There’s something uncanny about the world when you move through it with the intention of waging war. Everything seemed portentous and vivid, even the tussocks of grass over which Goncendor walked; or the flight of a bee, swerving away from my helmet visor and oblivious to the hundreds of warriors making their way toward the enemy (the bee was probably not oblivious to the acrid tang of smoke in the air); the rippling sound of a green and white Greyland banner, caught by a gust of wind. Everything around me was present in a way that it wouldn’t have been on my daily runs over this very same ground back when I was living in Nekis. I wouldn’t have noticed any of it. Was it really only seven months ago since I had left Nekis with nothing but my determination to recover Greyland? Now I was returning at the head of a sizeable army.
Ahead, Nurbolat’s riders cleared out of the way to reveal two lines of Hailand spearmen and on my left flank, their light cavalry, also armed with spears.
‘Halt!’ It took a full minute for my troops to respond, so that the distant flanks of my army were now advanced somewhat ahead of the centre. That was a positive here, because we overlapped the enemy and it would bring my soldiers down on their flanks more quickly.
Dismount,’ I shouted to my immediate team, ‘and give your reins to Jacintha.’
The normally cheerful sorceress scowled.
‘Stay back for now and save your mana for when we meet Tokanaga and his officers,’ I explained.
Once walking on the ground just ahead of the heavy infantry, I made the blade of the Lance of Light glow bright with a Light spell and gestured towards the lines of dark figures holding their spears with blades pointing towards us.
‘Charge!’ bellowed Lord Arval beside me and the two of us took off, loping heavily in our full plate, the paladin brandishing Trueblade above his head.
I wasn’t going to lead Goncendor or our other horses onto those grounded spears. And I was all the more certain that fighting from foot was the right idea here when I saw that the Hailand soldiers assigned to their rear-guard had a shallow ditch and hundreds of wooden stakes as protection. Should I blind the enemy ahead? Or trigger my two feats, Charge! and Tactical Strike? Since these had twenty-four hour countdowns, I saved them, but Battle Cry was a skill I could use repeatedly and although I’d not had much chance to level it (just some training ground work on it during the winter in Fort 2 having brought it to 17) I triggered it when I was close enough to the spearmen ahead I could see the knots in the yellow cords tying their armour plates together.
Hearing a confident answering roar to my own, I leapt toward the soldier in front of me, crossing the ditch and smacking his spear to the side with my lance. The uneven ground meant that the box for Lunge had not lit up, but all the same, my Wield Lance skill was a maxed out 70 and I struck him right through the mouth, killing him instantly.
Receiving two spear hits for a total of 9 damage, I slashed my blade through the neck of the soldier to my left. I was aware of the solid presence of Lord Arval on my right and Leonora and Figus just behind me. Hernán appeared on my left, crouching to let a spear thrust go over his shoulder. Out of position to the use the lance blade, I pushed on with a kick attack and jabbed the butt of the lance into the chest of another Hailand soldier who staggered backwards and fell. Already, there was daylight in front of me, although the skyline quickly darkened as dozens more Hailand soldiers crowded in on me.
‘Come on Greyland!’ Splashed with blood, Lord Arval was beside me, the clang of spearpoints on his large, all-metal shield ringing out from repeated attacks. With surprising dexterity, the Paladin chopped the blade away from one spear while stamping on the haft of another and causing it to splinter. Our eyes met and I felt a surge of comradeship with him. We were the tip of the Greyland army wedge.
At that moment Lunge lit up and I took it, thrusting straight through the plates of armour of a man to my right, killing him. But I had to shake his body off of the lance, at a cost to my hit points as I took two more hits from spears. I had 146 hit points left.
All of a sudden, the enemy spearmen were running, most dropping their weapons in panic as Greyland knights surged among them from my left and our swordsmen from my right. Our large army had enveloped the much smaller Hailand rear-guard force. Behind me, Leonora was brandishing her quartz-embedded magical mace creating an Intimidate effect to all those nearby.
