DargonZine 7, Issue 1

Sons of Gateway 7: Reunion

Yule 17, 1014


This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Sons of Gateway

Gemstone Expedition, day 94, Lieutenant Howen, reporting: we spent six weeks in the cave of the magicians, healing our wounds and re-stocking our supplies with theirs. It took longer than expected to recover from the damages… I guess the injuries went deeper than we thought. Hanlar blames it on Lord Ne’on’s gem – a two-foot, purple, uncut piece of something I’ve never seen before. I told him it was the altitude and the thin air, and we left the next morning.

 

Everyone seemed to feel better just leaving the cave. But three weeks later, the gem is still glowing, we’re losing weight rapidly, and one of the horses just up and died. No explanation. The other horses bucked their way free, and bolted. That was three nights past, and we’ve been walking ever since – I only hope things go well until Gateway. Our water supplies will run short in another day or two, but we should be able to make it to the Laraka by then, and our going will be easier. We should be able to scavenge both food and water at the river.

 

For the past few days, there have been large dust clouds to the west, and swarms of buzzards. I sent a scout to find out what’s going on.

 

“Lieuten’t,” Hanlar spoke from the opening of the tent, his six foot frame filling the space between the flaps. “Scout’s come back. I think you might wanna take this ‘un in yuir tent, sir.”

 

Howen looked at his junior officer, a man who knew the disreputable men in this mission better than himself, and beckoned him in with the scout. Walkins, the man who Hanlar had picked for the job, looked shaken, a little pale, and out of breath. His black matted hair was speckled with bits of grass and brush, and the mud on his knees was dry, but dark. Running for two days, Howen figured, and trying to keep out of sight of whatever it was he saw.

 

“Go’n, Walkins, tell the Lieuten’t wha’ ye saw,” Hanlar pushed the man forward a bit. Walkins stepped with the push, and looked wide-eyed at Howen. He looked back at the Sergeant, then started.

 

“S’like this, Sir… there’s a batch o’ bad luck – bout a keg o’ pitchers – comin’ this way – ow!” He clutched his shoulder as the pain from Hanlar’s punch made its way into his muscle.

 

“This ain’t the sewers o’ Magnus, ye scum! Talk odd to ‘im! Sorry, Lieuten’t,” Hanlar added, “the rats o’ the land ‘ave their own language. Pitchers, see… beers, drinks, what ‘ave ye… they’s town guards to thievin’ scum. Keg o’ pitchers, must be lots o’ guards. Or troops.”

 

“Aye, Cap’n, and bad ale is they.”

 

Hanlar scowled a moment, then looked at his Lieutenant. “Not flyin’ Baranur’s colors, sir.”

 

Howen looked at his sergeant, the lines around the man’s eyes, the chapping of his lips. He’d been through a lot, lately – they all had – and was in no shape to assault an enemy army. If it was an enemy, and not some envoy travelling in from Bichu or some other realm. Too far north and west to be Beinison, surely. “Walkins, what direction are they headed?”

 

Walkins leaned forward and almost whispered, “Straight for Gateway, I’d bet me mother’s knickers.”

 

***

 

Riding North to Gateway after his brief audience with the King, Goren Winston felt clean for what seemed like the first time in ages. He had a horse to ride, three men who knew him, and he was in charge again. It felt comfortable, despite the circumstances. How he and three of his uncle’s House Troops were to enter Gateway, depose Ne’on, and fortify it against any possible invasion were only small matters when he thought of Phos.

 

Phos, the Demon. Not in the sense that he ever thought of demons, but then he had never met one, or even thought much about them. This one seemed more like a mad war general. He couldn’t explain it, but from the brief time Phos had exposed himself to Goren, Goren felt as though he knew Phos; at least, a little bit. Goren knew that Phos’ entry to this world couldn’t be allowed. It could cause more harm than this whole war. He only wished he had been able to talk with Lord Equiville about dealing with the matter, but the High Mage had been unavailable for the one afternoon Goren had spent in Magnus.

