Mark of the Fool - C.851: "That’s What Progress Looks Like"

Mark of the Fool

C.851: "That’s What Progress Looks Like"
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“Acid!” Watcher Hill shouted, raising her staff. “Get those walls of force up!”

Ahead, a devastating river of death spread across the land with full force, crossing thousands of feet in seconds.

“Activate defensive glyphs!” Professor Jules shouted.

Watchers chanted, levelling their staves toward the wall.

Glyphs flared to life on the rampart.

A wall of prismatic force sprang up around the Castle, stretching hundreds of feet through the air.

“Steady!” Watcher Hill cried.

The corrosive liquid hit the wall, boiling against it. Force magic flared. Acid hissed. Watchers chanted and defensive glyphs blazed to life. More deadly liquid sprayed along the wall, running down, eating rock and soil, burning a trench of vitriol just beyond its base.

“That acid’s eating the ground away!” Watcher Hill shouted. “I want earth wizards down below. Get down there, reinforce the tunnels and neutralise it! Ballistae take aim!”

On the wall, siege engines groaned, turning to face the charging titan, its every step was shaking the earth. Professor Jules—now flying above the wall—could feel her teeth rattling.

She held its gaze.

“Filthy creature,” she growled. “I’m not being driven from my own lab by you and the filth behind you.”

“It’s within range!” A Watcher shouted.

“Ballista 3-A!” Professor Jules pointed to the closest siege engine. “Fire!”

“Fire!” A Watcher repeated the command.

The ballista cracked, shooting its contents through the barrier—the barricade shimmered, letting the bomb pass through—as the projectile flew straight for the oncoming titan.

The Skystrider’s charge was unstoppable.

There was too much force.

Too much mass.

Too much strength.

Its acid was eating away the outsiders’ magical defences, but too slowly. Far too slowly. So, its bulk would finish them. The Ravener-spawn could not wait to crush the mortals’ walls beneath its tread, and drink in their cries of despair.

So focused was it on its anticipation, that it paid little notice to the projectile shooting through the magical barrier and flying right for it.

The monster neither slowed nor hesitated.

Its armour was much too thick and its body far too tough for such a tiny projectile to cause it alarm.

The Skystrider kept its pace, rushing forward even as the missile cracked against its chest.

It was completely unprepared for the blinding flash of light.

And even less prepared for theheat and earth-shattering force that slammed into it. The projectile cracked against bone armour, the blast ripping through it.

It had built too much momentum to be stopped, but the explosion was too powerful for it to weather. Its armour shattered. Its body fractured. Acid abruptly stopped spraying as the force spun it on its heel, its remaining foot grinding a trench in the earth.

The left side of its body was gone, vapourised, but—as it spun—it could see what remained of its left arm spinning through the air, landing among the Ravener-spawn following behind, crushing scores of them.

Then, it was falling, hitting the ground with such force that what remained of its innards, pulped.

From the ground, the Skystrider looked on with its right eye as the outsiders launched another projectile at the horde. There came another flash of light and terrible heat. A mushroom cloud floated above them.

Then it knew nothing more.

The earth rumbled.

The horizon burned.

And the Research Castle’s inhabitants cheered.

Only the Traveller knew how many Ravener-spawn had died in those few moments, unmade by two chaos bombs.

Professor Jules allowed a smile of satisfaction to creep across her face.

“That’s what progress looks like,” she said.

Still, she would not celebrate, not yet.

As smoke cleared from the moors, flattened by the apocalyptic blasts, she could see that more Ravener-spawn were coming. There were no more titans among them, but she didn’t doubt that would change.

Below, the ballista were reloading on the walls, and she eyed their supply of chaos bombs. They’d made scores—just one of numerous preparations for this day—but the supply was not unlimited.

“We can’t just use them willy-nilly,” she said, looking at Watcher Hill. “If more of those titanic monsters appear, we’ll need them, so what would you recommend?”

“Summon monsters to deal with most of the Ravener-spawn,” Hill said. “How long until your summoning circle is ready?”

Professor Jules glanced down at the courtyard. “Likely another few minutes. Then we’ll need the chancellor to complete the ritual.”

“Then we’ll handle things until it’s ready,” the Watcher captain said.

“Indeed,” the chancellor’s voice spoke from behind them. “We will handle things until it’s ready.”

“Baelin!” Professor Jules and Watcher Hill whirled.

