Chapter 5
Facing the Dark One

AZ 1456 - Spring
The Ruins of Arkadia, The Darklands

No one expected the Darklands campaign would be easy, but even being fully aware of the dangers involved, Xanthe had difficulty accepting their losses. Half their number lost in the first year and halved again in the second. They would not last another year. They had to make a decisive strike and vanquish the Monarch Lich soon or not at all.
The Zephyrian forces were much weakened from when they first arrived in the Darklands, but the enemy did not shed Zephyrian blood without taking losses of its own. Ionathas had defeated the dreaded Knight of Chaos and now his stronghold in the ruins of Castle Euros had become the headquarters for the Zephyrians. They were currently marshaling their forces for the march on the Monarch Lich's Black Keep.
A person could be forgiven disbelieving one of the greatest cities of all humanity stood before them, one that dwarfed even Hesperia in all her glory. Of course, none of the cities of old Euros remained intact, so why should its capital be any different?
Xanthe, however, was not looking back at the ruins of Arkadia from her place in the forward camp on the city's outskirts. Rather, she was looking on ahead to the horizon, where the Black Keep waited for them. Between them and the Black Keep were sinister towers rising up in two rows along the Monarch Lich's via regia.
Lord Aristides was by her side, also looking to the north and scowling at what he saw.
"I do not like the looks of those towers," he said. "The Devil's Fingers, the men call them. Five and five, just like the Noctifer himself is reaching up out of Hades to seize any army foolish enough to march down that road."
"But march we must," Xanthe replied gravely, "though perhaps not by that way."
"We will know which way when the scouts return."
To gauge the strength of the enemy before marching forward, a scouting party was sent ahead. Three days passed and they did not return, so a second party was sent. That was three days ago.
"They are late," Xanthe said. "Too late."
"Give them a few more days, Your Majesty," Lord Aristides said.
Though it was unbecoming for a Xotika, Xanthe could not restrain her mounting impatience.
"We cannot afford to tarry any longer. The men's spirits waver the more we huddle in these ruins with no progress."
Lord Aristides' tone grew increasingly exasperated.
"We cannot proceed blindly either, Your Majesty. We must first know what awaits us out there."
"And so we will," Xanthe replied resolutely. "I will go."
"You Majesty, you cannot possibly--"
Xanthe did not let him finish his objection.
"The men will see their Queen lead from the front and it will raise their morale."
"Not if you get yourself killed," Lord Aristides countered, sounding less deferential than he should.
"I will allow a small bodyguard then," Xanthe conceded.
"Fifty men at the very least."
"Ten will suffice."
"No less than forty."
"Twenty," Xanthe said sharply, "and I will not haggle with you any more, Lord Aristides. The party must be small to move quickly."
Lord Aristides, remembering his place, bowed stiffly.
"As Your Majesty wills."
In a few hours' time, all the necessary preparations were made and the men gathered. Besides the ten scouts, there were four Equestrians, four men of the Royal Bodyguard, and two battlemages for the human part of the Queen's escort and four spearmen, four archers and two battlemages representing the Xotika, all choice men.
Lord Aristides was there to see them off, but before farewells could be exchanged, Xanthe required something of him.
"Lord Aristides, before we depart, I need something of yours," she said, "something close to your heart. It will help me speak to you more easily to report what I see as I see it."
The greater the distance, the greater the strain for Xanthe to reach out with her mind, but an object belonging to the person made it easier to reach him. Xanthe's powers of the mind would allow her to report where the previous scouts had been unable.
Lord Aristides did not ask for this explanation, though. From his right breast he plucked a silver medal, a disc that fit comfortably in the palm of the hand. He handed it to the Queen, saying, "This medal is graven with the image of your late husband the King, crafted the year he took the throne. I have kept it and worn it proudly all my years of service."
Xanthe looked at the image of Solon on the medal. It was not a terribly accurate likeness, but it nevertheless stirred up memories, both her own and the lingering memories of Aristides the medal held. It made the Queen's heart ache. Aristides was perhaps the only one whose love for the King rivaled her own.
