Virgil and Halai

Virgil, Halai, and the Forces of the Undead. Art by Alexandra Douglass.

Virgil’s trek across the unyielding teeth of the north was a treacherous one. Though his undead companions were quite indifferent to the frigid air, Virgil and his elven bodyguard Halai struggled to keep warm in the deep snow and biting winds. Burdened by exhaustion and frostbite, only the thought of his destination, the ruins of the western battleground, could tether him to consciousness. It was only after weeks of trudging through the frozen mountain passes that the scouting party from Deadholm was able to set up camp at the edge of the western battlegrounds. With the ruins that marked his destination looming impassively on the horizon, Virgil slept for the first time in days. Though his dreams were filled of conquest at the ruins, his rest was uneasy.

The next morning dawns harsh and cold. Virgil begins barking out orders to his undead troops as Halai helps him don his armor. His polished hard-leather cuirass is clearly new, without the scratches and wear of battle, and the bones strapped haphazardly across its surface are humming with protective runes and enchantments. Though Virgil had organized raiding parties and served as the commander in several battles in the past, this is his first time to join the fray of battle.

“What troubles you?” asks Halai as she sharpens the hooked blade at the end of her spear.

“I feel fate at work here…the clouds gather in the Southeast, and a storm would slow our progress substantially. We must march now before the earth becomes too soft,” answers Virgil.

“I will make it so.” Halai takes leave of her lord, and begins to make her rounds through their paltry troops. Virgil sits silently for a moment, clutching his face with his hand, straining to overcome the wave of sickening anxiety that is inundating his mind. He pauses, and then pulls himself to his feet and shouts, “To the ruins!” and points to the remains of the old castle to the west.

——-

Bones crack and shatter under the weight of Rhona’s broadax as she pummels animated dead. She and a war band from Guelivere had been fighting their way across the western battleground for several days, pausing only to clear their path of the native undead. The Battleground is the stage of an ancient war so drawn out and bloody that the remains of millions of soldiers and civilians spoil the land itself. The dead of the battlefield have begun to walk again, and Rhona and her companions were sent westward to help dispatch them. Surrounded by fractured skulls, ribs, and tattered equipment, Rhona sinks the butt of her ax into the earth and pauses. Her massive and muscular frame bears glistening black plate-mail, and her lack of helm reveals her strong, angular jaw, her greyish skin, and her flowing dreadlocks.

“W-we are getting closer to the s-source,” says a child in robes and a wide-brimmed witch’s hat.

“It was more than last bunch, almost 50 I think” Rhona added. Rhona pointed her massive hand to the ruins in the northwest. “Could there be pool of Mana there?”

“C-certainly, when it overflows, it a-animates the b-bodies” Shaylie stuttered.

Rhona wipes the sweat from her brow. “We should get chopping no?” she said as another throng of skeletons shamble towards them from the west. Rhona hefted her ax from the ground and leapt into the wave of attackers.

——-

Virgil and his escorts move westward across the damp soil. Though he has heard tell of the dead of the battlefield, Virgil is surprised at the sheer quantity of wandering dead and animated bones in the area. Grinning a crooked smile, he raises his skull-topped, blackwood staff and begins to chant. Swirls of dark energy gather at his staff and his fingertips. As his incantation comes to a close, the shadows spring from him to the near-by native dead. Virgil’s energies darken their bones and deeply etch purple runes in the skeletons. Adding to his small scouting party by the dozens, Virgil’s macabre puppetry reinforces his command. The party’s increased size does naught to help their progress, however; by the time they reach the ruins, the sun had been drowned by dark storm clouds, and thunder rumbles across the sky.
A quick, utilitarian camp is set amidst the ruins. In spite of the imminent storm, Virgil cannot help but investigate one of the ruin’s intact spires. The structure was far older than his home city of Deadholm, and certainly from before the time of structured magic. Virgil feels pure, magical energy swelling at the foundation of the ruins.

“There must be a mana pool here,” he thinks, “and a powerful one at that.” The magnitude of his find overwhelms him, and, suddenly fixated on finding the central flow of the mana below, he stumbles and staggers his way up the steps of the spire until he finally reaches the top. He collapses on the floor, his hands and fingers spread wide to better channel the energy of the mana pool below. The tower is an intensely powerful magical conduit, and Virgil Is unable to stop himself from tapping into its power and spinning dark energies out of the pure mana pool below. His hands ignite with black and purple flames as he struggled to maintain his concentration. Faintly, Virgil hears Halai shout, “Intruders to the east! Mobilize!” but the crackling of the tower’s energy overtakes his mind.

