Chapter 4
A Plague of Snakes

AZ 1455 - Late Spring
Castle Zephyr, Hesperia, Zephyr

Daphne stood on the ramparts overlooking the main gate to the palace. Today was the appointed date of Uriel's return from his latest expedition to the mountains. The previous autumn he set out on his quest to unearth the lost cities of the Nanoi. Though the Nanoi did their best to seal the tunnels and fill their hoards with deadly traps, their craft was no match for the intrepid young treasure hunter's skill.
Uriel's discoveries proved a great boon for Zephyr. Once he uncovered the bountiful treasures resting in the mountains, Daphne gave his excavations official sanction. He was able to carry away far more than he could on his own and it was much more reliable than dealing with any hirelings he might pick up at docks and taverns. Also, by providing most of the resources to support the excavations, the kingdom was entitled to the lion's share of the treasure.
Daphne felt a little guilty plundering the ancestral home of the Nanoi, but the kingdom needed gold. If they had another poor harvest, the people would starve without imported grain. The foreign markets would know of their desperation and mark up the prices accordingly. With the treasuries all but empty, they would be forced to borrow what they needed and debt had a way of giving the creditors leverage over the debtor. So long as she was steward over the kingdom, Daphne would not allow this to happen. The riches of the Nanoi would be Zephyr's salvation.
Daphne pushed these thoughts aside when she caught sight of the caravan approaching. Two centuries of infantry stretched out in four long columns marched alongside dozens of heavy-laden wagons loaded down with tons of gold, silver, iron and bronze. As the head of the formation called out to the gatekeepers to grant them passage, Daphne eagerly made her way down to meet them, Uriel most of all.
When she made it down to the ground level, the tribune leading the formation broke off, dismounted from his horse and knelt before the Princess.
"Your Highness, we have returned," the tribune said. "We have eight wagons of gold, thirteen of silver, ten of iron and steel, and eight of bronze and brass. We lost four men and had twenty-four injuries, three of which have been rendered permanently invalid. Furthermore, we--"
Daphne was not really listening to the tribune. Instead she was preoccupied looking for Uriel, trying to search out his presence with her mind. Surely he would not have stayed behind when he promised to return.
The tribune's words about deaths and injuries, which she paid little attention to, suddenly flared in her mind. Uriel always took it upon himself to disarm most of the traps the Nanoi had left behind. Had he been injured? Had he been, Heaven forbid, killed?
A voice whispered in her ear, "You should really be listening to the man, Princess."
Daphne let out a rather undignified squeak of surprise, quickly turning around to see Uriel standing right behind her. Her Bodyguards, who had similarly been caught unawares, immediately reached for their swords.
Raising his hands, Uriel took a step back and said, "Easy there, boys. It's just me."
The senior of the Bodyguards scowled and said, "Master Uriel, I must insist that you refrain from your japes. You could have been cut down."
"Oh, I don't know about that, Sir Hector," Uriel replied. "I've sparred with you before."
"Were you not a guest in Her Highness' favor, I would make you answer for this attack on my honor," Sir Hector growled.
"Calm down," Uriel said. "Surely you're man enough to bear a joke or two."
"Peace, both of you," Daphne said.
Sir Hector nodded dutifully while Uriel just stood there and grinned, still holding up his hands.
"Lower your arms, Uriel," the Princess said. "And stop that grinning. You vex my poor Bodyguards."
"As you wish, Princess," Uriel replied, lowering his arms but still grinning like a rogue.
Daphne turned back to the tribune and said, "Thank you for your report. You may continue after the carts have been unloaded and we have a formal tally."
"Yes, Your Highness," the tribune replied. "By your leave..."
As the tribune returned to his horse, Daphne turned back to Uriel and said, "Walk with me, good sir."
"With pleasure."
The Bodyguards gave Uriel unpleasant looks but allowed him in their defensive ring around the Princess. As they were all walking, Daphne asked Uriel, "How did you sneak up on me without the Bodyguards noticing?"
Uriel shrugged. "It wasn't hard. Everyone was distracted by Sir Octavian."
"I can believe you thwarting the fleshly senses, but how did you elude my powers of the mind?"
"Your Alf powers can be distracted just as easily as the eyes and ears. I've actually been testing the limits of your powers for a while now as a lark."
