Chapter 39: Echoes of Eternity

Chapter 39: Echoes of Eternity

Shadows marched on Sol’s Altar; a great horde shrouded in whispers and fog. Cultists in blackened bone armor stood next to corrupted paladins, their gem tattoos gleaming with sickly light. Shadow-marked figures were scattered throughout the ranks, their minds singing with nightmare. Dragons wheeled overhead, the fire that dripped from their mouths illuminating the horde below.

Eremot had come for the Xultan Throne.

The host had formed out in the swamps, as Eremot's growing whispers claimed the terrified and weak-willed. Among them was Eloz, former captain of Xulta’s inquisitors. From him, Eremot had learned of Xulta’s defenses. The Listeners and their forces could not save every city, every village, so they fought a desperate retreat, paladins and mages buying time for their people to flee. One by one, the cities of Xulta—already weakened by the cult’s campaign of dragonfire—were lost. The land burned, and the light of the flames dwarfed Sol’s thin glow.

As the nightmare’s strength grew, the sun continued to fade. The air grew chill despite the season, and the cold nights were filled with stalking terror. The survivors gathered atop Sol’s Altar—closer to the sun’s waning heat—and stood defiantly between the nightmare and its prize. Whatever designs Eremot had for the Throne, they would not be kind to Xulta. He would not claim it without a fight.

The great plateau rose through the jungle, campfires dotting its surface like fallen stars. Halfway up the slopes, shamans labored with giants to shore up earthwork defenses as paladins kept watch above on gryffyn mounts. Near the top, artisans of Shavka brought freshly honed weapons to ranks of armored gladiators, and gleaming arrowheads to packs of anxious hunters. Gem-studded warriors stood alongside gunslingers from foreign caravans—veterans of the Shadowlands ready to aid their allies. Scarred strangers hid among their number too, desperate to free their brothers that had fallen to the gathering dark. The defenders worked in near-silence, the air heavy and tense as Sol loomed overhead.

Atop the summit, the Listeners looked out over the burning landscape. “The last time Eremot came for Xulta,” Ezuzi breathed, “he nearly succeeded.”

There was a snort behind him, and Woda cuffed him on the back of the head, knocking the gold circlet from Ezuzi’s brow.

“The fear you speak only feeds our enemy,” Grodov’s Listener said. “We face great odds, but…” his features hardened, “this is our land. The Ancestors fought and bled for it long ago, and the tales ofAali and the other champions show us that nightmares can be beaten.” As he spoke, the amber set in the bald man’s brow shone with a faint, stubborn light.

Let them hear you!

Ezuzi shook his head, eyes still on the horizon, and his reply was drowned out by a roar from below. Eremot’s horde had reached the base of Sol’s Altar, the figure of Eloz at its head.

“It’s time,” Galai shouted from farther along the plateau. The air around him glowed with a steady heat as Shavka’s Listener called, “Our land! Our blood! Let the Ancestors hear you!”

As one, the defenders bellowed:

Xulta! A-hu!

In the darkness below, Eloz raised a hand, and Eremot’s forces charged, screaming and shoving past one another with abandon. The battle for Xulta had begun.

The slopes of Sol’s Altar were steep, and arrows rained down as the horde clawed its way up. Makkar’s hunters did not waste a shot, and any attacker that stumbled was quickly trampled by those behind. A circle of cultists tried to call thick clouds of smoke to obscure their approach, but the shamans of Kodosh raised their voices, and a cool breeze blew over the battlefield, stripping the smog away.

One hunter let out a piercing whoop, but it died in her throat as Voprex and his brood rose above them. Fire tore through the defenders’ lines as warriors scrambled for cover. Many did not make it. Roaring in pain, a burning giant tore a huge stone from the earth and hurled it at Voprex. The dragon swerved, and the boulder crushed the skull of the wyrm behind him. Its corpse crashed onto the mass of bodies below as arrows skated off the dragons’ mottled scales and sulphurous flame blanketed the slopes.

Then the horde was upon them. Cultists wielding jagged ritual knives hurled themselves onto the defender’s front lines, followed by snarling, corrupted Xultan soldiers. Their charge was met by the gladiators of Grodov’s arena, and their many battle cries drowned out the dragons overhead. As Eloz barked out threats and commands, forcing his host forward, the Xultan defenders held their ground.

As the two sides clashed, Incarnus looked over to Galai. “We find the nightmare and kill it,” the hunter said, gesturing with her heavy bow. “End this before they can overwhelm us with numbers.”

Shavka’s Listener jerked his head in acknowledgement, and the two joined the fray.

