Liturgy of Blood - Part XVII

Zagrosek watched the Patriarch's camp from the shadows along the near hillside. They were nestled a good ten metres from both the wood and the road. The horses were arrayed in two neatly arranged paddocks, while everything else was laid out in spirals around the central wagon, which obviously held the Patriarch. Two of his green-liveried bodyguards stood outside, their faces very cold in the rain. Some of the soldiers were asleep in tents, while the rest kept their backs to the struggling fire. Two of the other bodyguards were slowly circling the camp, as were two of the knights.

He had to nod in approval at the pattern, it would not be easy to penetrate. Running his fingers along his chin, he considered each for a moment before reaching a decision. Darting from the shadows, he quickly sidestepped to the forest itself, dancing through the woods, and stepping on a few leaves. He had no doubt that they had caught at least a small glimpse of him in that moment. But of course, that was exactly what he wished anyway.

Kashin ran a hand through his slick hair, pushing it back from his face. The rain was making their first night away from the Keep miserable, but it was hardly something they had not lived through before on the journey up. It had been an uneventful journey so far, aside from what he'd seen in the carriage between Akabaieth and Vinsah. It was his hope that it would remain so.

Yet, his eyes did catch a glint of something moving amidst the hills and towards the forest. He reached his left hand out and gently shook Iosef. "Did you see that?" He nodded towards the shadows in the distance.

"It is raining, thundering, and I have water dripping in my eyes," Iosef declared sourly. "But I did see it. What do you suppose it could be?" His voice was soft, muffled so that only they could hear each other over the rain.

"Possibly an animal, and in fact it probably was. But it makes me uneasy, and I wish to be sure."

Iosef nodded then, glancing back at the camp they were slowly circling. "If you will hold your curiosity for a moment, I will warn the others of the potential danger."

Kashin waved one hand in understanding, his gaze tracing over the shady contours of the trees in the distance. It was not as if something like this had not happened before either. Once on their trip northward, they had found small gang of robbers hiding in the woods who thought they could sneak past them. Yet, there was a dry scraping in his heart that told him this time would be different. He could not place it, as he'd never had anything to compare it with, but because of it, his fright was palpable.

It only took Iosef a few moments to pass on instructions to the others. The younger man crossed his arms as he stare into those woods as well, his finger tracing over the white cross. "Alfais and Lakaesh know what we intend. I told them we would be gone only a few minutes at best. Also, I've ordered the knights to double their watch for now, so we'll always have a pair of eyes on every side of the camp."

"Excellent," Kashin intoned softly. It was exactly the thing that he would have done if he'd been Iosef. The Yeshuel always seemed to know just what was best for each other and for their charge. "Be careful, we do not know who could be in there. How is your night vision?"

Iosef grinned slightly at the suggested weakness. "As good as yours at least."

Kashin brushed back his hair once again, smiling warmly to his friend then. "I thought as much. Let us see what we shall see then." He slowly walked over the muddy earth, his shoes lightly pulling out with nary a sound. The forest near them had taken on a bizarre cast, one more suited to nightly haunts then a pleasant roadside stop. Lightning reflected off the bark, shining into the depths, flashing a bit of movement as well within them.

Both the Yeshuel took a deep breath, and then moved beneath those boughs, the rain splattering across their shoulders as it dripped from the leafless branches. The hill sloped down to a small ditch just past the second set of trees, and soon they were out of sight of the camp. Kashin grimaced, motioning for Iosef to back up and into the light of the fire. For very suddenly, he felt distinctly uncomfortable.

As he peered back up the ditch, he saw a third figure waiting for him, arms crossed over his thick garments. Both Iosef and Kashin blinked in shock as the black-haired man gazed down at them, his expression completely unreadable. The two Yeshuel immediately examined his heart, trying to know if he was a danger or not. Yet, there was nothing there that they could feel, aside form something that was rather familiar to Kashin.

"You are a Sondeckis," he said softly. It was the same sort of churning inner machine that had lived inside of Charles's heart. "What do you want here?"

The man smiled blandly, uncrossing his arms, the shadows filling his palms. "To kill the Patriarch," he said suddenly, as if he were describing the weather. Both Iosef and Kashin lunged forward to stop him, their whole bodies reacting on instinct. Yet Zagrosek threw out both of his hands in a downward V.

Kashin was not prepared for the Longfugos technique to be used so suddenly like that, and so dived to the side to avoid its blow. Iosef barrelled straight into the force, intent on disrupting it. Yet, what left the Sondecki's hands was not just air, but a tangible black mass that seared through the air, the rain hissing as it struck it from above, the wood of trees flaring in brief flames where the darkness touched them.

