Shattered Hands IV
Chapter 9: Last Best Chance
23rd of Gorgani, 542nd year of the Imperial Empire.
Seven hours before the assault on Celest.
Around the great Circle of Light, Princess Marilynth leaned over the round
marble table that graced the main council room of the Star Palace. Looking
directly across at the humble Celestine across from her, she inquired, "Holy
Mother Glaruda- what do our scouts report on Ladantine's forces?" The elderly
merian woman inclined her head politely to the Princess, responding, "The enemy
forces are dominated mainly by warriors. In the greatest of fortune, the-
Tainted- of Magnagora are not following the aggressors in their dark pilgrimage
to our home. I can only imagine what a disaster it would be if Fatalists or
Geomancers allied with the Ur'Guard. The taurians and a sizable number of the
loboshiragu tribes are backing the Ur'Guard, and Ladantine's insanity has not
dulled his power- his very presence will change the course of this war.
Unfortunately for us, our envoys to the Serenwilde have met only with silence-
and our envoys to the Gloriana have failed to return at all."
Marilynth's lovely sapphire eyes dimmed as she steepled her fingers. "I- see.
At least we have the advantage of using magical spells against the Ur'Guard.
Lord General, how fare our preparations on the coastal defenses?" Dolph Inalai
scowled to himself, reclining back in the high-backed chair as he murmured,
"The Paladins prepare. The Celestines have lined the entire coast with monolith
sigils- and our Aquamancers have established our maritime defenses. But-" here
the Paladin leader shot a glare over at Archmage Gillian Shervalian, watching
the female Aquamancer sniff disdainfully in response- "with half our remaining
ships patrolling the borders of the Inner Sea, the remaining ships in the area
cannot guarantee that our coast will remain unmolested."
Archmage Shervalian rested an elbow on the table, launching into a
well-rehearsed monologue in her dry voice. "Lord General, it was not at my
behest that we deployed so much of the fleet on an errand of the Emperor. If we
cannot locate these ships in the Crystal Sea, then they must be preparing to
break through the Inner Sea. With the kelpies dormant under Lanikai's obstinate
leadership, we cannot rely on any but ourselves to stave off the Ur'Guard
"I wonder why." An aging voice cut in from the doors, and the Archmage whirled
in her chair even as the rest of the Star Council followed her gaze to a old
merian at the door to the Council chambers. Adjusting the monocle over his left
eye as he scornfully stared over to the Archmage, he continued, "It's not like
our behavior has inspired our neighbors, eh Archmage? I mean, we were about a
hop and a skip from having our last research project push itself right into the
Sea Hag's backyard. You wanted to see me, Empress," he nodded with curt respect
over to Marilynth, the scales of his face dulled with age. The young woman
swallowed back her shock even as she addressed the man. "Captain Symfale, I am
sorry to disturb you. Our- our fleet has serious difficulties, and we wished
for your help in persuading the merchant-" "Read my lips, lass," he shot back
through gritted teeth, "Empress you may be, but I'm done encouraging anyone to
follow a royal to death's door. I've done quite enough of it. Those men out
there wouldn't know which end of a staff to hold- much less how to fend off
half the bleedin' Ur'Guard. You want soldiers, you find the men who swore the
Princess Marilynth opened her mouth in protest, but was cut off as General
Inalai shot to his feet, slamming the marble table with a gauntlet as he
shouted, "Yeah, I wonder where we can find a couple of men like that? Right,
Grand Admiral?!" Captain Symfale pointed a gnarled finger right back at the
Paladin, roaring, "Now you HOLD BACK, lad. It's CAPTAIN Symfale to you, Captain
of the Merchant Marine. Last man what called me Admiral, I wasn't much of a fan
of either! Probably for the same reason, that the pair of ya' are peas in a
pod- couldn't care the slightest who you throw in the grinder for the glory of
The Paladin guards in the corner of the room raised their weapons as they bit
back their own shouts of support for their leader, and things may have gone
ill, until Marilynth's gentle voice stilled the room. "C-captain. Please. I ask
you for all the people who rely on every single one of us. And if that is not
enough," she ended, starting to sink to one knee, "then I beg." Symfale held up
a hand to Marilynth in torment before she could kneel, pulling a bottle of
brandy from his belt as he gazed into its depths.
