Swords of Fury

Kingdom of Dalen
The capital city of Opra Dale
357 DSTR
Early Afternoon

When word spread of Queen Thalia's grisly demise at the hands of Dalen rebels, it was met with first stunned disbelief, then an explosion of anarchy as hysterical rioting broke out all across Opra Dale. It started with Randel Cartwright's chosen followers that had come to the capital to support his coup against Thalia, attacking the homes of the Queen's loyalists. This was followed by larger scale unrest by the lowborn poor that, like a tide of starving rats, had surged out of the slums to loot the richer quarters of the city. In the meantime the enemy flag of the Timber Crag Kingdom had been hoisted over the royal palace and there were reports of their troops advancing unopposed to the city's conspicuously opened gates.

Having no wish to be around when the Timber Crag arrived, Kalena Valade sat astride a magnificent horse of wondrous beauty, her faithful midnight black mare, Enyo. Beside her hung leathern saddle bags bulging to capacity with personal belongings and valuables she had packed in great haste. Recurve bow in hand and a bodkin-tipped arrow resting on the string, she watched the hectic street for sign of her stalwart friend, Lafayette Le Renard. He had gone out to scout the best route for their escape from the city whilst she made her last-minute preparations to depart.

Woefully Kalena contemplated her opulent home which she was forced to abandon. Well, it had certainly been tremendous fun being fabulously wealthy and powerful. The lavish galas and aristocratic soirées, the immense deference given to her by everyone. As the Queen's private assassin she had enjoyed a unique and favoured status at court. Even the highest-ranking nobles were forced to acknowledge her as a virtual equal. It pained her more than a little to know she would in all likelihood never achieve such lofty heights again...

Her sharp, sage-coloured eyes caught sight of a half dozen riders galloping toward her-- Cartwright's men? Kalena aimed her bow and drew back her arm, but stopped short when she recognised Lafayette on the lead horse. She immediately urged Enyo out from behind their cover, a giant yew tree on the edge of her elegantly landscaped estate, and rode to meet the small mounted party.

"Look who I found," Lafayette said in greeting, gesturing none too happily at the lanky, self-important man at his side.

Clad in a splendid navy blue tailcoat bedecked with a profusion of gold buttons and greige velveteen breeches tucked into expensive Kobroran leather boots, Count Chiren Soldor cut a striking figure amidst the tumult on the street.

Kalena trotted her horse up to him, her fair face radiating her dismay and consternation. "Chiren! So you're still alive! Is this all the men you have?"

"Yes," the Count replied in a huff. "They're all that's left of my personal house guard. The City Watch has disbanded and hardly put up a fight. That Cartwright cretin and his witch consort Celestia have taken effective control of the capital; I am informed they plan to surrender it to Prince Thierri sometime this afternoon— perhaps within the hour."

"And you're just going to let that happen?" Kalena asked sharply.

"By the gods, Valade, what would you have me do?" The Count threw up his hands in a frustrated, helpless gesture. "The Black Witch is nowhere to be found, and Archer Crain most likely died at the Queen's side. The remaining army regiments are outside the city. My men are but an escort to see me safely to the province of Haven." He smiled at her hopefully. "It would be a great comfort to have you and your swashbuckling friend here along for the journey."

"We intended to make our way to Baron Lowson's demesne," Kalena told him, glancing at Lafayette.

The Count shook his head. "You'll never reach it. The Timber Crag have blocked all roadways to the west and south. I should not be surprised if their troops soon had Opra Dale completely encircled."

Kalena acknowledged this dire pronouncement with a slow, thoughtful nod. "Very well. It would seem that Haven it is, then. Let's just hope the place lives up to its name."

“Isn't that orc country?” Lafayette asked more as a comment than a question. “Oh well, it can't be any worse than staying here.”

All of them feeling a great sense of dread at the inexorably approaching enemy hordes, the group of riders quickly negotiated their way through the wide, cobblestoned boulevards of the royal quarter that were lined with extravagant marble manors replete with black iron fences and lush, flowering gardens. Usually a place of idyllic calm and order, heavily patrolled by the City Watch, on that dark morning the affluent district thrummed with terror and chaos. Kalena scowled at the sight of all the beautiful homes being ransacked by opportunistic gangs of looting thugs, and at the distressed screams and wails of those who had been her neighbours for well-nigh three years. She had to steel herself against going to their aid. It was everyone for themselves now and there was no time to indulge in pointless heroics.