"I will guard it well, Lord Aristides," the Queen said, "and now I must give you something of my own to strengthen the bond." She drew back the sleeve of her robe and unfastened a gold bracelet from her wrist. She handed it to Aristides and said, "This bracelet is the seal of my betrothal to King Solon. Keep it close at all times."
Lord Aristides bowed and replied, "It shall be done, Your Majesty."
Xanthe was about to bid Lord Aristides farewell a great commotion caught her attention. A young Xotika forced his way through the cordon of the Royal Bodyguard, shouting "Your Majesty! Your Majesty!"
He knelt before the Queen and was immediately seized by six men of the Royal Bodyguard. Xanthe raised her hand to stop them.
"Release him," she said.
The men of the Bodyguard looked at her somewhat uncertainly before grudgingly releasing the young spearman. Again he knelt before the Queen with head bowed.
"Your Majesty! I pray you include me among your chosen men for this expedition."
Xanthe knew this young Xotika. He was the same spearman who came to her aid when Master Gulmengoel was slain by the shadow child and defended her when the men turned against her. Though lowborn, there was no denying his bravery.
"So be it, Young Einaras," the Queen replied.
"Your servant is unworthy," Einaras said, still keeping his head bowed.
"Are you quite sure, Your Majesty?" Lord Aristides asked. "He is but a common spearman among your people."
Young Einaras was certainly not in the same class as the spearmen chosen for her escort, but birth and record were not the only measures of worth.
"Though he is young, he is zealous for my sake and not without skill," Xanthe said. "Perhaps he can prove himself worthy of greater honor."
"Perhaps," Lord Aristides replied, not hiding his doubts. "The men are assembled and ready, Your Majesty. I pray this is not folly."
"All will be well," Xanthe assured him.
"May it be so, Your Majesty. Fare you well."
And so the expedition began. They kept farther from the via regia than the previous two scouting parties, which may have explained why they encountered no greater threat along the way than a few stray fell beasts. Three days passed and they successfully circumvented the Devil's Fingers without alerting enemy, or so it seemed. They continued to press their advantage and approach the Black Keep.
The party was about a half-day's march to the Keep when they stopped to camp and decide on their next move. Xanthe was looking out to the Black Keep, accompanied by the Royal Bodyguard who was acting as the captain of her escort.
"No sign of the enemy, Your Majesty," the Bodyguard said, "nor of the scouting parties."
Several times Xanthe reached out with her mind to seek out any trace of the previous scouting parties to no avail. The human scouts and the Xotika with their keener senses did not find any sign of them either.
"I cannot sense their presence," Xanthe said, abandoning the latest attempt to search them out. "Surely they are fallen, but what became of them?"
Her concern about the lost scouting parties was immediately cast from her mind when a tremor of magical energy shook her to the core. Her legs nearly gave out on her, but she managed to stay on her feet. Her unsteadiness did not escape the Bodyguard's notice, though.
"Your Majesty?"
The Queen ignored the Bodyguard. Instead, she called out to the nearest battlemage.
"You felt that, did you not? Something is coming."
A speck in the distance, nearly invisible even to Xanthe's eyes, went up into the air from the Black Keep and was quickly coming their way. In mere moments, a large object like a boulder crashed into the ground about a hundred feet from where Xanthe stood, sending up a large cloud of ash. Surely no catapult could fling a stone of that size so far, and even for a feat of magic it was extraordinary.
As dangerous as a stone thrown nearly fifteen miles was, the true nature of the projectile was even worse. As the ash cloud thinned, the shape of a brazen man emerged. He was huge, at least six cubits tall, and the ground shook with each heavy footstep.
"A Talos!" one of the battlemages exclaimed. "A powerful one!"
"None should have survived the fall of Euros!" the other human battlemage cried.
Xanthe had once read of the Taloi, forms of men quickened by magic to serve powerful mages. It was no wonder a nation advanced in the magical arts as Euros would have them, but for one to survive the fall of the kingdom and the ravages of the cursed years that followed...
"What of this walking statue?" an Equestrian scoffed, hefting up his warhammer. "Hit hard enough and it will fall! Charge, men!"
The other three Equestrians waved their spears and roared in assent. The four of them then spurred their mounts to charge at the lumbering Talos. While four of the finest horsemen in Zephyr might appear to be a match for ten-foot man of bronze, Xanthe was gripped with a sense of foreboding.