Daphne frowned.
"Aw, don't make that face, Princess," Uriel said. "I didn't mean any harm by it."
"I know," Daphne said, but said nothing more afterward.
When they entered the palace garden, Daphne told the Bodyguards, "Leave us."
"But, Your Highness..."
It took months for Daphne to convince her Bodyguards to grant her a measure of privacy with Uriel, but his little stunt had made Sir Hector newly wary. She simply gave Sir Hector a stern look.
He bowed and said, "We will be close, Your Highness."
The Bodyguards withdrew, though not far, Daphne knew. Still, it was sufficient. She took the opportunity to embrace Uriel, squeezing him as tightly as she could.
"I missed you," she said quietly.
"Easy there, Princess," Uriel said. "You're gonna get your clothes all dirty."
"I can bear with a little dirt."
Uriel shrugged and returned the embrace.
The Princess gripped Uriel's robe and whispered, "When I did not see you, I feared the worst."
Ever flippant, the treasure hunter replied, "Aw, no Duerg trap or cave-in's gonna do me in."
Daphne looked up at him and asked, "Must you continue to participate in these expeditions? Is it not enough?"
"Princess, this is my life. I'm a treasure hunter."
"You could be more than that. So much more."
"Listen, Princess..."
"Please, when it is just the two of us, I have asked you to call me Daphne."
Uriel was silent and furrowed his brow. Even though she knew she ought to refrain, she tried searching his mind, but he was skilled at hiding his thoughts from her. If she dug any deeper, he would know and she did not want that. It took him a while, but finally he spoke up to share his thoughts with her.
"Listen, Daphne," he said hesitantly, "I know, I know you've got a soft spot for me... and I'd be lyin' if I didn't say I felt the same way, but you, you're a princess and I'm just a common vagabond. It'd never work. I hear the whispers. People have a hard enough time accepting an Alfish halfbreed as their ruler. They already think you're sullyin' your honor with me."
Defiantly, Daphne replied, "Let the gossips have their whispers."
Much as she would have liked it, even if for only a little while, Uriel did not let her indulge in her little rebellion against her station.
"You could lose everything. I'm just not worth it."
Daphne took hold of his hand and said, "You are worth it to me."
Uriel looked away from her.
"I shouldn't have stayed..."
"You promised you would not leave me again."
Uriel's defenses weakened and Daphne did not have to dig to sense the conflict within him. He wanted to stay but felt obliged to go.
"Dammit... Why do you hafta make things so hard?"
Daphne gripped his robe tighter. His conflict magnified her own. She was torn between her desires and her duty and she did not know if it was kinder to Uriel to drawn him closer or to let him go. Neither of them could commit to one path or the other and so they remained trapped in the middle.
"Do you not wish to be with me any longer?" Daphne asked.
"It's not that," Uriel replied. "You know it's not that. Seven hells, if you were an ordinary girl, I'd take you here and now."
Uriel took hold of Daphne by her shoulders. A surge of warmth flooded into her. The tight rein on his emotions slackened and the brief flare of passion ignited her own. She wanted him desperately, as much as he wanted her. It was nearly enough that she could forget where she was, who she was, and let their passion take them to whatever end, but Uriel abruptly closed himself off again and it had all the chilling effect of a winter breeze.
Uriel gently gripped Daphne's wrists and pulled her hands free of his robe, pushing her away softly.
"But you're not an ordinary girl," he said. "You're a princess. One day you'll be a queen, but not if you keep me around."
Eager to feel the warmth of their mutual passion again, Daphne defied all good sense and told him, "I do not care about becoming a queen. I would be an ordinary woman for you. It is you that I want."
Uriel gave her a critical look.
"You're not the type to abandon your responsibilities so easily."
He was right and realizing the carelessness of her words cooled her head a little. She did not have to abandon all reason to fulfill her desires. She set her mind to work to devise a solution that would not require her to abdicate her responsibilities.
"Perhaps... perhaps when this war is over, I can get my parents' blessing. I was never meant to rule. Lord Balios has been agitating for the throne for years. He and his sons can have it."
"Are they really the ones you want to rule Zephyr?" Uriel asked her.
Neither Lord Balios nor his sons would be kings in the mold of her father, but she did not care about any of that. Her heart and mind were fixed on justifying her plan.
