Chapter III:8

Watch your gait,
keep your stride,
move with the pack,
stay alive.

Watch your gait,
keep your stride,
circle the heard,
stay alive.

Watch your gait,
keep your stride,
scatter the pack,
feed tonight.

– Common Osyraen military training chant, circa 20 E.R.

Honor Among Wolves

It gave Mercu little comfort that he seemed to be fairing marginally better than his pursuers. An accomplishment given his injuries. Though faster in a sprint the men seemed less agile, and even light armor was clearly fatiguing them compared to light traveling clothes. Except the scrawny one, he was a problem.

If it weren’t for Mercu’s bleeding side he might have been able to outpace them. Two had indeed peeled off after ten minutes, but that left at least three. He dove on pure instinct as he passed a tree. He barely caught the glint of the blade that swept past, but heard the clang as it struck the tree. Grabbed a clump of dirt and pine needles, rolled, and threw it blindly to give him even an opening to gauge his opponents.

Thirty feet, forty feet, and of course the scrawny one, who flinched under the dirt hitting his face, and brought the blade back around, and down. It was a clumsy miss, and he lost his footing in the loose dirt. Mercu brought his foot up into the falling face to a sickening sound. Grabbed the man’s dropped sword and did his best impression of a parry against the man charging him. It failed utterly to connect, but so did the man’s own strike.

Mercu’s clumsy attempt to bring the blade back was parried properly, and he bolted towards the road. With a weapon again, at least. Though he cursed himself for never having taken proper lessons in all his years at court. Lover not a fighter, was a sentiment that left him very angry at himself right that moment. Stamina, it was all he had going for him, and it was running out. Pain was beating adrenaline, and the blood loss was going to catch up. He could hear the footsteps crunching closer behind him, heard the swing of a blade that missed.

He spun with a wild strike that connected. With what he wasn’t even sure, because he just kept turning, stumbled, rolled, and brought up his guard knowing the next swing was coming. It glanced off the third man’s blade, just enough to deflect it into the dirt, and not Mercu’s face, and more than hard enough to knock the blade from Mercu’s shaky grasp. The man rolled his shoulders, and brought the blade up to Mercu’s throat as he tried to scramble up again.

“Oh, you are a fancy piece of trash, aren’t you?” the man huffed. “I’m gonna make this slow,” he said pressing the blade into Mercu’s neck.”

“I like it slow,” Mercu managed in as leading a tone as he could manage past the pain. Stupid last words, he figured, but slow, gave him the slightest chance they wouldn’t be the last. Conversation, a distraction that could buy time both alive, and before things got very bad.

The man sneered with disgust. “You know, I always used to think dandies were weak,” he said as he leaned close, and put pressure on the blade. “Keep proving me wrong, though. You and that royal bastard they gave us all to. Maybe I should get this over quickly, not take my chances. Even if the patrol has already been through today,” he said with a knowing smile. “You deserve to suffer. Vern was a good man, as thieves go.”

Plan B out the window, Mercu tried to judge the angle, wondering if he could land a kick. If there was any chance he could do it, and not get his throat slit. He could feel the blood trickling down his neck.

“Eye’s up here fruit,” the man growled, and pressed the blade harder to make his point.

“If Vern was a thief, what does that make you?” Mercu asked.

“Bloody damn loyalist,” the man said, and punched Mercu in the gut.

He was a bit gray at the temples Mercu noticed when his vision cleared. “You sided with the Mad King, didn’t you?” Mercu pressed, and choked as the blade was pushed deeper into his neck. He closed his eyes. Also, stupid last words.

“Call him mad again,” the man growled. “Call my King mad again. The last true King Osyrae has seen. I saw him nearly ascend. Saw him nearly become the Dragon Emperor, that would rule this world, till his own blood betrayed him. That…pathetic whelp, who killed his King, and chained that mad dog. Who killed the brother he saved, and gave us to the beast he let off its leash.”

