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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
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Tamaranis

Magic, Dragons, and Demons.

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OOC: Something a little less niche, and a little more typically fantasy. Feel free to jump in, or ask me questions if you want to run with something. Or not, whichever.

 

Captain Therlon looked up from his desk at the sound of terse conversation outside the door to his office just as a man swept in. "Swept" was the word for it, alright. He was pulling off a cape. The combination of plate and mail he wore was perfect and gleaming to the point it seemed ornate, though it wasn't actually decorated in anyway. The guards, one of them a golem, had neither announced him nor tried to stop him.

 

"Captain," the man said, placing a metal disc on Therlon's desk, "I am Guard-Lieutenant Arrakam. I'm sorry, but we will have to dispense with the pleasantries."

 

"Guardsman," Therlon acknowledged before picking up the disk.

 

it was the size of his palm, and he felt vaguely uneasy about it resting there. It was solid bronze, of course, but gave the impression it was going to start squirming in his hand any second. There were raised and sunken lines covering both sides that defied the eye to follow them. Therlon had seen enough of these coins that his eyes could take up that challenge, but it made them ache.

 

There was no mistaking the thing for anything but what it was: The badge of office of the Imperial Guard. Therlon felt the ache in his eyes set in and start working its way to the back of his skull. The guard were a headache on three levels.

 

The first thing every breath-and-blood man in the regular army hated about the guard was that they were a bunch of insufferably arrogant pricks. They were every kind of elite, but their greatest skill was never letting anyone else forget it..

 

The second thing was that their arrogance was backed up with authority. The moment a gaurdsman was sworn in he had more operational authority than a general. Usually, he used it to requisition troops and supplies that were needed some place else.

 

The third terrible thing was that in most cases "guard" was a misnomer. The Imperial Guard weren't really gaurds at all, they were demon hunters, and they didn't bother with two-bit scar-spawn, either. That was the army's job, and therefore below the notice of a Guardsman. No, the guard hunted muderous shapeshifters, bodiless spirts that nonetheless managed to spread terror in their wake, sorcerors who had made deals with the same, and so on.

 

...and so if there was a guardsman here then, in all likelyhood, one of those bloody nightmares was likely on the loose somewhere nearby.

 

Satisfied with the oversized coin's authenticity, they were damn near impossible to forge, Therlon handed it back. "What can I do for you, Guard-Lieutenant?"

 

"Not three hours ago a band of refugees arrived from the Southwest. You have do still have them in custody, yes?"

 

"Oh, them," Therlon shook his head, "decided they were sick of living under the occupation, made a lot of noise about how they were going to go live free of the Empire's yoke, started building a village on the edge of the Scar..."

 

"And you a band of armed Audurians head out to the Demon Scar because?..." Arrakam prompted.

 

"Because the Audurians and the scar-spawn are welcome to each other." Therlon let the heat into his voice, "They were a band of insurgents. I suspect half of them of murder and all the arrests and executions I was going to have to make were as likely as not to start another riot. Better if they all just marched into the Scar and were never heard from again."

 

"Captain..." Arrakam was lecturing him, now, "nothing good can come of the Demon Scar, not even a convenient death. Now you will have a riot on your hands."

 

Therlon really didn't want to know where this was going, but Arrakam continued, "Those refugees are... contagious. I'm going to need you to put them down."

 

Therlon gaped at the guardsman. Assuring the population of what used to be Serithia that the Empire was here to protect them from the Demon Scar was the only thing keeping the lid on the kettle, here.

 

"There won't be a riot," Therlon groaned, "You can't... That will, they'll be so outraged... there will be a Serithia again. There will be a war."

 

"Captain," Arrakam said, "containing the Demon Scar is not a mere pretense for our occupation. It is a real aspect of your duty here. The most important aspect of it. It is more important than Serithia's Ixatl deposits, it is more important than the bandits who decided the citizens of the Empire made better targets than their own starving neighbors, and it is more important than preventing a war."