"No, wait!"
Her cry fell upon deaf ears. The Equestrians either did not hear her or they heard and did not heed her. Whatever the case may have been, they continued to ride forward to their doom. Because of the ponderous pace of the Talos, the Equestrians thought it would prove easy prey. They would not live to regret underestimating a prized relic of old Euros.
The Talos' slow walk was but a deception. With the speed and agility of an acrobat, the Talos sprang at the lead Equestrian and smashed him into the ground with its fist, then swatted two others away with a couple swipes of its free hand. The fourth Equestrian broke off his charge, but he could not escape. The Talos bounded after him, scooping up horse and rider in its hands and dashing both against a nearby outcropping.
"Too fast!" one of the battlemages wailed. "It should not be this fast!"
"Then slow it down!" Xanthe snapped, seizing control of the situation before they shared the Equestrians' grisly fate. "Battlemages, bind it with ice! Men, spread out! Do not let it take more that one man in a single strike! Keep moving!"
Her escort hesitated to part from her, but they were only inviting all their doom by standing there.
"I said move!" Xanthe shouted angrily. "Do not give it an easy target!"
Her anger masked her fear for their sake as well as her own. This was a formidable enemy and it would not be easy to vanquish. She had never encountered a Talos before and would have to plumb the depths of her knowledge to come up with a solution and she would have to do so quickly.
The Talos of legend had a weak spot in its ankle sealed with a nail. Xanthe could not see anything so obvious on this Talos, though. She then recalled an obscure bit of lore about a Talos whose power was bound to a control word found in or on its body somewhere. She had to find that control word, if it even existed, and bring down the creature once and for all.
"Archers! Harry it with arrows! Divide its attention in all directions! Buy us time!"
Though their arrows either broke against the creature's bronze hide or bounced off harmlessly, the attacks from all sides seemed to distract and confuse the Talos. The Xotikan archers were more fleet-footed than their human counterparts. Perhaps they could dodge the Talos' attacks if it focused its attention on one of them. Xanthe did not find out, for an easier target presented itself.
One of the human battlemages took it upon himself to summon jets of flame to bathe the Talos. Apparently he thought his conjured fires would burn hot enough to melt the creature. How foolish...
"No!" Xanthe cried. "I said ice! Not fire!"
The Talos held up his arm to bear the brunt of the flames and once it glowed red-hot, the bronze giant reached out and grabbed the battlemage. His shrieks were terrible but brief.
The Xotikan battlemages were being far cleverer. They breathed their spells into the archers' arrows to keep their distance. Now each arrow struck the with a blast of ice that clung to the Talos' bronze skin. The shots were well-aimed at the joints, slowing the Talos' movements even as the ice would shatter easily. It gave them a fighting chance and it would give Xanthe the time she needed to find the control word.
Xanthe chanted quickly, struggling to evenly divide her focus between the spell and the need to keep moving lest she fall prey to the Talos' might. She had to reveal the hidden truth of the Talos' power. The longer it took her, the more men would die and her own life could easily be forfeit as well. One spell after another failed and with each failure, the Queen grew increasingly desperate.
And then, like a miracle, the truth was revealed.
The hidden inscription on the Talos' forehead glowed with blazing letters of the control word. Trusting instinct more than anything, Xanthe summoned the light to her hand and loosed a shining beam that glanced off the Talos' forehead.
For a moment, Xanthe feared the attack had failed as the Talos took a determined step toward one of the archers, raising its fist to strike before the magical fires burning inside it cooled and the bronze giant became still as stone.
Off-balance, the Talos lurched forward before collapsing with a great noise and a new cloud of ash. The dread guardian of the Black Keep was vanquished at last.
A few of the surviving men raised a cheer.
"We did it!" a Royal Bodyguard exclaimed. "Your Majesty, we did it!"
Their victory, however, was short-lived.
Xanthe's blood chilled and her heart skipped a beat. The awakening of the Talos was enough to unsteady her, but this new power brought her to her knees. She had never felt dark magic this powerful before. It weighed on her like leaden chains, but as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.
