A Call to Arms

Chapter One


"Destroy the northern bridges!" Erelvar shouted. From his position atop the citadel on the bluff, he watched as one of the towers of the city's northwestern gatehouse crumbled in a shower of collapsing masonry. The last stone had not yet found rest when the sound of a second explosion reached his ears. The remaining tower of the gatehouse was also reduced to rubble. A fortified gatehouse reduced to ruin in a few heartbeats -- the twenty men manning it dead, or trapped within the rubble. It was unbelievable...

Even so, Erelvar had recognized this so called Dragon for what it truly was. Steven had once claimed that the firestaff he had first carried to this world was used for hunting ducks. Erelvar had no difficulty believing that now. This was what the Dreamer's people used for war.

Erelvar watched in the early dawn light as the Dragon passed the ruined gate into the city. Why had the catapults not yet fired? Without the bridges there was no way that...war engine could cross the river. The thing was fashioned entirely of metal -- it would sink like a stone.

As if in answer to his unspoken question, the catapults launched their payloads to the extreme limit of their range. Erelvar watched as the ends of the bridges were demolished. It would be some time before they could be rearmed to destroy the next section. Erelvar wondered whether they would be given the chance.

Another war engine disappeared into the streets of the northwestern quarter. This was not as formidable in appearance as the Dragon. However, even from this distance, Erelvar could see through its open top that it carried men into the city. Somehow, the Morvir had gained access to the weapons of Steven's homeworld.

A stone building within the northwestern quarter of the city crumbled. That located the Dragon for him -- apparently its progress had slowed once it entered the city. Excellent. That would give the catapult crews time to destroy more of the bridge.

The catapults of the northwestern gate fired again. There was nothing like fear to motivate men to speed. The next section of the bridge to Quarin was destroyed. Erelvar silently gave thanks to Mortos that he had refused the demands of the populace to build bridges directly between the northern and southern quarters of the city. The rivers were now their only effective barrier against the Dragon.

Another building was engulfed in a fiery explosion. As Erelvar watched the lesser engine departed from the city -- empty. It moved faster than horses at full gallop and was soon out of sight over the horizon. No doubt it would return soon, with another cargo of Morvan soldiers.

Movement on the riverbank opposite the northwestern bridge caught Erelvar's attention. The populace thronged about the end of the destroyed bridge. As Erelvar watched they entered the river, swimming for the undamaged section.

"Tell the catapult crews of the northern gates to continue firing," Erelvar ordered. "We must destroy those bridges!"

"Yes, my lord," Morfael replied. The younger rega's face was ashen. He relayed Erelvar's orders to waiting messengers. Before they had left, the catapults fired again, destroying another section of the bridge. Erelvar could hear the horrified cries of the refugees in the river. Their only hope of escape was being destroyed by their own people.

"Prepare to evacuate the castle," Erelvar ordered. If his catapults could reach the end of that bridge there was no doubt that the Dragon's...weapon could as well. It could conceivably sit at the end of the bridge and destroy the entire citadel.

"Yes, my lord," Morfael replied again.

"Have the catapult crews on the southern bridges prepare to destroy those as well," Erelvar continued. "They, and I, shall be evacuated last aboard the galley. Go."

"Yes, my lord," Morfael said, turning to leave.

"Be certain the Lady Glorien is among those evacuated," Erelvar added. "Carry her if you must."

"Yes, my lord," Morfael agreed.

After a moment Erelvar glanced away from the battle. From this location, atop the northwest tower, he could barely see the statue that was Steven's tomb. There was something that needed to be done...

* * *

Erelvar placed his hand against the stone block that formed the base of the Dreamer's monument. Steven's body was entombed within. This statue had become the destination of the pilgrimages of many of the faithful. There were no visitors this morning.

The two men with Erelvar slipped the heavy chain through the iron ring set into the stone sealing Steven's tomb. Once the chain was secured to the yoke, the team master drove the dray horses forward. With a grating of stone against stone, the three foot cube of stone slowly slid out of the tomb.

The sound of another distant explosion reached him from the city. How much longer did they have before the Dragon began attacking the citadel?

The stone fell from the opening to the tomb built into the base of Steven's statue. Erelvar held his breath -- he was half expecting Steven to crawl out of the tomb on his own. No such thing happened. Erelvar knelt and looked into the tomb.

