Chapter 3
A Persean Feat

AN 1217 (AZ 1454) - Early Summer
Outside Iakobin, Notos

Rowland's hand rested on the amulet crafted for him by the Faerie Queen Mab. He certainly hoped it worked and was not some trickery on her part. Did she have more spite than sense? Without Rowland to free her from her bonds, she would be trapped forever, so she had more than enough reason to keep him alive, hopefully enough to outweigh her reason for wanting him dead.
The only way he would know was when he faced the Gorgon himself. Nothing seemed impossible in the world anymore. The fair folk, Dragons, giant serpents and now this, the legendary Gorgon in the flesh. Instead of the mirrored shield of the legend, Rowland was relying on the amulet to nullify the power of the Gorgon's cursed gaze. So long as it did that much, the rest would be up to Durandal.
He had long doubted the threat from the East, but both Girondin and Iakobin were half in ruins because of a Dragon attack, giant serpents teemed across the south killing and destroying just about anything in their wake, and now this Gorgon and her monsters had taken over Iakobin. Only a handful of survivors managed to get word out of the attack and when Garm and his Dwerkhar were dispatched to take care of the matter, they never returned. Now it was time for Rowland to take matters into his own hands.
He had assembled a thousand men, eight hundred from the militia and an additional two hundred volunteers. Nearly half of his forces were committed to this battle. If it went poorly, even if he escaped with his life, the factions opposed to the Alliance might try their hand at taking territory and a new war would begin. At least Carpos had already left for Zephyr. That would keep him busy for a few years and give Rowland time to prepare in case he ever tried to return. Of course, neither Carpos nor any of the rival factions would matter unless Rowland and his men exterminated these Darklander monsters that made Iakobin their nest.
Because Darklanders were weak to the light of the sun, the attack would commence shortly after daybreak so they would have as many hours of daylight to do their work as possible. It was fortunate that the sky was mostly cloudless that day. Whatever gods existed, at least one must have been smiling on them.
Once the full circle of the sun could be seen over the horizon, Rowland raised his sword to signal the attack. All manner of horns sounded and a great cry went up as his men pressed into the city.
They did not rush because the goal was to draw the Darklanders out. Also, Scipio and his mages would not be able to keep pace with militiamen running full tilt. It was unnerving going through the field statues that were once Garm and his Dwerkhar warriors, all frozen in place as they were mounting their attack on the city. The Gorgon might well try the same here, but the formation was too widely dispersed for her to catch them all at once. Some would fall, but not all and as soon as the Gorgon revealed herself, Rowland could take her head.
Simona was at his side. Her keen Xotika senses would seek out the Gorgon all the quicker and more than any human, she would be able to stand up to any Darklander they would find along the way. They were certain to be hiding in what buildings still stood. If only he had the engines for it, Rowland would have leveled them all and cut the fight that much shorter. However, all the engines of Garm's men were gone, as were their arms and armor, even their clothes. The way some of the statues were posed pointed to them being plucked right off the engines they were manning when they were turned to stone.
"Then mean to use the mountain-dwellers' works against us," Simona commented as they went past all the bare statues, "not that mere uzshu can use them to any effect."
Whether they could or not, it was all the more reason to strike while they were at their weakest. Rowland would rather not have to face down a Dwerkh ballista swarming with Kobaloi. It also did not hurt that only a few of the roads were wide enough for the engines. That further reduced the threat they posed.
Once he and Simona entered the ruins of the city, strategic concerns had to be set aside. He was no longer the captain of the Alliance but just one man hunting a monster in a nest full of them. There were more intact buildings around the main plaza. That was where most of the enemy would be hiding. The Gorgon would need a lofty vantage point to cast her gaze over a wide area. There was a tower about five stories high at the southeastern corner of the plaza, the tallest structure still standing. That had to be the place.
"Make for the tower," he told Simona. "The Gorgon has to be there."
"Be careful, Rowland," she said. "The enemy is all around us."
"Let them come," Rowland boasted. "Durandal's thirsty."
