Chapter 35

Voth stood in front of his dragon as he surveyed the objective that lay before his army. The Fortress of Nasad was against the side of a mountain that seemed out of place on the otherwise mostly-flat terrain. The wall was high and his soldiers would initially have to use ladders. There were also two entrances, but both of them would become clogged with bodies as the battle progressed. On the face of the mountain were two large doors, both open to show the entrance to the tunnel of Nasad. Voth knew that the enemy would stand against him for a while, but if he did not destroy them fast enough, they would retreat into the tunnel and close the doors behind them. He would have to overcome his enemy or his strategy would fail.

He glanced down at the shorter individual standing beside him. Huvttiuq, the Huvudet commander who would lead the army against the fortress, was impatiently holding his double-bladed sword. “Ready the ranks,” Voth ordered. “Send your strongest brigades of axe-men against the two entrances. Have the main infantry stand in reserve and only move forward as needed.”

“Sueycuv eyt tnoqv tvym?” Huvttiuq asked.

Voth sighed. “The archers will be of little help in this battle. Take away their bows and give them rocks to throw. Have them join the soldiers with the ladders. They may live for a short time, but their ultimate purpose is to provide a path so that the infantry can pass over the wall.”

Huvttiuq gave Voth a questioning look. “Noh esveldsip Hlueqwik pip? Puvwwoc siy uepun esoyt puv wiy uoj ytvep uivtuec si tvyt!”

“Hlueqwik is an incapable commander,” Voth explained. “His loss will leave you as the sole commander of this army. I have sacrificed Heslek, Lebuv, and now Hlueqwik since I have chosen you over all of the others to be my arm that stretches across the world.”

“Uouoy uv si ecuepijuoc unoh envy ot,” the Huvudet commander replied. “Huotciv noh buiuq llim hvpot. Naza’khashel eyt ysvelun I plnoys ueym? Eci eyt wonj hvmv puvl wuvm siyt ui huvem buiwoceq euv heyt.”

A brief grin flickered across Voth’s face. “The naza’khashel have been hidden from much of the world since the destruction of the ancient city of Nazada. Their great size fits their ferocity. Have them push the catapults into place and then spread them throughout the army. They will cause panic wherever they go.”

“Tybij ot hpveu wv I, suoitcnutsui euow envy noh sselun,” Huvttiuq said.

Then begin your assault,” Voth ordered. “Your numbers will overwhelm most of the enemy. I will deal with the few who will prove to be more difficult.” With that, Voth’s dragon leapt up, and taking the cloaked figure in its feet, sped up into the sky.

The sound of a loud trumpet filled the air, pulling King Belgrave from his dreams. As he sat up, he could see soldiers taking their positions in the fortress. Drums began to beat in the distance and echoed off the mountain. “It is a few hours before dawn and the enemy has finally begun their attack,” Naiya’Nal explained. He pulled himself up to look over the wall. Marching toward the fortress was the largest mass of soldiers that he had ever seen. “What is that!?” he cried in disbelief, pointing toward a large creature in the midst of the enemy. It had shaggy white fur and wore several large plates of metal chained together to form armor. “It must be twice as tall as a Barbidon and carrying a blade as wide as my body!” He saw more of them scattered among the enemy.

“Stand firm,” Naiya’Nal encouraged. “There is nothing in this world that cannot be overcome.”

“It can be overcome,” King Belgrave agreed, “but at what cost? How many soldiers will I lose to just one of those monsters?” He looked to either side. King Anou stood to his right, at the corner of the army of Nerak. Queen Desi’Rel stood to the left with her army. “Where is Tanarad?” King Belgrave asked, looking back out at the enemy. “Why are only the armies of Nerak and Vernon defending the fortress?”

“King Belgrave,” a familiar voice behind him yelled. He turned to see Captain Haloz step out from the tunnel with Commander Sidrahkir. The rest of the Red Exemplars came behind them. They were dressed only in their armor, without their usual red clothing beneath it. They had slung their shields on their backs and each Red Exemplar except the Captain held two spears. They wore red headbands on their heads instead of helmets. Their skin glistened in the torchlight, showing the sharp definition of their strong muscles. Commander Sidrahkir was dressed as usual, but also had a red armband tied around his left arm. “King Belgrave!” Captain Haloz yelled again as they walked forward between the two armies. “There never was and never will be a greater king.” The soldiers of the other two armies cheered their approval of his statement.

