Assault on the Halls of Truth
Azkal and his son Dagon took great pleasure in combat, and they often spent entire days fencing. One day, they were battling away in the special arena Azkal had constructed inside his great castle. Azkal´s Fire Sword blazed with red light, and the ringing of metal upon metal echoed in the stone walled chamber as they fought, and they did not hear the approach of two unexpected visitors.
Both astonished warriors were forced to backpedal and hold their strokes to avoid stabbing Torodin, who appeared suddenly right in between them. They stared in astonishment as the Shadowlord embraced Azkal.
"Brother! S´good to see you!"
Azkal´s nose wrinkled as he caught the heady aroma of ale. He pushed Torodin away from him and peered into his blood-shot eyes.
"You´re drunk," he said in disgust.
"Am not," said Torodin, who staggered and would have fallen if Dagon had not reached out to catch him.
The Great Warrior sheathed his blade and folded his arms before him. He scowled at Torodin.
"Where is Jvelto?"
"Here!" called a cheerful voice as the Oceanlord came barreling into the arena. He hugged Azkal and kissed him on both cheeks.
"Brother, good to see you. And Dagon! How´s my little nephew?"
Dagon scowled. He hadn´t been little since he was eight, but Jvelto persisted in calling him that.
"I am training with father," said the ever serious god of war.
"Good for you! Give your uncle a hug!"
Jvelto snatched Dagon up in a bear hug that lifted the startled god off his feet. This caused Dagon to let go of Torodin, who fell to the ground. Torodin sat up, seeming rather surprised by his new location. He peered up at Azkal.
"You´ve gotten taller."
Azkal sighed. "Torodin, what were you thinking, trying to keep up with Jvelto´s drinking? Even you usually have more discipline than this. Jvelto, this is your fault. Get him out of here so Dagon and I can finish our practice."
Jvelto stepped over to Azkal. He leaned so close to his brother that their noses were almost touching.
"Torodin was right," he said. "You need to learn to have fun."
Azkal winced and backed away at Jvelto´s ale-drenched breath. "You´re drunk, too!" he said in astonishment. It was true that Jvelto was nearly always drinking, but Azkal had always assumed that his capacity for alcohol was infinite. He´d never seen the Oceanlord drunk before.
"How much have you been drinking?"
"Don´ worry," Jvelto assured him. "We didn´t drink everything. There´s more."
Azkal felt something brush against his leg and looked down to find Torodin tugging at the hem of his trousers. The Shadowlord responded to Azkal´s glare with a sappy grin.
"We come to take you drinking with us."
"And chase nymphs," Jvelto added. "Don´ forget that part."
Azkal scowled. "A warrior has no time for such things."
Torodin shook his head. "There´s always time to chase nymphs."
Dagon sighed. "Father, we are not finished practicing. These two are interfering, and you didn´t invite them. Can´t we thrash them and make them go away?"
Azkal frowned at his son. "There is no honor in attacking the weak. My brothers are obviously incapacitated, and a true warrior would not take advantage of them. Besides, they are your uncles. You should show more respect for your elders."
"I am sorry, father," said Dagon.
"Dagon," said Jvelto, "you are much too sober. Here, have a drink."
The Oceanlord retrieved a bottle from the folds of his cloak and held it out to the god of war. Azkal and Dagon stared at it in astonishment. From within the misty, black bottle they could clearly see that the liquid glowed with a reddish light.
"What is in this?" asked Azkal, taking the bottle. He uncorked it. It smelled like very strong ale.
"It´s ale," said Jvelto, looking at Azkal as if he were stupid. "It was a gift from Siwili to Torodin. And a damn fine one."
"The Trickster," Azkal said, scowling. He had never been fond of Torodin´s son. Without warning, he dumped the contents of the bottle onto the sandy floor of the arena.
"Hey!" roared Jvelto. "Tha´s good ale you´re wasting."
Eyes wide at the tragedy before him, Torodin scooped up a hand full of wet sand. With a shrug, he stuffed it into his mouth.
"Don´t eat that!" Azkal lifted Torodin up by his collar and pounded him on the back until the Shadowlord coughed up the wet sand.
"Hey," said Jvelto, frowning at Azkal. He made as if to draw his sword, but stumbled into Dagon instead.
Azkal looked at Jvelto in alarm. The Oceanlord was even drunker than he´d been just moments ago. And Torodin was completely irrational. What kind of ale was this that could lay a god so low?
The Great Warrior hefted Torodin onto his shoulder.
"Weeee!" yelled Torodin.
Azkal, suddenly reminded of the games they´d played as children, could not suppress a smile. Torodin had been mischievous even then, but they did have fun.
