There was a moment of silence. Vara and the other house leads stood poised, ready, as an invisible form pushed through the smoke. As clouds passed overhead, a glimpse of the creature’s shape became visible – a hundred feet tall, at least, covered in horns. A glint of sunlight reflected from rows of teeth, large as a man.
An inhuman, echoing voice pierced the air in abyssal:
“SUCH FOLLY. YOUR ALLIES ARE FEW. YOUR HOPES ARE NONE. THERE IS ONLY GAL’MALOK, AND I HUNGER FOR VENGEANCE.”
Vara’s eyes began to glow a bright green, and she hovered slightly over the ground, brandishing her daggers.
“Well then, filth,” she said. “Come and take it.”
The creature roared, and two nearby buildings exploded in splinters of wood, throwing guards and others hundreds of feet across the Fort. The retreating demons stopped, turning back, empowered by Gal’malok’s presence.
“Now!,” a loud, unfamiliar man screamed, and several seemingly empty guard towers sprang to life. Hidden compartments in the top fell away, revealing elaborate elven-made, giant crossbows. Behind each was a pair of Ghosts. Without pause, the crossbows fired, leaving a shadowy trail of magical energy as they soared, striking into the invisible form of Gal’malok.
There was a strange hum, and suddenly the giant demon’s form became visible as the dark energy was absorbed by the demon’s skin, turning it a dark, scaly grey. The creature was enormous, bulging, glowing with energy lighting its insides. It was covered in scars and old, ancient injuries. Many old arrows and spears still stuck out from its back and shoulders.
Gal’malok lurched forward, scraping at its own skin, heaving, injured, looking to the sun for help.
“YES,” it said, looking around, searching. “ALWAYS THE CLEVER BOY. WHERE ARE YOU HIDING?”
The crossbows continued to fire, and Gal’malok screamed in pain, slashing at the nearest tower, and smashing it to pieces. Then, it showered the other towers with a green poison breath, killing the ghosts who occupied them.
“ENOUGH OF YOUR GAMES,” it shouted to no one in particular. “NOW I SHALL PLAY MY OWN. I SHALL SLAUGHTER.”
And with a roar, Gal’malok strode to Silverwatch House, roaring in anger as it began its attack.
The remaining Silverwatch fighters engaged Gal’malok at Silverwatch House, shooting ballista rounds, waves of arrows, and trying to hold the beast back as Vara and the other house leads unleashed a torrent of attacks and magical spells to hold it back.
As the others made their way into the foray, the Stars realized that this was a fight that not even the house leads could win – not on their own. The Stars made their way back into the fort, running into several small groups of demons returning to the battle, emboldened by their leader.
Corvus shouted to the others to get to the towers, and charged the demons to slow them down. Without wasting any time, Janos rushed across the rubble toward the furthest tower. Quinn ascended the closest tower, finding a large ballista, powered by some sort of magical ammunition, with 3 large runic-covered bolts nearby.
Quinn quickly analyzed the bolt, activating its magical potential, and did his best to load it into the ballista, firing a strong shadowy bolt at Gal’malok. The bolt struck the demon’s midsection, and it howled in pain, its skin darkening, absorbing the shadowy energy.
Seeing the damage done, Janos climbed the other tower, finding an injured ghost at the top. The ghost rose to his feet, helping Janos load and fire the ballista, striking another hit against the demon.
Below, Wyverna drew the attention of a group of attacking demons, leading them within range of a few ghosts, who tried to assist the dragoon with a barrage of arrows. Nearby, Corvus, having forced the demons away from the tower, climbed up to help steady the ballista as Quinn fired another bolt, sparing what seconds he could to strike down an enormous demon which had attempted to ascend the tower after him.
Gal’malok turned, spraying another mist of green acid at the Stars and ghosts, who took shelter when possible, fighting through the pain and attack to continue their ranged assault. On the ground, Vara and the other house leads did their best to dodge the demon’s attacks, climbing atop the massive creature to strike blows upon its head and upper body, but its armor was seemingly invincible to mortal strikes, and one by one, the heroes of Silverwatch were thrown aside.