 

Then, of course, there was Rho. She wasn’t nagging him. She wasn’t preaching Stevenic platitudes to him. She wasn’t giving him orders or telling him things that made no sense. The only thing that bothered Goren was that she simply wasn’t there, and he didn’t like that. He liked her not being there. He didn’t like the fact that it bothered him. He’d have to talk with Marcus about that one.

 

If his father were alive, Kald would tell him to take her to the hunting cabin, light a fire, pour some wine. He smiled when he remembered the first time he had done that. In his naive youth, he thought they would just sit by the fire and drink wine. Maybe talk about hunting, which fascinated him and therefore must be fascinating to everyone! He smiled again, and pulled himself out of those thoughts as one of his men rode up from ahead.

 

“Lord Keeper!”

 

“What is it, Wilkes?”

 

“I estimate we’re about two bell’s from Gateway, my lord.”

 

The guard looked nervous. Their position relative to Gateway was obvious. Goren had travelled the road many times in the last twenty-four years of his life. Goren lifted the iron cap from his head to wipe back the brown hair falling in his eyes. “Yes, I’d say that was about right. Is there a problem?”

 

“Well, sir, to be honest…” The guard looked around for a moment, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news.

 

“Wilkes, when communication breaks down, problems become catastrophes. Catastrophes cause irreversible damage. Great men become great by avoiding the collapse of communication.”

 

“Your uncle always told us that, Lord Keeper.”

 

“Good, then what’s the problem?”

 

“I think the war has made its way to Gateway, my lord.”

 

Goren halted his steed. “Excuse me?”

 

“The war, my lord. When we get over this ridge,” the guard pointed to the hill he had just come over, “you’ll see Gateway in the distance. Looks like some troops have dug in outside her walls, probably Beinison since they’re not being let in, but I could have sworn I saw Baranur’s colors. The Winston flag still flies from Gateway, though, my lord.”

 

“You didn’t see Beinison colors?”

 

“No, my lord, but there’s a hill not two leagues past the joining of the Laraka and the Vodyanoi.”

 

“I know it well, Wilkes, it’s on the west road to Port Sevlyn.”

 

“There’s one more thing, Lord Winston.”

 

Goren sighed. “Yes?”

 

“My lord, if you’ll look at the sky behind you…”

 

Goren turned and looked up. The slightly cloudy sky was darkened by rising dust some distance behind. But for the trees, they might be able to see the cause from the hill top. Goren sighed. He guessed he had fifty leagues or less on the forces behind him.

 

There were forces stationed outside Gateway, which probably meant Gateway was full. Two regiments normally made up Gateway’s garrison; another five could be squeezed if the surrounding population didn’t expect protection. Figure on six regiments inside her walls. If Gateway was being fortified by the King’s men, then Port Sevlyn must be in danger of falling. That didn’t make sense – Beinison is south of Baranur, and Gateway Keep is north of Magnus, Baranur’s capital city. The battalions at Gateway must be on their way east, to the Duchies of Pyridain and Westbrook.

 

One thing was certain, he didn’t have time to sit there and wonder about it. “Let’s ride for Gateway, full gallop.”

 

***

 

“Captain Clay,” Ne’on’s voice called out. “I require your assistance.”

 

Clay turned from his conversation with Marcus Ridgewater and opened the door to Ne’on’s sanctuary. He didn’t usually engage in conversation with Gateway’s castellan, but he and Ridgewater had found a common point of interest in Lord Morion’s troops. Stationed outside Gateway’s walls, Morion’s men didn’t have a chance of holding out against the Beinison forces on their way. And, without Morion’s aid inside the keep, the two thousand under Ne’on’s command would be devastated as well.

 

Before entering the Lord Keeper’s quarters, Bartholomew Clay turned to the Castellan: “Marcus, it is Ne’on’s order that we stand down. And, it is to his Black Hand that you will have to answer for any action against him.”

 

The captain closed the door to Ne’on’s sanctuary, shutting the confused castellan out, and himself in. Ne’on was standing by his table of vials, powders, and live animals. The wizard likes his components fresh, Clay thought. He advanced to where Ne’on was staring at a bottle of crystal-blue liquid. “What is it, Lord Keeper?”