A Greyland axeman ran past me in a frenzy, spittle flecks all down his beard, eyes wide with fury, doing his best to catch the fleeing Hailand soldiers with murderous intention.
‘Form up again! Form up!’ I shouted. ‘Sergeants! Get a hold of your units!’ Hurrying back through the bodies and debris of the brief but bloody encounter, I grabbed the pommel of my saddle and hauled myself up onto Goncendor. Then I rode up to the confusion of the battleground waving the Lance of Light furiously.
‘Form up! Form up Greyland. You there,’ I pointed to a soldier of ours holding a banner who was trying with his free hand to take a dagger from the belt of a dead enemy soldier. ‘Stand over there and get your unit around you.’
While my sergeants struggled for order and reformed our lines, I raised myself in the stirrups, trying to understand what was happening elsewhere. My difficulty was that the tents of the Hailand army were blocking the view towards Nekis and also most of my view of the army of Langia. From the small part of that battle I could see, Nurbolat’s riders were doing a good job at keeping the Langians occupied.
Something flew across the sky, something much bigger than a bird. A large rock thumped into the ground with a noticeable tremor, even though it had landed a long way off, among my Cantreth riders. Since my enemies did not have a trebuchet, there was only one source for such a heavy missile as that: an ent. A quick check on the menu showed I was down to 92 from 105 of the mounted archers. And even as I glanced at it, the figure dropped to 91. Then 90.
‘Baldwin!’ I shouted.
‘Here, sire.’ The leader of my Greyland light cavalry rode up from the reserve.
‘Get Nurbolat away from the ents. Tell him to regroup behind the army and skirmish as they see fit.’
‘Understood sire!’ Baldwin galloped away to my right, followed by his twenty companions.
‘Lord Arval remount and come to me. Leonora,’ I looked down at the Cleric, ‘well done with the mace. Mount up.’
I rode into a pocket of space between the heavy infantry in the centre of my army and the spearmen to my right. The Greyland army was advancing in reasonable order, cutting through ropes and tramping over tents to keep our formation. All the same, it was slow progress and I knew that any advantage of surprise would be long gone by the time we finally cleared the Hailand camp.
Formed up in the ruined section of the Nekis outer wall, facing us, were the samurai of the Hailand army. With them was their ambassador and – I presumed – the emperor and his brother. There was a cluster of banners around the ambassador and the warrior mounted on Hayashi Nakahu’s left held a splayed fan of bright green, which he was using to signal orders. Next to him was a rider with a large drum on either side of his horse and this rider was pounding out an ominous rhythm. On the right of Hayashi Nakahu was another distinct Samurai, who stood out by the yellow badge in the centre of his helmet.
Behind the very dense concentration of samurai riders, spearmen and archers of the Hailand army were running to form up. And behind them were the abandoned ladders of their assault on the inner wall of Nekis. The sight of the Necromancer’s soldiers pulling up the empty ladders and hauling them over the walls was very satisfying. For now, my allies were safe.
While I was enjoying the fact that I’d arrived in time to prevent the storming of Nekis, I noticed that one of the Necromancer’s black and red banners had started to swing back and forth insistently. I raised the lance, metal blade still incandescent with Light, and imitated the motion. The black banner stopped moving, then went back and forth even more vigorously. I copied the same motions, glad that they had seen me and that we had saluted each other.
From that distant wall, there came a distinct cry from a mass of voices: ‘Greyland!’ ‘Greyland!’ ‘Greyland!’
‘Three loud cheers for the Necromancer,’ I called across to my own soldiers. ‘Let them know we are here. Hip, hip!’
‘Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!’ By the third cheer, the whole army had caught on and it was a terrific shout, easily loud enough to carry the three hundred metres or so to the troops of the Kingdom of Lost Souls who were gathered on the walls. All the black banners of the Necromancer were now greeting us with swift waving motions that conveyed something of the emotion of those wielding them.
