The streets of Oltuyr were in shambles. All along the rows of neat plastered-brick dwellings, the awnings hung torn from their poles and the family market stalls were emptied, overturned, and broken. The shadows of men darted through the smoke that filled the avenues between the houses in choking billows. There was a roar all around of voices distant and near. Yelling and crying, screams and the baying of every hound in the city. The avenues were stained black with tar and a rising wet heat that smelled like a burning latrine.
There were dead men too. One great one the size of a yak lay face down in the gutter, a sword lodged between his ribs. On the raised curb, away from the grime, two smaller bodies had been arranged under a blood-spotted awning.
Selghast clenched his jaw. It served to make him appear stoic, but also kept his mouth from hanging open at the awful reality before him. The long white haired elf drew the sword from the ribs of his former master and wiped the blood on the giant’s muddy robe. He gazed sternly at the back of his master’s tawny head. There were ways this could have ended without the man’s death. Selghast didn’t feel any better, but it felt settled now at least. A life for the life he had stolen. Selghast couldn’t spare a glance for the others, it would shake him, and he still needed to be strong.
“Where to now?” One of the group behind Selghast asked. There were twenty or so of them, some still in their tattered nightclothes. The man who spoke was a red haired elf of heartier build, Arbus, the baker.
“Gather what you can from the house. We’re going to the castle to drag out Voulmar.”
The group of assembled elves looked half-nervous and half-blood thirsty like a pack of hungry dogs.
“If you don’t want to come, get out of the city. Go to Arna, or one of the villages. Things are only going to get worse here.”
Some of them looked up to the sky which seemed to burn with the city. Others looked at the two shapes under the awning. The pack silently broke apart, as many of the elves slipped back into the house to pilfer what they could from the wardrobe and pantry before starting their journey.
Arbus stayed, and half a dozen others armed with knives, a rake and a maul made from the butter-churn. A sorry force if they met with any resistance.
“We’re with you, Sel.” Arbus said with a weak smile, raising his churn slightly.
It was a heavy task to smile at a time like this, and Selghast repaid him with a poor grin.
The group didn’t have to worry about resistance. The whole way to the castle the carnage was the same, broken streets red with blood and filled with anguished voices. But, empty of soldiers. The only giants left were deserters, unarmed families escaping the violence. One family had a child as tall as any of the men, but still with childish features and the bewildered fear of the innocent. They left such unfortunates to pass without a word.
They passed a manor where a giant noble and his soldiers had barricaded themselves. But as they drew near, they saw the gathered crowd begin to throw brands over the wall. There was panic from within as the manor burned, but the crowd in the street began to cheer with joy.
Throughout the city, everyone else had moved on or hunkered down. Selghast could see people peering from the windows, but the shutters all snapped shut when he met their eyes.
As they neared the castle, a crowd began to form. The streets became packed with elves who all moved with purpose, and the voices on the wind became angry, but harmonious. Like an army of ants they poured through the streets, all bound for the castle that lay just above the city on a cliffside.
Voulmar’s manse was decked in bronze and built half into the dark stone of the mountain. The siding was a fine dark wood, and the roof was shingled with enamel tiles of yellow and orange that gleamed wickedly in the smoky twilight. The path leading to it was intentionally thin and winding to hinder an army’s approach. But, Selghast doubted that the designer of the path had been imagining an army of slaves when he designed it. Still it did its job, and well before they reached the castle, the crowd was pressed tight, and all forward motion ground to a halt.
“Seems we weren’t the only ones out for Voulmar’s blood today.” Arbus said, craning over the interminable line to the castle.
“I should think not. Had you heard none of the rumors? Every elf in Fannur has been talking about it in his cups for months. The men could hardly hide their excitement.”
“Bakers don’t gossip.” Arbus replied dryly. “We’re honest folk.”
“Mhm.” Selghast humored.
“So by agreement then? Today is the appointed day?”
“More, or less. When news came in that the capitol fell, it probably started. Then this morning the air was different. The first fires I think had already started then.”
“The fires were burning before first light. I noticed it when I went out to smoke after I put the first batch of loaves in the oven. By the time I went out for my second smoke, dawn had come in flame.”