“No fan of the Wolf?” Mercu asked, hopefully.

“Insult to wolves that is,” the man growled, and backed up. “Now, choose a hand. Which one would you like to lose first? Answer quick, and I’ll only take the one, and a foot, and leave you to bleed out.”

Mercu hesitated, and heard the clop of a hoof. “Left!” he yelled as loudly as he could. The man turned his head. Mercu rolled, grabbed the lost blade, and swung wildly. Parry. He dodged the riposte, but fell, his head swimming. “Right!” he yelled, and deflected the blade which kicked his shoulder. He screamed and brought his sword back into a block. Feeling six ways the block was wrong. His eyes were wide in agony and bewilderment having seen it. The man backed off, glanced towards Mercu, and the sound of approaching hooves. He cursed, and ran.

Mercu coughed, saw stars, and heard a crack of thunder. ‘That was strange,’ was the last thing he thought before he blacked out.

Katrisha marched towards the bound and gagged prisoners. Etore was giving a rousing speech on the wisdom of talking, and who might get healed, if they cooperated. Katrisha grabbed a large stone from the road side threw it into the air. It hung there a moment in a spell, before a blinding flash bathed the road in light.

Etore turned, and held up her hand, and tried to glimpse what Katrisha was doing between gaps in her fingers. All she could make out was a brilliant orb of light. She looked dubiously at the woman standing beneath her own personal sun, who swept her fingers across her lips, and her voice boomed across the forest.

“I am the Stormchild,” Katrisha declared. “I am the face seen across the span of ages.” She lifted her staff, and struck the ground, more for effect than practical function. Runes wove around the wounded. Etore leapt from the circle as she felt a twinge of the effect take hold. “Ask yourselves,” Katrisha cried out, “who do you owe, and who do you fear?”

The bound men cried out past their gags, thrashed against their bindings. Cracked and bleeding skin sealed. Their eyes either shot wide in shock, or clenched shut. They cried as though screaming in pain, but their wounds healed, and closed, leaving only scars, as scabs fell away.

Katrisha leaned on her staff, as the forest returned to late afternoon gloom.

“What…have you done?” Carter demanded, looking back and forth across the prisoners in disbelief.

Katrisha rolled her shoulders. “I am death,” Katrisha said softly, with a smirk, her voice still amplified. “I am life. If I am to stand at the crossroads between such forces, I will not be cruelty.” She waved away the spell amplifying her voice, marched over to one of the men. “So,” she said, and took a breath. “Who will you side with?” she asked. “The cruel lord you have been given to, or the goddess that has spared you?” To any that didn’t know her, it was a good act. To Kiannae and Wren, it was thin. It was a gamble, on a better choice. Katrisha ripped the gag from the man’s mouth.

He groaned. “Fates. I’ve paid seven gold for less than that.”

Katrisha slapped him. “Numbers, because I may be kind, but those around me, well, I like them a lot more than you. So don’t count on me stopping…other options. Numbers.”

“I don’t know,” the man growled. “A hundred, maybe more. There were fifty of us conscripts, and a battalion in reserve.”

Etore ripped a gag off another man. “That the truth?” she asked, blade to his throat.

“Two companies of forty-nine, standard twin battalion size,” the man answered. “The Wolf was gonna kill us all some day. Might as well be today,” he groaned. “That…though, that’s what I call magic. So maybe, if you want to play goddess. Sure, maybe you can kill the bastard. Be doing the world a favor. Fates. I don’t owe any of them nothing.”

Katrisha recognized him then. The man who had run, a few times, the one caught in the back when she froze the first four. He’d lived. “Why?” she asked angrily.

“Just a soldier,” he muttered. “Just a soldier who did his blighted duty, and what did I get? Branded, literally branded as a traitor, and locked up for a decade. You know who hires traitors? Not, nice people, and to do the kind of work that puts you right back in a stockade. Kill them all. Kill the whole damn Osyraen army for all I care. I just…”

Etore shoved the gag back into his mouth.

