Chapter Fifteen – The Last Blow

A week later, the door to the infirmary opened, and Jandar entered. Raelin had not seen him for over three months, and so could barely contain her shock at his appearance. His hair was all gray by now, and wrinkles lined his once young face. He walked with a slight limp, and much of the fire had gone out of his eyes. However, he was still Jandar. He was still ruler of Nastralund, and no amount of anxiety could rob him of the regal air that followed in his wake.

“Raelin,” he said, approaching her bedside, “I’m glad to see that you are recovering.” His voice was weaker than Raelin had remembered it, and he spoke with a weariness that she had not heard before. “I’m sorry to say that Sullivan escaped. We thought he had been captured, but it is evident now that he merely joined his true allies.”

“Sorry?” repeated Raelin. “Don’t be sorry, Jandar. It’s easier this way. If he had not escaped, you would have had to hold him, and question him.”

Jandar looked at her curiously. “Why, Raelin? Why are you so determined to let people go unpunished?”

Raelin sighed. She was tired. She had been sleeping and recovering for much of the past days, but her weariness was of a different sort. “Pain,” she said. “It’s not something I wish on others.”

Jandar sighed and sat at the foot of her bed. “I came to bring you ill news. While you were captured, Drake came up with a plan for our survival. We no longer had the forces to guard our borders. So, while Utgar waited for the inevitable, we harvested all we could from the land, burned the rest, and retreated to Nastralund. Everyone retreated to Nastralund. This is now the only territory still controlled by the alliance. The other Valkyrie barricaded and hid their wellsprings, and set traps in place to kill anyone who finds them. It was risky, but our entire army was now focused on defending a much smaller boundary. The result was that while our food stores rapidly dwindled, we were at least able to beat back Utgar’s every assault.”

Jandar sighed. “That state… just ended a few hours ago. Omnicrons have reported to me that Valkrill undermined their positions, and then decimated them from behind. Apparently a portal to the Underdark has just opened up inside our borders. The entire army has been caught off guard. As we speak, legions upon legions of the enemy are pouring into Nastralund. I’ve ordered a full retreat. This will be our final stand, Raelin. This castle will be our last stronghold.”

Raelin was speechless. After all this time, after all the false hopes and dreams, the true end had finally come. Jandar’s castle had never fallen to an enemy, but she didn’t see how they could survive. All of Utgar’s might would be focused at it, and his army was big enough to cover the whole of Nastralund from end to end.

Jandar buried his face in his hands. “I don’t see how I can go on, Raelin. I know you said to never give up, to never lose hope… but how can I ask my men to fight? They know as well as you and I that they stand no chance. They know this is the end. Maybe… Maybe I should surrender to Utgar, and trust to his mercy that he will spare our lives.”

Raelin looked at him. “Utgar has no mercy, Jandar. I felt his mercy, I know.”

Jandar gave a forced smile. “Then it’s a fight to the death,” he said shakily.

Raelin sat up and laid a hand on Jandar’s shoulder. “No,” she said firmly. “It will be a fight, but it will be a fight for something.”

Jandar let out a short bark of laughter. “For what, Raelin? The chance to die honorably? Some false feeling of a higher cause? No, we are alone and deserted, and we will die that way. What would you have us fight for?”

“Fight for faith,” said Raelin. “Faith that things can get better. That this is not the end. Whether we die or not, Valhalla will continue. We stopped fighting for ourselves long ago. If for nothing else, fight for those that will come after us. Fight, so that they may look back on us, and our determination may become theirs. Yes, Jandar, we may die. But we will not fail. Someday, somewhere, this war will end. Not in victory. Not in defeat. But in peace. Fight for that.”

A few days later, the bulk of the alliance forces arrived at Jandar’s castle, having been routed by Valkrill. They were tired, beaten, and injured. But remarkably, they were hopeful. They knew they had lost Nastralund. They knew Utgar could win by simply starving them out. But as regiment after regiment approached, and looked up to see Jandar’s mighty castle still standing, the colors of the alliance waving defiantly over its walls, they could not despair. In their own way, each and every one of them knew that this was it, the last fight, and they all resolved in their hearts, that Utgar would have to try his utmost to take Valhalla’s freedom.

In the course of the war, Mallidon had been made a captain, and Raelin, Drake, and Jandar met him at the gates of the castle as his company, which included Kelda, reported in. There were many hugs, and many tears were shed at the reunion. However, Jandar eventually had to fly to the back of the incoming army, where it was said his presence was urgently required. Drake went with him, leaving Raelin with Kelda and Mallidon.

As the day came to a close, and twilight slowly descended over the castle, those three did something they hadn’t done since they were little. They played together. For a brief time, they allowed themselves to forget about the war, about the pain, and about the misery. They played and laughed, running up and down soft green hills, flying in the clean November air, hiding in the long grass. Behind them, the army continued to pour into the castle, but the tramp of feet was dulled by the friends’ laughter.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, and darkness began to spread in earnest, they were rejoined by Drake and Jandar. For a time, as they laughed together, the lines on Jandar’s face faded, and Raelin thought he looked far younger than she had ever seen him. At last, exhausted but happy, they lay on a wonderfully green hill, watching as the silhouette of the castle faded into the night sky.

Jandar’s castle was indeed a sight to behold. It had been constructed upon finding the wellspring, partly to defend it, partly to provide a resting place for those that were summoned. The wellspring had been found high atop a mountain, in a shallow cave. Therefore, the castle had been built about it. The mountaintop was isolated, though there was a steep cliff nearby. Jandar had stretched a causeway from the cliff to the mountain, thus making the castle accessible from the ground, but also ensuring that his archers had plenty of time to pick off anyone who sought to assault the castle’s doors. This was a large part of the reason the castle had never been taken.

Now, as Raelin and the others sat admiring the castle in the growing darkness, it struck Raelin just how beautiful it was. It stood lone and proud, removed from the rest of Valhalla. Its shadow stretched over them all, as if it was watching over its land. It was the vigilant protector, the undying sentinel.

Drake let out a sigh of satisfaction. “Utgar won’t win,” he said with confidence. “We’ll never be defeated. Not as long as that castle stands, defiant against Utgar’s hordes.”

Jandar stood up, scrutinizing the castle in the distance.

“What is it?” Raelin asked. She was contented and comfortable, and had been on the verge of falling asleep.

“There is an ill cloud about the mountain,” Jandar said after a moment. “A cloud… with light.”

They all stood up. Raelin could see it now. They were near the edge of the cliff, and looking down, they could see a strange fog obscuring the base of the mountain upon which the castle sat.

The cloud was unmoving – which by itself was unnatural. But it also possessed a dim glow, almost as if a very weak light was being shone through it from the ground far below. Whatever it was, it was obvious it was magical. And that rarely meant anything good.

“It seems… familiar, somehow,” Jandar mused. “A spell… I think I’ve read of it…” His face suddenly took on a horror-struck look. “No!” he shouted. He leapt for the causeway. “Get everyone out! Evacuate the castle!”

It was too late. The sinister cloud suddenly brightened, its eerie yellow glow illuminating the mountain from beneath. There was an ear-shattering crack, a terrible report, and lightning shot through the mountain. Literally through it. Deep cracks appeared. Chunks and slabs of rock snapped off to fall far below. The castle above shook and trembled. And then, slowly, so infinitely slowly, the entire mountain cracked, and then crumbled, falling to pieces. It took the castle with it, and everything – rock, army, and wellspring – fell beneath the cloud and was lost from sight.

There was nothing left but an expanse of dark and silent sky.

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