‘Where’s Valeria?’ Our ranger was missing, otherwise, gathered around me were Lord Arval, Figus, Jacintha (level 5 Sorceress), Isabelle (level 4 Rogue), Hernán (level 4 Warrior), Leonora (level 4 Cleric), Brother Raymond (level 3 Summoner) and Abbot Hugues (level 3 Templar).
No one answered.
The samurai who were formed up at the front of the Hailand army had drawn their bows and the first few shafts were whistling through the sky, a disproportionate number coming close to me. Clearly, they did not intend to advance. Their general, whether Tokanga himself or the ambassador – whom I could see leaning towards the emperor to speak to him – was no fool. They were probably waiting for the army of Langia, with their unmatchable ents, to come up before advancing. Did this situation oblige me to attack? Again, I felt the pressure of having to make a decision that would be irretrievable. If took on the Hailand samurai in an archery battle, this would play to my personal strengths. I had the range and power to inflict a lot of damage on them.
The problem was that I’d probably lose all my archers and even more of a concern was the army of Langia. They were on the move and although the ents were extremely slow (I could see them lifting and planting their legs as they methodically approached), we just didn’t have the time for an archery battle. The moment had come to test my strategy of building a team of people with class progression.
‘Army of Greyland!’ I shouted. ‘I am going to charge the emperor of Hailand and kill him. You must follow up. Spearmen, force their samurai back. Archers, fire over our ranks into their reserves. Infantry and cavalry, wait for us to disorganise their ranks and then charge in.
‘Carter, stay in reserve and engage Langia if we are still fighting when they arrive. Don’t let them hit our flank.’
Dropping my voice to a normal level, I looked at the people immediately around me, my class progression team. ‘Let Lord Arval and I punch our way in, then use your class skills as you see best.’
‘What type of elemental should I summon?’ Brother Raymond was pale and sounded flustered.
‘Fire. As we might need it later for the ents.’
I was about to set off when Valeria came running up.
‘Where were you?’ I asked. She didn’t answer, only blushed and ducked her head deeper into her hood.
I turned to Lord Arval. ‘You once said you’d follow me to hell.’
‘I did and I will.’
‘Come on then so.’ I raised the lance and pointed it at the Hailand samurai. ‘Charge!’ I triggered my level 10 Warlord feat, Tactical Strike.
Minimum Intelligence requirement 14.
For 1 minute per Intelligence point over 13, troops under the command of the Warlord and within hearing strike as if flanking (+2 to hit, +2 damage). If already flanking this effect is doubled.
‘Charge!’ roared Lord Arval.
And the Greyland army gave a great cheer.
Crouching down over Goncendor, I urged him forward, quickly moving from trot to canter to gallop. The drum of his hooves matched my racing heart. A shiver ran through me. There was nothing at all like this feeling. I did not fear death, oh no. I was the bringer of death.
At forty metres to their lines I launched two Holy Light spells, whose silent explosions covered the mass of samurai in the breach. At twenty metres I triggered my level 5 feat Charge! so that all the troops near me got additional 10 hit points and then used the skill Battle Cry.
At ten, I felt a surge of warmth and got the message that I had been enhanced with Miya’s Courage (a buff to attack, resistance, and skill check success). That must have been Leonora.
Then I was among the blind samurai, striking hard with the lance. My enemies were stronger than the typical zero level soldiers I had fought in other battles. It needed two, or even three successful hits to kill them. And soon I was stuck in a tight melee of horses and samurai, my legs pressed tight against the flanks of Goncendor, who was trying unsuccessfully to rear up and create some room ahead by lashing out with his hooves, but who just couldn’t heave himself up enough.
‘King Carlos,’ came a shout from ahead of me. ‘You madman! You destroy us both! Only the Necromancer will win. You could have shared in the spoils.’ It was the ambassador and he was close, perhaps just beyond the next line of horsemen.