With a cry, Kashin saw it drive right through Iosef's body, slicing him neatly in two. And then, a lancing pain struck through his left arm just above the elbow, as that black vapour drove through his upper arm with a hissing shriek, cleanly removing it in an instant.

The Yeshuel tumbled to the ground, rolling back into the ditch, the cry dying on his lips even before he gave it, as the flood of pain through his severed stump brought the door of consciousness slamming shut.

Stalking through the trees, the first two of the four Yeshuel neatly dispatched, and without raising any alarm as well, Zagrosek tried to work his way around to the back of the camp. A pair of mounted knights were riding their horses through the mud. They were not wearing their plate armour, only a vest of oiled ring mail, so they had the full range of vision. It would not be easy to slip past them.

Yet, he waited and watched, knowing from unseen signals that he did not have much time left. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes at the most. Reaching into the shadows, he drew their substance into himself, cloaking himself with it. The world of Shadows was a dark world, but one that he could move through with some effort. Pushing himself partially within them, he stepped out from the trees, crouching low, his hands pawing at the ground as he skulked past the knights, who happened to be watching ahead of them as it were anyway.

Leaning against one tent, he gently loosened the stake on one end. Depositing the iron in the wet grass, he slipped back into the shadows again as another pair of knights passed by the tents, gazing this way and that. With a grin, Zagrosek recognized the pair as the ones he'd seen out in the woods a couple of days ago. He resisted the temptation to shake some leaves in the distant woods, and returned his focus to the tent flap.

Pulling up a second stake, he finally had enough room to slip beneath the tight fabric. It was a small enclosure, one that contained six sleeping forms. From the boots and coats of mail nestled together at their feet, he knew them to be some of the Patriarch's soldiers. Reaching out towards the nearest one, he placed his hands firmly at both sides of the man's head, and with a quick twist, snapped his neck. The young man had never had a chance to even realize he'd been killed.

The second one started slightly as Zagrosek touched his temples, but the blurriness had lasted only a moment before he too lay limply next to his comrade. In like fashion, Krenek dispatched the next three. Always his ears listened to the sounds outside, trying to pick out the voices in the camp about him. From the hushed conversations and shadows moving about, he could tell that the two Yeshuel he'd left in pieces in the ditch were already being missed. Grimacing, he realized that his task would become much harder in short order.

Slipping over to the sixth and last soldier within the tent, he accidentally stumbled, his foot catching on a bit of grass. The man started, rising from his covers, and turning to see the malformed bodies of his comrades, and the grasping hands of Zagrosek intent on silencing him. He managed a startled cry before he too lay dead on the grass.

Krenek cursed himself beneath his breath as several shadows approached the tent. Drawing out the Sathmoran blade he'd brought with him, he clutched it tightly in one hand, the ornamental dagger in the other. He knew the man who poked his head and chest in the tent was one of the knights from the swagger of his legs. The man did not have time to cry out though as Zagrosek plunged the sword into his belly, grabbing his shoulder and dragging him inside the tent.

Of course, with that killing, the entire camp would know of his presence. He darted back to the hole he'd made in the back of the tent, slipping out once more into the rain. He drew the Sondeck into his arms, knowing that he'd need every last bit of it he could muster if he were to survive this battle. However, no matter what the outcome, he knew he would enjoy it.

Vinsah knew it to be a dream from the very first moment. He was standing just inside his tent, peering out at a dark overcast night. Only a short distance away loomed the gates of Metamor Keep. They bore a remarkable resemblance with the physical constructions he had passed beneath twice so far, and a vividness of detail that he did not normally associate with his dreams. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, he was able to spot nicks, rotting wood, and discolourations all over their surface. It gave the whole plain about him an eerie feel, one that he could not dispel.

The gates were open, invitingly. Through them and past the arch into Metamor Keep, the sky appeared to be completely clear. It reminded him of his self-created visions of heaven that he so liked to day dream about while preparing for Service. The black haired lady stood waiting beyond those gates, her arms outstretched, a gentle smile on her lips. He knew her, and shuddered, despite a sudden warming of his heart.

"Elvmere, I need you to listen carefully if you are ever to come back to me."

At the sound of that foreign name upon her dulcet lips, his hands reached up to his face. They found a shred of cloth over his eyes. He cried out in horror, ripping at it, but it would not move, remaining firmly in place. "Stop calling me that!" he cried out as he tugged at the resilient mask. "I want nothing to do with you and your stupid mask!"

"You will do as I say this time, you need to," her voice cajoled sternly, even as a third figure stepped between them, obscuring the light. Vinsah looked at the man, dressed tightly in his black robes, that strange symbol upon his chest. His hands were held before him, drenched in blood.