 

Ne’on turned to Clay and frowned. “Your ignorance baffles me,” he said. “Haven’t you, in all your years of sword play, ever required the assistance of a magical potion? To cure wounds, ease the pain, that sort of thing.”

 

“Yes. But, they were an opaque blue, maybe blue-green depending on who sold them. Not clear like that one.”

 

Ne’on slammed the bottle onto the table, nearly shattering it. “That!” he exclaimed, his eyes burning with intense excitement. “That is the presence of the Stone! Come…” Ne’on nearly ran to the inscription of the mystic circle on the floor. “We’re about to complete our business in Gateway. This time tomorrow,” Ne’on stared up into oblivion, “the stars will be within my grasp.”

 

Clay took a good, long look at the man who was employing him. He had done this the first time he had met Ne’on, just outside Magnus’ infamous fifth quarter. Then, he had seen only a second son of a minor noble – a son who wanted his brother out of the way for monetary reasons. He had been used to dealing with men like that – there were many second sons in Baranur’s seventeen duchies. A few had already employed Clay to make them the first son.

 

Now, however, Clay saw something different: either a man of some magical skill who was not fully in touch with reality; or something undescribable, filled with potential but frustrated by the limits of… He didn’t know. If Ne’on was the first, life in Gateway would soon cease to be a comfortable thing for Clay. If Ne’on was the second, then someone had better make sure whatever was limiting him continued to do so. Either way, Clay thought, it’s almost time I left Gateway to its own fate.

 

The Captain’s thoughts were interrupted by Ne’on’s words. “Clay, bring my black-handled dagger, the red incense, and the Lederian red wine. They’re over by the window. You know what to do with them. Afterwards, clear the table with the animals and bring it to the edge of the circle. I’ll need it to support the Stone.”

 

As Ne’on sat cross-legged in the center of the circle, concentrating his will in preparation of the spell, Bartholomew went to the window to gather Ne’on’s items. From there, he could see out to the main towers of the bailey, and the catapults which were moving into attack positions. Gateway was slowly, and quietly, standing to.

 

Bartholomew Clay smiled as he pondered the situation, and brought the items Ne’on had requested within the circle. Marcus knew the Black Hand would move against him when his actions were realized. However, the present force of the Hand numbered only twenty, give or take a few of the youths. The regular guard, on the other hand, numbered over 2000, and were all but fanatical followers of the castellan.

 

Clay slowly and meticulously placed the dagger on the alter within Ne’on’s circle. He then replaced the ashes in the burner with the incense Ne’on desired, and filled the ceremonial goblet with wine. He took his time, more than was necessary, making sure the salt on the altar was plentiful, and the candles weren’t so low they would burn out in less than a bell. He even checked to make sure the altar itself was facing East, even though it hadn’t been moved since Ne’on placed it there over a year before. When Clay heard the sound of boots running down the hallway outside, he knew his patience had paid off.

 

Captain Clay opened the door before Mak, one of the Black Hand, could knock: disturbing Ne’on prior to his spell casting could be dangerous. “Outside, and quietly,” the captain said to his sergeant. Once outside the room, Clay shut the door carefully. “Now, what is it?”

 

“Captain, it’s the castellan,” Mak answered.

 

“Is something wrong with him?” Clay feigned ignorance. He was certain Ridgewater would take steps to insure Gateway’s protection from the Black Hand and he had no wish to be involved.

 

“No, sir. He’s ordered the catapults into position. In a few menes, Gateway will be involved in that mess outside!”

 

“Hmmnn… gather the Hand and commandeer the catapults. When that’s done, take a few men and arrest the castellan. By order of the Lord Keeper.”

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

“Ne’on’s ordered me to stay here and assist him, I’ve got to do just that. Now go, and hurry up. You don’t have much time.”

 

As Mak turned and ran down the hall, Bartholomew re-entered Ne’on’s sanctuary. He was sending those men to their deaths. He knew it, and he didn’t care. They were mostly low-life scum, to him, and if Ridgewater didn’t get the reaction he was expecting from the Black Hand he’d know something was up. Besides, their deaths would give Marcus the impression that Clay was as good as dead. As soon as Ne’on began his second spell – one which Clay had been told would take some bells – the former captain of the soon-to-be-extinct Black Hand would be working his way out of Gateway. To where, he didn’t know.

