Chapter 35
The Sacrifice of Blood

Campus Caedis

Seth looked out at the dead land spread before him. When the survivors of Cain's forces crossed the River, this was as far as Lord Seisyll and his men pursued them. With the men Seth brought with him and a portion of the Third Regiment, they stood poised to put an end to the last remnants of Cain's revolt, and yet Seth found himself hesitating.
"This is the land of the dead," Umbriel said. "And it is death you will find if you trespass here."
Seth heard the stories of what had happened to Marshal Dale and the men of his patrol. Only a handful of survivors could muster the courage to guide him this far. None of them dared to go any further, preferring to face the sentence of death as cowards at the hands of men than return to the horrors they witnessed.
"Given what happened to Marshal Dale, surely those brigands will meet their end here," Eldridge said.
"And if they don't?" Seth asked. "If they escape judgment?"
"Your blood cries for vengeance," Umbriel said, "but how much blood will you spill to get it? How many of your own men are you willing to sacrifice on this unholy altar?"
Seth did not need the sicarius constantly prodding at him, but there was reason to his words. Recklessly sacrificing the living to avenge the dead would not bring the dead back. If Cain's men did not fall prey to whatever evil lurked in these lands, they could not easily return to Pendragon, especially if Seth ordered the bridge destroyed. Could he leave it at that?
No, he could not. It would drive him mad, but he did not need to drag his men to their doom. He gave them a choice at Uthcaster. He would do so again.
Turning to his men, he said, "The men whose hands are red with the blood of your brothers in arms, as well as the innocents of the Sanctuary, are still out there. I would see them brought to justice that they might answer for their crimes, but they say this land is cursed, that the dead rise up and should you fall here, you too will join the legion of the dead. We have never known a man who ventured into these lands to return, until Marshal Dale's ill-fated ranging. Those who escaped with their lives would choose death and dishonor at the King's justice than face that terror again.
"Look to your hearts, men, and decide. Any man who is not prepared to offer up body and soul, turn back now. If you rejoin the garrison at Uthcaster, there will be no shame, no dishonor, and no punishment. For those who choose to remain, give me one hundred of the most valiant. We shall go first. If the dead truly rise up, we will retreat. Otherwise, every half hour another hundred will follow until we have all taken to the field. We will find these devils in human skin and put them to the sword, each and every one of them."
He then turned his back to them and said, "Let any man who is with me look forward and not turn back. Those of you who will not go forward, now is the time to return."
Seth would not look so that the men might be honest with themselves. Only the most firmly resolved could brave the trials ahead. Eldridge brought his horse closer to Seth's.
"The offer was for you as well," Seth said.
"My place is at your side, Your Majesty."
"I want you to lead the next hundred, if there are that many left."
"Do not underestimate the courage of the King's men, Your Majesty."
"Or their foolhardiness," Umbriel said. "As the leader, so the followers."
Seth raised his hand to stop Eldridge before he rose to the provocation and challenged the sicarius for honor's sake.
"I wonder, O King," Umbriel said, "will this day be remember in praise of your courage or lament at your folly?"
"We will see, sicarius," Seth replied. "You still mean to follow me?"
"I am an agent of Death," Umbriel replied. "This land holds no terror for me."
Seth drew Excalibur and raised it aloft, shouting, "Forward!"
And so the King of Pendragon made his first step into the accursed land of the dead.

* * *

Three days had passed and the dead had yet to rise up and menace Seth and his men. Even without that, this was still a desolate land where nothing green would grow. There was no sign of bird nor beast nor crawling thing. Not even the wind seemed to blow, leaving them in eerie still and silence. This alone was enough to tax men's nerves.
They rested as little as they could afford and carefully rationed their provisions. The men had already spent so many days marching or riding. How much longer could they hold up even under entirely natural circumstances?
Then, on the fourth day, the scout riders reported a large mass of people a few miles further south. Seth assembled the men and they set out. They would put down the brigands at last and return before they pushed their good fortune any further.
However, as they drew closer, they discovered that Cain's men were not alone. There was a fully arrayed army with strange banners and standards formed up in orderly blocks.
"What is this?" Seth asked, not particularly to anyone because he did not expect anyone else to know either.
"Romans," Eldridge said.
"I have never seen them myself. They were driven off the Isles nearly a hundred years before your father brought us to this land, but I remember the stories told to me of the grandfather of my grandfather, a legionary in the service of Macsen Wledig."
