Cacame Against Fate

The scraps of the Somma army melted away into the vast forest. King Cacame Awemedinade, called the Immortal Onslaught by both enemies and subjects alike, briefly considered ordering his men to pursue them. He briefly considered pursuing them himself. But even beaten, the elves were crafty and tenacious. There was no point in risking his men to pick off stragglers. Even if a dozen elves were slain, the loss of one of his dwarves would not be worth it.

The Somma were doomed. What had once been a mighty kingdom now lay in ashes. A dozen scattered settlements was all that was left of them. Most of these were insignificant hamlets, little more than huts shaped out of the trees.

Cacame’s vengeance was nearing its zenith. The utter destruction of the people who had taken his wife from him, who had devoured her body all because she had been born into a village conquered by dwarves.

He peered out into the flames which licked the roots of the tree city. In the three sweeps since he had been woken from his fugue by the so-called gods, he had expanded the borders of Dobar Odkish nearly three-fold. Much of it had been won in wars against the humans and goblins who had dared to encroach upon his territory. Once he’d regained what had been lost, however, he turned his eyes on his true foe.

In those first assaults, his vigor had seemed infinite. With each elf slain, it waned and waned. He knew his destiny was to be the last elf. But the satisfaction he sought was so far missing. Perhaps it merely would not come until the stroke he watched the next-to-last elf choke out his final breath.

He could see the face of that elf in his mind and it was the face of Amoya Themarifa, the elv who had murdered Cacame’s wife. Of course, Amoya was long dead at the hands of another and nothing would bring him back.

“My liege,” a dwarf said, breaking his king’s reverie. Cacame looked down at the dwarf, who knelt in the muck of gory mud. His cuirass was dented and shattered in places. A gash was opened over his left eye, though the blood had ceased to pour from it.

“Speak,” Cacame said to him. He was Duke Okir Eshonerir, the leader of the vanguard. He had been one of the first dwarves to enter combat against the Somma forces. In this hundred sweeps Cacame had been “sleeping”, the duke’s family had become a powerful one in the kingdom.

“The flames, lord,” Okir said, rising from his knee. “Shall we have them doused?”

Cacame turned back to stare at them once again. The flames. This land was technically part of the Kingdom of Dobar Odkish now. The lumber would be useful to craftsmen. The animals that called it home a plentiful source of food for his people. The herbs turned into medicines.

But his people already had lumber, food, and medicines aplenty. What need had he of a few more scraps of forest?

“Let it burn,” Cacame said before turning and walking back toward his command tent.

Were it not for his sweeps living among the dwarves, beneath the earth in the cavernous fortress of Gamildodók, Cacame may never have felt the quivering of the earth below him. It was slight, almost gentle. Like a light breeze upon his cheek.

He shifted to the side just as the great serpent burst from the ground beneath him. Shouts of alarm went up from every soldier near enough to see it. Its dagger-filled mouth had missed Cacame’s leg by a few bare spans, but still the force of its exit from the earth had sent him tumbling to the ground.

It let out a sound that sounded akin to a frog’s croak, albeit one deep and reverberating, and lunged for him. Cacame rolled to his right, unfortunately away from the warhammer that had been lost in the wyrm’s narrowly-avoided first strike. It’s snout smashed into the dirt a split second after Cacame had rolled aside.

It turned to him and was about to strike again when a silver flash crashed into its side. The creature let out a quivering shriek, the spiked fin which circled its head and ran down its back flaring in anger. “Run, my lord!” Okir shouted as the beast whipped its sinuous neck around and bashed the duke aside.

A squad of dwarves quickly replaced him, circling the beast and lunging at it with spears. The beast thrashed back and forth for a moment, snapping at them. But at each strike, the well-trained target would jump deftly back, even in heavy mail, while his comrades took the opportunity to thrust. The beast was not stupid, however. It quickly realized it could not win this fight. With astounding speed, it retreated back into the tunnel from which it had emerged.

Cacame walked over and looked down into the darkness. Straining, he could hear the scrape of the creature’s scales through the tunnel.

“Shall we pursue?” one of the dwarves asked.

The tunnel was just wide enough for the dwarves to head down it single-file. His men were experienced in fighting in cramped tunnels, having often dealt with great beasts that lived in natural underground caverns. But this was no ordinary animal or singular monstrosity.

It was a finscale, one of the so-called chosen beasts of Íle. In the time when Cacame had been young, they were mostly myths... occasional marauding monsters in the densest forests. Cunning ambush predators which had ravaged settlements of goblin, elf, and dwarf alike. Now the Somma venerated them as embodiments of Íle.

“No,” Cacame said, as one of the dwarves recovered his warhammer. “Let it go.” He squeezed the metal haft of his weapon. “It’s just an animal. No need to lose lives hunting it.”

The dwarves saluted him and immediately broke away to return to whatever it was they had been doing. Cacame resumed his walk back to his command tent. As he walked, he passed a priest swathed in white, kneeling beside a dying soldier. The crimson on the soldier’s lips was a stark contrast to the pale flesh. His eyes were wide and blank, but his chest spasmed, sending little flecks of blood splashing from his mouth.

The priest had a wide, deep hood so that his face could not be seen. “All souls go to Vucar. We are born under Vucar’s grace. We fight for his glory.”

Cacame couldn’t help but snort, though it was too soft for the priest to hear. The cult of Vucar had been a minor one when Cacame first came to power, but its influence had grown over the sweeps while the other gods were increasingly marginalized. Many of the rituals and chants the priests used were the same as once used for a god named Nethgön, a foreign god of death and blight.

“We join him in death,” the priest continued to the dying dwarf. “Your soul will be consumed by him if you were unworthy, returned to glory if you served him properly.” The dwarf’s sporadic breathing had ceased. The priest spread a pinch of rust over the dwarf’s face and shut his eyes, then stood and shuffled over to the next of the dying.

As Cacame walked away, thoughts of his encounter with the two gods beneath the mountain entered unbidden. When he had been young, before his wife had been slain and devoured, Cacame had once worshiped Íle as many of his subjects now worshiped Vucar. He had even stood inside Íle’s sacred grove. But never had he felt the divine awesomeness that he felt when facing those two gods, one of light, one of dark. Optierus and Galvetrus.

They had called the other gods false. Vucar, Íle, Nethgön... Just demons, those two gods said. Cacame shook his head to drive the thoughts out of his mind. Even if they were demons, they were the ones receiving the worship, while none had ever heard of those two.

Cacame’s command tent was a spartan affair. It had been set up in a clearing about a half-league behind the battlefield; far enough away so he wouldn’t be in danger from the flames, but close enough that he could give orders should it be required. He sat cross-legged upon the mat inside and pulled the flaps shut, casting the interior into gloom. Only the dimmest of brown light leaked through the canvas.

Since he’d awoken from his century-long fugue, Cacame achieved little sleep. A few hours every few strokes was all he could manage. While did not feel the exhaustion he should, neither did he ever feel rested. Though he had been fighting all stroke, he did not feel sleepy. He was physically tired, but knew he would find no slumber.

Often, he would think of his lost Nemo. The way he would run his hands through her thick, black hair. The twinkle in her eyes, greener than the freshest spring leaves. The way her thin-lipped smile caused her button nose to turn even more upward.

His thoughts of her this night were only fleeting, driven out by the distant chants of the priests as they performed last rites on the dead and dying.

Deep in the night, the only sounds that broke the darkness were the occasional calls from the sentries at the changing of the watch. The priests must have found all the dead, as normally they would work straight through until dawn. Dwarves saw perfectly in the darkness, much better than they saw in the light. Cacame’s dark vision was strong thanks to his decades underground, though he still needed some light to see.

Unlike human armies, Cacame’s forces could march whenever they pleased. But unlike him, his dwarves needed rest, especially after a hard battle. Sweeps earlier he may have begrudged them the rest in his quest for vengeance. But he’d allowed that flame to blaze into an inferno which quickly guttered out. Now he was content to let it smolder.

As Cacame sat, the soft drone of wetas slowly filled the air. Occasionally, a croak from a chough penetrated the harmony. It seemed Cacame had not heard one of the sentry calls in quite some time.

Something rustled outside his tent. Cacame shifted slightly; his sentries were sharp-eyed. Nothing dangerous could sneak into the camp undetected. Not the most skulking kobold or stealthiest predator. Then someone took the edge of the tent flap and opened it up.