 

Gemstone Expedition, lost track of the day, Lieutenant Howen reporting. If all things come in threes, then only my death remains. Funny how you get philosophical when situations are desperate. The first tragedy occurred with the Beinison force’s advance scouts. We were taken by surprise four times by relatively small groups; they were, however, better trained, armored, and fed than our more sizeable force. The fifth, and last attack took place more than two bells ago – this time we were ready, foregoing movement in order to fortify our position. The entire attacking group – only a squad of light infantry – were killed, with heavy losses inflicted on our side. We now number only four. We lost Hanlar in that last skirmish; a man without whom I would have failed this mission, or at least already been dead. Hoping to avoid further contact, I’ve ordered the men moving again – straight for Gateway.

 

The forest and hills are excellent for hiding. Often, this works against the people doing the hiding. When we emerged form our cover, only leagues from our destination, we were greeted with a horrendous sight: Gateway under siege. This was the second tragedy. There seems to be a force of about three Baranurian regiments outside her walls. They are defending themselves valiantly against the light infantry of Beinison, but the heavy infantry have just begun to close. Shortly, the massacre will begin, and our deaths will follow. That will be-

 

“Lieutenant Howen,” a voice called, and the Lieutenant looked up from his log to see a virtual ghost. Not more than six feet from the leader of this expedition stood the wispery form of Ne’on Winston, Lord Keeper of Gateway.

 

“My lord?” Howen answered. He could not believe his eyes. Certainly, between the bloodshed he had witnessed, the starvation he was suffering from, and his lack of sleep he must have gone mad. It was the only answer he could imagine.

 

“Do not be afraid, Lieutenant, I offer salvation.” With a wave of his hand, Ne’on formed a shimmering circle in front of Howen. “Call your men, carry the stone through the circle – you soon will be within the safe walls of Gateway. Hurry now, this area is not safe.”

 

The image faded before Howen could reply. “Men,” he called, “pick up the cursed stone and follow me.”

 

The three remaining members of the Black Arm hefted the stone with the poles they had been using to carry it. They were weak, tired, and hungry, but blood pumped excitedly through their veins at the sight of salvation. The lieutenant ordered his men through the circle first, not concerned with his life now that escape was so close. When the stone entered the circle, however, only it disappeared, leaving Howen and his three men behind. The lieutenant began to cry.

 

***

 

As a large, purple stone appeared from out of nothing and floated toward the table, Clay stared at his lord. “You deserted them.”

 

“Of course I did, Clay – I never intended for them to live.” Ne’on looked reproachingly at the captain. “Is something wrong, Clay? Haven’t you ever left a man to die before?”

 

“I kept my word, Ne’on. I may be a mercenary-”

 

“Assassin, more accurately.”

 

“As you wish. But if I make a promise, I keep it.”

 

“Your right, Clay,” Ne’on mocked. “It was terrible of me to go back on my word. I regret it, truly. Satisfied?”

 

Clay spat on the floor. “You have no dignity, Ne’on.” Clay turned to leave.

 

“Leave now, Clay, and you won’t be coming back.”

 

“That is how I intended it.”

 

“Well, then, good bye.”

 

A sphere of complete blackness formed around Ne’on’s head, then launched itself in Clay’s direction. Bartholomew jumped quickly to the right, swinging his sword at the dark sphere. The ball of darkness flew past, striking the door to the corridor and enveloping it. Instantly, the door burst in flames and was reduced to cinders. The black ball was gone. Clay leapt to his feet and dove head first into the hallway. As he ran from the room, he could hear Ne’on’s laughter following him.

 

***

 

Goren and the three guards of House Winston were riding full gallop, as much to make haste to Gateway as to lose the advance scouts following close behind. Goren hoped that close proximity to Gateway would deter the Beinison squad, but when they got to within quarter of a league from the keep, the scouts were still at their backs. He thanked Nehru the pursuers didn’t have bows to shoot him in the back, and cursed his lack of foresight for not having brought any himself.