... their deaths are regretable, Grand Admiral, but this research project holds
a substantial value to the Emperor himself.
... A young man with a weatherbeaten face and a great jeweled staff, lashing
out with a fist and sundering the flawless crystal cheek of a lucidian
... Answer me, Admiral! Are you sobered up enough from your brandy to string
sentences together? Who gave you that right?!
... A defeated looking young dracnari, hounded by the press, confessing it was
the kindest and quietest assessment the Emperor and the Admiral had exchanged
for a half hour.
... A small mugwump child cradled in his arms on a stormy sea, you're my hero
Symfale let his hand rest on the cork, before he made a personal decision and
pulled his fingers away. "You're an honest royal, Princess. So I'll do it. One
condition- every member of the Merchant Marine is a soldier while we fight. If
they survive, we can give them a medal for services rendered. And if they
don't." His throat tightened, unable to finish the rest. She nodded back to him
with warmth and understanding in her graceful smile, "Full benefits. I swear it.
You're a hero, Captain Symfale." "Then if you'll pardon me, Princess- I need to
get somethin' from the Inner Sea," he threw over his shoulder, walking out
briskly even as a gleam of triumph glistened in his eye, unremarked by any of
the other leaders in the room.
Marilynth collapsed back on the throne, looking around to the astonished faces
of her Council. "We might have a chance now. Isn't that grand?"
Chapter 10: Sounds of the Drums
Fifteen minutes before the assault on Celest.
The Ur'Guard craft skimmed the dark night skies, screaming their power as they
descended from the atmosphere, the massive Isle of Celest glowing in the
distance. Krangar's mind was locked into the control module, grinning as both
hands controlled the colossal turrets on the wings of the flying ship. "ALL
GUARD! WE READY FOR THE DRUMS?" he bellowed as the beat of the war drums echoed
through the ship and into the drop bay containing the orclach assault party. "WE
FEEL THEM, SIR!" they boomed back in one voice, spirits high as the three craft
aimed themselves at the island.
Sergeant Avarath looked back over to Commandant Korath, grinning as he finally
said, "You have to be excited, eh boss? We win this one, no one will question
your right to be Supreme Commander of all the Ur'Guard." Korath looked back in
faint amusement, finally asking with a smile of his own, "Aye, lad? What big
qualification d'you reckon I'm missing that the Commanders of old got?" Avarath
launched into the list: Marshal Igaram Tacreb's triumph over the Scorpion Cult,
Commandant Sharuco's crushing victory in the Battle of the Four Lords, Marshal
"Aye lad- but the thing everyone always forgets about it, none of them actually
took the honor until they were dead. Oh, we tell the stories around the war
fire, and make sure our lads know about it, but there's one thing you need to
be a Supreme Commander of the Ur'Guard, and that's the posthumous honour."
Korath lifted his giant black blade, a huge shaft of darkened iron as he
grinned in the dimly lit bay. "And I'm not ready to give up on undeath yet."
The Ur'Guard came into view over a small group of merchant ships, the mugwump
mariners glaring up at the Ur'Guard vessels. Shaking his head, a grizzled
veteran chuckled at the younger sailors as their blue-green skin started to
fade in color. "You just wait, me boyos! The old man'll get us through- th' old
man ain't afraid of any undead tossers with big old machines! ATTENNNN-HUT!" he
called out, watching the men snap to attention as an elderly merian stepped
onto the deck. Brandishing a long staff, studded liberally with perfectly
faceted sapphires, the black sky filled with thick storm clouds as Vlath
Symfale once again held the Mariner's Blessing, pulled from the Inner Sea where
he cast it long ago. His words came in a whisper.
"Rise, spirits of the sea."
The water erupted, geysers flying into the air as the sea raged against the
invaders. The blasts of superheated water caught one ship, spinning it about
like a toy before another tore off an engine, and sent the warship plummeting
thousands of feet towards the unforging maelstrom beneath them. Krangar howled
in anger, ordering both remaining ships to spit fire again and again as they
sped towards the coast. Ranks and ranks of Celestians were pulverized by the
blasts before they could even think to evoke their pentagrams, as some soldiers
quickly rose into the sky and fired beams of magic into the hulls of the
invaders. The bays of the ships gaped open, and orclach leapt heroically down
onto the defenders, night and mysticism cloaking their bodies from sight.