“They really have been toying with us,” Carter muttered. “A full battalion. Soldiers. Real soldiers, not this rabble. We might have known before now, if you were slower to slit their damn throats,” he growled at Etore.

“Of course they were toying with us,” Etore said, stood, and marched towards him. “It’s the abyss bound bloody Wolf. Maybe you don’t know, not growing up in the capital, not hearing the stories. He’s not just evil. He’s not some prince, or mercenary hedge mage.” She put her sword close to his chest. “In the civil war he was known for taking on an entire battalion by himself, close range. He is the deadliest thing short of a greater dragon. Who do you think they sent to lead those expeditions to capture one? He killed maybe three of them, single handed. Because he wanted to see if he could. That was half the reason it took so long, because he kept killing them. I don’t care if he has an army, he’s still the real threat.”

“I don’t put stock in wild stories,” Carter growled back at her, and stepped up to the sword point.

“How’s that going for you?” Katrisha asked.

Carter sneered. “Fine, prophecy, right? Gotta be something on the other side of something like you. Fates.” He stepped back, and rubbed his forehead. “I should have broken my contract. Stayed in Brokhal the moment I saw you. Nice town, good place to retire.”

“Until they burn it all down,” Etore said, and sheathed her sword.

“We can’t move the rear of the train, because the road is blocked. Though I’m sure this one could toss it off like nothing. No point though, he will just strike again,” Carter declared.

“So lose the caravan,” Kiannae said, sparing her sister an unreadable glance.

Samantha gave Kiannae a look, but didn’t protest.

“How many horses, how many riders?” Katrisha asked.

“Two per wagon, four on some,” Samantha answered. “Twenty one wagons in the train. Counting the downed one. I’d say sixty horses, maybe sixty four. Though some may be wounded. Over seventy members though. These are wagon horses, they can take the weight, but they won’t like riders in the first place, let alone double. Only a handful of saddles. Likely to bolt the moment you stop calming them. Get picked off one at a time, assuming we don’t get thrown off in a ditch.”

“Mount in the middle, let the pack keep them together. Most trustworthy horses on the outside, under tight reigns, mount them last. I think the horses trust me,” Kiannae said. “I’ll lead, Katrisha shields. We mount fast, and ride hard for Ashford. It’s the only choice.”

“Do it,” Samantha ordered, and mercenaries and merchants jumped into action, their leader close behind.

Katrisha glanced at her sister. “We should probably help.”

“Lets help, but knowing what we are dealing with,” Kiannae countered. “Even riding hard, we are going to almost certainly find we are surrounded. Rear flank likely tracking any rear movement. We already moved closer to Ashford.”

“We could turn around,” Katrisha suggested. “There is one of him. We took out his rear guard. Now, are we going to talk about that. Not just the end. The whole thing. Firstly, what does it even mean? You told me they are real, but what is one doing with the Osyraen army. With mage blood hair like mine.”

“I saw Frank cutting his hair,” Kiannae said with a sneer.

Katrisha grimaced. “Bigger problems. What was that, thing you did. He did.”

“Mechanically?” Kiannae asked.

Katrisha gave her a stony look.

“I’d been trying to get it right for months. We don’t think of air as much, but energy is energy, isn’t it? Rivers wear away canyons from solid stone. It’s pure gesture based force, the force itself does a bit, but struggles against the living matter. The air does most of the damage. Not frozen like you do, but like millions of grains of sand at enough velocity. I’d only tested it a few times on rock, metal, and wood. Would not help me much in a fight against armor, I’ll say that much, but I’ve nicked stone, and shattered wood. Then he starts throwing the same at me. Other things, I almost understood how they worked. Strange swirling balls of darkness and light.”

“Where are you getting the energy?”