The stench of decay filled the small chamber. The armored corpse within was simply that -- a corpse. Erelvar reached in and lifted the base of the wooden bier that Steven laid on, dragging the body out into the light. The sword held in the armored hands seemed to glow in the morning light.

The workmen with Erelvar gagged at the stench, but held their stomachs as they helped lower the body to the ground.

"Have this body placed in a coffin," Erelvar ordered. "Then have it placed on the galley."

"Yes, lord," the workers replied.

Erelvar glanced up at the inscription that had appeared on the base of the statue shortly after Steven had been interred within it.

When the land again has need of it, this Sword shall live again.

"I need you now, old friend," Erelvar whispered. "Where are you?"

* * *

Steve's stomach churned as the goremka galloped through the featureless grey fog that surrounded them on all sides. He closed his eyes tightly, hoping that temporarily shutting out the strange perspectives would settle his stomach's unease. How much longer was this trip going to take?

The goremka halted its gallop at an equally featureless point in space. How the demon determined its whereabouts was beyond Steve. It apparently knew where they were, however. It began to push forward and Steve could feel the resistance as they began to cross the barrier to the natural world.

A dark rift opened in the mist before them and the goremka carried Steve into it. There was a twisting, lurching sensation that threatened to wrest Steve's tenuous control of his stomach from him and then mount and rider were standing in a room carved from living stone.

"What!?" Steve said in surprise, as he recognized his surroundings. Or, more accurately, as Belevairn's memories recognized them.

"Ragavale!" he said, harshly. "These are the Mistress' stables!" The damned demon had just dumped him in the middle of Delgroth, Daryna's underground mountain fortress.

"As you commanded, Templar," the goremka replied, smugly. "This is where Lord Belevairn sent the armored convoy. And now, I must depart, as you have also commanded."

"Hold!" Steve commanded. "How am I supposed to get out of this place alive?"

"That is your concern, Templar," Ragavale told him. "You ordered me to deliver you to the place where Lord Belevairn transported his forces. I have done so. Goodbye."

Before Steve could object, the goremka vanished like so much smoke from beneath him. Steve fell to the floor amid the falling tack and harness of Belevairn's mount.

Steve disentangled himself from the saddle and rose to his feet. He was going to have to get one of these horses saddled up and ready. Damn! It was a four day ride to Quarin. He would take another horse or two as spares. He could probably trim a day off the trip if he could rotate mounts.

He selected one animal from the stalls as his primary mount. It was a fine horse, deep red with a dark brown, almost black mane. More importantly, it was roughly the same girth as Belevairn's goremka. The tack should fit it nicely.

The saddle fit beautifully, as if it had been made for the horse. Steve loaded all of his gear onto the warhorse. He dropped the reins to the floor and turned back to select another mount.

"Hold!" shouted a voice behind him. Steve spun around. Damn -- he'd been discovered.

Belevairn's memories supplied the identity of the creature behind the golden mask for him. Lord Daemor, chief among the Twelve. The Dread Lord stood in the entrance to the stables, sword in hand.

"Who are you?" Daemor asked, stepping into the stable.

"You already know the answer to that question, Daemor," Steve replied, drawing his shotgun from the holster on his mount.

"Dreamer?" Daemor sounded incredulous. "But how...?"

"Lord Belevairn was kind enough to lend me his steed," Steve replied, raising the shotgun to his shoulder.

Daemor charged just as Steve pulled the trigger. The roar of the shotgun echoed through the stables, startling the horses. Daemor flew back as the slug blew a hole in the mail hauberk he wore. Steve pumped the shotgun, loading a magnesium flare into the chamber.

"Say good night, Daemor," he said, firing the flare at the prone Kaimorda. The burning magnesium buried itself in Daemor's chest. The Dread Lord began to scream as the fire consumed him.

Steve lost precious time calming his panicked mount as Daemor thrashed in his death throes on the floor of the stables. So much for spare horses -- Steve wouldn't have time to get them ready. He had to get out of here now. Steve hoisted himself into the saddle and spurred the horse to a gallop. He wheeled to the right as he entered the central corridor of the stronghold. Fortunately the stables were near the main gates of the fortress.