"What are they doing here?"
"They must have a colony in the lands south of the River."
"But what are they doing here?"
"I cannot say, Your Majesty. What would you us do?"
"Have the men hold, shore up our lines. Send someone to treat with these Romans, someone who knows the Roman tongue. There is no reason to provoke them, but we must be ready to defend ourselves if needs be."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
As Eldridge rode off to relay Seth's orders, Umbriel said, "It is the Kyanopolis Legion. The Blue Haven I believe your people call the city."
"You know the Blue Haven, sicarius?"
"My father was born there and he served in the Legion you see before you now."
"And here I thought you were just spat out of the pits of Hell."
Ignoring the King's comment, Umbriel said, "It is odd, though. The Campus Caedis is deemed cursed by the gods, forbidden, so what are they doing out here, I wonder."
"Perhaps they caught sight of Cain's men and thought it was an attack."
"No. We are several days from the city. They could not have seen them, nor could there be any report from scouts because, as I said, this land is forbidden."
"So long as they don't mistake us for the enemy..."
Horns sounded from the other side and the formation of the Legion shifted to set itself against the King and his men.
"Damn it all," Seth muttered under his breath. He drew Excalibur and raised it to rally his men, shouting, "Wedge formation! Let them come to us! Watch the flanks!"
There was no good reason to fight the men of the Blue Haven, but Seth would not back down from a challenge lest it invite future aggression. Then there was the matter of Cain's men. They needed to be dealt with, though it seemed they would be wiped out in the crush between the Legion and Seth's forces.
The men of Pendragon were at a numerical disadvantage, which was why Seth did not want to fight the Legion head-on. He would split their ranks while minimizing his own losses and if that worked, it was just a matter of responding to their next move.
The Legion was spread out too far for Cain's me to escape east or west, so they seemed to think it better to throw themselves at Seth's forces instead. The devil you know or something like that. This effectively made them frontline skirmishers for the Legion.
"Eldridge! Eldridge!"
Eldridge promptly returned to the King's side.
"Your Majesty?"
"Get all our riders together and deal with those brigands. I don't want a one of them escaping."
"What of the Romans, Your Majesty?"
"Leave them to us."
"Your Majesty, these numbers are not to our advantage."
"They weren't to our advantage at the Sanctuary either, but we made it through."
"At a great cost, Your Majesty. There the lives of innocents were at stake. What will our men die for here?"
"For justice. For honor, for pride. Let each man decide his own reasons. We can't retreat. We may not have started this fight, but if these Romans mean to test us, by God, we'll finish it."
Eldridge seemed dissatisfied with this answer, but now was not the time to argue.
"I am going, Your Majesty. I pray this is not folly."
Seth glared at Umbriel and asked him, "Do you have something to say, sicarius?"
"The King has made his decision," Umbriel replied. "Let us see what comes of it."
As the Kyanopolitans drew closer, the formation shifted, thinning out the middle and bulking up the flanks. They were going to let the wedge split them, then attack from both sides. There were three distinct lines, each one with nearly as many troops as all of Seth's forces. If he remembered his studies, in the Roman style of fighting, each line was better trained and more experienced than the last. Weathering the first and even the second wave would leave them exhausted when faced the with enemy's best troops. What was worse, their lines might already be in disarray after fighting off Cain's men. This was why he needed Eldridge and his knights to thin the herd first.
The land was damnably flat. There was no way to use the terrain to their advantage, no natural cover to blunt the enemy's advance. If the Kyanopolitans had all the Romans' legendary discipline and the experience to back it up, everything would be in the enemy's favor. It had been too long since the conquest and the Goblin War. There were not enough men who had tasted real battle. Hunting bandits was not enough. Maybe that was why Uwncaster and Emryscaster fell so easily.
First things first. Cain's men. They would only have a few minutes to deal with them before the first wave of the Legion struck. Eldridge would have time for a couple passes. If each rider could strike down at least one of the brigands each pass, the remainder would pose little threat.
"Shields up! Spears out!" Seth shouted to his men. "You are a rock! The waves may come crashing against you, but they will break! Pendragon!"
"Pendragon! Pendragon!" his men shouted in reply.
Eldridge and the riders made their first charge. Cain's men were so preoccupied with fleeing the Kyanopolitans that they put up no real defense. They clung together for safety, but after two passes, they were left scattered.
"Archers to the front!"
