Pre-dawn grayness lit the sky over Eld’rin. The mists filled it as usual, and frost coated its roots and branches. The city was still, the elves just beginning to wake up.
Outside of Eld’rin, to the north, a great cloud of smoke hung over the forest. The trees here were blackened, the ground scorched and charred. The great inferno which had been here was gone, put out by the Asdelarcen.
And between these two locations – the burned forest and the gates of Eld’rin – was Dilmir, hiding in one of the depressions in the ground used for training magic. He was breathing heavily, having been running most of the night. The Asdelarcen had not made it easy to get this close to Eld’rin, constantly cutting him off and forcing him to backtrack.
He had eventually made it out of the forest, but had still been unable to teleport. It seemed the Asdelarcen had woven enchantments all the way between their camp and Eld’rin. Somehow surviving his flames, the Asdelarcen had caught up with him quickly, their inhuman speed making short work of the distance. They had attacked with swords, forcing Dilmir back into the forest.
Another inferno had followed, this one slightly more successful than the first. At least a few Asdelarcen had gone down in it, but there were still over forty chasing Dilmir. He had circled around, trying to get away from their magic so that he could teleport, but he had never found a gap in their enchantments. They had met several times, Dilmir wounding several of them, and receiving several gashes in return.
The Asdelarcen had stayed in front of Eld’rin, clearly doing their best to keep him from the gate. But slowly, with a combination of fire, roots, and his own sword, Dilmir had gotten closer and closer to Eld’rin, until he had finally been able to make a run for it. He had burst from the trees, spells thudding into the ground at his heels, and had jumped into the first shelter which presented itself: the bowl of earth he was now in. Now he sat, muscles aching, breath coming in gasps, still unable to teleport, gathering his remaining strength for the final sprint.
He knew it was almost dawn. It had taken him all night just to get this far. He still had time though. The undead were still in the forest. He could still reach Eld’rin, find the Council, and warn them before it was too late. He just had to run a little further.
He peeked over the rim of the bowl. At least twenty Asdelarcen were in front of him, guarding the gate. He knew almost that same number were behind. They didn’t know which bowl he had dove into – it was still quite dark, despite the graying of the sky.
Dilmir closed his eyes, trying to regain his breath. He needed cover. He could make it to the gate and get inside, but he needed to distract the Asdelarcen to do it. They expected fire by now, and besides, he didn’t want to risk burning down the city.
Dilmir smiled. He knew what to do. “Venel’terenim,” he said, breathing slowly, feeling his magic. “Dreth. Veler im.”
The ground exploded. The roots beneath the field in front of Eld’rin shattered, bursting into a million shards of wood. A great wind came out of nowhere, whipping the slivers into a cyclone, a wall of churning brown.
Dilmir climbed out of the bowl, completely hidden from sight. The cyclone moved with him, the shards of wood spinning about him at a dizzying speed. The ground in front of Eld’rin was broken, blasted apart by the roots Dilmir had shattered. The short grass was gone, replaced by soft, churned earth.
Dilmir could feel spells ricocheting off of the walls of the cyclone, deflected by the sheer speed of the spinning bits of bark. He forced himself to run, ignoring the burning in his legs. There were cries all about him as the Asdelarcen were forced to flee, unable to penetrate the cyclone or stop it. Dilmir wished he had thought of this earlier, but he hadn’t had time to. The Asdelarcen had always been just behind him. And besides, they were masters at adapting. They would find a way through eventually.
Dilmir reached the gate, the vines which made it up now scratched and marred by his cyclone. He found the hole in it and scrambled through, leaving the storm of bark and dirt behind him, blocking the way into Eld’rin. The Asdelarcen would get through, but at least they would be delayed for a moment.
Dilmir allowed himself to pause, and catch his breath once more. Eld’rin was still shadowed, the dim half-light of pre-dawn just beginning to break. In the distance, Dilmir could see the middle of Eld’rin, and several elves there. Trainers, going to the fields. Dilmir doubted there would be any training today.
Alfimir. That was who he needed to see. Just a few days ago, Dilmir would never have gone to Alfimir, but his recent actions had changed his mind. It seemed Eltuthar was right about the archmage: Alfimir really did want to protect the elves above all else. He would know what to do.
“Kelther imir en shenith Alfimiril,” Dilmir said between gasps, picking up a stray twig as he did so. The twig glowed a dark shade of green and twisted in Dilmir’s palm, pointing east, towards the middle of Eld’rin. The Royal Quarter. Alfimir must be there.
Dilmir dropped the twig and took one shaky step forwards, but then stopped, his magic feeling something. He flung his magic wide, and felt his stomach knot unpleasantly. There was a void, hanging in the air just above the edge of the forest to the north. And directly below the void, moving slowly, was a mass of shielded undead. Cyprien was back. The army was here. The attack had begun.
After all this, after running all night, Dilmir was too late. The elves weren’t ready. The Asdelarcen had captured all of the scouts who found them, making sure the undead remained hidden. Eld’rin had plenty of mages, but they weren’t gathered or ready, and from what Eltuthar had said, there wasn’t much they could do against the undead anyway. And to top it all off, Dilmir had managed to lose both Inilidin and Ilrin in one night.
