Attack on Kinsale
It was after midnight when the roar of voices and the clamor of a stampede rolled like thunder through the empty streets of Kinsale. The cacophony bounced off of the stone walls, repeating itself in echoes so that the invaders seemed to number in the thousands and their location was impossible to pinpoint. Ringing sword blows and dying screams followed the mad rush; diminished and leaderless, the crown guard were little more than a stone in the river of violence.
When the door of the Firebrick Bakery was forced open, the withering bulk of a furious grizzly bear stood to block the path of the green-cloaked elven invaders. Roaring, the massive beast threw itself upon the first of the elves, against the bulwark of spears and swords. Tika was already running out the back door, clutching frightened, screaming Sora to her chest as she spilled out into the labyrinth of alleyways. She wanted to stand with Andak, fight back against the Ebonhawk, but the halfling made what they both knew to be his final request: save Sora, reunite her with her mother and father. So she ran, with arrows buzzing like hummingbirds as they flew past her head and shattered against the stone walls surrounding her.
Ebonhawk swarmed like bees through the alley behind her, and they were fleet of foot, but Tika forced herself to run faster still, empowered by the tidal wave of her rage, which Tiamat had granted her mastery over, and by the name of that blackest serpent, Tika swore that she would not lose another member of her family. Humanoid shapes appeared before her, and in the darkness, she could not identify them as friend or foe, and so a rush of potent acid left them crumpled, screaming on the cobblestones in her wake.
Rhythmic thumping in Tika's ears drowned out the sound of the war being fought behind her; she couldn't even hear Sora's screams any longer. The ice of battle calm fell over her like a cloak, and the world around her seemed mired in mud. She exploded from the alleyway like a bullet from a sling, and her own screams were lost in the rhythm as she spun, clutching Sora with one arm and striking out with the other. Ducking and weaving around the thrusts of spears, Tika was reminded of her youth. She remembered her tutors thrusting their spears at her, the bite of the blade its own punishment for her failure. This time, she would not fail; each elf that fell beneath a fist or a kick of impossible strength and precision was a strike back at the leering faces of those who had taken her as a child and subjected her to the years of torment that shaped her into the engine of death she had become.
No more spears threatened Tika, and in the calm that followed the melee, the dragonborn glanced around her at each of the five elves, dead on the ground with their blood pooling in tiny rivers between the cobblestones. Her dark eyes fell upon the final elf still standing near her, and in her combat focus, she saw the sweat beaded on his forehead, watched the spear tip wavering as his hands trembled. An elf's outward age could be deceptive, but Tika guessed that this one was barely into his teens, and he was terrified.
She approached the boy and he tried to bring his spear up between them, but Tika stomped hard on the shaft, snapping the wood just behind the bladed head, and the pole wrenched free of his trembling hands. His tearing eyes grew wide with fear as Tika's shadow fell over him and his lower jaw quivered as he sought for the words that might protect his life, and yet he couldn't make any sounds more complex than mewling whimpers. Tika raised her hand, curled the fingers at the second joint to form a brutal bludgeon that would crush his throat as easily as he would crush an insect.
"You chose the wrong battle to prove your manhood, little boy," Tika growled, her words hissing and sizzling with the promise of acid. She assumed a killing stance and a roar of anger boiled up from somewhere deep inside of her; life energy condensed around her fist, the aura of it black with sins of the past. Before she could throw the punch however, she felt something move against her chest and a faint whimper caught her ear.
Tika glanced down, saw Sora's tear-stained face pressed into her tunic. In the high of combat, she had somehow forgotten about the very thing she was working so hard to protect. The anger knotted up in her guts and Tika had to swallow down the acid creeping up the back of her throat, eager to sear away all who stood before her.
"Do not make the mistakes of your fathers," Tika muttered, eyes turning back to the weeping elven boy. "This is not your war. Do not fight for wounds so old that they have become scars."
Shoving the boy aside, Tika ran.
"You can feel it, can't you?" the skull-faced specter asked as it hovered behind Rio, the black tatters of its cloak flowing around it as though underwater. "Death is coming to Kinsale."
Rio wore the ill-fitting white and blue tabard of an archivist as she sat in the light of a single candle, dark eyes pouring over the book laid open before her. The Archive was dark beyond the lone flame, and the cavernous stone space was silent. Rio was used to being alone, and so the state of the place did not disquiet her.
"I do feel it," the girl muttered in reply, and yet her eyes continued to dart back and forth over the words. She could feel something like cold fingers sliding along her spine, bone-deep. It was something she felt in the past, when death was near.
"Take the book," the specter instructed with absolute calm. "This place won't be here come the morning anyway. I doubt they'll fine you for a late return."
Rio nodded her agreement. It was a sound plan, and yet her concentration remained on the book and its contents. She was close to an answer, she could feel it, but how much longer did she have?
"Why is this Captain Volcane so important to you anyway?" Silently, the specter drifted closer to Rio and it held its skull above her shoulder to glance at the book with empty, black sockets. "Ocean's Terror? Sounds fierce."
"It was the name of his ship." Rio ignored the cool presence at her cheek, her attention still focused. "Volcane used to menace these shores almost two hundred years ago, and I want to find out what happened to him."
