We celebrated our victory briefly, then quickly turned our attention to our march on Pitax. I said a final goodbye to Alexandoss and Aria as they prepared to return home with the few pitiable survivors of their contingent. Alexandoss had become much more formal in her dealings with me since her return with our townspeople and I could see that there was no swaying her from her intended course. So, on one golden morning, I bid them farewell, thanking them for their sacrifices and swearing the eternal gratitude of the P.U.R.K.
“Come see us, friend Marquand,” she told me, cupping my hand in hers. “Every year, on the first day of autumn, we honor Desna by releasing cages full of swallowtail butterflies in memory of a blind child who once saved heaven. Please join us for our celebration.”
“At the first opportunity, my lady,” I answered gruffly, my voice choking with unaccustomed emotion.
Then the small group cantered away, the lady Aria saluting as she moved past. I watched them go until they were out of sight and was turning to reenter the gates when a familiar shape emerged from the woods. It was Sweet Sugar Cane returning to us. He was leading a large, skittish orange tiger.
|ZzzzzAaaah © HDWallpapers|
“This is ZzzzzAaaah,” he said as way of greeting, following me into town.
“She won't bite,” he added, noticing the wide berth we were given as we passed through the streets. “Unless I tell her to.”
We joined Lev, Vlad, and Trask who were already planning our assault on Pitax. “We lost half our army,” Vlad grimaced. “Everyone except the commandos and the main force.”
“Everyone who fought for Marquand died,” Trask added. “No offense, Marquand. Cane, my man, am I glad you're back!”
The others crowded around him as I watched with ZzzzzAaaah, scratching her behind the ears.
Then we sat down around Baron Drelev's great war table, Vlad continuing with the briefing. “Skot Skevins told me that Irovetti had thrown everything at us. He's only got one army left and they're demoralized.”
“Well, we better get over there,” Lev grimaced.
A week later, we were looking at Pitax's walls from a hidden place in the woods. As Lev started discussing our strategy, he was continuously interrupted by Primo Askew, Bert's younger brother, acting as his proxy.
“What are you gonna do now?” he said while shoving a steaming meat pie into his gob.
“Well, we're gonna march our army nearby and start setting up siege machinery,” Lev replied distractedly.
“You mean, camp within sight of the walls?” Askew sneered, noisily licking gravy from his grime-encrusted fingers. I shuddered.
“So, are you gonna set up, like, ten miles away?”
“Well . . .”
“They'll see our camp fires if nothing else,” Trask observed.
“So, you're going to be far enough away that they can sneak through your lines?” Askew moaned.
Lev glared at him. “We're going to get within a short march of the walls and set up a base camp.”
“Aw, it doesn't matter,” Primo slapped his forehead in disgust, leaving a spot of gravy on his forehead. He pointed to a Pitax scout running in the distance. “Yoo-hoo!" he cried, waving at the man. “Grab your ankles, honey, we're acomin' for ya! You rat! Run back to your mama!”
By this time Lev had had enough, and had him sealed in an empty wine cask and shipped back to Tuskland. “Don't let him out until you get back, but don't let him die, either,” he told the drovers, who tossed him with a thump into the back of a rickety cart. “In fact, the more you feed him the better!”
Once that was taken care of, he turned to us. “While our army is setting up, we'll go around the back of the city and sneak in. And then, as the army is moving in and laying siege, we'll try and kill Irovetti and open the gates.”
“It's going to be well guarded!” Cane objected, putting his arms protectively around ZzzzzAaaah, who licked his face with her big rough tongue.
“This entire administration is going to collapse like a house of cards—checkmate!” Trask growled. Let this be a lesson to you, dear Pino—never mix your metaphor!
“I'm going to leave ZzzzzAaaah behind,” Cane said while rubbing the big kitty on the head affectionately. Her purring was so loud it spooked deer from the brush nearby. “She's won't be stealthy in a city.”