As Quinn prepared to launch their last bolt, the large demon found purchase upon the top of the their tower, cornering them. Trying to buy Quinn time, Corvus leaped on the demon, sending them both crashing to the ground below, just as Quinn’s ballista fired.
Janos and Wyverna saw to another successful bolt fired, and earned Gal’malok’s attention, for the last time. The giant demon took a single large stride, destroying both towers, sending a hail of stone, wood, along with the Stars and ghosts, to the ground below. An avalanche of debris fell upon them as they hit the dirt, exhausted, struggling to maintain consciousness.
As the Stars slowly crawled out of the rubble, Gal’malok roared with fury and strode to Silverwatch House, before pausing abruptly. Crouched atop the remaining roof of Silverwatch House was Saze, who stood to face the demon.
“Where is he, she-elf?”, Gal’malok rasped. “Where is Thorne?”
Heren, covered in blood, rose to his feet defiantly.
“I’m right here, filth,” he said. “Come and get me.”
Gal’malok laughed, taking a step to the stage, grabbing Heren in one of its claws lifting him off the ground like a doll.
“We had a bargain, she-elf,” Gal’malok said to Saze. “You were to deliver the clever boy.”
Suddenly, a murmur spread through the crowd, and above the Stars could see a blanket of incoming fired arrows, which struck the remaining smaller demons with uncanny precision. Then, emerging from the smoke and flames from deep in the fort, a large creature strode forward, slowly. It was the Crone, a monstrous form of wood and foliage and vines, flanked on each side by no fewer than fifty ghosts, who spread out in groups and began emptying satchels, placing objects all over the fort grounds.
Gal’malok held Heren in front of him as a shield, starting to crush him.
“Deliver him to me, creature,” it said. “Or I shall kill them all, beginning with the false boy.”
“Very well,” said a loud, booming, masculine voice, and the Crone fell apart in pieces, revealing a giant, multi-arrowed, glowing arbalester underneath, which fired immediately at Gal’malok, wrapping around the midsection of the giant demon and pinning its arms to its sides, holding a large, blazing hot ring in place over its chest, which hissed as it seared into the demon’s skin. The demon screamed in pain, dropping Heren as it struggled to break free.
A tall, thin man emerged from the rest of the Crone disguise. Underneath was a pale, weathered, scarred ranger with silver hair and long beard, adorned in leather and animal skins. He reached behind the arbalester, producing an enormous, elaborately decorated golden longbow, slinging it over his back as he looked up the sky, which began to darken quickly as clouds swirled above.
“Thorne,” Manton muttered to himself.
The ghosts froze, looking at Thorne, then each other, apparently confused.
“To your posts!” he shouted to the ghosts. “You’ve all sworn a blood oath, fulfill it now or forever be forgotten by your kind.”
The ghosts immediately returned to work, emptying sacks and arranging stones in shapes all over the fort grounds. Thorne strode toward Gal’malok, and a dozen demons charged forward, each struck in the head by an arrow by Thorne, who loosed multiple arrows at once without looking or stopping.
“I’ll take it from here,” he said to those at Silverwatch House as he advanced. “Need to make this quick.”
Gal’malok strained against the ties, addressing the ranger.
“Always the clever boy,” it said. “But no matter. I have grown powerful, too powerful for your games. The wrathblood flows through me in excess, and it answers my call!”
With a scream, Gal’malok ripped the bonds, freeing itself dropping the strange stone disc to the ground. On its chest, strange runic symbols were visible, burned into the creature’s skin. Janos and Quinn exchanged a glance – they were common teleportation runes, but written mirrored.
As Thorne approached, Gal’malok spewed a shower of green acid. Thorne lifted his bow and a magical shield extended around it, absorbing all of the liquid, which was drawn into an arrow and shot back at the demon’s feet. The acid erupted, burning through the ground and creating a large pit, which Gal’malok fell into.