King Belgrave smiled as they walked up to him and Naiya’Nal at the wall. “I have never seen the Red Exemplars looking so majestic. Your presence drives away the shadows of fear that linger on the brink of battle.” He turned to the Commander. “I notice that you have been given the honor of wearing the armband.”

“It has been an honor to have Commander Sidrahkir as a friend and an ally for many years,” Captain Haloz explained. He pulled out a strip of white cloth. “The purpose of the Red Exemplars will be revealed upon this day and we have come to honor the man who has brought us to this place. Belgrave, you are not a Red Exemplar, but you are of the Great Kings. Stretch out your left arm.” King Belgrave did as ordered and the Captain put a white armband on his arm. “No other Great King has ever received this honor. Today the Red Exemplars will be your army and not just your ally.”

King Belgrave placed his hand on the Captain’s shoulder. “You have influenced me in ways not yet realized. You have taught me so much that it will be many years before I have a chance to put even half of it to practice.”

“You have never disappointed me and I know that you never will,” the Captain replied.

King Belgrave turned to the Commander. “Where is the rest of the army? Why are only Nerak and Vernon providing the soldiers?”

Commander Sidrahkir sighed. “While you were resting, we made a count of how many survivors we had from the beach. We had fewer soldiers survive than we had initially guessed. The army of Tanarad is down to less than a tenth of our original number. The two smaller kingdoms of Panei have also lost most of their men. Nerak and Vernon still had the most soldiers so King Anou and Queen Desi’Rel volunteered their armies for this battle. Everyone else is staying in the first large chamber inside the tunnel.”

“Then let them enjoy their short reprieve from duty,” King Belgrave replied. “They will have wounded to care for soon enough!” He turned around to face the coming enemy. The ground shook under the multitude of heavy feet marching in their direction. The shrill cries of the deathbirds filled the sky. A rock from an enemy catapult suddenly crashed against the mountain behind them and King Belgrave turned to see the broken remains of a trebuchet plummet from where the rock had struck. “Return the attack,” he ordered. “Allow the enemy no advantage.”

Immediately all of the trebuchets and catapults in the fortress and mounted on the mountain began to bombard the enemy. The massive rocks crushed large swaths through the enemy, but they did little more than put a few small dents in the enemy numbers. Several skilled archers from Nerak and Vernon shot flaming arrows into the ground in front of the fortress to provide distance markers. As the enemy marched past the farthest of the markers, the rest of the archers began to open fire. The enemy did not slow or alter their advance. They continued marching forward, oblivious to their losses and silent except for the sounds of their footsteps and the clinking of their armor.

Naiya’Nal suddenly grabbed King Belgrave’s arm. “They have greater numbers than we have arrows!” she warned.

“Are there no more arrows in storage inside the tunnel?” he asked, looking at the men around him.

She shook her head. “We exhausted our supply at the beach. Today’s arrows are the ones that were stored in the tunnel.”

“Hold the archers,” King Belgrave yelled. “Let the enemy come close and then make every shot count!”

The enemy continued to advance toward the fortress from all sides. Rocks fell among the soldiers and the Canari had already begun to drag the wounded into the tunnel, leaving behind a widening trail of blood. The Red Exemplars spread out along the wall on either side of King Belgrave.

Looking out over the battlefield, Commander Sidrahkir began to finger the hollow talon that he wore around his neck and remembered the words that were spoken when the tweenks gave it to him. They had instructed that blowing the whistle would summon them to aid his king. He did not know if he believed them, but it would not hurt to try. He put it to his mouth and blew. A spine-tingling screech escaped from the whistle and everyone nearby turned to see what he was doing.

“This is not the time to rehearse your musical talents,” King Belgrave said. “I can see why you are a soldier and not playing in the band.”

“I know this is not the best time to discuss music theory,” the Commander replied, “but I believe music is the most effective means of communicating with an individual’s innermost being. Perhaps the sound will drive someone to action when they would have otherwise stayed settled.”

“Music can be motivating,” King Belgrave said, “but at most, that sound you just made will only cause our enemy to question our seriousness in standing against them.”

“Oh, don’t be so hard on him, Belgrave,” Naiya’Nal interrupted. “He’s just as nervous as everyone else. If his noises reassure him, then allow him to make them. Perhaps I should teach you some of the battle songs that I learned during my training.”

“Unless they are in an obscure dark tongue, a lot of us may actually know them,” the Commander stated. “Most of our songs have been passed on longer than history can remember.”

“You wouldn’t mind singing one for us, would you?” King Belgrave asked.

