On the seventeenth day of the wine moon in the year of the celestial goat, in the third year of the patriarch of Celadon, twenty three years after his rise to power, King Casander the third of the dragon blood throne of Oreus was defeated on the plains of Midiae by the blessed army of the Deltaen theocracy and his tyranny was brought to an end. Thus began the first year of the new Orean calendar.
Wyrms Head, the twenty fourth day of the wine moon.
The Dragon Mountain rose steeply from the waters of the Glas. Its rugged cliffs seemed almost impossibly steep, especially on the western face. To the south there was a wide plateau, a quarter the height of the mighty peak. It was said by some that in times long past a second peak has sat alongside its twin, but in the war between the gods a blow from the sword of Mars has cleaved the mountain, scattering it miles across the lake. The smaller, distant flat topped God-struck Plateau to the north was said to be the remainder of the lost mountain. On the plateau of the Dragon was the small fortress town of Wyrmston.
Far above Wyrmston, carved into the very rock face of the Dragon Mountain was the ancient fortress known as Wyrm’s Head. It was the earliest bastion of the Dragon-blood kings. Auric the first, of the golden wing had used the ancient cave network in the mountain as a base of operations when he and his followers conquered the surrounding lands. As they had expanded their power his successors had the fortress carved out of the rock as a symbol of their power and dominance over the land.
Xander the first, the tenth ruler of the Dragon-blood throne had been the last king to rule from there. The kingdom had expanded far beyond the Vale of Glas and the city of Oreus had seemed far better located to serve as the capital of the expanding kingdom. Wyrm’s Head had continued to be an important symbol, but no longer served any great strategic purpose. Yet it was still the most impregnable of all the fortresses in the kingdom and as the great golden army lay broken and scattered, it was to this ancient stronghold which the surviving officers had returned. There, in the great hall, overlooking the pass through the mountains from the west they had gathered, to consider whether there was any hope for their kingdom.
Draco was pacing back and forth across the room, his black plate armour chinking with every step. His agitation was plain to all the other present. They knew that Draco was not a patient man. He was a man of action and it was clear that he wanted to lash out at someone or something. He had been amongst the mightiest of Casander’s generals and was certainly the greatest fighter of those who remained. He was a large, powerfully built man and although he was no longer in the peak of his youth, he was still as strong, swift and deadly as ever. On his back was slung the distinctive flamberge blade, Dragon fire, which had claimed countless lives in battle.
Ancalagon arched his fingers, pondering how best to approach the subject which they clearly needed to discuss. He was an impressive looking man, powerfully built but with the grey starting to show in his dark hair and beard. Well over six feet tall, taller even than Draco, but not as muscular. He was dressed in dark robes, lined in red and trimmed in fur, with a plain sword at his belt. He liked to take care of his appearance, but was not given over to unnecessary adornment. Those adornments which he did wear, the large silver pendant, the cloak fastenings and the ring, each bore the symbol of the god of war and marked him out as a priest.
Standing behind him, and to his left was Rhymar, alert as always. The eastern swordsman distrusted nearly everyone, except Ancalagon, whom he served with a near fanatical devotion. He was dresses in fine silks and a shining shirt of mail. His twin scimitars were fastened across his back in their ornate, gilded scabbards whilst his kukuri was sheathed to his belt. He had good reason to be anxious. The death of a king left a power vacuum and there was no telling who might make a bid for power.
The most humble looking of the assembled men was probably the most dangerous, yet the least likely to start trouble. Gordias the Great they called him, although to look at the skinny man with his long unkept hair and scruffy robes it would be hard to see why. Gordias cared little about appearances and reputation. He was an enchanter, and a talented one. As long as he was free to conduct his magical experiments he was happy to use his power for whichever of them might rise to the top. His experiments were considered distasteful to most, as they did not seem to understand how important the sacrifice of just the right sort of victims in the correct way could be to the success of his magical experiments.
The garishly dressed Piper, with his bright tabard of red and white and his cloak of deep royal blue would follow Draco in whatever decision he made. He was a bard and was useful in inspiring and motivating the men. He considered Draco to be a warrior, worthy of legendary renown and had served him well over the years. He was also surprisingly skilled in battle, but very likeable. Of all of them, he was the one who best understood how the remnants of their army were feeling and what sort of decisions they would be most likely to accept.
It was the woman, Thea, the dark haired beauty that was the main cause for concern; she and her master. She was dressed in a gown of black and purple which showed off her figure, whilst modestly covering her pale skin. Her dark laced veil made her appeared as though she was in mourning, but this was her usual attire. The clasp on her short cape, bearing the symbol of a skull in a teardrop showed her allegiance to Cthulu, lord of the undead, of whom she was a priestess. Across her arm she held a tunic of dark velvet, which she stroked occasionally. Priestesses of the death god were known to place know value on life and to be amongst the most psychotic and unpredictable of people. Yet it was her other master who invoked the most immediate sense of fear and apprehension.