"Is that worth losing your life over?" Bored with the text, the specter drifted away from the table and instead floated up to one of the high windows to look out into the forest. The promise of death came from there, no more than a thousand yards away. "I cannot protect you from Her bleak gaze forever."
Rio groaned with frustration, then slammed the book shut. The sound of it echoed ominously through the library, making Rio wince. She was still and quiet for a few long moments, but when she heard no footsteps of an alerted acolyte, she turned her attention to the floating mass of black high above her.
"My destiny is not here, where I am looked at like a freak and shopkeeps hurry me along to have me gone. If Kinsale dies tonight, I will not shed a tear for it." Rio stood, clutched the book to her chest, then collected the sword that rested on a nearby chair. "I had hoped to join those adventurers, to see the world and write my own story in blood, but they left chasing gold and fame, and so it falls on me to find my own way."
"You will not walk alone in this," the specter said as it fluttered down from the high window to hover in the shadows before Rio. "Well, you will walk alone, but rest assured that I will be floating along behind you."
Cold wind swept through the stone chamber, catching candle flames such that they danced and flickered, sending strange shadows fluttering across the walls like bats. Aaliz had the means to live in great comfort, equal perhaps to that which she had enjoyed as a child, but the cleric chose to live a more sparse lifestyle. Simple linens covered a hay-stuffed mattress, the cold stone floor was left bare, and her supply of coal for the stove was meager. There was nothing in the scriptures of Erathis to force her to such a barren life – indeed, she would have been free to revel in all of the richness available to her in a civilized world – but her time in Lōk, when she fought a bloody war against those who enslaved her, had tempered her, sharpened her into a blade. She had become Erathis's sword on Daearen, and that was a weapon she would not allow to rust.
Aaliz did allow herself a single extravagance, and that was the altar before which she kneeled. A tall, beautiful structure that filled the corner of the room, all silver and cold, draped with rich, blue cloths; the table of it was a slim marble slab, with two golden cogs set into the surface of it, upon which the woman laid her hands. Her eyes were closed and her lips moved faintly with unspoken words as she sat in meditation. Though her face remained placid, Aaliz's mind was troubled. In her reverie, the cleric could smell blood in the wind, and the cold felt like daggers; on the very edge of her extended hearing, Aaliz could detect the clatter of armor and the clang of swords.
A small, slim shape stood at one of Aaliz's narrow windows, gazing out at the forest with red eyes. The goblin was formless beneath the rough brown fabric of her robes, but her soft features and large, bright eyes signified her gender. Despite how clean and well groomed the small creature was, she was still plainly goblinoid, with gray-green flesh and a pointed, bat-like nose; her thick, red-brown hair was pulled up into a dense, wavy ponytail with a leather thong. She chewed at her bottom lip with sharp, misshapen teeth as she fretted at the windowsill with manicured white claws.
"Aaliz," the goblin said in a voice that was high and scratchy, dripping with worry. "Something's coming. The forest is…" her voice drifted away as she considered what the right word would be in the common trade tongue, "Disquieted?"
"I feel it as well, Nutmeg." Unlike the goblin, Aaliz's voice was firm and clear, though edged with intensity. The golden cogs flashed with light for a moment beneath her palms, and Aaliz finally got to her feet and moved to the window behind the goblin. She peered out at the forest, but without Nutmeg's clear darkvision, was able to make out very little.
Like wasps swarming from their hive, black shapes began pouring out of the forest, swords and spear tips catching the moonlight and causing them to glitter in the hilly field like fireflies. Perfect mimicries of hawk cries sounded above the thunder of boots, and in that moment, Aaliz wondered how the army had moved with such perfect silence in the shadows of the forest. Clearly, they had bargained on the element of surprise to allow them to take the Archive, but Erathis had denied them that boon.
Nutmeg sucked in a sharp breath of surprise, but before the terrified scream could boil up her throat, Aaliz pressed the small goblin aside and rested a boot upon the windowsill. She leaned out of the window, gazing down at the surging army like a gargoyle, before turning her eyes to the sky instead.
"Erathis!" she called, and her voice boomed over the foothills like thunder. "These men seek to undo what we have accomplished here in your name! You granted me the foresight to stand as a dam before their current, now grant me the strength to break them!"
Aaliz threw her arm out, and in response, great tremors washed outward from the tower, and the earth heaved in waves, likes ripples on water. The soldiers stumpled and fell as the ground shook, and the great waves of earth took them up and hurled their bodies high into the air. Muddy fissures opened like huge mouths in the field, with teeth of stone that greedily swallowed up the screaming elves as they fell.
In the distance, barely audible above the din of the earthquake, Aaliz could hear the sounds of battle and the screams of terrified men and women. A feeling filled her chest like a cold hand closing around her heart, but Aaliz ground her teeth against the dread and allowed her rage to flow like lava in her veins. The attack on Kinsale was to sew confusion and terror, scatter what few crown guards remained in the Northern Fortress. Their true goal, she was certain, was to kill the skylords housed within her very tower.
Aaliz retreated from the window, moved to recover her golden mace from the altar. She would not allow the Ebonhawk to set foot inside her Archive.