“Enough, ranger!”, Gal’malok hissed. “Return it! I have not followed you to the ends of the world, waited a lifetime, just to—.”
“Shut your mouth, trash,” replied Thorne, in abyssal.
Thorne motioned to a pair of ready ghosts nearby, who launched several arrows at the pit, covering the edges in a shiny, slimy substance. Gal’malok tried to climb out, struggling and slipping as he failed to gain purchase on the now-slimy ground.
Thorne reached into his tunic, removing a black stone which was covered with bright green pulsing runes, then tossed it casually towards the pit.
“No!,” Vara screamed in protest, as Gal’malok desperately reached for the stone, swallowing it. The demon began to laugh maniacally.
“You fools,” Gal’malok hissed. “You should have stayed hidden. Now I shall end you all, beginning with—”
In a motion almost too fast to see, Thorne pulled and loosed an arrow, which struck Gal’malok in the perfect center of the runic ring on his chest. The arrow began to glow blue, and the runes lit up in response, pulsing with magical energy. Similar bluish glows appeared within the stone circles placed all over the fort grounds – teleportation rings, Janos and Quinn realized.
“Pitiful,” Gal’malok sneered, breaking off the arrow and tossing it aside. “Nothing can penetrate my armor.”
“Now!,” Thorne shouted, ignoring the demon.
All over the fort grounds, groups of ghosts pulled out bags labeled with “Forever Endeavor Mega-Magic Arcane Explosive”, dumping handfuls of small metallic balls into the portals at their feet. The Stars could hear a handful of muffled explosions within Gal’malok, each bomb lighting up its chest cavity as it went off. After a few seconds, the explosions stopped, and Gal’malok collapsed into the pit, blood pouring from the demon’s mouth and eyes. The pit quickly began to fill with the demon’s blood, black and green and glowing.
Without hesitation, Saze dropped from the roof of Silverwatch House and strode through the exhausted survivors, removing the abyssal key from a satchel and setting it down beside the pit and uttering some strange incantations.
The other house leads tightened the grip on their weapons, approaching her, but Thorne waved them off as he approached the dark elf.
Above, the sky continued to darken, the clouds swirling violently.
“He’s coming,” Thorne said to Saze, motioning to the sky above.
Vara wiped blood from her face, limping over to the Silver Arrow.
“Who’s coming?,” she coughed. “And what is this? You had the wrathstone, all along? We could have killed it at any—.”
Swiftly and without warning, Saze struck Vara from behind, sending her sprawling on the dirt, unconscious.
“Get her out of sight,” Thorne said to a trio of nearby ghosts, who began to drag Vara away from the battlefield.
Saze returned to the abyssal key.
“She’ll never forgive you for this,” she said.
“No,” he replied. “But maybe one day she’ll understand.”
Thorne turned to face his army of ghosts.
“Get in position,” he said. “Phase three.”
The ghosts immediately began to move, taking strategically high positions all over the Fort, within view of Thorne, bows drawn and at the ready.
The sky above had turned nearly pitch black now, dark as night. Most of the other house leads, Rynn, Zaelorius, Manton, Somdutto, Heren, and Pelore, joined Thorne and Saze. Thorne gave Heren a hearty clap on the back.
“Well done, boy,” he said. “Well done indeed.”
The others were solemn, quiet.
“What the hell is this?,” Manton asked, stone-faced, gesturing around.
Thorne went deadly serious, cleared his throat, and took a step atop a nearby pile of stones, addressing the house leads and the survivors of the battle. The Stars, leaning on each other, limped their way to the rest of the crowd.
“I know you’ve been through a lot,” Thorne began, looking around. “In a few minutes, you shall be free of this, be free of me, forever, but now…”
Suddenly, an icy wind blew through Silverwatch Fort, now shrouded in darkness. The wind seemed to carry whispers upon it, hissing.
