At the Edge of Reason
Read an Epub, PDF, or Mobi version (Ereaders)
697 Years Ago
The world burned.
Streaks of orange and red crisscrossed the sky, put there by siege engines or battalions of elemental mages. When they struck true, flesh boiled and horrendous cries rose along with embers and smoke. Even when they missed, the chaos of the battlefield only grew. Dry prairie grasses, waist high in some places, went up like oil-drenched torches, casting forth tendrils of hungry fire that spread through the plain in a catastrophic chain reaction.
From above, it probably looked quite pretty, like a quilt dappled with all the colors of the sun. Hopefully the divine Veneer, content to watch mortals suffer from their heavenly halls, were enjoying the performance.
For Darmatus Aurelian certainly wasn’t.
Gasping for air, he flipped back the slotted visor of his sallet. He stabbed his lance into the dirt, yanked the thrice-cursed helmet from his head, and cast it toward enemy lines. Considering the way it was baking him alive, it belonged with them.
Oppressive as the heat was, the caress of the ash-filled breeze on Darmatus’s stubble-lined cheeks felt wonderful. It might just be the best feeling in the world. A flake of soot dropped into his eye. He swore, blinking, and reached for the leather canteen on his belt. The liquid sloshed around inside. He dashed half onto his face and guzzled the rest. Grinning like a madman, he chucked the water skin in the same direction as the helmet. This battle would be decided in the next quarter hour. Either Darmatus would find a new—preferably full—flask at that point, or he and all the other leaders of the Alliance of Five would be dead.
His brother, Rabban, shaded his eyes, squinting into the swirling dust.
“I think you hit someone.”
Though his tone was light, his gaze was dead. They’d suffered and lost much to reach this point—their own family most of all.
A primal howl of fury confirmed his words. Whatever he’d struck clearly wasn’t Terran like them. Nor did it belong to a member of any of Lozaria’s six other sentient races, some of whom stood with them on this field. That guttural growl of pure loathing belonged to something evil. Something dark and ancient, monstrous and horrifying.
Days before, that piercing, pained cry would have driven Darmatus to his knees. Now? Well, it still made him shiver. He clutched one gauntlet with the other to stop his quiver, lest it spread. Gone were the days when he could simply be himself, even in the presence of those closest to him. He was a leader now. People looked to him for hope, courage, and strength, and he tried his best not to disappoint them. Creator knew what a difficult task that was.
“They’re ready, my lord.”
Unobtrusive as ever, his adjutant, Jarrik Savane, materialized noiselessly at his side. Darmatus didn’t react, though Rabban jerked a little in surprise. He had long since stopped wondering how Jarrik managed to do that. His stealth wasn’t so much a skill as who he was. Everything about him, from his plain hair to his impassive face to his drab jerkin and breeches, was nondescript. Darmatus found it was quite advantageous to have an aide who could come and go unseen.
“I told you to call me Darmatus, same as before,” he said for the . . . tenth time? Eleventh?
As if to spite him, Jarrik bowed, placing a hand to his breast in deference. “That’s not an option, my lord. Your station demands respect. What would your men say if they heard me refer to you so casually? More importantly, what would the other Alliance heads think? None of their servants would dare address them with such impertinence.”
Darmatus waved a mailed fist dismissively. “I’m not them. I’m just a minor Terran lord, one who isn’t even of noble blood. Given their hatred of our race, current crisis notwithstanding, I’m sure they’d rather spit in my face than look at me.”
The sounds of battle swelled and fell: screams, clanging weapons, crackling flames, even the rumbling of the earth. As violent as the clashes were, they had much diminished from as little as an hour prior. Mere skirmishes compared to the bloodshed of the past two days. Enough had been shed to fill the gaping cracks in the ground, the caverns, ravines, and trenches dredged by opposing magical forces. Whatever the day’s result, this region, once covered with bountiful farmland, would never be the same.
“Some of them say you should be our king,” Rabban said.
Darmatus ignored him. Rabban pressed on.
“Many of our soldiers agree.”
“We’ve discussed this before, Rabban. We’re here to stop Sarcon, not supplant him.”
Rabban shrugged, but Jarrik wouldn’t let the matter rest.
“My lord, Rabban is right. When we defeat your brother—”
“If we defeat him.”
“When we defeat your brother, if you don’t take the crown, the other races will—”
“But, my lord—”
“I said, that’s enough!” Darmatus snapped. Seeing Jarrik flinch, he softened. “Please drop the issue, Jarrik. You know why I can never be king. Why I will never be king.”