Vinsah stumbled backwards, the mask forgotten as he faced this nightmare. "No, please!" he cried out, raising his hands before him to ward off the blow he knew in his heart was coming.

Yet the woman's voice was strong in his ears. "Elvmere, use your dinner plate. Put it beneath your robes!"

Vinsah blinked in confusion at the advice, even as the world began to fade away. He slunk back into the tent, cringing all the more, trying to hold onto those heavenly sounds. For some reason, he did his best only to hear her voice, as it touched something deep inside of him. Something that he did not know was there at all. Closing his eyes shut, he pushed all of it away except for her.

When he opened his eyes again, he was sitting in his cot, the rain splattering on the tent roof to slide down into the grasses around them. Vinsah lay back down, sighing hopefully, the sound of the rain drowning that of the voices outside. Even so, as he watched the silhouettes reflected from the fire, he could tell that something was going on.

Grimacing, Vinsah reached down beneath his cot, and pulled out the dinner plate that he had used that evening. He chided himself on how ridiculous this was as he slipped it under his robes, directly over his chest. The cold metal made him shiver violently for a moment as he lay there beneath the thick covers. Closing his eyes, he wondered why he would listen to that woman, trying to identify what it had been inside of himself that she had touched.

No longer did he question her reality as such, though he still did doubt whether she meant him any good. Still, there could be little harm in following this request, despite how uncomfortable it made him. What still unnerved him though was the use of that strange name, the one that did not belong to him.

However, his thoughts were interrupted when a dark figure slipped beneath the flap of the tent. Vinsah peered to see who it could be, very curious now, since it did not appear to be any of the soldiers or other servants. Had one of his fellow priests slipped off in the night and just now come back to rest?

However, the sound of two others stirring in their beds proved that notion incorrect. It was when the man stood up straight that he began to see some features. Not many of course, but enough to cause him to scream out in horror. The man's hands were dripping with blood, as he held both sword and a dagger. His face was dark, the eyes malicious, and the black hair drenched with rain. It was the man from his dream come to kill him.

Setting one of the weapons aside, the figure threw his palm towards Vinsah. The Bishop felt a sudden impact strike his chest, crushing the dinner plate into his ribs. Sudden searing agony exploded through his chest, silencing his horrified scream. He gurgled from the pain as he was thrown back onto the cot. He could just watch as the figure quickly did the same thing to his fellow priests, caving in their chests completely before he faded out of consciousness.

Leaving the tent of the priests, Zagrosek knew that he would finally be unable to skulk about in the shadows. Before him were several charging horses, as well as the six remaining soldiers, while the two Yeshuel remaining approached quietly, obviously intent on taking him by surprise.

Gazing malevolently at the first of the two knights, he stood ready, gripping the sword in one hand and the dagger in the other. They were a pair, the darkness making it hard to see the colour of the horse's fur, or the identities of his attackers. The nearest held a mace in one hand, and was swinging it as he charged, intent on using the force he could generate with such momentum to knock Zagrosek completely out. Yet Krenek was a man used to force, and knew how to apply it himself.

Ducking low just moments before the charger reached him, he ran the tip of his blade against the legs of the horse, putting his Sondeck into the blow. The blade itself snapped in half at the impact, though the horse did collapse, flinging the rider overhead as its front legs buckled into pieces. The knight slammed into ground head first, the armour twisting his body in the mud, a loud crack sounding as his spine tore in two. The man's beast slammed to the ground, hurling itself haunches over head, silencing the knight's howl of agony as it rolled upon him. Its piteous shriek of pained terror ripped into the night, briefly louder than the thunder of the storm itself. The sound ended in a bloody gurgle as Zagrosek made a short, swift turn, the blade of his dagger opening its throat, spilling black blood across the churned mud.

And then, in one smooth motion, Zagrosek turned on the other approaching knight, and slipped the blade of his dagger up through the cracks in his armour, delving deep into his belly. The man dropped his sword uselessly to the ground as blood gurgled up from his throat and spilling over his coat of mail. Krenek removed the dagger, and with a second plunge, drove it into the belly of the horse as it charged past, slicing clean its abdomen. The beast cried out in horror as it collapsed on the ground, organs spilling out through the gap, the blood soaking into the earth as the rain fell.

Of course, the other five living knights wanted their turn as well as they charged in at him, certain that at least one of them could get through this quick man's defences and strike him dead. The six soldiers moved in closer to follow after them, eager to help, but knowing that it was best to let the men on horseback strike first. Zagrosek let them come closer, tucking the dagger beneath his arm as with one hand, he threw the shadows towards the closest, slicing both rider and horse in half. Leather and flesh flared with brief flames, the brass fittings glowing a livid red as the two halves crumpled to the ground, wounds instantly cauterized.