He reined the horse to a stop in front of those gates. Two massive slabs of stone sealed the entrance to the fortress. There was no mechanism to open the doors that Steve could see.

"Shit," Steve said, in a subdued voice. This was it -- the end of the line. He could already hear the sounds of some form of alarm from behind him.

Steve squared his shoulders and glared at the doors. He'd come this far -- crossed the barrier between worlds, for Christ's sake! He would be damned if two blocks of stone were going to stop him now.

He pulled one of the rocket launchers from his saddlebags. He was too close -- he would have to get a little distance to use this thing without blowing himself to kingdom come. Steve wheeled the horse about and galloped back to the entrance to the stables.

He didn't have time for any mistakes. Pursuit would be organizing quickly. Steve dismounted and tethered the reins to a hook by the stable entrance. It wouldn't do to have his stolen mount panic and run off...

Steve sighted through the scope, aiming for the crack between the stone doors sealing the entrance. That would be the weakest spot in the gates. Hopefully he could blow a hole in the gates large enough to ride through. Hopefully.

Steve squeezed the trigger gently, as a mercenary literally a world away had shown him. The rocket fired, hurling down the corridor toward his target. Steve threw himself prone just as the missile struck the stone doors.

The sound of the explosion was deafening. Small pieces of stone ricocheted down the corridor. Fortunately, most of them were spent by the time they travelled this far. Steve began to rise to his feet. He stopped, on one knee, staring.

The gate was intact. All Steve had accomplished was to blow a man-sized crater about a foot deep into the surface of the stone doors.

"Shit!" Steve cursed. The gates to Delgroth were magically strengthened by Daryna's power. He was going to have to use another one of his remaining three rocket launchers. Damn! He needed those for the tank.

Still, if he didn't get out of here it wouldn't matter how many rocket launchers he had left. He ripped open the saddlebag and drew another launcher out. Hopefully this one would do it.

* * *

Daryna had ordered the gates sealed the moment she had felt Daemor's pain. Somehow, someone had felled her chief general within the confines of her own fortress. Now that the alarm had been raised and Morvir dispatched to deal with the intruder, she could tend to Daemor.

She appeared beside him, in the stables. He was still thrashing as something in his chest burned violently at his mummified flesh. She gently reached into his chest, her hand passing through him like smoke. She grasped the burning lump of metal and pulled it from him. Who had done this?

Her answer was found in the form of a small cylinder lying nearby. She reached out and the object flew into her outstretched hand. The memories passed to her from Belevairn identified it -- a spent shotgun shell. The Dreamer!

As Daryna rose to her feet she heard the sound of a weapon firing. Steven Wilkinson was within her walls! She must...

The impact against the gates struck her before she could act. She collapsed, as if the blow had instead struck her. The stables spun around her as darkness gathered at the edges of her vision.

No! She could not let this happen! By force of will, she pushed away the darkness, regathering her Power. The gates still held -- barely. She had to stop Wilkinson before...

The weapon fired again and the force of the blow against the gates was even more potent than the first. She collapsed, fainting as the stone doors to her fortress were penetrated.

* * *

Steve cursed. The second missile had broken through -- barely. A faint gleam of light shone through an opening far too small to allow him to pass. Worse, he could hear a force approaching from behind.

He mounted, pulling a third launcher from the saddlebags. That only left him one for the tank. Oh well, he thought, if this third one doesn't do it, it won't matter anyway. Steve sighted through the scope, aiming just below the opening he'd created.

The horse jumped beneath him at the weapon's discharge. Steve spurred it, using his mount's own fear to urge it forward. The missile struck the weakened gates and the horse shied to halt, rearing beneath him. Stone fragments ricocheted along the walls past them.

Steve fought the animal back under control, urging it forward. If this had been any horse other than one trained by the Morvir, he would have failed. The horse galloped forward through the breach in the stone doors, its eyes wide with fear.

Steve rode out into the moonlit night. Beneath him lay the Burning Hills. From here he would have to pass through the Poisoned Bog onto the Plains of Blood. How was he going to get through the Bog? Only the Olvir in Erelvar's service had managed to find solid footing through that unnatural swamp. Oh well, there was plenty of time to worry about that...