Dagon, who even as a child had never played games that didn´t involve combat, frowned at his father.
"What are you doing?"
"We are going to see Estereal. This may be some harmless prank of Siwili´s, but then again he may be involved in some nefarious scheme. I don´t trust that one. Come, my son, help your Uncle Jvelto upstairs. I must fetch my battle armor."
Helping the Oceanlord up the stairs was no easy task, especially when he kept sliding down the bannister. Azkal reached his bed chamber way ahead of the others. It was a comfortable room, decorated with furs and battle trophies. A large bed sat next to the heated bathing pool that had been a gift from Jvelto.
Azkal dumped Torodin onto the bed. The Shadowlord sat up and stared at his brother as Azkal stepped over the stand where he hung his favorite armor. It was a gift from Estereal, made of mystical black metal and enchanted to make its wearer nearly invulnerable. Azkal had always been very proud of it, and as always, he hesitated just a second to admire the armor before he reached out to take it from its stand.
A second was all it took. Torodin ducked past Azkal and knocked the entire stand into the bathing pool. The Great Warrior stared in disbelief as his favorite armor sank into the pool.
"Why did you do that?"
"It looked funny," said Torodin, with a bemused look on his face.
"You fool! That was my best armor." Enraged, Azkal backhanded Torodin with all his strength. The Shadowlord went crashing into the bed, and fell to the floor, momentarily stunned.
Azkal raced over to the pool. He was just about to wade in to try to salvage his armor when the water began bubbling and steaming. He peered cautiously into the pool. At the bottom, he could see his armor liquefying, turning the pool black. The water had turned to acid.
Azkal stared in horror, wondering what would have happened if he´d put the armor on. Torodin may have just saved his life.
Dagon finally made it into Azkal´s quarters, with Jvelto leaning heavily against him. He stopped and stared in amazement at the bubbling pool.
"What the hell are you keeping in there?" asked Jvelto.
"Torodin threw my armor in there."
"I´m sorry," said Torodin. "I´ll get it."
"No!" Azkal cried.
He reached for his brother, but caught only a handful of cape. Azkal watched in anguish as the cloth ripped free in his hand, and his brother dove into the pool of acid. Instantly, the pool began to fill with the red of Torodin´s blood as the god floundered helplessly.
"Jvelto, purify the water!" Azkal yelled. He prayed that the Ocean Lord was sober enough to understand him.
Jvelto was too drunk to understand what was happening. But, fortunately for Torodin, he was at that stage of inebriation that causes the drinker to happily do whatever he is told. He waved his hands above the pool of acid, turning it back to harmless water.
Torodin was not moving. Azkal waded in and lifted his brother in his arms. He was barely recognizable. Torodin´s skin was gone, and the flesh ravaged. He looked more like a hunk of bloody meat than a god; in places his bones and organs showed through his flesh.
And yet he still lived. Azkal could see his heart weakly beating as he laid Torodin gently on the bed. The Great Warrior summoned his powers and cast a spell of healing.
He winced when his brother screamed in agony, and fresh blood poured onto the bed. The healing spell had only caused further harm.
"What foul magic is this?" asked Dagon angrily. Hacking your enemy to pieces was one thing, but the god of war did not approve of killing a foe by magic or trickery.
"Some foul plot is afoot." Azkal carefully wrapped Torodin in his sheets and lifted him in his arms like a baby.
"Dagon, take Jvelto to Wajen´s grove. Tell her what has happened, and ask her if she can make him sober."
"Where are you going?" asked Dagon.
Azkal looked at Torodin. Blood was already dripping through the sheets and down the Great Warrior´s arms.
"I will take Torodin to the Halls of Truth. Soltana may be able to help him, and Estereal needs to know what is happening. Bring Wajen as soon as you can."
Azkal raced for his Flaming Chariot without waiting for an answer and whipped the horses to their fastest pace. He was frustrated and angry. Torodin was dying in his arms, and there was nothing he could do about it. Azkal did not like feeling helpless, and his brother´s piteous moans were tearing him apart. Knowing that he himself had been the target of this vile trap only made things worse. Azkal vowed that if Torodin died, not even Estereal would be able to stop him from hunting down Siwili and killing him.
As he came in sight of the Halls of Truth, Azkal could see a black cloud approaching Estereal´s palace from the north. But it wasn´t a cloud. As the chariot drew closer, Azkal could see that it was an army of fiends and demons, with Athelstan and Othniel at their head.
Azkal snarled. He longed to draw his sword and charge into the fray. But he had to help Torodin. Besides, who knew how many of the gods had already been killed or disabled? Estereal might be fighting alone, and Azkal knew he would be greater assistance to his twin from inside the palace. He pushed his steeds to their limit to reach the Halls of Truth ahead of the approaching army.