 

"You're supposed to be the answer!" Therlon shot to his feet, "You're supposed to walk into this kind of chaos and sort it out, separate demon from man, all of that."

"I am giving you the answer," Arrakam's raised his voice, but didn't shout, "The answer is to put these refugees down before you have a horde of Scar-spawn crawling over your walls. Your breath and blood men can sit this out. I will need your golems, they will be immune to contamination and their temperments are better suited to this kind of work."

 

 

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It was very difficult to find proper prison cells for over a hundred people on short notice, so they hadn't done that. Instead, having foreseen that they might need to contain a large number of people for a while, the imperials had built inverted defensive structures on several low hills. Each hilltop was ringed with an earthwork studded with sharp stakes that pointed inward rather than outward.

It wasn't a proper prison, someone determined to escape could climb the earthwork with very little risk of impaling him or herself on the stakes, except for the fact the other side was patrolled by bowmen when the holding area was occupied. If one of the areas was filled to capacity and those inside made an organized rush against the wall they would probably be able to overwhelm their guards, but no one wanted to stand front-rank in that escape attempt. It was the guards as much as the structure that contained them.

In all likelihood, the thing had been built by army engineers, and so maybe the hilltop locations had been chosen out of reflex. Combined with the lack of solid walls, this meant there was no shelter from wind or rain within. More likely, though, the hilltop location had been selected deliberately to make a prisoner's stay just a little bit more miserable.

Hanna tried to be furious about that, but she didn't have the energy for it anymore. A month ago she'd have been standing at the stake-wall screaming curses, but the terror of the last few days, was it four? no, they must have fled from the scar faster than they'd journeyed toward it, followed by her current cold and exhaustion left her unable to bother with it. She was far more concerned with nursing and protecting the pathetic flame that passed for one of their campfires.

Sitting across the fire from her, Arthur grinned at her in his unsettling way. Arthur claimed to have traveled most of the world in his lifetime, but he was obviously from Seriithia or somewhere nearby. People said no one who left Serithia to travel the world would come back to sit through the Imperial occupation, but Arthur claimed his journies had mostly consisted of fleeing from one horror into the arms of the next, and after all of that a nice, calm, military dictatorship seemed fine to him.

The man was too thin to be healthy. It should have made him seem pathetic, and it did, but it also made him seem sharp and predatory, as if some aspect of civilization had melted away from him alongside his fat. It was generally considered ill-advised to leave women or children unattended in his presence. Hanna didn't want him here, but he didn't leave when she asked him too, and if she stood up, her fire would probably go out.

For all the noise he'd made about his travels and the things he'd seen, Arthur had been no use against the scar-spawn. He'd helped kill the first few creatures that turned up, keeping his distance and striking at them with a spear, but always only when the Audurians had outnumbered the creatures, and even then only once the creature was wounded to the point it posed little threat.

Once, when some other men were putting down a thing that looked like a big wolf with terminal mange, a swarm of things that seemed to be all legs, not arranged in an orderly fashion like a spider's legs but rather pointing haphazardly in every direction, had sprung at them from bush that they hadn't cleared yet. They weren't all legs it turned out. There was a mouth somewhere inside all that. Those bitten many times died quickly. Those bitten only a few times lingered, dying of fever days later.

Arthur had not helped to defend their new village from scar-spawn after that. Not when they began arriving in packs, not when those packs harried their party as it fled the site of what should have been their new home, and not when they became a wave that threatened to engulf the whole caravan.

Over four hundred settlers had become barely a hundred refugees during those two days of mad flight. Hanna was not a warrior, but it didn't take much training to swing an axe at whatever looked like the softest part, and even she had taken up arms before the scar-spawn finally gave up pursuit, but Arthur hadn't been willing to lift a hand.

She must have given some indication of her thoughts, because Arthur's grin broadened, making him look ghoulish in the firelight. Did he think she would flinch from him because he made a scary face? Hanna snorted. The things that had got her parents had been scarier-looking than Arthur, and she'd killed them alright. If she was too tired to be resentful of the Empire she was definitely too tired to be scared of Arthur.

