Scene one: The sky is black and empty of stars, an alien face on a once familiar sky. Fiat’s eyes strained to separate the blueish glow from the dark sky, and the sand under his bare feet slid away from him lifeless and dry. Nothing about this place made physical sense to him – he was a hobbit of green swards, meadows yellow with young barley and daffodil weed, trees wet with moss. He moved through the sand as swiftly and silently as he could, but with each step he felt the absence of the stars above, the missing eye of a nonexistent moon alighting upon his neck like an awkward silence.
The summit of the dune approached, and Fiat assayed a look back. He could see his new comrades easily, in the distance. The light of Snapper’s lantern split the night, landing here and there as he walked round the stele. Other lights were there as well, torches moving more slowly around the perimeter as Bjorn Ha’giant (the torches threw orange glints off his armor, it could only be him) and one of the others, the saturnine archer Beltran perhaps, searched for more Gebites buried in the sand.
The young hobbit, forcing his body to act with more courage than he himself felt, lowered himself to the sand and crawled the last few meters to the top of the dune to look into the valley below. Fiat’s eyes narrowed against the sudden brightness of the blue light, and his breath hung in his throat: below him, arrayed in ranks upon tiered stone, were hundreds of Gebite warriors. They were surrounded by the glow, chilly and aquamarine, and stood silently at attention, their weapons near at hand next to them. From here, some 50 meters away, Fiat could see the open, staring eyes of the soldiers, as lifeless and cold as the thaumaturgy that held them in its grip.
Below the stony Gebite soldiers, on the lowest tier, several things caught the hobbit’s eye. First, a half dozen Gebite’s, freed from their cerulean bonds, were formed up in a skirmish line. The faced in Fiat’s direction, but they couldn’t see him – the disinterest in their expressions showed that. Behind them, a couple more soldiers bent to unseen tasks.
Fiat’s eyes fixed on the man giving them their orders. He was not dressed as a soldier – instead, he had on robes and a strange, lopsided conical hat. Fiat couldn’t understand the words, but he could certainly hear the sneer of rigid command in the man’s voice.
Before him, Fiat could see a circle of some sort, painted in the ground and filled with the same light that held the other Gebite soldiers at bay. In the circle stood one of those soldiers, still frozen in its glow, and the sorcerer commanding the soldiers turned and began chanting toward the circle, the unintelligible words rising and falling and the glow responding, flickering as the ritual pierced its wards and slowly worked disassembled it, like fat maggots disassembling a fallen bird.
Fiat took it all in for one long, last second, then slid backward through the sand, face turned away but his eyes still stained with the unnatural bluish light.
Scene two: when, years before, Fiat had imagined what a battle between wizards would be like, this was the sort of thing he’d imagined. It was both terrifying and exhilarating.
Events seemed to suddenly be moving with obdurate slowness. Fiat’s stealthy approach and Invisibility (cast upon him by the professorial minstrel Phineas) had turned him into something of an observer to the events that transpired around him, even as he made his way nearer to the Gebite sorcerer. His sword itched to bury itself into the man’s back, slipping through ribs to pierce lung and liver. Fiat knew the path through those ribs, and a mirthless grin sharpened his cheeks at the thought.
Fiat saw a Gebite soldier, face-down in the sand, casually discarded to make room for the sorcerer. He now stood inside the circle, a mirthless smile of his own. The circle emanated a protective ward around the sorcerer, a quivering field of energy that deflected Beltran’s arrows as a hurricane deflects twigs.
Fiat watched in fascination as a blast of pure white light split the unstinting night and curved eagerly toward the Gebite sorcerer. With a wave of his hand, the protective field hardened in front of it, shunting it away. The sand exploded upward at the power of it. The sorcerer continued speaking words of power, as if the attacks had never occurred, as if the sand at his feet hadn’t just been melted to brittle fingerlings of fulgurite.
Closer and closer Fiat crept, shrouded by bard’s magic, silenced by the clash of arms nearby. Soon he would scratch his sword’s itch.
Fiat watched as the priest Nolan, black-clad and circumspect of speech, came running (so strangely slow) along the edge of the ridge, his spear bobbing with each step. It was a ten-foot drop to the ground, but without even a glance downward he leaped from the edge just before it was eclipsed by soldiers still trapped in blue. He landed with uncharacteristic grace, spun slightly when his boots hit the sand, and gave the scimitar-swinging Gebite behind him a sidelong glance, to ensure his kidneys remained firmly ensconced within his armor. Nolan’s spearpoint centered itself on the sorcerer’s midsection, like the head of a viper rearing up to taste the alluring tang of prey in the air.
To Fiat’s right, his friend the Ha’giant stood at the center of a scrum of Gebites, cutting them down one by one. It was a study, the hobbit realized, in the evolution of hand to hand combat. For all his size and armored bulk, Bjorn was a tactical swordsman without peer. He fought with calculation and craftiness, without anger but with an economy of movement, a murderous efficiency. As Fiat watched, a Gebite spearman overextended his thrust perhaps half a meter. Before he could correct the mistake, Bjorn’s sword slashed out with stunning alacrity. It sliced opened the creature’s unprotected abdomen, and spilled was passed for its entrails onto the ground in a black, oily splash.
