Chapter 19
The Fall of Castle Byrn

Underground Tunnel, Byrn; Anno Regis 1286

"Ambition... It can drive a man to good or ill. When faced with the full force of a man's unbridled ambition, who can stand against him?"
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The hedge maze in front of Castle Ban served two purposes. One was to provide an amusement for guests of the royal family, to entertain them with all the twists and turns, the hidden fountains and statuary. The other was to confound anyone trying to launch a direct attack on the castle. Randwulf resolved this by having his Marauders cut down the whole thing and make a huge bonfire that burned for three days straight.
The fire surely had a strong psychological impact on the castle's defenders, but it did not do much else. The moat surrounding the castle was five fathoms across at its narrowest point, so there were not many practical means of infiltration. The Marauders did not have siege weaponry and lacked any knowledge of its construction. A few miserable attempts to craft catapults were such colossal failures that they quickly gave up on the project. The archers would occasionally launch volleys to harry the watchmen and people wandering about on the castle grounds, but it was little more than a waste of arrows. The warlock's apprentices were not helpful either. Their powers were weak and they could not inflict the sort of damage wrought by the wizards of old. As in Dragova, starving out the enemy seemed to be the only way to claim the prize without needlessly sacrificing the lives of the Marauders.
They were at an impasse for several days when the warlock's insufferable Byrnan apprentice got the whim to inform the King of an alternative strategy. According to him, there was a tunnel that ran underground between the castle and the plateau to the north of Arita. Randwulf did not hesitate to act on this new information and dispatched some of his best men to exploit it. The castle would not stand much longer.

* * *

The Dark Knight Vincentian felt strangely at ease in the dark, cold depths of the underground tunnel. It was a welcome contrast to his sentiment for present company. As much as he hated the Byrnan apprentice, it seemed he would have to tolerate it for a long time. By the King's order, they were assigned together and this mission was only the beginning. They were part of a new elite unit of special operatives known as the Five Stalkers. Their first assignment was to harass the defenders of Dragova, which broke the long siege and prompted the Byrnans' withdrawal. Now they were charged with infiltrating Castle Byrn through this underground tunnel.
Other than himself and the apprentice, the team consisted of the foreign knight Tariq the Assassin, the spy Algernon and the notorious murderess Marcella the Nightstalker. They were not friends by any means and comrades only by Randwulf's decree. They had nothing to say to each other, so beyond the occasional goading by the apprentice, their journeys were silent.
Though the air currents in the tunnel were weak, Vincentian picked up a peculiar scent the moment they made their descent. They had been walking for several hours and the scent had only gotten stronger. With his eyes able to pierce the darkness with ease, he saw the scent's origin well before the others. He was amazed at what he saw, but kept it to himself until the others could see it as well.
Wedged in the tunnel was the withered corpse of a dragon. The underlying flesh had rotted away years ago, leaving the thick, scaly skin to hang loosely off the bones. Marcella rattled a charm and whispered some sort of incantation as she superstitiously kept her distance. Algernon, on the other hand, was taken by curiosity and began to inspect the creature. Much like the Dark Knight himself, Tariq was putting up a front of aloofness to mask his interest.
"What a find," Algernon said as his fingers probed about around the creature's mouth. "These things are supposed to have been extinct for centuries, but there's no way it's been dead so long."
"It died ten years ago," the apprentice said, resting a hand on the creature's forelimb. "It was the prized possession of my first master. This specimen was only a juvenile. An adult is usually three times bigger. It would've never fit in here."
"Mighty warriors must have slain that beast," Tariq commented.
"Not really," the apprentice replied. "Just some meddlers who got lucky. If it had more room to move around, they wouldn't have been so fortunate."
"Still," Algernon said, trying to pry out a fang, "it seems hard to believe one of these things survived the Great War."
"You'd be surprised what survived the Great War," the apprentice said. "This so-called Age of Man won't last forever and when this race of worms dies out, the world will be much as it was. I've seen it."