"What's this, what's this?" Arthur's gaze focused past her, and his grin widened to the point it seemed almost inhuman. There was entirely too much tooth showing.

Armored men were forcing their way into the encampment at the single gate, though it didn't take much force, and there was an uncharacteristically-disorderly changing of the guard happening on all sides of their prison. There was a lot of shouting and orders going on, all of it in the dominant Ksol language of the empire.

It always surprised Hanna how most of the Audurian population of Serithia had so fair failed to pick up the official tongue of the Empire. It wasn't a difficult language, and since their oppressors almost always used it when speaking among themselves knowing it was necessary for keeping track of what they were up to.

"Did someone stave in your skull for you before you came on duty?" one of the existing troops jabbed his finger into his replacement's breastplate as he spoke.

"I'm very sorry, sir." the newly arrived, more heavily armored man's voice contained no trace of answering anger, "Guardsman's orders, no more breath-and-blood troops on watch."

"Chaos-spawned Guard," the first man muttered, "sending golems to give orders to real soldiers."

"I'm sorry for the breach of tradition, sir." The golem still showed no signs of agitation, "But Guard-Lietenant Arrakam was clear that time is of the essence and that the watch must be changed immediately. I need to insist you go."

Near the entrance, one of the larger prisoners tried to push past one of the soldiers that was moving in. Like most Ksol, the soldier who blocked his path was short and slight, but he was wearing so much armor that it went a long way to removing the difference in their overall weights. The soldier hardly moved when the large man bulled into him, and then his fist rose and fell in a metallic flash. The force of the punch hurled the prisoner to the ground as much as it knocked him cold.

That punch set something off in the crowd, and more of them threw themselves against the gate. The golem soldiers were strong and tireless, but they were too badly outnumbered to count on sheer strength alone. Blades flashed and blood spilled. A part of Hanna, some feral aspect of human nature that had been awakened in the flight from the scar, wanted to join in the battle. That part of her was afraid, actually, but it was the frantic, violent fear of a cornered animal.

The rest of Hanna, though, understood she wasn't holding an axe right now and that if a pair of large men could not overpower one of the golem soldiers then a small girl would not be able to do it either.

Shouts broke out on all sides. Mostly order to execute the prisoners, demands from the gate that everyone put down their weapons.

***

Guardsman Marik saw the golems standing on the earthwork lift bows a breath-and-blood man would not have been able to draw.. A surprising thrill of fear shot through him at the sight of Imperial golems about to kill on the whim of a demon. Alalia must have had the same feelings about it as he did be she cut off mid-sentence and hurled the coin she had been brandishing at "Arrakam"'s face.

Marik knew that not everything worked as neatly as it was supposed to. There were more types of demon than could be counted, and the coin could not be counted on as a ward against all of them. He knew that the demons the guard hunted were intelligent and powerful, and many learned to ward themselves against the most common magics of the guard. Obviously a demon masquerading as a guardsman, actually brandishing a coin of his own, would be immune to its effects.

It was lucky Alalia hadn't known any of that because the coin coin changed course slightly in midair and fastened itself to Arrakam's face just under the cheekbone with an audible sizzle. That should help shift the opinion of everyone close enough to have seen it in their direction.

Most of the golems in the immediate area still froze. They possessed intelligence and volition enough to assess and respond appropriately in dangerous situations, but obedience to Imperial military officers and Guardsmen figured very high in their priorities and Guardsmen suddenly trying to kill each other was something most of them would need a moment to sort out.

The loyalties and behavior of Marik and Alalia's personal guards had never been in question, though, and almost the same instant Alalia threw her coin fletching appeared at Arrakam's throat. Another set bloomed on his breastplate while two more bolts clattered off it.

"Keep it bound!" Marik shouted as he drew an Ixatl sword and lunged toward the Arrakam-demon. The thing fell back from him and drew its own sword one-handed. The other hand pried at the coin on its face. It couldn't face Marik one-handed while a Guardsman's coin burned its way into its skull. Marik slipped around the demon's guard to cut into it repeatedly, drawing flashes of multi-colored light. Alalia's voice rang out to resonate with her coin, and it pressed deeper into the demon's face.