As they stood and spoke, three men began to cut through the crowd behind them on horses.
“Make way!” One of them called ahead.
Selghast at once recognized the voice.
“Llud! It’s you.”
The elf who had yelled trotted to a stop before the group and removed his bucket-like helm a bit too large for his head. He was severe looking, with a graying auburn mustache and a shaved head that accentuated just how round he was for an elf.
“Sel! I was worried about you. I’ve seen Uswydd kill slaves for less than insurrection.” He said with no humor.
“As have I. So I was very cautious when I gutted him.” Selghast deadpanned.
That drew a wry chuckle. “So, who’s your friend?”
“This is Arbus, the Antels’ baker. Arbus, this is Llud, one of my co-conspirators I suppose you could say.”
“You any good with a sword, Arbus?” Llud asked.
“No, but I can swing a maul built for a giant.”
“Good enough. You two should ride with us. We’re going to the gates.”
The giantish draft horses didn’t so much as whinny as Selghast pulled himself up to sit side-saddle behind Llud, and Arbus scrambled into a similar position behind the second horseman. The crowd didn’t part quickly, but it parted fast enough that the horses could canter through the lines of standing men in single file.
Sel was struck by how thin some of the elves around him were. Some fared better, looking washed and well enough fed. But most were like incumbent ghosts, with visible lash-scars under their tattered clothing. Every ounce of whatever energy was left in them was tied up in a fervent anger. Sel felt their rage bubbling in his stomach. It was his as well.
“Sire? I’ve received reports from the guard that the fires haven’t abated. Also, I called for your council to assemble. But only three of them have arrived so far.”
King Voulmar couldn’t look at his steward. He stood by the fire in what he hoped was a relaxed and confident pose. If he turned to meet the steward’s eyes, his own would betray him. Fear, unsurety, panic. The giant King’s heart beat like a racehorse. His mind struggled through seven thoughts at once.
“How many men could I field in a day? What levies in a week?” The King asked, vainly grasping the marble mantle above the fire.
“There are four hundred men in the castle, but the rest won’t be back from the capitol for at least another week and a half.”
“Just that many, Sire. The castle guard is the only force left to the kingdom.”
“Then hire mercenaries, private armies, place a levy on house guards!”
“Sire, I can’t just…”
“I want a thousand men marching here to raise this insurrection within the week! And I don’t care how much it costs, bankrupt the kingdom and sell my crown, but by the gods, bring me something!”
Silence hung over the gilded drawing room. The only light in the room was the fire burning low and dark, and half concealed behind the King’s looming shadow. The golden trim and plate glittered under the light of the guttering fire, and in the gloom the vague shapes of golden lounge chairs looked like the piles of a dragon’s hoard.
Voulmar had drawn the heavy velvet curtains the night before. He had seen red lights on midnight clouds of smoke rising from fires in the city. His city. Burning like a Qardagh grove. Bottles lay strewn about the woven rugs that covered the floor, evidence of the King’s evening engagements. His head was pounding, but the buzz had faded. And, now he needed to think.
“And, bring me water.”
“It’s ‘sire’ now.” The King repeated emptily.
“…Yes, sire.” He heard the elf leave the room.
Voulmar collapsed heavily into the nearest chair. It was twice the size of any other chair in the room, but it still groaned as the wood twisted under the King’s weight. Two elf-sized couches served as rests for his tired feet.
When Voulmar had joined the Fannur Kings in rebellion against the Empire he had thought he was being handed a great opportunity. Independence was the dream of every little Prince, wasn’t it? To make the laws to fit one’s own people, unbeholden to a distant tyrant. So he had bought in, risked everything for the chance to make Oltuyr free. And it had paid off. Plefed lay in ruin, the ancient walls sundered and breached. The throne was crushed, and the Empire as it had been could never be reassembled now.
Now, now that he would pay anything to see those Llergeidan banners on the horizon, coming to keep their peace. But it was all well out of his hands.
“A week and a half…” He repeated to the golden room around him. The castle keep would hold, at least that long. Four hundred men could hold the walls as long as the food held out. There was nothing to worry about. But still the hairs on his neck prickled nervously.
There were voices outside the door. A moment later the elf steward and the captain of the guard filed in.