“Over here, dumb-ass!” yelled Lama, her eyes black and tusks bared. The orcish warrior’s fighting style was, to Fiat’s eye, almost diametrically opposite to that of Bjorn’s. She slung her wickedly-curved scimitar about with abandon, hacking away at enemies and emitting an unending stream of insults and epithets. ‘Opposite, perhaps,’ Fiat thought. ‘…but no less effective.’ He watched her laugh with an almost childlike glee as she buried her blade in a Gebite’s shoulder and thrust a booted foot against it’s thigh to pull it free.
The sorcerer completed his summoning and two immense wolves materialized only feet away, eyes and maws glowing with contained fire.
‘Hellhounds,’ Fiat thought as he watched the vulpine beasts charge into the fray. ‘Shit.’
Another blast of light laid silver afterimages across Fiat’s eyes, and he turned instinctively toward the top of the dune to the north. The hobbit squinted against the bright echoes of the spell but could not tell who it was that cast it. Possibly the elf Leinard, whose wry wit was a bit forced and seemed to be almost apologetic. Fiat had heard idle comments, pointed as daggers, around the cookfire that led him to believe that Leinard had a hand in their friend Kazeer’s death.
Perhaps, instead, it was the serpent-priest Snapper who unleashed these bright bolts. He certainly had a brawler’s temperament, but it was leavened by his healing skills. Snapper was more inclined to stifle a bleed than cause one. And yet… Fiat was reminded of a line from an old poem: “Demons gibber | and Devils pale | when a quiet man | goes to war.” Snapper was not a quiet man, but perhaps a healer, sufficiently enraged, could also make demons gibber.
The sorcerer was caught unawares by the blast of light, and failed to bring his hand up to engage the shielding energy in time. It bled through the protective field, and the Gebite wizard’s arm recoiled from the shock. He hissed and raised his eyes to the top of the dune. He made short, sharp gesture, and a column of fire exploded atop the dune, it’s concussive force palpable to Fiat even here, over a hundred feet away.
Fiat found himself behind the sorcerer. Beyond the Gebite, Nolan charged forward with his spear. Fiat raised his small hobbit’s sword and drove it home, deep into the sorcerer’s back.
Scene three: Fiat looked down at his hands, and unthinkingly wiped them on his trousers.
“Shit!” he said aloud. A few rows over, Rindle looked up at Fiat, his eyes sympathetic and not without a generous dollop of rueful commiseration. Rindle, like Fiat, was spattered head to toe with thick, black fluid. they’d been going up and down the rows of silent Gebite soldiers, ensuring they’d never be a threat. Rindle was slashing Gebite throats with all the passion of a metronome: grabbing one’s hair, pulling the head back, slashing the throat, moving on to the next in line. Each slash drew a fountain black fluid, and Rindle had soon given up all pretense of trying to avoid the spray.
Due to his stature, Fiat was forced to employ a different strategy. Instead of throats (which he couldn’t reach), he thrust his sword up under each soldier’s armor, stabbing deep into the upper thigh both to left and right and opening the femoral arteries. Blood like thinned pitch jetted out with each cut, and Fiat’s hands and arms were black to the shoulder.
And now his trousers, which he managed to keep clean only though assiduous effort, were now stained as well.
It was a Sisyphean task, killing so many men, even if they didn’t fight back. Ranks upon ranks of them, standing like automatons and giving no indication they even felt their blood draining out and pooling in the sand at their feet. Even dead, they remained standing. The power of the bluish glow that held them in place also hid from them the inconvenient fact of their own extermination. And it felt like, for every one that Fiat killed, ten more appeared down the next row.
Below them, near the magic circle, the body of the sorcerer laid splayed on the sand. His things were laid nearby in neat rows, and Beltran and Snapper pored over them, essaying small incantations to try and suss out the power of each item. Lama leaned heavily against her scimitar and spoke with Bjorn, discussing the comparative merits of the Gebite fighters in, frankly, pejorative terms. Bjorn finished wiping black blood of his sword and handed the cloth to Lama, so that she might wipe away the offending liquid from her own blade.
“Where is the book?” asked Leinard.
Beltran looked up. “What book?” A look of realization came over his face. “Ah, Rijanna’s book.” He gestured at the sorcerer’s goods, upon which Snapper still busied himself. “It’s not here.”
“Neither are the people of Geb’s Rest,” Nolan observed quietly. “These are all Gebite undeads like we’ve seen before – no modern people. No women, no children. This one…” he took a step forward and gave the dead sorcerer a gentle kick. “This one is the only variant. He was a powerful mage, but he didn’t use an incantation at a stele to get here, I’ll wager.”
Leinard frowned. “We’re not done here, in this ‘pocket dimension’,” he said. “The book must be somewhere else, somewhere we haven’t seen yet.”
“Shit!” barked Fiat, backing away from a particularly vigorous arterial spray, one that left oily smears on his chest.
Nolan looked up at Fiat, then back to Leinard, nodding in agreement with both.