“I’m sorry for what is about to happen,” Thorne continued. “There was simply no other way.”
He reached inside his tunic, removing a strange silver medallion in the shape of a bird, placing it around his neck.
“I’m sorry,” Thorne said, barely audible. “I’m so sorry.”
Nearby, the abyssal key hummed loudly, having devoured nearly all of Gal’malok’s blood. A pair of ghosts ran to Thorne’s side, dropping a small stone ring on the ground, which began to light up with runes as the portal within activated – there were dozens of them, all over the Fort grounds, all glowing.
Thorne nodded at them, then turned to Saze.
“Is it enough?,” he asked.
“It might be,” she replied.
The wind suddenly picked up, chilling the bones of everyone within Silverwatch.
“Well, it’ll have to do,” Thorne replied.
“Thooorne,” it seemed to hiss. It was now dark as night, above.
The Stars all felt themselves freeze, their eyes wide with fear, a sense of endless dread, crushing phobia. They dropped to their knees, trying to fight the feeling, but nearly unable to move. Most of the others in Silverwatch fell in similar fashion. The house leads seemed frightened as well; Somdutto dropped to a knee as the others looked around, wide-eyed, terrified.
“No,” Manton said, his voice shaking. “No, oh gods, Thorne, what have you done?”
Then, a shadow, black as an abyss, appeared, engulfing Thorne. The clangs of metal, and grunts of pain were the only sounds to escape the dark mass.
Suddenly Thorne disappeared, dropping into the portal and emerging from another, some fifty feet away, hailing dozens of glowing arrows at the cloud. The Stars could see that Thorne was already covered in blood and cuts, his clothes shredded, revealing armored plates of metal with glowing runes beneath.
“Get down!,” Manton shouted. “Everyone get down!”
The ghosts began to fire arrows at the cloud, which sped toward Thorne with lightning speed. Dozens of daggers flew out from the cloud, each one striking a ghost in the neck, cutting their throats as they dropped to the ground, lifeless, their bows clattering to the ground.
The shadow vanished, then reappeared around Thorne, who howled in pain, and his bow was knocked away. The ranger disappeared once more into a portal and appearing hundreds of feet away. His face was badly slashed, and his left arm hung mostly limp at his side. His clothes were ragged, now, nearly in tatters, and most of the runic armor had been cut away. Thick streams of blood ran down his chest and legs.
Thorne whistled, and Razza appeared from behind Silverwatch House, diving at the shadow.
“Saze!”, Thorne screamed, furious. “For fuck’s sake, Saze!”
The tiger hawk and shadow collided, and there was a screech as the bird was sent tumbling into the dirt, a trail of bloody feathers floating behind it. The shadow rushed towards Thorne with lightning speed. The Silver Arrow backed up, slowly, looking for an escape he knew wasn’t there.
With the shadow mere feet away, the abyssal key exploded in light, creating a large dome of pure white at its center, pushing the black and darkness away to its edges. The overpowering dread and fear instantly left the Stars, and the icy wind vanished.
Where the shadow had been now stood a man, thin, masked, covered head to toe in black leather armor and a flowing, hooded cloak, that seemed to move as if alive. In his hands were a pair of ornate curled daggers, dripping blood.
The man looked around, confused, for only a moment, but it was enough for Thorne to act. The silver arrow produced a length of Forever Endeavor’s magical chains, hurling them at the man, who was forced to his knees as the chains bound his arms and legs behind his back, leaving him entirely immobile.
Thorne relaxed and spat blood, before turning to the man and holding up the bird medallion.
“Recognize this?,” Thorne asked.
Thorne tore a piece of his cloak and tied it around his bloody left arm. The kneeled man raised his head, and spoke in an eerie, raspy, echoing voice that sent shivers down the Stars’ spines.
“So,” the man said, amused. “A trap, after all. How elaborate. The demon was a nice touch. And here I thought you had forgotten about me.”