Xanthe rose back to her feet, but before anyone could say anything, one of the Royal Bodyguards fell lifeless to the ground with a dull thud. Hovering over the body was man draped in a robe of blackest night. His long lusterless black hair hung from his head like a mourning veil. His features seemed to be carved from granite and showed no more emotion than cold, dead stone. Was this the Monarch Lich?
The man looked to Xanthe with his empty milk-white eyes and began his slow, silent approach.
The two surviving Royal Bodyguards charged at the man with a shout, but their swords passed through him to no effect. The man stretched out his arms at the two Bodyguards and his white eyes clouded over black. Not even a gasp escaped the Bodyguards before they both fell dead to the ground.
Xanthe realized what the man had done. He had stripped the souls from their bodies and added them to his power. It was a most sinister magic but a nearly impossible feat to perform. No, this was not the Monarch Lich, but his power bore the touch of the Lords of Shadow.
One of the archers loosed an arrow, but crumbled into ash before it could meet its mark. Without even looking, the soul-eater stretched out his hand again and the hapless archer burst into purple-black flames. Amid the archer's screams, the soul-eater continued his advance.
Xanthe began to chant wards for whatever good they would do her. She then cast a light beam at the soul-eater to test his power. The greater the saturation of dark energy, the greater the vulnerability to the light. That was the theory, at least.
The beam of light streaked toward the soul-eater, but as it approached him, it slowed, bent and warped, spiraling into the void that was his robe. Though Xanthe had not channeled much energy into the beam, it should have been strong enough to kill a common fell beast. At very least, she expected the soul-eater to block the attack, but instead he simply absorbed it. Perhaps it should have come as little surprise that one capable of stealing souls could also effortlessly absorb the spells of others.
Was she strong enough to cast a spell that would even damage him, let alone vanquish him? She did not know and it would take time to gather the energy for a more powerful spell, time she did not have. And the soul-eater continued to close the distance between them. He never quickened his pace. He did not need to.
Unexpectedly, the soul-eater spoke in voice as low as the Abyss.
"The rich lifeforce of the Firstborn. I will have it."
Xanthe should have known. A Xotika like herself, easily capable of living a thousand years, was a prime target for one such as the soul-eater. It would be the same as consuming a score or more humans.
A voice cried out, "Your Majesty!"
Young Einaras darted between Xanthe and the soul-eater, holding his spear ready to strike.
"No!"
Xanthe held out her hand as if to stop him, a fruitless gesture.
Einaras stood his ground, whispering a charm as he thrust his spear right into the soul-eater's chest. The point made no sound, not that of sinking into flesh or of piercing the empty air. Half the length of Einaras' spear disappeared into the void of the soul-eater's robe and the young warrior could not draw it back out.
Twisted black vines sprang from the soul-eater's chest and from the ground, winding their way around Einaras' arms and legs to bind him fast. He could not escape. The soul-eater reached out and his hand hovered over Einaras' heart. Unlike the humans, a Xotika's soul could not be taken so easily, but trapped as he was, Einaras could do little to resist.
Blindly, Xanthe flung spells at the soul-eater with reckless abandon, anything to force him to break off his attack. They had no effect whatsoever, not a one. It seemed as if nothing would work against him.
"Run, Your Majesty!" Einaras shouted. "Run while I hold it here!"
Xanthe brought her mind into focus. She had to hurry, but unthinking haste accomplished nothing. She fired a blast into the air, clearing the thick cloud cover above. She would need to draw on all the light she could, even amidst the perpetual haze of these cursed lands. She chanted feverishly, channeling energy and light into her hands. It would take all the power she could hold to stand any chance.
"Run, Your Majesty!" Einaras said again. "Please, go! You cannot save me, but you can save yourself! The men, they need-- "
The young warrior was cut off by a gasp of pain. His flesh's grip on his soul was weakening and the spell was still far from ready. Orbs of light formed around both of Xanthe's hands and grew steadily as she continued to chant, but would it be ready in time?
Einaras struggled to free himself from the black vines, to release his spear, even chant what spells he knew. Thankfully, the surviving Xotikan battlemages joined in with Xanthe's chant directing the energy they gathered to her, but it was not enough. The need was too great, the time too short, and she herself too insufficient an instrument for the task that needed to be done.