About ten or so good men were able to keep pace with Rowland and Simona and together they went on ahead of the rest of their forces. A militiaman with a stout spear could handle most common monsters, but only a few elites had the skill to plunge into the heart of the enemy and make it out alive.
The first creature to test them was a lone Maneater that burst out of a house with a collapsed roof and sprang at Rowland. Durandal cut clean through what would have been its chest if it were a man, but these creatures' bodies were strange. Was it more correct to call it the creature's head? No matter. It was dead all the same, but it was only the first of many to come. Next came three black dogs, nearly twice as big as any breed Rowland had ever seen. Simona took down one with a throwing knife and Rowland the other two with quick strokes of his blade.
"Igomer, Makkaros, keep up or Simona and I will claim all the glory!" Rowland yelled to two of his lieutenants among the men with him.
"We'll git our bleedin' blades bloodied, ya big bloody bastid!" Makkaros shouted back. "Jus' yew wait an' see!"
It was no time for japes, it would seem, as four more of the black dogs sprang out of the alleyways on either side of them. One of them managed to catch Ingomer's arm in its jaws. Another grabbed at his foot. With his free hand, the screaming Ingomer viciously stabbed away at the dog on his arm while Rowland turned back to cut down the dog that had his foot. Makkaros skewered another dog with his shortspear and the fourth was run through by another man.
The dogs were just the beginning. Several Kobaloi armed with spears and axes crawled out from the walls. The buildings were casting enough shadow in the narrow road that the sun did not bother them much.
Makkaros took the hand ballista hanging from his belt and shot one of the Kobaloi, then looked back to Rowland and shouted, "Go, Cap'n! Leave this lot ta us! Yer th' only one what kin kill their boss!"
Rowland had no illusions about losing men in battle, but he did not like to abandon them easily. Makkaros was right, though. Only Rowland could kill the Gorgon and the sooner she was dead, the sooner this battle would be over.
Rowland raised Durandal and shouted, "For Notos!"
"For Notos!" the men shouted in reply.
Rowland left the men to deal with the Kobaloi and whatever else might follow. They did not make it much farther, though, when and entire wall was broken down by a beam as big as a tree. In fact, it basically looked like a recently cut tree with the branches roughly hacked off. It was in fact a club being wielded by a Great Kobalos. Rowland had seen the Great Kobaloi in Urgill's troop before but never saw them in action. They were big and strong, but flesh and blood all the same.
Before Rowland could make his move, Simona held out her arm to stop him.
"No, Rowland," she said. "Let me try something first."
Stretching out her other hand to the Great Kobalos, she started to chant. Her eyes washed over black and soon, so did the eyes of the Great Kobalos. She said something to the Great Kobalos in a language Rowland did not understand and Great Kobalos nodded, shouldering its heavy club and turning toward the tower.
Sweat beaded on Simona's brow and with great struggle she told him, "He will clear the way for us, but controlling him will take all my concentration."
"Stay close," Rowland told her. "I'll take care of anything our big friend misses."
As Simona promised, the Great Kobalos cleared the way ahead for them. The enemy were not trying to come out in any great numbers, so the few that would emerge here and there were easy pickings. It was tempting to have the Great Kobalos tear down the walls around them to expose more hiding places to the light of day, but they needed to keep their eye on the prize.
When they reached the tower, the Great Kobalos swung his club at it, but it was too sturdily built to be brought down like that. The door was another story and it only took one good swing to smash it in. The Great Kobalos had served his purpose, so Simona gave him a new command. He laid down his club and then plunged his blunt claws into his neck. His dark blood showered them and Simona released her control on him so that he could spend his final moments clutching at his throat in confusion while he bled to death.
With the Great Kobalos out of the way, Rowland and Simona charged into the tower. A handful of monsters and their handlers were at the floor level, but they were unprepared and disorganized, which made them easy prey. Once they were all dead, all that remained was to scale the narrow staircase spiraling along the walls. There was not room enough to swing Durandal well, so Simona took the lead going up.