The next morning, as the fog rolled off the river shrouding the city, Lev cast wind walk, which transmuted us into large billowing clouds and, thus disguised, we wafted from nearby the harbor into a quiet city. Only the distant cries of the boatmen, and the occasional bark of a dog, disturbing the night air. Soon we were standing in the city, Irovetti's extravagant Palace of a Thousand Doors looming on the bluff above.
|Palace of a Thousand Doors Terfloth/GixGa|
I tried to interest my colleagues in making contact with the local opposition, but was met with the stony crunching of morning rations.
“What we should do is march brazenly down the streets and collar Irovetti for his crimes!” Lev declared loudly. “Right out in front of everybody!”
While we argued about whether or not to don disguises, the city bells began tolling the alarm. “It's Cane the butcher!” a night watchman yelled.
“That's torn it, lads.”
We crept around to the service entrance where twelve Pitax wardens awaited, guarding a wide passageway leading inside, long arrow slits along each side, two portcullises ready to slide into place blocking our way in. At the far end, two iron portals stood against further entry.
Lev, who had made himself invisible, sneaked past the wardens to the end of the hallway where he found the doors locked. He could hear voices behind them but, thankfully, it seemed no one was manning the murderous slits. There he overheard a conversation in low, guttural troll-slang.
“Hee hee, what an an asshole.”
“Shh! The wrong person is going to hear you one of these days.”
“Ah, he's not going to last much longer. Did you hear what happened to his army? Eh? Totally wiped! I hear that Villamor Koth is hanging from the wall in Fort Drelev.”
“Listen man, you shush! I don't want to be around you if you're going to talk like that.”
“Just relax,” the first one grunted.
From the slit, Lev spied a hallway. Using his most honeyed tones he whispered. “Friend, it's me. Open up.”
“It sounds like someone wants us to open the doors,” he puzzled.
“Yeah, but we're not supposed to.”
“Quick,” Lev pleaded. “Quickly!”
“Just hold on a second.”
“Get the doors opened!” Lev urged, whining desperately.
“We're supposed to keep them closed,” the second troll insisted.
“I said so, I mean, the boss says so.”
“We're supposed to keep them closed?” There was a dreamy cast to his voice.
“Just do it, guy, come on!” Lev urged again.
“No, I'm not going to open it.”
“Dude, come on. Imagine the rewards,” he whispered desperately, then heard a click in the door as a third voice suddenly growled, “Who's opening the door over there? Shut the door!”
But it was too late, Lev was inside.
Obviously I heard this story later, because at that very moment outside, I was watching the wardens intently when I suddenly heard a loud cawing behind me. “What are you gonna do? What are you going to do?”
Looking up (along with everyone guarding the gate), I saw the large body of a crow with the head of Bert Askew flickering like a flame in the place of its own. “Come on, Marquand, times a wasting!”
The eyes of the guards turned quizzically back to me. I sighed. “If you don't get out of our way,” I told them, “we're going to do to you what we did to your armies.”
They drew their swords. “You're the bloke they call Marquand, ain't you?” their captain grinned back at his mates before replacing his helm. “This should be easy as pie!”
Suddenly, the crow was beside me. “You were about to sneak in, you know that?” it hectored, little Askew head bobbing like an angry cock. “Lev was about to get you guys snuck in and you just poked the hornet's nest, you know that?” It flew to a higher perch.
“I just wanted to give you a little constructive feedback,” it added disingenuously.
“Damn you, Marquand!” Vlad grumbled while stepping past me.
“Excellent!” the Askew bird cackled happily.
Meanwhile, Lev had cast a spell on the first troll, making him his own.
“Hey, what's wrong with you?” asked the troll's pal as he wandered away from the door without locking it.
We heard the familiar sound of bells from inside.
“Now the alarm has been given!” the Askew bird cried, sounding for all the world like Little Billee mocking his grandpa, Old Billee. “Marquand's to blame! Marquand's to blame! Now the entire palace knows you're here!”
Trask ran inside, past the guards as they flailed away at him fruitlessly, bull rushing the door and banging it partially open. “Breaaak bad!” he hollered.
