Uragh stalked the outskirts of the village for a while, not wanting to get involved in the fighting. Yet. He could feel the bloodlust boiling within him, trying to coerce him into joining the fray, but he pushed it away. Uragh was looking for more satisfying prey than the others.
He was not like them.
The thunder strike could have been what he sought, except Urah knew the source. He had figured out the plan when he first followed a group of trolls being drawn away by Taral and his pack. The trolls had been hunting the elves; the elves had run to the humans; the whole group had fled a day or two ago.
These few morsels were throwing their lives away to keep the trolls from catching up. Uragh couldn’t blame them, and with Jaeworl commanding the skies themselves Uragh had little doubt they would succeed.
Still, the horde was thinning strangely fast.
It was subtle at first: a limb severed rather than ripped off, gashes that didn’t look like claw marks; but as he rounded the next building, it became blatantly obvious. Dismembered trolls lay everywhere, brutally cut to pieces, yet none had blood on their claws; not a sign of an assailant being hit.
An enemy worth his time.
Licking his lips with anticipation, Uragh went on the hunt.
Jaeworl leaned against the entrance to one of the dwellings, panting heavily and clutching his side. He had drained almost all of his magic, saving only enough for one specific trick. He had little magic left to aid his large companion and though the press of trolls had slowed considerably, there remained a dozen in the well-glade alone. As many as they had killed since the start, and perhaps one in three of those in the tribe.
Except many of them were not from the tribe.
He did not have time to worry about that right now; another group of trolls was closing in on Aziz from down one path. Yet even as Jaeworl began to call out, he saw something far more terrifying than the half-dozen trolls being cut to pieces.
The Patron of Muses.
Jaeworl had never seen a Fair Folk before, yet he knew who this was. Maybe it was the colourful lights lining his clothes, or their strange cut and style that was so unlike anything Jaeworl had seen before. Perhaps it was his countenance, or the way he jerked his body when he moved; sudden, yet graceful; shifting to some silent rhythm.
And all around him the shadows began to writhe and move, as though they were dancing to the same tune he carried himself with.
Though his eyes were hidden beneath the wide brim of his low, conical hat, there was no doubt his long strides were headed straight for the already weary Aziz. A concept Jaeworl doubted this new foe had ever encountered. Jaeworl could hear his whistling now, somehow audible despite the commotion of howling trolls fighting over plentiful food.
As he walked, the man began rolling up the loose sleeves of his impossibly white shirt. A shirt that would be dazzling were it not mostly hidden by the long, tightly buttoned vest he wore. Jaeworl wanted to call out to Aziz; wanted to yell at him to run, to get out of there.
Before he got the chance, a troll barrelled into him.
He could feel the wooden barrier behind him shatter as they crashed through it, splinters flying everywhere. He barely managed to get the remains of his now-broken staff up in time to shove them into the creature’s mouth before it bit his face off.
Aziz was having trouble keeping up.
One moment the stranger was in front, the next his palm came swiping down from the side, only for him to spin off into thin air. Aziz had been kicked, punched, and somehow slashed almost as much by this man as by the half-dozen trolls Aziz had laid low combined.
But the trolls fought on instinct; this man had technique… and a pattern.
Aziz thrust his axe forward, a grin spreading under the rim of the man’s weird hat as he dodged; vanished. But Aziz was ready; knew what would follow. He threw his shield back and out, putting his weight behind the blow even though there was nothing to hit.
It connected with a wet crunch.
The blow sent the stranger flying with a look of disbelief on his face. Aziz hardly paused, using the impact to pivot. His axe swung into the man’s side, tearing a wound from… shadow? It was Aziz’ turn to don the mask of disbelief. The stranger dissolved into dark mists and faded into nothing even as another one just like him came rushing in.
What was this stranger?
Uragh crawled on his belly, the thatched roof barely able to hold his weight. The Elf King’s retinue had been hunting trolls, drawing them away from the path it had taken and forcing Uragh to find an alternate route.
And so he peered over the edge at the duel below.
