Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 44. Destruction and Rebirth
The strike team peeled off from its escort just inside barbarian territory. Using forged transit papers, they passed the frontier. Unfortunately a few days later at a market town their guards were overheard speaking the common language of the Commonwealth. When the town watch tried to arrest them, a running fight broke out. During the pursuit, the strike team lost contact with their men.
From that point on the three members of the strike team, Balan, Arik, and Rolf, were on their own. They made their way south, guided by the maps and the intel Aodh's team had developed the year before. They tried to avoid contact, but this proved impossible. In the fullness of time, after clashes with enemy patrols and many deaths among their pursuers, the three heroes were cornered and forced to surrender on a promise that they would not be slain out of hand. Finally they were led in chains into Urloch's richly appointed throne room.
The soldiers paraded their prisoners across a long marble floor and deposited their captives' weapons and gear at the feet of their Prophet and Ruler then withdrew, leaving only their captain remaining to explain the circumstances of their capture.
Urloch was a surprise. Not at all the man or the living fiend they expected to meet. About thirty he was soberly dressed looking rather like a barrister or a keeper of accounts, not the head of a great state and religion. Aside from a dozen guards in half armor, a scribe and two servants standing nearby, the Prophet met his "guests" by himself.
With a theatrical gesture the ruler lit a dozen candles in their sconces, then smiled wryly and admitted:
"With my modest gifts of calling light and igniting flame, my little demonstration is just about all I can do magically, though I can fling fire at an attacker's face, so be warned."
"You are probably wondering why I had you, my would-be assassins, brought before me. It is simple enough. I just could not resist the chance to gloat. Balan, did you really think you could keep your mission a secret from my spies in the Commonwealth? A strike against me was the obvious follow-up to your recent spy mission. No surprise that you would be its leader Balandur, being a Dread Hand of the Commonwealth and all that. I don't know this gawky fellow with you. Why is he along? And why ever did you drag a carpenter with you into this. As far as my spies could tell, there is nothing special about young Arik."
"Now here you are and have seen with your own eyes the heart of my power. It is an overwhelming complex of military, industrial, and economic power inspired by a proselytizing religious faith. Mostly done without magic on my part, just my own shrewd insight into character and organization. Well my unlamented predecessor, the Dark Prophet as you call him, did lay the foundation. He actually had a formidable magic, the power of compulsion, which got this enterprise started and well along before I took over more than a year ago. Alas he was no prophet, nor his god, the so-called Adversary no more real than any of the other gods of Haven, or he would have foreseen my coup against him."
"If such was his gift, why did he not compel your obedience or loyalty?"
"Because compulsion destroys initiative. As his vizier, he needed me to be energetic and clever. It was on my initiative that we dispatched that raid on Elysion as well as the attempt to poison the druids. Anyway, your mission is pointless, even if it succeeded. Killing me would not stop this war any more than the death of the Dark Prophet did. The key religious beliefs and state structures are now in place. If I fell, another leader or leaders would take over. No, this juggernaut we have created now has a life of its own and will not be so easily turned aside by killing a single person."
"I should tell you that this throne room you are standing in is strictly for ceremonial purposes. I actually work in an office beyond that door. Still, there is a place for pomp and circumstance in running an empire, which is why I have received you in this chamber. Yes, I said empire even though I do not call myself an emperor. That title is so shopworn. There have been so many emperors over the centuries, often with the same name so they have to assign numbers to distinguish one from the next. Absurd."
"I am unique and not really a human being despite outward appearances. I am very likely the last life-leech anywhere on Haven. I can suck the vital force from a young man to restore my own vitality. Understand, this power is an innate part of my being, not a magical gift. I only wish I could use it as a weapon, but it only works one on one and only when I need a recharge, which happens about once a year. In this way I will stride down the centuries forever. I am Urloch the Immortal, soon and forever afterwards Ruler of the World."
"Give me ten years, maybe twenty and all sentients on this continent will bow before me. In time the entirety of the planet will be mine. All will serve me. All will exist to serve me."
"Is that all the rest of humanity and the other races are good for: to be your servants? Did you never think they might want to serve their own ends?. To choose those ends too?" Arik challenged.
"But my dear Arik, the common herd often chooses so badly, even against their own long term interests. Here I am bringing this benighted land into the modern world, creating a functioning state apparatus staffed by competent administrators. I have suppressed inter-tribal warfare and blood feuds, introduced new crops on the farms and sewerage and sanitation in the newly built cities, and developed mining and manufactures. My regime provides schools, roads, and bridges."
"Yes," Arik affirmed, "you do those things but for your own benefit not theirs. Sewers and sanitation protect your workforce and military recruitment base from water borne disease. New crops feed your professional armies and legions of functionaries. Roads carry your armies to the borders and beyond to wars of conquest. You spend the lives of the males in endless wars. As for the women in your so-called modern state, even here in your capital city, they are treated as brood mares and drudges without minds or wills of their own. They suffer from the arbitrary authority of their menfolk. I would hate for my sisters to share their unhappy lot."
"Anyway, Urloch. What would you get out of world conquest beyond pride of ownership? You are already rich beyond the dreams of avarice. How much food can you eat, how many more girls, or is it boys, would you take to your bed were you the ruler of the world. Why not quit now? Be satisfied with what you already have. Lift these barbarians up to a civilization worthy of the name, not this sham of one you have created, nothing more than a military-industrial-religious nexus for conquest."
"Ah the cry of the downtrodden down the ages. No vision to see beyond the parochial and the immediate. As for me, it is not in my nature to be satisfied with less than I can seize. You ask why not quit. That is getting the question precisely backwards. Why should I quit?, I ask myself, and the answer I give myself is that there is no reason I should. Instead I shall push on and rule the entire planet, myself, alone, now and forever, world without end, amen."