"There are good kings and bad," she said. "A good king can bear a bad heir and a bad king a good heir. You never know."
She thought on her brother and what a terrible king he would have been. If a man like her father could bear such a horrible heir, surely there could be a good heir in Lord Balios' line. That is what she wanted to believe, but Uriel was not so easily convinced.
"I'm no scholar, but it seems like bad usually follows bad."
"Zephyr is not the king's alone," Daphne said. "If a king is too bad, the lords can remove him."
Uriel was even more incredulous.
"So now we have to put our trust in the lords, do we? I can't say that makes me feel any better."
Daphne was starting to grow annoyed with him. Was it so difficult for him to agree with her? If he did not want her after all, he should just come out and say it.
"This is not your land, Uriel. Why should you care what comes of it?"
Uriel's expression softened and he said, "I care because it's your land and if you're honest with yourself, you know you can't very well abandon it."
Daphne realized she was being irrational and it shamed her. Nothing prepared her for a situation like this. She never thought she would encounter personal desires so great that she would seek to spurn her duty. It would have been easy for Uriel to take advantage of her if he was a different sort of man, but he did not let herself dive headlong into folly and she loved him all the more for it.
She could feel her heart tighten in her chest. Her people had four different words for love: amical love, carnal love, familial love, and spiritual love. The amical love blossomed quickly as she began to knew him and it was the burning fires of carnal love that wreaked so much havoc on her reason, but it was in that moment when she realized how much he was willing to sacrifice for her and she for him that she wondered if spiritual love had awakened between them. The feeling was indescribable. Now more than ever she wanted him by her side forever.
She wanted to tell him as much, but a herald burst in flanked by a couple Bodyguards.
"Your Highness!"
Though Uriel had already put some distance between them, he stepped back further, and Daphne bottled up the surge of emotions roiling within her to tend to her royal duties.
"What is it?" she asked.
"In the sea to the east they spotted what appeared to be a great shadow stretching out over the waters," the herald replied. "It is fast approaching our shores. Several fishing boats have already been consumed."
It could not be Carpos returning from Notos to mount another invasion. Daphne feared it was something far worse. There was no time to lose.
"Summon Lords Loukios and Dionysios at once," she said. "When you have done that, send a herald to Lord Eusebios and tell him to put the urban cohorts on alert. I do not wish to start a panic in the city, but I want them ready for whatever may come. Summon Master Ptolemaios as well. I fear we may need the Royal Mages' Circle for what is coming."
The herald bowed and said, "It shall be done, Your Highness."
The herald left, but the Bodyguards remained where they were.
Uriel looked to Daphne and asked her, "What do you think it is?"
"I do not know, but I feel a strong foreboding."
"Yeah, I got a bad feelin' about this too."
Daphne had a carriage prepared and waited at the main gate for Lords Loukois and Dionysios and Master Ptolemaios. The old archmage was the last to meet them.
Bobbing his head, Master Ptolemaios wheezed, "Your Highness, I apologize for the delay."
"Catch your breath, Master Ptolemaios," Daphne said. "It is fine, but we must tarry no longer. We do not know what we face, but I fear it is the Darklanders."
"The Darklanders?" Lord Loukios asked. "But how? Surely the invasion has not failed!"
Lord Loukios was Lord Menelaos' replacement as prefect of the Royal Guard. He did not quite share his predecessor's stoic reserve, but he was a good man and reliable. Though there was indeed the chance that the expedition to the Darklands had failed, Daphne refused to believe it and would not allow anyone else to entertain such a notion.
In an effort to allay Lord Loukios' fears while buttressing her own convictions, Daphne said, "The Darklanders could still send forces over even while our people are locked in battle with them. They must think we are weak, unprepared. We will show them otherwise.
"I have already sent word to Lord Eusebios to put the urban cohorts on alert, but I mean to stop this threat before it has the chance to breach the walls. Lord Dionysios, how many men of the Fourth Legion are in the city?"
"With the men who returned with the caravan, about six hundred, Your Highness."
"And there are about seven hundred men of the Royal Guard, yes, Lord Loukios?"
"Yes, Your Highness, but the Royal Guard should not be diverted from the palace grounds. Protecting the palace and Your Highness is our first priority."
"Then they can protect me from the front."