The bright light that filled the tent momentarily blinded Cacame. He raised a hand to shield his eyes. It had not seemed to him that the sun should have risen already. His men were to have risen before daybreak regardless.

Before he could reprimand the soldier for having waited so long to “awake” him, Cacame realized it was not a dwarf at all. The figure, cloaked in shadows because of the heavy backlight, was too tall, too slender.

Cacame lunged for his warhammer, but the intruder merely laughed and let the flap fall back into place, casting the interior into darkness again. Cacame snatched up his weapon and leapt to his feet.

When he threw the tent flap aside, it was still night and no source of light was visible, though spots still danced in his vision. He blinked his eyes heavily and looked around. There, several strides off, stood the figure. It was taller than Cacame and more slender as well, with a long cloak pulled over its body.

“Intruders!” Cacame shouted, his voice piercing the night like the crack of a whip. “Raise the alarm!”

He expected an immediate response from his dwarves, the sounds of soldiers rising from their sleep and grabbing weapons, voices echoing his own, transmitting his cry around the camp. Instead there was nothing but silence still. “Intruders! Rise, raise the alarm!” he cried out again.

The only sound answering him was a laugh from the intruder. It was not a mocking sound, but merely mirthful and lilting; feminine. Cacame rushed toward the intruder, who merely turned and bounded off, almost like some sort of fey creature.

Cacame continued to pursue, though he knew he might be walking into some sort of trap. “Intruders!” Cacame repeated. “Rise, raise the alarm!” Then, to the fleeing figure, “Stop!”

They were heading toward the forest, Cacame realized, as the fading embers of the fires still filled the air with a haunting glow. No, it was not merely embers. The entire forest was consumed in an inferno.

To enter the forest would be utter madness. Yet the figure rushed for it. It would not have been the first time someone fled Cacame for another doom, but the laughs of the pursued were louder even that the crackle of flame.

About ten strides from the wall of flame, Cacame ceased his chase. The figure ran a few steps further, then spun, the flames licking the edges of her cloak. “Who are you?” Cacame asked in between heavy breaths. How did the smoke not affect her breathing, he wondered.

The figure reached up and slowly removed the hood from her head. In the light of the flame, Cacame could make out features clearly. Slender ears, long blond hair, sharp features, pale blue eyes, a mouth turned up in a slight smirk.

“Amoya!” Cacame screamed. The elv who had killed and devoured his wife. The elv who was supposed to be dead, over a century before. Cacame had dug up her grave with his own hands, had seen the corpse crumble to dust in the waters of Íle stream.

“Amoya!” Cacame shrieked, lunging forward as the elv laughed again and leapt backward into the flames. Cacame nearly dove in after her, but strong hands grasped him and pulled him to a stop.

Cacame spun wildly, brutally swinging his hammer at whoever dared hamper his pursuit. A sickening crack splintered the air and a dwarven voice cried out in surprised pain. Another hand grabbed him and Cacame smashed at it, but it was replaced with two more and each of them was replaced by three when he dashed them.

“Amoya!” Cacame cried out as he was pulled down by the strong hands and pinned to the ground. “Amoya!” He let the last syllable extend into an animalistic howl.

“King Cacame!” Duke Okir’s stern voice cut through his rage. The red glow of the ablaze forest vanished, while the crackle of flames and hum of the weta ceased suddenly, to be replaced with the pained moans of the injured and panicked cries of dwarves hurrying to ready themselves for combat.

“What...” Cacame muttered. His left hand ached. He tried to relax it, but it was locked like a claw around his war hammer. He took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. He finally released his grip on the weapon.

The dwarves who were pinning him down were each champions, the veterans of many campaigns, relaxed their holds, though not completely. Several lay sprawled on the ground with various wounds. A doctor was already scampering forward to attend to them.

“Are you well, majesty?” Okir asked stiffly.

Cacame sat up. “Amoya...” he muttered.

“Yes,” Okir answered. “You were saying the name before you nearly rushed into the forest.”

“Pursue her” Cacame said. “Bring her in to me alive!” The champions who still restrained him did not move. “That is an order!”

At his severe command, they freed him and, along with other soldiers who had arrived, quickly paired off and dashed into the night forest. Cacame retrieved his warhammer and stood. Finding his legs strangely weak, he planted the butt of his weapon into the ground and leaned on it like a staff.

“Why didn’t anyone answer my alarm?” Cacame said to Okir.

The duke furrowed his brow. “We did, your majesty. As soon as you began your call, it was echoed through the camp. I myself was rushing toward your tent when I saw you running this way. I followed until you stopped and started shouting... that name.”

Cacame turned slowly to look at the forest. There was no fire. There were not even embers left. They had all burned themselves out. There were only blackened husks of trees, the ashes on the ground kicked into the air by the pursuing soldiers.

“Did you see her?” Cacame asked the duke, his voice low and gruff.

“No, your majesty. I saw no one. Nor did anyone else.”

Cacame shook his head. Some sort of waking dream? “What watch is it?” he asked.

“Half seventh,” the duke said. Two hours until dawn.

“In an hour, put out the call for the search parties to return,” Cacame said flatly. “If anyone is found, inform me immediately. Otherwise, wake me once everyone is ready to leave.”

Okir raised his right fist to the center of his chest and bowed forward slightly. “Yes, your majesty.”

Cacame walked by himself back toward his tent. As he did he looked up into the empty sky. “A dream or a vision?” he muttered. “Have one of you returned Amoya to torment me for failing to chose you?”

A sudden chill wind swept over him.

Cacame was awoken by Duke Okir himself; it was a literal awakening, a rare thing. Cacame’s sleep had been deep and empty. As always, he was left weary and stiff. The rays of the morning sun did little to help him. If anything, it seemed to sap the warmth away.

Amoya had not been found. Several of the scout teams had not returned. None of the others reported any sort of disturbance. If the missing had been killed by the elves, the ambushes had been well planned.

The army marched at dawn. Originally, they had expected a three-stroke march to the next elven settlement, Arimarali. Cacame had altered those plans. Now, they were cutting directly through the forest, a route which would put them in much more danger.

“The dwarves can handle it,” Cacame said.

Duke Okir nodded sternly. “Of course they can,” he agreed. “But should they? We’re not used to marching through trees, your majesty. Ever since we began this campaign, we’ve been traveling through open land. You yourself advised it.”

“We’ve fought in the forest dozens of times.”

Once again, the duke nodded. His bushy eyebrows, gray with only the barest hints of his once-red hair, furrowed together so they were touching. “Yes, lord, fought. Rarely marched, except for a few leagues. And those times it was the last few leagues before we reached the field of battle. High alert for a few leagues is doable. High alert for an entire stroke is difficult, draining. We’ll either lose men to ambushes along the way or have an army that is fatigued once we arrive. Either way, we suffer.”

“Will the army refuse my orders?” Cacame asked.

“No, your majesty,” Okir said with a firm shake of his head. “Neither will I. We’re not stupid. While you ruled, the kingdom won great victories. While you slumbered, our borders shrank. Now that you’ve awoken again, we’ve reconquered the lands we lost and several duchies beyond. If you say we march through Minafe, we do. I just want to remind you of the risks before we chase down your vengeance.”

Cacame couldn’t help but smirk. “This entire war has been my vengeance.”

“No,” Duke Okir answered flatly, “it hasn’t. Not until Amoya showed up.”

“So you do believe she’s alive? That she was here?”

“I don’t put much stock in belief, my lord. I leave that for the priests.”

There was a reason Cacame had put Duke Okir in charge of the vanguard. Most nobles were craven, sniveling fools, more eager to fill their vaults with knick-knacks crafted from their favorite materials than lead an army. Even among those who had a heart for the front had raised Cacame to a virtual god himself. Images of him were engraved on cavern walls across the kingdom and more than one supplicant had come before him almost worshipfully.

Okir was one of the very few who could be counted on to do something beside simply accede to Cacame’s wishes. But he also knew that no matter what, he was not the final authority on any matter. “We march through the forest. Whatever consequences we face, so be it.”

With a curt nod, Okir said, “Very well, your majesty.” That had been the end of it.

By the time the army called its midstroke halt, two watches into the march, nearly a hundred dwarves had been lost to ambushes. Only twenty elves had been killed in return. They hadn’t even reached the densest part yet, but the thick trees were perfect for ambushes. Plus, three different finscales had attacked the army. All three had been slain, but not before they killed multitudes of dwarves.

