Pelthe 6, 5682---“Is there wind down here?” Commander Toparez wondered aloud. “Is there rain or snow or dew? Does the temperature ever vary noticeably?”
“Why does it matter?” Prince Nomolo replied.
“These are things a commander should know,” the hard-faced commander told the Prince. “Everything we know about the Underground came from one woman and the few people who rescued her.”
“It is enough,” the Prince decided. “Drive everyone out of the city, and kill anyone who resists. Then put it all to the torch.”
The Commander turned his head to look at the Prince sternly. “My Prince, might I remind you we are underground where a lack of wind or rain would let a fire rage unchecked. The smoke alone could kill us unless a wind blows it away.”
“That is a risk we must take,” the Prince decided. “The Underground must burn, and the Dark Lunari awake. This is the first step in my war on the Dark Magicians.”
“According to the ancients, no man can kill a Lunari,” Commander Toparez said. “Why would you wake an enemy you cannot fight?”
“I have no desire to fight them,” Prince Nomolo said. “I merely intend to wake them, to redirect the focus of this land from patience to war.”
“That is your strategy, not mine,” the Commander sternly said. “Even so, I will see your plans through to the best of my ability.”
“Very good, Commander,” the Prince replied. “You do your part in this attack, and I will have the Sisterhood begin concocting their potions to let us leave this place.” The Prince turned his horse, and rode away into the fog.
Commander Toparez looked at his captains. Although the army stood formed and ready for battle, the thick fog hid most of the soldiers from sight. There would be no way to determine the course of battle once it began. If one company failed or met with stiff resistance, no one would know until it was too late. Their only advantage was the twenty women from the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar spread through their ranks. If they met any Dark Magicians or worse, they would deal with the threats against which soldiers were useless. Commander Toparez hoped it would not come to that, but after being underground three days, there was no way the city was unaware of their advance.
He straightened in his saddle as one of his captains approached. “Captain Corgata, any word from your scouts?”
The man nodded. “Yes, sir. The last of the civilians are fleeing out the far side of the city, although it is difficult with this fog to guess where they are heading. We saw a few soldiers, but no substantial military forces. If there is an army out there, they’re either hiding inside the city or haven’t yet arrived.”
Commander Toparez frowned. “That could be bad for us either way. Any whispers of Dark Magicians?”
“I heard nothing,” the Captain answered, “and everyone my men questioned gave the impression the city was undefended. Unless I am gravely mistaken, no one ever believed this city would face a threat from above.”
The Commander nodded. “Pull back your scouts. You’ll be the rearguard while we destroy this city, and watch our flanks carefully.”
“Yes, Sir,” the Captain quickly replied, spurring his horse.
Commander Toparez waited several minutes to give Captain Corgata time to return to his scouts before pulling his own sword out of its scabbard. He raised the sword over his head, and glanced at the soldiers behind him. “Raise the banners and beat the drums. Sound the advance,” he ordered loudly. “Each step forward is a step toward victory.”
A shout spread through the army as the drums began to beat. As the Commander coaxed his horse slowly forward, the dismounted soldiers behind followed from their positions. The first two ranks of each company consisted of spearmen, with swordsmen making up the other three ranks. Squads of archers followed behind.
It hardly took half an hour, but the start of the march seemed to take forever until the silhouettes of the first buildings loomed through the fog. Some of the structures were small, hardly larger than huts, but more than one were massive towers disappearing into the fog above. They appeared as solid rock, perhaps even pillars holding up the unseen ceiling, but hollowed with hewn windows.
“Bundle wood around the bases of those towers,” the Commander ordered. If anyone is hiding inside, I want them to choke on the smoke of their failure to leave this city.”
Several soldiers moved to carry out the orders while the rest of the Army began to enter the city.
Fires crackled and burned. Smoke billowed through the fog fanned into motion by the heat of the fires. Shouts of soldiers echoed through the streets and among the fiery buildings. Armor clinked and weapons rattled as the army put the city to the flame and emerged from the far side onto what appeared to be a grassy plain.