He found Soltana and Estereal casting protective spells upon the gates and battlements. Both gods wore armor, and Estereal was armed with the Sword of Truth. They turned and stared at the bloody bundle in Azkal´s arms.
"What is that?" asked Soltana.
"It is Torodin, or what is left of him. Any healing spells cast upon him only cause further harm. I believe it is some foul magic of Othniel´s."
Soltana gasped in horror as she lifted aside the bloody sheet to examine her brother. "We must find a way to help him."
"Beloved, there is no time," said Estereal. "Our enemies are nearly upon us, and none of the gods have answered my call. I fear that we are the only ones left to hold back the darkness. Take our brother and hide him away; we will find a way to help him after the battle."
As Soltana left with their injured brother, Azkal told his twin what had happened. Estereal was furious to learn of Siwili´s treachery.
"That one has gone too far, and he will be punished if we win this battle. My brother, I have little hope that your son will find Wajen, and we need his help. I will summon him at once."
Estereal cast his spell and Dagon appeared, with Jvelto leaning against him. The Oceanlord beamed at Estereal and hugged him.
"Brother! Good to see you."
Estereal sighed. "Jvelto, my inebriated brother, we have no time for a reunion. Othniel and Athelstan approach the Halls of Truth, with four of the lesser gods and an army of demons. They mean to destroy us once and for all, and force all of the lesser gods to do their bidding. Think what it will mean for the world if our evil brothers are in charge. The balance will shift towards evil; murder and lawlessness will run rampant, and there will be no refuge for the good and the righteous. We must win this battle, not for our sake, but for the mortals who depend on us."
With a flash of lightning, Jvelto´s Storm Trident appeared in his hand. "I will help you fight, brother," he said, and staggered off to man the battlements.
"I have misgivings about letting him help," Estereal said to his twin. "Jvelto is not at his best, and he could be killed."
"We could all be killed," Azkal countered. "Jvelto is a warrior, and a warrior does not let a friend face danger alone. Jvelto belongs with us."
Soltana returned to hear this, and she patted Estereal on the arm. "Beloved, I will fight by Jvelto´s side. I am best able to heal him if he is injured."
Estereal nodded. Tenderly, he brushed his wife´s chestnut hair from her face and kissed her forehead. "My love, I..."
"I know," she said, and kissed him. "There is no time, husband." Summoning her magical bow made of enchanted rose wood, Soltana turned and strode towards the battlements. Estereal watched her, his expression a mixture of pride and fear.
"Brother," said Azkal, "I must ask that you three fight alone at first. Dagon and I will combine our powers, summoning the souls of warriors who died bravely in battle to fight by our side. But we need time."
"You shall have it," said Estereal. "I have summoned my angels to the battle. When they arrive, I will order them to guard you both until the spell is complete."
Azkal clasped his brother´s arm. "Fight well, my brother."
"Right is on our side," said Estereal.
He drew his sword and joined his wife and Jvelto on the battlements. Soltana stood with her legs apart and her bow tightly strung, sighting down the shaft of the arrow and waiting for the army to close in. Jvelto had fallen asleep, and Estereal was forced to wake him.
"Brother, control yourself. Look what approaches."
Jvelto looked. It was a terrifying sight to behold. Wings of dragons and of demon beat the air with a thunderous sound. Their numbers stretched to the horizon and beyond, like some great, black storm cloud.
At the head of the army, Athelstan rode upon a massive red dragon. He waved his Sword of Pain in the air and laughed. Beside him, Othniel guided his Death chariot, drawn by six nightmares. Thecla, goddess of fear, rode at his side. Just behind them, riding three black demonic dragons, came the three gods who had been created by Soltana´s bargain to ransom Torodin † Kos, god of evil; Istaqa, goddess of hatred; and Chakra, god of murder.
They were close enough now that the watching gods could see their sneering faces. Without delay, Soltana loosed her arrow. Trailing streaks of red and gold, the magical shaft sped towards Istaqa. It pierced the heart of her fiendish mount in a shower of fiery sparks. The dragon reared, bellowing in pain. Then it suddenly quieted. Beating its enormous wings, it hovered in the air, staring at Soltana.
"Destroy your mistress," Soltana said softly.
The goddess of pain screamed as her dragon turned its sinuous neck and seized her in its massive jaws. The pair plummeted from the sky, struggling. None of their comrades moved to help them.
Bellowing in rage, Athelstan hurled a massive barbed javelin at Soltana. Just in time, Estereal stepped in front of her and deflected it with the Sword of Truth. The javelin crashed into the battlements behind the three gods. A shower of stone and dust exploded over them.