The last one had attacked right before Cacame called a halt to the march. “An hour to rest,” he told Duke Okir. “Have the sentries take three twenty-minute shifts. The butchers should get to work on that finscale. We’ll dine on it outside the walls of Arimarali.”

One of the few luxuries Cacame allowed himself was food. The normal army rations were good enough for the soldiers, but their king ate from a well-stocked larder of salted meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. After marching for so many hours, his stomach gnawed at him with hunger. He ate quickly, but deliberately, savoring the tastes and chewing thoroughly, but moving between bites with haste.

He finished just as Duke Okir entered his tent with a series of reports. In addition to the lost troops, a dozen wagons had been destroyed and twenty-three chalcos had been killed or ran off. At least some of the chalcos had been butchered for their meat, though the dwarves wouldn’t appreciate it. Morale overall was still high in the camp, though the soldiers were on edge because of the ambushes.

After delivering the reports, Okir stood waiting. “Did you even have time to eat and rest?” Cacame asked him. Okir shook his head.

“I can eat from chalcoback,” he explained. “Unless you wish to use it for yourself.”

Once again, Cacame shook his head. “You need it more than I do.” In a sense, this was true. Though Okir, in his early 70s, was still a century younger than Cacame, he was middle-aged for a dwarf, while Cacame was immortal unless killed. Cacame had never taken to riding the huge, subterranean beetles favored by the dwarves as mounts and beasts of burden.

In truth, he missed his wyvern, which had escaped during his fugue.

“So it is, my lord,” Okir said sternly. “We are ready to march at your pleasure.”

“Then we march,” Cacame said, rising from the ground and emerging from his tent behind Okir. The Duke signaled to the hornsdwarf, who blew a blast. Almost immediately, dwarves who had been sitting and talking hopped to their feet and began quickly and efficiently preparing for departure.

It was only a few minutes before they were moving. Cacame walked silently along in the center of the column, safe from any attempted ambushes. Scouts ranged ahead of the army, seeking out ambushes and other dangers. The trees were still thick and the elves masters of stealth in the wood.

Cacame kept his eyes coolly on the canopy, but he could tell his men were beginning to get on edge. Several had their eyes flicking back and forth nervously and at the merest flex of a branch under the weight of an asio, their hands went to their weapons.

Over the course of an hour, the ordered columns gradually broke down as the trees became thicker and the overgrowth more difficult to maneuver through. The trailblazers did their best to hack and cut a clear path, but frequently trees were packed so tightly a single dwarf could not squeeze through, much less three or four shoulder-to-shoulder.

A cry of pain jolted everyone to attention and weapons were drawn, including Cacame’s. But it was no enemy. Instead a dwarf had been bitten by a swaying naja. The serpent possessed a deadly venom and, though the dwarf had been wearing sturdy leather travel armor, its fangs had pierced his boot and flesh.

The head of the snake had been removed, but it was too late for the soldier. He had fallen to the ground immediately after screaming, his muscles seizing and his face pulling into a rictus grin. His eyes darted back and forth to his fellows, who tried their best to comfort him as he struggled for breath.

A priest was called and Cacame resumed marching before one could arrive. The dwarf would be gone before the rear of the army would reach this point. His body would be wrapped in a shroud and placed in a wagon with the rest of the deceased, until he could be returned to his home and properly memorialized.

Soon after, another soldier was bitten by a naja. Then reports reached Cacame that five others had been struck down. Twelve snakes had struck but failed to pierce their victims’ armor. The order was given to watch both the ground and the trees. Dwarves were paired, one set to watch above, one below. The snake attacks ceased.

Thirty minutes later, a dwarfess opened her mouth to shout a warning when an arrow down the throat silenced her. Another arrow landed a few joints away from Cacame, who dropped down into a battle crouch. Tall as he was, he made an easy target for the Somma snipers to pick out.

“Crossbows!” Cacame ordered, pointing into the trees with his hammerhead. Almost immediately, the Somma began releasing war cries, ululations which sounded like the angry shrieks of birds and snarls of lizards. His own dwarves answered with brave cries of their own as they raised shields to ward off arrows or aimed crossbows.

The flickering shadows and light of the canopy cast confusing images, even for Cacame. He watched as bolts flew skyward, only to skewer groups of leaves or swaying branches instead of the sniping elves.

The elven arrows continued to rain down around him, cutting into his dwarves but always missing him. How many were there in the trees above? Dozens? Hundreds? A cacophony was being raised all about him, so he could not tell how much of the army was being hit.

“Follow my aim!” he shouted, hoping his voice would carry over the whooping shouts of the ambushers. He pointed at an elf and said, “There! Fire!”

A dozen bolts streamed right where he pointed, perforating the elf, who tumbled to the ground. Cacame found his next target and repeated the order with similar results. He did this thrice more, but despite the success, it was far too slow. Far more dwarves were sent to the grave than elves.

When it seemed the defenders would be overwhelmed by the ambush, it suddenly ceased. The rustle of leaves, snap of twigs, and creak of branches followed the elves as they retreated from their attack. Cacame was about to order his dwarves to pursue, when he saw one figure lingering behind in the trees.

When the figure let out a laugh that cut through the cries of the dying and the barked orders of commanders, Cacame knew. “Amoya!” he shouted. He aimed his hammer at the elv and shouted. “Fire!” Bolts darted through the air, directly at Amoya. The elv swayed back and forth, almost as if she were part of the trees. The bolts missed her completely.

Amoya leapt backward through the trees, her mouth twisted in a smirk like a laceration. Cacame’s finger followed her and he ran after, giving the order to fire again and again. Bolts continued to fly through the air but miss the mark. The cackles continued to echo through the air, louder even than the twangs of the crossbow strings.

Cacame grabbed a long hanging branch and leapt up, pulling himself into the trees. He hadn’t climbed in the trees like this since he was a child. His feet, in thick, heavy dwarven boots, slipped and shifted. Amoya grinned at him wider and called out, “Returning to your roots?” she asked.

Before he could leap after, a strong hand grabbed his foot and yanked. Cacame tumbled from the trees and landed flat on his back, the breath being knocked out of him. Despite having to gasp for air, Cacame sat up, clutching his warhammer. Eyes burning with fury, he pushed himself to his feet to chase after Amoya. But his nemesis was already gone.

Instead, Cacame turned to find whoever had stopped his pursuit. He saw a cadre of champions, heavily armed and armored, led by Duke Okir. “Who laid their hands on me?” Cacame wheezed. “Who stopped me?”

Duke Okir crossed his arms and said, “You were chasing no one, my lord.”

“It was Amoya!” Cacame tried to shout, but only managed to get halfway through the name.

“No one saw her, my lord. They say they were shooting at nothing.” He waved his hand at the ground behind him, where several dwarves lay with bolts sticking from them. “The bolts were hitting our own troops.”

Cacame finally sucked in a breath and shouted, “They couldn’t see her!” He shook his head and his voice dropped. “They couldn’t see any of the ambushers until I spotted for them.”

“So it is, my lord,” Duke Okir said. “But you chasing her into the trees would be pointless. We cannot risk losing you.”

“I would never – ” Cacame began, before biting his tongue. He relaxed his hand, which once again ached from having squeezed his warhammer too tightly. “We will stop for thirty minutes to tend to the wounded. Then we march again.”

Duke Okir bowed and said, “As you order, my lord,” then turned to his champions to give further orders. Cacame walked off without listening to them.

By the time they reached Arimarali, over five hundred dwarves had been lost due to the ambushes. That was nearly a tenth of the size of the army. The soldiers were tired, hungry, and miserable. It was nearing nightfall and though the dwarves would have preferred to fight in the darkness, they were in no condition to do so.

The elven tree village was ringed by a tall thicket of brambles. In some ways, this was even more impenetrable than the stone walls surrounding Gamildodók, because it could not be easily climbed with a ladder or rope. Instead, his soldiers would have to either scale the trees and attempt to navigate the treacherous branches or burn the entire wall down.

They made camp roughly half a league from the city itself. As had become tradition at this point, the woodcutters went to work on the trees around the perimeter camp, felling them in order to prevent any ambushes. For the most part, the trees were left where they lay. If Cacame had been ready to settle into a siege, he may have ordered them to use the logs to set up a defensive wall. With his plans for an assault and the fatigue of his dwarves, that was out of the question.

Instead, his weary soldiers merely stood guard over the logging operation for about two hours as the sky darkened as the sun vanished in the north. The thwack of axes into tree trunks filled the air with a constant drumming. Every few minutes, the loud crash of a falling tree would overpower everything.

