from. It had a gnarled tree beside it which was easy enough to climb, though Byert’s armor gave him some trouble.
They made it to the roof and walked carefully towards the edge. What they saw was chaos. A large number of people were passed out, asleep from the drugged ale, but many others were armed and fighting back against a ring of llumian warblades who, masters of battle though they were, were struggling against numerous defenders each. Aside from the town guard and a few peasants with swords, there were the Paladins. Fully armored titans on the battlefield. There were fewer of them than there were of the warblades, but with Immar’s forces already overwhelmed by the townsfolk, they were no match for the seasoned crusaders. The paladins waded through the crowd, slaying the Illumians as they would animals at slaughter. She didn’t see Immar, but a lightning bolt called down from the sky to strike one of the Paladins dead told her that her master was still alive.
She was trying to determine where her help was most needed when she heard a rapid series of heavy footsteps behind her. She dropped to her face immediately, but not so quickly that she didn’t feel the wind from a large weapon pass through the space where her head had been. Erin rolled to her back to see the heavily armored paladin reverse his swing, bringing an armored elbow to bear against Byert’s head, forcibly pushing the young warrior to the side, where he stumbled and fell from the roof with a cry, and an ugly sounding thud.
The Paladin turned his gaze back towards Erin, as she frantically moved her hands and chanted the words required to release a spell. Then their eyes met, and the warrior and the wizard both froze in place. The paladin was the gorgeous young man Erin had flirted with mere hours before. He stumbled to speak.
“How…I thought you were…” he began, visibly upset. She locked eyes with him, saying nothing, but offering a silent prayer that he didn’t notice her hands finishing the motions of her spell.
Erin stretched out her hand, whispering the triggering words just as the paladin raised his sword to defend. A bolt of white light shot from her index finger like an arrow, striking the man in the center of his armored chest, sending him stumbling back and giving Erin time to scramble to her feet. She leaped towards her dropped spear, and brought it to bear just in time to block another swing from the Paladin’s sword. It struck hard enough to send the spear flying from her hands and off of the roof. The force of the blow rattled the bones in her hands painfully. She had no time to react as the paladin brought his greatsword around for a second blow, connecting directly to her hip. The magical protections she had cast upon herself did a little to turn the blow, but the blade still cut into her side, and the force of it sent her stumbling towards the edge of the roof. She fell, tumbling through the air gracelessly and landing hard on the dirt road below.
A moment later she woke to Loatie frantically croaking in her face. She hadn’t even realized she’d fallen unconscious, but she wasn’t dead or in custody so it couldn’t have been very long. She tried to stand, but fell immediately prone again, nearly crushing Loatie beneath her. Her body could not support her. She dragged herself through the dirt to the wall of the building she’d fallen from, propping herself up against it to prepare for the imminent arrival of her foe. She didn’t have to wait long.
His clanking footsteps announced his presence before Erin was able to see his form in the darkness. He stood in front of her broken body, sword held at the ready.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, sounding confused and sad. Erin made no reply, giving him a hard look with her one good eye. He raised his sword with both hands, and placed its tip over her left breast.
“I’m sorry. I’ll make it quick.” He said. Then, whispering only just loudly enough for her to hear, “You were so pretty, too.” He paused to look her in the eye before delivering the finishing blow, and in that moment Erin completed her spell.
Black energy arced between the two, filling the air with a shifting, crackling magical force. Erin couldn’t see his face in the darkness, but his shoulders slumped and the blade drooped away from her breast, then fell completely as his arms became too weak to hold the heavy steel. The paladin fell to his knees before her, breathing heavily.
“Gods, what did you do to me?” he rasped. Without answering, Erin struggled to a kneeling position, bringing herself face to face with the boy. She bore into him with her eyes, breathing hard and trying to gather her strength. The spell of weakness would last a full minute. That was enough time. She reached out to cradle his jaw in her hand.
“It’s too bad,” Erin coughed. “You were so pretty too.”