Thorne grunted, shedding the rest of the runic armor.
“The Silver Arrow never forgets,” Thorne replied.
A ghost approached Thorne, cautiously, handing him his bow. Saze walked briskly to Thorne’s side.
“Kill him,” she said. “Kill him now.”
“Not yet,” Thorne replied.
The other house leads joined Saze and Thorne, their weapons drawn.
“By gods, what are you waiting for?,” Manton asked, exasperated. He lifted his axe and took a step forward. “Fine,” he continued. “I’ll do it myself.”
In a split second, Thorne had an arrow notched in his bow, aimed at Manton’s neck.
“Get BACK!,” he shouted at Manton, sweeping his bow toward the other house leads. “ALL of you, get back!”
“What are you doing?!,” Saze screamed, furious. “We waited a decade for this – we won’t get another chance. Kill him!”
“Yes,” the man said, sounding bored. “Get it over with.”
Thorne turned to him.
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?,” Thorne snapped. “No, I know better. I know it all, now – who you are, WHAT you are. I know everything Relmand knew.”
“Ha,” the man scoffed. “Then you know nothing.”
“Where are they?,” Thorne asked.
“Where ARE they?,” the man replied. “Then you know even less than Relmand.”
“I know this,” Thorne said, producing a strange dagger, its blade of purple, glowing glass, wispy shadows swirling around it. “Now, answer me – where are they?”
The man sighed, looking around at the carnage left by the battle.
“An abyssal key AND a soul reaper,” the man mused. “There is so much blood on your hands. The once gallant Silver Arrow, we’re not so different after all.”
“I’m nothing like you, murderer,” Thorne said through clenched teeth. “You left me no choice. For years! Decades! There was no other way – I had to see it through.”
“Then,” the man said, looking up, now serious, “you finally understand what it takes.”
Thorne stiffened up, pointing the dagger menacingly.
“Tell me where they are,” Thorne said, “or I’ll end you. For good, this time.”
“Do it then,” the man replied. “Add my body to the pile at your feet. Thousands by now, I believe.”
Around them, the white dome flickered slightly, then dimmed, as the humming of the abyssal key grew slightly quieter.
“And yet,” the man continued. “Still not enough.”
Saze and the others closed in, starting to surround Thorne and the man.
“Do it,” Manton ordered Thorne, gesturing to the failing magic around them. “Do it now.”
“This is it,” Saze rasped. “We won’t catch him again.”
“She’s right,” Zaelorious added. “Do it now, or we will.”
Thorne turned, brandishing the glowing dagger, spinning in a circle.
“No,” he said, desperately. “He knows where they are, don’t you see? He knows—”
The hum of the orb dropped out for a split second, and the immense fear once again flashed through the crowd, like a bolt of lightning. Manton cringed, holding his head, while Somdutto and the others dropped to a knee.
“Not yet,” Thorne said, his voice hoarse, almost gone. “No, not yet.”
Saze sprinted toward the abyssal key, shouting to the nearby ghosts to grab every body near the pit and toss it into the remaining blood. The white orb brightened once again, for a moment, then began to visibly dull – within moments it would be gone completely.
“Now!” Manton screamed, pushing past Thorne and swinging his axe at the kneeled man.
The man deftly backflipped from the ground and out of the way, still chained, while wisps of shadow began to slowly surround him. Rynn leapt into the air, thrusting with his spear, and the man rolled out of the way, standing up as he kicked the leg chains off.
A burst of flame exploded near him as Zaelorious shouted an incantation, and the others leapt into action. The man easily dodged the oncoming attacks, kicking Somdutto to the ground as he flipped over Rynn, knocking him into Manton’s oncoming charge.
Pelore unleashed a flurry of arrows, and the man spun, deflecting them back, striking Zaelorious in the chest. He fell to the ground, coughing blood.
“Not yet,” Thorne muttered. “No, not yet – there’s still time.”
