Mox was at a loss. He stood amidst a sea of slain citizens and Union soldiers alike; screams echoed throughout the square. A shimmering field of energy had encased Melody and Lucan as they were flinging spells at each other powerful enough to kill a dozen men at a time. Men and women were still fleeing the market, though it was mostly empty at this point. The wizard who’d set the stage on fire before promptly freezing it lay dead a short way away, a terrible gash across his chest. The blonde dwarf’s ashes had been scattered to the winds and there was a hysterical shape-changing, platinum blonde woman screaming as she released arrow after arrow, only to have them shatter against the shimmering barrier.
“Mox,” Anula said as she tugged at his robes. “We have to help her!” He glanced down and saw determination and confusion on her halfling face. She was just as confused as he. Why was Melody trying to kill Lucan? Hadn’t she just single-handedly gotten him elected?
He closed his eyes for a moment, re-orienting his sight to see the flows of magic around him. When he opened his eyes he was almost blinded.
The shimmering field glowed brightly, but it was not of the Weave. It was divine in nature – and completely impenetrable. The only way it was coming down was if the caster willed it, or died.
As if the barrier weren’t bright enough, the flashes that came from within were what caused shooting pains in the back of his skull. White, holy magic flared from the elven woman, lancing out at the grinning Lucan. Lucan’s magic, however, turned Mox’s stomach. It was of the Weave, but twisted and perverse. He squinted, trying to figure out what was so different about it. A memory rose from the depths of his consciousness – only to evaporate when he tried focusing on it. That is beginning to grow tiresome. It took a moment, but he realized what he was seeing. Lucan was drawing from the Weave, but there was another power mixed in. A dark, holy magic.
He realized then just how dangerous the man was and how much trouble they’d all be in if Melody failed.
“Can you bring the barrier down?” Beldor asked, trying to watch everywhere at once.
“No, I can’t,” Mox replied, shifting his vision back to the physical realm. “And I suggest we all take the opportunity to flee this place. When Melody dies, and she will, Lucan could snuff us all out like so many candles.”
They all turned and looked at him in shock, Rain, the platinum-haired woman included.
“She won’t die, drow!” Rain shouted angrily, advancing on him.
He stood his ground. “Believe what you will. We will all die when that barrier comes down and I’m not ready to throw away my life for a hopeless cause.” Mox said calmly, carefully keeping the fear that was working its way through his core in check. He was terrified and he hated it.
“Fine, flee you coward! I know you work for him. You’re lucky I don’t kill you four here and now.” Her eyes were murderous – she wanted to kill them, but something was keeping her from doing so. She turned and ran south, turning her back on the battle raging on the ruined stage.
“Talindar, Clevin!” she called out as she ran, “Flee the city and meet at the outpost!” Her flesh transformed as she ran, her form morphing into that of the white tiger they had seen earlier.
“Tal…” Cloud muttered from Mox’s right. It appeared that the gnome and black-bearded human were working with Melody and the shape-changer.
“We really need to go…” Beldor said, pointing at the stage. Melody was on her knees before Lucan, who was laughing in triumph, half of his face a burned mess; his clothing in tatters. He was beginning to cast a spell, taking his time.
“Run!” Mox shouted, the terror bubbling to the surface. He turned and fled the square, as did his comrades. They barely made it around the corner when an explosion rocked the city, a pillar of flame fifty feet high rising behind them. Melody was dead, and they were likely next.
A short while later, the four were crouched in a small home on the outskirts of town, Beldor peeking out of a crack in a worn shutter. He was watching the cities eastern gate – leading to the Cloven Way and freedom.
They’d fought every step of the way to get this far, having sustained wounds that required the expenditure of healing magic from both Cloud and Anula. They were now trapped a short distance from freedom – with a hundred Union guards standing in their way, barring all exit from the city. The sun was a few hours from setting and their chances of escape were disappearing with it. They’d already heard a few patrols mention finding ‘the four’ in conjunction with ‘questioning’. The city was being searched and they would eventually be found.