Cacame sat in his tent. Eventually, the sounds died out as the last of the trees were brought down. There would be three watches of rest, enough time for every dwarf to get a full eight hour of sleep, along with time for meals. Once the twelve hours were up, they would ready themselves for battle.

Even though he was physically exhausted, Cacame once again found sleep eluded him. Even his normal semi-meditation was restless. He could not manage to get comfortable, no matter how he shifted. After an hour of such difficulty, he stood and walked out of his tent.

Several dim cooking fires flickered around the camp, but the section Cacame walked through was relatively unlit. He could hear the loud snores of several of his soldiers in nearby tents. They deserved their sleep, most certainly.

Cacame walked deeper toward the center of the camp, where the trees were thickest. Despite the destruction he often had wrought upon trees – as well as their association with elves – Cacame found he did not hate them. Some primal part of him, he supposed, was still comforted by them, though he also felt no sorrow when they were cut down or burned.

Some of his soldiers had camped among them as well. He walked silently between tents and past campfires. If any noticed him, they said nothing. Finally, he reached an area where the trees were too thick to properly camp.

Looking up into the blackness of the sky, he considered the battle that would rage tomorrow. His soldiers would fire flaming bolts into the bramble wall, aiming to set it ablaze. The defenders would struggle to put them out, but would fail. The walls would go up in a blaze and, eventually, a segment would be breached by his army.

The breach would be flooded with attackers. The elves would make a defense, for a while, taking down as many dwarves as possible while minimizing their own casualties. But while the elves were skilled ambushers, in the heat of proper war, their prowess was limited. They still wielded wooden arms and armor that, while tempered with druidic magic, was still of less quality than dwarven steel.

It would eventually turn into a one-sided slaughter. Arimarali was a village of over ten-thousand, hundreds of them refugees. Many of them would be hemmed in by the fires and perish. Others would be run down by the dwarven army. A few would manage to escape and flee into the forest, to the next settlement on Cacame’s march of conquest.

Over half the Somma lands had been conquered by now. They were the last great elven nation. During his slumber, Ethonarena had finally fallen. The remnants of his nation of birth had been absorbed into the Somma. Far to the east, the Jörða had been destroyed by goblins. In the north, stories claimed the Belwrid had been decimated in a war with the mysterious dranomyr, then had their lands overrun by gibberlings.

Soon, the Somma would enter the annals of history along with the others. Once they did... Cacame knew not. The majority of his waking life had been consumed with the destruction of all elves. Once their kingdoms had been ground into dust, perhaps he would dedicate time to hunting down every last survivor. Though it would be difficult for a king to spend so much time away from the throne.

“Returning to your roots?” a voice asked.

Cacame did not turn to face Amoya, instead continuing to stare up at the empty night sky. “You asked that before. What do you mean by it?”

“Not going to try to kill me now, I suppose?” she asked. She was behind him. For a moment, he considered wheeling on her, grabbing her, throwing her down to the ground, and wringing the life from her with his bare hands. “You know you won’t catch me.”

Cacame smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re simply a figment of my imagination regardless. How can I crush the throat of a phantasm?”

“How do you know I’m not actually a ghost?” she asked. Her voice was high and soft. Unlike what he had imagined it.

“If you are, you haunt the wrong person,” he said. “It wasn’t I who killed you.”

“For my people, maybe?” she offered. “I’m haunting you in the name of all those you slaughtered in exchange for me. I am here to curse you with madness.”

The sky was utterly empty. Maybe, if he looked hard enough at the horizon to the south, he could discern a blot darker than the rest of the night sky. An anti-sun of sorts. There were stories told by some that a body hung in that area, a disc of fuligin that moved in opposition to the orb of the sun.

“If that’s so,” Cacame said, “you’ve failed. I reject you as a spook of any sort. If I can’t kill you, what do you matter to me? You are intangible. A nothingness. You mean nothing to me now.”

She laughed again. It stung his ears. “For someone who means nothing, you sure did make an effort to get to me earlier.” For a minute, she was silent. “Don’t you wonder how I returned?”

“No,” Cacame said. “It’s meaningless to me.”

“All this death and destruction you’ve caused,” the elv explained, “has driven the Somma to panic. They feed more and more to Íle. He grows in power with every sacrifice they offer him. Now, even though my body is gone, he can bring me back.”

“An ephemeral shade,” Cacame said. “Not much of a return. Why did he bother? Still angry over the loss of his grove?”

Her laughter cut him again. “The grove you burned was neither his only one nor his most sacred. It was merely a tributary. Íle himself protects Patiama. Even you would be powerless against him. You can’t win, Cacame. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never defeat Íle. He’s too powerful. The entirety of your army could be thrown against him and they would fail. Each dwarf he devoured would simply fuel his power. What will you do about that Cacame?”

Cacame shrugged. “What do I care about the god? He’s done nothing except to disappoint me. If he is a cause of elvish death, then we are on the same side.”

“Oh, but you see Cacame...” Suddenly a rather solid hand laid itself on his shoulder. “Íle did bring me back whole.” He whirled and grabbed at Amoya’s wrist, but she slipped deftly away, taking two quick steps back which put her out of his reach. “Oh! Now you’re interested?” Her eyes were wide, colorless in the darkness. “It’s true. I’m not just a ghost. I’m solid and whole, brought back by Íle not to torment you, but to lead you to your death. You’ll chase me into his grove. You and your armies will be devoured by him.”

Cacame wished he had a weapon at hand, but he did not. If he was fast enough, he could grab her... “Why tell me this?” he asked, lowering into a dwarven battle stance, one designed for fast lunges.

“Because I know you’ll chase me no matter what.” A razor smile slashed across her face. “You can’t help yourself, Monípalóthi. In fact – ”

A snapping twig caught Cacame’s attention and he briefly turned his head to see several dwarves approaching. “Your majesty, we heard voices!” the dwarf at the front said.

Cacame spun back, but predictably Amoya was gone once again. Cacame looked down at the ground and shook his head. “It was nothing,” he said softly. “Merely talking to myself.”

“But your majesty,” the dwarf continued. “We clearly heard multiple voices. The strange one was definitely not that of a dwarf.”

Cacame’s eyes went wide.

It was a mere two hours from dawn when the final dwarves were awoken and began to prepare for battle. Cacame sat with Duke Okir and discussed the battle plan as weapon and armor were readied. The plan was a simple one; surround the city and fire flaming crossbow bolts into the bramble wall until it caught fire. Pick off any elves who attempted to extinguish it, then charge in once a breach had been secured.

The supposed confirmation of Amoya’s appearance was a minor concern to the duke. “One elv cannot change the course of the battle,” he said, his voice the even keel it always was. “She was not proclaimed a great warrior, nor an inspiring leader. I don’t see how she can turn the tide of the battle, even if Íle does keep bringing her back to life.”

Okir was correct, of course. Amoya wasn’t likely to be a problem in the battle. Regardless, Cacame was on edge. When the dwarves were ready to march, he stood at their head. It was a half hour to the city walls, then another half hour was spent surrounding it. They had only a half hour before sunrise, but the flames would render the advantage of darkness moot regardless.

Sharp-eyed spotters scanned the trees over the walls, but there was no sign of any defender. Cacame watched as well, keen to see Amoya and reveal her in the flesh to the others. He gave the order and spots of flame leapt into existence as dwarves lit their kindling. Soon, hundreds of crossbow bolts with flaming heads were at the ready.

“Fire,” he ordered. A signal horn erupted from the dwarven lines, followed nearly immediately by the harmonious twang of crossbows firing. Streaks of fire arched from the lines and crashed into the bramble walls. There was hesitation as they waited for defenders to arrive and douse the flames. But still none showed themselves.

The archers had finished reloading, so Cacame gave the order for the next volley. Once again, they were nearly simultaneous. They crashed into the brambles. Already a few patches had caught. The next volley brought even more. But still no defenders appeared in the tree branches overhanging the walls.

Cacame did not order another volley. Instead he sat and waited as the fires spread, quickly illuminating the forest in flickering orange and red. Acrid smoke rose into the air. Reports came from around the city that the bramble wall was nearly completely engulfed.

A dwarf to his left muttered to a compatriot, “If they’d build real walls, we’d never take them as fast. Thank Vucar for elven stupidity.” The two shared a chuckle.

