Chapter 33

As they sailed toward the dock, King Belgrave could see the kings and queens of Panei waiting for their arrival. When they disembarked, King Anou bowed. “Welcome back to Panei, King Belgrave. As much as I wish that we had time for a more ceremonial welcome, we must prepare for battle. Even now, the dark clouds of the Dark Wizard are advancing.”

King Belgrave smiled. “It is good to see you once again, King Anou. I know that the Dark Wizard is not far behind, but I do believe that we have enough time for you to introduce these other kings and queens so I can know who I am fighting beside.”

“I actually already know them all,” Naiya’Nal said with a smirk.

One of the queens moved her hand toward a dagger strapped to her waist. “It can only be conjectured just how a Dark Witch who is obviously adept at gathering intelligence managed to finagle her way into the confidence of the king that she was trained to kill.”

“You can relax, Queen Desi’Rel of Vernon,” Naiya’Nal replied. She smiled and lifted her black cloak to show the red armband on her left arm. “I would expect that a queen as educated as yourself would realize that outward appearances are not always indicative of our true colors. The relationship between Belgrave and me is forged by prophecy, and nothing past, present, or future, will come between us.”

“Then I will think of you as both a friend and an ally,” Queen Desi’Rel announced. “Perhaps one day you will have the time to tell me how this change came to pass.”

“I would be delighted to tell you at a more appropriate time,” Naiya’Nal said. She turned toward Belgrave. “This is Queen Desi’Rel, and the man beside her is King Vircto of Vernon.” She took a few steps up the dock. “Then we have King Hevman and Princess Bisela’Var of Taor. Am I correct in guessing that Queen Pikole’Dil did not survive the recent terror of Narva?”

“Pikole’Dil was fortunate that she did not have to suffer through the most ruthless part of the occupation,” the King nodded.

Naiya’Nal took a few more steps. “And the last is King Liomanel of Pia. Have you managed to choose a queen yet?”

King Liomanel blushed and shook his head. “Not yet,” he admitted. “I cannot guess why a Dark Witch would have found it useful to know about my personal life, but if you must know, it is hard to find an acceptable woman of stately qualities.” Princess Bisela’Var rolled her eyes and coughed.

“Keep your eyes open,” King Belgrave advised. “You’d be surprised at who you might find, especially now that so many people have gathered here.”

He turned back toward King Anou. “Now that I know who everyone is, we should prepare for battle.”

King Anou nodded and led them up the dock to some waiting horses. “The armies are assembled on the beach just north of here,” he said. “The sand has been drenched in oil and we have constructed a large number of obstacles both on the beach and in the water. Catapults are also in place, but they will probably be ineffective against the ships. Colonel Balvain has placed the army of Tanarad in the center. My army is to the south, and the armies of Vernon, Pia, and Taor are to the north. Most of the archers are standing in front of the infantry and will retreat as the first enemy soldiers set foot on the beach. Altogether, we have a quarter million soldiers, and except for the fifty thousand standing back near the Fortress of Nasad as reserves, all of them are along the beach.”

“So we plan to slow them in the water with the obstacles; then we slow them on the beach with fire; then we slow them with our swords and spears. What happens then?” King Belgrave asked.

“King Belgrave,” King Vircto interrupted. “As a leader with far more years of experience than you, I would suggest that you show a bit more optimism. Soldiers are motivated when they see the confidence of their king remains steadfast regardless of the odds. We will stop the enemy in the water with obstacles. When they pass the obstacles, we will stop the enemy on the beach with fire. When they pass through the flames, we will stop the enemy upon a wall made of the bravest soldiers of this world.”

“I guess that is one way of looking at it,” Commander Sidrahkir decided. “I have no doubt in the bravery of your soldiers and I look forward to seeing the banners of your commanders, but I will not feel confident until I see a simple banner of red fluttering upon the field.”

“Colonel Balvain has your standard ready,” King Hevman replied, “but the Red Exemplars have not arrived. We had expected them to come with you.”

“We separated at Amehtana,” Thag explained. “They went to find a ship at Rond while we traveled through the Dark Valley and Elevor. If they arrive, it will be shortly before the enemy.”