 

A loud horn rang out from Gateway’s parapets at about the same time ballistas began firing their heavy load into the Vodyanoi. Looking ahead, Goren noticed the gates of Gateway were opening, and a barrel-chested man in scale armor was waving to Goren from the parapets. “There’s home, men! Run ‘em dead if you have to, but we’re almost there!” As Goren and the guards made their way into Gateway Keep, five of Marcus’ archers convinced the Benosian scouts to head back to camp.

 

“Goren, you blasted fool!” Marcus yelled as he worked his way down the stairs to the courtyard. “What in Muskadon’s name are you doing? Damn good to see you, but where’s your escort? I told you to come back with a regiment of men and the King’s seal, and demand your rightful place. Burn my ashes in Rise’er’s feast, boy, you’re lucky I opened those gates… Ne’on himself ordered them shut and the garrison to stand down. If I-”

 

“Marcus!” Goren’s voice finally made its way through the castellan’s barrage of dialogue. He looked at the castellan, smiled, and grabbed him by the shoulders. “It’s good to see you, too. Now, where’s the rest of the force? With all those men outside, I counted on at least three more regiments in Gateway… did you deploy them before I got in?”

 

Marcus’ expression turned dark. “Your blasted brother, self-proclaimed Keeper of Gateway – you took care of that business, now, didn’t you?” When Goren nodded, Marcus continued. “Ne’on ordered the garrison to stand down, and not to allow access to Gateway. Just recently, I countermanded that order. The catapults and ballistas are firing on the Beinison army now, but I’m not sure how long it will take Morion to move his troops in – and the Benosian’s will be making for the entrance as fast as he will.”

 

Goren grasped the parchment from inside his cloak and handed it to the Castellan. “This is the King’s hand, and his decision to place me as Keeper of Gateway. Take as many horse as you can – leave one for me – and gather archers by the gate. I’ll return in menes, Ol willing.”

 

As Goren turned towards his father’s mansion, Marcus yelled to him, “Watch your brother, boy… he’s not to be trusted.”

 

***

 

Bartholomew Clay never thought he’d see Goren Winston again; certainly not in the fine-clothed garb of a nobleman. Goren Winston, however, seemed to be looking forward to their present situation. Clay was running down the corridor from the direction of what appeared to be Kald’s old quarters. Goren, albeit tired from running the horses near to death, was armed, armored, and feeling healthier than he had in months.

 

“Clay,” Goren called. He couldn’t remember the rest of the man’s name, or his title, or very much at all about the man. His familiar, long blonde hair, and his left-handed sword – what was left of it – were all Goren needed to jostle his memory.

 

Bartholomew stopped, surprised at Goren’s appearance, and noted the sword by his side and the armor on his person. The captain of the former Black Hand, Ne’on’s personal guard, and the Black Arm, Gateway’s now-defunct elite militia, held his sword in front of him, anticipating an attack. Looking down the length of his blade, however, he noted the farthest half was missing. Had Ne’on’s black sphere done that?

 

“You have me at an advantage, Winston. My blade seems to be…” He chuckled, “incomplete.”

 

Goren drew his own blade, strong and trustworthy, and stared at the man. He was terrible with a blade, and knew Clay could easily defeat him, normally. Goren rationalized that this made them even. “You had the advantage, a year ago, when I was drunk in Magnus. And again, while I lay in shock in the dungeon, did you tell your men to stop kicking me? Did the bludgeoning I received inspire pity or remorse on your part? You have a sword, broken though it is, and a dirk at your side. Use them.”

 

As Goren advanced, swinging clumsily at Clay, the captain back peddled down the corridor. He recognized the lack of skill in Goren’s footwork, the complete non-mastery of blade control. In some respects, he thought, this made Winston more dangerous than someone who knew what he was doing. Bartholomew thought he might die, this day.

 

“I have an offer for you, Winston. My life for yours.”

 

Goren almost laughed. Clay was obviously not in the position to bargain, but he seemed ernest. He wondered. “How do you mean?”

