“I’ve never seen this part of the castle,” remarked Drake.
Raelin sighed. The air was damp, and carried the unmistakable scent of late autumn. “It’s seldom visited these days. And when it is, it is only by kyrie or Vikings. No other race cares for our gods.”
Drake tilted his head, examining the tall statue at an angle. “And which one is this again?”
“Odin, Drake. You know that. The king of the gods. Don’t you have a deity you worship in your time?”
“One,” said Drake. “But I don’t think about it too much. Everything is consumed by the war back home. There isn’t much time for anything else.”
Raelin considered the statue. “I think the gods are one of the things we must find time for. They’re one of the last sources of peace we have left.”
“Well,” said Drake, stepping back, “I doubt Jandar summoned us here to stare at Odin. Where’s this map room?”
“This way,” said Raelin, moving off to one side of the statue. They were in a small tower at ground level, the center of which was dominated by the statue of Odin. Two lines of columns marched towards the statue on either side, dark curtains suspended between them. Raelin passed through the curtains on the right, Drake following her.
“I would have thought something like a map room would be in a more secretive place,” said Drake. The space behind the curtains was bare except for a single staircase that wound upwards. “I mean, not many would think to look here, but it is rather in the open.”
Raelin smiled to herself. “You won’t be disappointed.”
Instead of ascending the stairs, she went to the opposite wall and pushed in a brick that looked identical to those about it. There was a sound of gears turning, and then a portion of the wall swung inwards silently. “This way.”
The door closed behind them as they entered the small room behind it, revealing a dark and narrow staircase. The steps were not steep, but they curved downwards, their base hidden by the wall. The only source of light was a guttering torch on the wall behind them.
“After you?” Drake suggested.
Raelin started down the steps. They soon came to a heavy door, which Drake obligingly shoved open, and then stepped into the map room.
The room was small. It was circular, and its walls were rough and dotted with bright magical lights which cast an even glow over the room. The center was dominated by a vast table, upon which a highly detailed map of Valhalla rested, secured firmly to the surface. Wooden figures placed on the map represented the positions of armies. Raelin couldn’t help but notice that the forces of the alliance seemed pitifully small.
Raelin knew that the room was normally crowded, but at the moment, it only held five individuals. One was Jandar. It had nearly been a year and a half since Raelin had met him, but he seemed to have aged by five times that amount. His face was lined, and his hair was beginning to gray. He was still quite young, but the war and the wellspring were beginning to take their toll.
Two of the others in the room were the Viking brothers, Finn and Thorgrim. They had been with Jandar since the start, and had proven themselves to be useful warriors. Raelin had met them, but they were both a bit too rowdy for her taste. Not to mention unhygienic.
The other two occupants of the room Raelin knew by name only. The first was an individual from Earth. He had a habit of wearing his wide-brimmed hat down over his eyes, but the bulging shotgun beneath his leather coat left no doubt about who he was. Raelin had never gotten to know Johnny Sullivan, nicknamed “Shotgun” on the battlefield, but the reports had proven his worth many times over.
The last individual in the room was easy to recognize. He stood well above even Jandar, nearly twice the height of anyone else in the room. He was made up of metallic plates and wiring, supported by two powerful legs, and armed with, instead of hands, two gun barrels as big around as Raelin’s head. Zetacron the soulborg was a figure not easily missed.
Raelin had objected at first when Jandar began summoning soulborgs. Once she understood that they were machines designed to kill, she protested their recruitment. But Jandar, along with the soulborgs themselves, had explained their true identity. The soulborg was a robotic shell. Within that shell, somehow preserved, rested the essence of a creature Raelin could only guess had once been human. It took time, but she eventually got used to the soulborgs. They spoke and often acted like a kyrie. It was the armor and guns that gave people false impressions.
Jandar looked up. “Drake. Raelin. I’m glad you came.” His voice was slightly muffled, and Raelin could tell he was using the same enchantment she had once used in order to understand Drake. Many of the soldiers could speak Kyrien by now, but none of them – save for the soulborgs – were fluent in it.
“What’s this about, Jandar?” Drake asked. “My detachment is due to leave within the hour.”
“They’ll be leaving without you,” said Jandar. “I have a new mission for you, and for Raelin as well.”
Drake and Raelin approached the map-table.
“What I’m about to tell you,” said Jandar, “cannot leave this room. Is that clear?”
“It is generally known that the war does not go well with us. What is not general knowledge is that the situation is far worse than is believed. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but at this point we can’t ignore it any longer. Utgar has had a wellspring from the beginning, and he has apparently now learned that he can summon an army through it. Drake, you have known this for some time.
“It’s been a tricky matter, juggling reports, but the fact is that Utgar’s forces are moving closer to Nastralund every day. Elswin is overrun. Even parts of Laur are being invaded. We’re slowly being surrounded. If something isn’t done soon, we’ll lose the war by sheer lack of resources if nothing else.
“Fortunately, Nastralund is isolated by mountains. The southern passes are well guarded; Utgar would be foolish to try to get through that way. The mountains to the west will be our last line of defense, and Utgar knows this. Word has just reached me that he has assembled a large army, and has pushed through Laur. He’ll be at our western borders within one week.
“Much of the mountains are impassable. I’ve closed off all of the routes except for the largest, which means it is through this that Utgar will have to pass. That route, that gap between the mountains, is Valgrind.”
Sullivan leaned closer to the map as Jandar pointed at it. The smell coming from him made Raelin edge a few inches away.
“Valgrind is a vast city,” Jandar continued. “Throughout the war, it has been our largest supplier of food and men. It is well fortified, but will stand no chance if Utgar is determined to take it. It lies directly in his path, and its loss would be a crippling blow against us. It must not fall.”