“If you can dodge a ball, you can dodge a wrench,” Cane noted, following him in.
“We've got them surrounded, now,” I called after him, casting flame strike into the midst of the guards as they mocked me, killing two-thirds of them.
“You want to use up those high-powered spells on Pitax wardens?” I heard the Askew bird scoff mockingly from behind. “That's a good one!”
As the portcullises fell, trapping Vlad and me outside with the remaining wardens, I drew my holy sword.
Inside, as the trolls fought over the door, Trask squeezed between the legs of one of them to join Lev, who was trying his persuasive best with the trolls. “Stand aside,” he wheedled. “We're just here for Irovetti. You can go your merry way.”
While the second troll seemed uncertain, he didn't move. Lev then instructed the troll he'd already dominated to grapple his partner, who twisted away to relock the door. It was too late—Cane was inside.
With wardens hanging off me, I slipped their grip, running to a clear area where Vlad stood fidgeting. “Come on! For the love of Pete!” he cried, grabbing me while casting dimension door. With a thump, we landed on the hard, stone floor inside just as Cane was opening the iron door. Inside was a large chamber with tables and chairs scattered haphazardly across the floor. Large bins by the wall held refuse, soiled laundry, and dirty dishes.
Lev grabbed the troll he'd been keeping in thrall. “Where's Irovetti?”
“Uh, he's probably in the throne room.”
“Show us the way,” Lev commanded.
We followed the obscene creature through a door and down a corridor where we immediately came to the throne room!
“Really?” Trask asked, frankly incredulous. “The throne room is right next to the gatehouse?”
“Yes,” the troll answered pendulously.
Beneath a high dome several towering stained-glass windows depicted the great King Irovetti himself, posed heroically. In one, he was butchering a helpless animal, in another, marrying an elf-Queen, and in the third he was “lecturing the scholars.” Remember this, dear Pino: propaganda only serves its function when there is an iota of truth to it. There was nothing here but vanity.
In front of the windows stood a regal throne of burgundy stone atop a broad dais of red-veined white marble. Frowning there, like a man who hates his in-laws, sat “His Supreme and Inimitable Magnificence,” Castruccio Irovetti.
“You have come for me at last,” he croaked, somewhat drunkenly. “I knew you would—very well,” he stood. “No more games. No more tricks. No more decoys, my friends.” He gestured to those who stood glaring at us at the base of his throne—more Pitax wardens, an ogre mage (an obscene spirit impersonating an ogre), more trolls, and vengeful young man looking for all the world like a young Villamor Koth.
“Koth, Jr.,” Lev stage-whispered helpfully.
“Skill against skill. Strength against strength,” Irovetti snarled. “We shall see who deserves to rule and who deserves to die!” He sounded for all the world like one of those cheap melodrama villains that Little Billee's uncle, Lumpy Billee, favors.
Lev attacked with fire and soon the room was filled with the sound of bellowing trolls. Cane took on a warden while a troll leaped from the balcony to attack Vlad. As Trask walked through a dimension door to land on the far-side balcony, Lev commanded his troll to attack the ogre mage.
Irovetti, a look of delight in his eyes, fired razor after razor at Trask from his rod. Suddenly, a covey of singed trolls joined the attack. We heard a screech from the zen archer.
“Somebody get over here!” Trask cried. For the first time, ever, he seemed rattled. “Remember me fondly, friends,” he called. “Marquand, save me!”
Thinking that the quickest way to save him was to kill Irovetti and end the battle, I cast flame strike in hopes that a tower of flame would roast him, the ogre mage, and several of the trolls at once, but they proved sterner stuff than the wardens.
The fighting became fiercer as we grappled in the middle of the room. I heard a rending crack and the ogre mage let out a triumphant bellow while killing Lev's troll. Suddenly, Trask popped gasping into the air next to Vlad, collapsing into his arms.
“Mon oncle,” he cried.
I had killed one troll and ducked the attack of another when I realized that Koth, Jr. had joined the fight.
Here, I regret, I must pause my narrative.
Say your prayers,