“We have to find a way over, or under, the wall.” Beldor was whispering as he thought out loud. Cloud had his sword out and was pacing angrily. Anula looked pensive, obviously trying to parse what all had happened. Mox felt the fear constricting his chest, making it difficult to breathe. He couldn’t remember ever being so scared. Something about Lucan and the power he wielded seemed so terrible, yet familiar. The fear was irrational, he knew it, but it didn’t stop it from attempting to suffocate him. He kept his features neutral. No point is letting on to the others.
“I won’t die in this little shack,” Cloud said, finally coming to a stop in the middle of the floor, next to a small, worn wooden table. “I’d rather walk out there in the sunlight and die like a warrior.”
Beldor snorted. “Boy, this ain’t a storybook. Dying a ‘warrior’s death’ is no different than dying a coward’s death. Dead is dead, so quit talking nonsense. The only way we’re walking out there is if Lucan were to come escort us himself.”
A thought hit Mox like a bolt of lightning. Cloud opened his mouth to argue when Beldor suddenly gasped and had his axe out. He was staring wide-eyed at the dark elf.
Standing in Mox’s place was none other than Lucan himself. Cloud spun, gasped as well, and charged the Lucan-clad Mox without hesitation.
“Cloud, wait, it’s Mox!” Anula whispered harshly, desperately. Cloud slid to a stop, breathing plumes of acrid smoke. Beldor went from shocked to mirthful in but a moment, struggling to stifle his laughter.
A few moments later they were all agreed – they’d simply walk out the city. Their plan was desperate, but their time in Sallet at an end, one way or the other.
Mox closed the door behind him and walked confidently toward the gate, though he shook inside. He passed the last few small homes on the outskirts and into the large open area usually reserved for trade wagons to offload their haul. A few of the Union guards noticed him at the same time, snapping to attention. The rest caught on fairly quickly, trying to hide their surprise at seeing the cities new governor being trailed by what looked to be the very individuals they were seeking. One young guard ducked into the gatehouse.
“Step aside, brave men and women, your duties are complete,” Mox called out in what he hoped was an accurate representation of Lucan. No one seemed to move.
“Did you not hear me? I said step aside. I am seeing these three heroes off.” Mox came to a stop a stone’s cast from the line of guards. They all stared at him in confusion. A small figure exited the guardhouse and moved through the crowd.
“You can’t fool us, Mox. He said you’d try this,” called out a baritone voice. There, between two men stepped a well-dressed halfling with a crumpled green hat. Celedor Fairfoot, campaign manager for Lucan Lacroix was addressing them.
“You can drop the guise, drow, I know you for who you are,” he called out confidently. Mox felt sweat begin to bead along his forehead.
“Faithful of the Union. This halfling has betrayed me. I command that you take him into custody!” Mox shouted in mock anger.
Celedor smiled. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small object. It appeared to be a symbol of some sort, though Mox couldn’t make it out from this distance. “Master was hoping to convince you four to help him with future endeavors, but it appears that won’t be happening. Your usefulness is at an end. Kill them.” He said casually.
A wave of arrows and bolts fled their bows and crossbows and were now heading straight for the four. Mox reacted on instinct, desperately throwing his hand out. A sheet of flame appeared in the air above them, burning the arrows and bolts to ash before they could find their targets. Everyone, Mox included, seemed to freeze in surprise.
The surprise didn’t last. Dozens of men and women drew steel and charged across the square.
Beldor and Cloud met them head-on in a crash of screeching steel. Where Beldor was efficient, Cloud was ruthless. Beldor made every slash of his axe count, every parry of his shield relevant. Cloud channeled all the anger and frustration he’d felt over the last week and simply swung. His weapon flared with holy light as it seared through armor, flesh and bone alike. Men screamed and died.
Anula stood between the two, her earlier reservations against killing now gone. She smashed kneecaps and shins with her small mace. She didn’t even bother with her shield as she trusted Beldor and Cloud to cover her. Instead, her free hand would grasp an unsuspecting soldier, causing sharpened vines to explode from their flesh where she struck them.
Mox stood behind the three, blasts of hardened air collapsing skulls and chest cavities. Missing was impossible within the press.
Despite their ferocity, they were being forced backward, constantly losing ground. It was only a matter of time. Mox slowed his assault and scanned the crowd, seeking a specific target.