Against his better judgment, Vincentian spoke up. "You talk as if you're not human."
"You would know all about that, Sir Knight," the apprentice replied with a snide grin. "For me, it's still a work in progress. One day I'll transcend my birth and, as a new being, I'll be there to enjoy the dawn of the new age." His smile faded. "Here is the part where you bring up the mission and our orders even though everyone is enjoying this rare find. Very well, have it your way. I'm sure they won't resent you too much for it."
As usual, the apprentice overstated the issue. Algernon had his souvenir and Marcella was more than happy to be away from the monstrous corpse, even if it meant the momentary discomfort of walking past it. The apprentice prattled on for a while, but other than that, the remainder of the trip was quiet.

* * *

It was difficult to keep track of the time underground, but it seemed like many hours had passed by the time the Five Stalkers reached the end of the tunnel. Vincentian took point as they ascended the stairwell leading into the castle. The opening was blocked, but it was nothing he could not handle. Pushing the obstruction out of the way, he got the first look at the castle's interior. They had emerged in a store room where supplies were already starting to run thin. Even without the infiltration by the Five Stalkers, the castle would not be able to hold out more than a few weeks.
"Assuming most of the men who fled from Dragova came here," the warlock's apprentice said, "we should have a thousand enemy troops here. They're probably keeping the King in the throne room. It's in the dead-center of the keep, so they probably think it's the safest place for him." He looked to Vincentian. "Sir Knight, you know what to do, yes?"
"Yes," Vincentian said, "I keep the Byrnan king from escaping."
"And that he stays alive until Old Randwulf gets there."
"Right."
The apprentice tapped the Assassin on the shoulder with his rod, saying, "Tariq, my little sand flea, you'll cover Marcella while she takes care of the gatehouse. I'll show you where it is and then it's up to me and Algernon to keep our enemy off balance until the Marauders launch their attack."
"We know our tasks, infidel," Tariq growled, batting aside the apprentice's rod.
"Now, now, don't get testy," the apprentice chided. "I'm only looking out for all of you, my dear companions, and making sure we fulfill our objectives."
His fake sense of camaraderie fooled no one, but they all knew better than to call him on it. They exited the store room and entered a corridor. Before going any further, the apprentice stopped by a door on the other side of the hall.
"This will facilitate things," he said. "Algernon, distract the guards while our killers do their work."
Algernon, who was already disguised as a member of the Dragon Guard, went in ahead while the others stayed just out of sight. He greeted the nearest guard under the premise of making a chow run, even though none of the Stalkers had any idea what time it was. Fortunately, their arrival was well-timed, for the guards were impatiently awaiting the noon meal.
Marcella took advantage of the guard's distraction and slipped inside. If possible, she would take out the most distant guard and work her way back to Algernon. Glancing past the door, Vincentian saw that the apprentice was targeting the dungeon and therein lay the biggest flaw in the plan. Marcella needed to avoid not only the eyes of her victims, but those of the prisoners as well. In spite of the poor lighting offered by the sconces and the murderess' stealth, there were simply too many eyes to dodge. Before long, she was spotted by a prisoner who instantly started to make a ruckus.
Vincentian and Tariq took the cue to rush in. Algernon got out of the way just in time to dodge Vincentian's long serrated blade as it lopped off the head of the guard he was talking to. Tariq loosed a wind blade that sliced another in two. All the while the din of the prisoners grew louder and louder.
The dungeon was not especially large, but it had ten men guarding it. Marcella was busy strangling one with the noose she carried while another flopped on the ground from a cut of her poisoned dagger. Vincentian and Tariq took down two more a piece and even Algernon, who did not usually kill in open combat, managed to best a guard in an evenly matched sword fight. The remaining guard slashed his own throat, more likely by the apprentice's will rather than any conscious act of desperation.
With the guards taken care of, the apprentice motioned for Algernon to unlock the cells. The spy did not question him and quickly went to work.
"What are you doing?" Vincentian asked. "I can't believe you're freeing the prisoners out of the kindness of your heart."