Yet, the other knights advanced without delay, bearing down on him from every direction. Zagrosek sucked in his breath, throwing a punch at one horse, and then ducking and rolling out of the way of another. The tip of one sword sliced through the robes of his shoulders, and he could feel a brief slash of pain as it sliced his flesh, a trickle of blood flowing free. Growling in fury, he threw out his force at the last two, knocking them both backwards. One of the horses toppled sideways, kicking its hooves in the air as it rolled over its rider's legs.

Grinning at the sight, he turned and found the last three knights still standing, one of them knocked from his horse, but still walking, while the other two tried to swing from both sides at his back. With a single punch, he sent the riderless knight sprawling against the priests' tent. Then, Zagrosek stepped to the side, and with his free hand, grabbed the one rider's arm, and jerked it hard. The knight screamed in pain as his shoulder was dislocated, but that scream turned to one of misery as the end of his blade sunk itself a foot into the chest of his comrade. Another punch sent the man from his horse and into the mud, crawling away, one hand over his ruined shoulder.

Zagrosek grunted in sudden excruciating pain as something slammed full into his back. He fell face first into the mud, the knife pinned beneath him. Rolling over, the brown muck staining his black cloak, he glared at the sight of the two green liveried men standing over him, feet drawn back to kick. Krenek rolled forward then, accepting the blows of their feet with only another loud grunt. One of them had cracked a rib, but it was not as if that had never happened before.

The first, the shorter of the two leaned down to grab at his legs, twisting them both as if he intended to tie them in a knot. The second bent over to grab at his arms to pin them down. Zagrosek however, was a second faster, thrusting the knife blade forward, meeting the centre of the cross imprinted there. Jets of crimson blood streamed forth as he drew the dagger back, the heart itself pierced and overflowing through the cross.

The last surviving Yeshuel cried in horror as he bent Zagrosek's legs in a direction they were never meant to go. Krenek screamed from the sudden pain that coursed through his body, before he managed to lean forward, supporting his weight completely on the Yeshuel. The Sathmoran blade struck home, even as the man tried to block the blow that he knew was coming a moment too late. Falling to the ground, Zagrosek kicked at the loose head, sending it tumbling beneath the feet of one of the screaming horses that were running lose.

Turning his gaze behind him, he saw the six remaining soldiers charging. He had to give them credit for their bravery, despite how foolish it had been. His leg ached as he spread them apart, and his chest groaned, the water dripping from his forehead sweat as well as rain. He had used quite a bit of his advantages against those Yeshuel, there was very little left that he had in him. Drawing his palms together, he dropped the knife to the ground, and balled as much of his own innate Sondeck within them. With a cry of rage, he unleashed the power, cascading it over the soldiers, sending them each sprawling to the ground.

He did not have much time now, a small voice warned him. Grimacing, he limped over towards the prone soldiers, burying his knife in their chests while they struggled to catch their breath. The last one of them had actually managed to rise to his knees, and a look of terror crossed his eyes. "Please, no!" he'd managed to say, his words dying in a hiss as Zagrosek pushed him off the end of his blade.

Turning back, he saw the sole knight still standing, holding his arm and dislocated shoulder while trying to stand between the Patriarch's tent and the Sondeckis. Zagrosek laughed, tossing back his hair, and pulling his robe tightly about himself. The man cringed, drawing and holding his sword aloft in his weak arm, barely keeping the tip level as he cringed. "Damn you to Hell! I will not let you have the Patriarch. You will not have him," he cried out in horror as the enemy who'd massacred them rest of his comrades came within striking distance.

Without word, Zagrosek slapped the blade away, and wrapped his left hand about the man's throat before the knights gleaming sword had a chance to dart in for a lethal blow. The voice in his mind told him that he did not have any time to fool around, and so, reluctantly, he simply crushed the man's larynx. He left the gasping, dying figure before the carriage, and slipped inside, the knife gripped firmly in his right hand.

Yet the Patriarch was not there. The bed was empty, the sheets upturned. Scanning about in sudden fright, he examined each wall and every crevice. There were not many, as the carriage was rather small, just large enough for Akabaieth to sleep in at night and keep warm. The drapes were al unfastened on each side as well, the cloth flapping against the sills, water spilling in and wetting the quilts.

Zagrosek beat his fist against the door, afraid that he had lost his quarry. That had been why those other two Yeshuel had taken their time before fighting with him. They'd been making sure that the Patriarch could slip away while they covered his escape. Those two Yeshuel had probably expected it would take longer for Zagrosek to kill them, so his Eminence could have run far. Especially not at his age.