"Hey," Jvelto complained. He called lightning with his trident, sending its deadly bolts ricocheting among the assembled fiends and demons. The demons and blue dragons were unaffected, but the other dragons roared in pain.
"Enough play," Othniel called to his assembled army. "Destroy them!"
Like a great plague, the invading army swept down upon the assembled gods. The evil gods leading the army hung back long enough for a few dragons to rush head long into the protective wards around the Halls of Truth. The beasts glowed briefly with a pure, white light, then exploded. Bits of blood, bone and entrails rained down upon the battlements, followed by a dust like shining snow that was all that was left of the gods´ wards.
The rest of the army swept in unimpeded.
The three gods fought with all their might. Estereal wielded his Sword of Truth savagely, cleaving demon and dragon alike. The One was quickly surrounded by enemies; Jvelto and Soltana could not even see him in the swirling mass of bodies. The bright light of his sword flared, and the demons backed away, shrieking.
Soltana called upon her magic, sending it arcing out in a powerful wave against the demons in the army. As one, they cried out in pain and anguish, and all but the most powerful of them vanished in a blast of sulfur, forced to flee back to the abyss.
Deprived of his demon mount, Chakra called upon his powers to save himself from falling. The god of murder vanished. He appeared directly behind Soltana, his dagger of soul-stealing drawn to strike.
Estereal could not see beyond all the dragons surrounding him, but drunken Jvelto spied Chakra instantly. Fortunately for Soltana, the threat of imminent death had sobered the Oceanlord a bit. Jvelto threw his trident, catching Chakra square in the chest and throwing him against the battlements. The blades of the trident pierced his body, pinning Chakra to the wall. The god of murder screamed and struggled. But Jvelto spoke a command word, and lightning arced from the trident to surround him. Chakra screamed and jerked. Blood poured from his mouth and eyes, and his skin began to smoke. Just before Chakra could die, Othniel cast a spell, sending the god of murder back to the abyss where demons could tend his injuries.
Angry at the defeat of his favorite companion, Kos vaulted from the back of his black dragon and fell upon Jvelto. The drunken god was slow to react, and could not stop the god of evil from plunging his sword deep into Jvelto´s side. Blood gushed out to drench both combatants, and Jvelto´s screams echoed through the Halls of Truth.
Soltana darted close enough to the struggling gods and managed to heal Jvelto. While she was distracted, Othniel urged his chariot closer. The nightmares paused while Thecla stood and tossed a magical net upon Soltana. The Lady of Mercy screamed in agony and fell to her knees, overcome by pain. Othniel pulled her into the chariot and they sped into the Halls of Truth past Jvelto and Estereal, who were both surrounded by enemies and could do nothing to stop them.
The pounding of the nightmares´ hooves echoed upon the marble floors as Othniel pulled them to a sudden stop. The beasts reared and pawed the air, snorting fire. Othniel stared at the figures that suddenly stood before him † Azkal and Dagon, swords raised, surrounded by an army of fallen warriors. The ghostly warriors gleamed with an inner light, but otherwise appeared as warm and solid as any living mortal.
Azkal glared at the limp form of Soltana. "Release her or die."
Othniel smirked at the Great Warrior. "My, my. If it isn´t Azkal, alive and well. This is a surprise. What happened to your favorite armor?"
Bellowing in rage, Azkal rushed towards the Soultaker. Flames leaped along his blade as he raised it to strike.
With a rush of air, Athelstan swooped in upon his red dragon. He leaped from the mount to land before Azkal. Their blades met in a shower of sparks as they joined battle. Both gods´ eyes gleamed, and the other gods danced out of the way of their furious struggle.
With a wicked smile, Thecla slid down from the chariot and summoned her power. She sent fear rushing like a massive wind towards the fallen heroes. Some broke before it and fell to the ground, quivering. But many held on to their courage and drew their weapons. As one they turned to Dagon, waiting for orders.
Athelstan´s dragon opened its maw to breathe fire upon Dagon. The god of war lifted his shield to deflect the blast, then screamed in pain when it melted onto his arm. He fell to the ground, stunned and momentarily helpless as Othniel swept past with the captive Soltana.
The goddess of pain glided towards the writhing Dagon, her high heels clicking upon the marble floor and the folds of her long, black dress swaying gently around her. She kneeled beside Dagon, posing so that the high slit skirt folded back to reveal her shapely legs to best advantage.
"Poor little Dagon," said the lovely goddess. "Does it hurt?"
Thecla reached out to brush a gentle hand along Dagon´s jaw, as if trying to comfort him. But then her power flared and Dagon convulsed, too wracked by pain to even scream. Thecla laughed.