“They will be here,” King Belgrave replied confidently. “I doubt that even prophecy could force them to miss this battle.” The others laughed. King Belgrave looked at King Vircto. “I will try to be optimistic as you suggest, but keep in mind that while the soldiers look to us, we only have each other to rely on.”

“Together we will stand or together we will fall,” King Vircto said. “That is the nature of our alliance.”

“We have all left a number of messengers with your army,” King Anou told King Belgrave. “If we must retreat, we will only do so at your command. The Fortress of Nasad and its tunnel are more than ready to protect us.”

King Belgrave nodded. “If these brave soldiers stand their ground as suggested, then perhaps it will not come to that. However, if the worst should happen, I will consider that option.”

“Tell us about this enemy,” King Vircto said. “How many are there? What weapons do they bring? Are they men or one of the other races?”

“I thought they were men,” King Belgrave said, “but now that you mention it, they did look a bit odd. We do not have any real knowledge of their numbers, but I have been told that there would one day be a battle where my armies would be outnumbered by more than six to one.”

“Ouch,” King Liomanel muttered.

“They were also armed with a variety of weapons and armors,” Belgrave added. “They each seemed to have their uses so there may be some strategic or tactical reasons for the differences.

“They are about a hand shorter than the average man and have darker skin and squinty eyes,” Naiya’Nal added. “I have translated many languages, but theirs is beyond me!”

“If my studies of history are correct, then we are against an army of Huvudets,” Queen Desi’Rel announced. “They match your description and their disappearance from Sarda coincided with the Dark Wizard’s rise to power. It is possible that he has secretly turned their race into his army while using the Barbidons to keep the world distracted from his real intentions.”

“A race corrupted, a secret concealed,” Naiya’Nal quoted. “That is one of the prophecies about Voth’s rise to power.”

“If this army is the secret concealed, then that would explain how we could be outnumbered six to one,” King Anou said. “Let us hope that we are all wrong and that the battle does not turn against us.”

They passed in front of the armies gathered along the beach. King Belgrave held his sword in the air and the soldiers cheered. “I am honored to fight beside every one of you,” he shouted. “We will soon face an enemy greater than any other enemy that this world has ever faced. I know that there is fear among us, but I know that where there is fear, there is also determination; and where there is determination, there is also courage; and where there is courage, there is confidence. There is confidence that prophecy has brought us to this beach on this day for a purpose that is necessary even though we may not fully understand it. I know that together we will struggle through the trials we will soon face. And so, brave soldiers, stand your ground and leave the outcome to prophecy.”

The cheers of the armies continued until King Belgrave had dismounted from his horse in front of the army of Tanarad. The other kings and queens rode to their armies and they prepared for the battle. The banners of the various commanders flew below the flags of their nations. Three green swords represented Commander Aradag of Vernon. A blue dragon represented Commander Neek of Taor. A white sun on a blue disk represented Commander Hiyune of Pia. Two white wings and a spear represented Commander Shedek of Nerak. Commander Sidrahkir’s sword of thunder fluttered beneath the flag of Tanarad that had the two red dragons of King Belgrave.

As the day progressed, the dark cloud grew closer and the sky became overcast. A ship with a white sail was sailing toward the beach, struggling to stay ahead of the dark cloud. “It’s the Red Exemplars!” Commander Sidrahkir exclaimed. “I can see a red banner flying from the top of the mast.”

“That is a welcome sight,” King Belgrave agreed, “but I cannot tell if the darkness behind them is just a cloud or if they are the ships of the enemy.”

“Those are black sails in the cloud behind the Red Exemplars,” Naiya’Nal explained. “They will arrive shortly after the Red Exemplars.”

They stood watching the ships come closer. Soon they could distinguish the individual ships and King Belgrave realized there were many more than he had expected. The dark cloud billowed high into the sky and the breeze was picking up, but the ship with the white sail stayed ahead of the shadow. It caught on one of the hidden obstructions in the water and the Red Exemplars swam the rest of the way to shore.

“It is good to see you have already arrived,” the Captain said, bowing to King Belgrave. “I would hate to have to search for you so soon before a battle.”

King Belgrave laughed. “At least the Dark Wizard was unable to catch you.”

“They will be here soon enough,” Commander Sidrahkir interrupted. “If Naiya’Nal is to do anything to slow them, then I suggest she start soon.”

