Decision at Talon

by Rune Lai

A cold wind blows around a weary yet cheerful crowd huddled before the single bonfire in the darkened night. Before them stands a figure, face obscured by the shadow the fire behind it created. The figure raises its hands for attention and begins to speak in a lilting voice, ready to catch the eyes and ears of all therein.

"Hearken all, and I thank thee for coming. For the Night of Tales shall soon begin, and I wish to end ere this night grows old. Nay, this night I shall not speak of the deeds of Ghaleon, Kazyr, or Sadoul as you know I have been wont to do of late. But this night shall be dedicated to a very special group of people."

The figure thrusts back a hand with a florid gesture. "Tonight I shall tell the lay of the heroes who would later call themselves the Company of the Earth, and would be known as the Ruid Ravagers, Frontier Defenders, and other such titles. Aye, their tale is an obscure one. But list! Though some believe only people with names such as Dyne, Hiro, and Alex can truly be heroes, true bravery should never be frowned upon no matter how obscure its origin. Some listeners close their eyes to all but the best known. But nay, I come here not to tell of that. For we speak enough of it during the day.

"Hie now! The sun has set, and the stars shine! And thus shall I begin my tale!"

----{> ----{> ----{>

Chad sighed. "How much longer do we have to wait?" He drummed his fingers across the large table he was seated at.

"It shouldn't be more longer now," said Lou, casting a hopeful glance through the small dusty window. "Lore's rarely late. But you know how difficult Captain Bergor can be. If she's stuck in a conversation with him, she's not going to get out of it easily."

Chad sighed, but ceased his drumming.

The ten people present risked life and limb to convene here. And the sooner their meeting ended, the sooner they could get back to their stations within the Talon Mine before they were missed. The mines had long forgotten the meaning of the word "rest". Ghaleon's overseers worked their slaves hard, only allowing "rest" when one finally collapsed of exhaustion. They figured a rebellion could hardly be stirred when the only slaves with "free time" lay passed out in the dirt.

Lou felt inclined to agreed, which lead him to hold this meeting. He had hoped for a better turn out, but he could understand the fear that held the others to their posts until a greater certainty could arrive.

"If this goes on much longer..." muttered John. He sighed. "I don't want to wind up in the graves rather than digging them."

"Hirum's covering for me at my post. And the guards shouldn't be checking up me for another hour or so," said Beri. He grinned with a sudden thought. "They don't like my explosions much."

"None of us like your explosions much," Matt dourly remarked. "It means more tunnels for the rest of us to slave through."

"Shhh!" Aes hissed. He pointed out the window and ducked out of sight. The rest of the people in the small shed did likewise, save Reela, who took up his post behind the door.

Reela ran his hand over the latch, double-checking its security.

A heavy knock hit the door, followed by three light ones in quick succession.

Reela let out his breath as a few of the others tentatively started to climb out from under the table. He opened the door to admit two cowled figures, one about average height and carrying a quarterstaff, and another significantly taller and huskier than the first.

"Lore?" asked Chad as Reela shut the door.

The smaller figure nodded, taking her cloak off with a quick gesture and hanging it upon the wall. A collective intake of air in the shed greeted her ears. Lore dressed simply; all in black save a red belt and a similarly colored strip of cloth used to tie her long raven hair into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. Despite her slight build, an astonishing amount of five swords hung from her waist and a quiver of arrows complete with a bow was slung over her shoulder.

Lore smirked. "So I was raiding the armory for you guys, but..." She trailed off, noticing that her fellow conspirators were no longer staring at her, but rather at the her companion.

He had removed his hood to reveal the proud lupine features of a Vile Tribe wolf guard. He held a scythe and spear in one hand, his standard issue sabre hanging from his belt and shield slung over his back. The wolf guard's breastplate glinted in the dim light offered by the single small window of the shed. His lips curled back, but the onlookers couldn't tell if it was in amusement or in anger.

Finally the wolf guard laughed. "You look like a bunch of hicks from Meryod who've never seen a bath!"

He almost rambled on into how he had been sent there searching for a nonexistent singing girl when Lore spoke. She smiled, nodding to Matt and Lou. "This is my friend, Blake. Sorry about not giving you any warning about him coming, but he just decided to help us last night. I normally work with him in supervising the introduction of new slaves to the mines."