Krangar pulled violently on the stick, bringing his ship into a shallow dive as
it slammed into the ground, tearing up a groove into the earth as it entombed
men under the avalanche of soil. The line of mages tried to hold, but the
Ur'Guard had slaughtered the Celestian leaders under their fiery weapons, and
the younger ones fell even as they desperately tried to dodge the blows. But
even as they struggled to keep their focus at this range, the warriors swarmed
over the mages and guardians alike, stabbing and hacking and crushing until
only bloody pulp was left of mortal beings. CRACK-CRACK-THOOM, the burst came
from a landed ship, lightning arcing over the southern coast as the charred
bodies of merian defenders fell to the earth. Emperor Ladantine VII stepped
forth from the inside of the bay, eyes alight with fire as the monolith sigils
under his feet withered, the silver twisted and tarnished before it
disintegrated. "Now, Korath!" Ladantine's voice burned with evil delight.
"Summon our forces!" Korath nodded as he stepped over to the focal obelisk that
the Celestine Empire had permitted the Ur'Guard to establish long ago. He
concentrated, listening for the sound of the aether shimmering...
... and they poured in, ranks upon ranks of orclach and taurians and
loboshiragu. Enraged and lusty for battle, their war chants shook the
foundations of Celest itself as the maddened thousands called for the blood of
their enemies. Ladantine screamed in victory, pointing a finger north to the
Star Palace as he cried, "My warriors! Descend upon their Palace! Slay them
all! Show NO MERCY." The Commandant and Sergeant Avarath beside him tried to
step up to Ladantine, but both bowed humbly under Ladantine's gaze. "Korath
Cho'kuul- you have followed me this far to our future. This must end in
genocide. No second chances, no letting them rebuild. Tonight, it ends."
Ladantine had pressed a great helm into Avarath's hands, watching the orclach's
expression change into rapturous joy as he beheld the Bone Helm of Urlach.
Korath nodded once to Ladantine, ignoring the prickling that began to form in
his thoughts, even as Avarath beamed to his Emperor and bowed low to the
"As you wish, my lord."
"Let us do this thing before it is too late," General Inalai told Marilynth,
pain in his voice as he brought up her chin to look deeply into her eyes.
Finally, the Princess relented, taking her lover's hand away from her chin
gently as she glanced at her ministers. "Give us five minutes." The voice
hardened into iron, and would not be denied. Holy Mother Glaruda silently
assented, and Marilynth swiftly pulled on the Paladin's hand as she led him
outside the room.
"My angel," Dolph told her urgently, his chest starting to fold in on himself
as he continued, "I- my love, if there was ever anyone who deserved to be
raised to godhood, it is you. This is why you are- why you exist. Just forget
about me. I beg you. I am but a man, and you will be so much more. But I'll
never stop feeling for you, even until the end of the world." Marilynth's hand
crushed his fingers with desperate strength, her voice quavering as she says,
"Dolph Inalai- my love, you're more than anyone believes. You are the greatest
of a long line, not the least. Your wisdom is not weakness, and violent
brutality is not strength. I will never forget you, darling," she choked,
pulling him into an embrace that seemed to last forever. When she finally broke
away and ran back into the council chambers, Dolph Inalai looked down into the
palm of his hand, silently beholding the engagement ring Marilynth had pressed
into his hand. Finally dropping it within his pouch, he steeled himself to dash
outside and join the battle, in what he knew to be his last stand.
Already, the bulk of the Paladins had collided with the giant army of
Ladantine. With few mages left to bend the land itself against their enemies,
the fight had become a horrific crush of infantry. Man fought men without the
slightest pause or weakness, illuminated by the holy fires that lit up the
Palace. The Inalai scanned the field quickly, looking for the man he wanted,
trying to find the one man he had to kill to give these men hope. Finally he
saw the orclach. Korath Cho'kuul was slashing apart a struggling Paladin in
silvery fullplate armour.