The ground shook beneath him. Steve wheeled his mount to a halt, staring in shock. Above him, seven spheres of blue-white light shot down from the sky to pass into Delgroth through the breached gates. One paused, and within it Steve could see a gaunt figure mounted on a pale horse. Mortos saluted Steve with his sword before joining the six that had passed into Delgroth before him.

Steve barely noticed, Mortos' salute, however. His attention was captured by the red glow emanating from the top of the mountain that Daryna's fortress was carved into. Delgroth was built into a volcano and that volcano was erupting! The ground shook again as a cloud of glowing ash belched out the top of the mountain.

"Oh...my...God," Steve whispered. He wheeled his terrified mount south, away from the volcano.

"Hyah!" he yelled as he spurred his mount away, unnecessarily. It had already decided that it didn't like this neighborhood anymore.

I'm gonna die! Steve thought. I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna DIE!
* * *

Jared sat with nine other members of the Twelve in what had once been a barracks in the northwestern quarter of Quarin. This quarter of the city had been secured and the...tank...was now assaulting the traitor's citadel in the center of the rivers.

Jared was not certain what he thought of these new forces. True, they were performing beyond all expectations. The Morvir had suffered fewer than a dozen casualties taking this quarter of the city and none so far in the assault on the citadel. Still, what would happen when the Morvir realized that they could turn these new weapons on their old masters just as effectively?

"But will a wooden bridge support the weight of the tank?" Lord Phelandor was asking.

Jared was about to answer when the summons struck him. He could tell by the way the other Lords suddenly stiffened in their chairs that they had felt the urgent call as well. Without a word, they all hurried from the makeshift council chamber. Jared was the first to reach his mount and depart for Delgroth.

He did not arrive in the stables as he had planned. Instead, he emerged in midair above the fortress. Some unknown, mystical barrier prevented the goremka from entering Delgroth.

Jared stared at the scene below him. Fire and ash billowed from the top of the mountain. The fires of Delgroth were tamed no longer. It was just as well that he had not been able to enter the fortress. Jared trembled in anger -- he knew who was responsible for this outrage. The prophecy was quite clear -- only one person could breach the gates of Delgroth. Somehow, the Dreamer had returned.

The other Kaimordir appeared in the air around him. Daryna's call still compelled them all, but they could not obey -- dared not obey if they could. For a moment they all simply stared at the events unfolding below them.

"Jared," Heregurth was the first to ask, "what do we do?"

"We return to Quarin," Jared replied, flatly.

"But the Mistress..." Phelandor began.

"Fool!" Jared snapped. "The gods themselves do battle here! This is no place for us. We must hold council immediately!"

All fell silent. Then, one by one, the Dread Lords of Delgroth slowly left reality to return to Quarin. Jared waited until all had left before drawing his sword to salute the fortress.

"Goodbye, my love," he said, softly. "I shall not rest until I have avenged you. I swear it." Then he, too, left for the safety of the Grey Plain.

* * *

The galley slowly pulled away from the docks on the south end of the citadel. The Dragon had been attacking the citadel since late afternoon. As Erelvar had surmised, the fortress was well within the range of the Dragon's weapon.

He, Morfael, and the two remaining catapult crews had taken refuge in the underground entrance chamber until nightfall. Now they were slipping away from Quarin without lanterns, hoping that darkness would cover their retreat.

At Erelvar's command the galley was drifting downriver with the current without the luxury of oars. He didn't want to take the slightest chance of any sound giving them away to the Morvir. One attack from the Dragon could convert this galley into kindling.

Another explosion atop the bluff lit the night. Years of work, destroyed in hours. Erelvar's gaze fell to the coffin that lay in the center of the deck. There were two edges to the prophecy. From the miraculous appearance of the inscription on Steven's statue, Erelvar had concluded that they were victorious -- that Steven would return to deal with the Dragon as the prophecy foretold.

Apparently, such was not the case. In killing Steven, Daryna seemed to have defeated that arm of the prophecy. If that was true, the final outcome was also foretold -- all that lived would be destroyed at the hands of the Dark One. Erelvar would make certain that she did not succeed without a fight, however.

He whispered an order and the oars were deployed. The galley was nearing the southeastern quarter of the city, on the Umbrian side of the river. Erelvar felt the small ship turn across the current. The bank was a darker blackness in the night before them.