"Can we trust him though?" asked Matt. "The Vile Tribe's born to serve Xenobia. And we all know Xenobia's all but hitched to Ghaleon by now."

"'Hitched' is a funny way to put it," said Lore. "But enough. You can trust Blake. He was the one who enabled me to get all these weapons for you guys!" Lore began unbuckling the swords around her waist. "If you can't trust him, then trust me! Technically I'm you enemy as well." She motioned to the emblem sewn near her left shoulder, marking her as a member of Ghaleon's guard.

"Here," she said, handing a sword to Lou. "These were all the weapons I could carry without notice. You can take the extras back to your friends who are still in the mines if you can."

Lore likewise handed a sword to Beri, Reela, and Mike. Blake offered Matt the scythe he requested of Lore earlier, and Chad his spear. The wolf guard than removed a backpack previous hidden beneath his cloak and pulled out a stash of three long swords and a dozen or so daggers which he set on the lone table in the room. He handed out the swords before slinging his pack beneath his cloak again.

"The daggers can be handed out to anyone else you think can help us," Blake said simply.

Lore slung off her bow and quiver, laying those upon the table as well. "If you can find an archer to use these, take them as well. Once the fighting begins, I'll be more useful on the front lines."

Matt nodded, dropping into his seat. The others present followed his example, gathering barrels and boxes once the few chairs present were taken.

"Shall we begin our meeting then?" asked Lou.

"No reason not to," said Caad. "Everyone is present."

Blake moved the weapons off to one side as Lore unraveled a crude map of the different levels of the Talon Mine. "I copied these from the ones in Captain Bergor's office," she said, standing up. "This is the most recent layout he has." She pointed to various boxes roughly shaped along various points of the mine. "These are the guard posts, for lack of a better word. When the guards start their shift, they begin at one of these boxes, and then patrol the area," --she traced her finger along an invisible route-- "finally coming back to where they started every half hour.

"The Viles are lazy," she stated. "They never patrol in the same fashion twice as you probably know, however they always report without fail to the boxed points every half hour. It's at those points that shifts in the guard occur." She glanced to make certain that the others understood, and then nodded to Lou before sitting down.

Lou then stood. Though only sixteen years of age, he managed to make himself popular among the slaves of the Talon Mine. Encouraging, smiling to cheer people despite their plight, he brought a small light into the darkness where there was none.

He rested a hand on the sword now sheathed at his side and brushed back a wayward lock of brown hair from his face. "Anyway," he said, careful to take in the whole group with his gaze, "I think we all agree that working in these mines is the most unbearable thing that any human or beast should be put through. Even trying to squeeze out a living in the Frontier is better than this! Rumors say that there's a kid out there destined to be the next Dragonmaster, and the Magic Emperor's attention is otherwise occupied. I say this is the time to win back our freedom!"

"The timing is certainly good enough. Do we have a plan though?" asked Matt.

"In fact we do." Lou tapped the map spread out on the table. "Beri made an unusual observation in the mines two days ago. Despite the recent arrival of the new slaves from Burg, Xenobia has issued an order for a good forty percent of the Vile Tribe guards here to be deported to various stations about the western Frontier. That lends credit to the story of a would be Dragonmaster."

"But you can be sure that Xenobia won't leave the mines vulnerable for long," Lore interjected.

"The troops are scheduled to leave the day after tomorrow," Lou continued. "If we can gather all possible people to us before then, we can stage our revolt once the deported soldiers have force marched beyond easy reach of the mines. Hopefully our attack will be swift enough that we can take out any birdbrain troops that may try to recall them.

"Since each of us come from different parts of the mine, --except for Aes, who typically runs courier service, and for that we are grateful-- we should muster as much strength as possible in our respective areas," said Beri. "There are twelve of us present, although Lore and Blake will likely be in the same location, and I doubt they'd be as successful at rousing help as the rest of us. I know a few people who are willing to support a revolt once the fighting breaks out, but could not or were afraid to attend this meeting.

"We'll have to make sure we all strike at the same time as well, or we could stand to loose a lot of our forces."

"Sounds good to me," said Aes.

Reela nodded. "And Aes, when you're doing your message runs tomorrow, be sure to tell every man, woman, and child you can about the planned departure of the Viles. Let them know that's when to react. Maybe we'll even get a few new hot spots for our revolt."