“…I saw spears and knives in the crowd.” The steward finished.
“Sire,” The captain reported. “There’s an armed mob at the gates.”
Voulmar felt a tide rise in his gut. He sat up.
“Most of the city, from the looks of it.”
“Rouse the guard and fetch my armor. I’ll go meet them.”
Voulmar let the tide of his restlessness bear him along. He went to the mantle first, and fetched down his sword from where it was displayed above. It had a bronze core with a blade of amber that scintillated in the dim firelight and was as long as a man is tall. As his servants departed to do his bidding, he fastened his sword belt and strode out the door in a trance. He felt confident, or felt like he needed to be confident. So he marched down the stone halls of the keep with purpose and tried to keep his head up for anyone who was watching. But if he held out a hand, he was sure it would tremble, so he held the hilt of his sword in a death grip instead.
The stone halls were dark and cold. Whoever had been supposed to light the torches must have fled. Like the cook staff the night before, or the maids the night they had received news of the Imperial fall. It seems the elves had known this would happen. If by some shared link or by secret meetings in the dingy taverns of the city, the elves had spread the word everywhere before his victory had even come. The night that the Empire fell, this mob had been set loose, even if they only now found their way to his door. If he had known months ago it might not have made a difference. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the little moments and failures. If he had been wiser or kinder, or more like his father, would things be different?
Voulmar stood suddenly at the bottom of a spiraling staircase that led up to the forecastle. He wiped his face of cold beading sweat and took a breath, then mounted the stairs. He emerged into a day of smoke-choked skies. The sun wasn’t even vaguely visible, instead a red hue of diffused fire-light gripped the world. It was dim as twilight, but it wasn’t even noon. And the wind that swept up the cliffside from the city smelled like ash and death. Voulmar suppressed a shudder.
Men and elves lined his walls in rows, bows down, but ready to defend him at a moment’s notice. The show of force made him feel a little better. Then he stepped to the edge of the wall and looked out over the mob, and his breath caught in his throat. The sound of them hit him all at once. How many times had he stood here addressing the same crowd? Then, they had sat in respectful silence. But every voice and hand was raised now, bearing their hatred for him in blades and venomed words. When they saw him they did not quiet. They suddenly surged, like a wasp nest struck.
Voulmar stood dumbfounded. He didn’t signal for them to calm so he could speak. What man could believe he had the power to quiet them? It was like the fury of the sea itself had come to dethrone him and now raged at the castle doors. Voulmar stood. And, he waited.
Eventually from among the turbid crowd a single voice rose, and he called for quiet. He sat on a horse, behind another man who had the reins. A young elf with uncouth braids, a long face and piercing silver eyes. His gaze caught Voulmar’s, and without a doubt Voulmar knew he saw the truth. Voulmar could not hide his fear from this man.
“Voulmar!” The silver-eyed elf cried so he could be heard. “Come down and leave the castle. If you surrender now, we’ll let you leave with whatever you can carry. You can go back to the Empire and leave us here to ourselves.” There were murmurs among the crowd. Voulmar doubted they would let him go now, no matter what this one offered.
“Who are you?” Voulmar asked, fear mingling with rage. “I am King here! My family has ruled this land for three hundred years. I fought for this land! I would die for it.”
“I am Selghast. My master was Uswydd Antel, who is now dead by my hand. Now, I’m free from him and I’m here to claim freedom for all of my brothers and sisters.” There was a cheer amongst the crowd that silenced all thought for a moment with its sound.
Well, at least Voulmar knew why Uswydd hadn’t come when he summoned the council. It would have crushed him if the Antels had defected to save themselves. Though, perhaps they should have if this was the result of their loyalty.
“Uswydd was a friend.” Voulmar said, trying not to let the grief or the other swath of emotions flooding him come pouring. “My father…”
“Uswydd was a slaver and a monster.” Selghast cut back. “And your father was no different. There are people here who remember how your father put down the slave revolts. We won’t weep for a murderer.” The crowd cheered again.
Voulmar gripped the parapet and leaned out over the crowd. “Enough! You’ll gain nothing here! Go back to your homes and forget this folly. I am the King now and you cannot take this from me!”