"Your Highness, no," Lord Loukios said bluntly. "My predecessor may have countenanced your recklessness, but I shall not."
Lord Loukios struggled with the shadow of Lord Menelaos, but he risked falling into the same trap.
"Your predecessor overstepped his bounds, Lord Loukios," Daphne said tersely, "and I do not wish for you to do the same."
With Lord Dionysios' support of Daphne's decisions almost unconditional, it was Master Ptolemaios who came to Lord Loukios' aid.
"Your Highness, we do not yet understand the threat we face."
"If these are truly Darklanders," Daphne replied, "my magical abilities will be useful."
"With all due respect, Your Highness, you are not trained as a battlemage and even if you were, we cannot hazard your person on the front. It is admirable that you wish to follow in His Majesty's example, but your value to the kingdom does not lie in your magical abilities."
Daphne knew that trampling over her subordinates to have her own way would erode her authority just as much as meekly submitting to their every instruction, so she decided to strike a compromise.
"I will go up on the ramparts above the Fish Gate to watch over the battle and direct it from there."
Master Ptolemaios was wise enough understand her gesture and replied, "A gracious concession, Your Highness."
Realizing he had gained as much as he could, Lord Loukios said, "Very well then, Your Highness, but I am deploying all the Royal Bodyguards and both turmae of the Equestrians to the Fish Gate."
"So be it," Daphne said. "Come, my lords. There is no time to waste."
Once the Royal Bodyguards, the Royal Mages' Circle and the Equestrians had all assembled, Daphne and Uriel loaded into the carriage and were taken to the Fish Gate. A turma of Equestrians was posted on either side of the gate and a few of the Royal Mages joined the Bodyguards with Daphne on the ramparts while the others went to assist the battlemages of the Fourth Legion.
Daphne looked out on their forces forming up on the docks and feared that it would not be enough.
"Here they come," Uriel said grimly.
Daphne could see the shadow on the water, stretching out for many fathoms in all directions. A catapult from the shore batteries landed a successful hit, opening a large hole in the shadow, but almost immediately the hole was filled back in. Only when the shadow reached the docks did it take form as a great, terrible writhing mass.
"Serpents..." Daphne said. "Thousands and thousands of serpents... How could they have swum all the way from the Darklands?"
"With magic much is possible, Your Highness..." Master Ptolemaios replied.
No common serpent would travel all this way nor, would they come together in such numbers with a single common purpose.
"There is some power that binds these creatures together," Daphne said. "We must find that power and destroy it before we are overwhelmed."
The pikemen in the infantry formations began to stab at the oncoming wall of serpents while battlemages stepped forward to loose streams of flame from their staves like Dragon's breath. This was not enough to hold them back but that was not even the worst of it. The shallows erupted like a geyser and out emerged a giant serpent that had to be over fifty feet long.
"What is that!?" Lord Loukios exclaimed.
"I'd say that's the power that binds 'em," Uriel said, instinctively gripping at the hilt of his sword.
An astonished Master Ptolemaios added, "I have never seen anything like it."
Daphne had never seen the likes of such a creature either, but something in the back of her mind told her that she had heard of something similar. It was not any of the legends of Dragons. It was something different. And then it came to her.
"I remember now, " Daphne said, "an old pagan legend. The great serpent Python who ruled at Delphi. He was slain by the sun god Apollo."
"I've heard of Apollo's cult," Uriel said, "but not this Python story. How'd he kill it?"
"According to the legend, he used an enchanted bow and arrow."
"We have anything like that here?"
"Not enchanted bows," Daphne said, "but we do have big ones. The ballistae." She then called a herald and told him, "Send word to Lord Dionysios to focus the ballistae on that giant serpent."
"Yes, Your Highness," the herald said with a bow and left.
It did not take long for them to position the ballistae and loose the bolts at the giant serpent. Three of the four bolts successfully pierced its thick hide, but the bolts only succeeded in making the giant serpent angry. It unhinged its jaw and a light shone from deep within its gullet. It then spewed out a beam of light that razed the ground, pierced the stone at the legionaries' feet and incinerated one of the ballistae and all the men who crewed it.
"Does the legend say anything about that?" Uriel asked.
Daphne could only shake her head in stunned silence.