The Big Man was off-balance, clearly confused by his opponent. At first Uragh thought it to be the way the Elf King moved, but the Big Man parried and dodged despite his confusion. He had adopted a defensive stance, shield up and axe close to help deflect the blows of his enemy.
The Elf King hopped around him like the waters of a mountain stream would a large rock.
The Big Man shifted suddenly, axe going out wide and angling straight for the Elf King’s chest. The man threw himself backwards, nimbly landing in a roll onto his feet. Yet the blow had cleaved into his hat, removing it to reveal eyes so blue that their sparkle was visible all the way to Uragh.
The Elf King’s grin was one Uragh knew all too well.
It lasted but a moment, for the Big Man’s shield was already rushing forward to smash into the Elf King’s face. He staggered away, back against the wall of a cottage and the Big Man closing fast.
It would be over soon, and then… then it would be Uragh’s turn.
The Elf King seemed impossibly nimble, twisting himself in an unnatural spin to just barely avoid being cleaved in half by the axe and somehow ending with a kick to the Big Man’s face that forced him back a step. A breather, perhaps, but Uragh could tell the advantage hadn’t shifted.
A deep roar bellowed nearby; one with enough force that Uragh wondered if the cottage would hold. It echoed through the village, drowning out the howling trolls and leaving silence in its wake.
A heartbeat of calm.
The wall of a house burst apart, bringing the building down on the great beast emerging from within. If he cared, he hid it well and it certainly didn’t slow him as he crawled out into the open. Debris littered his grey scales, dust matting out what little colour remained in the feathers of his spine, and a troll struggling to break free of his deadly maw.
A shiver of excitement ran up Uragh’s spine at the sight. He had only seen Jaeworl take on the shape of a wyrm once before, long ago. His feathers had been brighter then. Seeing him now, Uragh understood just how much the man had aged. Jaeworl’s tail swept out to the side, effortlessly swatting away a troll and reminding Uragh that older did not mean weaker.
Aziz ignored the tumult behind him. He had no choice if he was to keep his tricky foe from stealing the advantage. Whoever, or whatever, this Stranger was, he didn’t seem to be taking the battle seriously at all.
Nor did he need to.
Aziz had landed a shield bash to the Stranger’s face with enough weight behind it to shatter a man’s jaw, and yet this man had only lost a couple of teeth; even his nose had remained intact. But it had disoriented him, and Aziz’ axe had torn apart the shadow a moment later.
‘It won’t be enough.’
Aziz ignored the doubt, falling back a half-step and dropping into a defensive stance. His opponent fought unarmed, just like Ky. He wove magic into his movements, again just like Ky. The style was different, the magic was different, but the weapon was the same.
‘They’re marionettes. Killing them accomplishes nothing.’
Except the Stranger wasn’t actually fighting. He stood off to the side, gesturing with his arms and… dancing? Aziz could find no better word for it. The momentary distraction almost cost him dearly and he barely got his axe up in time to deflect the blow.
Aziz kept ducking and blocking; all the while focused on the Stranger, comparing his movements with those of the puppets. Their attacks followed his gestures, but it was more than that; the entire cadence was the same, the pattern repeating.
‘It still won’t be enough.’
The nephaim held back for a moment more, waiting for an opening he knew would come. He launched into a sprint, swiping his axe out wide to force aside the minion and clear the path. The Stranger moved to back away, eyes wide with surprise as Aziz charged toward him. Aziz turned his axe, thinking to feint a swing before pulling up his shield at the last moment and barrelling into the Stranger.
Aziz crashed into a tree, staggering back in a daze. The Stranger had been nothing more than a mirage. The nephaim barely got his wits about him in time to block a hand stabbing straight for his heart. Before he could regain his balance a sandalled foot smashed into the back of his knee, forcing him down.
‘There is no other choice!’
Aziz saw the next blow coming, an open palm smashing into his face and crushing his nose.
Blood soaking his beard.
His balance lost.
‘No! It is too soon!’
Unable to focus his gaze.
His leg broken.
‘This cannot be the end!’