——-

Rhona and her companions have destroyed the undead puppets on watch with little effort. They’re advancing rapidly, smashing weaker skeletons as they run through remnants of several toppled towers, walls, and cracked, massive stone tiles worn away by time and weather. Rhona and her warriors halt for a moment; they can no longer see their enemy, and their camp appears abandoned. Suddenly, a burst of a dozen arrows zips across the camp and strikes the shield and flesh of a couple of the Guelivere soldiers, knocking one to the ground.

——-

“Take cover!” shouts Rhona, as she burst towards the ruins where the arrows were launched, deflecting and catching arrows with her off-hand as she ran. Shaylie begins casting protective barriers around the remaining Guelivere troops and starts healing the injured soldiers. They drag the wounded soldiers to safety behind a partially intact wall and the base of an unusually intact turret. When she feels the Mana well below the ruins, Shaylie’s breath catches in fear. She turns to an officer, a grizzled veteran with greying hair and cold eyes and frantically says, “There is a w-wizard tapping into the Mana in the r-ruins, he must be stopped!”

A swing of Rhona’s ax sends two skeletons flying into the air. As their segmented bodies fly past her, she notices that these skeletons were different from the scores she had destroyed before. She leaps over some wrecked columns and skids down a pile of rubble to another pair of skeletal archers. These have new and well-made weapons and armor, the likes of which she has never seen before. Her ax strikes the skeletons and, with a crunch, she obliterates the breastplate of one skeleton. She pivots, crushing the other against a pillar. Breathing heavily, she looks around for more archers and instead finds that Shaylie has left the safety of her warded ruins.

“Get to the t-tower!” she said as she points to the top of the spire. Virgil stands at the balcony, wreathed in purple and black flame. Rhona wastes no time, sprinting to the entrance of the spire, hurdling over obstacles and even running shoulder first through a wall (which proceeds to, unsurprisingly, collapse). When Rhona is fully out of sight, a spear blow shatters Shaylie’s spherical barrier from behind. Shaylie turns to see a smiling, half-plate clad Halai, and a sharpened, glistening spear-tip inches away from her face.

——-

Virgil cannot see that the battle is going poorly for him; the mana pool and the tower are the shining, writhing center of his mind, and he could feel both like an extension of himself. He is in a trance, a blissful and deeply painful trance. The seconds feel like hours and the sounds of battle do not interrupt him until he can hear them echoing through his very mind, through the tower itself. He is shaken from his trance and finds that his guards below are being violently shattered, and fear begins to seep back into his mind; he had no knowledge that he was under attack, and he has been cornered without Halai. He peers down the spiral stair and sees Rhona rapidly ascending the stairs, flinging Virgil’s skeletal guard crashing down to the bottom of the tower. Furious and trapped, Virgil flings bolts of red and black lightning down at Rhona, who sidesteps and shrugs off the attack. Within seconds, she has reached the top of the staircase.

“It is over; drop your staff!” commands Rhona, her voice slightly tinged with caution. Virgil’s face twists into a snarl of rage and defeat, and he leaps towards Rhona, his hand outstretched and aflame with a deadly spell. Her response is blindingly fast, and she strikes Virgil’s outstretched arm with her ax just above his elbow, and slices clean through armor, flesh, and bone. He stumbles back and begins scrambling back up the stairs in horror as his blood spills onto the ground. The sight of his severed arm on the stairs in front of him shocks him, and he stumbled back to the balcony in fear. He turns to face Rhona again, and he is struck flat in the nose. Not by an ax, but by his end of his own severed arm, and the mighty blow shatters his nose. Lighting strikes the spire with an immense force, cracking the foundation, and the tower begins to slowly collapse. As Virgil fades in and out of consciousness, he sees Rhona escape down the staircase as quickly as she had come.

——-

Virgil regains consciousness in extreme pain and under a damp and soggy pile of debris. Struggling to free himself, he slowly manages to pull free from the rocks, and forces himself to his knees. The pain from his broken nose is incidental compared to his stump of a right arm, and his right leg is also broken from the fall. The spire crumbled with him on it, his army shattered and broken, his Halai is nowhere to be found, and he is bleeding to death from his injuries. He is on his knees with his face on the ground and clutching his stump of an arm as it rained. He sobbed and screamed as he cauterized his arm with magical flames, and when the deed was done, he passed from consciousness again.

——-

It is minutes, hours, and maybe days later when comes to again, soaked, defeated, and exhausted. He drags himself upwards and begins looking around for something with which to make a splint for his leg.