I could not reply, the air in my lungs was needed for energy as I chopped through arms, stabbed into eyes and ducked under wild slashing blades. Despite all my advantages in buffs and skill levels, it was impossible to avoid taking hits, some of them strong enough to penetrate my plate mail. Those samurai swords were serious upgrades. I was just over 100 hit points and sinking.
‘With you, sire!’ Somehow Lord Arval found the space to come up on my right.
The sounds of battle surged up as riderless horses screamed and men trapped in the crush shouted. Spears splintered with cracking sounds louder than bone, and shrieks of iron on iron rang out. This was the fiercest, most intense fighting I’d yet experienced, comparable to when I had been a rhino on that tight-packed bridge at Three Ways.
Whether it was the buffs or my level, I was fighting well with both blade and haft of the Lance of Light. There was a steady flow of kill announcements coming through and after I caught an incoming warrior in the throat, blood momentarily spraying across me, I even had time to look at the army menu.
Spears, minor losses; archers, minor losses; heavy infantry almost wiped out; knights down to three-quarter strength. Swordsmen still full. They hadn’t had to delay the Langian’s yet.
All I could do was keep striking, keep killing, keep encouraging Goncendor to take one more step forward, until I realised that the samurai in front of me were the emperor and his brother.
‘Tokanaga!’ I shouted and the warrior who had been issuing orders with his fan roared back at me.
‘Miya is weak. You are a fool. Now you die.’
‘What poetry.’ Figus was behind me and laughing at the emperor. ‘I’ll record those words and you’ll be mocked for centuries.’
‘Here! Greyland! On me!’ I needed my team.
Tokanaga was now holding a two-handed blade high and he brought it down with a swift cut that would have cleaved me in two from the shoulder if I hadn’t pushed it wide with the blade of the Lance of Light: sparks streamed from where the sword slid along the magical weapon.
A fiery humanoid flew past, hammering at the emperor with molten fists. A flurry of magical darts tore into Tokanaga and I struck a beautiful counter-attack into the crock of his elbow between two plates of armour.
You have hit Emperor Tokanaga for 15 damage of which 15 has been absorbed.
You cannot become better at Wield Lance 65 (70)
You cannot become better at Ride Warhorse 65 (70)
My next blow did 0 as well, while his struck my thigh for 12. What did the message mean, ‘absorbed’? Perhaps it was a feat of his, or perhaps a caster had given the emperor a defensive buff.
‘We’re not damaging him, swap to his brother!’ I glanced over my shoulder to where Jacintha was looking as severe as I’d ever seen her, while Brother Raymond was waving his hands as he concentrated on his elemental. Lord Arval was busy ensuring that incoming spearmen did not disrupt our attack on the emperor.
Figus was able to advance towards the samurai with the yellow badge on his helmet and I moved up between the two brothers to be able to reach him too. Although this led to my getting hit again, this time my strike got through.
You have hit Ashoko for 17 damage.
You cannot become better at Wield Lance 65 (70)
You cannot become better at Ride Warhorse 65 (70)
When the fire elemental joined in and Figus got in a strong cut across Ashoko’s arm, the samurai pulled on the reins and tried to escape. With the horses and bodies and press of his own spearmen wanting to come and assist him blocking the way out, it was clear that he was in huge trouble.
While I continued to lash into his brother, Tokanaga cut into my shoulder, dropping me to 68 hit points. A heal, however, landed, easing the pain of my wounds and bringing me back to 76. For once I wasn’t going to urge the Cleric to save her heals.
As Ashoko’s hit points drained away from him a heal, and then another, temporarily brought him respite. But it was no good. My team were lethal. ‘I am robbed of my life and of seeing the day that Yahima Hachi rules the Twenty-Five kingdoms.’ Then he looked directly at me. ‘Unless an idiot dies, he won’t be cured.’
A moment later, Ashoko was down, the final damage delivered by the fire elemental but I got a decent share of EXP: 160,000.