Stepping outside, he glanced around the woods, trying to find the man. Grimacing, he could see nothing but the darkness all about him, the rain obscuring most everything outside the clearing. Growling in fury, he reached out to the voice in his mind. "Agathe, stop playing with Wessex and get over here, I need you now."

"Is it finished?" the voice asked, amused at the harshness of the request.

Zagrosek could barely contain his seething rage. "No, damn it! The Yeshuel helped the Patriarch escape. He is nearby, I need to you to show me where."

Agathe immediately materialized out of the shadows next to him, stepping from her playtime. She glared hotly in his direction. "If you hadn't insisted on playing with them first, you probably could have killed him without any of them noticing!"

Zagrosek snarled. "That defeats our purpose here. It has to be a slaughter, now will you hurry up and find the Patriarch! Those Keepers will be here shortly."

The woman with the bloodshot eyes glided over to the carriage, and began to trace her finger over its surface, a blue nimbus appearing in its wake. Suddenly, it flared, and a bright blue line began to trail from one of the windows of the carriage, heading down the near hillside towards a grove to the west on the other side of the road.

Zagrosek flashed her a grin then, and charged after that blue trail, while Agathe simply crossed her arms and shook her head in annoyance. He ran down the hillside in long strides, his boots splashing mud in every direction. Within moments, just on the other side of the road, he saw the Patriarch's fleeing form, only metres from the tree line. The knife firmly clutched in his hand, he crossed the span in a scant few seconds, his hand gripping the Patriarch's shoulder tightly, and drawing him back.

Akabaieth's face was settled, calm. In his hands he gripped a small piece of hemp rope tied tightly into a knot of some kind. Zagrosek peered over his form for a moment and then held the knife tentatively in his hands. The Patriarch's eyes glowered slightly. "You intend to kill me? You, a Sondeckis? Why?"

Krenek pursed his lips thoughtfully, the blade poised and ready to strike. "You are a good man, Apadares of Whales. In other circumstances, I would have killed myself before entertaining the thought of ending your life. But you have put yourself in the way of our plans."

The Patriarch breathed heavily, struggling as best he could, which was not very well at all against the man's grip. "How can evil know that which is good? You intend to kill me, you abdicate any notion of understanding what is right. Your cause is void, and you shall fall with it. The people's hearts cry out for peace, and no man or cause can stop that."

"You speak rather harshly for a man about to die," Zagrosek mused softly, running his fingers over the hilt of his dagger. Agathe's voice in his head was most impatient. He could hear some contempt about his sex laden in with it too.

"I will not beg from a dog," Akabaieth declared, though there was no trace of any malice in his voice, only contempt.

"Then what do you hope to accomplish by these endless provocations?" Zagrosek demanded, pressing the blade tip against the man's frail chest. If it were possible, it appeared as if the Pontiff was clutching the bit of rope tighter in his hands.

He licked his lips, leaning backwards slightly, gazing past Zagrosek's shoulder to the encampment on the other side of the hill. "I know I will die, and I know that you will kill me. Your blade is Sathmoran, yet you are Sondeckis. I had always thought your clan nobler than this. It is a pity to be proven wrong now."

Zagrosek shook him once more. "Last time, your Eminence"

The Patriarch let out a sad laugh then. "I have lived a long life, and I have earned death many times over throughout it. I find it strangely relieving to know that in a moment I will be dead, and joining my Abba. You are a bit slow if you do not realize what I am doing. Delay, young fool. Any delay brings them closer to stopping you."

Zagrosek blinked in surprise, and then in anger. Growling, he plunged the knife full into the man's chest, the frail bones of his ribs cracking like brittle twigs under the force of that thrust. Akabaieth cried out at the sudden pain, clawing futilely at Zagrosek's wrist. The light faded from his ancient eyes as he went limp in the Sondecki's arms. The bit of rope dropped from his hands to land in the mud beside him. Zagrosek dropped the body then, eyes blazing with fire at being so easily manipulated by his quarry. The Sathmoran blade was pressed into the Patriarch's chest up to the hilt, and he left it there for the Keepers to find.

Agathe was idly tapping her foot as she waited by the carriage for his return. He ran back, not wanting to spare another moment. She scowled at him, "Men! You have to do everything the hard way!" He ignored the flippant remark and scoured the bodies strewn out over the camp. She came up beside him, her voice snarling, "What are you doing now?"

"A last minute check. It was rather intense, I don't know if I killed them all. Do you see any alive?"

She pointed with a finger towards one knight who lay slumped beside the priests' tent. Zagrosek moved over, standing over the figure, intending to crush his chest with his foot, when he noticed the face. A smile crossed his lips as he considered for a moment. "Well, what are you waiting for?" Agathe demanded.