Finally, Cacame gave the order to enter the city itself. Teams of dwarves wrapped in heavy cloth and leather strode forward. The archers provided them cover, though the defenders continued to be absent. When they reached the walls, they hacked at them with axes, easily knocking huge holes in the charred plants. Within minutes, they had breached the village. Cacame’s armies swarmed inside, their king among them.

Still, the defense did not manifest. Amidst the swirling smoke and flickering flames, the village was empty. Cacame smashed his way into a building which had been grown on the ground. Inside were plates of half-eaten food. Belongings were strewn about, though very little of value remained. Threadbare clothes, worn tools, and things too heavy to carry were all that was left.

He emerged from the building to find Duke Okir waiting for him. “It seems they’ve abandoned the place, my lord,” he said.

Cacame shook his head. “Impossible,” he said, having to shout to be heard over the thundering of boots as the dwarves continued to pour in through the breaches. “The Somma have never abandoned a fight like this! And Amoya said I was being drawn into a fight!”

The duke’s eyes went wide with sudden understanding. “King Cacame, you should leave the city immediately. This is a trap meant for you – ”

Almost immediately, the sound of a shrill pipe cut through the air. Cacame, the duke, and hundreds of other dwarves looked up into the trees. Amoya sat on a branch, playing a long flute. The notes carried even above the crackling of the fire. For a few moments, no one was sure what to do.

Then a dwarf shouted out in surprised pain. Others followed shortly after. Hundreds of swaying najas had emerged from the shin-high grass and were striking at the legs of the soldiers. Amazingly, they all seemed to bite at the vulnerable joints in the armor. Weapons quickly flashed down and boots stomped upon the heads and backs of the snakes, but they darted back and forth, avoiding many of the attacks.

Cacame’s arm whipped up and he shouted, “Shoot her! Shoot her now!” Most of the archers had remained outside the walls, as the weapons were extremely poor for close-quarters fighting. A few, however, had ventured inside and took aim, loosing bolts at Amoya. Most flew awry in the choking smoke, but one struck her in the shoulder, interrupting her playing. Her arms flailed and barely grabbed hold of a branch, keeping her seated in the tree.

“Again!” Cacame ordered as he looked around for an ingress into the tree’s limbs. More bolts fired, but Amoya returned to her playing, this time a slower, lower melody. Just as Cacame spotted a pathway up into the branches, the ground began to rumble. He spared only a look as several finscales burst from the ground, throwing massed soldiers who couldn’t avoid it into each other.

Combined with the swaying naja, the troops were being thrown into a rout. Cacame sprinted for the path up to the treetop to confront Amoya, but a finscale burst from the ground in front of him before he reached her. He swung his hammer in a wide arc, catching the beast in the side of the head. The creature let out a shriek of pain, lashing its muscular tail at him. He leapt over it and rolled forward, toward the tree.

Moments before grabbing onto the lowest hanging limb, a sharp pain coursed through Cacame’s leg. He swung his hammer down without thinking, smashing the head of the swaying naja which had just bit him. For a moment, he actually thought his leg had caught fire as well, so great was the pain.

He glanced up into the tree just in time to see another bolt strike Amoya in the chest. This time, she was sent tumbling out of its branches, only a few spans away from Cacame. His eyes went wide and for a moment, all the pain was forgotten. She lay on the ground in a heap, unmoving, half the flute clutched in her hand.

He raised his warhammer and took a step toward her, but the pain in his leg suddenly returned and it gave out from under him. He fell to the ground, cursing. The venom of a swaying naja was less toxic to elves than dwarves, but it still left his leg nearly useless. He gritted his teeth and planted the butt of his warhammer into the ground and used it to prop himself back up.

Amoya’s body was only a few steps away and he took an agonizingly slow and difficult one toward her. Then a finscale, perhaps the one that had attacked him just moments before, slammed into him with its death throes. He was sent tumbling to the ground once again, the heavy body of the wyrm landing on top of him and crushing the wind from his lungs.

He tried to throw the creature off him, but the venom was spreading to the rest of his body, paralyzing his muscles and making him unable to remove it. Amoya was only a few spans away! He wondered if this was it. Would he died ignobly beneath the body of an already dead finscale? Was he to be deprived of his vengeance against Amoya yet again? He imagined the poetry being written about this moment, the two of them dying only a few spans apart.

The fire in his chest seemed to overcome that of the venom. With a mighty heave, he shoved the body of the finscale off. He sat up and looked around, spotting his warhammer within reach. He grabbed it and rolled over, then pushed himself back to his feet. His knees quivered, but kept him upright –

Amoya’s body was gone. He spun, wondering if he had perhaps lost track of it when he was knocked over. But no, there was still no sign of her. He let out a scream and spun to find something to kill. A group of speardwarves had cornered a finscale only a few strides away and were tentatively thrusting at it. Cacame charged it, shoving them out of the way. The wyrm did not have time to react before Cacame’s warhammer crashed into its skull, splitting it open. It thrashed about, but Cacame was pulled to safety by one of the soldiers.

Then a wave of dizziness overtook him and he collapsed to the ground. The dwarves let out cries of concern and he rolled onto his back, staring up at the canopy. The flames had spread to the city itself. The trees were burning. The crackling of flames mixed with the wails of the dying and clashes with the few remaining finscales.

Fiery ash fell like rain from the dawn sky.

The priest of Vucar prayed over his body, murmuring words to the god that Cacame could not understand. His flesh felt as if the fires had reached him. He could not be sure they had not.

Someone tried to pour water into his mouth. He tried to swallow it. He was so deliriously thirsty. His throat would not open.

A ball of light and a ball of darkness hung at opposites in his vision. They whispered sweet promises to him if only he’d take up their cause. They’d heal him of the venom, help him find Amoya, and strike her down permanently.

Several times he laughed, though it was choked and no sound came out.

The priest stood over him, praying some more, lips moving in a familiar pattern. He morphed into a hooded giant holding a huge, ornate pick. Its face was a flame. The demon grasped at Cacame. The king placed his hands on the demon’s arm and fought weakly against it.

Duke Okir appeared over him and grasped his arms and pulled them away from the demon, who reached into Cacame’s chest and wrapped its claws around his heart. Cacame let out a gasp of air. The world flashed blinding white and then went utterly dark.

Cacame opened his eyes, his breath heavy. He was wrapped in blankets and sweating. He was in something moving, though it was completely dark. He sat up and a voice said, “King Cacame!”

“Light,” Cacame said, his voice dry and raspy. Someone thrust a mug into his hands and he drank it, expecting water. Instead it was a bitter concoction and he nearly choked on it. After a moment, the revulsion passed and sudden he felt quenched.

A lantern was lit, revealing a pair of squinting dwarves. One dwarfess in doctor’s attire, the other the priest of Vucar. They were in a wagon, Cacame realized, one that was moving judging by the gentle bumping. Cacame was naked beneath the thick blankets, but still he was sweltering.

“Water,” he said with a more familiar tenor. The doctor quickly handed him a second mug, which he took a tentative sip of. It proved to be water, so he slowly drank it. It was lukewarm and did little to cool him.

“It’s well to see you awake, my king,” the priest said, not meeting his king’s eyes. “Vucar be praised! I knew you would survive thanks to his boons.”

The doctor feigned no such optimism. “It was very close, your majesty,” she said, her voice serious and lacking the bombastry of the priest. “The swaying naja’s venom is horrible. There were several moments when you paused breathing and your heart grew weak.”

“Where are we?” he asked.

“On the return march to Gamildodók,” the doctor answered.

“Is Duke Okir with us?” Cacame wondered, drawing an affirmative from both doctor and priest. “Retrieve him.” Neither moved until Cacame leveled a glare at the priest. The robe-swaddled dwarf leapt to his feet and dashed from the wagon.

The doctor produced more water for Cacame, who slowly drank it. He could tell his stomach was empty, even though he felt no pangs of hunger. In the pale lantern light, his flesh seemed ruddy and flushed. He couldn’t tell if it was a trick of the light or not.

“Three strokes, your majesty,” the doctor told him. “Frankly – considering I’ve never seen anyone live more than a few hours after being bitten by a swaying naja, much less survive it altogether – I consider your survival something of a miracle. Perhaps Vucar has blessed you.”

Cacame thought that unlikely, but said nothing of the matter. Duke Okir climbed into the wagon soon after and knelt at the bedside of his king. “King Cacame, I am overjoyed to see you have recovered.” There was no hint of emotion in Okir’s stern voice. Cacame turned his gaze to the doctor, who quickly fled the wagon.