They looked at Naiya’Nal. “I wish to attempt a type of magic that I have never used before,” she announced. “If I am successful, then I may be able to hold them off for awhile, but if I fail, then we would have eventually fought them anyway.”

“We cannot do magic as you can, but we will do what we can if you need assistance,” King Belgrave replied.

She nodded and put her hands up in the air. A sudden bright flash far behind them in the northwest briefly illuminated the dark cloud before them. Everyone was distracted and turned their heads. Naiya’Nal spun around. A great ball of fire and a column of thick smoke were rising far away in the direction of the Dark Forest.

“I did not do that,” Naiya’Nal hesitantly acknowledged. “It is too far away.”

“Look to the beach,” King Belgrave yelled. “The future has already been written. The enemy is in front of us and not behind us.”

The soldiers obeyed and Commander Sidrahkir stepped closer to King Belgrave. “How do you know that the enemy is not also behind us?” he asked.

“Because it would defeat the purpose of our standing on this beach,” King Belgrave confidently answered. “If prophecy has gathered us here against one vast enemy, then what reason would there be to surround us with a second?”

“Belgrave, you are hiding something,” Naiya’Nal observed. “You must know something that we do not know to be able to both acknowledge the slim chance we have against this army before us and be dismissive of the events behind us.”

King Belgrave faced the sea and smiled. “Work your magic and let us hope I am right. We have witnessed the ends of Tathel and Dezhothokh, and I once spoke with Kathiv and Zhethou,” he said. “Does anyone know how many Lunari came to this world and how many of them have been killed?”

“There is no way that you could have talked with Kathiv. He was killed three and a half thousand years ago by the Dark Lunari Kathorg,” Captain Haloz answered. “I have not heard of any other Lunari being killed since then, but he was among the last few known to the world.”

“And from what I have heard, I would guess there were at least fifty Lunari when this world was created,” Commander Sidrahkir added. “I cannot say what could have happened to them.”

A deafening boom filled the air and reverberated across the beach as the sound of the explosion behind them finally arrived. The soldiers once again looked behind them to the fire and smoke on the horizon. A messenger from Vernon rode up to them. “My king, King Vircto and Commander Aradag say the fire is at Iswa, the place where the Lunari hid in the Dark Forest. They want to know if you wish to send any soldiers to investigate.”

King Belgrave shook his head. “There is no need to investigate. Iswa is too far away for an army to attack from there.” The messenger nodded and returned to his army. King Belgrave turned toward Commander Sidrahkir. “Only a being from beyond this world could travel the distance from Iswa to here in less than a day.”

“Do you think there are more Lunari at Iswa and that they are coming to help us?” the Commander asked.

King Belgrave nodded and looked back out to sea. “Against an army of this size, we had better hope so!”


The Dark Wizard stood on the bow of his flagship, a giant trimaran trireme with enough deck space for several thousand soldiers and a dragon, and room for an equal number of rowers below. The great wind-filled sail towered high into the sky, intensifying the great monstrosity of the vessel. A black flag with two red dragons, the first standing over the corpse of the second, flew from the top of the mast. It had taken many years to construct the ship and it took a very strong wind to push it across the sea, but the ship had one purpose. Sharpened metal rimmed the keels and oars. The momentum of the great mass would push the ship far onto the beach to penetrate and crush the armies of his enemy. There were several other massive ships in the fleet, but none as large as the flagship. Voth watched as the temple at Iswa erupted in the distance and he waited for the sound of the explosion to travel across the land to the sea. “The Lunari are coming to make their last stand against their brethren,” he said as the rumble of the explosion reached him. “Shivish, you and your troops lingered many years in the cold dark depths awaiting the final offensive. Now is the time to make known the terror of your darkness.”

A shadow stirred and a dark figure stepped forward and stood beside the Dark Wizard. “Light will darken and shatter against the chill of our blades.”

The Dark Wizard smiled. “The Lunari are racing to assist the armies before us. Deal with the Lunari, but leave the armies of men to be crushed by the Huvudets.”

“Nothing will stand against us,” Shivish yelled, holding his knife above him. “Jesaru burop me jovindru tarsil elo Vygoth!” The dark figure leapt from the bow of the ship and joined a large number of shadows beneath the waves rushing toward the beach.