Zagrosek pointed at him, his smile soft. "This was one of the ones we saw from the forest. He's the one with that very peculiar image about the Duke in his mind. Do you think that you could fixate him on that image? Just as a little something extra to leave the Keepers?"

Agathe scowled still. "We'd have to take him with us now. There is no time left. The Keepers will be here in a few minutes."

Zagrosek bent over, his chest aching, as did his leg. He reached down and grabbed the man's arms, hoisting him up on his shoulder. He pulled a bit of the armour off to make him lighter, but with his Sondeck, it was not a heavy burden at all. Grinning, he then peered over at the shadows in the hills. "Shall we be off then?"

Agathe laughed slightly then as she followed after him, her annoyance turning to amusement as they stalked into the shadows. The dark coalescing mass covered them, absorbing them into the featureless realm, where they could watch without fear of discovery. Climbing over the hill tops, they moved to a rather remote location, far from spirits and other interferences. There, Zagrosek set the knight down upon what appeared at times to be a stone floor, other times one made from wood, and others, just simply a pile of sand.

Then, he looked to Agathe, whose insidious grin turned sultry, as she began to open her robe. Zagrosek burned then, watching as the purple cloth fell aside, revealing that she wore nothing at all underneath. Her smooth skin, imperfection worn away by her own hand, tight curves framing every component of her body.

The Sondeckis disrobed, revealing that he was similarly attired. He reached out a thick hairy arm towards her, his breath hot with the victory they had achieved together. Her sexist remarks aside, Agathe took his hand in her own, and then leaped into his chest, wrapping her legs about his middle, pressing her hips into his waist and at what lay there. She pressed her fingers into the rib, drawing a small rune upon it, mending the break for the moment, though it did cause her suitor a bit of discomfort.

Zagrosek, though, only grinned wider as he pressed his lips to her own, his tongue diving within her throat as he pressed her back against the ever changing floor. The knight never awoke through any of it, only remaining comatose as the two wizards consummated their victory with animalistic shrieks and passions.

With a lurch, Kashin rose from the ground, the cold of the rain soaking through his clothes. It could only have been minutes since they'd faced the Sondeckis, but aside form the rain and thunder, the world about him was completely quiet. He tried to prop himself up on his arms, but he tumbled to the side as he did so, crying out as his left arm felt the ground in a way that he'd never experienced before, the world dimming around him briefly as he battled to remain conscious.

Pushing up with his right hand, he gazed at the stump of his left arm, the wound cauterized completely, only a scabby flesh to cover the severed muscle and bone. He touched at it experimentally, hardly believing what he was seeing. It sent a searing pain back to his mind, and he flinched away from it. How in the world had that man done such a thing? That black power had come from nowhere, as if it had not existed at all.

Glancing over and down along the ditch, he saw part of Iosef's face staring up at him from a pile of leaves. Grimacing, he walked over to help the man up, but much to his horror, only found half of him there. He scuttled back in shock, blinking at what he saw. Iosef had been completely cut in half, the rest of his body just missing. As he stared at it, he looked about for his own arm, but saw nothing but the wet leaves and the broken branches form where they'd tumbled.

Kicking himself for the sudden horror, he ran up the hill, using his right arm to help him climb, though slipping when he tried to reach out with his nonexistent left. It did not take him long at all to get within view of the camp. The rain had mostly doused the fire, only the last remnants licking defiantly at the air. Yet, even by that feeble light, he could the bodies of men and horses strewn everywhere, the grim scene lit by flickering strobes of lightening.

Gasping in horror, he ran towards the Patriarch's carriage, saying prayers over and over in his mind. Yet taking care not to touch any of his fallen comrades, he saw that it was empty. Scanning about the bodies, he found Alfais and Lakaesh in front of the priests' tent, the latter without a head. He screamed in rage as he scanned each body, hoping he would not see his master among them.

He saw a slight movement to one side, and spinning on his heels, Kashin had lifted a sword in his good hand instantly. Yet there was nothing but more bodies before him. Except for one of the knights, who was moaning and reaching his arm weakly to his forehead. Kashin breathed a sigh of relief and ran over to the figure, dropping the sword at his side.

It only took him a moment to examine the twisted remnants of the man's legs to realize what had happened. Yet he had miraculously survived, or at least, had not yet died. "Egland," he called out, leaning in closer, with one hand removing the knight's buckles to ease him from his armour. "Sir Egland, can you hear me?"

He nodded softly, his voice a dry rasp in his throat, "What happened?"

"I don't know. Where is the Patriarch?"

"In... his carriage," Egland replied even as he coughed up some blood.