Her laughter choked abruptly within her as Estereal´s angels appeared. Awful and beautiful, they hovered before her with golden wings unfurled and massive swords held in their perfect hands. Thecla stared. A sudden scream shook the room, and she turned to see more angels descending upon the red dragon. Unmoved by the flames it breathed upon them, the angels easily batted aside its reaching claws and stabbed into the fiend. Blood sprouted from dozens of wounds, dripping onto the floor and pooling in a massive, red tide. Thecla stared in disbelief as the warm liquid pooled around her shoes and soaked the hem of her dress. The warm coppery scent of fresh death filled the air.
Its beautiful eyes impassive, one of Estereal´s angels of justice facing Thecla stepped towards her, its blade raised to strike. The goddess of fear ran, screaming.
Having already dispensed with the dragon, the angels helped Dagon to his feet and healed him. Then, as one, they flew off to aid their master, Estereal. Dagon glanced at his father savagely battling Athelstan, and knew that Azkal would tolerate no interference in this fight. Dagon wasted no time, but ordered the Fallen Warriors who had overcome Thecla´s power to follow him -- they would scour the Halls of Truth until they found Soltana.
Meanwhile, the fight on the battlements had turned against Estereal and Jvelto. The two gods had managed to destroy the dragons, but Kos and the demons that had withstood Soltana´s power had gained the upper hand. Estereal fought savagely, cleaving into the creatures with his shining sword and sending a rainbow of black, red and green ichor raining down around him. And yet he´d been backed up against the wall by the remaining dozen pit fiends, who´d leaped fresh into the fray to battle the exhausted god. Estereal was a great warrior, but each stroke of the sword was just a fraction slower than the last. Seeing this, the pit fiends opened their fanged maws and hissed with laughter. They would enjoy bringing The One to his knees.
But Estereal would never surrender to the demons. Over and over again, claw, fang and scaly wings darted past his defenses to cut into his flesh. Blood trailed down the Lawgiver´s face and arms, and in places it seeped through rents in his armor. Blood clotted over one eye, obscuring his vision, and the weary god staggered beneath the unending assault. Yet he pressed on, knowing that right must prevail.
Not far away, Jvelto fared even worse than his brother. Two balor had joined Kos in battling the Oceanlord. Normally Jvelto would have been a match for them; he´d drawn a cutlass and knew how to use it. But drunkenness slowed his arm and spoiled his aim. Easily avoiding Jvelto´s clumsy slashes, one balor imprisoned Jvelto in the coils of its great whip, while the other leaped onto his back. It dug its claws into Jvelto´s muscles and sank fangs into the god´s neck. Bilious venom and red blood mingled down Jvelto´s back as he screamed in agony.
Grinning, Kos glided towards Jvelto and disarmed him. He twirled a dagger that dripped poison before the trapped god´s eyes.
"Now, you die," he promised. Kos´s eyes gleamed with pleasure - being the first to kill one of the elder gods would be a great honor.
Estereal´s angels swept in like a fast-moving cloud of light, just as the god of hatred´s blade sank into Jvelto´s throat. The angels pulled Kos away, while others cradled Jvelto as blood fountained from his neck.
Feeling his angels nearby, Estereal drew upon their power to rejuvenate himself. He pressed his attack, slashing into the pit fiends. One fell back, screaming, as its arms fell to the bloody ground. Estereal swung again, slicing through the neck of another fiend. Its head rolled onto the ground, amber eyes staring in surprise.
The remaining fiends fled before Estereal´s wrath. The angels chased them and a bitterly disappointed Kos all the way to the abyss. Estereal healed Jvelto and helped the Oceanlord to unsteady feet.
"Thank you brother," said Jvelto. "That was a close call."
"Come, my brother. Othniel and Athelstan have breached the Halls of Truth, and our allies are in peril. We must aid them."
Jvelto yanked his Storm Trident from the wall and followed Estereal inside. Following a trail of broken furniture and scorched walls, they made their way to the banquet hall, where Azkal and Athelstan did battle. They stopped in their tracks, awed by the fury of the combat before them.
Both combatants glared fiercely at each other, consumed by mutual hatred and unaware of their audience. Azkal´s Fire Sword sparked and smoked as he brought it up to meet his brother´s downward slash. The Sword of Pain dimmed that reddish glow, as if swallowing all light around it into some black void.
"You are doomed to lose this fight," Azkal vowed between gritted teeth. "You have no honor, nor did you ever. You have always preyed upon the weak, and fought your battles with deceit and trickery. You stand out upon the field of battle like a whore in a nunnery; every warrior knows you for what you are and strives to avoid your example, for dishonor on the field of battle is a fate worse than death."