“Very well,” she replied, and began to sing.

Here I stand upon this hilltop,
The sword in my hand my foes will stop.
The steel flashes as they close,
Their bodies fall beneath my blows.
Our battle rages through the dark night,
And all will welcome morning light.
When I have cast the single shadow,
My victory the world will know.

Even before Naiya’Nal had finished the first stanza, the enemy had marched to the wall and the archers were raining down their lethal shots. King Belgrave found it interesting that the Huvudets did not make much of an attempt to protect against their losses and kept moving forward, always stepping on top of their fallen as if they were not even there.

At either end of the fortress, the soldiers of Nerak and Vernon were fighting against the enemy axe-men. The Canari were hard at work taking care of the wounded. Naiya’Nal readied her weapon and kept on singing. Some of the other soldiers around them joined in the song.

Now as I stand upon this hilltop,
The sword in my hand will never drop.
I stand as a wall they cannot shove,
Since I defend the world I love.
Yet even though my hope may fail,
I am the one who will prevail.
Then I will welcome the morning sun,
And it will prove that I have won.

“Stand the wall and rebuff this foul swarm,” Commander Sidrahkir shouted as Huvudets placed the first ladders against the wall.

Soldiers dropped rocks down on the climbing enemy. Some of the archers shot flaming arrows at the ladders to light the climbers on fire and send the enemy into panic. Naiya’Nal leaned over the wall as she sang, and with a sweep of her hand, burned the enemy soldiers directly below them. The enemy kept coming and the entire fortress had started to sing.

My enemy wants to capture my hilltop;
My enemy wants my will to stop.
Then with my sword on the ground beside me,
I’d raise my eyes, dawn to see.
With one last breath my life will fade,
And all around will turn to shade.
My foe would cast the single shadow,
No victory for the world to know.

“Draw swords,” King Belgrave ordered. “They come at us one by one and we will kill them one by one. Archers, carpet the land with their corpses and retreat into the fortress as soon as the last arrow is spent.”

The barrage of arrows thickened and entire lines of enemy soldiers fell before the wall. With a loud shout, those behind them quickened their pace and ran to the wall. They packed against it so tightly that the dead were still standing after the next barrage of arrows. The enemy soldiers were now running forward as fast as they could and climbing up onto the quickly growing pile of their dead. The fortress continued to sing the song and King Belgrave thought that he could hear the howls of the Canari in the background.

Still I stand upon this hilltop,
And all around my foes will drop.
Though steel dulls and shields shatter,
I’ll have relief as my foes scatter.
Tonight I fight beneath the bright stars;
Tomorrow I have to tend my scars.
The night will dim with dawn in sight,
And I will remain in the morning light.

The song ended about the same time that a ladder clanged against the wall directly in front of King Belgrave and Naiya’Nal. An enemy soldier jumped over the wall, but Naiya’Nal’s double-sword instantly impaled the soldier. “They have no weapons,” she noticed as the body fell to the floor between them. “Why do they come with no weapons?”

King Belgrave looked down at the body. It had a quiver filled with arrows strapped to its back, but no bow or sword. “I don’t care if they want to fight with just their hands,” he replied. “Kill them all. Let them know that the Fortress of Nasad will not be an easy capture.” He looked up as he heard the fluttering of wings pass above him. Before he could make out what it was, a winged creature swooped down to grab the next enemy soldier that peeked over the wall and carried him away into the sky.

“Tweenks!” Commander Sidrahkir yelled. “The tweenks have come to aid us!”

Naiya’Nal stepped back from the wall and looked at the Commander. “I do not like the idea of birds coming to this battle, even if they do come to our aid.” She turned back to the wall as more Huvudets began to climb over the wall.

“Why not?” the Commander asked, swinging his sword at a Huvudet.

“It is hard to defend against both land and sky,” she shouted back. “Do you really think there is only one dragon that submits to the orders of Voth?”

The Commander opened his mouth to speak, but gave no reply. His eyes suddenly turned to the southern sky. A loud roar filled the air above the fortress as a great dragon swooped from the clouds and grabbed several soldiers in its jaws and claws. The tweenks immediately mobbed the dragon, but more dragons came to its defense. Soon a large aerial battle between the tweenks and the dragons was taking place above them.