“That’s precisely the reason you must,” the diminutive advisor persisted. “My lord, if you assume the throne, this becomes more than just a family squabble. It gives our cause legitimacy! Suddenly we aren’t one member of a five-lord, four-race alliance, but a Terran nation-state putting down a rebellion for the sake of the world—for all of Lozaria!”
“No!” Heart pounding, blood thumping, Darmatus had but a tenuous grip on his wrath. Something deep within his mind urged him to lash out and strike Jarrik with the spiked fist of his gauntlet. Skin would rend, bone would break. The foot-deep ash on the ground would lap up the blood as he stood there smiling, triumphant and . . .
Darmatus banished those depraved thoughts, shutting them behind the wall of virtue, justice, and compassion he’d cultivated all his life. But the more he fought, the more he used his magic, the more he called upon the men’ar in his blood to control the arcane miracles bestowed upon mortals by their Creator, the more those vile considerations corrupted him.
Therefore, this would be his final battle.
And he would not be king. He didn’t trust himself to steer clear of the path trod by his elder brother, Sarcon.
As tears welled up in his brilliant blue eyes, Darmatus raised his gaze toward the copse of charred trees that perched like a hunched crone at the top of the only hill for leagues that had thus far avoided demolition. It was the smoke. It had to be the smoke. Why else would he cry, looking at the last bastion of their hated enemy, where Sarcon, his beloved sibling, had chosen to make his final stand?
Horns blared, one after another; their long, somber notes drifting to them from all around the hilltop. Jarrik stiffened, glanced toward the small wood, then looked at Darmatus expectantly.
“It’s time, my lord. That’s the signal.”
“We’ll charge when I raise my lance.”
Sketching a curt bow, Jarrik disappeared. Within minutes of his departure, the battalions of Darmatus’s army were at attention, weapons clutched tightly in anxious hands. He began this campaign with nearly twenty thousand soldiers. Less than half remained. They should have broken. Cast their swords and bows to the dirt and gone home. But wounded, weary, and grim, they still stood on the plains of Har’muth because, for some reason Darmatus couldn’t fathom, they adored him.
“Let’s go,” he said to Rabban, who hefted his crossbow, knocked a single bolt, and followed him to the front of their army.
Once there, Darmatus strolled down the row of men. He made idle chatter, asking about their wives, children, what they intended to do when they returned to their towns and villages. As he talked, he checked their spears and inspected their mail and plate, clapping them on the shoulder when he was through, regardless of how well-maintained their equipment actually was. Darmatus treated every man who wore his livery—red and blue—like a son, and they seemed to glow from the attention he lavished on them.
Perhaps one day he and his wife, Saris, would have a son of their own as well.
The horns sounded again. Darmatus found the center of the line, raised his lance, and then charged as he let it drop, roaring at the top of his lungs. Rabban, his captains, and his entire army screamed a cry of victory and rushed up the embankment behind him.
Ten seconds later, the surging line came to an abrupt halt. Horses whinnied, tossing their confused riders into the muck and bolting for the rear. Those in the front ranks fell to their knees, dropping blades as hands shot to cover their helmets’ ear holes. Cries of agony replaced those of determination.
Though the faces of his men were contorted by grimaces of unimaginable suffering, Darmatus couldn’t hear them. An eerie wailing issued from the hilltop, deafening him. Rabban rushed to the nearest soldier, a sandy-skinned man with captain’s bars emblazoned on his breastplate.
Darmatus felt . . . nothing—save a slimy revulsion slithering down his backside along with his sweat. Why were they unaffected? His perceptive gaze was drawn to a pale green glow on Rabban’s belt. It was coming from a pouch the size of his fist, penetrating through the cured hide wrapping as if it weren’t there.
Ah, of course, Darmatus realized. Our Illyriite crystals are protecting us. His own, affixed where the primary welds of his chest armor joined, glimmered bright and pure, creating a verdant aura about him. He’d discovered many uses for the seemingly inexhaustible spiritual energy of the flawlessly cut gemstone, but defending against dark magic was a new one. Then again, it’s possible . . .
“They’re resonating with Sarcon's shard.” Rabban’s malice-coated words reflected his own thoughts. Together, their eyes fell on the ominous forest—a stand of desiccated, twisted ash trees.
All at once, the ghastly shrieking ceased. Cautiously, the army rose to its feet, picking up their armaments with trembling, uncertain fingers. They looked about, nervous and shaken.
But why stop the psychic attack?