"What time of day should we try this?" asked Caad.

Lou seemed to think for a moment, but Blake provided the answer. "One turn of the hourglass into the fourth watch. There are the least guards on duty then. Most are on break and possibly asleep in the barracks."

"Fourth watch!" said Chad. "That's in the dead of night!"

"All the better. It's not like we get much sleep anyway," Matt dourly remarked.

"Don't forget to be especially careful to keep your weapons hidden," said Lore. "We don't need them getting wind of this revolt any earlier than necessary. And they'll recognize the weapons having come from their own armory, which may make it harder for Blake and I to continue to assist you."

"We'll do our best." Lou assured her with a curt nod. "Now are there any further things to discuss?"

The discussion continued, people pointing our their different working locations on the map as well as how many people they felt they could muster. The daggers and bow on the table were parceled out in accordance with the amount of support to be found in each person's area. Talk moved swiftly, and a centralized area chosen for all the groups to assemble in. Once the rebels were joined they would make for the northern exit and try to reach the village of Marke, where they would likely get support. In addition, if a Dragonmaster truly was on the way, he would have to venture there to enter the black dragon's cave.

Within forty minutes, the discussion ended, people hurrying back to their posts before the next Vile Tribe patrol would pass through their area. Blake rolled up the map and it disappeared somewhere beneath his cloak. Lore turned to leave with him when she noted that Aes didn't receive a sword.

She looked sternly at him. "You'll need a weapon."

Lore unbuckled her own sword from her belt and shoved it at him despite his protests. "Take it. After all this is over I don't ever intend on using a bladed weapon again. Besides," --she smirked and lifted her quarterstaff a bit-- "I have this, and believe me, I know how to use it."

"Yeah, right between the legs of the guards!" Blake chuckled lowly.

Lore laughed briefly in return, and the pair exited the shed.

Aes clutched the sword tightly to him, the last person to leave. Magic had never been his forte. So yes, he would need the weapon, although the finer aspects of fencing always eluded him. A small spark lighted in his eyes. He may never be the best of warriors, but he had an important task none the less. He only hoped that once the revolt occurred, he wouldn't find himself delivering a message to Captain Bergor himself!

----{> ----{> ----{>

An explosion with the power of an earthquake rocked the mine, caving in a section devoted to the recreation of the many lizard guards. A cry went up, cheering for the mindless destruction that just occurred and heralding the start of the fray. Beri scampered away from the debris and conjured up a shaft of ice to pierce the first Vile to poke his ugly snout into view. He whooped and dug into his backpack, yanking out a bottle of liquor.

He skidded to a halt outside the Vile's lavatory and jammed a handkerchief into the open neck of the bottle. Beri fumbled with his tinderbox for an instant, and then lit a corner of the cloth on fire. "Talk about being caught with your pants down," he chuckled. With a final smirk he chucked the bottle into the bathroom and ran as fast as his stature would allow before the lavatory exploded.

"Woo hoo!"

He smacked into the backside of Reela K'Dor. Beri tumbled over from the impact against the much larger young man in front of him.

"Oooo..." he moaned.

Reela, preoccupied with the frontal charge a group of his friends had made, didn't turn around to notice Beri right away. Only when the smaller of the two scuffled to his feet did Reela turn around.

Reela smirked. "Ah, I bet it was you setting off those explosions!"

"Who else?" asked Beri as the fighting drew nearer to them.

Reela neatly clipped off the head of a lizard guard as Beri began to concentrate. A prism of ice appeared before him, sucking up the heat from the air around it. Beri gestured, and the ice realigned itself. With a flash it emitted a barrage of heat that had welled up within it in great waves across the Vile forces.

Wind gushed forth from an adjoining tunnel, toppling over the Viles that had survived the heat wave. A particularly ugly lizard captain raised his sword in defiance when the air whistled as a spear embedded itself in his chest.

Chad scampered out of the tunnel with two teenage beastmen from Marke on his heels. He smiled, a look of satisfaction on his youthful face. "All right!" he exclaimed, yanking his spear out of the dead Vile's corpse.

He whirled to face Reela, Beri, and the other slaves with them. "How much further to the meeting point?"