At that, the crowd flew into a rage and began to beat at the doors so furiously that the whole wall shuddered. Stones and sticks came hurtling up and over the embrasures along with bottles and rotten fruit that shattered and squashed in the courtyard beyond. Voulmar chanced to catch the eyes of Selghast again, and once again found himself transfixed by his steely gaze.
Voulmar stepped back from the edge until all vision of the crowd receded and sat down hard against the wall behind him. He sat there reeling as his guard went to work around him, fortifying the castle for a siege. At some point Voulmar realized that his captain of the guard had arrived with a servant bearing his armor.
“Sire, your armor is ready. But, we have this under control, you needn’t trouble yourself with this mob. The guard will keep them at bay.” As he said so a salvo of bottles sailed over the wall and crashed into the courtyard.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Captain. The night is young. I’ll don my armor and wait out the evening in the drawing room.”
The Captain gave him a quizzical look but said nothing other than, “Yes, sire.”
Evening once again saw King Voulmar in the drawing room, drunk. But this time the giant was armored, and stood at the windows, curtains flung wide, with a wild look in his eyes as he watched the city burn. From his doorstep to the horizon, fires. Burning everything he had ever known. Burning in defiance of his will.
As he stood there, he could hear distantly the crowd at the castle gates calling for his death. Wherever he went in the castle he could hear it, even if only in a whisper so soft it could be his imagination. He could hear it now, the cry of ants barely louder than the thumping of his heart. But even without hearing the words, he knew what it meant. Voulmar took a drink.
He stood at the window drinking and watching the smoke until the moon rose and was well on its way back down.
Near dawn, there was a noise at the door, and Voulmar didn’t turn.
“Sire, the crowd has left for the night. There are a few guards, but if you were waiting for the right moment…”
“The right moment to what?” Voulmar spat. “To flee like a cowering mutt? To hand my birthright over to them without a fight? No, if they’ve left then I’ve won the night.”
Voulmar could still hear the whispers of their cries for blood. Were they really gone? Or did his steward mean to lead him out into the throng? Voulmar shot the elf a suspicious look. He was pale as a ghost, and he looked pointedly at the floor. Guilty, Voulmar decided.
“Is the old witch still in the castle?” Voulmar asked.
“Miss Frei? I’m not sure. But I will go check her quarters.”
“Hmm. And, don’t come back without her.”
The elf backed out of the room, bowing deeply with his eyes on the floor.
“And, before you go,” Voulmar stopped the man. “Look at me.”
The steward raised his eyes incrementally so his gaze fell on Voulmar’s shoes.
“Look me in the eyes.” Voulmar took a step away from the window and saw the room grow dark under his looming shadow.
The elf looked up and just askance of Voulmar’s face. Voulmar waited. Finally, the elf’s fervent eyes glanced at Voulmar and were caught.
The steward saw madness in his King’s eyes. And Voulmar saw the deep and uneclipsable fear that he desired.
“Never speak to me again about surrender or retreat.” Voulmar said, voice dripping with venom.
“Y…yes, sire. Of course. M…my apologies.”
The elf practically vanished from the room.
Voulmar turned back to the window. The fires were dying now. Before morning they would stop. That would be the first step toward returning things to normal. After that, he would set about crushing this rebellion and retaking his right.
Starting with the upstart Selghast.
Voulmar gazed out the window a moment more and then threw shut the curtain in disgust. The King waited in the darkness, slouched in his enormous chair for the witch to come. Propped up in his drunken stupor by armor he had never worn before.
She came in silently. The door opened and shut in the darkness and the old woman’s doddering shape came into view.
“Sire. What is your wish?” She crackled.
“Give me the power to crush this rebellion.”
“Does my King not already have the power to do so?”
“Tomorrow. I will end it tomorrow.”
“If you simply wait, your armies will return from the capitol and they will quell this rebellion without the need of magic.”
“I have been questioning loyalties as of late.” The King let the barb hang in the air.
The silhouette of the woman gave no indication.
“The armies will not remain loyal if they return to find things like this. I see now that they will join that mob and beat down my gates. When they return, I plan to show them the aftermath of a short-lived and bloody rebellion. That will keep these ingrates in line.”
“So what would you have me do?”
“Give me the power to defend my throne.”