As the two of them were running up the stairs, something else was coming down. It was similar to Simona but clearly a different sort of creature. It--no, she--was taller, the shape of the ears different, the face fair enough to look on but the features not quite so delicate. She had a polearm in her hand--apparently cut down to be more use in close quarters. She was surprised to see Simona and instead of attacking right away, she spoke to the Xotika in a strange tongue, seemingly the same one Simona used to command the Great Kobalos. Simona answered her and whatever she said gave the Darklander woman reason to attack.
She lunged with her polearm, but Simona dodged, slipped inside the Darklander's defenses and stabbed with her knife. It was not a killing blow, though, and the Darklander drove her back into a corner. Having a significant disadvantage in size and weight, it was all Simona could do to hold back the Darklander's polearm, but it would not take long for the Darklander's strength to win out.
By trapping Simona in the corner, the Darklander had unwittingly given Rowland the best possible target. Wasting no time, Rowland swung his sword, sinking the blade halfway into the Darklander's back. She could not even manage a proper cry of pain, just a choked gasp. Rowland yanked back his sword, taking the Darklander's body with it. He shook the body off to fall down and join the other corpses on the floor below.
Simona remained in the corner, clutching the knife dripping with the Darklander's black blood. Having come so close to being overpowered seemed to have shaken her.
"Are you alright?" Rowland asked her.
Regaining her composure, Simona flicked some of the blood off her knife and said, "I'm fine, Rowland."
"Don't lose your nerve on me. The prize is still ahead."
Simona nodded and continued up the stairs with Rowland close behind. After a couple more turns, they reached the trapdoor to the roof. Just as Rowland expected, waiting for them on the roof of the tower was the Gorgon herself.
The Gorgon was much as the stories described her. Below the waist she had a thick snake's tail and above the waist was more or less human. She wore a green bronze cuirass engraved with her own image. Dozens of snakes wriggled and squirmed out of her very skull. As for her face, it was ugly to be sure but not so ugly that the sight of it alone would turn a man to stone. One of her dreaded eyes had been put out, but other was wide open and furious.
Rowland could feel the Gorgon's power wash over him, but the Faerie Queen's amulet did its work and he was left untouched. This took the Gorgon by surprise and in that single moment of her staring uncomprehending at what had just happened--or rather what had not just happened--Rowland swung his sword and took her head in a single clean stroke.
Rowland straightened himself up to appreciate his handiwork and said, "That wasn't so hard, was it, Si--?"
As he turned to Simona, he saw her frozen in stone. He cursed himself. He took for granted that she would be able to thwart the Gorgon's curse on her own. He should have had Mab make more amulets. It was a foolish oversight. Old Scipio had said that he could probably reverse the curse, but 'probably' was not nearly assurance enough.
"Dammit..." he grumbled.
The stone Simona shook almost imperceptibly at first, but then continued to shake as cracks started to form. For a moment, Rowland feared that by killing the Gorgon, rather than breaking the curse it instead was breaking the cursed. However, as a chip of stone fell away, Rowland saw living flesh underneath. The stone was nothing more than a shell.
He rested Durandal on the parapet and went to work helping Simona break free of the stone shell. Once her arms were free, the work went much faster and in no time all the stone flakes were off her. Her clothes were in tatters, so Rowland wrapped her in his own cloak.
"Thank you, Rowland," she said.
"What was that?" he asked. "That wasn't what happened to the others."
"I was able to block some of her power, but not all of it," she replied. "At a weaker level, the curse just wraps you in stone as I was. For the others, the curse is absorbed into the body and turns the flesh to stone. Were her power any stronger, it would have done both."
Rowland was not particularly interested in a lesson in the magical arts, but at least this meant she was fine.
"If you didn't block it any better than you did, your life would've been in the hands of the old man," he told her.
"Perish the thought," she replied with a weak grin. "Master Scipio is talented for a human, but I have my pride."
Rowland pulled out a sack of roughspun he had kept tucked in his belt, took hold of the Gorgon's head by a handful of snake-hair and stuffed the head into the sack. Whether the severed head would have the power claimed in legends was something he would see for himself.
Tying the sack closed, he tossed it to Simona and then took up Durandal.
"Come on," he said. "We still have a town to win back."