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A New Twist to an Old Adversary, the plot thickensby Andrew Theisen
"The man is mad."
Henri d'Ambreville shrugged his shoulders at the remark. "I 'ave heard ze same said of a certain 'Black Eagle Baron.'" He slowed his mount to a canter and prepared for the verbal barrage sure to come.
He was not kept waiting long. "Have a care sorcerer," declared Ludwig von Hendriks. "I will not brook such insolence from anyone- not even a self-proclaimed ally!" The former Karameikan noble tightened his grip on his reins. It had been hours since the pair first set out across the highlands of southern Glantri for a rendezvous suggested by the enigmatic d'Ambreville. Like the Black Eagle's patience, the sun was beginning to wane.
"I, too, 'ave been described as less than sane at times, Ludwig." As always, Henri's accented tone turned the name into a patronising admonishment. "I merely meant to point out zat men of vision such as we are often painted in less zan glowing terms by our inferiors." The wizard brushed absently at the dust accumulating on his normally immaculate clothing. His brown eyed gaze was intently fixed on the landscape ahead.
Von Hendriks clenched his jaw, allowing Henri's comment to go unanswered. Better to continue on without the snobbish tone of the Glantrian noble, he reasoned. Besides, by the look of things, I may need to save my breath.
Indeed, the panorama that currently lay before the uneasy allies had turned suddenly odd. The terrain they had passed through since that morning had hardly been pleasant- jagged, blasted hills, the ashy residue left behind by a tremendous meteor crash still leaving the region largely uninhabited, years later. Yet the Black Eagle almost preferred the familiarity of the wastes compared to the present view. Almost a mile back, the land had suddenly turned flat and bare- devoid of flora or fauna. Not even a pebble marred the dark brown soil. Ludwig's remark that the horses left no tracks behind them was met with merely a nod from Henri.
Through this silent desolation they rode, towards a distant spire that must surely be the residence of he whom they sought. As they approached ever nearer, details began to emerge of this, the sole object of note for miles. Roughly cylindrical, it's crystalline walls gleamed blindingly in the light of the setting sun. Its multifaceted sides were smooth and largely opaque, with window like transparencies evident here and there. Ludwig von Hendriks had never seen anything quite like it on this earth, and, by the intense look of study on his companion's face, neither had his Henri. Even more remarkable, then, if the rumours that the d'Ambrevilles came from another world were true.
The Black Eagle studied the sorcerer's features more closely. There was something there... "Breathtaking," he said. He shielded his dark eyes from the glare with one hand as he observed. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Henri sniffed dismissively. "Zis coming from a man whose 'sens de la mode' is basic black."
There it is, thought von Hendriks, Envy. He rubbed at his short beard, smiling slightly. Envy, and perhaps a little fear. He had encountered the emotion often enough in his long career, and was well familiar with how to manipulate it to his own ends. Still, I'd best be on my guard. Given the choice of the ambitious d'Ambreville or a known madman... he'd been betrayed once too often by sorcerers in the past.
There was a sudden movement merely a few yards ahead. A great shifting of soil, like a landbound tidal wave, swiftly rolled down upon them. The horses began to panic, skittering to either side of the torrential landslide. Accomplished riders both, Henri and Ludwig brought their mounts quickly to heel, responding to the new threat. But no trace of the shifting earth remained- the ground was flat and barren as ever.
"What in Pyts was..." The Black Eagle had no time to finish his question. A massive shape erupted to his left, a vaguely humanoid creature formed of the very earth itself. Instinctively, von Hendriks leapt from the saddle, landing on one knee facing his opponent. A rocky fist swept over his head, nearly connecting. Riderless, von Hendriks' mount swiftly charged away from the fight.
"Damn..." He recovered his feet quickly, drawing his sabre. Cruel eyes instantly took the measure of his foe. A distant part of his mind reflected on the wisdom of leaving his heavy plate armour at home; Surely, he would need mobility to best this plodding mass of soil and rock. Poised and ready, he awaited the next attack.
It was not long in coming. Once more, the elemental drove forward its stony arm, seeking to crush its foe with brute strength alone. Von Hendriks easily sidestepped the blow, and raised his magical blade for a return strike. He laughed maniacally, losing himself in the thrill of combat. With the skill of years of experience backed by his still powerful (if ageing) physique, the Black Eagle hacked down at the elemental's appendage, severing it at the elbow.