His whole body screaming in pain.
Blackness swimming at the edge of his vision.
‘Safe? Safe?! The void hungers.’
Barely aware of his hand limply resting on the handle of his axe.
‘Everything gone. A meaningless death.’
He had to stand.
He had to get his shield up.
‘The dead protect nothing.‘
He had to strike back.
Silence enveloped his mind then.
Aziz could feel the familiar surge of the battle trance. Strength flowing into his limbs, washing away the pain and replacing it with a single-minded focus. He must not fall, must not fail.
Everything become fragmented after that; flashes of awareness amidst a blurry haze.
A host of harmless shadows, no longer wearing the visage of the Stranger.
An axe severing the head of a troll.
Shield smashing into the Stranger, flinging him into the well.
Staring down a four-eyed dragon with no wings with trolls closing in all around.
Uragh peeked out the door of the cottage.
The roof had broken when he had attempted to get in position to leap upon the Elf King at the end of his battle with the Big Man, sending him crashing down into a tangle of cloth and wood.
Jaeworl was ferociously battling trolls while the Elf King danced about, directing his minions against something behind the corner of the house. Its clothing was dirty and ruffled, the white shirt dyed crimson. Uragh couldn’t see the Big Man’s corpse by the tree, but even a troll couldn’t have healed those injuries fast enough to get back in the fight already.
Uragh slid his sword out of its scabbard and slowly crept along the wall, carefully watching the Elf King as he moved. He needed to get enough surprise to force the being into a melee, for Uragh had no magic to counter the Elf King’s retinue and couldn’t afford to get bogged down by them.
A scream of pain cut through the din of battle, giving even the trolls facing Jaeworl pause.
The Elf King suddenly made a quick gesture with its hands before dropping them to the sides and striding forward in the same jerky manner it had moved with while standing still. At the far side of the well, Jaeworl swivelled his head to look at whatever was transpiring out of Uragh’s view. Uragh stalked up to the corner, leaning forward just enough to see the Elf King before breaking into a sprint.
His charge was met with a rush of hot wind carrying a wave of rolling flames. Though the pain didn’t slow him notably, the dust blown into his eyes did. He slashed wildly about him, swinging the sword in an attempt to make sure no shadows came after him before he could close with their master.
When his sight returned, he saw the Elf King looking upon the battered and bloody heap that was the Big Man. He lay motionless on the ground, blood pooling around him and fear gleaming in his eyes as he watched the Elf King resume its path toward him. Seizing the moment, Uragh leaped forward and stabbed with the sword, the blade slicing through the Elf King’s gaudy clothing.
And nothing else.
The Elf King twisted, pivoting on a heel to dodge the blow almost entirely. A scant few drops of blood told Uragh he had barely scratched his prey, and then a hand clasped his wrist right before another slammed into his elbow with enough force to bend his arm the wrong way. A foot shattered the knee of his leading leg, then a knee crushed his jaw as he fell.
The Elf King sneered at him, brushing dirt off its pants before crouching down to look at Uragh’s sword. It lifted the slender blade, still gripped tightly in Uragh’s hand, a smile slowly creeping onto its lips.
“Take notice, troll, of this trifling tragedy. Your sword had no swing; your claws couldn’t cut. You’ve bartered with blade’s clash, now bargain with me. Trade me this trinket, pay not to perish, sell me the sword and I’ll leave you your life.”
Uragh, struggling to stay conscious, didn’t understand half of what the Elf King was saying. But he did understand what the fey wanted and what he was offered. He let go of the sword, receiving the most unnatural smile he had ever seen in return.
The Elf King picked up the blade and danced its way down one of the roads, a procession of dancers joining up behind. Uragh growled, angry at having lost the chance for redemption. He could feel himself slipping into the darkness; his wounds severe even for a troll. Yes, he would sleep now. He would hunt another day.
Uragh lay there, listening to the battle behind him as he slowly drifted away. The last he heard was an earth-shaking agonized screech mixed with howls of bloodlust and hunger, all cut off as he was finally swallowed by the blackness.