"Not much further, I think," Reela replied. "I think there are just a few more tunnels we'll have to pass by before we get to the chamber where the villagers from Burg were taken."

The sound of battle raged ahead of them, and bestial cries rang surprisingly well down the earthen tunnels.

"Well, we had better not miss all the fun," said Reela, tightening his grip on his sword. "I have more than a bone about my freedom to pick with these Viles."

Chad nodded. "I'll scout out up ahead a little ways for you. I'm pretty fast on my feet, and if there's any need to get out a situation fast, I can do it."

"Go on then. We shouldn't be far behind you."

Chad turned to leave when he noticed Beri pulling a bottle of liquor out of his backpack. He looked at him curiously and Beri smiled in return.

"One for the road."

----{> ----{> ----{>

"Damn it!" Matt huffed as his scythe's arc decapitated a feral wolf guard. "There are just too many of them!" He parried a lizard guard's sword with the haft of his scythe before batting away the offending weapon and bringing down his own curved blade through the Vile's shoulder. "At this rate it'll take us hours to get to that damn chamber!"

Aes ducked a blow from a birdbrain, trying to find an opening for his sword. "At least we managed to meet at all!" Shouts of pain and death rang around them from both sides of the battle.

"Still," --Matt knocked off another lizard guard-- "I thought Blake said most of these guys would be asleep! I think I'm seeing more guards now than I ever did before! What happened to the forty percent that would supposed to leave?"

Aes clumsily dispatched the birdbrain he fought. "They did leave! I saw them go during my run this morning!"

"Great... I had no idea there would be this many. Do they have some kind of spawning ground near here?"

Aes didn't reply.

"Anyway, cover me!" Matt ordered. "I have an idea."

The young warrior mage swung his scythe in front of him, focusing his powers and recalling his lessons in Vane. Words formed in his mind and he spoke them fluidly, comprehending their meaning as a whole if not by part. The blade of his scythe hummed, and with a final cry, he swung his weapon round in the direction of the Viles blocking their path towards their meeting chamber.

Sparks trailed the curved blade, which began to glow a brilliant white, sending out an arcing beam of pure light. The holy brightness scourged the eyes and minds of those who could no longer bear the light from without the Frontier, sending them quivering to the ground.

"C'mon!" Matt shouted to the few rebels still standing beside him and Aes. "They won't be stunned for long!"

Aes nodded, carefully hopping over the twitching form of a lizard captain. He froze as he noticed a birdbrain's hand brush against his ankle, but it only jerked as if in seizure.

"Hurry up!" called one of the others.

Aes gulped and trying keeping a firm grip on his sword with his sweaty hands. Grumbling about the difficulties just keeping alert, he scrambled over the fallen Viles to catch up with his companions.

----{> ----{> ----{>

Bodies fell to the ground around him, and Lou glanced warily to his right and left. Far too many of the dead were human or beastman rather than Vile. He glanced towards the recesses of the various tunnels at the northern end of the large chamber where the citizens of Burg were hiding. They told him that Alex, the soon to be Dragonmaster, had secretly passed through less than an hour ago and that he was on his way to challenge the wolf captain to pass through to the other side. Lou hoped Alex would succeed, if only to make their rest of the rebels escape to Marke that much easier.

Another human scream rang out and Lou's eyes instantly darted that direction. Was there anyone else left standing? He couldn't see any more allies. A monstrous archfiend stood over the fresh corpse of a young woman. Ten feet tall, the gangly humanoid demon could only stand at his full height within the gigantic new chamber. It held two long swords, both bathed red in the crimson blood.

"Captain Bergor," Lou growled, a dark fire welling up within him. "You bastard!"

Lou raised a hand, conjuring up a ball of fire and hurtled it at the demon.

The fire exploded against Bergor without so much as a scorch mark.

Lou sighed. "I gotta stop doing that. My fire magic is never gonna get better just because I need it to."

The young man raised his sword as the demon hissed out a set of sibilant words. "So, last one, are you? After this I shall have to ferret out the rest of your companions like rats from their holes." The horned blue creature cackled, running a long tongue over his yellow fangs.

Lou swung his left fist in a defiant gesture. "If I'm the last one here in this section, then I'm gonna make you pay for the deaths of all the others!"