Sullivan scratched his stubbly chin. “And how do we figure into all of this?”
“The pass that Utgar must go through is narrow at one point. Two mountains guard it on either side, and the land between is rocky and difficult to traverse. On our side of the pass, in front of Valgrind, lies a small village – Stechavan by name. Utgar will want to take that village first, and then move on to Valgrind. I intend to stop him before he does either, and you will lead the forces.
“Finn and Thorgrim will command the main body of troops. They’ll form up a mile from Stechavan, and attack Utgar’s forces as they come through the pass. Once Utgar’s army organizes and strikes back in earnest, they’ll retreat – hopefully luring the rest of Utgar’s force out with them.
“Once that happens, an army of Ullar’s will crash into their left flank. Our own Templars will route their right. They’ll be cut in half, and Finn and Thorgrim will turn about, decimating them. Then we will fall upon the remainder and destroy them.”
Jandar had summoned all manner of soldiers to fight for him. The Templars, from Drake’s Earth, were a newer addition, and their lances were quickly thinning Utgar’s ranks. Jandar had other allies, however. Almost from the beginning, another general, Ullar by name, had aided them. He, aided by a wellspring of his own, had seen the need to stop Utgar, and he and Jandar had been tireless in their efforts to withstand the red legions.
There was a pause. After a moment, Drake said, “You said this was a large army. Our forces are stretched thin… can we really spare so many men?”
Jandar hesitated. “The attack is, in fact, a diversion. I have learned, through reputable sources, that Utgar himself plans to accompany this force. He is so sure of victory, that he means to walk into Nastralund and demand my surrender himself. We will put his arrogance to use. If we can kill him… we may just win the war.
“Drake, Sullivan – that’s where you come in. Once Utgar’s army is flanked, it will be your job to sneak through the pass, using the battle as a cover. You will find Utgar’s pavilion, and you will kill him before he knows what is happening. You will have to act quickly. If he sees you first, all chance of success may be gone.”
“Right…” said Drake. “What’s our backup?”
Jandar glanced at him. “You are the backup, Drake. It’s been seventeen months since I recruited you, and you’ve already made Utgar fear your name. I gave you my own enchanted katana, and with your grapple gun, you are more than a force to be reckoned with. You’re the most powerful soldier that I could spare. We must kill Utgar. It’s the only way we’ll ever end this war.”
“No,” said Raelin.
Everyone looked at her.
Raelin had spoken without meaning to. She had often thought what she might do if she had the chance to kill Utgar. Sometimes she had angrily sworn to kill him without hesitation. But other times, she had faltered. Slowly, very slowly, she had come to doubt her burning revenge. It wasn’t until now, however, that she fully understood why.
“You think… we can win this war another way, Raelin?” Jandar asked.
Raelin glanced at Drake, and then turned back to Jandar. “I think we have to. I never joined you to win this war, Jandar. I joined you to end it, to end the pain it causes. I joined you to stop the killing. I don’t think we can end killing by killing someone. Do you?”
Jandar considered her. “I think it is our only option. Or do you have an alternative?”
“No,” admitted Raelin, “but it must be there. I have to believe there’s another way to stop this war than causing more pain. That’s all that killing Utgar will do. You know he has second-in-commands that will take his place instantly. His entire army will be thrown into chaos, and hundreds more, maybe thousands, will die.”
“Not everything can be resolved peaceably, Raelin,” Drake said. “I don’t think anyone here is suggesting killing Utgar is the right course of action. It’s simply the necessary one.”
“I agree,” said Jandar. “Killing Utgar may cause the deaths of hundreds more, but it will save the lives of countless thousands.”
Raelin looked from one to the other. “Is that truly how you see your duty? Trade the deaths of the few for the lives of the many? People will die, Jandar.”
“I know, Raelin, and I detest it. But I have no other option. I consider it my duty to protect my people. The price is steep, but the alternative is far steeper.”
Sullivan and Zetacron stood by silently, watching.
“Jandar’s right, Raelin,” said Drake. “There’s no other way. Utgar will continue to kill unless he’s stopped. Maybe there’s a way we can do this without killing him, but I don’t see it. It’s a difficult decision either way, but given a choice between hundreds of deaths and thousands, I would take hundreds every time.”
Raelin looked at him. “What if I were in the hundreds? Would you be so quick to decide then?”
“I – That’s,” Drake stammered. “That’s beside the point.”
“No,” said Raelin. “No, it isn’t. Don’t you see? Everybody, everywhere, has someone who loves them. Even Utgar. If I were to lose Kelda, or Mallidon… I don’t know if I could live with it. The pain would be too much. Can you, with a good conscience, sentence hundreds to that same pain?
“Don’t you see? You’re trying to choose the lesser of two evils, but you’re missing the point. No evil is lesser or greater. They are all equally too terrible to be permitted. I don’t know if this can be resolved peaceably. I really don’t. But I have to trust that it can. I have to trust that we can find a way.”
The room was silent for a moment. Finally Jandar spoke. “I would like to find a way, too, Raelin,” he said. “I would love to. But I don’t believe there is one. And if there is a way, we don’t have the time to find it. Utgar will be here within the week if we don’t stop him, and then none of this will matter.
“You’re right, Raelin. I can’t with a good conscience sentence hundreds to the pain of loss. And I believe you’re also right that either consequence cannot be permitted. But I also believe we don’t have a choice between permitting it and preventing it. The only choice we have is how many casualties we allow, and I choose hundreds, not thousands. I’m sorry, Raelin. We have no other option. Drake, Sullivan – ready your men. You march at dawn.”