There, at the back, on a small crate, watching in amusement. The halfling caught Mox’s eye, smiled and winked. He began talking to himself – no, casting a spell, Mox realized. The object he’d pulled out earlier was a holy symbol!
Mox began casting himself, his normally blue staff growing a deep crimson. He drew on the power that he’d been gifted and thrust his staff toward the halfling, letting a searing line of flame fly. Cloud, unfortunately, slipped on the growing pool of blood and bumped into him, causing his aim to go wide.
Celedor continued smiling as he completed his incantation. A wave of black energy spread out from the small halfling. Half a dozen men who had gone down with mortal wounds suddenly groaned and stumbled to their feet, their wounds sealing. Beldor groaned in frustration. Celedor began casting again.
“Cloud,” Mox shouted over the battle. “Stop Celedor!”
Cloud, now on the back foot, was trying desperately to keep steel from biting into his scales. Mox turned his full attention toward the dragonborn, knowing it would leave Beldor and Anula exposed. A pair of black-streaked blasts of hardened air took the head clean off one Union guard and caved-in the chest of another. Cloud knew what to do, and disappeared in a puff of mist.
Mox stepped forward, staff leading as he moved to hold their failing line. The thrill of battle sang through his veins like an electric current. He felt his staff crack the skull of an enemy, his hands go briefly go numb. He ducked a mace aimed at his head, smashing the sapphire on top of his staff into the attacker’s jaw. He had never felt so alive, even if he knew he was about to die!
Cloud materialized in a puff of mist, his sword whistling before he even appeared. The look of surprise on the halfling’s face as his head left his shoulders was the sweetest sight he’d ever seen. With a dull thump, the halfling collapsed. A small bit of metal slipped from his limp grasp, rolling onto the cobblestones.
Cloud stared at it a moment in disbelief, his shock so complete that he couldn’t tear his eyes away despite the men a short distance away trying to kill his friends. He knew that symbol. It was impossible!
Mox saw Cloud kill the halfling. His blood lust was quickly fading before the press of attackers and he was now the weak link in the line.
“I can’t… hold…” He gasped.
Anula was there, weaving around him. Mox stumbled back, trying simply to breathe. Cloud was still standing there across the square, staring at the dead halfling. Mox swung clumsily at a longsword aimed at his midsection, barely managing to deflect it. The man pressed the attack, stepping around Anula, seeing her too occupied to hold the line any longer. The man thrust his blade at Mox, who moved his staff to deflect it. The man simply aborted his attack, waited for the staff to pass harmlessly, and lunged, too fast for Mox to correct. His blade took Mox in the shoulder.
Mox cried out in pain. Anula glanced back at the sound – and was rewarded with a kick to the back of the head, dropping her like a sack of grain.
The blade in his shoulder slid out as he stumbled back, grating agonizingly against bone as it did. Desperation took over, the fear that had been Mox’s silent companion all day disappeared in a flash of uncontrollable heat. He screamed at the sight of Anula’s unconscious form, men moving in to finish the job. Heat rose from within him, growing and growing until he thought he might burn away to ash. He might have, had he not directed it outward as the power grew to a crescendo.
A wave of white hot flame exploded out, incinerating a swath of men twenty feet wide before slamming into the city wall. It barely missed Cloud, who was shaken from whatever reverie had claimed him. The section of the city wall that had been struck began to rumble, the stone melting into molten rock and collapsing in on itself. Mox thought he heard a sinister laugh deep within his mind.
Mox gaped at the blackened path before him, the stone pavement steaming as it rapidly cooled. The men they’d been fighting were staring in shock. Beldor rushed over to Anula and scooped up her tiny form before taking off toward the wall, not hesitating for a moment. Mox stumbled forward, trying to keep up. The men around them, half now dead and incinerated, shouted in rage and started to close the gap in their ranks.
“That’s quite enough,” a voice rang out across the square. Everyone froze, Beldor included, though he was now only a few feet from Cloud.
Mox’s blood froze in his veins as he clutched his bleeding shoulder. He turned slowly.
Standing there was Lucan, not a mar on his handsome features. His clothing was immaculate. It had been less than an hour since he’d fought Melody, but here he stood, hale and dangerous.