The apprentice flashed one of his malevolent smiles as he ran his thumb along the runic inscriptions on his rod. "You'll see, Sir Knight," he said, "you'll see. Some of them are bound to be fettered to the walls. Be a dear and cut the chains, would you? Unless old Twilight isn't up to the task, that is."
The apprentice was treading dangerous ground. For warriors of the Continent, few insults could so quickly get someone cut down as insulting a man's blade. 'Twilight' was the name of the Dark Knight's main weapon, the long two-handed sword he used on most occasions. It could easily cleave through some chains of cheap pig iron and the apprentice knew it.
As much as he did not like it, Vincentian realized it would be less trouble to follow along with the apprentice's whims rather than start a meaningless confrontation. His only concern was the apprentice's plan for all the prisoners. It could not possibly be anything good.
The prisoners were a broad cross section of common criminals, debtors, dissidents, and even a few captives from the Gladian forces. As a Byrnan, the apprentice could speak to the prisoners, but the rest of the Stalkers had no idea what was being said. Judging from the hopeful look on their faces, he was probably telling them they were now free. It was most certainly a lie.
Sure enough, the apprentice started an incantation and his scheme soon became clear. The prisoners' eyes became glassy as they were robbed of their wills. It was the same trick he had used on those Byrnans fleeing with the deserter Giles. Not even the Gladians in the crowd were spared from his spell.
The prisoners quickly descended into a bestial state, pawing and snapping at each other. Some of them took notice of the Stalkers and clumsily moved to attack them. As one reached out to grab Vincentian, the apprentice rapped its wrist with the head of his rod.
"No," he said as if he were scolding a dog. "You don't attack us."
Another one made a move for the apprentice, earning swift retribution.
"I said no!" he shouted, bringing down the rod hard on the prisoner's head, so hard that it cracked the skull wide open. The apprentice stared at the body impassively. "Well, that was a little wasteful."
"You can control them?" Vincentian asked, pushing several back with the flat of his sword.
"Yes, I can," the apprentice replied. "It takes a little more effort, but it'll be worth it."
The monstrous prisoners began to tear at their fallen comrade. The apprentice buffeted them all, this time more lightly, to get them to stop.
"Don't eat each other either," he said. He pointed to one of the dead guards. "You attack these." When they fell upon the nearest guard, he thumped them again. "The living ones."
The prisoners obeyed the command and turned their attention to Algernon. Yet again, they received blows for making the wrong move.
"That one's special," he said. "Notice the smell."
Algernon obligingly held up the ring of garlic around his wrist.
"Any of them but the one who smells like this."
The Dark Knight rolled his eyes. "This isn't going to work."
The apprentice wagged his finger. "O ye of little faith, why do you doubt? Behold and be amazed."
With that, the apprentice glided forward and the unruly prisoners followed. The other four Stalkers pulled up the rear. If anything bad was going to happen, at least the apprentice and his puppets would be the first to face it.
Scarcely capable of even basic thought, the bewitched prisoners had a difficult time climbing the stairs. There was much stumbling going on, but eventually all of them made it to the ground level. Almost immediately, a maidservant saw the mass of prisoners and ran away screaming. The apprentice showed no sign of concern at this development. In fact, he seemed completely oblivious to it as he spread his arms wide to address his slaves.
"Go forth, my puppets," he said. "Bite, claw, tear, and gnaw. Kill anyone you find. Go!"
The prisoners dispersed, roaming the halls for fresh meat. It was only a matter of time before the alarm was raised and the guards came. The apprentice looked as lackadaisical as ever.
"Shall we get going?" he asked. "We can split up once we reach the main hallway. Follow me."
The others followed the apprentice to the main hallway. Already screams were echoing throughout the castle. As they were passing, they saw a courtier being overpowered by one of the prisoners. Bleeding from several wounds, he cried out for help that would never come.
The Five Stalkers soon reached the expansive main hallway. The moment he stopped, the apprentice pointed his rod eastward.