“Straight from the aether,” Kiannae answered, and gave her sister a defiant look. “Yes, yes, I know volatile, but I’m not trying to maintain a spell, it’s pure will, directed right out. The entropic backlash mostly just eats the heat that should be left behind. Besides, I’m better with aethereal energy than you, remember?

“Forgive me for preferring to work with powers that don’t feel like they want to vanish or explode at any moment. Perhaps it just feels more like you, brash, and unstable.”

“Me!? What about you? Always shooting off your mouth. I knew how to restrain myself.”

“Not in a fight. You were always a force of nature, undeterred in a fight.”

“You always did alright deterring, but so rarely could you land the blow.”

“Do you know why I could actually fight you half as well as I did? I could feel it sometimes, that moment when you would have hit me much too hard. See it sometimes, the look on your face for what you had done. Funny, it was more that, that seemed to get my staff up in time. Not the shadow of the impact. You remember, those times when staves splintered, instead of bones? You remember the look on Horence’s face?

Kiannae hesitated. She didn’t, but she also felt like Katrisha wasn’t wrong.

“Ki, my dear sister, I am better than you in a fight. At least against an opponent that would gladly hurt me. You are only better at fighting those that pull their strikes. You are right, I didn’t try my hardest, I never did. I always held back, because I feel how easily I could crush them all. Well now I’ve seen it. I used the staff, to see, what we usually only catch glimpses of. I know every way I killed, and didn’t kill those men. I knew, that frozen air would get through. Because I tried, and that it might, just might be survivable. There was no quibbling. I just did it. The moment they charged me. Because I knew, every outcome. They had to die.”

“You sound like you regret it,” Kiannae said uncertainty.

Katrisha closed her eyes, her expression slightly fallen. “I killed. I knew someday I would. I knew it in my bones, and I knew how I would feel about it. Yet I didn’t really till I did. It makes no sense, but I don’t hate them for what they are doing. I hate them, for making me kill them. They aren’t good men, but someone made them this way. I always wanted to win Ki. I always was doing my best, trying my hardest, because you were so good, but if you pushed me… If I could see far enough ahead, to beat you, without hurting you. Because if I didn’t, you would hurt yourself, by hurting me. Hurting these men, it hurts, doesn’t it? If you worry about yourself, because I am who I am. Then should I not worry, if you didn’t feel that?”

Kiannae furrowed her brow, but her look was not one of relent.

“I have seen that face, wounded, defiant. I have seen the stars in my dreams, and your eyes stare back, your hand reaching out. I don’t trust it. There are shadows at work in our lives. Celia, that day in the throne room. I never told you, but a vision of Wren, it tried to convince her to let me go. There are things, we do not understand at work. Yet I cannot escape the ramification that if we lived it, it happened. It is the past, not the future.”

Kiannae looked stricken, and clutched her head. “No.”

“What?”

“Before my fight with that…thing. The spirit, the curse. I saw a vision, but I’m not sure it was Wren. It looked like him, but it wasn’t, or it was. I gave…I think it was a her, something. Then Shadow, in the fight he was wounded, and rose, some dire monstrosity, but he had the child’s eyes.”

“You never told me,” Katrisha said uncertainly, reaching for her sister’s shoulder.

“How could I? Dreams. Prophecies.” Kiannae pulled back, but let the hand come to rest. “I gave that…whatever it was, I gave it a great and terrible power. One that was threatening to consume me. It might have been Wren, but not the one we know. It might be something else entirely.”

“So, whatever is following us?” Katrisha demanded. “Fates. Taloe, his existence in you, it brought something else through. Fighting over your power. Could there be something other than mother in him?”

“I’ve read the Black Book,” Kiannae said. “There is a line, it should have been as much gibberish as the rest, and yet I read it a dozen times. ‘…names each player there at hand, a dragon a fool a little bird, a seer a watcher a knight, a shadow a sun a new light.’”