“Why are we returning to Gamildodók?” Cacame asked.

The duke’s eyebrows shot up. “You seemed to be on your deathbed, your majesty,” the Duke said. “I thought it prudent to – ”

“Order the army to march to Patiama,” Cacame said.

Okir lowered his head and wound up staring at where Cacame’s knees were. His wide eyes nearly bulged from his head. “King Cacame, I do not think that is a wise decision. The army was decimated in the ambush at Arimarili. More importantly, you are in no condition to – ”

“Look at me, Okir,” Cacame said. The duke stiffened and hesitated a moment, then quickly swung his eyes up to Cacame’s. The color quickly drained from the Duke’s face. “You are not to lecture me on matters of my own health. Is the army too weak to handle an assault on Patiama?”

“It could be done, my king,” the duke said, his cheeks quivering. “The losses would be immense. Our numbers have been halved since we initially set out a spread ago. Attacking Patiama? I suspect we would cut our numbers in half again. My suggestion is we continue returning to Gamildodók, allow the army to recuperate, recruit and train new soldiers, and set out in a half-sweep. We could take the city with minimal losses.”

“I did not ask for your suggestion. The army will win the battle if we attack.”

“Yes, my king,” the duke said.

For a moment, Cacame sat silent. Then he said, “Did you find the body?”

“The body, my king?”

“Amoya’s,” Cacame said, his voice quiet.

Okir shook his head. “No, my king. We did not. Witnesses saw her fall from the trees. An archer named Pimmi claimed to have made the killing shot. Several others confirmed her account. But the body was not to be found. We suspect a finscale grabbed it in the confusion.”

“No,” Cacame said. “She was not dead. Or at least did not stay so. Give the order to march on Patiama. Take the quickest route over open land we can.”

For several seconds, Duke Okir merely stared at Cacame. Then he bowed his head and said, “It shall be so, my king.”

Patiama was not a noted Somma city. It was on few maps, no major trade routes passed through it, the Somma king did not reside there. It was on a lake, yet the lake was small and no major rivers fed to it; certainly none large enough to support boats. Yet, when the Odkish army arrived, they found it swarming with defenders. The briar wall was high and reinforced with dense, green vines. The dwarves set up camp a league away.

It had taken nearly a pass to reach, during which Cacame spent much of his time resting in a wagon. He was still somewhat weak from the snake’s venom, though well enough that he could have marched if he wished it. Still, he knew that pushing himself would be pointless. Doing that would only weaken him further, leaving him a liability during the coming battle.

He may yet still be one, he mused. But he was as strong as he possibly could be without delaying for passes or strokes longer. Any wait would be devastating.

Duke Okir had fought him on this, after allowing several strokes for his king to think over their strategy. “What risks do we take by waiting? The Somma are broken; their lands cannot possibly provide them enough resources to mount a counter attack. In half a sweep’s time, we can return and crush them with a full army.”

Cacame did not have an answer. Not one that would make sense to the duke. “They must be destroyed now,” he said, simply. “We court doom by letting Patiama stand.”

“Your highness, we court doom by attacking,” the duke said, red-faced. He had not been alive before Cacame’s fugue. Since his waking, the duke had been one of the few counselors Cacame had listened to. Often deferred to. Now he was being outright dismissed. “The Pake dextral, the Kam discward... Even the Belwrid orbward. Any of them might attack us after we weaken ourselves with this assault. Would we be able to stand against them?”

Cacame bristled at the usage of the new terms for map directions. It took him a brief moment to process them to east, south, and north. “The Pake are barbarians, clinging to the barren cliffs that dwarves don’t dare touch. The Kam are even worse, nothing more than a violent horde. A squad of our champions could hold them back. And the Belwrid? There haven’t been any sightings of dranomyr this far south, ever.”

“But what if you’re wrong?” Okir dared to say.

“Then we deal with the consequences,” the king answered sternly. “There is a chance I might be wrong about another kingdom attacking us. I am right about the need to attack Patiama now, however. If we do not strike them now, we shall never destroy the elves. The risk must be taken.”

Looking into his eyes, Cacame could tell the duke was unconvinced. But Cacame could see the reflection of his own eyes in the duke’s and they were filled with the old fire that brooked no dissent. The duke nodded his head and said, “Very well. We will attack. Let what consequences come as they may. We will destroy them here and secure our victory over them.”

The two said very little to each other the rest of the journey. Cacame allowed the duke to organize the strategy for the assault. As with other battles, the dwarven approach was to be quite simple. Surround the city, burn down the walls, wait for a gap and press the assault. The number of defenders would mean more casualties.

There was some talk of tunneling beneath the city. A good team of miners could penetrate the city in a week. A preparatory hole was dug, but once they penetrated a few spans down, the hole began to flood with water. The ground was too marshy to dig into. Besides, it seemed likely the elves were employing finscales which would detect the digging and attack the miners.

As the sun set, the dwarves began to march toward the city’s walls.

Okir’s worries, if anything, had been too generous. The elven defenders protected the city with a fervor they had never before shown. After three strokes, the walls had yet to be breached and nearly five-hundred dwarves had been slain by elven archers. Cacame wished for siege engines, but catapults and ballistae were ill-suited to forests.

Eventually, an all-out assault was ordered. Duke Okir grimly concurred it was the sole way to proceed. The dwarves donned their sturdiest armor, hefted their heaviest shields, and bore their sharpest axes and advanced on the wall. Arrows rained down upon them, finding a weak point often enough that the lines were no longer orderly by the time the dwarves reached the walls.

Of course, Cacame was among them, though he was protected on all sides by the finest Odkish champions. Numerous elven defenders took shots at him, but none hit. An axe wasn’t his familiar weapon, but he took a small one and hacked at the wall furiously.

The defenders continued their bombardment as his dwarves chopped their way through the walls. Arrows were the least worry now; stones heavy enough to crush even a dwarven skull were being dropped, boiling water was dumped upon them. The stones were the more dangerous; every dwarf had experienced a forge-burn from time to time.

A nearby cheer alerted Cacame to a successful breach. He turned and ran to join his soldiers in expanding the hole. Within a few minutes, it was wide enough for a dozen dwarves to rush in shoulder-to-shoulder. Cacame dropped the axe and unslung his warhammer, doing his utmost to keep from shoving past the dwarves in his bloodlust.

Once he finally entered the city itself, he found the entire place in chaos. Evidently this breach had not been the first, as dwarves were swarming from all directions. The elves, however, continued to mount a defense. Numerous archers remained in the trees, firing down at the dwarves below, though more had descended to join the battle on the ground.

Cacame moved to the fore of the fighting. A pair of elves approached him, the enchanted wood of their swords nearly as dangerous as dwarven steel. They thrust and cut at him, but he avoided with sharp, small dodges. One made too daring a stab and Cacame swung his war hammer in a short, compact arc and crushed the elf’s head. The other slashed at his chest, only for the weapon to be turned away by Cacame’s mithril armor. A swift strike caved in the elf’s breast plate, while a second sent him sprawling to the ground.

Cacame fought deeper into the city, knowing Amoya was inside somewhere. A small cadre of nine champions moved with him and they engaged even more elves. In close-quarters combat such as this, the dwarves were by far the superior combatants. Five score of elves were slain for only a single champion’s death. Cacame was lathered in sweat and breathed heavily, but his eyes were wide with fire.

As they neared the center of the city, they found a group of a dozen elves blocking their path. “Crush them!” Cacame ordered, leading the charge. The elves remained steady and even strode forward to meet the assault.

Cacame used the momentum of his charge to lay a devastating blow on the first elf he reached. Except instead of collapsing to the ground, the elf remained standing and merely staggered to the side. Cacame braced his feet and swung a second time, but the elf, barely showing the effect of the surely-shattered ribcage, dodge back.

The swing of the cudgel caught Cacame completely by surprise. So too was he shocked as it sent him reeling backward. He looked down at his chest in mild shock; the elf had managed to dent his mithril armor. There was a dwarven howl of pain; his champions were learning the same lesson he just had.

His opponent advanced on him, raising the heavy club above his head. Before he could, one of the champions removed the elf’s head from his shoulders. Cacame wheeled around and swung his hammer over the head of the dwarf who had just killed his attacker. The hammer connected solidly with an elf’s head, crushing it with a spray of blood.

Cacame started to step away toward the next foe, but something grabbed him. He looked down to see a constricting serpent wrapping itself around his leg. It had emerged from the shattered breastplate of the beheaded elf.