Lou felt his hope of escaping harm fading. He knew an archfiend lay well beyond his capability to fight alone. But his rage and determination grew. He gripped both hands around and screamed his frustration and anger out in a wordless yell as he charged the fiend.

Captain Bergor huffed, making a single gesture. Darkness flashed from the demon's fingertip.

Lou unconsciously closed his eyes during his charge, preparing for impact.

Suddenly strong furry arms snatched him to one side.

Lou felt a chill blast dissipate near him, and then a soft heat. He opened his eyes to see Lore standing between him and Bergor. Her staff was raised, and a shield of fire erected before her. Blake knelt on one knee next to him, peering at him curiously.

The wolf guard chuckled. "What kind of ditz are you running into a beam of darkness like that? Thinking you're gonna get through?"

"Better a ditz than a walking flea carpet!"

Blake suddenly stopped laughing and poked Lou in the ribs. "You serious about that?"

Lou smirked. "Well, maybe not. Thanks."

The two warriors climbed back to their feet just as Lore's barrier disappeared.

"So, you two are the traitors?" hissed Bergor. He eyed Lore. "Ghaleon thought you had great promise as a future general. And you," --his gaze turned to Blake-- "isn't your lineage the most honored of Xenobia's rangers?"

"Geez, if you're asking us, you gotta pay attention to the identities of your soldiers more often," said Blake.

Lore nodded sharply. "I didn't leave my family in Pao to relish in the slavery of others. Ghaleon's quest was once noble, but both he and it have been twisted by hatred and evil." She twirled her quarterstaff sharply in front of her. "I stand by him no longer!"

"Cool stance, Lore. Ever think of making stock footage out of it?" asked Blake.

Lore blinked, getting the distinct feeling that a giant sweat drop should be hanging from her head.

Bergor hurled a bolt of lightning at the trio, scattering them. Lore and Blake tumbled off to one side, and Lou to the other.

"Gonna be one of those days," Lore muttered.

"At least you've got me!" said Blake with a mischievous glint in his lupine eyes.

Lore looked at Blake suspiciously, well aware she already had him.

"I'll defeat him with the power of coot!"

Lore groaned. "I think you're having an identity crisis right now."

Blake smiled a wolfish grin, drew his sabre, and dashed forward quickly enough to join Lou in a second charge against Bergor.

The young man and the wolf guard sparred with the Vile Tribe's captain of the mines for several minutes. Lore grumbled about them not giving her enough room to fight with her staff and being regulated to a pseudo-magicianly role from which she hurled bolts of flame above her companions' heads to strike the archfiend.

"I think I've just about had enough of this!" said Lou, when Bergor was laced with wounds. He skittered back from one of the Vile's parries, quickly falling into a defensive stance. Lore's magic efforts managed to save Lou and Blake from some of the harm the demon would have inflicted, but unfortunately not all.

"Singed fur is so unbecoming," murmured Blake, trying to brush off the ash that had fallen on him from Lore's spells. Blake yelped suddenly as he ducked one of Bergor's sword blows. "Although I suppose loosing fur altogether is even worse..."

"Where is everyone else?" asked Lou, ignoring Bergor's hissing of their premature demise. "They should be here by now!"

Shouts echoed from the lone tunnel leading back into the rest of the mines.

"Sounds like we make have some help coming." Lore smirked at Lou. "Can you ask where everyone is again? Maybe they'll show up quicker."

Bergor growled, shifting his bulk towards the noise. His pointed ears twitched, and he bellowed an order in the harsh spitting language of the Vile down the tunnel.

"What'd he say?" asked Lou, as he parried one of Bergor's swords.

Blake opened his mouth to respond, but instead decided to forego the talk and grimly rammed his sabre into the pectoral plate of the archfiend. Black blood dribbled out of the wound, but the strength of the demon bone reverberated down Blake's blade, jostling his arm.

Bergor swung his sword around, and Blake barely managed to raise his shield in time to block it.

"Vile troops are heading this way!" cried Lore. "They're between us and the rest of the rebels. I think Bergor wants them to trap us!"

"Well, we can't allow that, can we," Lou stated with a confident smile. "Blake! Gimme room!"

The wolf guard darted to one side as Lou sprinted forward. The young man again clashed with the demon. "C'mon! Die! You should be dead by now!"

Something pink flashed, bouncing up and down in the corner of Lou's eye, although he tried to pay it no mind.