“Shadow,” Katrisha muttered. “Red shadow, I think I’ve heard Etore called. Little bird. Yes no point arguing there. We fought a dragon, of course, and it lied, or we did. So lovely, more confirmation. Now it’s not just us wrapped up in this. Wren is part of it, even this woman Etore? We are both knights though, I don’t get that. Singular. If there is meaning in all this gibberish, they do it with intention. For whatever reason.”

She closed her eyes.

Kiannae was silent.

“Is Taloe alright?” she asked.

“He’s fine, I think. It hurts, he’s told me that much in the past. I still…feel him, but… It’s not like, if he were flesh and blood. It weakens him. But the him that’s really, him.” She put her chest. “Is in here. I wouldn’t count on him showing up for the next fight.” Kiannae rubbed her head.

“Let’s really help,” she said getting up, and offered her sister a hand. “Nothing new to see here. If it’s fate, if it’s prophecy. We aren’t going to die on some stupid road not two dozen miles outside of Ashford.”

“Past,” Katrisha said sternly, “only prologue, and you already did die.”

“Your words,” Kiannae said defiantly. “Not long enough to count.”

“Fight like it does,” Katrisha said with ferocity.

“Always do,” Kiannae nodded.

The road was blocked ahead, a massive spell barrier obscuring lines of soldiers five deep, and seven wide. The numbers were off. No surprise. Katrisha glanced to each side of the road, looking for signs of extras.

“Plan?” Carter yelled over the charging drumbeat of galloping hooves.

“Kia?” Katrisha called out as the horses started to slow, unwilling to charge the roadblock.

“Working on it,” Kiannae growled, her eyes closed.

“Same one we rehearsed,” Katrisha answered.

The two urged their horses forward as the pack started to split. Though they were no more ready to cross the barrier, maintained by Katrisha’s staff.

She jumped down from her horse, and stepped across the boundary of the shield, a tighter one forming around her. She set her staff in front of her.

“Fun toy,” Cadith called out to her.

“It has its uses,” Katrisha answered the challenge.

“I meant you, little girl,” Cadith said his smile fading to something even more menacing.

“I presume the rest of your forces are circling around behind. Any who have a chance of getting through the shield?” Katrisha pressed, ignoring his insinuations.

“Just so,” Cadith answered. “I’m a pragmatic sort, really, when the chips are down, and the fun gets costly. Drop the shield. They die. You live. I mean, you may not like the life, but it will be life. Otherwise, well, some day, when you stop begging to die, then I’ll kill you.”

Katrisha gripped her staff, but her face remained placid. “I always knew, I wouldn’t like killing. Thanks to you, I’ve confirmed it, but perhaps, I will at least find ending you…satisfying.”

Cadith stepped past his barrier, a new shield forming around him as well. “I’ve never found it so,” he said. “Death…oh it has uses, the fear on peoples faces as you take apart a not yet corpse. That final gasp…as they die.” he shook his head. “It’s useful, but not satisfying. Just a failure to craft a proper servant. Obedience. No, that I like. Neat little soldiers, marching in rows. Knowing how horrible their end can be, if they fall out of step. Fear, of death, is useful.”

“You’ve made your offer,” Katrisha said. “Now mine. Leave, and live,” her command yelled forcefully.

“How generous,” Cadith said with a laugh.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Katrisha said thin lipped. “You don’t get to leave.”

“Ah,” Cadith said. “Yes. Well, I’ve shown them all what will happen. I assure you, they fear death by my hand far more than a swift one in battle.”

“That’s a shame,” Katrisha said, and felt the shift. She thrust out her staff and struck with a swirling pillar of fire that washed off his shield harmlessly. She closed her eyes, putting all she could into the distraction. Her vision went white even through her eyelids. It was painfully blinding, and the boom deafening as lighting came down from the stratosphere.

Cadith’s larger barrier shattered, his smaller shrank in enough to force him to his knees to stay protected. Stray energy cracked off the collapsing larger spell and struck several soldiers to their knees. Katrisha brought her staff back up, and slammed it to the ground. The deathly cold that blasted over the soldiers fragmented. Less than half were struck, and the effect partial, leaving most only struggling against the sizzling ice.