“I so appreciate all your help, friends. I had hoped our partnership could continue as you’d been so instrumental to me lately. I’d hoped you’d find a way free of the city just as you had the manor earlier this week.” He said, addressing them casually. A Union guard took a step forward toward Mox, his intent plain on his young face.
Mox didn’t have a chance to respond. A flash of blackness struck him. The sun seemed to dim a moment as the man froze, a look of horror beginning to dawn on his face as his skin blackened and cracked, like parched earth in a drought. A moment later he collapsed into a heap of ash; not even his weapon remained.
Lucan was smiling when Mox turned to look at him, his hand outstretched toward the pile of ash. “Would anyone else like to interrupt me?” He said, his grin turning feral as he took in the host before him. They all shook their heads and took a step back. “Good, now where was I?”
He began pacing as he continued. “I’d planned so long for that single party. I hired Altridge with hopes that he’d capture Falanir, maybe Pearle and Margery. I already had Trevor firmly in my pocket, though I’m sure you had already figured that out. You four were simply insurance. If Altridge failed, I suspected you four would succeed in taking him and his little ‘Enclave’ down. If you did, you would earn the trust of the voting council. Not only did you exceed my expectation, but so did Altridge!”
He grinned at Mox. “Altridge’s few remaining men fled the city, took the wizard with them and found a way to guarantee his vote. Did you know that the man had a weakness? Little Bella, his secret daughter, was just what I needed to sway him. After that, it was simply leave behind a token guard to ‘safeguard’ Falanir, sure to fail. Two votes were mine.”
He continued pacing. “Now how to get the third? Margery was quite the slippery old coot. I tried buying her off, sending men to gain her ear, but I never could penetrate her defenses. I had hoped the dragonborn would be enough. I suppose I was wrong on that account, a fact I will willingly admit,” he said, tapping his head and smiling at Mox.
“Pearle was a wild card as well. The dumb barbarian woman and that Evelyn had always been close. That left Melody. Imagine my surprise when she moved to stand behind me when Margery hadn’t. I will admit, not even I saw that one coming.”
A moment of silence stretched between them as no one in the square moved.
“Melody,” Lucan said, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Poor Melody. She thought I didn’t know about her faithful six. Clevin the gnome; Talindar, Evelyn’s ex-lover; Dendrick the dwarvish ‘mercenary;’ that annoying shape-changer Rain and that worthless wizard whose name I still don’t know. I knew about them the whole time.” He shrugged. “I just didn’t care.”
“W-Why are you telling us this now?” Mox whispered.
Lucan turned a cold gaze toward the dark elf. “I wanted you to appreciate my genius. I wanted you to know, before I killed you, that I appreciated your talents. I could have continued using you, had you been willing. Nine hells, I would have used you even had you not been – if it wasn’t for the dragonborn.”
All eyes turned toward Cloud. He was standing there staring at Lucan, clutching something in his right hand.
“Cloud, what’s he talking ’bout?” Beldor asked, still cradling an unconscious Anula in his arms.
The dragonborn stared at Beldor, a look of wild terror in his eyes. “I figured out why he wants the city.” He whispered, barely loud enough to be heard. His right hand was clutched so hard it was shaking. He opened it slowly.
A small symbol slipped from his fingers, snapping in midair at the end of a chain. It was a metal disk with a skull etched into it, one eye cavity cracked and collapsed.
Mox couldn’t breathe. He knew that symbol. He knew what it meant. He knew better than he knew his own name.
It was the symbol of Vecna. Lucan was planning to raise the god that had nearly destroyed the land a hundred years ago.
Everything fell into place. The city, the site of the great battle a hundred years ago, the dark, holy magic that Lucan had been wielding. Lucan served Vecna and was planning to raise the god in the very site of his demise.
“No…” Mox whispered as he looked to Lucan for confirmation.
Lucan’s smile was all teeth.
“It’s true, dear Mox. I can see it in your eyes. You know.”
He did know. Not only was Lucan going to raise the god of deception, but he was already returning to power. It might even be too late.
He knew because he’d met the god a mere week ago, and received a spell of binding as a memento.