Before he could smash the snake with his hammer, it wrenched suddenly, yanking him off balance. Though he did not fall, the moment spent recovering gave one of the still-standing elves the opening to attack him with a spear. Much of its momentum was absorbed by his armor, but it still lightly pierced his side.

Cacame swung his war hammer with all his strength, shattering the elf’s arms. A sharp pain shot through his leg and he fell to one knee. The snake had bitten him. He grabbed it around the neck and yanked, pulling the fangs from his flesh. The snake hissed at him, but he tossed it several spans away, where one of his dwarves chopped its head off.

Cacame whirled to look for more foes, but found none. He looked down where the corpses of the elves should have been. Instead, he saw empty clothes and the bodies of snakes. Four of his champions lay on the ground with them. Three were clearly dead, the fourth bleeding profusely from wounds.

“My king,” one of the remaining champions said, “you are injured!”

Blood flowed freely from the puncture wounds on his leg, while the broken haft of the spear still stuck from his ribs. With a grimace, Cacame pulled the spear free. The wound was shallow, but it still stung. More concerning was the bite on his leg.

The snake had not appeared to be a swaying naja, nor any other venomous serpent Cacame recognized. He stooped down and grabbed a cloak left by one of the elves. With one of the champion’s swords, he cut a large strip from the garment, then wound it around his leg in a poor, makeshift bandage.

It quickly soaked red, but Cacame pushed forward. He spared one glance back at the snake bodies. A wave of disgust swam through him, followed by sudden insight like a flash. That had been Íle’s doing. The demon transformed them into beasts, giving them strength in life and twisting their spirits into those snakes in death.

Demon, Cacame wondered. From where had come that thought?

But another group of elves stood in his way. He pushed the thought away.

The fighting had been raging inside the city for well over three hours now. Amoya had yet to be spotted. Cacame and his soldiers fought through several more groups of the ensocrelled elves. Each time, they transformed into vicious, muscular snakes upon death. Cacame’s group was reduced to three dwarves, each of them bearing injuries.

Cacame himself was fatigued, the wound on his leg still trickling blood. Despite that, he felt flushed and hot. Almost feverish, though he knew it was not from any poison the snakes might possess. It was a vigorous insomnia that kept him from rest. He wanted to lay down and sleep, but he wanted to press on and find his foe even more.

Eventually, they found no further resistance from the elves. The sounds of battle were distant and sporadic. His bloodied forces began rallying at his location. No reports of Amoya’s presence were given. Cacame was ready to sound the withdrawal from the city, to a safe distance to watch it burn.

Then a runner arrived bearing news. The elves had not yet been routed, but were gathering at the lake, defending an old copse of trees. From within the trees came the eerie whistle of a flute.

The remnants of his army were ordered toward the grove. There, Cacame found Duke Okir, sporting a heavy gash across his forehead. The duke’s beard and hair were stained red, his face was ashen. Yet when he saw Cacame, his eyes went wide. “My king,” Okir cried out, “you are wounded!”

Cacame waved his hand at Okir and said, “I am fine. Where are the hold outs?” But the fear in Okir’s eyes was like nothing Cacame had ever witnessed from his marshal before. He dropped his voice. “I cannot rest now. You know who leads the defenders of this grove.”

Okir nodded, unblinking. “Yes, my king. These are the last elves in the city, we believe. This grove is especially thick with trees. We have tried to burn it, but they are too green and wet. They do not catch.”


“Of our initial assault force of four thousand, we are down to a force of just over twelve hundred.”

“How many are in the grove?”

“A few hundred, at most.”

This was it, then. “I shall lead the first assault.” Cacame could tell the duke wished to protest, but he did not. The king strode toward the front of the gathered soldiers, watching the line of trees warily. No elves appeared to be lurking there, waiting to pick him off with a bow.

“Our foe cowers in their grove,” Cacame said, loudly enough that the soldiers nearest could hear him. A murmur passed through the remnants of the army, carrying the message to the rest. “Follow me in there to kill them.”

There was no cheer. The dwarves were too exhausted and had seen too much death for there to be good humor. Some raised their weapons, others banged their shields, many of them murmured prayers to Vucar. The majority simply stood silently.

Cacame turned. He raised his hammer above his head. He wanted to give the order to charge. Instead a soft hum escaped from his lips. Then it grew quickly into a roar. He was running into the forest, hammer held over his head, cheeks hot and wet.

The dwarves finally let out their own ragged cry and the thudding of boots caused the ground itself to rumble as they charged into the grove. Yet over it all came the piercing wail of the flute. It carried no melody that Cacame could decipher, yet it seemed to stab into his very being. It was the antithesis of music.

To his surprise they found no defenders within the grove for the first hundred strides. Then two hundred, then three. Yet the music was still strong. His dwarves still charged confidently behind him.

Finally, they burst into a small clearing. The charge came to a halt almost immediately.

A gallows had been grown above an inlet of the lake. The bodies of countless elves hung from it, their throats slit. Dozens still stood on the platform, awaiting their fate. At the center was Amoya, playing her discordant flute.

Cacame could only watch as an elv finished tying ropes around her ankles. She walked to the edge of the gallows, slit her wrists then her throat, and toppled forward. The rope snapped taut and her body jerked from side to side, slamming into the corpses of others who had sacrificed themselves. Her blood drained into the water, which had turned a murky red.

The body spun, its face briefly visible to Cacame. Long, black hair. Eyes of the deepest green. Thin lips; a small, slightly upturned nose.

“Amoya!” Cacame roared. The elves on the platform turned to state blankly at him. Their eyes were tired. Amoya’s playing briefly ceased. Her eyes were wide and wild as she stared down at Cacame. Another young elf, this one barely older than a child, slit his own throat and pitched forward. The note of the rope pulling tight rekindled the flute at Amoya’s lips.

Cacame surged forward, aiming to rush up the stairs and slaughter Amoya where she stood. He would crush her body again and again until Íle’s power had been exhausted.

Before he could reach the first stair, the waters of the inlet began to churn. The bloody waters splashed out of the inlet onto the land, soaking the ground in crimson. The flute ceased its wail.

“He rises,” Amoya’s voice cut through the air.

From the water rose the head of a serpent that was larger even than Cacame himself. It was larger than any dragon Cacame had ever seen, its jaws seemed enough to swallow Cacame whole and have space left over. A row of four eyes lined each side of its massive head, looking in many different directions at once. Its body was at least twenty strides long; lithe and sinewy, seemingly too thin to hold up its massive head.

The serpent turned to the massed dwarven army and opened its maw, revealing rows of jagged teeth and, more disturbingly, another, smaller mouth on a fleshy bulb where its tongue should have been. The roar it let out shook Cacame’s whole body.

It lunged for the army. Some of the dwarves stood resolute against it. Most turned and fled at the horrific beast. Those who remained raised their weapons. Crossbow bolts flew, but bounced harmlessly off its scales. Sword, spear, and axe were likewise impotent against it, many simply failing to penetrate. Those which did produced only scratches.

The beast snapped up several dwarves in its jaws and crushed others beneath its coils. But those who fled had not been spared. Between the trees, Cacame could see similar serpentine beasts, smaller but no less fearsome looking, attacking the routed dwarves.

Cacame glanced up at Amoya, whose face was twisted in a wretched grin, arms spread wide as if to embrace the carnage. He turned away and raised his hammer over his head. “Rally!” he shouted as loud as he could. “Rally and defend yourselves! Stand tall!”

The dwarves furthest from him could not hear, but those closest picked up his cry. The blast of a horn split the air. Cacame did not waste time seeing if his rally cry was successful past those nearest. Instead, he turned to the great monster which had risen from the lake and was even now crushing several dwarves in its coils.

“Íle!” Cacame screamed, for it could be nothing else but the god which was wreaking havoc upon the dwarven lines. It actually turned to him.

Cacame swung his warhammer at the beast, but its coils twisted away with frightening agility and his hammer landed in the marshy ground with a wet squelch. He wrenched it free, then dove to the side just as Íle’s jaws snapped where he had been.

The god and the king stood immobile for a moment, facing each other. Four of its eyes were focused squarely on Cacame. Suddenly, its tail flicked out, smashing into the small squad of dwarves who were attempting to flank it. Those few who weren’t sent flying were quickly wrapped up in its coils.

The great maw opened and the smaller mouth inside pressed gently forward. This mouth was far more humanoid. It twisted into a grin filled with small, razor-sharp teeth.