Athelstan´s dark eyes flashed with anger. "I´ll track down your spirit and see if you still believe that - after I´ve killed you."
Summoning all his dark strength, Athelstan parried Azkal´s blade and pushed him away with the force of the blow. The Great Warrior flew into the air and hit the far wall. Bits of stone and marble showered down upon him.
With a roar, Athelstan rushed towards Azkal, eager to press the advantage. Jvelto intervened, ducking low before the charging god and tripping him up in a classic tavern brawl maneuver. Athelstan tumbled to the ground in an undignified heap.
Jvelto bellowed with laughter, but Azkal got to his feet and glared at the Oceanlord.
"This is my fight," Azkal growled. "I have waited for the chance to punish Athelstan far too long. I will not tolerate your interference. Go help Soltana, and my son. They need you. I do not."
Offended, Jvelto glowered at Azkal. "You´re no fun," he said. Coming from Jvelto, it was a terrible insult.
Estereal grabbed Jvelto by the arm and pulled him aside. "Leave them to their battle," he ordered. "I have faith in my twin. Besides, Torodin foresaw that these two would one day fight to the death of one. We can not deprive Azkal of his long-awaited destiny. Come, let us search for Soltana and Dagon."
Jvelto followed Estereal out of the dining hall. Behind them, the clashing of metal upon metal told that the battle had resumed.
"Where should we start?" Jvelto asked. The Halls of Truth were vast, and there was no sign of either Soltana or Dagon anywhere.
"Hush, my brother. Soltana and I have a rapport between us that allows me to sense her presence. But I must concentrate."
Estereal closed his eyes. After a few minutes, he could feel his beloved´s heart beating in time with his own. Soltana shone within him, warming his very soul. Estereal could sense her emotions as well - Soltana was frightened, but not terribly so. More than that she was angry. Estereal smiled to himself, for he knew Soltana capable of tremendous courage.
He opened his eyes and turned to Jvelto, who had sat down against the wall and was snoring loudly. Frowning, Estereal pulled the Oceanlord to his feet.
"Jvelto, we have no time for that. Quickly now, follow me."
Estereal raced down the hallway towards Soltana. He did not look behind him, confident that Jvelto would follow. The Oceanlord tried. But he was far too drunk to keep up with a worried husband running at full tilt, and he soon lost sight of Estereal. Without The One´s rapport to guide him, Jvelto was left to guess which turns to take, and he soon became lost.
"Estereal had to go and build a god-damned big palace that wandered all over the place," Jvelto muttered as he weaved down one of many passages that were seldom used. But not a soul was there to hear him.
The Kingwatcher soon realized that he had lost Jvelto, and he knew that charging into rescue Soltana alone was not prudent. But he could sense his beloved´s urgency, and felt he had no choice. He could not risk delaying too long by going back to look for his brother. He would rescue Soltana alone - or die trying.
Soltana awoke to find herself gagged, her arms and legs bound by heavy chains that hummed with magical energy. She was lying on top of something hard and uneven, like a pile of rocks, and she could hear movement around her. Cautiously, she opened her eyes just a fraction.
Her eyes widened at the sight before her. They were in the south courtyard. Othniel stood next to one of his nightmares, a silver chalice in hand. The other beasts that had drawn his chariot lay in a heap near the wall, their corpses crushing a bed of daisies. Soltana realized with horror that the "rocks" she lay upon were really a make-shift altar of human skulls.
The nightmare stood perfectly still, its eyes glazed as if bespelled. On either side of the fiendish horse, two zombies stood as if ready to support it. They had been human soldiers in life, and a coat of arms had been blazoned upon their armor as if to mock what they had once believed in. Their lifeless eyes stared at Othniel, waiting for orders. More zombies filled the courtyard, standing uncaring upon delicate flowers and masking their scent with the smell of rotting flesh. Soltana shuddered, wondering how many Othniel had summoned.
Othniel drew a silver dagger from the folds of his cloak and slit the nightmare´s throat. The two zombies caught the beast as it sagged and held its head still with preternatural strength. Blood dripped from the wound and into the chalice Othniel held to catch it. The Soultaker chanted, and sigils carved upon the chalice glowed with an unholy light.
Soltana was uncertain what rite Othniel was performing, but she knew that she would be the final sacrifice. She glared at her evil brother. Sacrificing herself for a good cause was acceptable, but she would not be a victim to help Othniel bring more evil into the world. The creation of the gods of murder, hatred and fear still rankled her, and Soltana had vowed she would never allow herself to be used like that again.