Helpless to stop it, Xanthe watched in despair as the soul-eater finally won out over Einaras and the young warrior gave up the ghost. He slumped in death but remained standing until vines vanished and the soul-eater passed through him. Xanthe could feel the tears running down her cheeks, but she did not dare stop chanting. It might yet be the only thing that saved her and the handful of her escort who remained.
The soul-eater paused a moment to clench his fist, sealing in fresh lifeforce he had just consumed.
"There is much power in the souls of you shimelen," he said, using the Xotika's own word for themselves. "Your El-Naia may save your flesh from corruption, but she cannot save your souls from me."
So dedicated was he to his duty that Einaras' body remained. El-Naia's Gift did not claim him. All Xotika were trained from youth to never be so attached to this world that they would rebuff El-Naia's Gift, but it did happen on occasion. It was all the more reason for Xanthe to see that Einaras' sacrifice was not in vain.
The soul-eater was not far now. In mere moments he would be close enough to attempt to take the Queen's soul just as he had with Einaras'. Was her spell strong enough or was she simply going to provide her enemy with more energy to use against them?
Xanthe continued to draw energy until the last possible moment when something strange happened. The soul-eater's typically expressionless face contorted, as if his bowels were twisting--if a creature such as him even still had bowels.
Seeing the apparent moment of vulnerability, whatever its cause, Xanthe saw what was perhaps her best opportunity to strike. Joining the massive orbs of light in both hands, she fired a mighty beam of light many orders of magnitude above her feeble first attack. Though part of her expected this spell to fail just as the first one she cast against the soul-eater, it was not be. Rather than being stopped or slowed, the beam hit full-force. There was nothing to see as the soul-eater was wholly overwhelmed by the light. A pained howl could be heard, but quickly silence prevailed.
The soul-eater was gone. Xanthe could hardly believe it. A terrible price had been paid, but two of the mightiest foes yet faced by the Zephyrians were vanquished. If that could not be called a miracle, then the word had no meaning for Xanthe.
The Queen approached Einaras' fallen body and knelt beside him. This was not how it was supposed to be. Yes, death had come for many already, but it was different for the Xotika. Until now, no fallen Xotika had failed to be taken by El-Naia's Gift. It was tragic, of course, but also a strangely proud moment for one so young and obscure to show such great devotion.
"You have proven yourself worthy of greater honor indeed," the Queen whispered to the slain warrior.
Her mourning was cut short when an archer shouted, "Your Majesty, be on your guard! Something new approaches yet!"
Despite all that had happened, it appeared that their trial was not yet over. A figure appeared in the distance and slowly but surely approached Xanthe and the remnant of her party. There was no great magic about this figure. It was the shape of a man, humbly clad and eerily having the stench of death about him.
"Who are you?" Xanthe challenged the figure when it came within hearing distance.
The figure continued to walk toward her, saying, "I was once Pollux, last King of Euros. I was called back from the land of the dead to serve the Lord of Shadow. I am ordered to deliver a message to you, O Queen of Goldleaf.
"The Lord of Shadow greets you. Long has he waited for this day to come. He did not expect you to be so willing to hazard life and limb, but he shall honor your courage with a special courtesy. He awaits you at the Sigil of Omnimancy south of here. If your courage does not fail you, you will go to face him, Queen against King, and you will duel to death.
"If you should win, my master's army of the dead with return to dust and his control over the fell beasts of the land will be broken, leaving them little more than common animals. I do not need to say what will happen should you fail. However, should your courage leave you and you shrink from this challenge, know that my master's forces already surround the ruins of Arkadia and from the ashes of my fallen city will rise a million slain to carry the Zephyrian host down to Hades."
The dead king stopped and looked directly at Xanthe with his dull, glassy eyes, looking to take her measure.
"What say you, O Queen?" Pollux asked.
So this was what the Monarch Lich did with his power? Xanthe could feel the anger welling in her.
"Bite your tongue, you dead worm," the Queen hissed. "I will go to your master and the Light goes with me."
Apathetic in his life after death, the fleshly shade of King Pollux turned away and plodded back to the Black Keep. There was nothing for them there. Xanthe instead turned southward. The Sigil of Omnimancy awaited her... as did the Monarch Lich and the final confrontation of this long and brutal war.