"No," she muttered. "I have never heard of anything like this, not in any history, legend, myth or fable."
The giant serpent blasted another ballista, only this time most of the crewmen fled before they shared the fate of the first crew. Another beam then cut into one of the infantry formations, scattering the men it did not kill instantly.
Daphne knew she had to do something or the entire Fourth Legion would be lost and there would be little to stop the giant serpent from rampaging all throughout the city.
She did not think about she was doing. She only acted. Closing her eyes and holding out her hands, she conjured two small orbs of light. Chanting rapidly, she channeled energy into the orbs, drawing on the abundant light of the sun overheard, and the two orbs steadily grew in size. She then raised her arms and merged the two orbs into one, growing larger still. When she had channeled all the energy she could safely control, she opened her eyes and slowly lowered her arms to aim the orb of light at the giant serpent. While it was preoccupied loosing another blast, Daphne released the energy of the orb in a blast of her own.
Her beam of light struck almost instantly and she struggled to keep it trained on her target as it was knocked back by the blast. It was knocked all the way back into the water, but instead of keeping the beam focused on the giant serpent to the very end, she used the last of the orb's energy to sweep across the great mass of lesser serpents. It killed many of them, but it was a poor decision on her part.
The Fourth Legion did not even have the chance to rally and regroup when the giant serpent burst forth from the water again, only this time it had no interest in wasting time with the legionaries on the docks. It slithered forward with remarkable speed and all the mass of serpents with it, not bothering to actively attack the men who stood in the way. The giant serpent and its thousands of minions threw their massive combined weight into the wall. The collision nearly caused Daphne to lose her footing.
Somehow, the giant serpent managed to climb up the wall. The ramparts were scarcely wide enough to support it and a couple hapless Bodyguards were crushed when it pulled itself up top.
Some Bodyguards tried throwing their spears, which bounced harmlessly off its scales, and the few bold enough to charge at it found their spears shattered on impact. The giant serpent ignored them, though. Its lidless eyes were focused wholly on Daphne.
Fixing its jaw back on its hinges, the giant serpent said, "Princess Daphne of Zephyr, I presume? You save me the trouble of hunting you. I have something for you, courtesy of the Monarch Lich."
Unhinging its jaw again, the giant serpent heaved and vomited up a fleshy blob that landed on pavestones of the ramparts with a mucousy splash. Daphne recoiled in disgust. What on earth was is supposed to be?
The giant serpent stretched out its body to hover over Daphne, casting its long shadow over her. Daphne's eyes went back down again when she heard a sickly sound from the blob. A black claw poked out and slowly cut open the blob from the inside. Out crawled a naked, vaguely human figure. Its skin was black and its fingers unnaturally long. As it drew itself up on its feet, Daphne realized it was a she, though her body was so slim and featureless that she could barely be distinguished as female. Her face was similarly featureless with barely any nose or ears to speak of. Only her eyes were truly distinctive, large and black as polished obsidian. There was no reading those eyes and her mind was also inscrutable, an empty black void.
After a tense moment of silent confrontation, the creature bowed her head, wrapped her arms around herself and hunched over. She then started to shrink. Her skin lightened, her fingers shortened, and chestnut ringlets cascaded down from her previously hairless head. When she looked up, it was Daphne's own face that was looking back at her.
Daphne stared awkwardly at the imitation of herself. What was the meaning of this? Before she could ask, though, a slight grin formed on the mimic's lips as she sank into the giant serpent's shadow at their feet. Just before her head disappeared, a single thought escaped the inky blackness of her mind.
Kill.
Daphne looked down at the ground in front of her and behind her. The giant serpent's shadow completely enveloped her. There was no escape. She could not even tell the others to run when she felt cold fingers on her neck.
This was it.
The cold fingers squeezed as if to strangle her but then pulled away. Daphne turned to see the mimic being held roughly by the jaw by Uriel as he drove a knife into her back. Her body reverted to her natural state as she started to convulse in her death throes. Before she breathed her last, though, she took the long, thin black blade in her hand and thrust it over her shoulder, stabbing Uriel square in the chest. Snapping off the blade, her black eyes misted over grey and her body went limp.
Uriel pulled his knife out of the mimic's body and let it fall lifelessly to the ground. He looked down at the broken blade sticking out of his chest and plucked it out, gasping in pain and clutching at the wound.
