Crown Infernal


Which tells of success for some
—and disaster for others.

Kai and his contingent met no resistance on their way to the main hall. Presumably, those within the Eyrie who were not of immediate use to the Archduke had been banished to the dwarven delvings, out of Zervan's way. Like Istvan before him, he had no reason to fear attack here. Well, the dwarves following the internal routes would no doubt enjoy flushing the evil rabble out of their ill-gotten billets. Kai posted substantial guards at all exits from the delvings ready to chop down the rats as they fled, and took himself off in search of Zervan.

Knowing the arrogance of the Archduke, Kai thought it highly likely that the usurper would have taken over Istvan's own private rooms. He set off up the south-west tower, loosening Kennoseigi in its sheath. The sword felt keen and resolute in his grasp, and filled him with a cold determination to fulfil its purpose.

Reaching Istvan's lower chamber, he flung open the door. Zervan was indeed within, seated at Istvan's desk, poring over charts and papers. He raised his head at Kai abrupt entrance, and half rose from his seat in surprise when he saw who was responsible for the unseemly disturbance.

"My dear Caspar," purred the Archduke, seating himself again. "To what do we owe this . . . unexpected pleasure?"

He seemed almost unconcerned by his enemy's abrupt and unforeseen appearance in his own apartments, but Kai noticed that his eyes were flickering around the chamber as though in search of some means of escape.

"I think you know well enough. I come for justice - and to bring 'Justice' to you," Kai replied, drawing his sword.

"You draw steel against an unarmed man, and call it justice?" Zervan sounded mildly incredulous.

"Don't judge my standards by your own," Kai said coldly. "This time, it will be a fair fight - just you and me - to the death . . . Arm yourself."

Zervan stood up, spreading his hands regretfully.

"Alas, I have no weapons here," he said.

"Then we go down to the front hall. There are swords a-plenty there, and more room."

Kai gestured with his sword towards the door. Zervan, looking tense beneath his usual air of sang-froid, preceded him down the stairs.

The entrance hall, smaller than the main hall, was yet a large and lofty chamber which also served as an armoury. Its walls were decorated with long swords, broadswords, falchions and seaxes arranged in circles along with circles of mains-gauches, stilettoes and poniards and fans of the longer two-handed swords. There were also stands of halberds, glaives, and other pole arms, and, of course, a vast array of dwarven axes. Above, balconies on an upper floor, overlooked the hall. Saghan' îl banners hung from the balustrades.

"Choose your weapon," Kai commanded tersely, eyeing the banners with revulsion.

The lapse of attention was nearly his undoing, for Zervan, passing a rack of pole arms, seized a trident and lunged at the warrior. Only Kai's sharp reflexes saved him from severe injury, though he was off balance as Zervan prepared to lunge again.

"Hold, Master Jackal!" came a grating voice from the balcony.

Zervan paused but remained poised to strike.

"Unless you would die now, put up the trident. I suggest a sword would be a more suitable choice."

Without taking his eyes off Zervan this time, Kai saluted his guardian angel.

"I'd do as he says," he advised. "I've seen his skill with the bow and he makes no idle boast."

Zervan, gritting his teeth, raised a hand in submission.

"Correct me if I am . . . mistaken," he said ironically, "but you did say it would be a fair fight - 'just you and me'?"

"Just you and me," Kai confirmed. "I think my friend up there just wants to reassure himself that the fight is fair. I suspect he's not altogether convinced of that right now but he will take no further action unless you give him cause. Now - choose your weapon, and choose carefully."

Zervan selected a bastard sword which surprised no-one. Barely pausing to salute, he launched a vigorous attack. A lesser man might have been taken unaware, but Kai was not to be caught out a second time. He gave ground before the furious onslaught, but maintain a solid guard. Let Zervan wear himself down!

The Archduke was a skilled swordsman - a mighty opponent even without trickery. He saw what Kai was hoping for. Easing his attack, he regained his wind. The two fenced cautiously now. Both were sweating freely. Each was looking for a weakness in each other's guard - and finding none. Total concentration was written on the faces of both men. Any lapse would be final. The hall echoed to the ring of steel on steel.

Kai found himself moving forward now. He sensed it was not due to superior skill. They were closely matched for that. He suspected more trickery - that he was being manoeuvred.

Zervan was close to the wall beneath the balcony now. Leon could no longer see him. Parrying, he turned slightly. Using the bastard sword with one hand, he drew something from his belt. His fingers flickered deftly for a moment, then let fly a cloud of silvery powder.

Kai leapt back sharply. He escaped the worst of the stinging dust, but his eyes were watering, blurring his vision. Zervan quickly took advantage. He seized a main-gauche from the wall. It was an act of desperation. The bastard sword was heavy and he was almost spent. He side-stepped the residual drift of dust and swung at Kai's head.

Kai's swimming eyes saw the feint, but not the dagger. His parry exposed his flank. The Archduke drove the shorter blade home. Staggering under the blow, Kai reeled backwards, dropping to one knee.

Certain he was done for, Zervan dropped the main-gauche and took the bastard sword in both hands. He swung at Kai's neck. Kai parried again, but the blow knocked him off his feet.

"Die, damn you!" cried Zervan.

He plunged his sword down into Kai's chest. But Kai wasn't there. The bastard sword struck the flagstones. Sparks flew as the warrior rolled aside. He was gasping for breath. Both were close to exhaustion.