Hardly a couple of hours had transpired since the Queen's murder and she wondered at how things could deteriorate so rapidly. As they entered the narrower streets of the city proper, they were continually slowed by groups of people fleeing with their prized possessions or carrying off ill-gotten plunder; at times it was hard to tell the difference. Scarcely had Kalena and the others left behind the gated villas and grand palaces when they encountered a line of sinister figures, wearing green jewel-studded kerchiefs, barring the eastern road out of Opra Dale. Drow elves, standing in broad daylight – but not just any drow elves. They were the Emerald Scarves, the most notorious criminal gang in the city.

"Oh, not them again," Lafayette muttered, unsheathing his short sword. "What do they want, us to pay a road toll?"

A tall woman, six feet high, stepped out from among the shorter drow, a wide grin of delight on her face. She had ebony-black hair woven into several braids that reached nearly to her waist and whose colour contrasted with her crimson touched grey skin, which combined with her other demonic features suggested both drow and infernal ancestry.

"Sarx!" Kalena nearly spat the name. It was far from the first time the two had crossed paths.

"Hello, Miss Valade," Sarx said, issuing a deep, throaty chuckle. "You were going somewhere, were you, and without even saying goodbye?"

"Move aside, wench," Count Chiren Soldor commanded from atop his steed, his tone as harsh as his words.

The gang leader's glowing gold eyes turned to regard the pompous nobleman. "No."

"I said move aside," Chiren repeated even more harshly.

"I cannot do that, Your Excellency," Sarx said with mock respect. "My liege lord, Randall Cartwright, has placed a substantial bounty on your heads. One that me and mine intend to collect."

Before Chiren could reply there was a hiss of steel against leather as Kalena drew her Makhairan duelling sabre from its ornate scabbard that hung at her hip. "If you and your little elf friends think you're a match for us, Sarx, you're sadly much mistaken..."

Sarx ignored the expectant bravado and addressed the others. "There is no need for you all to die. There are only two of you we want. Give us Count Soldor and Miss Valade and the rest of you are free to be on your way."

"No deal." Lafayette brought his gelding a few paces closer to the Emerald Scarves' leader and glared down at her. "I get why you want the Count, but what do you want Kalena for?"

Sarx cast a wicked glance at the former assassin. "Cartwright intends to hand her over to Thierri."

"Is that so?" Kalena contrived a puzzled expression. "And just what would the Timber Crag crown prince want with little ol' me?"

"You," Sarx answered, with another throaty laugh, "are half of Cartwright's official gift to our new overlord, the other half being the Queen's pretty head. Both of us know why Thierri would appreciate the gesture, Miss Valade, and that he's been wanting to make your acquaintance for quite some time now, so don't play innocent. It doesn't become you."

Sarx knew that she'd killed Thierri's father, the late wearbear king? How in the nine hells was that possible? Kalena paused to consider her response as she surveyed their battle space with an expert eye, and the number of opponents they faced. "Fair enough. But surely you don't expect Chiren and I to surrender ourselves without a fight?"

"The Emerald Scarves are here in force," Sarx said as if the end result was a foregone conclusion. "One signal from me and all of you will be cut down without mercy--"

"Who do you think you are to threaten me?"

Count Soldor angrily spoke a quick, arcane phrase, and a magical burst of lightning shot from his outstretched fingertips. Sarx was hurled back a good fifteen feet through the air before her body landed and tumbled across the dirty paving stones, black smoke rising from her scorched chest.

"Ha!" Kalena crowed viciously. "Come on, ride through them! Ride them down!"

Spurring Enyo into a charge, she did just that, barrelling straight on into the line of drow, scattering them before her. As more emerged from their hiding places, she clamped her thighs against Enyo's muscled flanks and executed a balletic capriole, smashing one, two, three, then four dark elves with the mare's iron-shod hooves, which lashed the air with terrific kicks, pulping flesh and pulverizing bone to dust. The superbly trained war horse moved with incredible grace, leaping and whirling, knocking elven bodies every which way that were in turn brutally trampled by the rest of the oncoming riders.

Kalena's bloodthirsty grin faltered when these drow were replaced by greater numbers of reinforcements that poured forth from a nearby alleyway brandishing swords, spears, and sturdy lion-hunting nets, even as a host of archers appeared on top of the surrounding buildings. It seemed Sarx had not exactly been bluffing about an overwhelming and well-prepared ambush.

"Merde!" Lafayette exclaimed. "This has to be every last drow in all of Dalen!"

He retrieved a small clay bottle from inside his poncho and flung it at the front of the alley where it shattered on the cobbles, spreading sparks and flames high into the air. The drow reeled back, their naturally sensitive eyes stung by the brilliant flash of the pyrotechnic cocktail.

"Let's get the hell out of here!" Kalena shouted.

