Swords of Fury: Epilogue

Part 1
Part 2

Most of the content of this post was written by Rosmary, with some contributions from LSP and I.

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

This is only the beginning; the worst is yet to come. You must find her and get yourselves out of there before it's too late. And please be careful… The voice in Orla Carling’s head was female, and a trusted one. She heard the urgent tone in it, and then the speaker was gone, breaking off telepathic contact. The small, petite blonde faerie elf looked around anxiously. The people in the street were fleeing like a herd of gazelles gripped in a collective panic, and according to everything that she had just been told their fear was entirely justified.

She ran quickly to keep pace with the moving masses, her simple silken dress rustling about her flashing legs. She could have taken flight over their heads but she didn't want to draw any undue attention to herself. There were dangerous individuals roaming about, including Timber Crag scouts that had infiltrated the city in advance of their king's arrival. Her keen faerie sight allowed her to perceive them through their magical glamours. She kept her head lowered to appear inconspicuous, and felt immense relief when Horo's Curios came in sight.

The little shop had a marvelous window display of exotic bits and bobs to entice passersby inside. Its eccentric proprietor catered to collectors and enthusiasts of the strange and whimsical, from rare garden seeds to ancient books and coins, to antique ornaments of all sizes and shapes. There was always something new to catch her eye, but the shopkeeper himself was more unusual than any of the curiosities sitting on his shelves. Even after a year she had yet to solve the mystery of who and what he really was.

She pushed through the front door and a bell jingled as she entered.

"Orla!" came a concerned voice from the back of the shop. "You shouldn't be wandering around on your own! It's getting really bad out there!"

Horo Inu, a tall, leanly built man seemingly in his thirties with a shock of messy blond hair and a stubbled chin, hurried forward to greet her with a hug. "I think it's time we went on holiday. Have you ever been to Aelmere? The food there is--"

"You've raved about Aelmerian cuisine to me before," Orla interrupted.

"Right..Right...I guess I have," Horo chuckled. "But if the spicy dishes of Zatar are more your fancy, we can go there instead. Let's just go somewhere, far away from here. Right now."

"I agree that leaving Dalen is a good idea about now, Horo, but I've a small errand to do first."

"An errand? Is it worth risking your life over? The city is a madhouse."

"It's very important," Orla assured him gravely.

Horo nodded. "I see... one of those errands. I was just about to close up early. Would you like some help with it?"

"I was hoping for some, yes," she admitted, smiling up at him gratefully. "I need to track someone down fast. Kalena Valade. I was just at her house, but I must have missed her."

"Kalena Valade?" Horo grabbed his striped hat and kimono off a rack. "What do you want with her?"

"I'll explain along the way," Orla promised as they stepped out into the rampant chaos. "We don't have a lot of time. Events are accelerating at an alarming rate."

"You don't have to tell me that. The City Watch has disappeared from the streets and I've had to fight off five robbery attempts in the last hour alone." Squinting against the afternoon sun, Horo turned and locked the front door of his shop. "Since the war started I was thinking of relocating, but I'm not sure where yet. I never cared much for Verden--or the Verdish."

The faerie elf swung around at that.

"Present company excluded, of course," Horo amended with a grin back dropped by an empty lot where his shop once was.

Orla was about to say something in defense of Verden, but her words were forgotten as suddenly Horo's Curios began to fade from sight. As if it were a painting fading in water.

"Your shop! It's vanishing!"

"That place is my life, did you think I'd just leave it here to be destroyed?" Horo asked rhetorically. Even after all his time in the world he still forgot this was new to these people.

Orla looked on in bewilderment as it evaporated entirely until only a vacant space stood between the bakery and shoe store that had flanked it on each side. Nothing but a neatly trimmed stretch of grass remained. As if the shop never existed. Her fey heritage made her highly sensitive to magic, so it was with great perplexity that she recognised there was no magic involved, not a trace of eldritch forces, but how could a whole shop just vanish like that by anything other than magic? It made no sense to her at all. But then nothing ever made much sense when it came to Horo Inu.

Grinning, he slapped his hat on his head and offered her his arm. "Remember there is nothing impossible just improbable.”

Orla stared up into his kindly eyes for a moment. Then she said, "You'll explain it all to me one day, won't you?" And stepping forward, she hooked her small, delicate arm into his.

"Some things are better left a mystery," Horo replied with a wink. "But yeah, I'll tell you someday, when the time is right. Now let's go find Kalena Valade, if we can find her, that is. She could be halfway to the Dalen Alps by now." A laugh rose from his throat. "You know, I met her once. I was staying down at Jocelynn's Inn and Kalena burst into my room unannounced. I first mistook her for one of Jocelynn's girls, until I noticed the sword in her hand..."

As he recounted a tale that had grown in the telling to become part of recent Bramblewood folklore, the pair crossed the street and pressed forward through the tide of frightened people desperately fleeing the rioting and looting that had been unleashed by Randel Cartwright's followers to facilitate his coup d'etat against Queen Thalia.