Up from the hillock burst a vortex of ebony light, narrow and obscured by the barren wood at the bottom, expansive and tumultuous at its apex. Coursing, cascading, roiling, it reached higher and higher. It pierced the heavy clouds, which drew back in a ring as if afraid to touch it.
Darmatus could feel the maelstrom’s power from where he stood. It was a hand on his throat; a blacksmith’s anvil crushing his lungs; the hand of the Creator himself pressing callously down atop a misguided, disobedient sinner. His knees buckled but didn’t collapse. Rabban gasped, clutching at his neck, yet likewise stayed upright. A solid third of his army wasn’t so fortunate. Chainmail clanking, they dropped in the mire. Very few staggered back to their feet, even at the frantic prodding of their stupefied neighbors.
Baring his teeth, Darmatus thrust his lance above his head and silently bid men’ar race through his body, into the warm metal, and out the sharpened silver tip at its pinnacle. Sparks erupted, a brilliant stream of flames that sped high into the air where they exploded in arcing torrents of fire visible to all on the battlefield.
No one knew precisely how the spiritual particles called men’ar functioned. Why was it in their blood? What in nature did it interact with to produce such spectacular and mysterious displays of power?
Theory aside, Darmatus did know that he was special, even among already rare and exceptional magic users. Other casters had to chant their spells aloud in ancient Eliassi, the original language of the venerable Eliade sages. They also had to use catalysts infused with illyrium—a mineral closely related to Illyriite but more abundant—to aid in molding and directing their men’ar. Darmatus required neither. He simply pictured a spell, aimed, and wielded his lance in the manner required to manifest the incantation. It came to him intuitively.
Combined with his equally prodigious ability to wield every type of elemental energy, he was highly versatile, a nearly unstoppable force who could adapt his abilities as the situation demanded. Of course, his martial prowess only encouraged those who would see him sit the Terran throne. But the strength Darmatus had once exulted in was now a burden. Let it see me through this conflict, and then, Void and Oblivion, may it pass from me—along with the crown, he prayed, invoking the twin names of the eternal, mythological plane from which existence was rumored to have been born.
To his satisfaction, the rear echelons of their army responded to his signal with haste. Hulking onagers, entrenched in recently excavated earthworks, hurled blazing projectiles over their heads at the fulminating mass of energy. Their first volley missed short, striking the forest. Strangely, the dry, brittle trunks didn’t burn. However, the second barrage, timed to coincide with the fireballs and lightning strikes cast by the mage battalions, impacted the barrier head on.
Still no effect. The column’s misty eddies absorbed the assault without the slightest crack. Ranged attacks could not penetrate it, no more than pebbles flung at a castle wall could tear a breach. He had no recourse but to order a direct approach.
“Pass my orders down the line!” Darmatus bellowed. “Reform and advance! Leave the dead and wounded for now! We have to stop that magic ritual!” Or whatever it is. He leveled his lance at the growing pillar of dark power.
The sight of his men closing ranks produced a response from the hilltop. In front of the forest, the ground buckled and swelled, much like bread leavening in a baker’s oven. But this was no natural phenomenon. A set of great granite arms reached up from the pit ahead of Darmatus, dirt crumbling away from rock hard limbs devoid of muscle and sinew. More appendages followed, crimson veined joints jutting at grotesque angles. When all were flattened against the ground, they heaved forth a rotund blob of stone with at least six distinct torsos and heads, each frozen like statues. Red spider-web lines crisscrossed them, originating from empty, gaping eye sockets that appeared to be crying tears of blood.
A soldier in the first row cast aside his sword and broke formation.
“Pyrevants!” he screeched.
Rabban grabbed him. “Get back in position!”
“I . . .I can’t! I can’t fight t-those . . . things again!”
He tore free and ran. More joined him, a trickle that threatened to become a river. The clatter of discarded metal rose to a clamor. Darmatus and Rabban ran back and forth, rallying their men as best they could.
“Stand firm! Stand firm!”
The Pyrevants—a dozen in number—shuddered with energy as if they were freshly lit furnaces. Flames gushed from their seams. Then, soundlessly, they rushed the faltering Terran battalions.
A dam burst. Unit after unit shattered, fleeing in terror. Rabban was apoplectic.
“Void and Oblivion, hold the line! Hold the blasted line!”
Darmatus grimaced. He couldn’t fault their lack of courage; no mortal should have to fight his neighbor, let alone the aberrations Sarcon had fielded against them. Why have you done this, brother? Why stoop so low?
Some of his men remained. Perhaps two thousand knights, his personal retinue. They would have to be enough. He gripped his lance in both hands, point forward, standing firm amid fallen shields, spears, and bodies.