Kashin put his hand to the man's cheek. His skin was still warm, which was a good sign. He might live after all, if he could be brought to Healer quickly. "I already checked there, he was not in it."

Yacoub Egland shook his head sadly then, tears streaming down his eyes. "Then I don't know."

The Yeshuel patted the knight on the shoulder with his only hand and then stood. "I will be back for you. I need to find the Patriarch." Egland nodded as he lay there, breathing slowly in his armour, but steadily.

Kashin looked over the rest of the bodies then, checking to see if any of them were still alive, but most were already going cold by the time he reached them. Grimacing in horror, his stomach barely kept in check, he peered into the priests' tent, but saw all three of them sprawled on their cots. Sighing, he entered anyway, to be sure. The two younger priests were very cold, but there was still blood pumping through Vinsah's veins.

Pulling back the covers, Kashin gently lifted the front of Vinsah's robes, and found a dented dinner plate over his chest. Lifting that slowly, he heard the man groan in sudden pain. Looking up, the dark eyes of the Bishop found his own. "It's all right, Vinsah, you are alive. I shall get you to somebody who can tend to your wounds."

Vinsah breathed noisily. Obviously, several of his ribs must be broken. "No one for leagues," he whispered barely from the great strain. "No one except" his eyes began to roll back into his head, the whites clearly showing.

"No one but who?" Kashin barked loudly, pulling his head back up before he could pass out again.

The priest shuddered once more, blinking at the pain in his chest. "No one but, Metamor," he said in a tone that Kashin could not place, before his eyes rolled back again. This time, the Yeshuel did not pursue any further elaboration. Standing, he came out of the tent, and glanced about the field. A sudden flare of lightning illuminated the nearby hills, and made something flash in the distance.

Gritting his teeth together, Kashin ran as fast as he could towards the sight, crossing over the road and down the hill, until he saw that it was a gem reflecting the light. Slowing down, he could feel his heart beat loudly in his chest, his mouth beginning to hang agape. Suddenly he felt his heart seize in his chest, a low, keening moan escaping his throat as his eyes fell upon a scene from the very pits of a hellish nightmare. Falling to his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, he crouched by the twisted body of the Patriarch, the gleaming hilt of a jeweled blade sticking out of his chest.

"I failed you, Abba!" he declared, reaching with his one hand to the collar of his shirt. His sobs racking louder than the rain, he began to tear the fabric away, revealing bare skin beneath. With a care and precision that his large hands appeared incapable of, he deftly managed to remove the white cross from his green tunic, and leave it completely intact. Then, he gently draped that cross over Akabaieth's chest, letting it rest there as he stared.

"I've failed you, my Abba. I am no longer worthy to serve you or your Ecclesia." His words were soft, thick with melancholy and shame. He beat his fist into the earth as he sobbed loudly, the rain drenching his chest, soaking what hair was there.

Yet, the memory of the two still left alive at the camp returned to him, and he reached underneath the Patriarch's body, awkwardly hoisting it onto his shoulder. It was such a tiny frame, and so light, as if everything important had already left. He closed his hand around the bit of rope that had lain nearby in the mud, grasping it in his large hand as he rose. He then turned back around and ran to the camp.

He gently laid Akabaieth's body in one of the covered provisional wagons. He put the bags of grain along side the body, to keep it steady. Running over to the tent, he reached in and gently pulled Vinsah out as well, the dinner plate clattering to the wt grass, a twisted testament to some strange foresight that the Bishop appeared to have. He then deposited him next to the Patriarch, and returned for the knight.

Once all three of them were secured in the wagon, he scanned about to see if any of the horses were left, but they had apparently scattered. Grimacing, he grabbed the ropes between his fingers, and took a deep breath. Surely there were Keepers nearby who would be headed down the road who could help. But, if he waited for them, then the knight and Vinsah might both die. As it was, he knew in his heart he was condemning them both to a different life, but he knew that it was the only way. If Vinsah himself would suggest it, then how could he refuse?

Yet, as he watched, a slice of deeper shadow seemed to appear in the forest nearby, gray shadows moving within the darkness. He looked about, grabbing a nearby sword, and stood his ground, watching that mysterious portal in the tree line form. But to his surprise that strange man did not emerge, but instead two Keepers, both of whom he instantly recognized.

The skunk made a few gestures and said a word or two, and suddenly lights blossomed around the camp, casting them in brilliant illumination. The other figure jumped at the sudden light, rearing on his hind set of paws. It was Charles and Murikeer, the former wearing that taur shape he'd once shown Kashin by accident.