 

“In Ne’on’s sanctuary, he’s preparing a spell. Something about bringing Phos into the world. He sent eighty men to their deaths already, getting some damn spell component. My guess is, as soon as Phos gets here, we’re all dead. I can’t stop him, but maybe you can.”

 

“How would I stop Phos? He’s…”

 

“Not Phos. Ne’on. Of course, you’ll have to kill him.”

 

That thought struck Goren hard. He’d thought he might have to force his brother to rescind the seat. Maybe push the man who used to be his little brother around a bit, scare him into complying. Death had been there, in the back of his mind, but he had foolishly hoped banishment would solve the problem. But that simply would have been hoping for someone else to take responsibility.

 

Clay continued. “Not just any death, either. You can’t take chances. You’ll have to chop his head off his shoulders. Let his blood pour out on the floor until his lifeless body falls in a heap. That’s the only way you can be sure. Phos has to be stopped, and your brother is in the way.”

 

“I can talk to him. Ne’on will listen to me.”

 

“Maybe once, but not now. The spell’s already started. If you don’t get in there soon, it may be too late. As it is, you can’t waste time fighting with me. My life for yours.”

 

“If you’re still in Gateway when I get out of that room, I’ll have you killed.”

 

Clay smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

***

 

When Goren entered what used to be his father’s study, he stopped. The trophies along the wall had been torn down in place of shelves littered with potion bottles and books. Where an ornate rug used to be, a red pentagram had been inscribed within a circle, the rug rolled up in one corner. And, over the flames burning in the fireplace was a cast iron kettle of no small size.

 

Ne’on was there, too, sitting in the circled pentagram, concentrating on something – the stone glowing in front of him, perhaps. Candles were lit about the circle, and a small altar burned incense and coal in the center of it all.

 

As Goren stepped forward with sword in hand, a voice filled his head with doubt. “Can I kill my brother?” it asked. “How do I know what he intends to do? Clay told me? Who is Bartholomew Clay that I should trust him? He was probably lying to save his own life, worthless and puny that it is. And Ne’on is my brother.”

 

He answered that voice. “What else is there? Phos has revealed himself to me. Phos has already told me of his plans to gain entry to this world, and to destroy anything and everything he can. Ne’on was, as near as I could tell, in Phos’ total control the last time I saw him.”

 

The last time I saw him was seven months ago. Phos might be nothing.

 

He killed my father. He tortured me in prison.

 

I switched the cups. The guards tortured me in prison, as they probably do every prisoner sentenced to life. He’s your brother, by J’mirg, you can’t kill a man when he’s not looking!

 

Goren suddenly started toward the circle again. “I don’t worship dark J’mirg, Phos – get out of my head!”

 

A reddish form appeared over the glowing stone in the circle. It seemed more human than the last time Goren had seen it, but the flames were still evident in its eyes, and fire seemed to drip like saliva from its over-sized jowls. It was Phos, as he intended to enter this world.

 

“Greetings, Kald’s eldest son;

You’ve come too late, I’ve won.

This life new shall I make;

This worthless world I’ll take.

Immortality ‘waits,

With death’s and blood’s complaint.

J’mirg’s son shall entrance gain,

Peaceful Lordsrealm’s plane.”

 

Goren continued toward the circle, but something – Phos, he guessed, or the magic Ne’on was using to summon him – stopped his entrance. The circle protected Ne’on from harm while Ne’on summoned the world’s damnation. Kind of ironic, Goren thought.

 

“Entrance this circle ye,

Been forbade while armed thee.

Ghastly goals no easy task,

With th’hands must lift death’s mask.

Given you choice has he,

Ne’on dies, but not me.

Releas’d am I, his head gone,

With his head, I’m undone.”

 

Goren looked at Phos. The demon – so Goren called him, for he knew no better – had lied to him before. But it was rhyming. Why did that stir something in his memory? Rhymes were sometimes used in spells. Was Phos taking the time to cast a spell, while Ne’on summoned him here? If so, and he understood Phos’ words correctly, Goren couldn’t enter the circle armed. And if he didn’t stop Ne’on, the bloodshed outside would propel Phos into Lordsrealm.