The tendrils of mist drifting under the heavy oak door and across the stone slabs of the floor indicated that her master had arrived. The other men shifted in apprehension. Casander’s assassin had arrived. The mist drifted across the floor towards Thea, where it rose up into a column of white. The tendrils of mist gathered to it, causing it to thicken and take human form, until it has solidified into the form of a naked, pale skinned man. Jonah.
Of all the warlords, sorcerers and priests who served Casander, none was more feared than Jonah, for none was more deadly, or harder to kill. Jonah had been Casander’s chief assassin. The creeping death, they called him. He had been a monk, before the transformation into a vampire. An expert in unarmed combat, he had become far more deadly with the speed and strength of the undead. He could turn aside blades with his bare hands and punch through plate armour. The knowledge he had gained though his monk training gave him the strength of spirit and purity of body to resist nearly any magic and by turning into mist he could penetrate the strongest defences. He was the perfect killer, and he knew it. He was also very handsome.
Thea embraced him, pressing her face against his muscular chest. “My love.” She whispered. He gently laid an arm around her in a gesture which seemed more propriatorial, than holding any real warmth.
“What news?” asked Draco, interrupting the display, which he considered distasteful. Jonah sneered at him, then, brushing Thea aside he held up an arm and replied with a dismissive wave. “A moment.”
He took the velvet tunic from his lover and pulled it on, then waited as Thea fastened a dark silken sash around it. She then proffered to him two rings and an amulet, which each contained magical powers, which further enhanced his abilities. Finally he slipped two black leather bracers on, which each bore a raven emblem. Once those had been laced lightly he took his place at the table and addressed the other lords.
“Oreus has fallen”
“Damn it.” Cursed Draco, slamming a gauntleted fist onto the table.
“It’s hardly surprising.” Replied Ancalagon. “I take it the armies are scattered.”
“Scattered or slain.” Jonah replied. He smiled wolfishly. “A great many have met Cthulu this day.”
“How many are they.” Draco demanded. He was no stranger to the slaughter of battle, but was annoyed by the perverse delight which Jonah took from their defeat.
“Too many for you. At least ten thousand. Probably more.” Draco’s face hardened at the reply. It was true. With the few hundred soldiers that they had brought to the northern stronghold there was no way that they could defeat the Deltaen army.
“So we’ve lost. Too bad.” This was from Gordias, who seemed to take the news as though it were only a minor setback. Perhaps because he had the least invested in the country.
“I don’t think so.” Replied Ancalagon. The others looked to him, waiting for him to expand upon his thoughts. As a priest of the war god Ancalagon had learnt all he could about wars and battles. It was his passion. It also gave him a great understanding of strategy. Draco could understand the lay of a battle and sense the shift in the flow of a fight, sensing instinctively the weakest point in any army, but nobody in the kingdom understood strategy better than Ancalagon.
“They have conquered or kingdom and slain our king. The wealth of Oreus is
theirs. To take Glas or Mnander would still need full scale military campaigns, possibly taking them years. Casander may have been a tyrant, but that doesn’t mean the people of Oreus will gladly accept a Deltaen ruler. Not when so many of our people were slain by them in battle. Their mercenaries have been fighting hard and now they will want plunder and tribute, to recoup the expenses of their campaign. There is bound to be resistance. Add to that the fact that the Delta is a theocracy. They are bound to want to convert people to the worship of their sun god. They will be reconsecrating churches and bringing in their foreign traditions. That’s bound to annoy a lot of people. No. It will be years before the people of Oreus accept the Deltaen rule. I don’t think they can afford to hunt us down.” The others waited quietly to Ancalagons reply.
“So what will they do?” Draco asked, at length.
“Once they know how small our forces are, they’ll dismiss most of their legions. We don’t have enough forces to go on the offensive and they know it. There were too many mercenaries for them to keep paying them when they aren’t needed. The rest of them will be used keeping order in the cities and on the major roads. The terrain up here is too restrictive. If they brought an army against us they wouldn’t be able to use their weight of numbers. We have the terrain advantage. It would cost them thousands of men to dislodge us and what would it earn them? The Wyrm’s Head doesn’t command any major trade routes. The Glas valley may have been the old heart of the kingdom, but it doesn’t have any real wealth. We guard the high pass into the wild lands. What loss would it be to them if orcs and goblins were to move back into the eastern mountains. Far better for them to leave a garrison at Stymphalos to keep us penned in here. In a few years, when they have more control over the populace, then they might try to dislodge us, although they’ll likely consider Mnander an easier target. I think they’ll accept the loss of the outlying regions for now, or try to take them through diplomacy”
“So there’s nothing we can do?” asked Draco. “I can’t accept that!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Ancalagon replied. “We may not be able to fight them in the field, but we know the land. We can fight the little war, as the westerners call it. Attacking their patrols, their supply convoys and their tax collectors. We can fight a war of attrition against them. With the right leadership we can inspire the people to join us in overthrowing these invaders. The harder the war, the more or god delights in the challenge.” He smiled at Draco, knowing that he too delighted in a challenging fight.
“Whilst we make things difficult for them here, we can take the fight to the Delta. After all, it wasn’t that many years ago that the tribes of the wild lands were last persuaded to ally themselves to a human sorcerer.” This time he looked to Gordias, who smiled at the idea.