"Go straight back and you'll find the throne room," he said to Vincentian. "I imagine Abdiy will want to stand and fight, but his advisors might convince him to escape. See that it doesn't happen or Old Randwulf will be rather displeased with you."
"I know," the Dark Knight grumbled irritably.
"Algernon, you go on ahead and do your thing. I'll take Tariq and Marcella to the gatehouse and then we'll see what fun I can have before the Marauders kill everyone and spoil it all."
Algernon simply nodded and went on his way. Vincentian did not waste any time either and headed toward the throne room. The apprentice, however, did not go right away. Instead he casually massaged his shoulder and yawned, clearly not taking the mission very seriously.
"What are you waiting for?" Tariq demanded. "Get on with it."
"Very well, you impatient savage," he sighed. "I was just trying to soak up the atmosphere before the plan goes any farther. The Byrnans think they're in dire straits now. They haven't seen anything yet."
"Enough of your games," the Assassin growled. "Let us do our work so we can be done with it."
The apprentice sighed again. "You really don't know how to enjoy life, do you?"
"My only pleasure is crossing steel with a worthy opponent," Tariq said resolutely. "In this land, there are none to match me, so I will do what Randwulf King demands of me so that I may bring myself closer to the promised day."
"Oh, yes, the revenge thing."
"Do not make light of me!" Tariq snapped, reaching for the hilt of his sword. "I do not fear your devilry! I will cut you down!"
The apprentice waved his hand dismissively. "Now, now, don't be like that. Let's go to that gatehouse. You can kill some Byrnans and that'll perk you right back up."
The Assassin glared at him but held his tongue this time. It did not take them long to get to the gatehouse. Once they were there, Tariq drew the attention of the troops by loosing a wind blade at a roving guard. The soldiers manning the gatehouse rushed out to meet the threat, joined by several others from other posts. Marcella took the opportunity to sneak past, slashing a couple on her way, and pulling the lever to open the gates. Even as they were busy fighting Tariq, the men of the Dragon Guard could not help staring powerlessly as the gates slid open and the drawbridge went down to reveal the hundreds of Marauders massed outside. The end was near.

* * *

Abdiy the Dragonslayer, Elemental Knight and King of Byrn, stood alone in his throne room. All his bodyguards lay dead around him, all slain by the knight in black armor. He had tried to help them. The floor was littered with shards of ice, the remains of frozen spears the knight cut down in midair as he fought off the bodyguards. The King had restrained the greater part of his powers to protect his men, but the knight was too strong. Now there was no reason to hold back.
The Dragonslayer charged his blade. The shards of ice rattled and rose into the air. They flew about with such speed that an unprotected man would have been torn apart, but they could not pierce the knight's well-wrought armor. Instead they created an opening for a more potent spell. Abdiy channeled more energy into his sword and sank the point into the ground. In a flash of elemental energy, the knight was frozen fast where he stood. Surely that would end it.
Certain the enemy knight was vanquished, the King looked to his men in the hopes of finding any survivors. There was not much hope. The knight's strength was unnatural. He was able to force his wicked blade through steel plate and shatter bones with every strike. There was also the taint of black magic about him. Several of his victims were already beginning to rot away from their contact with the dark energies. Truly he was a formidable opponent, but he was no match for a fully trained Elemental Knight. Or was he?
As the King knelt by the body of a man quickly fading from blood loss, he heard a distinct cracking sound. He looked to the frozen knight and saw the cracks spreading throughout the shell of ice that contained him. In a single terrible instant, the ice shattered and the knight emerged unharmed. Abdiy had used one of his most powerful spells and it amounted to nothing more than a temporary hindrance.
It would have been easy for the knight to move in for the deathblow. He was certainly fast enough to kill the King before he could raise his defenses. However, the knight lowered his sword and did not move. It was as if he were still frozen. His face covered by a blank masklike visor, it was impossible to read his expression.