Cadith leapt at her slashing violently at her shield, which collapsed under his swings. She managed to parry the strikes with her staff that took the blows with stronger, tighter shielding. He did not even look, just brushed aside Etore as she tried to blind side him. She flew a hundred feet and barely managed to tumble out of the force without injuring herself. Soldiers charged her, and in on the shield protecting the caravan troop.

Kiannae jumped down from her horse, and with a wave of her staff struck back the first wave. Their enchanted armor disrupting the effect, but the air still threw the front line back, staggering the second. Soldiers stumbled over each other. There was neighing from behind. Their swords were enchanted, the same sort on Etore’s, and cut through spells.

“Get to the back!” Kiannae yelled at Carter. Not sparing breath to be snide about the fact that was always part of the plan. He pulled his reigns, and pushed his horse back through the pack, before leaping down out of sight.

Kiannae threw force into the ground, blasting dirt up over the approaching soldiers, and confirming her suspicions as their blades started to tear through the shield. Kiannae threw lighting into the soldiers, but their enchantments grounded most of it, sometimes deflecting, and leaping into another who would crumple. She kept going, and going, her body trembling from the strain of the energy she was burning off. Katrisha barely keeping Cadith at bay by the reach of her staff.

Taloe emerged between the soldiers, and began grabbing helmets, and tearing them off. Sword swings cut through him, staggering him, but he would swirl away, and form again. Occasionally soldiers trying to wound the elemental caught each other, their enchanted blades cutting through their fellows armor. Yet it was a losing battle. Taloe crumpled, and was sliced apart until he disappeared in swirling mist.

Etore emerged from a pack of dead, or dying soldiers, and charged Cadith, who rolled out of Katrisha’s attempt to knock him down, and parried the deadly swords he couldn’t keep track of. A burst of force threw Etore back, and staggered Katrisha who’s defenses were in poor repair. She froze five soldiers that tried to charge her, but their heavily enchanted armor mostly resisted the effect. Leaving them struggling against the ice. She struck them with force, and shattering the ice everywhere which became a deadly rain of razor fragments that got through face masks, and gaps in armor. Etore sheltered herself from the deadly hail behind Cadith’s shield as he lost track of her. She swept up with both blades, the short cutting away his barrier, the long barely deflected by his sword, and forced him to roll away.

The sounds of fighting were now far worse from the rear.

“Go help in the back,” Katrisha growled, rolled out of his next swing, stumbling him, and striking again, freezing most of the remaining forces.

Cadith came back around, but as his blade struck Katrisha’s shield, wild energy arced off it, and a burst of force threw him off, as well as Etore who shot Katrisha a spiteful look as she charged back in.

Katrisha did all she could to exploit the weaknesses in his shield from Etore’s strike. She shattered his next attempt to throw Etore off, but the force still gave her a single tumble, and he closed on Katrisha in the opening her counter-spell had left. He sent force down his thrust. The blade disrupted both spells, but the force already underway slipped through her shield. She was blown from her feet, and sent tumbling across the road, her staff slipping her grasp.

Another huge wave of force peeled off Etore again. Someone grabbed Katrisha’s staff, but it jumped back into her hand just as a massive fire spell tried to strike the entire caravan company. She shattered the spell completely, but the ground cracked, and blew away as dust in the residual chaotic wind. He was going straight for the aether. He had no hesitation to wield power with terrible cost, and did nothing to balance it. Just focus it away from himself. There had to be a disadvantage.

Katrisha restored the shield over the frightened merchants, though several horses had carried their riders off into the forest. Some to terrible result as they were cut down by scattered soldiers, holding back from the escalating fight. Cadith was pressed again by Etore, who dodged his next few attempts at force. Only the broadest could land, and his ineffective efforts to conserve energy showed he might be reaching his limits.