King Belgrave’s eyes widened with fear as he watched the dark wave sweep toward the shore. As it swept close, the featureless heads of the dark Lunari began to poke from its crest. Soon the dark figures were slowly walking toward them through the surf.

“Hold your fire,” King Belgrave yelled to the archers. He grabbed the Lunari dagger from the sheath strapped to Naiya’Nal’s waist. “I am the only one on this beach who can stand against a Lunari.”

A number of bright lights flashed through the army of men and suddenly a large group of Lunari was standing around King Belgrave. “You are not the only one on this beach who can oppose a Lunari,” one of the bright figures said. “The battle of my race will end today, but this war will only end when you defeat Vygoth.” The bright figure gave a loud shout and the Lunari rushed to meet their dark enemy.

While the Lunari fought along the edge of the water, one stayed by Naiya’Nal. “The time has come for you to test the limits of your abilities,” the feminine voice announced. “I am Zhethou and I will stand behind you. Together we will give your enemy a storm they have not anticipated.”

Naiya’Nal closed her eyes and raised her arms. The wind began to reverse its direction and blow back out to sea. A dark cloud formed in the sky behind them and billowed forward to meet the darkness of Voth. “You come to this shore with cloud and winds, but these and more will return upon you,” she uttered in a strange voice. A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky and the loud thunder rumbled across the beach. A heavy rain began to fall upon the ships as the intensity of her storm grew. Zhethou stood behind Naiya’Nal and her light began to merge into Naiya’Nal as the magic was strengthened.

As the waves became more turbulent, Lebuv stood beside his master on the bow of the flagship. “Sn tsuivbv poolj v spues yweue eyt tnq puim jo wuots v envy em.”

The Dark Wizard grunted. “She has power, but she does not know how to use it to her full potential.” They could see the vast armies assembled against them on the beach. The two small groups of Lunari had fought a brief battle and had completely destroyed each other. Catapults on the shore began to throw flaming projectiles toward the ships, but most of them splashed harmlessly into the water. “The beach is yours,” Voth said to Lebuv. “Take it with no regard for casualties.”

“Euo siyt sv ebuvl sv hwua uv dots uvc tvyt buiytou si eueyt,” Lebuv replied. “Ycveq eyt uivts llim heyt.”

They continued to sail straight through the torrential downpour from Naiya’Nal and Zhethou. They would not let it slow them down. Lebuv turned to face the stern of the ship. “Uivu siyt wouj poolj em euojeq suemou eyt elqnop! Kcep eyt ot spuomselod!” His soldiers ran to their positions and readied their weapons. More oars stuck from the sides of the three hulls to keep the ship from slowing down. The real battle was about to begin.

King Belgrave watched as the great ship sailed straight toward them and soon realized that the mammoth vessel would plow right through all of the defenses and the army. “Stop that ship at all costs!” he ordered. “Fire the sands. Archers prepare!” Fire began to spread along the length of the oiled beach as King Belgrave grabbed Commander Sidrahkir. “That thing will plow right over our army unless you divide the ranks.” The Commander nodded and ran to clear three wide paths through the army.

King Belgrave looked over at Naiya’Nal. She had not changed her position since she began to use her magic, but now she was beginning to shake. The intensity of the storm had grown. Waves crashed over the decks of ships, sweeping soldiers into the sea. Lightning filled the sky and lit the clouds like the sun. The storm was greater than anyone had ever seen, but it was of no use. The figure of Zhethou behind Naiya’Nal completely faded from sight. The rain and lightning began to dissipate and Naiya’Nal suddenly opened her eyes. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but fell backwards to the sand instead.

King Belgrave ran over to Naiya’Nal and knelt beside her. She weakly looked at him and smiled, breathing deeply. “Zhethou has shown me the limits of my magic,” she said, closing her eyes.

“I won’t allow you to come to harm,” King Belgrave told her. He looked back toward the huge ship. It was bearing down on them and would soon reach the beach. “Captain Haloz!” he screamed. The Captain came running and knelt beside him. “Get her off the beach and to the Fortress,” he ordered. “Protect her as you would protect me.”