The witch seemed to ponder for a moment. “It will be painful.” She said, making toward the dying embers of the hearth and stirring them. She added logs as she spoke. “I will need materials. Fine ones fit for remaking his highness’ body anew.” As the fire re-took, it cast a glow over the room, which glittered in the gold and amber fixtures. The King himself shone in mirrored bronze armor from neck to toe. The elven witch revealed by fire-light looked more sunken and ancient even than she was. Her expression was sad. Or, maybe she was frightened too.
“What cost is too great for a King?” Voulmar answered.
In a dingy bar below the castle, the co-conspirators drank and caroused. The fire, confined properly to the fireplace, was cheery. A few casks of booze that had survived the riots had been rolled in and flowed freely into the raised cups of the comrades.
Everywhere, elves danced and sang. Heady marches and rebel songs, too bold to be whispered even a week before now roared out. They all knew them, though they’d never heard them full voiced, assembled, as they were meant to be. Men were drunk not just on the beer, but on victory, freedom and a new life.
Selghast wished his heart was with them.
Arbus, Llud and Sel sat together at a rough table pocked with knife-holes set away from the fire and the general cheer. They drank, but only lightly, and kept their wits about them.
Sel drank to ease the urge that demanded he climb the path to the castle and dispose Voulmar at once.
He felt sharply that it wasn’t over yet. As long as the keep stood, their efforts were nothing more than a rebellion. Until the King was dead, there could be no liberation.
“Relax you two, it’s a party.” Arbus said. “What’s the point in planning all this if you can’t even enjoy it?”
Llud and Sel shared a look.
“I can’t believe they can sing like that.” Llud replied. “My stomach hasn’t stopped doing flips since we rode back down here. It’s all I can do to keep down a few sips. I feel sick.”
“What about you, Sel? You looked sour on the ride back too. The nerves got you?”
Sel shook his head. “No, it’s more like, I get the sense that the worst is yet to come.”
At that moment, the door of the bar swung open, and an unseasonal chill swept in along with a man in a heavy black cloak pulled tight around him. The lights in the bar dimmed as the flames shuddered in the breeze. A lull fell over the roar of the party, suddenly muted.
Then the stranger closed the door, and the cold fled. The fires bounced back to life and the chatter returned to a clamor.
The black cloaked man stopped only a moment to scan the room, and then walked straight to the back corner where the three friends sat. He sat down at their table unbidden, leaving his cloak and hood on. Though they peered into the pit of his face, all they could see with his back to the glowing room was the suggestion of an elvish chin with a wispy beard jutting from the dark.
“Selghast?” The man asked.
“Yes, I am Selghast. And who are you?”
The man cocked his head at the other two sitting at the table.
“They’re good friends.” Sel replied. “As trustworthy as I am, and far more so than a stranger.”
The man considered for a moment, then leaned in as far as he could and spoke in a whisper that died almost on his lips in the bustle of the tavern. “My name is Telian, the Captain of the Castle Guard.”
The man sat back, and the three stared at him, unsure of what to say.
Now more assured, the man spoke less quietly. “He,” And he made a motion to the cliffside above where the castle, and it’s King lay. “Is going mad with fear. He’s confined himself to the castle’s drawing room and stares at the fires daily. He paces like a beast in the darkness and has taken to ruling those who remain with threats. His time has come to an end, so I’ve come to help end it. There is a hidden cleft in the rock above the path to the castle. It leads to a cave that connects to the inner courtyard by a false wall. I will show you where it is, so that the head can be cut off this beast once and for all.”
There was an uneasy silence at the table once he had finished.
Finally, Llud spoke. “It sounds like a trap.”
“I know, I know. You have very little reason to trust me, but I’ve come because I’m the same as you. I’m no giant or noble. I was a lucky slave with a strong arm that… that he picked to bear the weight of his duties. Your freedom is mine too.”
The whole time the man spoke, Selghast’s heart had been picking up speed. This was the chance that his soul demanded. With no more great bloodshed, or a protracted siege, a prospective battle with the returning armies, a chance to end this. In his heart of hearts, he needed this to be real.
“Show me your face.” Selghast said.
The man hesitated, but then, carefully pulled back his hood just enough to reveal his face to the table and no others.