Katrisha hesitated, trying to find an option. She screwed up her face, and ran in, using the crystal of her staff to disrupt weak points in his shield he continued to patch. She felt him gathering the energy, building up. It was going to be a massive strike, whatever it was. Deadly in all likelihood at close range. Yet he needed his own shield to not be harmed by it.

She backed off. Let him almost repair the shield. Timing. She saw a dozen versions of the moment. Nearly half wound up with the woman dead, but she found the one she wanted, and struck. His shield shattered around her precise thrust with the crystal of her staff. At just the right moment, and formed her own around him. The ground shattered between the two barriers. Even the tiny gap left by hers staff blew the two mages apart through the weaknesses in their shields. Cadith not expecting the result tumbled farther, and was left dazed.

Layers of shield came up around him as he lay there rubbing his head. They collapsed one after the other under Etore’s blades. She jumped back however as the ground around his final barrier sizzled and cracked. He was holding something blindingly bright in his right hand.

“When all else fails,” Cadith said. “Try something stupid. That’s what I’ve learned from the little people.”

He threw out his hand, and a beam of light cut a swath that just missed Etore. He brought the beam around, trees falling where they were cut clean in half as it fell on Katrisha who channeled the power into the crystal of her staff. It was a feedback loop. An aether tear. It was only growing more intense by the moment.

Trees came down on the road, and fell away into the forest. Bouncing off barriers, straining them further. Etore charged Cadith, weaving between falling logs. He swept the beam around, missing her, slicing downed logs into pieces. His hand was blackening, and cracking, but the wounds sealed. The heat and power searing his flesh, and being used to restore it at the same time. Three or four of his own men got in the way. The shield over the Carvan members collapsed, and horses scattered with or without riders. Some rearing away from sweeps of the beam, others leaping, successfully or otherwise.

A flash of white came from the forest. And a lash tore across Cadith, and sent him tumbling. His unstable power source flying free. The blinding ball of light grew, and crackled, sending off arcs rather than a concentrated beam. Katrisha did all she could to keep it from expanding, unable to make sense out of the blur of white fighting Cadith who had lost his sword. She could spare no concentration from keeping Cadith’s now out of control creation from blowing up, and taking out half the forest with them.

The energy swirled, and crackled becoming a burning column of fire with its own updraft. Downed trees, a crack formed along the edge of her staff’s crystal, and the swirling energy became a tornado of flame. A self-sustained, raging elemental consuming the debris of the fight. It was beyond her control, but growing steadily, no longer exponentially. She let go, and glanced to Cadith who was doing all he could to fend off two figures that seemed to slip one’s eyes. One white, one with flashes of red, and steel. Offense his only defense, waves of force, as his shield was cut to ribbons.

He managed to throw off the white form, the size of a horse, which tumbled across the road. The figure of a white wolf many sizes too large resolved in Katrisha’s vision before it charged Cadith.

He threw a wild streak of fire at the animal that tore through it, her side seared. A swipe of a paw more like a cat, or a dragon, and big as his head was barely knocked off its mark. He ducked under a sword swing that slice through his hair. Down further under the second swing that missed. He rolled and launched himself with a spell towards the raging living inferno. He took hold of the energy, and laid down with a gesture a spell that would set the forest ablaze a thousand feet in the direction of his sweep.

Katrisha managed to fragment the wildly out of control magic, but lines of fire arced everywhere. Catching more of his own troops, but missing the wolf and slippery swordswoman. The force behind the next attack was wildly out of scale for anything Katrisha knew how to control. It wasn’t under control. She could see shadows of the moment, looking through possible outcomes of every action. Tiny, fractions of a moment. It built too fast, it couldn’t be disrupted without just blowing them all up.