==================================

Randel Cartwright sat in the throne room of Dalen's Royal Palace, staring at the hastily-preserved head of the recent queen of Dalen as he struggled to suppress his own anxiety. The plan was going well so far; the Queen had fallen right into his trap, and her pet assassin was reportedly walking into the one dear Sarx had set for her. The heads of both of the Timber Crag King's hated enemies would ideally do much to endear himself to the dreaded King Thierri, but there was absolutely no guarantee that it would be enough…

"This is all quite barbaric, isn't it?" Baron Lothlien, one of Randel's key supporters remarked, following Cartwright's gaze.

"Perhaps, but when barbarians are at the gate with an army far greater than our own, our pretensions at sophistication will accomplish little more than to irritate them," Randel pointed out.

"Do you think this will work?" the baron asked, his nervousness extremely apparent.

"Thierri has nothing to lose and everything to gain from taking us up on our offer," Randel explained, not for the first time. "We are surrendering the entire kingdom to him with barely a fight, and all we ask is that we be allowed to govern this realm as his vassals. He is going to need to have this place governed anyway, and who better to do it than us?"

"But what if he says no?"

Randel sighed. "His father would have said yes."

"We killed his father," Baron Lothlien reminded him, as if he didn't already know.

"She killed him! Her and the other head that Sarx is getting killed him! I had nothing to do with it!" Randel protested, as much to ease his own fear as anything else.

"Will Thierri see it that way?"

"He would be wise to."

"Wisdom is not something that Thierri is renowned for," the nobleman noted.

Randel pinched the bridge of his nose. "Indeed it is not. I suspect that he will take a fair bit of convincing, but we must try. The lives of a great number of Dalishmen are at stake."

"And it is for them, and not your ambitions, that you have put it all on the line," Celestia said, massaging his shoulders. "Put it all on the line to fulfill your dream of bringing justice and freedom to the land."

Randel wasn't sure, but he thought he detected a note of mockery in his consort's voice. "Perhaps I am doomed to fail, but this should not keep me from trying. If I feared failure so much, I would not be here now, with you all, trying to save this kingdom and its people."

"Yet you are afraid," Celestia noted in a whisper by his ear.

Randel turned to look at her. "Only a fool wouldn't be afraid of Thierri."

"Do you have an escape route planned if this goes south?" Baron Lothlien asked.

Randel shook his head and let out an uneasy breath. "If Thierri decides he wants to capture or kill us, I doubt he will give us the time to get out of the palace, let alone the city. If we had wanted to take the easy way out we ought to have done so long before… but we are committed now.”

"Yes, you are," Celestia said in an impassioned tone. "The die has been cast — and no matter what is about to happen, nothing in the Two Kingdoms will ever be the same again! It's all so very exciting, isn't it?"

"Exciting isn't precisely the word I would use," the baron muttered, wringing his hands.

"Without risk there is rarely little to gain," Randel said, sounding again as though he was more assuring himself than the rest of them. "But I am a philosopher of the College of Bards, a trained logician in argument and debate. Have faith that after Thierri and I have spoken at some length, he will, in all likelihood, come around to our way of seeing things."

"Oh, I will, will I?" spoke a voice as cold as death.

Randel's heart lurched in his chest as the thick oak doors at the side of the royal dais swung open to reveal a man with an expression of pure menace on his face. He was incredibly tall with very broad shoulders, and his arms and legs bulged with rock-hard muscle. Baron Lothlien let out an oath of such profound terror that Randel had to take several long moments to reclaim his shattered nerve.

Looking around the throne room, Thierri Rowan, the newly crowned ruler of the Timber Crag Kingdom, let out a bone-chilling roar of frustrated rage. Randel quickly identified the object of his anger: the Queen's displayed severed head. Clearly Thierri had rather wanted Thalia alive so that she could suffer the full punishments he would personally inflict upon her.

Randel bravely stood, bowed low, and called upon all of his oratory talents. "Your Majesty, I am Randel Cartwright. I greet you most humbly on behalf of the citizens of Dalen, who long to be your faithful subjects, and become a small part of the great domain that is the Timber Crag Kingdom. As a token of our heartfelt esteem, and as an overdue act of justice, I present to you the head of our former sovereign, Queen Thalia. Among her many numerous and deplorable crimes, none more heinous was the outrageous murder of your father, the good King Authun. For such a mighty monarch and legendary warrior as he to be slain by an assassin's cowardly blade--"

Thierri took three swift, bounding strides to close the distance with Cartwright, grab him savagely about the neck and hoist him high into the air over the Dalen throne.

"You are not fit to speak the name of my father, you miserable little worm!" the werebear snarled, shaking Randel by the throat. "You have stolen my vengeance! Do you understand?! You have robbed me of the vengeance owed to his royal memory!"

"It... it wasn't my doing," Randel choked out, fighting for enough breath to speak. He found it difficult to maintain his dignity whilst his feet dangled off the floor. "The ones I sent were ordered to take Thalia alive if possible! I knew you would want her alive!"