Naiya’Nal scanned the sky for the dragon she had once known. “If you see a dragon with the ebiron symbol branded on its body, let me know,” she said. “If Voth has not killed her, then it is the one dragon that will obey my commands.” Finally, she spotted the beast as it flew in the distance over the enemy. “Ritzvenzorbijnor Ilph!” she cried out. “Tweenks akrokizvitosh Ebiron.” The dragon obeyed her command and began to swoop down at the Huvudets, taking them into the sky in its mouth and claws, and then dropping them to their death. The tweenks also understood her command to them, and recognizing the ebiron symbol on the dragon, did not attack it.

“How do you do that?” Captain Haloz asked.

Naiya’Nal laughed. “It is a language that can be used to control animals if you know their name. First, I told my old dragon to come help me in battle. That second phrase was to tell the tweenks to make the ebiron symbol a part of them, or to think of it as an ally. I am surprised that it worked since I do not know their names.”

“The tweenks are not individuals,” Commander Sidrahkir explained. “From my experiences, they are one mind with many bodies. It is hard to...”

“Hey! Are you going to stand there chatting or defend the wall?” King Belgrave called back to them.

Naiya’Nal turned her focus back to the wall. “Belgrave, look out!” she screamed. He turned and found himself face to face with one of the large white creatures. The bodies of the enemy had piled so high that the creature easily reached over the wall and King Belgrave was unable to react before it roared and pulled his legs out from under him. He dropped his sword as he fell, but he quickly pulled out his dagger and rolled over to return the attack. He did not have to strike. The double-sword that Naiya’Nal had been using flew through the air and the beast released him as it fell back, the weapon sticking from its forehead.

Naiya’Nal ran over and dropped to her knees beside him. “Belgrave, are you alright?” she asked. “I should have been watching. I could have lost you!”

“Its roar is stronger than its arm,” King Belgrave groaned, sitting up. He grimaced and put his hand to his left side. “That hurts. I think it must have scratched me.” He looked down at his hand. It was bloody and his side was beginning to sting.

“We need to get you into the tunnel,” the Commander said, kneeling down beside them.

King Belgrave shook his head. “No, I don’t think this is anything more than a bad scratch. I’ll be fine and the doctors can look at it after the battle.”

“At least wrap it up tightly,” Captain Haloz instructed, standing over them. “It will help to control the bleeding. Here, use this.” He removed his red headband and tossed it down to King Belgrave’s lap. “If nothing else, it will keep it from getting too dirty.”

Naiya’Nal tied the cloth around Belgrave’s torso and Captain Haloz pulled the king to his feet. “At least no one can complain that their king did not bleed for them,” King Belgrave muttered. “Captain, send two of your soldiers to find out how well the gates are holding.” He grunted in pain as he bent over to pick up his sword.

King Belgrave soon returned his focus to the battle. The Red Exemplars had filled the gap along the wall where he had been standing, so he could take the time for a brief rest. One of the Canari brought him some water from the tunnel. He took a few long swallows of the refreshing liquid and looked down at the dog. “I have always found the names of the Canari to be intriguing. What is yours?”

“I am Mertrex,” the dog replied. “Queen Vaersheena wishes to know if you want her to send out soldiers from the tunnel to reinforce the armies.”

King Belgrave looked at the armies still defending the fortress. “I did not know that we were losing that badly,” he said. “Tell her not to send reinforcements. If the battle goes ill, I would sooner retreat into the safety of the tunnel than continue throwing away the lives of this world. Tell the queen that we will continue to fight until we are overrun and then we will escape into the tunnel.” The dog nodded and ran back into the tunnel with the message.

“King Belgrave!” someone shouted from the south. King Belgrave turned and saw King Anou running toward him. “We cannot hold them much longer,” King Anou said, wrapping a cloth around a gash in his arm. “Their strategy is so immoral that we would never have guessed it.”

“What could be worse than having to fight against an army of poorly trained and unarmed soldiers?” King Belgrave asked.

“I do not worry about the unarmed,” the King answered. “It will only be a short time before all of them have been killed. What troubles me is the rest of their army that is holding back. I have no doubt that they are as well armed as yesterday.”

“If they have plenty of weapons, then why are they withheld from battle?” Commander Sidrahkir asked from beside King Belgrave.

“They are not being withheld,” King Anou said. “They will come and the only resistance will be our swords and spears. Their unarmed dead will serve as a ramp to breach the wall!”

King Belgrave’s eyes widened briefly, but he quickly regained his look of confidence. “It will be no different than if they had come with weapons at the start. They will come and we will stand against them.”