The demon's sword began to ring against Marik's with bone-jarring force. Many of the binding enchantments used by the Imperial Guard were modified versions of things they'd captured from assorted cults, originally meant to summon demons. The more of the creature's otherworldly essence was pulled here into the physical world and bound to matter the more meaningful damage to that matter became. Unless you bound a demon first, you might was well be swinging a sword at its shadow. But binding a demon was dangerous, it flowed both ways. The more of the demon you held in the physical world the more physical power it had.

Some idiot shouted, "Protect Guardsman Arrakam," It was enough to jar one of the golems that made up the watch into action and an arrow bounced off Marik's breastplate. Even with all of a golem's strength behind the draw an ordinary arrow couldn't be counted on to pierce a Guardsman's armor, but it still had all of a golem's strength behind it. The impact put Marik off-balance. The Arrakam demon released the coin still stuck to its face so that it could use both hands and all it's weight to thrust the point at Marik's heart. An Ixatl blade with all of a bound demon's strength behind it could be counted to pierce even a Guardsman's armor..

Sally bodily collided with the Arrakam-demon, sending the thrust wide. Her own sword fell as she grappled with the demon. He was actually stronger than a golem, now, would have had the upper hand, but the golems forged for battle weren't really capable of linking feelings like fear or pain to ideas like surrender or retreat. She managed to draw a knife, either her own or the Arrakam-demon's, and slashed and stabbed with a seeming savagery that masked the fact the fact she was an expert warrior in total control of her faculties. The demon retreated from the assault, meaning it must have been strongly enough that the knife posed an actual threat to it.

A crossbow bolt burried itself in Sally's torso, narrowly missing her heart. The golem that had loosed the bolt dropped his crossbow and charged before he had his axe entirely free.

"Go for the kill!" Marik shouted at her. He had faith in his personal armsmen. As long as she had his orders to help her overcome her reluctance to fight another golem, she'd come out on top despite lacking her sword and starting the fight with a bolt through her. He pressed his attack against "Arrakam." He could sort everyone out when the demon was dead. If he could wrap things up fast enough Sally might not even have to finish that moron.

Marik knocked "Arrakam's" sword wide and the demon's reeled, his guard collapsing so suddenly and completely Marik almost missed it. But experience and reflexes won out over his surprise and he took the opportunity to get enough power behind his Ixatl blade to puncture the demon's armor and heart just as he realized Alalia's voice was no longer resonating with her coin. With a triumphant roar the demon finally pried the coin out of its face and hurled it out into the night. Suddenly unbound, it ignored the fact Marik had impaled it and nearly decaptiated him before he could free his sword to protect himself. Had it snagged or stuck at all, a steel blade certainly would have, he'd have died. He realized Alalia's voice was no longer resonating with the coin.

The demon threw itself at Marik furiously. Unbound it was hardly any stronger than he was, but it spared no attention to its own defence. After landing a thrust that remove a fair portion of the demon's throat without getting a reaction Marik focussed his efforts entirely on keeping his opponents sword away.

"No, cover Alalia!" Marik shouted when he saw George moving to flank the demon, "I need this thing bound."

Marik spared a glance over his shoulder to see what was happening. Someone has got one of the older automatons, a thresher, moving and pointed it in Alalia's direction. It wasn't even remotely intelligent, but it was deadly in a straightforward way. Four multi-jointed metal legs met at a center post that supported four multi-jointed "arms," each of which ended in a scythe-like blade. The thresher rythmically drew each limb back in an exagerated wind-up then swung around or over itself, accelerating the blade to deadly speeds. Marik had seen what happened when threshers were turned against massed bodies, before, and hoped never to be on the other end of their charge. Breath and blood men with swords and shields would never have been able to stop a thresher out in the open, like this. Sometimes golem soliders bragged about being deadlier than stupid automatons like threshers, but Marik wasn't sure if their armsmen would be able to stop it either.