Crossbow bolts and arrows were sweeping down on them from the overhead rooftops with deadly accuracy. She galloped around the bend of the street, hunched low in her saddle as the missiles streaked past her or glanced off Enyo's custom-fit plate armour that had been forged and enchanted by her orc blacksmith friend, Gularzob Nugbu. Lafayette's horse behind her, however, was not so amply well-protected and a heavy crossbow shaft thudded through the top of its neck. The cream coloured gelding collapsed with a shuddering gasp of breath, pitching Lafayette headlong to the street. As his mount fell dead, he rolled clear, using his metal pack for an improvised shield against the lethal rain of arrows and bolts that pelted the ground.

Kalena turned and deflected one with a deft slash of her trusty sabre. She saw they were in more than a spot of trouble. Lafayette was momentarily pinned down in a deadly crossfire by the archers. Count Soldor had erected a magical barrier about himself and was engaging the drow with battle spells, but half his guards were already dead or wounded.

One man raced past her through the volleys of arrows only to collide with an invisible razor-sharp wire strung neck-high across the street, instantly separating the man's head from the rest of his body. Cursing in surprise at this, Kalena rode over and swiped her sabre through the trap where it was stained with blood, causing the wire to snap apart with a metallic twang.

"There are a lot more of those, and they're impossible to see until it's too late," came a taunting voice. "If you're not careful you'll end up like your friend here, and the Queen..."

Reining Enyo around toward the demonic laughter, Kalena already knew whom she would find.

Sarx looked none the worse for wear despite the magical lightning bolt Soldor had hit her dead-on with. Golden eyes glinting maliciously, the half-drow woman stepped past the headless corpse as the five other elite Emerald Scarves accompanying her, swords at the ready, spread out to hem Kalena in.

"Get down from that beautiful animal, or we'll be forced to kill it," Sarx said sweetly.

Kalena's face tightened at the threat and her jaw hardened. She slowly weighed her few options, understanding surrender could not be one of them. There was no way she could allow herself to be taken alive to Thierri. In the end, instinct and ingrained training dictated her response as much as her desperate fury.

The Achaean assassin tensed her long, lean muscles, then launched herself into an acrobatic leap, flashing out her sabre to the right. At the same time, Enyo, recognising the maneuver, attacked the drow on the left. As the dark elf, with a sharp crack of ribs, crumpled under the mare's ferocious two-legged kick, Kalena slew the drow whose head she had vaulted, a snap thrust to the back of his neck that dropped him dead instantly.

Kalena twisted in midair and landed smoothly on her booted feet in a duellist's crouch just as another drow lunged at her with a jagged scimitar. She ducked, parried twice, and with marvellous skill burst through the drow's guard, slipping the tip of her sabre into the inside of his sword arm. The fine, mithril-edged blade easily parted the flesh and tendons, and the scimitar fell from the elf's uselessly rendered hand, who reeled backwards, howling in pain.

The remaining drow closed in on Kalena simultaneously, one coming at her from behind. She whirled around and slashed him diagonally from shoulder to belly, and still in motion, drew a throwing dagger with her other hand and whipped it at his comrade from out beneath her cloak. Before he could react to the danger the small black blade spun the short distance, thunking into his left eye. Kalena fluidly turned and dispatched the wounded drow behind her, slicing open his throat.

Sarx smiled with sincere respect and admiration. Defeating five of her Emerald Scarves in but a handful of short seconds took an enormous amount of skill. "You have some good moves, Miss Valade, retirement hasn't slowed you down a bit."

"Yes, that was nice blade work, wasn’t it?" Kalena smirked with self-satisfaction. "It has to be said though, your minions are really rather pitiful, Sarx. And here I thought drow elves to be excellent fighters."

"They generally are, but the ones native to Dalen are not quite so formidable as their kin elsewhere."

"How unfortunate, for you," Kalena observed coldly, and she brought the point of her sabre up in front of her adversary's chest. "Give me a good reason why I shouldn't slay you on the spot."

"These gentlemen for one," Sarx replied without missing a beat.

Brow furrowing, Kalena looked past the wretched woman to see another five figures headed her way. They were much bigger and taller than drow elves. All were solidly built and corded with thick, heavy musculature. They appeared to be human, aside for some minor traits that spoke of orc blood and other things somewhere in their twisted lineage. Each man carried either a large broadsword or a spiked mace.

Kalena felt a chill of danger. By the way they moved and their massive physiques these were no back-alley street thugs, they were professional gladiators, no doubt recruited from the infamous Bloodblitz Coliseum in Ragodast.

Seeing the shift of expressions on Kalena's fine features, a quick sequence of realisation, dismay, and healthy fear, Sarx chuckled smugly. "Yes, I do believe these gentlemen will provide you more of a challenge..."

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