King Anou put his hand on King Belgrave’s shoulder. “I hope that you are right about this,” he said. “The tempo of battle will be changed for us and I cannot begin to guess what surprises the Dark Wizard may have in store for us during the chaos that may ensue.”

“Then stand your ground and withstand whatever is sent against us,” King Belgrave replied. King Anou nodded and returned to command his soldiers.

Captain Haloz returned with the reports of the two Red Exemplars that he had sent to the two gates. “Nerak is holding strong,” he said. “They have lost many lives, but they are still holding. Vernon, however, has begun to lose ground. I sent Galbraith back to fight beside them and encourage them not to give way. I do not expect him to return.” The Captain raised his arm and King Belgrave could see blood running from a fresh cut on the forearm.

“Galbraith will be needed there,” King Belgrave agreed. He turned to Commander Sidrahkir. “I want Queen Desi’Rel safe inside the tunnel. Her army will follow their commander.”

“Commander Aradag fell beside King Vircto,” Commander Sidrahkir replied.

“Then you be their commander,” King Belgrave ordered. “There are no soldiers of Tanarad out here and I need Vernon to hold as long as Nerak holds. Send Queen Desi’Rel into the tunnel so that she is protected from the coming attack.”

Captain Haloz cleared his throat and tried to speak, but Commander Sidrahkir interrupted him. “The queen will not listen to me,” he said. “I will send her to see you and then you can tell her.” The Commander turned and nearly bumped into the queen. “Oh, I was just going to look for you!”

She frowned as she looked at King Belgrave. “I will allow Sidrahkir to take command of my army, but I will not hide in the tunnel while my soldiers defend the fortress. As long as this battle rages, I am the leader of Vernon and you cannot change that. If I go into the tunnel, Vernon goes with me.”

“Then stay with your army and be careful,” King Belgrave ordered. “Now what did you really come to tell me?”

“I was about to recommend that we retreat into the tunnel, but it appears you have your mind set against it,” she said.

“We will definitely retreat,” King Belgrave proclaimed, “but I will decide the timing. Let us prepare for this next assault. If King Anou is right about their strategy, then they will eventually drive us back to the tunnel. Return to your army and let us prepare for their last assault.”

An uneasy silence covered the land as the last of the unarmed Huvudets fell. The bodies against the fortress wall were piled high enough that the enemy would not need to use ladders to breach the walls. Belgrave ordered the armies to quickly evacuate any wounded that had not been evacuated during the fighting.

The enemy drums soon began to beat a steady rhythm. The enemy soldiers standing in the distance began to beat their swords against their shields to the beat. King Belgrave walked to the wall and looked out as the tempo of the rhythm slowly increased. Large fires were started out in various places among the enemy and lit up the sky beneath the clouds. The tweenks, with their eyes unaccustomed to that much light, retreated into the dark clouds. As the beating reached a crescendo, it suddenly stopped and the enemy army let out a loud yell. “Ya! One king and he is Voth!” The drums resumed their rapid beating and the enemy charged with a shrill scream.

“I thought we were fighting the Huvudets,” Naiya’Nal said. “Where did Voth get an army of banshees?”

Captain Haloz sighed. “This could become interesting.”

King Belgrave gripped his sword tighter. “This is the harshest demented scream that I have ever heard and even the echo off the mountain penetrates to the bone. This sound will be the undoing of the armies!”

“The scream of a banshee is to paralyze its prey with fear so that it can strike unopposed,” Naiya’Nal said.

“It’s not just the scream,” Captain Haloz added. “The Dark Wizard is finally sending his real soldiers. Even from here, you can see that they are bulkier, wear thicker armor, and carry strong weapons. There will be no stopping them this time.”

“There is a reason why I brought the Red Exemplars to Nasad,” King Belgrave replied. “You were born for this battle and I know that you will not let me down.”

“Red is the color of courage and will always be with you in battle,” the Captain said, “either fighting beside you or spilled on the ground beneath you.” He turned back to his soldiers. “Ready your spears,” he yelled. “The Red Exemplars are a wall that fears no noise and stands steadfast against the strongest force.” As the Red Exemplars readied their spears and braced themselves, Captain Haloz turned back to King Belgrave. “I suggest that you move back from the wall. Prophecy demands that you survive.”

“Prophecy makes the demands, not you!” King Belgrave replied. “You even said you were fighting as my army today!”

“We are still honored to fight for you,” Captain Haloz replied, turning back to the wall.

Naiya’Nal took King Belgrave’s arm. “We should do as he asks,” she said. “Even standing so far back, we may eventually find ourselves on the front line.” He sighed and followed her away from the wall.