Along one side of the bloody slope, silence reigned. A deadening mist had sprung up along one flank of the Xultan defenses, preventing the horde from encircling them. Any cultist or nightmare who entered the dense, silver bank vanished without a sound.

Eloz gestured at a score of archers with a clawed hand, and arrows hissed into the fog. A breath later, a pair of figures emerged, ribbons of mist clinging to their forms: a Xultan mage in a deep blue robe, and a blindfolded giant, who raised his massive arms in wordless challenge. Eloz bared his teeth, and hissed at the cultists around him, “Go around. I will handle them myself.” The corrupted general stalked forward, drawing a long, barbed chain from his robes. Jagged hooks hung from either end, their tips reflecting Sol’s dying light.

“Well, we definitely have his attention,” Gnash muttered, standing inside the misty illusion of Champion Ixtol. “What was the next part of your plan?”

“Every second he spends focused on us will not be spent slaughtering of our friends.” Yorja said, her voice strained. As the Tale Keeper spoke, her pale blue tattoos flashed, and the silvery form of Lys that surrounded her pointed a hand at the advancing Eloz.

As it did, the shadows around the former paladin darkened, and Eremot’s whispers filled the air. A shape swooped low overhead, and a bony dragon turned to hover over Eloz. Wind from its great wings buffeted the fogbank, and Yorja’s illusions were torn apart. Eloz cackled, and began to whirl the chain around his head as he advanced.

“Your turn, gladiator,” the Tale Keeper said, her eyes never leaving the twisted figure. “Make it count.”

Across the battlefield, Incarnus drove a heavy hunting knife into the neck of an unlucky cultist and snarled, “I don’t see him!”

“Eremot must be here somewhere,” Ezuzi shouted back, a molten hammer in each hand. He broke off, hurling one of the hammers through the shield of a charging warrior, taking the attacker’s arm with it. The Listener’s voice had a new, desperate edge as he added, “He has to be.”

Xulta burns.

I am everywhere.

The voice came from the shadows on either side of them. As Incarnus turned, the air above her began to glow, and Galai screamed, “Look out!”

A gout of flame narrowly missed the hunter as she hurled herself to one side, dodging Voprex’s claws as the great dragon landed behind them. The earth shook as Voprex roared, “Are you afraid, Listener?”

Panting, Galai hauled Incarnus to her feet and faced the wyrm.

Hate laced his words as the dragon spoke, “I remember the fear as your forebears hunted my kind to extinction. They invaded our nests, and cheered as they crushed our eggs.” Voprex chuckled, slitted eyes shining in the fading sunlight. “How does it feel, knowing you will now be the last of your people?”

Gnash grunted as a heavy hook hit the side of his shield, shoving him backwards, feet sliding through the rocky scree of the plateau. Before he could recover, Eloz whipped the other end of the chain around. The chaos of the battlefield sounded like the roar of the arena crowd as Gnash leapt over the strike and charged. I’ve been fighting for Xulta for months, he thought, his mouth stretching into a fierce grin. The stakes are just higher, now.

The chain drew a line of blood across his temple as Gnash ducked. Behind him, he heard a gasp of pain from the Tale Keeper. No! But he couldn’t stop. He crashed into Eloz before the paladin could swing again, and Gnash’s sword slashed the chain from his grasp. Drawing back his shield arm, he slammed his fist into Eloz’s jaw. The weighted blow broke bones, but Eloz did not fall. Instead, the older man laughed, howling through a crushed and misshapen jaw.

“It’s too late! Your tales and heroes won’t save you!” He called, the whispers growing louder around him.

Then Eremot struck.

Across the battlefield, shrouded horrors boiled from the shadows, tearing into Xultan warriors with bony spines. The nightmare’s cackle echoed over the carnage, and the defenders felt fear grow in their chest. The Xultan line broke. Some fled, only to be cut down by things in the dark, while those that remained were torn from the earth by the dragons’ heavy talons. On the western slope, a lapis-tattooed shaman raised a hand, beseeching Linrei for aid before a cultist’s mace shattered his ribs.

A desperate retreat sounded over the chaos as Gnash sent Eloz sprawling with a heavy kick. We can regroup. There are defenses at the top, he thought desperately, scooping Yorja up with one arm as he sprinted up the steep incline. The old woman weighed next to nothing, and her expression was pained as blood seeped from a deep wound in her side. As he ran, Gnash risked a glance behind him.

Cloaked in twisting shadows, Eremot’s horde surged forward, their eyes shining with the nightmare’s fevered hunger. And above it all, his whispers echoed over the slaughter:

The Throne!

 

 

 

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