 

So, Gateway would be safe anyway. He could just sit there and wait for Ne’on to finish the spell. Ne’on didn’t have to die. He didn’t have to take Ne’on’s throat in his hands and squeeze the life out of him. But, what would happen in Lordsrealm? According to religion, Lordsrealm was where all the gods – at least, from that religion – resided. So, if Goren sat back, and watched the spell come to completion, Phos would eventually disappear into his reward.

 

Reward for murder. Reward for deaths which, if Goren could, he would prevent. And how many deaths were needed? Would the thousands massed at Gateway be enough? How about just the Royal Duchy? Even if it numbered only tens, or one, it would be too much. It was evil. Ne’on, Goren had to admit, as much as he loved what Ne’on used to be, was evil. He played in this willingly. Goren dropped his sword and entered the circle.

 

“Thy step sounds in the fire,

As sour notes from a lyre.

With your hands must death make,

And Ne’on’s life thee take.

Make no haste, time is still,

Take pause, gather your will.

The spell nears its bright end,

Life is precious to defend.”

 

Goren looked up at Phos, whose form was beginning to solidify. The air within the circle grew heavy with heat and a smell like embers from a cedar fire. He watched as Phos breathed his first breath of air on Makdiar. He looked at his brother, helpless, still entranced and oblivious to the imposing death in both Phos’ and Goren’s presence. He still could not kill – Ne’on was, after all, his brother. Someone with whom he had grown, and learned.

 

Goren grabbed a small pentagram and the incense on the table, feeling the pain as the incense burned in his hand. “To any god that will listen, give me the strength to send Phos back to whatever damnation he came from!”

 

Goren made to grab the Stone of Strength, completely ignorant of its powers, but Phos was already complete. With a swipe of his massive arm, Goren was knocked back three feet to the edge of the circle, colliding with the same force that had kept him out of the circle the first time. Blood trickled down from his nose, but for the most part, he was only dazed.

 

Phos stepped toward him, grabbed him by his armor, and lifted him to face level. “You could have run, little human. I would have spared your life – one Winston was enough for my plans. If you had left Gateway, you could have lived a full, long life. But trapped within this circle, you are mine to devour, piece by piece. Body and soul.”

 

“Think again, Phos,” Goren replied, “I don’t know much about magic, but if I can’t physically leave this circle, neither can you.”

 

“Don’t be obtuse,” Phos smiled. Reaching his arm out to the circle’s perimeter, “Of course I ca-” His arm was stopped by the force of the magic circle. “The little gnat.”

 

Dropping Goren to the ground, Phos stepped over to Ne’on, who was still half in a trance. Phos grabbed Ne’on by the neck, lifting him up to face Phos, and breaking Ne’on’s concentration. “Little gnat, what are you doing? Release this spell, or I shall painfully remove vital organs from your body.”

 

Ne’on half smiled, though the pain he was already suffering was evident. Phos’ grip on his neck was not gentle. “Heh – first spell I ever cast without you, Phos. Tied this circle into your being. Didn’t think I could do it, but you’re stuck here, just like me. Till you die. Ow! Heh… Hello, brother. Nice to see you again. Sorry you got stuck her- ulg.”

 

Phos stuck his finger down Ne’on’s throat and grabbed his tongue. Ne’on screamed and flailed, teears running down his face. With a sickening, wet, ripping sound, Phos removed the greater portion of Ne’on’s tongue and dropped it on the floor. Ne’on’s breathing gurgled as the blood welled up in this mouth. “Did that hurt? No, don’t answer. I can see that it did.”

 

Goren grabbed the stone from Ne’on’s altar: the Stone of Strength which had been abducted by Ne’on from the Nar-Enthruen. The Stone into which, in a desperate attempt to ward off the Black Arm, the remaining magi had poured their powers. The Stone which, as the Black Arm had transported it to Gateway, slowly sapped the life force of the surviving members of that expedition. And the Stone which, as a component of Ne’on’s last spell, had been actively conducting magic like heat through metal. Goren grabbed the stone and, lifting it with all his might, brought it forcibly up against Phos’ head.