Almost as soon as he turned to face toward the wall again, the enemy reached the wall. The clattering of arms and the yells of men filled the air as King Belgrave saw the armies visibly recoil as they rebuffed the force of the charging throng. Captain Haloz briefly looked over his shoulder. “We can hold them,” he shouted before turning back to the battle.

King Belgrave looked up as he heard a loud roar and saw a dragon swoop down toward him. Naiya’Nal grabbed him and pulled him to the floor. The large body passed harmlessly just above them, but it did manage to bump its foot against King Belgrave’s head. He looked up to see the large beast flying away and his helmet rolling toward one of the armies. “We have no arrows, and the fires have driven away the tweenks,” Naiya’Nal said. “Now we must guard against the sky.”

She removed her helmet and let her dark hair free in the breeze. “Forget about your helmet; this battle is almost over.”

“That is what worries me,” King Belgrave said, standing up. “The Dark Wizard is still out there and we do not know how he will strike.”

A flash of lightning flickered in the clouds and the deafening thunder caused King Belgrave to flinch. He looked up and saw several more dragons diving down toward them. “Look out!” he yelled, but the dragons changed course at the last moment. King Belgrave cringed at the sounds of rending armor and the clattering of dropped weapons as the dragons crashed into the two armies.

As the dragons separated themselves from the tangled mess of men to fly away to tend to their injuries, another dragon landed in the fortress between King Belgrave and the Red Exemplars. A cloaked figure slowly stepped out from beneath the large dragon.

“Vejisesakrig Ilph veytaritz anash,” Naiya’Nal shouted into the air. Her dragon dived down from the clouds and attacked the Dark Wizard’s dragon. They tore and bit at each other’s necks and wings, and with tails whipping in the air, violently rolled around on the fortress floor as they fought.

“It would seem that one dragon can cause more damage to your army than ten brigades of my soldiers,” the Dark Wizard mocked King Belgrave as the two dragons rolled through the army of Nerak and then over the wall onto the Huvudets. The Dark Wizard’s unseen face was fixed on King Belgrave. “Out of everyone here, you are the only one to have ever witnessed the full extent of my power. I know that you were present for the destruction of Ka.”

Naiya’Nal looked perplexed as the Dark Wizard mentioned events from millennia before, but dismissed her lack of understanding as he took a few steps toward them. “Your only real powers are the hands of your many slaves,” Naiya’Nal ridiculed. She pulled out her Lunari dagger and stepped in front of King Belgrave. “What happens when your slaves leave you?”

“Those who refuse my authority will suffer the consequences of their denial,” the Dark Wizard replied. He thrust his sword into the air and a bolt of lightning flickered up the blade and into the clouds. “Your friends helped you escape from me at Amehtana. No one will assist you today.” The clouds briefly flickered and large hailstones began to fall down upon all of the armies.

King Belgrave pointed his sword at the sky and the hail above him melted into harmless rain. He could see the soldiers in the armies raising their shields as they attempted to deflect the large projectiles. Other soldiers were unable to raise their shields and King Belgrave could see the armies begin to thin.

Naiya’Nal glared at the Dark Wizard. “You cannot kill Belgrave while I am still alive!” She sprang forward and tried to thrust the Lunari dagger into his heart.

He snorted haughtily as her blade exploded in her hand and she fell backward. “If the weapons of the Lunari could hurt me, then they probably would have tried long ago,” he laughed.

She glared up at the Dark Wizard from the ground. “Your shadow may be too dark to be penetrated by light,” she hissed, reaching for her usual dagger, “but surely your flesh will be more accepting of cold steel.” She sprang up and tried to slash across his chest as she twisted forward. He made an almost imperceptible flick of his hand and she crashed against an unseen barrier and fell back again.

“The weapons of men are weak,” the Dark Wizard said. “If I felt it worth my while, I could walk through your army and not be harmed.”

She slowly reached behind her, under her black cloak, and grabbed something tucked into her belt. “Has anyone ever managed to incite a fire in your veins to thaw your icy heart? Has anyone ever tried?” she asked.

Voth was moving his hand to direct his magic at her, but hesitated as he tried to figure out what she was talking about. “What could you possibly have that you think is beyond my powers?” he wondered.

“Every creature has its purpose,” she snarled. She twisted around, whipped out her snake fang, and flung it like a dart at the Dark Wizard.