Oh no! The silent rage echoed inside the Lord General's mind as he drew both of
his longswords, rushing headlong into battle to try and stop the Ur'Guard
Commandant's brutal massacre of the Paladin. Korath turned around, eyes shining
with glee as he finally spotted his mortal foe from across the field,
triumphantly brandishing Colonel Malin Bladewing in one hand before brutally
throwing the soldier over his knee, the trill's wings spasming as his back
shattered from the force of the blow.
"He is mine," Korath's voice was like a command, the Ur'Guard around him
fanning out to engage in the battle as their leader grinned in the moonlight.
"So you finally show, chola worm. I hoped it would be here. The trill boy's cry
of delirium- should you tell him? Can I tell him?" he laughed down to the broken
body under his feet, grinding the Paladin's broken leg under his boot as he
continued. "He looooooves you, Inalai. Which dooms him, doesn't it? Because if
there's one thing you're good at, it's letting people down. Go ahead," Korath
taunted, pulling a health vial from his belt as he waved it briefly. "Clock's
A sudden rush of bloody, red rage descended over Lord General Dolph Inalai's
eyes, even as his heart turned to ice. Anger and hatred, beasts yoked to
cold-hearted calculation as they prepared to ride, pulled the swords from his
sheaths as his scream tore through the air and bore him across the distance to
Korath. The orclach grunted in shock, assuming a defensive posture as Inalai's
swords flashed in the glint of the fires burning around the Palace. The duel
was frenzied as Inalai brought his swords whistling against Korath's sword,
even biting through his armour, repeatedly as he forced the orclach back. His
mind chanting for a perfect kill, to take the blood with a devastating stroke,
even as Korath tried to retaliate with the massive black greatsword, barely
even noticing his wounds. Maybe this is what Nerale felt like, Dolph thought to
himself in a sudden burst of inspiration, thrilled and horrified that he had the
same instinct. flowering at last.
He frowned as the beast's howl echoed with just a little less strength, just
enough for him to notice his bleeding nose had healed entirely. With a sick
swoop of dread, he turned his head at the same time Korath did, to see a boy no
older than thirteen chanting the magical ritual of Puella under his breath.
Korath fixed his enemy with a single look, which blazed with the contempt that
could only be possible for a man who had found his rival had sunk to a brand
new low. The Paladin tried to shout across to the Ur'Guard, and warn him away
from killing an innocent youth. But Korath had crossed to the child, drawn the
sword back, STABBED-
- the blade went right through the boy's guts in one stroke, blood gushing from
his lips all over his plain white robes as Korath grinned back at the Paladin he
had stripped of his advantage. The beast roared back to life in a profane,
drowning flood of noise as Inalai attacked even harder, slashing Korath's face,
his chest, anything that would take an edge, now the pain doesn't exist. You
will BURN, Korath.
The orclach finally found himself being pushed, couldn't believe the Inalai had
found himself, knew he had only one chance to save him own life in the face of
the insane berserker. The sword snaked out into the meat of the Paladin's
thigh, and hit again, and Dolph Inalai pitched towards the ground as the cut
nerves refused to carry the orders of his killer's mind. Korath stamped down on
the hands, breaking the fingers before daring to pull the Paladin up to look at
the young man who had finally come into his own.
SLASH. HACK. SLASH.
Korath finally staggered away as the last of the Inalais fell, feeling for a
vial of health elixir as he tried to tip the fluid into his mouth with
trembling fingertips. He heard the voice come from him like a death's rattle,
watching as the Lord General formed the words from battered lips, "Korath...
brutality is not strength..." But it was not brutality, he was fighting like an
orclach fights, like they had always fought, he had killed children before.
I never smiled, though. Not before.
The Commandant of the Ur'Guard clutched at his head as he finally felt the war
for his mind, and felt his mind pull him a thousand miles away in the last
resort all orclach had-
Chapter 11: Misapprehensions
Korath woke in the green. The grassy plains all around him, like the ancient
savannah of old, inclined gently upwards until the orclach's eyes found the
golden hall. The shouts of joy and chants echoed from its depths, where all
orclach who died with the heart of a soldier went to drink and sing away
eternity with Urlach himself. Here was the final resting place of all Ur'Guard,
when even undeath sickened and a soldier's spirit was retired.