The quiet as they considered Ancalagon’s suggestion was broken by Jonah’s laughter.
“You humans and your little wars.” He smirked. “How you so love to trouble yourselves. Very well. Have your little war. In a few weeks the Deltaen satrap will be appointed. All their best heroes and wizards will be in attendance. I shall slay them in their beds after their festivities and take whatever magical artefacts they possess. You can then fight your little war against their thrice cursed priests. Once you have your army of monsters I’ll return to slay their patriarch and lead you to victory over the Delta.” Jonah then stood and brushed himself off. Whilst he spoke Rhymar quickly swallowed the cup of wine in his hand and began walking around the room towards him.
“Stop!” commanded Ancalagon. Thea looked startled by the outburst, not sure whether he was talking to Jonah, or to his henchman. Jonah froze completely still.
“Do you know why I don’t like vampires?” Ancalagon asked. He then continued without waiting for a reply. “Because you think you are so much better than the rest of us and some stupid, ignorant, pathetic people forget what you are.” Thea, looking in outrage at Ancalagon noticed that he had reversed his ring, and the symbol of his god was now facing with his palm, towards Jonah. The sudden realisation that the priest was channelling his god’s power to dominate the will of her lover filled her with a fiery rage. She reached for her holy symbol, hoping to use it to bolster Jonah’s power, shielding him with Cthulu’s power and freeing him from Ancalagon’s domination, but she had no time to act. Rhymer lunged towards her with superhuman speed, aided by the potion in the wine cup which he had just consumed. Both his scimitars plunged through her body, piercing her lungs. She felt the spells with which they had been enchanted draining the life from her and striking her dumb. She could not even utter a word in prayer as her last dying breaths were leaving her body.
“People see you, being pretty and young and oh so powerful. They forget that you aren’t people.” Ancalagon continued. Neither Draco nor Gordias look surprised by the sudden turn of events. He smiled at the look of unbridled hatred which crossed Jonah’s face. “Just because you have the memories of the people you possess doesn’t mean you are them. You are just a corpse, animated by dark magic and guided by a demonic spirit. Life means nothing to you, because you don’t have any. That’s what she didn’t understand.” He gestured to Thea, who was still enduring her last few seconds of silent agony, held up by the two blades through her body.
“She didn’t realise that she was just a tool to you. Stupid child! She was so infatuated with your vampiric mystique that she completely ignored what you are. As a creature of dark divine magic you are a slave to the dark gods. You are just a particularly elegant tool who seems to have forgotten his place. Without that infatuated child praying for you, you would be powerless against any priest who opposed you, but even with her you are still vulnerable. By hiding behind you, she has not allowed her full potential to develop. Why should her god bother to grant his full power to an idiot who would put the desires of one of his creatures above his divine will? She probably hoped that you would eventually reward her with your vampiric kiss.” As he spoke Thea’s corpse slid from Rhymar’s blades, to collapse in a bloody heap on the stone floor. “But we both know why you never would. If you did create a new vampire it might have her memories and her powers but it wouldn’t be Thea and it wouldn’t love you. You needed her infatuation with you. All those feminine humors which have addled her mind. But corpses don’t feel love. If you had made her a vampire, she would have been able to dominate you as easily as I am doing.”
“The trouble wit’ you is you don’t ‘ave feelings.” This time it was Draco who spoke. He rose and walked towards Jonah. “I mean. Sure, we’re a bunch of ruthless bastards. We wouldn’t ‘ave survived if we wasn’t, but we’ve all got stuff what we care about. But the thing is that none of our ambitions gets in the way of each others. Right?” He looked towards Gordias for confirmation.
“It’s true.” He replied. “Draco and Cal may like their wars, but they aren’t idiots. They appreciate the importance of having allies. They also quite care about their followers. You, on the other hand, don’t really care about anyone. It’s not as if any of us wants to be a king. It’s really too much hastle, but we’re certainly not going to be slaves to a creature like you.”
“Yeah. Me and Cal serve the same god, and so neither of us minds serving each other.” Added Draco.
“But we both embrace war.” Added Ancalacon. “Which is less than ideal for a ruler. A general can be seen to live for war, but a king should be seen to want to bring prosperity and peace to his nation.”
“And I have no interest in ruling people.” Said Gordias “It takes up far too much time and has all these silly responsibilities. I just want the wealth and resources I need for my experiments and a ruler who wants to support my quest for greater magical power. That is why we have decided to find ourselves a suitably impressionable young idiot who can be made to look like a good ruler for this nation. But we can’t very well do that with you stirring up trouble now, can we?”
Whilst he spoke, Draco picked up the chair which Thea had previously been seated on. At the break in Gordia’s speech he snapped off one of the legs and looked pleased at the sharp point which it had sheared away with.
“And that is why you are going to walk onto that stake.” Said Ancalagon. “But first you are going to explain to us the powers of each magic item you or Thea possessed, so that we can better decide how to share them amongst ourselves, along with the location of any hidden wealth.”