This was the section of the city furthest from the Dragon. Hopefully, it would be far enough that they would not be forced to retreat further until the Dragon found a means to cross the rivers.

The galley slid neatly into dock without the use of lanterns. The crew leapt onto the dock and lashed the galley loosely to the moorings. Not easily done in the moonless night.

As Erelvar stepped onto the dock, the moonless night suddenly lit -- as if the moon had just emerged from behind the clouds. The crew cried out in surprise as they looked up from the moorings. Erelvar's gaze also sought the sky.

In the night sky, almost directly overhead, a star shone, bright as the moon. Against all logic, Erelvar felt a surge of hope rise within him.

...and the light of the Dreamer shone across the land, the prophecy stated. The Mistress had not won yet...

* * *

"What is all the damned commotion about?" Captain Tsadhoq grumbled as he made his way to the front gate of Deldwar. The hundred ton postern gate had already been winched open. He checked the counterweights on his way out. They were in place, ready to seal the gate in an instant's notice. Good. If they hadn't been he would have had somebody's beard for it -- by the roots.

"This had best be good," he continued as he stepped out onto the battlements. "Or someone is going to pay for rousing me from a particularly pleasant dream about..." His words trailed off, unspoken.

A star burned in the night sky -- as bright as the moon in full. Its silvery light gleamed off the mountain snow.

"He has returned," Tsadhoq whispered into the hush atop the battlements.

"By Vule's beard!" he shouted, throwing his head back exultantly. "He has returned!"

"Captain Tsadhoq!" a member of the Guard interrupted, pointing to the northwest. "Look!"

Tsadhoq followed the man's outstretched hand. A column of fire burned on the horizon. Delgroth.

"We had best start sharpening our axes, men," Tsadhoq said, slapping a nearby guardsman on the back. "By this time next week we shall likely be marching on Morvanor!"

The men cheered -- a cheer in which Tsadhoq happily joined before turning to leave. This had been a day they had long awaited, and one which Tsadhoq had thought would never come once the Dreamer had been slain outside Quarin. He stopped and turned back to the men.

"Oh," he said, "and someone had best send word to that renegade Morvan down where the rivers meet. Tell him, 'Delgroth burns'."

* * *

Theron Baltasaros waited outside his cousin's bedchamber while the servants woke him. Soon, Solon Baltasaros emerged, eyes still heavy with sleep.

"Theron?" he said. "What is going on?"

"Emperor," Theron replied, ignoring the familiarity in Solon's question, "I have come on a matter of the gravest import."

"I...see..." Solon said.

"Kneel," Theron commanded. Solon blinked and then knelt before him. Theron intoned a blessing over his cousin.

"Rise," Theron said, "and walk with me, Emperor."

Solon rose and followed along, slightly behind his priest cousin. What was this all about? Theron was not prone to this level of formality often. Not with him, at least. And the hour -- something serious was in the wind...

They walked out into the garden. The moonlight stole the color from all the flowers, rendering them in varying shades of black, silver or white. Moonlight? There was no moon tonight...

Solon looked up into the sky, following the direction indicated by Theron's upraised arm. A star burned in the sky, eclipsing all those around it with its brilliance.

"What...does it mean?" he asked, quietly.

"It can mean only one thing," Theron replied. "The Dreamer has returned, and the Dragon is loose upon the world."

"Lindra protect us." Solon said, signing himself...

* * *

King Arven stood on the battlements of Mencar. The rich, summer forest was beautiful in the light of the new star. It was a pity the news from Quarin was so dark. He felt a presence appear behind him.

"What means this star, Nolrod?" he asked. "Why has it appeared, the night after the Dragon has attacked Quarin?"

"It heralds the arrival of he who will defeat the Dragon, Majesty," the lore-master replied. "And it marks the passing of Delgroth."

"Praise the Kanir," Arven said, breathlessly.

"Indeed, Majesty."

* * *

Arthwyr ap-Madawc stared into the night sky from the walls of his manor. No matter how long he stared at it, the new star refused to disappear.

"What is it?" asked one of his clansmen.

"How in Daryna's Hell should I know?" Arthwyr replied. "Get a priest."

"No...wait," Arthwyr said as Alhric turned to leave. "Get a priest of Uldon." Unless Arthwyr was mistaken, this star had something to do with the prophecy of the Dreamer...
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