"Uriel!" Daphne cried, rushing in to his side to support him before he fell down.
Only then did the giant serpent realize something was amiss and looked down to see the mimic dead on the ground.
"Noooo!" it howled.
Its anger and sorrow were so great that it nearly split Daphne's head. She did not take the serpent for a thinking creature until it spoke to her and until now its emotions were were too subtle to notice amidst the flood of fear and panic around her. Its fury was focused on Daphne and Uriel and there was no time to raise any defense or attempt to escape.
The serpent struck too quickly for the Princess to do anything, but they did not die. She looked out to see Master Ptolemaios with his staff outstretched. He had raised a barrier just in time to repel the serpent's attack, but this only made it angrier. It glared at the archmage and surely would have struck him next were it not for a ballista bolt sinking deep into its neck where Daphne's light beam had damaged its scales.
The serpent gagged but did not fall over dead, a testament to its great strength. It did not try to continue its attack either. Instead it rolled off the ramparts, landing roughly down below, and slinked back into bay with the rest of the serpents following after it. A couple parting shots by the shore batteries added insult to injury to the retreating serpents.
Where there was anger and sorrow, only sorrow remained. Tears rolled down Daphne's cheeks unbidden. She had no love for the serpent, but the curse of her powers of the mind was that she could not help but feel the powerful emotions of those around her. She pushed those feelings aside, though, as she owed her tears to the faithful men in her service who were dead or wounded.
"That was a close one, Princess," Uriel said.
With the heat of the moment passed, Daphne recalled the true nature of the mimic from her studies. She was a shadow walker, one of the most dreaded servants of the Dark Race. With their powers, one shadow walker could easily kill a hundred men. For Uriel to kill one defied all belief.
"How did you do that?" Daphne asked. "How did you get behind a creature like that without it realizing?"
Uriel gave her a wry grin and said, "I guess it was just that good at imitating you."
Daphne remembered how he managed to sneak up on her earlier that day when the caravan returned. It was the same principle. The shadow walker was wholly focused on Daphne and would never have expected a mere human could get the drop on her. It was amazing all the same and Daphne was about to tell him as much when his legs suddenly gave out and he collapsed, taking Daphne with him because she could not support his weight.
Daphne then remembered the wound the shadow walker gave him. She pulled back his robe and opened up the hole in the black garment underneath to get a better look at it. The wound was deep, but it was not bleeding much. Daphne pulled off her glove and pressed the palm of her hand against the wound. This would be just like the time they first met, she told herself. She focused her powers to mending the wound, but as she channeled the energy into his body, it felt like thorns were jabbing into her hand. The shadow walker's blade was enchanted with black magic and the dark energies that remained would not easily be dispelled.
"Stay with me, Uriel," Daphne said.
Uriel was already pale and sweating. He winced with each breath he took.
"I can't make any promises..."
Daphne looked to Master Ptolemaios and told him, "The wound is cursed. Simply infusing it with light energy is not dispelling it. Do you know what to do?"
Master Ptolemaios approached and stooped down by the discarded fragment of the shadow walker's blade. Cutting off part of the hem of his robe, he used it to pick up the blade. He examined it briefly and then held his hand over it to search out its properties. Even without touching it directly, he recoiled when he felt its power.
"This is powerful magic, and very evil," he said. "It was made for killing and I do not know if any of the Circle have the power to counteract it."
"Get every mage of the Circle up here now!" Daphne demanded. "Someone has to know!"
"Your Highness..."
"Call them! Now!"
Uriel reached up and said with a voice barely above a whisper, "Easy there, Princess. It'll be alright."
Daphne turned back to Uriel and said, "Of course it will. Someone in the Circle will know how to break the curse and you will be healed and you can go swimming in a mountain of gold or whatever else your heart desires."
"What my heart desires, huh?"
Using what little strength he had left, Uriel held Daphne's head and brought it down so he could kiss her. No sooner had their lips touched that his arm went slack and fell to the ground.
"Uriel?"
Daphne pulled back to see Uriel ashen-faced with dark circles under his closed eyes. Her vision blurred from the tears welling up in her eyes. This could not be happening. After everything they had been through, it could not possibly end like this.
"URIEL!"
Her cry was in vain, for there was no answer.