Alalia was bloodlied, but still standing, still calling out to form a spell. Chuck and Amy were battering their swords to pieces fencing with the thing, but they were keeping it off her. Marik had to turn his attention back to "Arrakam," to keep from being killed himself and started a chant of his own. On his next parry he bounced his blade down the demon's and into the meat of its hand. The blade itself meant nothing, but Marik sent the his spell down the blade, into the demon's flesh, and from there back into the not-quite-physical-plane where most of the creature was located.

It roared and jerked away and Marik used the opening to decapitate it just incase. He could see strange lights seeping through the wound, but the head just stayed balanced there. The demon gathered it's wits then launched a flurry of overhand chopping strikes that Marik easily parried while he prepared prepared another spell, then he thrust his sword through the hole he'd already punched in its armor to deliver it. Sometimes if you drove the spell into the demon's heart that would have some special meaning.

It didn't this time. The demon still jerked and spasmsed in response, but regained its wits and resumed trying to chop through Marik's guard as if it were a tree. It would work, eventually. The demon's puppet body couldn't get tired any more than it could die, but Marik's could do both.

Marik managed another glance around the chaos. Sally was on the defense against the soldier golem that had shot her. Their other three armsmen were all bloody, but had managed to grappple the thresher, apparently they were strong enough to overpower it if they didn't give it the freedom to keep its limbs moving. The thing staggered drunkenly under their weight as they tried to kick it apart. A thick fog was wrapping around the hilltop. He didn't see Alalia but he could still hear her building a spell.

"'Lia" He shouted, "Help me put this thing down."

Nothing happened. Well, if her spell wasn't done yet it wasn't done yet, Marik poured all the physical power into the fight he could, battering the demon's sword away, chopping at it's legs and arms to keep it off balance. At one point he kicked it in the chest, it wasn't like his sword was any more deadly to it than his foot was.

There was a flash and something that seemed like a frozen lightning bolt was anchored in the demon's torso a little under its sternum. The spell flickered a few times each second, the details of it's jagged path through the air changed each time it did, but it stayed anchored in the demon. Alalia was holding the other end presumably.

Marik smoothly continued the series of attacks he'd been making before she bound the demon. It brought a hand up and managed to keep his sword out of its throat, and fingers spun away into the fog that now surrounded them. The demon countered with an impossibly strong swing that Marik knew to divert instead of trying to bring to a stop, then he cut most of the way through the demon's leg.

The demon called out magic of its own that send a pulse of light racing down the anchor bolt. Alalia screamed and the bolt nearly flickered out of existence, but the pulse of light bounced back down the bolt and back in to the demon. The anchor remained in place even though the impact tossed it to the ground. Marik moved to skewer the thing before it could recover enough to defend itself. There was a blinding flash behind him followed by a surprisingly intense darkness as the anchor bolt discharged energy against whatever had interrupted it. Again Marik's thrust came a second too late to actually kill the demon.

The demon ignored the way Marik's sword tore through its body as it kicked his legs out from under him. At the same time the demon's Ixatl blade came up to breach Marik's armor and pierce his abdomen. Suddenly on the ground with the demon standing over him, Marik noted the fog had grown so thick it was difficult to make out the face it was wearing.

The Demon lifted its sword overhead for a killing thrust, then its body was wracked by a cough so powerful that it had to lower the blade without completing the attack. Marik could still make out the silloutte of the creature, could tell it was casting its gaze around trying to see something in the fog. Another fit of coughs ripped their way out of its chest. If a man coughed like that, Marik would have said he didn't have much longer to live.

Trembling with whatever afflicted it, the demon raised its sword again, then stagged backward three steps from an impact that Marik felt as much as heard. The fog had noticably retreated by the time the demon hit the ground. The wooden shaft transfixing its torso was too large to have come from any bow, too large to have been launched from a ballista. The multicolored light flaring around points where the shaft entered and exited the demon's body almost seemed to flow and pool like a liquid. It cast shadows that were neaseating to look at, but that was probably just the demon, nothing to do with the weapon. Marik had struggled to his knees before he realized he was looking at one of the stakes from the prison enclosure. It was driven nearly wholly through the demon's torso, Marik suspected that if the demon hadn't been in a guardsman's armor, the shaft would have passed through its body entirely and continued on.