Commander Toparez sheathed his sword, and glanced over the nearby soldiers that were visible through the fog. Many were congratulating each other on victory. After the rush through the winding city streets to sack the city, they were in disarray. “Form ranks,” he ordered. “Burning a city is hardly victory.”
Several captains rode into view while the soldiers formed ranks, and he motioned them closer. “Commander,” one of them said, “The city will be a pile of ash in a matter of hours. Should we begin our exit from this land?”
Commander Toparez shook his head. “Did anyone encounter anything unusual in the city?” he asked.
The captains shook their heads. “Was there something specific we were looking for?” one of them asked.
The Commander moved his horse away from the soldiers, with the captains close behind. “The Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar is unaware, and not even the Prince knows this, but we sent in a spy to search for and give us warning about any Dark Magicians,” he told them. “She did not return to the camp, and since we just went through the entire city, we would have encountered her if she were still there.”
One of the captains looked confused. “I am sure any soldier would recognize a woman from the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar if they saw her,” he said. “Perhaps she returned and mingled with the others.”
“You’d never see this one,” the Commander said softly. He peered into the fog away from the burning city. “If no one found her, there is only one direction left to search.”
“The orders were to burn the city and leave the Underground,” one of the Captains reminded the Commander. “If we didn’t find her yet, there is little chance we’ll find her anywhere.”
“Captains, ready your troops,” the Commander said. He looked at the captain who cited orders, and recognized the man. “Captain Zorando, if there is one thing you should learn, it is that situations change rapidly in wartime. Quiet the drums and extinguish the torches. This will be a silent advance following the direction of this road until we find our enemy or I give the command to turn back.”
Most of the captains rode back into the fog to return to their soldiers, but Captain Zorando remained. “Do you expect to find anything?” the Captain asked.
Commander Toparez nodded. “We just burned an empty city, and our scouts reported it was undefended even before everyone left. Undefended for three days---no soldiers, no dark magicians---and our spy goes missing. Our enemies have something they value more than their city.”
“But the orders...”
“...come from me,” Commander Toparez interrupted. “I gave those orders, but my orders come from Prince Nomolo. We are to cause such turmoil in this land that we wake the Dark Lunari. If they are willing to give us a city uncontested, we have not yet succeeded. Now return to your company.” Captain Zorando gave a slight bow, and turned his horse, promptly riding off into the fog.
A short while later, Commander Toparez gave the silent order to continue their advance. The soldiers marched forward, silent except for the clinking of their armor, the rattling of their swords, and their footsteps. The enemy might hear them coming, but the fog would soften the sound and hide their numbers. He hoped they would find Niahla’Sen quickly. Perhaps she had to travel this way to avoid discovery, but he feared the worst, and believed she was captive. The empty city also spooked him. There was no sense in such a thorough evacuation unless the enemy had a strategic purpose behind it. The great towers could be defensible castles if the enemy purposed them for defense. Leaving even those unguarded, however, seemed strange. He motioned for one of the woman from the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar to ride beside him.
“I can’t see through this fog any better than you,” she said dryly as she approached.
“We have a problem to solve,” the Commander told her. “I fear the emptied city was a ploy to lure us into a trap. If there is an enemy army out there, we need to draw it to us, not rush blindly to it.”
“What do you propose?” she wondered.
“Ride ahead of us,” the Commander suggested. “Perhaps even take a company of horsemen with you to create noise. Once you get a few hundred paces ahead of us, send up a signal. If there is an enemy waiting for us, the signal should entice them to attack, giving away their positions.”
“And if there is no enemy army?”
“It is merely a precaution,” Commander Toparez told her, unwilling to mention Niahla’Sen. “Take some men forward, send up a signal, and retreat if you need to.”
The woman frowned. “I hesitate to walk into such an uncertain situation,” she decided. “I’ll take one company of horsemen, and send a company of archers behind us.”