“Elf king,” it said, its voice like the screech of wind through a narrow cavern. “You served me once. Bow your head and serve me again and I shall spare you.”

Cacame launched himself at Íle, swinging his hammer in a wide arc. The head jerked back, the hammer narrowly missing. Cacame fell into a battle crouch, then sprung up, swinging again. The god twisted away again, then lunged forward as Cacame rolled into the backswing. Cacame narrowly got to his feet as the creature’s body slammed down right where he had been.

His heart was racing and his head felt light. There was warmth on his calf. The wound had reopened and was bleeding profusely again. Cacame turned and ran toward the gallows, which were now empty of any living elves. He could feel Íle right on his heels as he ascended the stairs two at a time. He wished he could remove his armor. The weight was too much and it was useless against the huge god.

As he reached the top of the stairs, he dove to the side and rolled. His gamble worked, Íle snapped its jaws right where Cacame had been standing a moment before. Its crushed through the wood of the gallows effortlessly.

Cacame turned and leapt forward, swinging his hammer down at the god’s head. The creature pulled back and Cacame missed. He landed at the very edge of the ruined platform and very nearly toppled forward. The god struck again, but Cacame fell forward at the very last moment, pitching off the side of the gallows. He flailed for something to grab, but his fingertips only brushed the very edges of the god’s scales.

The water met him like a blow, forcing all the air from his lungs. His armor quickly weighed him down, causing him to sink rapidly. The water was murky with the blood of the sacrificed elves and mud churned by Íle rising. Cacame could see nothing, but he continued to sink for several seconds. His lungs burned for air.

He wanted to gasp, to suck in something, even if it was the water. Some insane part of his mind told him that would at least quench the burning ache. For a moment, he strove to swim, waving his arms through the water like lead. He ceased sinking and briefly believed his efforts were working, until the pressure on his legs registered and he realized he was standing upon the bottom of the lake.

If he did not remove his armor, he knew he would drown in only a few moments. He groped for the buckles around his waist and shoulders. He found one and struggled to pull it free. It caught halfway undone and he could not manage to loosen it further, so after a few seconds he moved onto the next strap. This one came loose easier. With two undone, he yanked and pulled at the armor and it slid up across his chest and finally over his shoulders and he threw it off.

The pain in his chest seemed about ready to burst. He knew he could not spend time removing his greaves. His fingers brushed against the familiar haft of his war hammer, which had sunk beside him. The weapon would weigh him as well, though without it he stood no chance against the demon waiting for him above. He wrapped his fingers around it and kicked off the bottom as hard as he could.

He was surprised to find his head cresting the water’s surface after only a single kick of his legs. The inlet had been shallower than he had guessed from the duration of his sinking. He gasped and opened his eyes into the harsh sun above. He could momentarily see nothing but its blinding light. He sucked in air, the burning in his lungs refusing to depart. He wanted to cry out, to scream in anguish.

But then his head began to clear and the light seemed to dim. He lowered his head and looked back to the shore, where Íle was wreaking havoc among the remnants of the Odkish army. There seemed to be about a hundred dwarves left, standing in a ragged line, a mish-mash of weaponry pointed weakly out at the demonic serpent.

Íle lashed out at them and the dwarves dove and leapt away, keeping the beast’s attention but doing little to injure it. Cacame swam a few strides to the edge of the shore and weakly laid his hammer upon it. The shore was not a gradual climb, but rather a sudden, steep shelf. Cacame wondered if this meant the inlet was not natural. His fingertips brushed against the stone and found it rough and scarred. Poor stonework, if it had been artificial.

Cacame smiled at his own thoughts, though not at their absurdity. With a heave, he pulled himself from the water. Íle had not turned back to look upon him. Whether the creature was too distracted by the dwarves or simply no longer feared the king, Cacame was unsure. He lifted his hammer.

His first few steps were weak and shaky. The next few came with purpose, but were slow. Then he started to run. As he neared, he raised the hammer over his shoulder and let out a cry. Íle turned its ponderous head at the last moment, just as Cacame’s war hammer crashed into its skull.

The beast thrashed, knocking Cacame back to the ground. The coils of its huge body wrapped around him. He was pinned in place.

He struggled to move his arms or legs, but he could not. Íle was too strong. It had Cacame at its mercy. The elf king felt his eyes flickering, hard to keep open. He had tried so hard to win this victory.

The beast let out a roar, bringing its massive maw close to Cacame. Were the dwarves feebly attacking it? Cacame was too tired to look. The jaws opened, revealing the smaller mouth inside it. That mouth began to speak, but Cacame could not hear it. There was simply the sound of howling wind in his ears.

This was the end, then. His epithet was put to lie. Amoya walked alive, while Cacame died. His army routed. Would Dobar Odkish come to ruin? Surely Duke Okir would lead it well, should he survive the battle. The Somma wouldn’t be able to muster a counter offensive for decades, at least. There was time for them to rebuild.

Even if this god Cacame had once worshiped stood against them, his kingdom would survive. This beast would have but a small satisfaction. Eventually, someone would kill this vile creature. The false god would fall. Though it would kill him. Cacame would die at its hands.

This demon? This insignificant thing? That was to be what killed Cacame Awemedinade, called Monípalóthi by foe and friend alike? He had slain dragons before. He’d fought a demon to a draw in the underworld, but this degenerate thing – which lived on the scraps of faith and sacrifice of the even more depraved elves – would become known as the thing that ended King Cacame?

His grip, which had been going slack on his war hammer, tightened. His eyes opened and focused on the monster before him.

A blinding light lanced from the sky, striking the beast in the head. Its coils slackened as it let out a roar which reverberated through Cacame’s skull. The king was falling again, but this time only a few spans, and he landed on his knees in the marshy ground. He shook his head and raised it, his vision still blurry.

Íle violently shook its head back and forth, though there appeared to be no physical damage done to it. Cacame raised his war hammer over his shoulder once more. This time, he did not cry out. He could not muster the energy. He swung the hammer.

Its head crackled with tendrils of darkness that seemed more complete than that of the deepest caverns. The hammer slammed into Íle’s skull. This time, the beast’s head was crushed in a splatter of black gore and blood.

The beast began thrashing violently in its death throes. Cacame fell backward, barely bracing himself with his arms. The thing’s body flailed around, coils slamming into trees and cracking their trunks. The gallows were smashed into splinters, the few hanging corpses left sent splashing into a watery grave below.

Finally, Íle fell immobile. For a few brief seconds, there was silence. Then ragged, frantic cheers erupted. Cacame let his head fall wearily. He looked over at his war hammer, its head covered in black ichor. A brief feeling of accomplishment surged through him, like that of a child being praised by his parents.

Cacame’s face twisted in disgust and he threw the hammer aside. He looked up at the sky, at the burning orb. Then he collapsed back and closed his eyes.

Moments after Íle had died, its body began to writhe. The skin split and from within burst hordes of gibberlings. They fell upon the body and those of the deceased and began to gorge themselves. Nearly a hundred had emerged, but the survivors of the Battle of Patiama made short work of them. A few dwarves were injured by the creatures, but none fatally. The creatures seemed confused and starving, more concerned with eating than protecting themselves.

Duke Okir had survived the battle, though he had been maimed in the fighting. When Íle first arose from the lake, Okir tried to stand his ground, but turned and fled after only a few moments of bravery. Then Cacame’s rallying cry came and the horn sounded and his heart returned. He slew three of the lesser serpents himself and aided in the killing of four others before the eighth got hold of him and bit off his right leg beneath the knee. As it went to take the left, the duke jammed his sword into the eye of the beast, killing it.

From his position on the ground, the duke shouted orders until he fainted from the blood loss. Once his calls ceased, three separate dwarves rushed to him. They tourniquetted his injury and bandaged it and he only lost a little bit more to gangrene.

King Cacame’s body had been discovered and hurried away from the battlefield. The priests of Vucar could detect no life in him and so read his last rites. Halfway through he opened his eyes and ordered them away. The priests declared it a miracle of Vucar, proof that their god was superior to the fallen one of the elves.

Cacame refused to again touch the war hammer that had slain Íle. Witnesses described the sudden flash of light and explosion of darkness that had helped finish the demon. It was less than a pass before this story twisted; first it was Vucar’s aid, next the god himself appeared to lift Cacame and guide his strike. When the king would not take it, the priests claimed it as a holy relic.

Those who had truly seen it knew that Vucar had not appeared. They began to whisper, if one god could die, what of the others?

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