"Gimme an L, roll the O, curl the U; that spells out Lou! Hit him, Lou! Hit him, Lou!"

Did he just see Lore and Blake with a couple of pompoms?

He thrust back Bergor's swords and glanced for an opening. "Er, whatever you guys are doing," he called out, "could you try to find something less distracting?"

----{> ----{> ----{>

"Fancy meeting you guys here. Good to see you've made it," said Chad as Matt and Aes' group came half running, half walking into an adjoining path with him and his companions.

"For moment I wondered if we would," Matt returned. "The Viles were particularly heavy in our area. Most of them are behind us now."

"Behind?" Reela echoed. He frowned, pointing to the tunnel ahead of them. "Chad just finished scouting out ahead. There's a large group of them not far along. They appear to be retreating, but that doesn't mean it's any good. They're heading for our meeting place!"

"Uh oh," Aes murmured.

"Do you think we can break through though?" Matt asked, green eyes fixed on Reela.

"Maybe. Beri's trying to get some explosives together to clear them out. But knowing him, that's as likely to cave in the tunnel as save our hides. I'd prefer something more certain."

"It is certain!" said Beri, cropping up beside Reela. He pulled several small bundles wrapped in dried cabbage leaves out of a sack slung over his shoulder.

"What's that? The leftovers of tonight's dinner?" asked Chad, peering down at them.

"Well, I didn't have any paper to make the normal containers for these, so I had to improvise," said Beri, hefting them to his own eye level for reinspection. "They're explosives. Granted they're milder than my usual sort, they'll explode upon impact. We can throw them at the Viles! Just be careful not to sit on them or anything."

Chad regarded them warily as Beri offered him a few.

Beri grinned to reassure him, although that didn't make Chad feel any better. "Just don't jostle them and you should be all right."

"Well, ammunition is ammunition," said Matt, gently sliding a bunch of Beri's cabbage-wrapped bundles into a large belt pouch of his. "I don't know what's in these, but I'd wager we probably don't want to know."

"Ammonia iodide," said Beri with a grin.

"That's assuming we even would know what that is," Reela remarked. He looked grimly at the tunnel up ahead, facial muscles tense, to where the Vile voices dimmed. "Well, these cabbage bombs of Beri's may be just what we need to clear us a path. Beri, spread out what you have among us, and then let's move; quickly, but smoothly. I don't want to see anyone getting blown up by his own ammunition."

Reela and Matt took the lead with Beri and Aes right behind them, carrying most of the explosives. Chad followed them in the next rank back, mouthing the words to his wind spells in anticipation. Matt winced every time someone scuffled over the loose gravel. All eyes and ears remained focused ahead and alert for any sight or sound of the Viles.

"This is getting nerve wracking," Aes whispered to no one in particular.

Something green twitched up ahead.

The next instant saw a barrage of brownish green bundles of cabbage flying through the air.

Howls and shrieks rose up ahead and Matt shouted for the rebel group to advance a few more paces and then let loose the next volley. As the next batch sailed over head, Chad called on his wind magic to give the explosives lift, allowing them to fly even further into the enemy ranks.

Smoke poured forth, but dissipated quickly despite the cramped confines of the underground. Matt ordered the last volley to be thrown, and then brandishing his scythe before him, called the others to follow his lead into the battle.

----{> ----{> ----{>

Lore turned as smoke issued from the southern tunnel. Viles came stumbling out; some coughing, others clinging their beaten limbs to their bodies. Lore somersaulted to one side to avoid being trampled as they made a beeline for Bergor. She shouted and Lou and Blake glanced back in time to scurry out of the way.

The wounded Viles hissed and growled as they began to gather about their leader.

Then people streamed into the giant chamber just behind the last of the demons. Their bare weapons flashed in the lantern light of the cavern. Matt charged in the lead, slaying any Viles too slow to evade his scythe as though he threshed wheat rather than flesh and bone. Ice and wind throttled the rear ranks until Captain Bergor's wary gaze rolled in their direction.

"Qawk 'pth," Bergor spat. The magic ceased to have effect.

"You made it," Lou said brightly as the rest of the rebellious slaves gathered around him.

"Hey, it's not like we'd miss this !" Beri replied with a grin.

Lore spun her staff dexterously in front of her. "Great, now we can really do some damage."