He had no real idea how bad the wound in his gut was. People were still shouting, and fighting, but the fog that had rolled over them was disappearing as quickly as it had appeared, and "Arrakam's" strange blood was doing an excellent job of clarifying who was who. The thresher was down two legs and one of its arms had seized, its struggles appeared to be growing weaker. Sally had fallen to hands and knees and had blood slowly oozing from more wounds than Marik could count at a glance, but she dead yet, so she'd pull through. The idiot she'd been fighting with might not, though, going from how badly burned he was, his body had been the thing to interrupt Alalia's anchor bolt. Alalia was missing her helmet and half her face was covered in blood. If a thresher had done that, then she'd come very close to having her skull split in two. A dozen other bodies, people Marik didn't recognize, lay about, soldiers both golem and breath-and-blood who'd actually fought one another in the confusion.

Half again as many prisoners dead.

And the demon. The demon was dead, but Marik had no idea what had killed it.

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"He's down. Marik, he's down." Sally's voice was steady, but loud and insistent, "Stop trying to stand up. I'm about done bleeding here, you're just getting started."

 

She'd lost more blood than he had so far, but she was right. The bolt through her chest probably wasn't actually done bleeding, but if she hadn't died of it yet then she wasn't going to. She also still seemed to be at her normal strength or close to it. Traditionally, each Guardsman made the mistake of trying to brush off one of his golems when they were concerned about his injuries exactly once. The resulting illustration of differences in relative strength was embarassing enough to prevent it from happening twice.

 

"Alalia!" Sally's bellow was at odds with the way she lowered him to the ground, as gently and easily as if he were a child, "Marik's hurt! Kill not confirmed!"

 

George arrived about a second later, and seeing that Marik's wounds were being tended to, stabbed a spear in the body of the Arrakam-demon twice before taking up a guard position, as if he expected it to leap up and attack him at any second.

 

Alalia arrived being nearly carried by Kevin and Jen, a little awkwardly as Kevin was trying to apply a bandage to the slice through her scalp at the same time. Both her golems were grinning like idiots.

 

Alalia recited a few spells and the light leaking out of the Arrakam demon shifted colors more wildly in response. "Kill confirmed."

 

"This needs stitches," Kevin immediately declared. Then, with the threat of the demon definitively removed, he rounded on the approaching assorted miliatry personell. Most breath and blood troops were used to golems being polite and submissive, so Kevin's sudden explosion about automata attacking Guardsmen, collaborating with demons, treason, and long carreers in latrine digging was all the more stunning.

 

"Just keep the blood out of her eyes," Sally told Jen, "This is serious, I want her help putting Marik back together. George, I've only got two hands here."

 

George, now wearing the same stupid grin Kevin and Jen had been sporting, helped Sally get Marik's armor off him, a process that was significantly more painful than getting the wound in the first place had been. Even when Marik cried out, though, George still seemed really happy about something.

 

"It's our own materiel you idiots destroyed, you know." Sally told him.

 

"No great loss, though." George sounded inordinately pleased with himself, "who needs automata when you've got golems?"

 

"You outnumbered it three to one." Sally said.

 

"You're jealous." George's joy was undiminished.

 

Sally rolled her eyes, "who actually fights thresher!?"

 

"They beat a thresher to death, Sally." Alalia seems almost impressed as the golems, "let them have this. I'm about to start cleansing, give him something to bite before you get to work."

 

"KIds." Marik said, his voice overflowing with disgust.

 

Sally grunted in agreement, then placed something between Marik's teeth. Alalia started a spell that would purge the kinds of fever associated with wounds and surgery, and Sally didn't waste any more time. Marik lost track of everything else in the ensuing agony.

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