The formation loosened to let the archers pass. They carried light but tall shields that they planted in the ground to give themselves some cover while they loosed their arrows.
Seth pointed ahead and shouted, "Four volleys! Ready!"
The archers drew their arrows and nocked them.
They pulled back the bowstrings and took aim.
They loosed a hail of arrows that wreaked further destruction on the ragged brigands. They repeated this three more times. The last two volleys were aimed more at the front line of the Kyanopolitans, but they closed ranks into what Seth had heard called the turtle formation. Arrows could do little against it, but neither could the Kyanopolitans move or fight freely while taking such a defensive posture. Any more volleys at this point would be a waste of arrows.
"Archers, fall back!"
The archers took their shields and withdrew just as the Kyanopolitans were returning the favor for the volleys. Their archers were farther back, loosing their volley in a high arc that could not truly be called aiming at all. The first volley came up short and served to harry the survivors of Cain's men more than anything. The second volley overshot and only as the desperate remainder of Cain's men threw themselves at the Pendragon front line did the third volley strike square in the middle of the wedge. By then, the Kyanopolitans were close enough to begin throwing their javelins. The heavy shields of the King's men protected them for the most part, but they were taking losses and there would be many more to come.
Without their javelins, the Kyanopolitans drew their shortswords and moved in. The spears of Seth's men had superior reach, but many spears were broken on the Kyanopolitans' shields and once they got in close, a spear did not do you much good. Most men had a dagger or a hatchet for when the spears could no longer avail them and this was where the fighting became its most brutal.
As the enemy intended, the weak center of their formation gave way and their flanks split to press against the King's men from both sides. If they could close the ring and surround them completely, it would be devastating, and there were yet two more lines just waiting to press the advantage.
There were no clever tricks here. It was nothing more than a matter on endurance. If his men's discipline held and they at least fought on even terms, then there was hope for them. If the enemy suffered enough losses, they would either retreat or negotiate a truce. Surely they would not be so mad as to fight to the point of mutual annihilation.
Now, it is one thing to gain the advantage and drive your enemy to retreat, surrender or destruction. When both sides are about evenly matched, however, there are limits to a man's stamina and troops can only be locked together for so long before they reach their limit. The fist line of the Kyanopolitans finally reached their limit and pulled back to recover. They had a second line of equal strength to replace them--the third being held in reserve further back--, but Seth did not have nearly so many men in the rear ranks to bring forward. This might well prove to be the point where Seth's decision to remain on the field would be proved to be folly as Eldridge feared.
However, the situation changed in a way no reasonable man could have expected. It started just as the Kyanopolitan first line was withdrawing. Seth felt a pulse from Excalibur. He felt it before whenever Umbriel was near, but it was much stronger now. Something was coming. Something powerful and evil.
There were the pained cries of men, both among Seth's forces and the Kyanopolitans. Formations were thrown into disarray as spears and swords burst from the ground. It was happening. The dead were rising. The newly dead also rose up, still bleeding from their mortal wounds. If there was some power, some intelligence behind this, it had to have been waiting for this very moment. Cain's men, Seth's men, the Kyanopolitans, they had all be lured into a trap.
If panic took hold, all would be lost. This was where Seth needed to rally his men.
"Courage, men! Watch the ground and begin our retreat!"
However, when Seth turned his horse to look northward, he saw more of the dead, thousands raised up to bar the way. It was the same sight to the south and to the west, Strangely, the east lay open. Seth wondered what it meant. Was that the path of escape or did it only lead to something worse? Whatever the case, they had a journey of days before them no matter what course they took.
As if all this was not bad enough, Hell rained down from the skies. It was heralded by a roar unlike any creature that roamed the earth. Even the walking dead seemed to be stilled by it. hen a brilliant stream of red flame poured out from the heavens, devastating the Kyanopolitans' third line. This was but a prelude to the nightmare itself. From the clouds descended a great Dragon with scales black as pitch and red as blood. Three pairs of massive leather wings carried it as it touched down on the ground. It had to be at least twenty feet at the shoulder and some eighty or ninety feel from head to tail. It would have fit within the walls of Caer Pendragon only if you uprooted the keep. They had little hope to survive against the walking dead alone, but now how could there be any hope to survive?