Unbridled fury pulsed through Thierri's hot-tempered blood as he effortlessly hefted Randel's slender half-elven body and brought the man's face level with his own. "Just tell me one thing: where is the Queen's assassin?! The woman called Kalena Valade, who I spent months searching for, months simply discovering her name! Did you gods forsaken curs kill her too?"

Randel began to tremble uncontrollably. He could not imagine encountering anyone more physically intimidating than King Thierri. Desperately he looked to his supporters for support. Baron Lothlien had gone white as a sheet, and Celestia... Celestia was looking on at him with amusement written all over her face. Damn the woman! Did she really think this was funny? Did she not realise they were all a hairbreadth away from utter destruction? He turned to Thierri, quickly framing the right words in his head, structuring the necessary arguments that would best appeal to the king's rational side.

But Thierri saw the only answer he wanted to know revealed in the Dalish man's calculating eyes, and that the retribution he had so long desired would be denied him. There was a horrendous series of sharp, cracking sounds as bones were snapped like kindling and Randel Cartwright, the would-be ruler of Dalen, crumpled to the floor, a limp and broken ragdoll.

Before his handful of supporters could think to run, as if on a pre-arranged signal or cue, werebear warriors poured from every doorway into the throne room, half in ursine form, with gleaming weapons in their pawed hands and savage bloodlust in their beastly faces.

"Oh gods, please spare our lives, please spare our lives great king Thierri!" Baron Lothlien pleaded, falling down on his knees and openly sobbing as Carwright's followers were put to the sword.

Thierri sneered down at the sniveling nobleman with sickening contempt and then turned to regard the stoic, beautiful red-haired woman standing over her lover's body. "And why aren't you begging me for mercy, pretty one?"

"Some of us have our pride," Celestia answered, "and you're not the type of man who is moved to show mercy because of the wails of cowards."

At this, Thierri looked at her with almost approval. He was about to offer her a place as a slave in his baggage caravan when Dietrich entered the throne room escorting a harried prisoner, a wounded drow elf.

"This one says he has a message for Cartwright," Dietrich explained.

The drow took in the scene before him and blanched.

Celestia stepped forward. "If you have a message for my Randel, I can take it."

"The ambush failed and Sarx is dead," the Emerald Scarf related, his unsettled gaze falling on Cartwright's mangled body lying on the floor.

"What care I for this Sarx fellow?" Thierri barked with impatience, waving his men to take the drow away.

"Wait, Your Majesty," Celestia interjected. "Sarx is who we sent to capture the Valade woman."

"Valade?!" Thierri's black eyes glared questioningly at the elf. "Tell me this. Does she yet draw breath?"

"Yes, she, Count Soldor, and the foreign trickster, Lafayette, are all still very much alive despite our best efforts."

"I care not about the others, only Valade--the accursed murderer of my father! She haunts my dreams, and taunts my waking thoughts; I have chased her from the Praitine Vale, over the Orodrim Wastes, across the Sarnian steppes, and through the searing flames of perdition itself, but she is always just out of my grasp! You claim she is still here in Opra Dale?!”

The drow nodded shakily in response. "The last I saw she was in the midtown district."

A slow, very cold grin spread across Thierri's deranged face and he nodded to himself as if coming to a decision. "Captain Scwartz, I want this place razed to the ground. I want the destruction to be absolute, thorough, and complete."

"You mean... this palace?" Dietrich asked uncertainly.

"No! Not the palace! The city!" Theirri roared out. "I want Opra Dale obliterated off the face of the land and everyone in it! Everyone! Not a single man, woman or child is to escape with their lives! The entire population is to be eradicated! They must all pay for the deeds of their Queen! It is only then that my father's tortured soul can look down on me, and be content!"

The prospect of such wanton mass slaughter on this scale shook even Celestia, who thrived on causing mayhem since becoming eternally damned. "You're as monstrous as they say," she blurted, tears in her lovely eyes.

"You live only at my whim, pretty witch," Theirri replied. "Learn silence, lest I reevaluate your worth!"

Dietrich saluted his king. "I will see that the order for a sustained and systematic bombardment is given to all the division commanders, sire. Within two hours there will be no structure left standing. We have already completed the city's encirclement. There will be no escape for any of its citizens."

Theirri was brimming with vindictive malice and triumph combined. "If the gods won't allow me the satisfaction of killing Valade personally with my own hands, I shall bring this whole city crumbling down around her head and turn it into the woman's funeral pyre! She will die choking, her body crushed by rubble and covered in ash, knowing in her last painful moments that my vengeance finally caught up to her!"

Thierri's maniacal ravings echoed through the palatial throne room. Finishing the blustery harangue, he beckoned to Celestia and then stalked out past the Queen's displayed head, his entourage falling neatly into ranks around him.

Positioned at a concealed spyhole, the stoutest champion of the Queen, Archer Craine, watched the despised enemy warriors depart the hall before emerging from hiding. He vowed after he had properly seen to Thalia's remains that he would do everything a man single-handedly could to stop the doom that was about to descend on Opra Dale, his fanatical loyalty to Her Majesty going beyond even death.

Next: Escaping the Doom of Opra Dale

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