He turned, looking at the still tightly shut gate. The Council should be able to handle the Asdelarcen, but only he could defeat the undead. That was what Eltuthar had said. There was no time to warn anyone; he needed to be there, at the gate, to stop the undead. He knew what he needed to do. He’d have to get close to the zombies, close enough almost to touch them. Only then would he be able to get past their shields and destroy them. He only hoped Cyprien wouldn’t join in the fight. He had no idea how to fight a vampire.
His hope was instantly crushed. There was a blast like thunder, a flash like lightning, and the gate of Eld’rin was rent in two. The two halves blasted backwards, revealing Cyprien himself, hovering in midair, his palm raised. Dark magic.
One of the gate-halves clipped Dilmir as it flew backwards, and he was yanked backwards violently from the brief impact. He landed hard, thrown against the packed earth of Eld’rin, and for a moment, everything was a blur of sound, motion, and pain.
He struggled to come to, his tired body wanting to just shut down. But he forced himself back into wakefulness, feeling with his magic before him. The undead were there, just starting to stream through the gate.
He scrambled to his feet and moved away from the horde, towards the middle of Eld’rin. The trainers had obviously seen the gate torn in two, and were now standing, shocked, looking up at Cyprien. Unaware of what was going on, young elves were now pouring into the middle of Eld’rin, ready for training, only to stop dead at the sight which met them. Dilmir came up against an unmoving crowd of shocked elves. The zombies advanced. It was going to be a massacre.
Fortunately, the elves didn’t train all day for nothing. The shock only lasted for a moment, then the spells began. First only a few elves attacked, spells flying against the undead. The zombies ignored the assault, the spells sparking out of existence on their shields. But then more elves joined in the attack, until there was an entire hailstorm of magic streaming at the undead.
There was no effect. Eltuthar had been right. The shields about the undead were impervious to magic. Every spell which struck them died instantly, fading into the early-dawn light which was now entering Eld’rin. A red light.
A few elves fired spells at Cyprien, but these were similarly ineffective. They evaporated before him, disappearing with the boom of thunder. Whatever protection Cyprien had, it was something no one knew how to breach.
“Dilmir!” It was Felnir, Endir close behind. Both were healed fully, and both had their swords drawn. “What happened?” Felnir asked, shouting over the roar of spells. “When you didn’t return, we feared—”
“I ran into the Asdelarcen,” Dilmir said. “All of them. I only got back just now.”
Dilmir shook his head.
“What do we do?” Endir asked, surveying the unhurried advance of the undead.
Dilmir looked at the shambling horde. “Eltuthar said only I can defeat them,” he said.
“You’ll be slaughtered!” Endir protested.
Dilmir shook his head. “I can handle them,” he said, remembering what Eltuthar had told him. “You two just try and keep people alive.” The elves had been steadily backing up, but he knew they couldn’t do this much longer. The undead were drawing closer.
“How?” Endir said. He had a point. They couldn’t fight the undead.
“Scatter,” Dilmir said. “Get the elves to run, but use magic to keep the undead contained. We don’t want them going all over Eld’rin. If we can keep them here, I’ll have a better chance of killing them. Seal off the Lower and Upper Quarters first. That’s where most of the elves are.”
Felnir nodded. “We’ll do it,” he said, already making for the Upper Quarter. Endir hesitated a moment, but then sprinted for the Lower Quarter.
Dilmir drew his sword and faced the undead horde. The mass of elves had stopped moving, finally pinned between the advancing undead and the walls of the Royal Quarter. The zombies grew closer, shambling slowly, unconcernedly. Dilmir could see that they were men and elves, some wearing tattered armor, some wearing little at all. Their skin was black, riddled with mold, and their faces were empty, their jaws slack.
The two forces met, the undead instantly becoming more alive. They lashed out, striking at every elf within reach, using their arms like cudgels. Eltuthar hadn’t been mistaken about their strength. Dilmir saw one swing its fist into an elf, sending the elf flying backwards. Another brought its arm down on an elf’s head, instantly causing his legs to buckle as he was driven to the ground.
The elves drew their swords and attacked, but these had no effect on the undead either. The shields about them were too strong, blocking both blade and magic. Dilmir knew what he had to do.
“Asin,” he said, “esvress mathal hesrenim enedil im.” Using magic to block physical attacks was foreign to him, but if Eltuthar said it would work, then it probably would. His shield glared with a white light as the spell took effect. If it had worked, his shield would block blows from the undead. But for how long, Dilmir didn’t know. Magic was powerful, but it couldn’t make him invincible.
It was now or never. He gathered his magic about him, limiting it to a small area, gripped his sword tightly, and plunged towards the undead.
He really hoped Eltuthar knew what he was talking about.
He ducked as an undead swung its arm at him. He could feel the shields around them, slippery just like those around the Asdelarcen. He reached out, his hand passing through the shield, and touched the zombie’s leg. Spongey flesh met his fingers, but he ignored the sensation, and concentrated. The zombie burst into flames, and then ash. The shield about it broke, and Dilmir felt the magic come under his control. This gave him an idea.
He quickly used the magic from the zombie – which was no small amount – to bolster his new shield. This might actually work. If he could kill the undead faster than they could overwhelm his shield, he would never be in danger.
A zombie came at him from nowhere, shuffling quickly, arms already swinging. Dilmir turned to face it, waiting. The undead crashed into his shield and tried to grab him, but was thrown backwards by the shield. For now, the spell was working. Dilmir ran to the undead, penetrated its shield with his hand, and caused it to crumble to dust.
Two down. Only an army to go.