"Uh... I don't know about that..." Aes trailed off and pointed to the gathered Vile Tribe before them.

Now that the demon spawn had gathered together, the surviving members of the rebels did not look too healthy. Lou clenched his teeth together. Less than two dozen people still stood, whereas the Vile contingent possessed half again as many warriors. Where had the citizens from Burg disappeared to? This was their section of the mine after all. He hadn't seen then since they told him Alex had passed through.

"My magic isn't working anymore," Chad called out.

"Mine neither," added Beri.

Lore muttered a few words and gestured. She frowned, uttering a disdainful curse. "Bergor's formed some sort of anti-magic shield around the chamber."

Blake growled and his armor creaked in protest as he tentatively backed up a step.

The other wolf and lizard guards which formed the front ranks of the newly regrouped Viles snarled in return.

"Advance!" Bergor bellowed. "Kill the lot of them! We can always capture more slaves! And there are still those hiding in the rest of the mines!"

The rebel slaves gathered grimly together, forming a ring to guard each other's backs as the wave of demons encircled them.

Swords flashed and screams rang out from both sides. Though most of the bodies were those of Vile Tribe members, none of the rebels escaped unscathed. Lou shook his head in disbelief. Surely there were more fighters somewhere in the mines.

"Hirum, Neal, Mike, flank to Bergor's right!" shouted Matt. "Aes, John, Reela, sweep left! Our rear is clearing up and I can handle things back here."

A glass bottle glinted for a moment in the air before crashing with a crimson explosion.

Aes cheered, and then something from the north tunnels caught his eye. He gasped and turned back towards the group. "The wolf captain is coming! The wolf captain is coming!"

Reela growled as a birdbrain collapsed to the ground with his sword in its gut. He felt a coldness form in the pit of his stomach. Judging from the worried glances of the others, he didn't not feel that alone.

"Had Alex been defeated?" Lou whispered to himself.

Lore cried out, staggering back and almost falling until Blake caught her and propped the raven-haired girl up beside him. Blood streamed from a deep cut in her thigh. She winced, trying to help support herself with her uninjured leg.

"C'mon! We've got to keep fighting!" Matt waved his scythe about him, trying to rally the rebels.

The Vile guards cheered, renewing their attacks as the mammoth wolf captain strode into view.

The wolf captain stood second only to Bergor in power and haled from the Frontier town of Cadin. The rebel slaves all knew him. None could earn their freedom until they could best him in combat; a feat which no one had ever accomplished.

Chad steeled himself as the wolf captain howled. But the giant Vile hurled himself not at the slaves, but at the demon spawned ranks. The monsters screeched in surprise, and for a moment even the rebels stood silently in shock.

Lou waved his sword in the air. "Now's our chance! If he's helping us we can beat them!"

The vigor that had filled the Vile Tribe only moments before manifested twofold in the desperate and hopeful rebel slaves. Lore leaned against Blake, who steadied her against the group of humans and beastmen rushing past them.

Captain Bergor bellowed accusations at the giant wolf guard, and uttered a word in his guttural form of spellcasting. The giant archfiend suddenly appeared behind the wolf guard and smote him a devastating blow to the head.

The rebels almost hesitated, but Matt and Lou's shouts for encouragement brought them to bear. Beri's bombs flew where the mass of Viles were thickest, and Reela's grim countenance appeared wherever the fighting lay heaviest.

Lore sighted a rebel archer standing along the periphery of the battle. He wielded her bow. "Captain Bergor must be stopped," she murmured. She gestured to Blake who followed her gaze. "Help me to him. I can't stand on my own to fight, but perhaps if I had my bow..."

Blake nodded silently and allowed her to lean on him so she could manage a hobbling trot.

Matt and Lou stood to either side of Bergor, and others having cleared a path for them. Green and brown eyes watched for every glance the inhuman black ones made. Bergor swung one of his swords. Lou parried and Matt arced his scythe in a great sweeping motion at Bergor's flank. But the archfiend's other sword snapped into view and flung Matt back about three yards.

"Chris, isn't it?" Lore asked the archer. When he warily nodded she said, "Please, let me use your bow. As you can see, I cannot fight in hand-to-hand combat anymore. I still want to help though..." She glanced down at her garb and then to Blake. "You'll have to trust me. I'm not one of the enemy."