The King rose to his feet and faced the knight. Assuming a fighting stance, he barked a challenge to the relentless foe.
"You have come for me, have you not? Then come at me!"
He addressed the knight in Bannish and was answered in kind.
"Only a king can lay hand on a king," the knight said. "His Majesty will soon be here."
Abdiy could hear the noise beyond the thick doors of the throne room. The defenses were breached. The enemy was here. Heeding the concerns of his advisors, the King did not use his most powerful spell against the Gladians as they besieged his castle and Dragova before it. The advisors said that he risked doing more damage than the enemy and that he was too old to risk channeling that much energy. He sorely regretted that decision now. Now it was probably too late, but at least he could take the Gladians with him.
He closed his eyes and focused all his being on drawing energy into his sword. He never had reason to try this spell before, but he was certain the Gems would guide him. He would summon a storm of snow and ice unrivaled by Nature's fiercest. Castle Byrn would become a frozen tomb for the invaders and bring their rampage to an end.
"You should save your strength," the knight said. "You will need it."
Abdiy ignored the knight. An unnatural creature such as himself might survive, but most of the Gladians were normal human beings. Only the hardiest among them stood a chance, but the same was true for what was left of the Dragon Guard. Since they would be slaughtered anyway, the King grimly accepted the sacrifice that would have to be made.
Having drawn all the energy he would need, his mind searched the collective memory of the Gems for the technique he would need to cast the spell. The ancient spirits guided him along the path of his forefathers, leading him to the answer. The gems in his gear shone brightly as he prepared to unleash the full power of the Dragonslayer. At that critical moment, his concentration was shattered by the doors opening to usher in a new arrival.
It was a man not much older than himself with a thick mane of steel-grey hair and a sable-lined cloak over his armor. He could sense the power of an Elemental Knight, the dark aspect of the earth element. It was the Conqueror, descended of Wulf of the Eight Stars. His opponent.
The knight bowed to the Conqueror, who paid him only a passing glance.
"Good work, Sir Vincentian," the Conqueror said. "Leave us."
The knight left without a word, closing the doors behind him. Now it was just the two of them. As Abdiy confronted his enemy, he struggled to keep the energy he had drawn from draining away. With any luck, he could deal with the threat quickly and restart the casting of his spell.
The Conqueror raised a hand in salutation. "Greetings, King of Byrn," he said in Bannish. "I am Randwulf the Conqueror, King of Gladius. It seems I am not alone in breaking the Convention."
The Convention of Conduct was the code that guided the Elemental Knights. Among them was the prohibition against gaining political influence through the Knights' powers. Technically, Abdiy had not broken the Convention because he had won the kingdom in a game of chance, but now was not the time to quibble over minor details.
"You come to my land unprovoked," the Dragonslayer growled, "you kill my people, burn my towns. What devil possessed you to commit such atrocities? Are you truly so mad for power?"
"It is true that I seek power," Randwulf said, "but I am not mad. I came here for three reasons. There is a man I am seeking, but I find that he has already left. Even now he works to destroy me. This land fostered him and I have learned the kingdom owes him a great debt. I wipe out your people lest they come to his aid. I can always claim the land later, after everything is resolved. I also come for you, Dragonslayer."
"You come to kill me?" Abdiy asked. "I heard rumors of what you have done in Gladius. Do you think you can rule unchallenged by wiping out the Elemental Knights?"
Randwulf shook his head. "My goal is not to wipe them out them out, no. I will reforge them. Soon you will understand, but first..." The Conqueror drew his sword. "You must taste defeat."
The Dragonslayer raised his sword high in the air. "For all its terrible might, sever the head and the dragon dies. Even if takes my life, I will kill you, Conqueror. Prepare yourself!"