Then she placed her index finger in the boy’s mouth, and released another bolt of energy, directly into his head. His body twitched, and went suddenly limp. Erin released him and he dropped to the ground. Blood, and bits of grey matter dribbled from his gaping mouth.
She remained on her knees and stared for a long time. Stared into the blank expressionless eyes which had seemed so alluring to her only a few hours before. Then she doubled over and vomited next to his corpse. She’d hurt people before. She’d hurt a lot of people, actually. But she’d never killed anyone. But…she’d had to, right?
“I’m sorry.” she whispered, feeling a lot less sure of herself now that the immediate danger had passed.
Carefully Erin rolled the body to the side, away from the mess she’d created. She shakily pulled herself to her feet. This time she managed not to collapse. Calling for Loatie to return to her, she moved to find her spear. It had fallen off this side of the roof as well, and wasn’t difficult to retrieve. Leaning heavily on it as a walking stick, she shuffled around to the opposite side of the building, where Byert was struggling to pull himself to his hands and knees after his own fall. In the dim light of his runes, she could see his head was covered in blood. It looked like his fall had been worse than hers.
“Damnit, Warblade!” she said, trying to sound jovial as she rushed to help him to his feet. “Some protector you turned out to be!”
“I am sorry, my lady.” he said deliriously. “I’m sorry…”
“Shut up, I was joking.” she spat. The boy had enough presence of mind to force a weak courtesy chuckle.
Just then, the two heard a voice from up ahead, so loud it had to be magically enhanced.
“People of Heathrop, I come to you bearing good news!” it began. It was Immar’s voice. “Your corrupt mayor has brought my wrath down upon this town, but I do not wish to come to you as a conqueror. I have defeated you, and now I wish to liberate you…”
The old wizard continued on, but Erin stopped listening. It was clear what the speech meant – the battle was over, and her master had been victorious. With Byert standing somewhat sturdily on his feet, the two shuffled through the streets towards the center of town, leaning on one another to keep from falling over. They emerged into the town square after a few minutes, with Immar still speaking. Most of the warblades stood in a containment perimeter around the people there, while others moved into the street to search for anyone trying to flee.
As Immar finished his speech, telling the people he’d just conquered that he would lead them into a new era of enlightenment, he saw Erin and Byert near the edge of the crowd, and gestured to one of his bodyguards. She stepped down into the throng of frightened humans, and they scrambled to give her room. She escorted the two wounded teenagers up to Immar, who embraced his apprentice, grinning as though he didn’t even notice her bruises and blood soaked clothes.
“My dear girl!” he cried. “You did well! We might have been overwhelmed if not for your efforts.” Erin struggled to think of how to reply. Right now, she felt pain more acutely than any sense of victory.
A weak “Thank you” was the best she could manage.
“Please,” he continued “Name any spoil, it will be yours!”
“A week of sleep would be nice.” she said, managing a smile for her mentor. He laughed boisterously, clearly in a good mood after his victory. Then Erin noticed a group of people off to the side, away from the rest of the crowd. Perhaps two dozen of them, guarded by four Warblades.
“Who are they, Master?” she asked, nodding towards the group. Immar glanced at them. “oh, no one, really. The mayor, his cronies, and their families. I’m afraid we can’t keep them around to disrupt the utopia we will build.”
“Those two.” she pointed, indicating a pair of boys in the group. The same two boys who had mocked her the day before. “The blonde haired boys in white shirts.”
“The mayor’s sons?” Immar asked. “What about them?”
“I would have them.” she said, turning to look Immar in the eye. “They insulted me, and if I may have my pick of the spoils then I would have them.”
Immar shrugged “As you wish, my dear. Now I’m afraid I must attend to the securing our conquest. For now, take the rest you asked for. You’ve earned it.” the older wizard walked away.
Byert stepped forward, apparently having regained some of his senses. “Would you like me to cut out their tongues?”
“No” Erin let a wicked grin spread across her face, and turned back to the two pretty captives which were now hers to do with as she pleased. “I have use for their tongues.”