The goddess pulled against the chains that bound her. They were magically enchanted, and she could not break them. But her wrists were small and dainty. Soltana twisted her hands inside the metal cuffs. They rubbed against her skin painfully, but she was confident that she could slip free, given time. But how much time did she have?
The last nightmare fell to the ground with a thud. Othniel smiled in satisfaction at the steaming chalice, while his zombies dragged the dead body aside.
"This will do nicely," he said, breathing deeply of the blood-filled chalice as if it were a vintage wine.
The Soultaker turned to Soltana. "Now, my lovely sister, it is your turn to donate to this marvelous occasion."
Soltana frowned at him. She knew she had to stall for time. "What occasion would that be? What are you planning now, Othniel? You must know that Estereal will never let you get away--"
"Yes, yes, I know. Really, my dear, threats are beneath you. Estereal is being ripped apart by my fiends and demons even as we speak. He is not going to come to your rescue. Nobody is."
As if summoned by Othniel´s smug prediction, Dagon and the Fallen Warriors burst into the courtyard. The Soultaker turned and wordlessly ordered his zombies to intercept the warriors.
"I´m afraid I must rush this," he said calmly, and strode towards Soltana.
Her wrists were only half-way free of the cuffs. She needed more time.
"What, no boasting? No bragging?" she asked. It took all of her courage to sound so calm. Behind them, the Fallen Warriors hacked into the zombies, severing limbs and scattering rotted flesh across the courtyard. The severed limbs kept coming, crawling towards their foe with unholy purpose. One hapless warrior screamed as a zombie hand severed by his comrade flew into his face. The rotting fingers clawed into his face, ripping out both of his eyes with a wet popping sound. Blood and fluid leaked down his face and the warrior fell to his knees, clawing at the arm.
Othniel kneeled beside Soltana with the chalice in his hands. "My dear, you know me too well. I would love to explain the planning and preparation that led to this wonderful day. But there is no time. Suffice it to say that your sacrifice will allow me to control all of the younger gods - including your beloved children. I´m afraid the rest of you will have to go."
Soltana stared at him, horrified. Her wrists were almost free. If only she could delay him longer.
"This won´t work," she said, hoping to provoke him. "You will fail, as you have always failed."
But Othniel only smiled, as if sensing her plan. He set down the chalice and brought the dagger to her slender throat.
He grunted suddenly in pain, and the dagger fell from his grasp as an arrow bit deep between his shoulders. He stood and turned, pulling out the arrow with a ripping sound.
Dagon stood in the midst of the carnage, holding his bow. While Othniel glared at him, the god of war shouldered aside a reaching zombie and dropped the bow. He drew his sword.
"Prepare to die," he said, and charged.
Muttering an incantation, Othniel made a slashing gesture in the air. Dagon screamed in agony as a deep cut appeared across his chest. Blood dripped down the war god´s tunic, and the pain made him stagger.
But he kept coming. Othniel gestured again. This time a cut appeared in Dagon´s leg, severing bone and tendon. Dagon screamed and fell to his knees. Behind him, several zombies turned and shuffled towards him, arms reaching.
"That´s quite enough out of you, whelp. Rip out his heart and bring it to me," he ordered the zombies. "I will show it to his father before I let Athelstan kill him."
He turned around with his dagger raised, preparing to finish the rite. The chalice hit him square in the face, spattering warm blood across his eyes and mouth. Othniel staggered, astonished and momentarily blinded.
"You will not have his heart," Soltana vowed. She stood free of the chains, bloody lines along her wrists bearing testimony to her struggle.
Othniel wiped blood from his eyes. "Ritual or no," he said. "I will destroy -"
Soltana did not wait for the Soultaker to finish. Calling upon her power to banish evil, she sent it rolling like an invisible wave against him.
"Get out of my home," she demanded, as her brother staggered.
With great strength of will, Othniel overcame the urge to flee Soltana´s presence. He darted towards her, stabbing deep into her side with his silver blade. Soltana screamed and fell against him, as Othniel began an incantation to poison her blood and rot the lovely goddess from inside.
A hand pulled him away, ruining the spell. Othniel turned to face a glowering Estereal, his shining sword drawn.
"How dare you lay hands upon my wife? Draw your weapon and defend yourself."
Othniel held out the bloody dagger. "This against your sword? Hardly a fair fight, brother dear. Where is your sense of justice?"
Estereal hesitated. Then Soltana stepped towards Othniel. She had picked up one of the dead warrior´s swords and held it out, hilt first.
"No more excuses," she said. "Defend yourself."
Stunned, Othniel allowed her to press the hilt into his hands. He barely raised the blade in time to defend himself from Estereal´s attack. Othniel backed up, knowing himself out-classed and trying only to defend himself. Mentally he summoned one of his favorite demons, a lovely maralith, to come get him out of this mess. All he had to do now was stay alive until she got here.