It was indeed the Captain of the Guard, Selghast recognized him from the wall of the keep. More than that, he recognized the man. His eyes were sunken-gray with lack of sleep and mingled fear with a supplicant gaze. Selghast locked eyes with the man, and though he squirmed he didn’t look away.
“Can you swear to me you’ve come to us in good faith? Can you meet my eyes and swear that to me?”
The Captain looked deep into Selghast’s eyes, and Selghast looked deeply back.
“I swear to you, I’ve come to end the monster called Voulmar.”
Beneath the weariness, the panic, the pitable begging gleam, Selghast saw within the Captain a resolve. A resolve that Selghast felt was in harmony with his own.
“I believe you.”
Selghast drained his cup and stood from the table.
“Go to sleep my friends. I’ll need you well rested and sober in the morning. I plan to make it the last dawn Voulmar ever sees.”
By guttering torchlight, Selghast, Arbus, Llud and Telian stood before a wall that choked the mouth of a stony cave. Behind them, a small band of co-conspirators stood huddled in silence.
They had emptied the armories of the city’s old elite, and stood all fully armored, gripping gleaming spears of amber. Telian wore his captain’s armor, less the helmet and cape.
The old captain reached forward and pressed against the stone wall. With some effort, it ground outward, and opened into the dawning courtyard of the inner keep. They were blinded for a moment by the eastern light, but when their vision resolved not a man of them said a word.
Within the courtyard, dead as if from a great battle, lay the castle guard. Perhaps a hundred corpses were strewn about the courtyard. Some had their armor wrenched back and heavy ragged gashes beneath, like they had been caught in a sawmill. Others were crushed like grapes within their armor and more had simply burned away to ash and bronze slag. The stones of the courtyard had been pulled up and thrown through windows and facades, and some men lay broken on the eves as if dropped there from great heights. But there were no sounds. There was no wailing of the dying, or the life of embers among the ashes. It was not the chaos of the city below, no battle had been staged, It was as if death itself had visited this place.
“What happened here?” Telian spoke in a whisper.
He stepped alone into the courtyard and gazed around in horror. Reeling, he fell against the wall, a look of uncomprehending sorrow on his face.
The others stepped out to join him, but none moved to comfort him.
“Sel, this place has been cursed.” Arbus whispered. “We should leave, and go back down to the city.”
Selghast shook his head. “He’s still inside.”
“Sel, I don’t think anyone is still alive in there.”
Selghast looked to Arbus; he saw his own fears reflected on his friend’s face. So he steeled himself before speaking to keep his words from betraying him. “Do this with me.”
Arbus looked pained, but he nodded after a time.
The doors of the entrance hall had been flung wide, and a hot wind rose from inside. Selghast was the first to mount the staircase that led into the maw, and it seemed to steel the men, because a clatter of armored footsteps followed up behind him. Their footsteps urged him onward, so even as his fear begged him to leave the cursed place, he mounted the steps, and stood before the darkened door.
Beyond the door was a wide corridor lined with columns. A fountain had once stood in the center of the room, but now was reduced to rubble. Dribbling water seeped up through the fine woolen rug and pooled around the shattered basin. Enormous bloody footprints marked the path of something which seemed to have entered the dining hall at the end of the corridor. The doors there were shut, but a red light danced through the gap beneath. It was stifling here, like a sauna with no steam.
As the elves marched down the open corridor, they stood ready, on edge. Their eyes darted to shadows on the wall, and the curtains flapping in the breeze.
When they reached the dining hall door, Selghast felt as if he stood before one of Arbus’ ovens. His heart pounded with fear, but lacked no resolve.
The wooden door was warm under his hand as he pushed it inward.
The braziers were burning wildly all along the far wall. Two long stone tables took up the space between. A marble throne sat among the fires, and all around it was curled a steaming mass of molten gold and heaps of blackened stone. The air rippled around the pile like a rock in the summer sun.
Then the pile shifted as if to collapse, but by some magic instead it rose up. It uncoiled its long body from around the throne, and spread wide two wings of melting amber. It raised its head and leveled its hateful, glowing eyes at them.
“Selghast.” It rumbled.