 

The stone impacted with him and Phos writhed in agony, screaming as his life was sucked into the Stone. He resisted the Stone’s pull, desperately grabbing at the floor, the altar… to no avail. His life dimished even faster. As Phos’ power decreased, the Stone’s increased. The pulsing rock began to heave with powers it was never meant to contain. A crack formed around its base where Phos’ head had met it in a downward stroke, and a brilliant light began emanating from it. The air was pierced by a shattering sound, purple light filled the room, and fragments of stone exploded into the confines of the mystical circle.

 

When Goren regained his sight, and his sense of feeling, the trickling wetness in his left thigh caught his attention. A shard of the Stone had plunged deep into his leg, searing his skin upon entrance. His leg was nearly useless. As he felt about the rest of his body, noting only minor cuts through his armor, he heard Ne’on’s weak groan.

 

Ne’on lay in a pool of blood. Not having worn any armor, his body was pierced numerous times by stone fragments, the worst of which being a long, thin shard in his right eye. The blood oozing from his wounds was slow, partially cauterized by the hot stone, and Ne’on’s death was a painful, slow one. He reached out toward Goren, trying to touch his brother’s arm, but his hand fell short and dropped to the ground.

 

Goren wasn’t sure if Ne’on even saw his brother, or if it was the memory of Goren’s position which had caused him to reach. He watched while Ne’on’s blood coagulated, the body trying desperately to heal itself even after the life had gone from it. Goren might have closed his eyes, if he could think about it, but the image was commanding, not letting him look away until the blood had stopped.

 

A footstep, some hands grabbing him and pulling him out of the room. Someone was talking to him, but he couldn’t hear the words. “Ne’on’s taken care of,” was all he could say.

 

***

 

It was several menes before he was aware of his new surroundings. Marcus had brought him into the hall, and was feeding him mutton and wine, trying to get Goren to feed himself. The hall was filled with officers from Gateway’s garrison, and from what was left of Morion’s troops. Morion himself was sitting two chairs down from Goren, concern, exhaustion, and regret etched in his face.

 

Goren started when he saw everyone staring at him. He didn’t know what to say, but when Marcus offered him more food, he declined. “I don’t think I want to eat, right now, thank you Marcus. I feel very strange. I watched my brother die. I did the right thing, and he still died. I don’t know what to do.”

 

“Well, Lord Keeper,” Morion started in before Marcus could say anything, “if it’s not too much trouble, you could start by taking command of this keep. There’s work to be done, strategies to be worked on. I don’t know what kind of ordeal you went through in there, but the situation has only slightly improved out here. There’s twenty-four Beinison regiments outside trying to get into Gateway, and only just over three of ours holding them there. The siege engines will be arriving in a day or two, and if we don’t get reinforcements, we’re all going to be dead no matter how many right things we do.”

 

Goren looked blankly at Morion. “I don’t know that much about strategy. I didn’t realize Gateway was under siege, when I started out from Magnus. The King himself, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t even know the problem. I spoke with him six days ago.”

 

Morion swore. “Well, we sent out messengers last week, and the week before that. Most recently, we sent one out two days ago, telling Haralan – the King, excuse me – where we stood, which was outside Gateway, looking like easy killing.”

 

Goren looked to Marcus. “You sent the archers out to help them?”

 

Marcus nodded. “Aye, boy. Lord Keeper. Sorry, but to me you’ll always be the son of my best friend.” He paused, cursing himself for having brought up Kald’s death at a time like this. “Anyway, I knew the squirmin’ Benosians were pressing Morion hard in his retreat – and I must say, your lordship, your troops are in need of training if they ever want to try a retreat, again – so I commanded the companies myself. We had a full two hundred archers on horseback, riding about one hundred feet in front of Morion, and we showered the Beinisons enough to slow them down while Morion made his way in. I hope to bloody Saren some two or three companies went down in the hail we sent them.”

 

“I doubt it was that much, but it was greatly appreciated, Castellan.” Morion said. “I lost some fine troops of my own, trying to organize that mess when the gates opened.”

 

“So, here we are,” Goren finished. “Bottled up in Gateway and no help in sight.”

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