Commander Toparez nodded in agreement, and a messenger went to find a company of horsemen. The company of archers merely stepped forward from their positions in the army. When everyone was in place, the woman rode out in front of the army as it slowly marched forward.
Without warning, the foggy air flashed brilliantly, followed immediately by the loud crash of lightning. There was some shouting in the distance, but it soon quieted until everything was silent. A moment later, a distant drum began to beat.
Commander Toparez motioned for the army to halt. “Form defensive positions,” he ordered. Spearmen lowered their sharp spears to form a wall of deadly points. The swordsmen behind them readied their swords and shields, and prepared to rush forward through the first two ranks. The archers nocked their arrows.
The distant drum continued to beat, but the land was otherwise silent. After a short time, Commander Toparez could hear the hooves of horses and some marching feet. Shadows in the fog turned to silhouettes, which soon turned to men. Both the archers and the horsemen were marching back with their hands over their heads. Behind them came two horses. Upon one horse sat the woman from the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar with her hands tied behind her back, while upon the other horse a gaudily dressed Dark Magician stood effortlessly, the taut rope he held in his hand was tied around the woman’s neck. His skin had a greenish hue, and his eyes were white. Mounted across his chest was a dead bat with outstretched wings. In the distance, the drum continued to beat.
“Welcome, strangers,” he said loudly. “Welcome to my victory, your doom. Let us deliberate about the consequences for your aggression. Perhaps we can arrange a mutually agreeable concession.”
Commander Toparez urged his horse forward. “I am Toparez, Commander of the Army of the Great King, Servant of the Lunari and the Creator. We face no foes but those who fear the light of day. If you stand against us, you have no place in this world.”
The Dark Magician smirked, and shifted his balance atop the horse. “You,” he said, pointing at the Commander with swagger, “are petty. Spout your dogma. Maintain this charade of bravado. It will not last.”
“I could say the same of you,” Commander Toparez replied. “All I see is a man standing on a horse and making demands. Where I come from, those who stand on horses are all in the circus. We do not take them seriously.”
A brief hint of anger flashed across the Dark Magician’s face. He tugged sharply at the rope, nearly pulling the woman from her horse. Noticing the look of concern on the Commander’s face, he paused and smiled. “Before either of us makes a rash decision, perhaps I should inquire what brought you to this land. You claim to love the light of day. You can neither bring nor find such light in this land, so why make an attempt? Return the way you came. Return to your own lands. Here, I’ll even give you back your peasants and this abomination as a gesture of my good faith.” He released the rope, and the horse carrying the woman from the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar meandered toward the Commander with the other soldiers walking alongside it.
“I can tell you why we are here,” Commander Toparez replied. “We come to deliver a message to your slumbering masters.”
“What message might this be?” the Dark Magician wondered.
“Long years alone, the passage revealed,” the Commander answered, quoting prophecy. “Awaken your masters that they might know your end is near. The Great King is marching. The world will fight.”
“No!” the Dark Magician hissed, glaring at the Commander. “You do not dictate terms to me.” The drums continued their beat in the distance, now accompanied by the sound of a marching army coming closer with each step. “You speak a line of your perverse prophecy. Perhaps its minor significance gives you hope, but let me remind you of the next line you forgot.” He lifted up his right hand and glanced upward. “Great dragons fly!” he shouted.
A deafening roar from high above filled the underground world, and echoed back and forth. A moment later, another roar answered from off in the distance. More roars followed.
The enemy army now appeared as shadows in the fog, coming into view as they advanced quickly to the drums, their armor blackened and spear tips gleaming. Commander Toparez drew his sword, and the rest of the army hardened their stances.
“You should have left when given the chance,” the Dark Magician growled. “Now you will...”
He never finished speaking. A bolt of lightning shot through the air and struck the Dark Magician, throwing him from the horse. Commander Toparez turned his horse and hurried back to his army. “Hold strong against everything they send against us,” he ordered. “It is here, now, that we make such a noise to affirm our dedication to victory over the Dark Magicians and wake their sleeping masters.”