“Kneel to me before I kill you, and I will spare your families my wrath.”
Nothing moved, save the sway of the molten dragon’s tail.
Voulmar screamed as he lunged at them. The elves all scattered seeking cover among the tables.
Selghast ducked forward, avoiding the snatch of Voulmar’s blazing talons. He landed behind and scrambled back to his feet. Voulmar turned around and reared back, wings raking the vaulted ceiling. He came down with the full force of his body behind a claw. Selghast jumped clear, but a spray of hot rubble scorched his skin and sent him skating along the floor. He crashed into one of the tables, insensate.
There was a yell from one of the men, and then the dragon. The floor shifted and rumbled.
When Selghast shook himself free from the haze and the tangle of broken chairs, he saw the dragon lift and throw one of the stone tables away so he could get the man beneath. The dragon breathed, and the man was washed in a flameless heat that choked him before he could scream. He ignited like a struck match, then fell over dead.
Selghast drew his sword, his spear already lost in the chaos. He ran at the dragon from behind as Llud and Telian stepped up to draw its ire.
“Captain Telian, you dare? Traitor! Regicide! Mutiny!”
Voulmar raged at Telian, but the man was light in his armor. He sprung back a step, and the cobblestones beneath his previous spot exploded in a shower of molten debris. He struck out with his spear, and Voulmar snapped it in his iron teeth. Telian jumped back, and a wave of heat that shook the air followed after him. He ducked and dodged his old liege for three, tense, eternal seconds.
In the blink of an eye, Voulmar shredded Telian with his molten claws.
Selghast responded by planting his sword firmly in the dragon’s gut from the side.
Voulmar wailed in agony. He seized the other elf, Llud, around the chest and lifted him in the air. Still grasping Llud he whipped around and pinned Selghast by an arm and leg with the other talon. Where they were touched, they burned and the claws cut deep. Both elves screamed.
“Selghast!” It bellowed with the rage of a mountain. “I have crushed your pitiful rebellion, just like I crushed the Empire! And next I will crush you, and everyone you’ve ever loved until the mere whisper of your name strikes fear into the hearts of…”
Arbus struck out at Voulmar with his spear and caught him below the jaw. The dragon lashed out with it’s tail and threw him against the wall.
Still wailing, Voulmar half-collapsed in agony over Selghast, crushing the wind from his lungs, and searing deeply the flesh of his chest.
Under the dragon’s weight it was too hot to breathe, but seeing no other chance, Selghast lifted his sword in his one free hand and sliced the dragon’s neck from chin to nape.
The dragon rolled over and over as it and gurgled with agony, crushing the other table and coming to writhe against the far wall.
Selghast’s arm and leg were ruined, so he dragged himself over to the dragon. When he came to its side its eyes were open, and it breathed shallowly. Without wasting another thought, he fell upon it and cut its head from its body. He threw away his smoking blackened sword and fell upon the ground beside the head. The breathing of the beast went silent, but its eyes still watched him.
There was no sound in the great hall, save the gentle crackling of Voulmar’s cooling body.
“Sel…ghast.” A voice whispered.
His head whipped up, expecting a friend who had survived the carnage.
Instead he found Voulmar’s draconic head still glaring at him from the floor.
“Selghast,” It spoke again. “How cruel to see your victory turned to naught. Curses, curses.” It’s mouth worked as if to bellow but all it could do was choke. “All for naught. All the gold and amber in the world will not buy lifeblood. I take solace only in your agony.”
“Then you are a monster, Voulmar and your new form and condition suit you. There is no agony in my soul.”
“Your name will be forgotten elf. I will forever be the Last King of Oltuyr.”
“But, my work here will remain. The time of the giants is over.”
For the last time Selghast looked deeply into Voulmar’s cooling metal eyes, and there he saw no humanity. There was rage aplenty, and animal panic, instinct and fight. But within Voulmar’s eyes, Selghast saw nothing of himself or of his comrades at all. And that thought alone was enough to give him peace.
The dragon lay there gnashing its teeth and cursing in wrath; until, with a resounding crack, the cooling metal of Voulmar’s head split in half.
Then he was still.
Selghast lay back his head on the crushed stone floor, and allowed the light to bear him away into sleep.