Abdiy swung his ancestral blade launched a volley of ice spears at the Conqueror, who met the attack with earthen shafts that broke through the stone floor and splintered the ice in mid-flight. Undeterred, the Dragonslayer swept his blade upward and a stream of ice raced toward Randwulf to impale him on frozen spikes. Once again, the Conqueror canceled his opponent's spell with a similar one of his own. The waves of ice and earth collided betwixt them, erupting in a blossom of permafrost thorns. Because the Dragonslayer and the Conqueror did not exist in direct opposition to each other, their powers could do little to prevail against one another. The match would be decided by their skill with a blade.
Abdiy took the role of the aggressor, charging forward with shield raised and sword aimed to pierce the Conqueror's black heart. Proving he was not without craft in swordplay, at the last second Abdiy turned the apparent thrust into an overhead chop. The sudden switch meant the strike would be underpowered, but it would be worthwhile if it connected. However, age had not dulled the Conqueror's reflexes and he blocked the swing just as if he had been expecting it all along.
Up until then, Randwulf had been wielding the Conqueror's hand-and-a-half sword one-handed, his left arm remaining hidden under his cloak. The moment he blocked Abdiy's blade, his left hand shot upwards and the Dragonslayer felt something hard strike his chin. He had barely registered the blow when a blast of magical energy struck him in the chest, causing him to stagger backwards. The blast was hot. The fire element. But the Conqueror commanded the earth element. How could he use a different element than his own?
Abdiy looked up as the red-orange glow faded from the black crystal orb capping the scepter in Randwulf's hand. The crystal had to be some sort of magical artifact from the days of the Great War. It granted the Conqueror powers he was never meant to have.
"There is a reason humanity's greatest elementalists sacrificed themselves to make the Gems," Randwulf said. "The Council wanted us to rely on their power and never explore our own. The ancestral gear is nothing more than a crutch, stifling our true potential. This scepter, too, is a crutch, but through it I was able to uncover the powers sleeping within me. Allow me to show you what else I have learned."
Randwulf rushed forward, ramming against Abdiy's shield with his shoulder and forcing him back. In a split-second thought, the Dragonslayer wondered why his opponent was pinning down his own swordarm just to force him off balance. It was an error Abdiy sought to exploit. He slashed at Randwulf, but the Conqueror parried with his scepter. Abdiy found himself staring directly into the black crystal orb as it glowed red once more.
Abdiy howled as the fire seared his face. He dropped his sword in the throes of agony, leaving him open to attack. Randwulf kneed him hard in the stomach, a blow he felt through his armor. While the Dragonslayer was doubled over, Randwulf struck his neck with his scepter and Abdiy felt flat on the floor. The Byrnan king moaned in pain as Randwulf pulled him up by his hair, lifting him onto his knees. The Conqueror clutched Abdiy's forehead and forced him to look up to him. With the right side of his face badly burned, he could only see out of his left eye. Randwulf looked down on his defeated opponent impassively. There was no trace of any emotion. No anger from the heat of battle, no joy of victory. Not even contempt for the vanquished.
"I will shatter the chains that have bound the heirs of Eight Stars," Randwulf said. "And you are going to help... by joining me."
Randwulf's hand glowed white-hot and Abdiy screamed as it melted into his skull. The bodies of the two Elemental Knights glowed and Abdiy's screams slowly died out. When the light faded, Randwulf released what was once Abdiy the Dragonslayer, now nothing more than a shriveled corpse.
Letting the body slump to the ground, Randwulf flexed his fingers. He could feel the new strength flowing within him. A lifetime of memories rushed over him in an instant. It all came to him much easier this time.
Randwulf picked up his sword, which he had abandoned earlier, and returned it to its sheath. He then walked over to where Abdiy had dropped his own sword. The Conqueror slowly wrapped his fingers around the hilt and lifted the blade. After a brief moment's concentration, the gems glowed responsively. Randwulf smiled.
"I have done it," Randwulf said to himself. "At long last, I have done it. Conqueror and Dragonslayer are now one."
Years of torturous training had finally reached fruition, but it was only the beginning. There were still many Elemental Knights in the world. In time, they would all become one with Randwulf. However, there was only one he would truly relish, the man who was supposed to hold the key to his downfall: Mark the Guardian.