A shout spread through the army, and moments later, the two armies collided. The enemy fought well, but could not break through Commander Toparez’s spearmen. After their short unsuccessful attack, the drum tempo changed, and the enemy army began its retreat.
The Commander felt a tug at his cloak, but saw no one when he turned. He directed his focus back to the battle and was about to order the advance when he heard a voice speaking from right behind him.
“You must retreat,” she warned. “This was only a feint. You cannot fight the combined armies of fifteen Dark Magicians and the dragons.”
“Niahla’Sen?” the Commander realized, speaking too soft for nearby soldiers to realize he was talking. “Where have you been?”
“This is no time for questions,” she urged. “Turn your army, and leave this place as fast as you can. I killed one Dark Magician; that should be enough to wake the Dark Lunari if they did not already know we were here.”
“Sound the retreat,” Commander Toparez shouted. “It is time to leave this foul land and its masters.”
The army slowly maneuvered and began the retreat; long columns marching quickly back toward the camp and exit, maneuvering around the burning city. The army soon lost form as soldiers scattered to avoid unseen threats. By now, dragons were swooping down out of the foggy sky, breathing their fiery breath, burning swaths of soldiers to ash. Archers killed several dragons, but there were too many.
“Myself and several Sisters can mount a defense at the exit,” the unseen Niahla’Sen told the Commander as the horse carrying them galloped back toward the camp. “We can protect your retreat.”
Commander Toparez shook his head. “We have orders that everyone is to leave except for Rarla’Nun. I cannot guess what that crone will do in our defense, but she plans to stay behind to guard the exit.”
It was Niahla’Sen’s turn to be surprised. “Against fifteen Dark Magicians and countless dragons? That woman is nuts!”
“I agree completely,” the Commander told her, “but Prince Nomolo said that is the way it will be. We leave, and she stays behind. I cannot imagine how she expects to be much defense against this foe.”
“Someone must know, but who would she tell?” Niahla’Sen wondered.
The horse swerved to miss several soldiers, and nearly fell, throwing the Commander to the ground. He quickly regained his footing, and tried to calm the horse enough to remount it. “Niahla’Sen, are you still there?” he asked.
“I’m here and unhurt,” she answered from somewhere on the other side of the horse. “My current state makes it hard for a horse to throw me very far. Falling is more of a glide.”
The Commander regained his saddle, and reached down to help Niahla’Sen back on, unsure if she even needed help. “Rarla’Nun seems to think more of Tora’Sor than the rest of the Sisterhood. I’d suggest asking her, but she was sent as an emissary to the cave dwellers.”
“I’ll have to get to her,” Niahla’Sen decided quickly. “Rarla’Nun is planning something, and kept both of us too occupied to notice. I can find Tora’Sor wherever she is; just get me to the exit as fast as you can.”
Commander Toparez kicked the horse into a faster gallop, leaving the army behind. They were nearing the camp, and found it a chaotic mess. Burning tents, soldiers running in all directions, and no semblance of order. “To the exit,” he shouted to the soldiers. “Leave everything behind, and make for the exit. The Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar had better have those potions brewed!”
One of the soldiers broke away from a squad as they passed the Commander and heard the order. “Sir, the Sisterhood has the potions near the exit, and Prince Nomolo put guards in place to make sure everyone drinks the potion before attempting to leave.”
“Very good,” the Commander told the soldier. “Where is the Prince now?”
“He rallied archers to protect the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar from the dragons,” the soldier told the Commander. “It seems brewing the potion leaves them fatigued and defenseless. Without their support, this whole incursion was a bad idea.”
“Leave the analysis to those in charge,” the Commander reprimanded. “Leave this land, and carry with you any wounded you find along the way.”
The soldier nodded, and hurried back to his squad. They soon headed out of the camp toward the exit.
“Niahla’Sen, you should go with them,” the Commander said. There was no answer. “Niahla’Sen?” He frowned, and guessed she was already well on her way to the exit without him. He turned his horse, and quickly galloped back to his retreating army.