Slowly, the creature brought its arm up to eye level. It looked from the damaged limb to von Hendriks, then back again. The Black Eagle grinned beneath his beard, moving into position for another strike. His mirth was short lived, however. With a rippling of soil, the severed arm regenerated, leaving the elemental whole once more. Glassy eyes turned to the lone warrior, know gritting his teeth in frustration.
A jet of flame struck the creature in the side, and a howl escaped its dank maw. Henri d'Ambreville, hands magically awash with fire, strode towards the battling pair. "Le feu, c'est mauvais, oui?" he taunted, roguish charm still evident despite the seriousness of the situation. "We are 'aving a hot time now, eh, Ludwig?"
Snarling at the theatrics, the Black Eagle darted forward, sabre flashing in the flickering light. Once, twice, he connected solidly, sending flaming clods in all directions. The smell of burnt soil was stifling, but the pair continued their assault on the slow moving elemental.
With a moan, the earthen humanoid collapsed, sinking swiftly back into the ground. Both wizard and warrior tensed, awaiting a new attack. "He must have seen us coming miles back," von Hendriks snapped, "What other reason for this wasteland? No cover, no obstructions to view- he's as paranoid as they say!" If they lived to survive this experience, the Black Eagle might come to admire the strategy. "Are you ready to leave now?"
"Zis was nothing!" snapped Henri. "Between us, we are strong enough to make it to ze tower. Once zere, I 'ave it on good authority zat 'e will prove very pliable to our plans." The flames limning his hands were bright in the darkening night.
"To what end?" questioned Ludwig. Still clenching his sabre, he walked over to Henri's horse; the mage had managed to keep it from running off before joining the battle. He thought he caught a glimpse of movement in the distance, but the glare off the tower kept him from being sure.
"'Ow you say- 'plausible deniability'?" The Glantrian knelt to examine the ground. "In case our plans go awry- 'e should prove a useful scapegoat. I, for one, do not want to draw unwanted attentions." Indicating the spot where the elemental disappeared, he remarked, "I do not zink it will be back. I 'ave heard ze wizard is not as powerful as 'e once was."
"Did your 'good authority' tell you that?" The Black Eagle's voice was thick with sarcasm. "You might want to get a second opinion next time."
Henri jerked his head up smartly, but his retort died before leaving his throat. The shadowy figures of a half-dozen earth elementals surrounded the two villains. Ludwig von Hendriks stood poised, a murderous look in his dark eyes. d'Ambreville shared the sentiment, but it was too late now to alter their plans. As he prepared to fight, the sorcerer reflected that he wasn't looking forward to dying yet again.
The largest of the elementals shambled forward, earthen features shifting oddly. Grey rock turned to pink flesh; dank soil changed to silken fineries. Within moments, a fat, olive skinned man stood before them, regal in his presence, and looking quite unlike the reports of his last known sighting. Ludwig and Henri watched silently, contemplating their next move.
A broad grin split the fat man's features, and he opened his arms in a gesture of welcome. "Smile, gentlemen," he said, in cultured Thyatian, "Few are fortunate enough these days to be granted an audience with Innocenti di Malapietra, Prince of Caurenze!"
Far beneath the realms of man, two dark figures held an evil convocation. "It is just as you predicted," said the smaller of the two. "They have contacted the mad prince."
"Credit where it is due, brother," hissed the other. "Our Master might take exception to your oversight." The first figure shrugged, waving a hand over the scrying pool in front of him. The second form continued "These humans have no idea the game they play at."
"Perhaps not. Yet it is still nowhere near as dangerous as the one our Master plays. Those From Beyond are powerful beyond imagination. If they should ever suspect His interests are not their own..."
"But they will not, will they? For even we are not privy to the full scope of His interests, and we both know full well what punishment awaits us if we fail Him." The bulky form stomped heavily out of the scrying chamber, off to begin the next phase of the Grand Design.
"Yes-" replied the first speaker, softly, in case anyone were listening. "We know full well what toll shall be exacted upon us. All too well..." A thoughtful frown furrowed its ridged forehead.
(To be continued...)