Manton charged again, and the man rolled through his legs and over the back of Rynn and Somdutto, who fell to the ground, bound by the magical chains. The man, now free, spun, throwing a fan of silver daggers in Thorne’s direction.
Heren pushed Thorne, taking a dagger in the neck and dropping to the ground, as an injured Pelore crawled over in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
“Saze!,” Thorne cried.
“It’s not enough!,” she shouted back. “Kill him, kill him now!”
The dome flickered out completely for a moment, during which the man disappeared and the icy terror returned. When the light came back, Manton was down, disarmed, and bleeding, with the man standing over him.
Now, only Thorne and the man remained.
“Damn you,” Thorne said through clenched teeth. “Damn you!”
Thorne pulled out his bow, notched a few arrows, and loosed them, with inhuman speed, toward the man. With the arrows a mere instant away from the man, the abyssal key suddenly went quiet, and the dome disappeared completely. The arrows lodged into the wooden wall of a building – the man had vanished once again, leaving only a wisp of shadows behind.
The air turned icy cold once again, and every onlooker, survivor, and ghost fell to the ground. Even Saze was knelt over, holding her head in her hands, shaking.
Suddenly, Thorne coughed blood, as the point of a dagger emerged from his tunic, above his heart. The man materialized behind him out of dark wisps, holding the blade.
“I’m sorry, old friend,” the man said, solemnly. “But you’ve seen the way, and the Silver Arrow never forgets.”
The man let go, and Thorne’s lifeless body fell to the ground with a thud. He looked over the body for a moment, contemplating, then reached down and picked up Thorne’s glowing purple blade, snapping it in half. The blade and its handle turned to dust, blowing away in the wind.
Without warning, two glowing halberds pierced the man’s midsection from behind. Saze screamed as she crossed her weapons, ripping the man in half. The man coughed and gurgled as his upper torso hit the ground, trying to grab the dirt with his hands and pull himself away.
Saze took a step forward and impaled the man into the ground. She spoke some ancient elven tongue, rasping, and her halberds glowed with a bright blue fire, then burst, disintegrating the man’s body, leaving nothing but a charred outline in the dirt.
The clouds immediately parted and the sun appeared, as the icy cold darkness and terror quickly dissipated. The other heroes regained their footing, running to their injured friends. Zaelorious was bleeding but alive, as were the others, though most were seriously wounded. Pelore wailed, holding Heren’s lifeless body in his lap.
The Stars, along with the survivors, ghosts, and other team members of Silverwatch, slowly gathered around the heroes and Thorne, taking in the scene.
Vara, now conscious, broke free of the ghosts restraining her, and rushed to the others, who now surrounded Thorne’s corpse. Saze used her foot to flip his body unceremoniously, grabbing the bird medallion from his neck and jerking it, snapping the cord as she looked it over. She then reached down and wiped the blood from her halberd’s on Thorne’s cloak, then casually sheathed her weapons and took off toward the docks.
“And where do you think you’re going?,” Vara, demanded, pointing threateningly at her.
Without stopping, Saze hung the bird medallion on Vara’s hand and brushed past her.
“The Rook is dead,” Saze said, calmly. “I am free of you. If any of you enter the Darktide, or dare call upon me again, your life is forfeit.”
She continued on. No one followed her. Vara stood there, speechless, staring at the medallion.
The ghosts all removed their masks; each one was an elf. The Stars recognized most of them as former members of Silverwatch teams, who had disappeared, been disqualified, or been said to have left the games.
The remaining Forever Endeavor administration came out, quiet, for once, looking over the carnage with wide-eyed terror. There were hundreds of bodies littering the grounds. Few buildings were left standing amid the destruction.
Vara and the other house leads stood over Thorne, as Pelore covered his brother’s body. The ghosts joined them and the other teams, seeing to injuries and looking through the rubble and piles of bodies for survivors. A warm ocean breeze blew over as the midday sun beat down.
The battle of Silverwatch Fort was over.