"Yeah, I've heard of you," he said quietly, offering her the bow. He smiled slightly. "Give us a good shot."

"Thank you," she whispered, nocking an arrow with an expert twist of her wrist. Then a little more strongly: "Steady me, Blake. I can't afford to miss."

Aes and Chad stood back to back over the comatose form of the wolf guard. With sword and spear they deflected the blows of those who would hard the source of the rebels' reborn courage.

Matt's scythe bit deeply into the archfiend's chest, causing the Vile's knees to buckle. Lou followed Matt's attack up with a sweep of his sword that cost Bergor one of his swords as well as the hand holding on to it.

Lore narrowed her eyes, bending back her oaken bow and taking aim.

Beri stumbled over a clump of loose shale and Reela hefted him back to his feet by the scruff of his collar.

Bergor roared, and his remaining blade came whistling down at Lou's head. The brown-haired young man raised his own smaller sword above him.

Lore fired.

Bergor gurgled for a moment, one hand feebly clawing at the arrow which pierced the hollow of his throat.

Matt wasted no time decapitating the fiend. Lou nodded a look of gratitude towards the raven-haired figure on the sidelines.

Before Bergor's head even crashed to the ground, both sides knew that the victor of the battle had been decided.

----{> ----{> ----{>

The hundred or so newly freed slaves camped out on the badlands north of the Talon Mine. Many stared up at the starry sky for the first time in years. Some of the women fussed over the wolf captain, who in turn told them that Alex had defeated him and that he entered the fray to help them. People talked of how they would wait out the storm in Marke and then return to their homes once the Dragonmaster defeated Ghaleon. It seemed as though after the battle in the mines, anything would have to turn out from the better.

"Nothing could be worse than the troubles we were forced to endure there," murmured Lore, the starlight sparkling in her dark brown eyes.

"What?" asked Chad.

Lore only smiled in return.

Eight of the combatants had remained together after the final battle. They clustered together on the edge of the camp, keeping a silent vigil over the others should any stray Viles come their way.

"So what do we do now?" asked Aes.

"Go home, I guess," said Chad.

Reela stood up, hand on the pommel of his sword. His gaze faced the east. "Perhaps for you guys, but I have a mission to accomplish. Ghaleon's lackeys have kidnapped my sister because of her voice. I can't rest until I've found her. And I now know that she and all the other girls he's taken are in Ruid."

"We'll go with you," said Lore, looking up from her inspection of the bandage around her leg. "We have little else to do."

Blake nodded curtly in agreement. "The two of us have much to do to atone for our wrongs."

Reela's face broke into the first smile they had ever seen from the sturdy warrior.

"I'll go come," Beri piped in.

"Me too," Chad added with a grin. "I have to give Ghaleon a little payback for chucking me into the mines."

"I think you may as well count us all in," Matt remarked with a confident smirk. "For one reason or another, Ruid makes as good a target as any for us all."

"And our path will be following on the heels of a soon-to-be Dragonmaster," said Lou, face bright with anticipation. "That's as auspicious a path as any."

Aes moved beside Reela. "It'll be a long journey, and no one should have to do it alone. We'll just make sure everyone gets to Marke, and then we'll go with you to Ruid."

"Thank you," said Reela, offering the group a curt bow.

Lore smiled and lay back on the hard ground, arms folded beneath her head as some sort of pillow. "Great. Now all we need is a name for ourselves."

"A name?" Reela and Lou echoed.

Lore inclined her head slightly. "Yeah. Something for us to be remembered by. I was thinking the 'Company of the Earth'."

"Company of the Earth?" Blake made a distasteful face, tongue lolling out to one side. "It sounds like we're the Dirt Crew or something."

Lore shrugged as best she could. "Maybe. But since we came out of the mines, out of the earth, it could be appropriate. Besides, it just feels..." She stared up at the Blue Star, which hung brightly in the sky. "Right," she said simply.

Lou smiled. "Very well, Company of the Earth is it." He drew his sword and brandished it skyward. He looked up as his blade glinted in the starlight. "Until the day our band breaks apart, let our battles be as meaningful as the one we fought today."

And for less time than a blink of the eye, his sword flashed a brilliant blue below the night sky.

Back to the Library of Vane.

Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.