“Shields locked, spears forward!” Darmatus roared. “Second rank targets chest level; third targets their heads! Hold them long enough to hit with magic!”
Rabban knelt and sighted in at a frontrunner, its gangly arms—or were they legs?—slapping the mud furiously. Breathing out to still his aim, he released the bolt.
The simple rod of iron blew off all the limbs on the Pyrevant’s left side, sending it into an uncontrollable tumble of fracturing body parts. Flaming coals mixed with tiny yellow illyrium crystals poured from holes in its stomach. After disgorging its innards, the abomination lay still, arms no longer flailing, haunting eyes no longer bleeding.
Another Pyrevant fell to Rabban’s second magically enhanced shaft, coated with a thin layer of his men’ar so that it would shear through anything not similarly enchanted. But the Pyrevants were too quick for him to drop them all. Bracing themselves, the knights screamed a cry of defiance and thrust their spears as the foe barreled into them at full speed.
Spear hafts snapped like toothpicks. Broken bodies, their weighty plate completely ineffective, flew through the air. Some granite appendages came loose, yet the Pyrevants were too massive for traditional metal weapons to have any great effect.
What the Terrans could do was stop the creatures. After the initial impact, they pressed in from every side, stalwartly rushing to fill the gaps left by their slain comrades. Leading with warped and bent shields, they caught a group of three Pyrevants before they could break through the other side or withdraw.
Darmatus wouldn’t let their sacrifice be in vain. Ejecting flame from the soles of his boots, he leapt above the fray, positioning himself so he’d fall directly atop the nearest glob of living statues. One head glanced up, noticing him. Too late. Summoning the wind to speed his descent, Darmatus fell with the weight of an onager strike, sending a blast of accumulated men’ar through his lance tip as it hit. The Pyrevant ripped itself apart from within, leaving behind a cloud of dust and debris.
Molding men’ar in his feet, Darmatus landed with the ground, depressing it like clay to soften the impact. He then sprang toward the next Pyrevant. Though its motion was temporarily halted, it had no trouble staving in even the stoutest armor with its powerful blows or expelling gouts of superheated steam from its core. Skin seared in an instant, a condition made worse by the full-body protection the Terrans wore. One of Darmatus’s captains stumbled free of the shield wall, shrieking piteously as his hands tried to keep the flesh from sloughing off his skull.
The Terran lord’s gut twisted with anguish. He jabbed his lance into the Pyrevant’s side. In response, a circle of rock shards blew out its opposite flank. Losing balance, the granite horror collapsed, leaking coal and illyrium. Darmatus didn’t stay to watch it die. Every second he dallied cost him dearly, and the butcher’s bill for this battle was already far too high.
The third Pyrevant had been eliminated by Rabban. His shots had ripped the unnerving effigies from its back, an act that apparently caused them to cease functioning. How disturbing, he thought, watching the remaining seven as they regrouped for another charge. That they should falter when their . . . brains are removed. They couldn’t be . . . No, Sarcon wouldn’t . . .
Wouldn’t what, exactly? Their eldest brother had laid waste to whole cities in pursuit of his vision of continental peace. Was creating magical abominations, even with people as a base, such a departure from wholesale slaughter?
He’d have the opportunity to ask him that shortly.
More enemies were gathering at the edge of the forest. Though they were bristling with weapons and covered in iron plates grafted directly to their bodies, these were no mutated atrocities of darkness. Along with the permanently attached armor, their elegant horns, sprouting from atop tattooed, hairless scalps, identified them as Vladisvar mercenaries. Lozaria’s most martial race, the Vladisvar were an anomaly in that they never waged war for their own purposes. Instead, they served the highest bidder.
Unfortunately, today that was Sarcon.
If they focused their attention on immobilizing the Pyrevants, the Vladisvar battalion would cut them down. If they tried to deal with the Vladisvar, the rampaging Pyrevants would trample them into the mire. Darmatus smiled. Courting a demon of death might prove an easier proposition than enduring the next clash.
Not giving them an opportunity to catch their breath, the Pyrevants galloped down the incline, numerous mouths spread wide in wordless screams. Stoic and unruffled by the horrors preceding them, the burly Vladisvar followed whilst yelling bloodcurdling battle cries. Darmatus’s battered soldiers could do little but dig in and hope to withstand the initial charge. Shields clanged together. Every usable spear was hurriedly passed to the front. Once their thin line faltered, all would be lost . . .
TO BE CONTINUED IN Divinity's Twilight: Rebirth