Zervan raised his heavy sword again. Kai, blinking to clear his vision, swung his legs round. He hooked Zervan's ankle with one foot and kicked hard against his knee with the other. Carried by the weight of the sword, the Archduke toppled over backwards. He struck his elbow as he landed, knocking the sword from his hand. It clattered across the cold flagstones.

The younger man struggled to his feet. Clutching his side, he stood over his adversary, panting. Zervan looked for his sword, but it was beyond his grasp.

"I appear . . . to be at your . . . mercy," he said, breathing heavily. "I suppose an appeal . . . for mercy would be . . . unacceptable?"

"It would," Kai concurred. "If I let you live, many more would die who are much less deserving of death than you."

"Then so be it... I will not grovel... but make it quick."

Kai thought of the little Lascan family, and was sorely tempted to do otherwise, but honour would not allow it. He set Kennoseigi against the Archduke's chest and leaned heavily upon it. He felt its satisfaction as it slid smoothly through flesh and bone alike, to pierce the heart.

The warrior remained leaning on his sword, suddenly drained of all emotion. Only pain and weariness remained. He became aware of Leon beside him asking him how he fared.

"I shall be well enough when I've rested a while," he sighed. "My side hurts like hell, though. I think he might have cracked a rib."

"I nearly put an arrow through him for that," Leon said fiercely. "I couldn't risk hitting you, though. I take it that fancy mail of yours turned the blow?"

Kai nodded. "It's funny, you know - for months I've been nursing this . . . this hatred . . . for Zervan for what happened the last time we met. Now I feel nothing - no pleasure, no satisfaction, nothing - just emptiness . . . They say revenge is sweet. I don't know."

He set his foot on Zervan's body and withdrew his sword. They heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs on the other side of the hall and turned to see who it was. The new arrival momentarily took Kai's mind off his pains.

"Valarien, by all that's wonderful!" he cried.

The barbarian looked at the wizard with some apprehension and the wizard looked at the little group in horror. He had been on his way to see Zervan about arrangements for his marriage to his beloved Perizada, unaware of the dwarves' invasion.

"What have you done?" he asked, aghast. "Oh, Peri, I have failed you." His eyes widened further. "Peri!" he gasped and fled back up the stairs.

"What the . . . ?" Kai exclaimed, completely at a loss.

Then he remembered the mention of a sorceress. Sword in hand, he set off after Valarien. Despite the pain, he contrived to keep the wizard in sight, and marked the chamber into which he disappeared.

He burst open the door and found Valarien holding up an imperious hand. His left arm was wrapped protectively around the most seductively beautiful young woman he had ever seen. He found himself staring, then hastily put such ideas out of his mind lest she cast her spell upon him, too.

"You shall not harm her," Valarien declared unequivocally. "She is my love and dearer to me than life itself."

Kai groaned.

"She has you ensorcelled, can't you see? - No of course you can't," he answered himself, bitterly.

The lady began to speak in a language he did not recognize.

"Shush, my darling," said the wizard, gently putting his hand over her mouth. "You must not spell him. He is a fr . . . "

His voice tailed off as his eye caught sight of the blood slowly congealing on the warrior's sword. He pushed his lady behind him, out of Kai's reach. Suddenly and unaccountably, Kai felt guilty, or at least, uncomfortable. He lowered his eyes, and his sword. When he looked up again, he saw that a section of the wall behind the couple had moved aside. Through the hidden door, Junak had appeared, followed by Tabor.

"That's the wench," growled the Sularin dwarf.

Startled, the wizard and his lady spun round, as Junak swung his axe.

" NO ! " .shrieked Valarien.

Too late. Junak's great axe cleanly severed Perizada's slender neck and sent her head spinning in a gory arc through the air. It landed upon the rumpled bed where she had lain with her lover not ten minutes before. Her body sank slowly and gracefully to the floor where her blood flowed into a bright scarlet puddle at Valarien's feet.

For a long moment, he stood transfixed, his face ashen. Then the wizard in him took over. He drew himself up to his full height with majestic intensity.

"Nex cappettay!" he cried, his fingers focussed on the centre of his erstwhile friend.

Threads of blinding, blue light instantaneously converged upon Junak with a crackling roar.

When his sight returned, Kai found that the horrors of the day had multiplied. All that remained of the unfortunate dwarf was a greasy blackness on the walls and floor, radiating around his carbonized boots. A pool of molten metal marked where his axe had fallen.

Tabor, who had been standing behind Junak, had been caught in the blast also. He had slithered into a sitting position, propped against the wall. Charred flesh clung to the calcined bones of his chest, while glistening, greyish entrails hung out of his body cavity. What was left of his face was slowly trickling down to his chin like tallow from a candle.

Another blast of death magic was sent through the hole in the wall to destroy any living thing that might be along the passage beyond. Then Valarien turned slowly to Kai. Instinctively, he dived out of the doorway. The third blast failed to make contact with the warrior but the shock wave threw him against the wall with great force, knocking him into insensibility.

In the madness of despair, the wizard cried aloud to the heavens. Torrential rain poured over the mountain, and enormous hailstones pounded it, then fire and brimstone rained down in a localized holocaust. His powers exhausted at last, he returned to his beloved Perizada.

Tenderly, he lifted her limp body and carried it to her bed. There, he laid it down and set her head in its proper place. That done with the greatest respect, he laid down beside her and surrendered to his grief.

end of chapter

Index Page Chapter 18