Soltana rushed towards Dagon. Zombies had surrounded him like vultures on a corpse. They bit chunks of flesh from the struggling god and clawed at him with diseased hands. Two were gnawing at Dagon´s bloody leg so savagely it hung together by bits of bone and tendon.
Soltana stepped forth, her power flaring with a reddish glow like the new dawn. The scent of roses filled the air, and the zombies backed away, shielding their eyes.
Knowing she could not hold them for long with their master so near, Soltana lifted Dagon in her arms and ran from the courtyard. In the relative quiet of the corridor, she placed him gently on the floor and began to heal his grievous wounds.
"Well, hello there sister."
Soltana looked up. Jvelto patted her on the head as if she were a cute puppy. She smiled, relieved that he had survived the battle so far. She pointed to the courtyard.
"Estereal needs your help."
Jvelto nodded and staggered off, hefting his trident. He paused in the doorway and surveyed the scene before him.
Estereal had backed Othniel up against the wall. The Soultaker bled from numerous cuts on his face and arms, but still he defended himself. The Fallen Warriors had been ripped to hunks of bloody meat that had scattered all across the courtyard, dripping from vine and flower like sickly dew.
The remaining zombies shuffled towards Estereal´s unprotected back.
"Oh no you don´t," said Jvelto. Summoning his powers, he flooded the courtyard with a great wave of water. It broke upon the battlefield with a thunderous roar. Estereal and Othniel both dropped their weapons and clung to the vines that climbed along the walls to avoid being swept away.
The zombies were too slow and too clumsy to save themselves. They, the dead nightmares and the shredded remains of Fallen Warriors were swept up in the tide. Jvelto directed the rushing water towards a far door, shattering the glass, and sent the corpse-ridden water rushing down the corridor.
Estereal leaped to the muddy ground and picked up his sword. He strode towards Othniel, preparing to finish him.
Suddenly, the wall around them exploded as the maralith burst through. She came screaming at Estereal, slashing at him with six different weapons and lashing her long, serpent tail behind her.
His distraction here at last, Othniel muttered an incantation and vanished, leaving his pet demon to fight Estereal and Jvelto alone.
Meanwhile, in the banquet hall, Athelstan and Azkal battled tirelessly. Both warriors dripped blood from numerous wounds. The long banquet table lay in ruins at their feet, and even the crystal chandelier had been cut down and trampled into so much shattered glass.
Athelstan grinned triumphantly as he cut past his enemy´s defenses and cut deeply into the Great Warrior´s sword arm. Azkal´s weapon fell from nerveless fingers.
He glared up at Athelstan. "At least I will die with honor."
The Torturer smiled and lifted his blade for the killing blow. Just as he was about to strike, Jvelto´s flood roared into the room. A dead nightmare collided with Athelstan, knocking him off balance and carrying him from the room. The Great Warrior leaped upwards, grabbing the chain from the ruined chandelier to hold himself above the water.
The flood rushed down the corridor and out the front gates, where Othniel waited. He grabbed Athelstan and they vanished back to the abyss.
Estereal and his allies made short work of the maralith, and then they tracked down the missing gods. They rescued all of them from various traps and prisons except for Siwili, who had hidden, and Wajen, who claimed to have freed herself just before her rescuers arrived. Namir helped Soltana to undo the magical curse affecting Torodin, and they were able to heal him before his heart stopped beating. Meanwhile, the other gods cleaned and repaired the Halls of Truth.
Only one thing remained.
"Estereal," Azkal said, "I petition you for permission to hunt down Siwili and punish him for deceiving Jvelto and Torodin. He has betrayed us."
Torodin grimaced. He knew Azkal was right, but he still loved his son dearly. "He does not deserve to die for his crimes," he pleaded.
Estereal sighed. "No, perhaps not. But he must be punished. Azkal, I will entrust you to design any punishment short of death."
Azkal agreed. He found the Trickster easily, for none of the other gods would help Siwili to escape Estereal´s judgment. Azkal chained the Trickster to the wall of a cave and placed a ring upon his finger. Long ago, Soltana had enchanted the ring to regenerate damaged flesh. Siwili was confused when Azkal walked away and left him there.
Horrified understanding came when the green slime began to drip down from the ceiling. The trapped god screamed in agony as his flesh dissolved, only to be reformed by the power of Soltana´s ring. Siwili would spend a century suffering thus, with no god or being coming to aid or comfort him. After his punishment, the chastened god vowed that he would never betray Estereal and his allies again, though some of the gods had seen hatred gleaming in his eyes whenever Azkal was near.