Korath walked past the path to the hall, walked into the forest that was behind
the hill, finally entering a secluded glade. His spirit called out to Orclach
Supreme Command, to those Commanders that had gone before him, willing them to
speak with him and make his way straight. They came- three orclach, the
greatest legends of old come to life once more. "What's this?" barked one as
his large red eyes fell on Korath. "Young Korath," rumbled Commander Igaram
Tacreb. "Well, you are a sight for sore eyes." "We hear your heart, Cho'kuul,
and we always have," came the warm burr of Commander Khemla Sharuco, her voice
echoing through the glade as her black armor shone. "But why do you need us,"
challenged Commander Kilita Chokar, his eyes narrowing to slits. "You know what
to do, just like all of us do. So Ladantine looks like the prophet of memory-
when he asks us to dishonor our heritage? To hand out undeath as a gift to one
who is not ready? To massacre without thought? Have we so easily descended into
barbarism after the example of Urlach?"
Korath shook his head sternly as he looked to them all, "No- I know. I have
felt the weight on my mind, and known that a presence not my own seeks to walk
within my thoughts. I can face that presence, but I," his voice fell off
uncertainly as he looked around, and finally his voice admitted under the gaze
of those whom he owed the truth, "I wanted to see Muja again."
The other two men looked at each other, but the woman smiled broadly, holding
out her hands to Korath. "She waits outside the Glade, Korath. She waits for
you. But she will not lay eyes on you until you have concluded your duty. She
will not defile your eternal record for the sake of anything." Korath's chest
swelled with pride as he nodded to Khemla. "Aye, and that is the type of woman
she is. Thank you, Commander." He bowed his head humbly, and walked away from
the glade, his form becoming insubstantial until it finally faded.
The two men instantly whirled on the woman as Korath vanished. "You lied to
him!" Kilita accused Khemla, snarling in sudden anger. Igaram stroked his chin
worriedly as he asked, "Aye, Khemla, I do not like deceiving our own men."
"That is because neither of you understand!" she glared at the pair of them
with sudden vehemence, waving an arm violently at the golden hall. "How many of
ours were consumed by Kethuru? Especially the women! The monster has attacked
our homes, our bases- she seeks to destroy us! And will she succeed? Will she
succeed if I tell Korath that Muja is waiting, and she doesn't care what he
comes back as, just as long as she doesn't make the same mistake in death as in
life? Neither of you took a mate, so you have no idea! Do you think we deserve
to die?" Her eyes no longer fixed on them, they seemed to accuse something
beyond the veil, at something that was far beyond their sight. "No," Commander
Khemla said more softly, "whatever the truth of our making, we don't deserve to
die. He will stand, and he will rebuild us. It has to be him. Or we shall truly
The sight was restored to Korath's eyes, as he stared numbly at the carnage
ahead of him. The haze had lifted, and he could see the sudden insanity of
everything around him. Unhooking two vials from his belt, he threw them down
silently to Lord General Inalai, who swiftly threw the potion back into his
mouth, rolling over next to Bladewing as he tried to force the potion down the
Colonel's throat. Korath staggered across the emptying field, barely even
noticing the pitched battle erupting all along the steps of the Star Palace as
orclach tried to break through spheres of light, did not even register the
glowing white figure that hovered in the sky, as he called all the way up to
Ladantine, who stood upon a great observation platform above the battle.
"Ladantine!" he called out hoarsely. "Emperor, let us leave this place! There's
no more power for you to gain here. We have weakened our enemy, and they aren't
going to recover!" "NO!" Ladantine screamed in a voice twisted by insanity. "WE
FINISH THEM FOREVER! They will pay for thwarting my designs!" "Ladantine, this
is madness! Take what's left of your army and we will fight them another day!"
"You do as I TELL YOU, Korath!!" Ladantine's voice echoed seemingly forever, to
every orclach ear on the Isle, and especially within Korath's own head.
Never slaves... Korath thought as he turned his back on the lunatic Emperor,
letting his voice reach out to the other orclach on the Isle, urging them to
pull away. A few reacted with shock and outrage, that they were leaving before
the battle had concluded, but the rest had registered the same thing that he
had, and had turned around, folding reality around them as they departed the
field back to Shallach Fortress, last home of the Ur'Guard.