Captain Haloz gave King Belgrave a puzzled look. “Are you sending the Red Exemplars from the field of battle?”

“Now is not the time to question my orders,” King Belgrave replied, standing to his feet. “Now, take her and go!”

Captain Haloz nodded and picked up Naiya’Nal’s body. “May prophecy protect you,” he said to King Belgrave before turning away. With the help of the other Red Exemplars, the Captain carried her off the beach, along with everything that she had brought with her.

King Belgrave turned back to the battle and held out his Lunari dagger. The archers rained down their deadly fire upon the ships. The five brothers came and stood beside King Belgrave. “Stay low and near the hull as it comes to shore to avoid the fury of the oars,” Thog advised. There was a loud grinding noise as the great ship slid onto the beach, carving three deep furrows beneath the three hulls. It easily passed through the burning sand and the deck passed above King Belgrave and the five brothers. They looked behind them and could see the soldiers in the army breaking their formations in their panic to avoid being crushed by the ship or struck by the many oars. Many did not escape being crushed and the large sharpened oars cut down many of the others. At the same time, other ships began landing along the full length of the beach.

Lebuv braced himself as the ship ground to a halt in the midst of the enemy army. “Uoisseubbv unoh qow siyt moys puv sdwvu eyt doup!” he ordered. Large ramps were moved into place. Men rushed up the ramps and the Huvudet soldiers rushed down to meet them with their poleswords.

“The threat of the enemy has been neutralized,” Lebuv’s master said. “I have full confidence that you will take the beach without my assistance.” He turned and walked back to the dragon. “Kizvey Kezh toshakrig.” The large dragon grabbed him in its claws and pulled him into the sky. He would watch the battle progress from the safety of the sky.

Commander Sidrahkir stood in the midst of his army. “Form ranks!” he ordered. “Stand your ground or they will pass behind us. This is the worst that the Dark Wizard can send against us and we will prevail.”

Colonel Balvain grabbed the Commander’s shoulder. He had the flag bearer Tytane with him. “Where is King Belgrave?”

“He was with Naiya’Nal right before the ship came ashore,” the Commander replied. “He can fend for himself until we find him.” The Commander suddenly turned to fight a group of Huvudets that had broken through the thin line of soldiers. “Colonel, take three companies around the south side of the ship. Tytane, stay with me.” Colonel Balvain went as ordered.

Commander Sidrahkir waved his sword in the air. “To me, soldiers of Tanarad,” he shouted. “Join the sword of thunder and let us regain this beach and save our king.”

Tytane gave a loud yell and fell beneath the blade of the enemy. Commander Sidrahkir slung his shield onto his back and caught the falling banners before they hit the ground. He held the banner with one hand and swung his sword with the other. “Fools! You fight against one soldier who refuses to die!” he screamed, slashing violently at the enemy soldiers.

“Not one, but two,” a familiar voice added. A flash of red swept past the Commander and soon Captain Haloz was standing over the bodies of the enemy. “I thought I heard you give a cry for help,” he joked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Commander replied. “A man of my rank is never in need of help! Besides, I thought I saw you carrying Naiya’Nal off the beach.”

“The Red Exemplars are still with her,” the Captain said. “She will be safe in the company of queens and my soldiers are guarding her. I came back alone to make sure King Belgrave makes it through this battle. Have you seen him?”

Commander Sidrahkir shook his head. “I was trying to keep my soldiers from being crushed beneath the ship. I last saw him standing in front of the army with the five brothers.”

“Then we must find him,” the Captain replied, grabbing the Commander’s arm. “I find it astonishing that the most important person in our world could go missing at the worst time.”

Beneath the deck of the flagship, King Belgrave was crouched with the five brothers. The enemy had not spotted them and was concentrated on attacking the rest of the army. King Belgrave ran his hand along the hull. “We would be of greater use if we could attack the enemy from inside the ship.”

“My axe would take too long to chop through these strong timbers and the noise would bring the enemy,” Theg said.

Thug bent down and picked up a Lunari dagger. “The blades of the Lunari are scattered on the beach where they fell. It was only a few days ago that Naiya’Nal said one of these blades could cut through anything of this world. Perhaps these would work where your axe will not.”