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The ancient archwizard was floating behind them, likely having teleported in moments before.

He was girded for the war to end all wars.

Gone were his day-to-day robes, but he wasn’t wearing the bronze armour he wore into most battles.

Instead, he was sheathed in a full suit of starmetal plate, gleaming with a bluish-silver finish, etched with hundreds of powerful glyphs. Every inch of his body was protected, even his face was covered in a mask forged in the image of a demon’s grinning face.

In his left hand, he carried his staff, with its goat eye-like jewel.

In his right, he held an ominous warhammer, as long-hafted as Professor Jules was tall, and covered in glyphs that stung her eyes when she looked at them for too long. Five gems—each the size of a human head—were orbiting around him, sparking with vast amounts of power.

Professor Jules raised her eyebrows, “Baelin…what is all that?”

“My war garb.” He floated upward, climbing into the sky. “I only don it for battles that I know will test my mettle.”

Professor Jules and Watcher Hill looked at each other.

“Will it be that bad, chancellor?’ Jules asked.

“Yes,” he said, raising his staff. “I am not sure what you might or might not have figured out, but the situation is changing rapidly. We have mounting evidence that the fae, Lord Aenflynn, is in league with the Ravener and that it is in Och Tir Nog. Ravener-spawn are pouring out of the fae wild all over Thameland.” His voice dropped low. “We also believe that he might have both the throne of Uldar and the god’s body in his possession. Excuse me for one moment.”

He raised his staff.

The goat’s eye-gem flared in time with the jewels orbiting him as he pointed to the Ravener-spawn.

Mana poured.

Every gem turned black momentarily.

Outside the Castle walls, six orbs of darkness came into being within the horde, swelling, growing large enough for ancient oaks to fit inside. They began pulsing.

And everything around them was pulled in.

Wind howled.

Soil was torn from the earth, Ravener-spawn were sucked through the air.

Thousands of struggling monsters were dragged inside the orbs of darkness, their bodies crunching as they collapsed on themselves the closer they came to an orb. They disappeared at the touch of the darkness.

Several heartbeats passed and Baelin waved his staff, dismissing the orbs of darkness, leaving only barren craters where an army of Ravener-spawn once stood.

Baelin cursed. “More are already on their way. It seems I have perhaps only bought us minutes. Maybe a little longer.”

He looked down at Watcher Hill and Professor Jules, hearing the latter cursing vilely.

“If the Ravener’s creating armies throughout the fae wild, the battle will be a hard one,” she muttered.

“That it will,” said Prince Khalik.

Professor Jules turned, looking behind her, finding the Prince of Tekezash floating there—flanked by Hart and Merzhin.

His familiar was perched on his shoulder, and he wore amagical breastplate. A sword was belted at his waist.

Hart was clad in a glittering chain shirt from Uldar’s halls—he was wielding two colossal blades: one from the god’s armoury and the other, his familiar hive-queen sword.

Merzhin’s fingers were wrapped around a holy symbol of the Traveller. He wore a brilliant white mantle from Uldar’s sanctum, it blazed with divine power.

“We teleported all over Thameland,” Hart added. “Everything’s on fire. The Ravener’s sending hordes of spawn at every military camp, small town and fortified village everywhere across the land.”

“It’s focusing its more powerful monsters on larger targets, like the capital—”

“And here,” Professor Jules finished grimly.

As she spoke, Isolde and Cedric materialised beside them, along with Tyris and Vesuvius. The Chosen of Thameland wasn’t bare-chested today, a chain shirt from Uldar’s sanctum protected his torso.

Theresa, Claygon, Brutus and Drestra appeared next, and Thundar materialised with Birger and Bjorgrund a moment later.

Alex appeared soon after, accompanied by Asmaldestre, a model of golem they’d never seen before, and a half dozen engeli.

The war-spirit’s face looked sour, like she’d swallowed a bowl of lemons. “That was a proper battle you took me away from!”

“There’s a bigger one ahead,” Alex said. “And you already helped that battalion in the west get to shelter. Now we need you. And Thameland needs all of us.”

Silence fell over the group for a moment, as they considered his words.

“Glad to see everyone’s alright,” Alex continued, relief plain in his voice. “Thank the Traveller.”

“We’re safe, but…lots of people are dead.” Theresa gripped her twinblade. “We rescued everyone we could, but…there was only so much we could do in the limited time we had.”

Brutus whimpered, nuzzling his master’s side.