"You have to drink," Lord General Inalai's voice was hollow as he tipped the
liquid over a mouth that would never drink again, collapsing next to the body
of Colonel Malin Bladewing as he stared mournfully at the sky. "Forgive me."
The voice echoed through the world, Marilynth's apology to everyone that
believed, but her eyes were on him, and the thought was for him.
He had failed. Marilynth had ascended, but all was dark and empty. He had
fulfilled his duty, paid his dues against the best warrior in the world, and
now he could sleep. Eyelids flickering, he waited with bated breath for the
death that needed to come.
"G-General? Please... sir... get up, sir."
He felt the two children tugging insistently on his ruined armour, trying to
pull him to his feet. He clamped down on his thoughts of dying, forcing them
aside the second that the hands of children had touched him. Slowly pulling
himself on his feet, barely able to breathe, he pulled off the scraps of armor
with sudden, forced movements. The young children trying their best to support
his great form, he made his way towards the evacuation transport. As he did so,
he noticed the furrikin tackle Ladantine, watched them plummet until the
furrikin vanished in a blinding flash of moonlight. Dolph Inalai gritted his
teeth. Magnagora and Rowena had attacked them, but Serenwilde has sent nothing
but a deep cover assassin who only meant to eliminate that which would be a
problem to them. The cold pulse of hate echoed through the Lord General as he
thought of this, steeling his heart, but he finally looked out towards the
bubble that had formed over the pool. As the transport broke away from the
shore, he said a silent prayer for any who could not escape, for anyone who
wished to be taken by Celestia's grace.
And then the bubble finally burst.
Avarath stormed through the dirty city of Magnagora, forcing his way through
the ruins that even now still had not entirely been cleared. Ignoring the
terrified squeals of the slaves he had kicked out from underfoot, he strode
towards the woman, the twisted imitation of a trill, and her monstrous guards.
The woman looked at him with disdain, but her back stiffened as she noticed the
helm Avarath wore, the gift of Ladantine and the sacred artifact of Urlach.
Steeling himself against the shame he remembered, the shame of being forced
from the field of battle by his own leaders, he plunged on. "My name is
Sergeant Avarath, of the Ur'Guard. I've come to establish Ur'Guard here in
Magnagora- a true Ur'Guard that keeps the will to fight our enemies." The woman
sneered back from a dark grey face, putting her hands on her hips, "I am Camilla
d'Murani, and I am the leader of Ur'Guard in Magnagora. I am master of undeath,
She froze. Faster than blinking, Avarath had drawn a wicked-looking saber and
pressed it against her neck, even as her guards shouted and brandished their
own weapons. "This is mutiny," she calmly informed Avarath. "You have no chance
in the world to fight through ten elite biscanti warriors."
"In two seconds, I'll be fighting nine elite viscanti warriors, wench, so don't
muck me about," Avarath growled. "I came here seriously, and no orclach warrior
is going to be talked down to by- whatever you call yourself." The woman's
nostrils flared as she challenged, "Yeah? Then tell me true, orclach, if it's
so easy being green, why aren't you with your friends in Shallach? You didn't
finish the job with Celest, and that's why you are here, isn't it? Tell you
what- you and I together, we can rebuild the Ur'Guard. Take the power of
undeath and make a new Ur'Guard, one that will never bend to anyone. We can
have it all, and you can keep the Helm until you sicken, but let's be clear. I
have no fear of dying, and the only reason you're still alive is because we can
work together. So, CAPTAIN Avarath- I hope we can make a deal. I am Supreme
Commander Camilla d'Murani .Because the alternative is Ur'Guard being a shell
of its former self. Forever."
Camilla's eyes bored into Avarath's until he smiled, laughing at some private
joke as he pulled the sabre away from the woman's neck, finally nodding to
himself. "All right- Commander. You have yourself a deal."
Krangar looked to Korath, as did the few warriors that were left, deep within
the Catacombs underneath the Shallach Fortress. "Well, Commandant?" he slowly
asked. "Some of us have gone to follow Avarath and Magnagora- many have been
killed. After a massacre like that, what's left to do?"
Korath's jaw formed a solid line as he held his old friend in his gaze. "We
fight everything against us, even the Fates themselves, until we break .