“Anything is worth a try at this rate,” King Belgrave said. He stabbed at the hull with his dagger and was surprised to see it plunge through unimpeded. “This is certainly easier than I had expected.” He began to cut the wood and soon made a hole large enough for them to walk through.

They entered the ship and ran through the dark passageways, cutting down a number of rowers and unsuspecting soldiers. “It looks as though everyone is going to the deck to join the rest of their army,” Thag said.

“Then they are mostly unaware of our presence inside their ship,” Thog stated.

“It does not matter,” King Belgrave said. “Even if we manage to fight our way to the deck, we would find the other ships reaching the beach and each one brings more soldiers against us. This ship may fall, but our armies cannot hold against the rest forever.”

Thag put his hand on King Belgrave’s shoulder. “I do not deny that we may have to retreat, but if we can defeat just one ship, then we will show this enemy that our determination remains unscathed. Come, we will find our way to the deck and survey the situation from there.”

King Belgrave nodded and Thug began to lead the way through the corridors. The inside of the ship had three decks, but they all sloped upward toward the middle to facilitate the many rowers on each oar. The center of each deck was a walkway that stretched from front to back. They finally found a staircase leading to the top deck in the middle of the ship, and fought their way to the top.

Commander Sidrahkir and Captain Haloz gathered a group of the scattered soldiers and led a charge toward the ship. “I want that banner torn down from the top of the mast,” the Commander yelled to his soldiers. “Show this enemy that they cannot defeat our dragon!”

The army charged forward and the enemy fell before them. Soon they were fighting their way up the ramps and onto the deck of the ship. The fighting was fierce and it soon became troublesome to step over the piles of the dead. Suddenly Commander Sidrahkir heard a welcome cry. “What took you so long to get here?”

The Commander took a step back and looked past the last few enemy soldiers. “King Belgrave!” he yelled, holding high the banners he was carrying. “I would have been here sooner, but I had to carry the flag and do everything by myself.” Captain Haloz elbowed him. “With the Captain’s help, of course,” he added.

“Captain, you had better have a good reason for being here,” King Belgrave said.

Captain Haloz fought his way to King Belgrave’s side. “Naiya’Nal is being guarded by the rest of the Red Exemplars,” he explained, “all of them! It would appear as though we have guests waiting for us at the fortress. The soldiers brought over by the Awa arrived from the west about the same time that this ship came to shore. I came back to let you know.”

“I’ll accept your excuses this time,” King Belgrave replied. “Thanks for coming back. I’m sure that the Commander needed your help.”

They had soon cleared the deck of the enemy and began to chop down the mast with their swords. King Belgrave laughed as he watched their efforts. “Go show them how it’s done,” he suggested to the five brothers. They watched as the brothers easily cut through the mast with the Lunari daggers that they had taken from the beach earlier. The soldiers backed away as the mast began to lean. Soon it fell forward, crushing the center hull and splintering the front of the deck. The army cheered their small victory.

A soldier ran onto the deck dragging the large black banner of Voth. “Today we have struck a vital blow to the Dark Wizard and captured his banner,” Commander Sidrahkir said. “I bet that banner would look good hanging upside-down from the wall of the fortress.”

“That might be nice;” King Belgrave agreed, looking around, “but our allies are still battling our enemy. Every moment we linger here allows more ships to land on the beach. It is only a matter of time before our combined forces will be no match.”

“Are you suggesting retreat?” Captain Haloz asked.

King Belgrave frowned. “Commander, I was unable to determine the numbers we lost to this ship and the subsequent fighting. How much longer can our remaining troops continue this battle?”

Commander Sidrahkir shook his head. “I wish I could give you good news, but while Tanarad has seventy thousand soldiers on this shore, most of them are only conscripts. They have heart and will fight vigorously to the end, but they lack the training necessary to stand firm against this assault.” He quickly glanced around at the beach to either side. “Our army has been reduced to small pockets of soldiers fighting for their lives. They cannot hold out much longer.”

Colonel Balvain ran up a ramp to the deck from the south. A messenger from Nerak was with him. “Most of the army is engaging the enemy soldiers who manage to pass through the flames on the beach,” the Colonel said. “Unfortunately, we are horribly outnumbered and the beach is littered with our fallen. I believe we have less than half the men we started with.”