“Yeah…I hear you.” Alex shuddered. “I did what I could in Alric, but there was only so much I could do before I had to leave.”

Theresa looked into her fiance's eyes. “Is it…is it still standing? Is the inn alright? The soldiers?”

“When I left, they were okay,” He patted Shale’s golem. “I left a pair of gifts from Toraka and a lot of summoned monsters to fight the hordes of Ravener-spawn alongside the soldiers. I also cast a spell called Army of Heroes to help them, and I did the same thing in the capital, and the Cave of the Traveller.”

“Oh?” Baelin cocked his head, his eyes narrowing through the slits in his mask. “How is your mana?”

“It’s alright for now,” Alex said. “I used a lot, but it’s regenerating pretty fast. By the time we get our supplies from the lab, I should be alright. How about the rest of you?”

“I had to teleport quite a few times and fight a few battles, so my reserves have been taxed,” Khalik admitted. “I am regenerating my mana as we speak, but I would rather not have any difficult fights in the near future.”

“Yeah, I burned a lot of mana too,” Thundar added.

“I did as well,” Isolde said.

“Right,” Cedric said. “Then when we gets t’ th’fae wilds, we—” He pointed to the other Heroes, Asmaldestre, Theresa, Brutus and Baelin. “—should be doin’ th’ heavy liftin’ fer a bit whiles th’ others rest up. Tyris, y’comin’ wit’ us?”

The redheaded battlemage paused, thinking about his question for a long moment.

Then she shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said quietly. “I hate to admit it, but a lot of you are a lot more powerful than I am, and if you have to go into a dungeon after the Ravener, Vesuvius would probably be too big to fit into most tunnels, unless they’re really big. I think it’s better if I stay here and help where I can.”

“Sensible,” Isolde said.

“Aye,” Cedric agreed. “Well, it’ll just be…wait.” He looked at Birger and Bjorgrund. “What about you two?”

“I’ll come with you.” Bjorgrund lifted Uldar’s axe. “I can fit into tunnels, especially if I shrink myself down, and I’m strong enough to hold my own. I can be a big help. But, father? I think you should stay and help out here in the material world.”

“What?” Birger hissed. “No damned way, son, I’m not letting you go into the heart of danger without me.”

Bjorgrund placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine, father. I’m rune-marked: fighting’s in my soul now, but you’re not a fighter like me. Not when it comes to fighting hordes of monsters face-to-face, axe-to-claw. If you come with us, you could die.”

“I’m not some helpless babe—” Birger started to protest.

“He’s right.”

Everyone looked at Alex.

“What?” the older giant said.

“I…I really hate to say this but, Birger, I think Bjorgrund’s right,” the General of Thameland said. “You know some magic, but you’re not a battlemage. Your wards would be a lot more helpful protecting the soldiers here in the material world than they would in the Ravener’s face, or in front of whatever Aenflynn might throw at us. Bjorgrund’s axe, though…well, fighters who can overpower powerful Ravener-spawn physically don’t exactly grow on trees, and we need all of those we can get.”

He looked into Birger’s eyes. “Trust Bjorgrund. He’s grown a lot…and I’ll make sure he comes home.”

The older giant’s lips flattened in a line.

Then he sighed. “Fine, you can go with them, Bjorgrund.” The old giant hugged his son. “But don’t you dare let anything happen to yourself.”

“I’ll be careful, father.” Bjorgrund hugged him back.

Alex looked around. “So that means me, Claygon, Theresa, Brutus, Bjorgrund, Baelin, Asmaldestre, Isolde, Khalik, Najyah, Thundar, Cedric, Merzhin, Hart, and Drestra are going into the fae wild. Fifteen. Plus whatever we summon.”

“And me!” A deep voice bellowed from below.

Alex looked down.

Standing in the courtyard were four figures.

Kybas and Harmless.

Ripp.

And lastly…

“Grimloch!” Theresa shouted.

“Heard you were all gonna get dinner without me,” the giant sharkman growled. “No way. We feast together.”

“Harmless and I will fight here, with Ripp!” Kybas called. “Help make sure Greymoor doesn’t fall.”

“Sixteen, then…” Alex said. “Not a big number, but we have a lot of power. Alright, then let’s get the poison, injectors and anti-dungeon warping device from the lab and we’ll go over our plans. Then…”

He looked at the others.

“…let’s pay the Ravener and our old ally a surprise visit.”

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