The Dark Wizard jumped back and just barely caught the snake fang before it hit him. He flung it to the side where it struck another soldier. King Belgrave watched in horror as the soldier briefly screamed and convulsed before spontaneously combusting.

The Dark Wizard redirected his rage back at Naiya’Nal and used his magic to hold her to the ground at his feet. She struggled to break free, but was unable to do more than roll over.

The Dark Wizard looked up at King Belgrave. “She needs your help. Come and save her. Perhaps you will be lucky and save the world!”

“Don’t listen to him!” Naiya’Nal screamed. “Get out of here while you still can.”

She raised her hand as high as she could and tried to blast the Dark Wizard with her lightning. An anti-magic shell deflected the blast and it briefly curled around her body, but the Dark Wizard stepped up beside her and the lightning ended as he gave her a swift kick in the side. “Four times you have attacked and failed. You can do nothing that will defeat me,” he said to her motionless body.

“Leave her alone,” King Belgrave said, taking a step toward Naiya’Nal and pointing his sword at the Dark Wizard. “You have repulsed the light of the Lunari, the steel of combat, the poison of fire, and the magic of this world, but you will not withstand me. I am a servant and soldier of the Creator, sent to put an end to your vile tyranny in this world. Where Naiya’Nal may have failed, I will not.”

The Dark Wizard gave a haughty laugh. “I applaud your confidence, but you will die as everyone else who has opposed my rule.” He held out his hand in front of him and King Belgrave could feel an invisible force strike against the point of his sword. There was an audible crack and the Dark Wizard flinched as his magic began to fail for the first time.

Belgrave began to wiggle his sword and carve a hole through the strong invisible wall. “You cannot threaten my wife and hope to escape my wrath,” he said. “I will break through your magic and rid this world of your evil once and for all!” The sounds of shattering magic confirmed that the hole was growing.

“Kizveybijnor Klez yarkrig Sarda,” the Dark Wizard yelled. He bent down and picked up Naiya’Nal. “The witch is mine. If you want her so badly, then come and take her from me.” As a dragon came down and picked him up, the magic that King Belgrave had been cutting disappeared.

King Belgrave stepped forward and looked into the sky as the dragon carrying his wife and his enemy flew higher into the sky. “Be the coward you are and hide at the first sign of failure,” he yelled. “I will hunt you down wherever you go and rescue my wife!” He gazed up into the sky, oblivious to the battle around him.

“King Belgrave!” a woman to his left called. It was Queen Desi’Rel, but King Belgrave did not look at her. His gaze remained fixed on the sky where the Dark Wizard had disappeared into the clouds with Naiya’Nal.

“King Belgrave, the ice has greatly weakened our ranks and Vernon cannot hold any longer!” He slowly turned his head and looked at her. She could see the look of grim despair etched on his face. “Between the dragon and the ice, we have lost too many soldiers and the Huvudets are pushing us back from the wall,” she said.

King Belgrave looked down and sheathed his sword. He pulled out his dagger and traced his finger along the blade. “I have been told that the battle at Nasad would be the greatest battle that the world has ever seen.” He sighed. “There is nothing great about the losses we have suffered here. Sound the retreat. Get every soldier into the tunnel and shut the doors. The Red Exemplars will be last and guard the tunnel entrance while the doors are closing.”

The order went out and King Belgrave stood just outside the tunnel entrance, watching as the soldiers rushed past him from both sides and into the tunnel behind him. The enemy came further and further into the fortress. When the last soldier entered, the Red Exemplars were standing in a crescent stretching from one side of the tunnel to the other. King Belgrave could see that they had already lost several of their members. A tiny hole in the clouds opened far in the east over the sea, allowing a few small rays of the rising sun to illuminate the entrance to the tunnel. The weapons and armor of the Red Exemplars gleamed in the sudden sunlight.

The enemy drums suddenly changed and they pulled back their attack. King Belgrave watched as one of the Huvudets stepped forward. His armor was shinier, and fluttering from a pole attached to his back was a small banner with the same design the Dark Wizard had flown from his ship. He took a few steps and looked at the tunnel arrogantly. “I am Huvttiuq, Commander of the Huvudets and loyal steward of the one king Voth. Where is the man that I have defeated today? I wish to know how he stomachs the taste of his loss.”

King Belgrave frowned. “It is not the loss of this battle that I find to be unpalatable, but the fact that you and your soldiers have been deceived to the point where you are willing to give your lives for a lie,” he answered. “Voth is no king.”