They both turned to see Kashin standing with a sword in one arm, the other completely missing. And then their eyes scanned the massacre, the blood, and the torn bodies that were left. Charles started shaking, before he leaned his torso over his arm and began to heave his last meal free. The skunk simply stood aghast, his paws held out helplessly, jaw dropping open at the carnage as he slowly fell to his knees and dropped his head in defeat.

Kashin dropped the sword to the ground, turning back to the carriage. "I need help with this. Two of them are still alive."

"Who did this?" Murikeer demanded, his voice seething with a raw rage that was more animal than man.

"I don't know, at least not yet. I need to get these two back to Metamor as soon as possible. They will die without the aid of magic. Can you help me? Charles, you are a taur, do you think you could pull this wagon?"

Mathias peered at him in a bit of shock but nodded, approaching quickly, wiping something unpleasant from his muzzle. "Certainly, I will do what I can. I cannot promise much though."

Murikeer waved his arms about and shook his head. "No, I have a better idea." He peered over his shoulder and for the first time, Kashin noticed the small blue dragon perched there. "Here, are the dragons overhead?"

The dragonnette nodded slowly, trying not to look at the bodies strewn about the field. Murikeer then began to recite an incantation, holding his paws tightly together, and gazing up into the storm clouds, his eyes unblinking despite the rain spattering his angular muzzle. A few moments later several dragons burst through the clouds, of all variety of colours. The creatures suddenly surged to a halt, backwinging powerfully as the devastation on the ground was revealed to them. Two of the huge creatures let out horrified shrieks and rumbled over the crash of thunder, bright eyes blazing in anger. Kashin stared in shock as the four great serpentine beasts folded their wings and plummeted to the ground, throwing their great pinions out only to break their stooping dives, and finally descended onto the field.

Murikeer gazed at the largest of the dragons. "Do you think that you could carry that wagon back to the Keep? And keep it from jostling around? There are two wounded men inside and this is their only chance to survive."

The dragon glared down at the skunk, nostrils flaring as the scent of death was borne past his senses. His great eyes glowed with a fierce yellow light, fury stirring within those great orbs framed about by the pale green sheen of his scales. "It will not be difficult." His voice was deep, almost like the organ in the Cathedral at Yesulam, made heavy by the crushing weight of his anger and sorrow. "You might want somebody to sit inside to keep watch over the injured while I fly."

Kashin immediately stood up, holding his right hand to his bare chest. "I will do it."

Charles nodded as well, running his paws over his frame. "I will as well. Somebody will need to talk to Duke Thomas immediately when we return. It might as well be me."

Murikeer nodded, glancing back towards the forest, as another witchlight approached. A few moments later, Finbar and Llyn emerged from the woods, panting heavily, and gazing at the collection of dragons. Their eyes then fell on the assorted bodies littering the field, and they both recoiled in horror. Llyn pressed her paws against her muzzle and kept shaking her head as she softly moaned, "Oh no, please Abba don't let it be true!"

The skunk flicked his tail about in agitation as he scanned the scene. He intended to call forth every last spirit he could find to know just what had happened here, and who was responsible for it. He then peered back at Matthias, who was standing uncertainly on four paws. He blinked, noticing the strange shape that his friend wore for the very first time. He would have to inquire after it later though, as right now he had other affairs to attend to.

His gaze met the horrified stare of the mink, the words written within causing her to stagger back as if stricken and bury her muzzle in her hands, falling to her knees in the bloodstained mud. He placed one hand consolingly on her shoulder as the muscles of his jaw bunched, his gaze returning to the field of death.

The dragon who had agreed to carry them approached the wagon, gently poking his snout beneath the cloth that kept it dry. Kashin slipped in the other end, and rest one arm across Vinsah's legs, and laid the stump of his left on Egland's chest. Matthias peered in and then realized that there would not be nearly enough room for him in there as he was.

"Hold on a moment, let me change back," he advised the dragon, closing his eyes and drawing up his self image.

However, Kashin barked, " We don't have the time! Please get us into the air now." He asked, his voice weary and laden with unchecked sobs.

The dragon stood over them both, Charles suddenly dwarfed and cast into shadow by the great reptile's size. And then he found the dragon's talons clutching him about his lower torso, and with a pump of the wings, drawing him up into the air. He cried out, as his pants flitted from his shoulders down onto the field, leaving him with nothing to cover himself with when he returned.

Charles however did not truly care at that point, for Kashin was right, there was little time to argue over such matters. Instead, he glanced to his side through the rain as the dragon held in his front hands the wagon, while he was clutched once more between the Keeper's toes. He griped the thick leg with both of his arms, his long tail dangling in the rain-pocked wind behind him. Almost the entire length of the road to Metamor, he could see lights streaming southward -- all of them too late.

Too late.

Whimpering, he bit back his tears, the rain providing more than enough for all of them.

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