Now I turned my attention back to Tokanaga and couldn’t see any other option than to keep striking him in the hope that whatever magic was protecting the emperor had either limited duration or was limited in how much damage it could absorb. We traded blows, with him unharmed and me knocked down to 47. Then I realised: it was their ambassador, Hayashi Nakahu. Ducked down low, the ambassador was trying to hide the fact that he was a spell caster. But his hands were making the complex gestures of someone casting and this insight also made sense of the bright silk robes he was wearing instead of armour.
‘Kill the ambassador!’ I screamed and triggered my Stonewall skill. I decided to concentrate on deflecting Tokanaga’s attacks and defending myself while my team transferred their attention to the parrot-bright figure at the emperor’s side.
My cry had an immediate effect, with the fire elemental rushing to throw his molten punches; with arrows striking the ambassador; and, best of all, with Valeria surging through the melee to leap from her horse, daggers in hand. For a moment they wrestled furiously and then the ambassador was gone, fallen between the horses.
Now I resumed my attacks and as though I had finally cracked the eggshell of a boiled egg, my lance was cutting through armour and hurting the emperor.
You have hit Emperor Tokanaga for 18 damage.
You cannot become better at Wield Lance 65 (70)
You cannot become better at Ride Warhorse 65 (70)
‘All on the emperor now, he’s vulnerable again.’
Lord Arval was on the Tokanaga’s left, Figus on the right, and still seated on the ambassador’s horse, Valeria was holding her own against samurai who were trying to ride up and rescue their emperor.
Tokanaga’s evident consternation was increased by the Hailand troops behind him crying out to their emperor for help. He ceased trying to decapitate me long enough to look over his shoulder. Beyond the colourful banners of the Hailand army were a row of black banners. The Necromancer had sallied out to join me!
Again I cut the emperor and the blood was pouring through the gaps in his armour. My comrades too, were either focused on bringing him down or keeping his troops from interfering. I was aware of Hernán somewhere off to my left, thronged by enemy riders.
The emperor was fighting back with vicious blows and despite my having gained another heal, I was down to 27 hit points. Unexpectedly, the Hailand leader looked around him. Everywhere was carnage: dead horses, soldiers, limbs, broken weapons. Then he spoke. ‘Tokanaga is dust. The coldness of death stills my limbs. But you will not take experience from death’s arrival.’ He threw aside his great blade, snatched out a wakizashi and in the same movement cut his own throat, blood spraying into the air.
At the very end, he must have hoped to have prevented me and my comrades from gaining experience from him. But I had no complaints about the 210,000 exp I had obtained.
Figus gave me a nod. ‘Great final words. Almost makes up for his earlier terrible line.’
‘The emperor is dead!’ Lord Arval began shouting towards the Hailand soldiers. ‘The emperor is dead!’
I joined in and soon could hear the same shouts, joyful ones from my soldiers. I didn’t need Detect Enemy Weakness to know the Hailand troops were demoralised. Even the few samurai that remained mounted ceased from making attacks. And the Hailand soldiers on foot were looking at one another with pale faces. From behind me, Leonora rode forward casting Intimidate from her studded mace.
Like a ripple from a large rock thrown into a still lake, there was an immediate flow of Hailand soldiers fleeing from us in all directions and as my view ahead cleared, the slow, brutal zombie soldiers of the Necromancer became visible.
Even though there was still fighting taking place and still horrendous screams from horses and soldiers, the immediate world around me felt calm.
‘May I heal you sire?’ asked Figus.
‘And I?’ Lord Arval looked like a creature from hell, covered as he was with blood and I remembered my words to him before our charge. We had found hell all right, but it was for the Hailand army, not us.
‘I’ll take one from each of you. We still have to face Langia.’
As the warm pleasure of a heal flowed into me I heard a familiar voice.
‘Thanks to the bodies you have provided for me, I believe I can help with that.’
The ranks of zombies had parted and there, smiling and removing his black gloves was the Necromancer.