“Nerak fares no better,” the messenger added. “We are being attacked on both the front and the flank. King Anou says he will stay in the fight as long as you command him to, but also says you need to be mindful that this battle does not result in our complete annihilation.”

King Belgrave looked to the north. Many ships had already landed on the beach and many more were still arriving, with no end of the armada in sight. His armies looked small compared to the large mass of soldiers that he had seen standing on the beach before the battle. The enemy had already passed through most of the flaming sand and was attacking relentlessly. He watched as the flag of Vernon faltered and fell far in the distance. “We have no choice,” King Belgrave decided. “Send messengers to the other kings. Inform them of our intent and make sure they are ready for the signal. The enemy can have the beach; the fortress will be easier for us to defend.” He held up his sword. “This is not retreat, but a change of strategy. Burn this ship.”

The wind billowed around the Dark Wizard and his dragon as he watched the battle unfold below him. He smiled as his dark cloud covered the last bit of sky and blotted out the last rays of the sun. Those lucky enough to survive this battle and bow down to his might would live on in despair, longing for light. He watched as his soldiers pressed his enemy from all sides. There was a faint sound of horns and the armies of his enemy began to retreat from the beach. “You can hide behind your high walls,” Voth muttered, “but my army will tear them down, stone by stone.”

King Belgrave looked behind him as he ran behind the army. The enemy army had not pursued and was fortifying the beach. He stopped and turned around. “It would seem they have given up for the day,” he said.

“I do not think that they are tired of fighting,” Commander Sidrahkir replied. “A force of that size could have several armies, each for a specific type of attack. Today’s army would have been the one to secure the beach. Tomorrows will be the one to batter down the Fortress of Nasad.”

King Anou and his brother Ikaro joined them from the south and bowed. “My army is more than decimated,” the king announced. “Even so, I have enough strong soldiers that we will be able to stand our ground at the fortress.”

“Nerak and Vernon are the only two nations of Panei with professional soldiers,” Thag explained. “They are the main force while their conscripts remain auxiliary.”

Captain Haloz suddenly turned his focus to the sky. “We should not have lingered to talk. Run for the fortress!” A loud roar in the sky above them justified his sense of urgency.

“The Dark Wizard is upon us,” Thag yelled. “Get King Belgrave to safety. My brothers and I will stay and fight,” he said, fitting an arrow into his bow.

Commander Sidrahkir and King Belgrave began running toward the fortress, but King Anou hesitated. “The Dark Wizard already gained the beach against our armies,” King Anou argued. “The five of you have no better chance.”

Captain Haloz grabbed King Anou by the breastplate and began to pull him toward the fortress. “Another five deaths is meaningless on a day of thousands, but they may give us time to escape.” He pulled the king roughly and growled. “I’d let you join them, but I doubt that King Belgrave would approve.”

The five brothers shot their arrows toward the Dark Wizard and the dragon just as they had at Amehtana, but this time their arrows burst into flame as the Dark Wizard’s magic sent them flying away harmlessly. Moments later, the dragon was holding Thag loosely in its mouth and the other four brothers were pinned to the ground by its feet and wings.

The Dark Wizard chuckled as he stepped beside Thag. He wrapped his fingers around Thag’s head and turned it so that he could see the face. “You five have become a great annoyance to me,” he growled. “Tonight you will learn the consequences of aiding my enemy.”

“Better to suffer for helping a friend than to have no friends at all,” Theg muttered, struggling beneath the strong claws of the dragon.

Theg grunted as the Dark Wizard gave him a sharp kick in the head. “If my enemy is your friend, then where is he now?” the Dark Wizard ridiculed. “Why has he not come to your aid? You may think of him as a friend, but he sees you as nothing more than another servant, a slave to be sacrificed as needed.”

“Theg is right,” Thag defiantly said. “You have no friends.” He spat at the Dark Wizard.

“I will allow your king to escape today,” the Dark Wizard replied. He dug his sharp fingernails into the skin of Thag’s forehead. “Tonight the five of you will suffer and die.” He slowly began to scrape his hand along Thag’s head, pulling strands of Thag’s scalp with it. The Dark Wizard smiled with evil delight as the man screamed in pain.