Seth could feel Excalibur grow warmer in his hand. Of course, a legendary enchanted blade would surely serve for dragonslaying, but unless Excalibur granted him the ability to grow twenty feet high, how was he ever going to reach the Dragon's vital points? Even if the Dragon was considerate enough to lie down and not struggle, it would take Seth hours to dig through to its heart of cut through ts neck, assuming Excalibur could pierce dragonscale, which legends said was harder than tempered steel.
"Don't think about the impossible, King of Pendragon," Umbriel said. "Only think about what is possible."
"What are you talking about?"
Umbriel pointed to the Dragon with his sword.
Indeed, Seth was so awestruck at the sight of the Dragon that he did not even notice that one of its forelimbs was shriveled and deformed and that it walked somewhat precariously on only three legs. In that shriveled forelimb the Dragon clutched a black stone.
"There is power in that stone," Umbriel said. "It may work some woe on that creature if it were separated from it."
Umbriel held up his free hand and put the edge of his sword to his palm, saying, "A Dragon is not made so differently from a man. That blade of yours should cut it and if it should lose its balance, you can leave the rest to me. Do you have the courage for it, King of Pendragon?"
"If the armies of the dead don't get us first, that thing is going to kill us all," Seth replied.
"No others can go with you," Umbriel warned. "Your sword will protect you rom the Dragon's dark power, but no common mortal can live for long bathed in such power."
"What about you?"
"I am a creature of Death and Darkness, O King. Such power has become as mother's milk to me."
"Then drink your fill of it, sicarius. Let's go."
Though a part of him was reluctant to abandon his forces, he knew his men would try to stop him if they knew what he meant to do. Barring that, they would bravely and foolishly rally around him to their deaths, accomplishing nothing. Seth spurred Eternus and made his way to the Dragon at full gallop, hacking away at any of the walking death that were in his path as he went. Between the walking dead and the Dragon, the Kyanopolitan formation was in chaos and posed no obstacle.
Seth worried that Eternus might panic the closer they got to the Dragon, but while many beast fear the unknown, for Eternus the unknown seemed to make him heedless. This was good as the plan would never work if Seth had to approach the Dragon on foot.
Fortunately for Seth, the Dragon was too preoccupied spewing out fire and lashing out with its tail to notice a lone rider coming up underneath it. Much like a bird, the Dragon's toes were covered in scaled bands and while the outer side was scaled, the inner part was left exposed. The hide was still thick enough that few mortal weapons could pierce it, but it was not nearly so formidable as the scales.
Riding up alongside the foot of the forelimb that held up the entire front half of the Dragon's body, Seth plunged Excalibur into the meat of the back side and steadying the blade with both hands, he cut clean across. The Dragon shrieked in pain and collapsed onto its side. Seth only narrowly avoided being crushed as it toppled over. While the Dragon was distracted, Umbriel made his move. Seth did not see it himself because he was busy putting some distance between himself and the Dragon and soon found himself beset by the dead. However, the Dragon cried out again, many orders of magnitude greater than when Seth had cut it, and began thrashing about violently. Seth caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a bleeding stump where the deformed forelimb once was. Apparently Umbriel cut off the entire arm to separate the Dragon from its stone.
The Dragon tried to take to the air, but one of its wings had been broken when it fell onto its side. It collapsed once more with a great crash and continued to writhe in agony, shrieking and spewing out fire wildly. Its body contorted in pain as it struggled to drag itself away crawling on its belly, sloughing off scales as it went. The armies of the dead in its way were plowed under like so much chaff.
Umbriel soon appeared making his way to Seth, soaking in the Dragon's blood which gave off so much smoke that you would think he was on fire. In one hand he carried the black stone that was held by the Dragon while he cut down any of the dead in his way with the other. Seth could feel Excalibur warning him of how much greater was the dark energy swirling about the sicarius now that he had the stone.
"The Dragon is vanquished, O King," he said, "but every man here will be joining the armies of the dead if we do not strike down their master." He pointed eastward with his sword. "This stone is drawn to dark power and there is where it desires to go. There we will find our true enemy."
"Our true enemy?" Seth asked pointedly.
"I may be a creature of Death and Darkness," Umbriel replied, "but I serve Justice and Vengeance. The master of the dead serves neither and so he must be judged."
"And you think we can defeat this master of the dead?"
"Between the powers of Light and Darkness, yes, there is some hope. More than you will find here."
"Then there is no time to lose. Every moment that passes, the armies of the dead grow."
With that, Seth Pendragon and the sicarius Umbriel set out eastward, to the City of the Dead, not knowing what they would find there or the reunion that awaited them.