Arik shook his head:
"And that sort of selfishness is why I decided to give my life to stop you and to save my homeland, my family and my friends, good people like Master Justin and Count Klarendes and his lover Aodh, and to avenge my lover Ran whom you murdered."
"Stoutly spoken, young Arik. though it was my predecessor who dispatched the strike force to Elysion, admittedly at my suggestion. Their target was Balan of course, not some no-account over-sexed elf-human hybrid. Maybe I will have your defiant words inscribed on your gravestone, something for me to look at from time to time as I contemplate eternity. Meanwhile in your last few moments, look on my works, Arik and mighty Balandur, and despair for your precious Commonwealth."
Rolf who had been silent up till then spoke up, interrupting the man's gloating.
"Only a madman would seek to conquer a whole world. Only a fool would want the burden of governing it. That is why you must be stopped. And we three are here to do just that."
"Even a so-called immortal like a life-leech can die or rather be killed. Know then that these are not only our own last moments but yours as well. I will let you live just long enough to despair as you see all your works crumble into dust. I am afraid that for all of your dreams of immortal glory, Urloch, 'Forever' will be a very short time indeed."
"Arik, the guards."
Arik reached out with his gift to Fetch poison arrowheads from the pouch lying at Urloch's feet and sent them flying at the guards before they could react. Like tiny black insects of death they flew down the length of the room and into the faces and necks of the armed men. Most of them dropped to the floor, their limbs quivering in a death rattle. Still, with so many arrowheads to control and so many targets, it was no surprise that three guards avoided Arik's attack. They drew their weapons and charged.
With a gesture, Rolf made their shackles rust through and fall away. Balan grinned as Arik Threw a sword into his hand. He met the remaining guards and cut them down.
"Nicely done." Urloch conceded, "but here in my throne room, I am prepared for any contingency."
He started to call for help but before he could say anything the gangly youth named Rolf raised his arms for dramatic effect and sent out a wave of psychic power, careful to shield the four of them in the throne room from its deadly effects. They came through unharmed, unaware that everyone else in the castle had just died.
Worried at the strange sensation he had just felt and by the two servants inexplicably fallen dead at his feet, Urloch called out in a strangled voice:
But no arrows shot from hidden slots in the walls to impale his enemies.
"Guards! Urloch called desperately, but no one rushed in with weapons drawn. Rolf shook his head.
"No concealed archers behind the false wall, no squad of guards on call, nor any reaction force to muster in support of them. There is no one to succor you, Urloch. Every human being in the castle is dead except the four of us in this room. Their deaths gave me the last increment of power I needed to fuel my final strike. Look on your works, mighty Urloch and despair as they crumble all around you."
With that Rolf released his final strike, a wave of death that spread across the land, killing everyone and everything within half a day's ride of the castle. They died in an instant, unknowing, without pain or fear, dropping where they stood or sat or lay.
Very soon afterwards untended cook fires got loose and set the city of the newly dead ablaze, turning it into a gigantic funeral pyre for its populace.
Dahl and Merry witnessed all of it through Balan's and Rolf's eyes, for the giant and the anti-druid were the very last to die.
Immediately afterward, over their psychic link, came a rebound of life force from those whose lives Rolf's magic had extinguished. The surge was not a harbinger of death but of new life. Dahl's and Merry's inherent magics merged it, as he hoped it would, and transformed the unicorn back into the lovely elf-boy he had once been --except with hair turned snow white. This was Rolf's parting gift to his first love.
Merry ran his hands over his new body then held them out in front of him, looking at them wonderingly, his face reflecting his utter astonishment at his transformation back into an elf-boy. He opened and closed his fingers experimentally then clenched them into fists and raised them over his head shouting:
Turning to Dahl he asked: <Did you know this would happen?>
"No, though Owain always hoped for something like this, to free the elf-boy living within your unicorn body."
<I am so very glad. Thank you Rolf. Be happy wherever your spirit might be>.
"I hope his spirit in now with those of Balan and Arik."
"Well said, Dahl. We all feel their loss, but they made the supreme sacrifice so that others would live. As did Ran at the schoolhouse."
Then he looked over to Dahl and asked.
<I don't want to sound vain, but I am curious to see what I look like now. If only we had a mirror.>
The young druid shook his head.
"Trust me, you are absolutely lovely, Merry. You are exactly the comely elf-boy I always sensed living within your equine form. I don't know how to describe you other than to say that you are so beautiful, I find myself as much in love with your new form as with your old."
<So what happens now that I am an elf-boy once again.>
"Well for starters, you haven't realized it but you still have the power to speak mind to mind. I think you likely retain your other magical gifts as well. Well, maybe not that killer screech. Why don't you try calling a ball of light and starting a fire."
Merry did both handily. Then he and Dahl grappled in a test of strength, finding theirs matched pretty well.
"Now try making that shrub over there bloom out of season."
<But that is a task for a druid!>
"Try it anyway!"
Merry's pretty face scrunched up in an almost comical scowl as he concentrated on the bush. To his astonishment its buds split open and grew into bright yellow blossoms.
"You see. You absorbed some of my druidical magic as well. It is likely that with some months of study at Owain's feet, you could become a druid in your own right."
<Great, but what of us, Dahl.>
"Nothing is changed there, as far as I am concerned. I want the three of us to continue to be lovers: you, me, and Owain. We shall be life-partners, the three of us, living, learning, and loving together. And think of how much could we can do together for Haven and its peoples. Are you with me?"
<Yes, Dahl, count on it. I am with you and with Owain, the three of us together, now and forever after.>
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