Huvttiuq chuckled. “You can pretend to be the king of your tattered nations, but Voth now rules this world. Today you may escape, but we will eventually overcome your pathetic band and extinguish your rebellion. It takes an army to change the world, not an outdated prophecy. You have wasted your life for a belief based on emotions rather than reality.” He raised his hand and cast a shadow across King Belgrave’s face. “No matter what you do, your face will always be hidden beneath the shadow of Voth’s greatness.”

“I pray that one day you will see the error of your ways,” King Belgrave replied. He turned away and took a few steps into the tunnel before turning to look back at the enemy. “Shut the doors,” he ordered.

Huvttiuq frowned as the great doors began to close and looked at the soldiers beside him. “Weyt llik!” With a loud shout, the Huvudets rushed forward to renew their attack against the Red Exemplars.

The attack was stronger than anything Captain Haloz had ever experienced. His soldiers were fighting harder than ever, but even they could not stand against the great mob. He could feel his men falling, but there was no time to perform any death rituals. He clenched his teeth and kept up his fight.

“Captain Haloz,” King Belgrave yelled. The doors had almost shut and the Red Exemplars were still fending off the massive onslaught and slowly retreating as the pile of enemy casualties in front of them grew higher and higher. The Captain turned his head and looked over his shoulder at him.

“Now is your time for great deeds and glory. To the end of the world and certain death, you will never be forgotten!” King Belgrave clenched his fist, and with the dagger that he held in his other hand, cut across his forearm.

The Captain briefly wondered what King Belgrave was doing, but then he noticed the thin line of red forming on King Belgrave’s arm. He grinned and turned back to the battle. Captain Haloz raised his fist in the air and gave a loud shout. “At the end of the world and certain death, we were the Red Exemplars!”

In the final moment before the large doors fully closed, King Belgrave thought he saw the great captain finally fall, his figure outlined by the bright morning sun as if wreathed in fire.

A deep rumble announced that the great rock doors had completely shut and that nothing would ever open them again. The sounds from outside could not be heard and the tunnel seemed quiet and deserted since the armies had escaped further in. One of the men who had closed the doors came up to King Belgrave. “The door has shut. The time has come to travel through the tunnel,” he told King Belgrave.

King Belgrave looked over the men. Their armor was different and much more ornate than that of ordinary soldiers. Their clothing was black with diagonal bands of yellow. A tuft of feathers stuck from the tops of their helmets. They had swords curved like scimitars, something King Belgrave had not yet seen since he had arrived in the world. “What army are you from?” he asked.

“We are not soldiers belonging to a king,” the man answered. “I am Sarasesanome, head of the tunnel guard. The doors have shut and we must move further into the tunnel.” He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. “As we move, we will put out the torches behind us.”

“Leave one torch with me and go on ahead, Sarasesanome,” King Belgrave sighed. “I need some time alone. I will be along in a bit.” The man nodded and the others began to extinguish all of the torches except one. King Belgrave walked to where the tunnel began to turn downward and sat down in the middle of the first set of stairs. “Don’t tell anyone I’m still here,” he ordered as the men were leaving. “I don’t want to be disturbed.” Sarasesanome bowed and disappeared down the tunnel with his men.

Belgrave sat partway down the stairs and watched the blood from the cut on his forearm slowly drip to the floor. He tried to make sense of everything that had just happened. There was no way that he could have just fulfilled any of the final prophecy since the Dark Wizard was still alive. In that case, the entire battle had been a wasted attempt. The enemy had captured his wife and defeated the Red Exemplars. Countless soldiers had lost their lives for his refusal to order a timely retreat since he had thought that sometime during the battle, he would fulfill the last prophecy. Belgrave had not seen King Anou enter the tunnel and wondered if he had managed to survive. He wondered who else would turn up missing. After such a large battle occurring in their land, Panei would never be the same. Because of the many lives sacrificed, the entire world would never be the same.

He watched as the blood slowly dripped from his arm and spattered in the growing puddle of red that he was sitting in. He hoped that prophecy would not demand anymore loss of life and that the senseless bloodshed was over. He yawned as he removed the white armband that Captain Haloz had given him and dipped it in the puddle of blood. The white cloth was quickly stained by the red liquid. The Red Exemplars had lived and died for the prophecy they believed in. Belgrave would continue and could not let them down. He wrapped the dripping red armband around his right arm and leaned back against the steps. He closed his eyes and thought of Naiya’Nal. He could almost hear her faintly calling him from far away. He would have to rescue her, he thought, as he let everything fade away.