<STOP!> Split the forest, and sound itself tried to die, things hung suspended, and flames whiffed out. A lone blade slipped free of it’s mistress’s hand. Its trajectory little deterred by air it cut through, or magic it shattered, or a word, that seemed to hold power of all other things. Etore herself was blown off in the shattered force. It pierced the stunned mage’s shoulder, and he fell. Everything fell. People staggered to their knees. Dazed, and confused. Most shaking their heads. Even horses stumbled, and few fell, dropping their riders.

A wolf shook it off. Stiff, she marched up on the prone man, and put a massive clawed foot over his throat. Sharp black nails that showed it was no longer merely a wolf. Wren walked through the chaos, toward the mage struggling to break free of the command. He picked up the mage’s sword where it lay amidst the debris, and stepped towards him.

“What…are you?” he managed, loud enough only for Wren to hear. Wren’s hand tightened around the hilt, and he raised it without answering.

“Stop,” Katrisha managed, and gasped, “we need him alive.” Wren brought the blade down, piercing his other shoulder.

Cadith hissed.

<SLEEP!> Wren snapped, and the man went limp. Others felt woozy, but shook it off.

The few surviving soldiers, who had all dropped their weapons under the command’s power found themselves faced by wolves. Carter and Kiannae struggled back to the front.

“Wolves?” he muttered. He rubbed his head, and laughed uneasily. “Why are there wolves?”

“Wood-priest,” Kiannae managed, and leaned on her staff. She’d been sure, she had pushed herself hard enough to black out, but hung on. Her powers were growing.

Katrisha sank to her knees, and sat there dazed. She wiped her brow.

“Your hair is white,” Carter said.

“Lovely, thank you, please send someone for mage-irons. Proper ones. I don’t think keeping him impaled on two swords is a realistic way of keeping him alive.”

“Why?” Carter demanded.

“Because we need proof, proof the Council cannot ignore. Send someone, now.”

Lunka walked up to Kiannae, and lowered her head. Two smaller, but a size too large wolves at her side. Kiannae threw her arms around the wolf’s massive neck, and held on. “Guess I was the one who needed you.” She huffed, and hid her tears in white fur.

The sun was setting as a robed man road up swiftly from the west.  Flanked by knights, and soldiers from Avrale riding just as hard. “Report?” he demanded once in earshot.

“A lot of dead, and wounded, particularly on their side.  Thirty seven prisoners, disarmed and bound.  Including one duke of Osyrae,” Katrisha answered.  “Did Mercu send you?”

“What?” the man demanded.

“Mercu,” Katrisha snapped.  “Did he send you?”

“We sent him on to Highvale, once Maron here sealed the wounds,” one the the Knights answered.  “It’s good thing he had orders to check East Rook on his way back from the border.  Doubt we could have saved him otherwise. He wasn’t conscious, but alive.  The smoke sent us, but whatever he did to those bandits.  Well, I never knew the man was any good in a fight.  Still, got us going faster, and cleared the way.  Hope he pulls through.”

“Now report,” the mage growled.  “What do you mean duke of Osyrae?”

Katrisha looked down, and shook her head, even as her shoulders fell, and a breath of relief escaped her lips.

“If the faces, armor, and crests don’t settle it,” Kiannae snapped. “That, back there, being healed up so he doesn’t die, that is one Prince, Cadith.  Archduke, and chosen heir of the Mad King.  These days styled as simply the Wolf, by his nephew.”

Lunka gave her an odd look, and Kiannae set her hand on her friend’s shoulder.

“I still say we should just put the mad animal down,” Etore said loud enough to be heard by all present.

“If your accusations are true,” the mage on horseback said. “It would be a violation of council law, and treaty to kill him.  As much as it is for him to be here.  The only way to take him is on to the the capitol.  Where he can be imprisoned properly for trial.  It would be farther back to Broken Hill, even baring jurisdiction.  More exposed for Osyrae to try to intercede.  If he is who you say, we will need to guard him even in mage-irons.  There are reports they had to bind him in place in his cell by the end of his imprisonment, and check those enchantments twice a day.”

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