Tammar looked out over his kingdom from the throne room's east window. It had only been his kingdom for a few months and he hated his father for saddling him with it. Actually, "hate" was a little too strong a word, but he was resentful and envious.
It was really his own fault, and he knew it. He probably could have put off the mantle of rulership for years if he'd shown even a token interest in the affairs of the kingdom. As it was, he had been far too involved with his own affairs; mostly with two or three dozen female members of the palace staff. He had had far too many partners for his indiscretions to be even remotely secret. Luckily, one could always invoke Royal Privilege up to a certain point.
Tammar reached that point the morning King Leoric's army crossed the border into Westmarch. He had been in bed with three, no, scratch that, two of the palace help. The milkmaid had had to leave before sunup to go milk the cows. Anyway, he had been in bed with one of his favorite chambermaids and some other girl whose function he couldn't recall when his father had burst into his room with the news of the invasion. Before Tammar could fully wake up, much less put his clothes on, the Minister of War, the Chief Trade Negotiator with Tristram, the Ambassador to Khanduras, some general or other and, inexplicably, the Assistant Sub-Minister of Agriculture all stampeded into his room needing his father's guidance.
In such situations, Royal Privilege followed a certain protocol. Everyone present would pretend not to see the naked girls who would, in turn, quietly throw on some clothes and leave. For his part, the Prince would also get dressed, all the while giving his full attention to this vital affair of state.
|If you were buck naked and woke up to find a bunch of old men clustered around your bed, you'd probably scream too.|
That protocol went straight out the window. One of the girls woke up and screamed. This was probably understandable. If you were buck naked and woke up to find a bunch of old men clustered around your bed, you'd probably scream too. She leaped out of bed, tore a very expensive tapestry off the wall, wrapped herself in it and fled. Tammar never saw her or the tapestry again. He still had her underwear though. He could only hope that one day she'd return for it.
Tammar's other bedmate, his beloved chambermaid, had exactly the opposite reaction. The noise and excitement had, well, excited her, and the next thing he knew, she was doing something that good girls don't normally do in front of other people, especially royalty. In fact, according to many schools of thought, the activity wasn't something that good girls did at all, or at least, they didn't admit to it. In any event, he had loved it which made him culpable.
Correctly guessing that his son and heir was not taking the situation very seriously, King Westmarch cleared the room. He spared Tammar a withering glare on the way out and didn't speak to him again until the war with Khanduras was over.
At the end of the war, Tammar's father announced his retirement. Within a week of the announcement, he had moved to the summer castle in the mountains. He took with him most of the the female palace staff, including Tammar's beloved chambermaid, Whatsername. In exchange, he left the heavy mantle of rulership draped over Prince -- now King -- Tammar's young shoulders. The King's official position on the matter had been that it was time for new blood to take over rulership of the kingdom. Unofficially, it was his way of forcing his son to take some responsibility by giving him no other choice.
Knowing that the gold piece stopped here, the new King was forced to settle down and get on with the business of ruling. That business went on and on and on. He did the best he could, partly because, despite his faults, he really was a pretty decent individual; and partly because the people of Westmarch would not be at all shy about putting his head on a pike if they thought he deserved it.
Tammar's father would not have set him up to fail, especially with something so important as the wellbeing of Westmarch. The weeks following the vanquishing of the Khanduran army seemed the ideal time for a smooth transition of power. The people were happy, the borders were safe, and a fine harvest was on the way.
No one could have predicted the Zerg invasion. The intelligence out of Khanduras was grim. There seemed to be no stopping the strange alien monsters, and they were making a beeline for the Westmarch border.
A council of war was in full session in the throne room. Adria, the witch from Tristram was giving her report. "I regret to report that my efforts to hobble the Zerg by poisoning the creep have so far met with failure," she told the young King. "There is simply too great a volume to taint it to an extent that would harm the Zerg. Furthermore, they quickly develop immunities to any poisons that do not kill them. Perhaps if Alchemist Zhar were still alive my efforts would have borne fruit, but his secrets died with him. I can continue my research, if you wish."
"Thank you, Lady Adria," replied Tammar. "At this point, it's probably better that you devote your energies to brewing Mana potions for our magical units."
|"Using poison against an enemy in battle is the height of dishonor, even against a foe such as the Zerg."|
"As you wish, your majesty. My only desire is to fulfill your desires." She met his eyes and her tongue played across her lips suggestively. It was impossible to tell how old Adria was, but she was a hell of a flirt.
Tammar had learned his lesson too well, however. Maybe some other time. "Ah, that will be all, Lady Adria," she bowed low showing Tammar some impressive cleavage, and then turned to go.
"'Tis just as well," commented General Stronglance as Adria exited the throne room. "Using poison against an enemy in battle is the height of dishonor, even against a foe such as the Zerg. It was your father's official position that the Paladins of Westmarch were never to employ such tactics."
"And it is my official position that Westmarch must not share the fate of Khanduras," replied the King. "If your troops can defeat the aliens honorably, then greater glory to you. If it takes dishonorable means, then use them. At least we will be alive to atone for our sins later."
"As your majesty commands," said Stronglance bowing. He did not agree with the young King's assessment of dying honorably versus living in dishonor, but it was his official position to follow the commands of his King.
"How goes the war, Stronglance?" asked the King.
"Several Zerg patrols have crossed the border into Westmarch. The ones we have encountered consisted mostly of the wasp creatures, the scorpion-crab creatures and/or the Cave Viper creatures. We have, thus far been able to hold our own against small patrols. Also, three Khanduran keeps on our border have requested our aid in defending against the Zerg."
"Send them as many units as you can spare without compromising the defense of our own border towns."
"Your majesty?" It occurred to Stronglance that they had been at war with Khanduras only a few months ago.
"Better to fight them on Khanduran soil than here in Westmarch," said Tammar. "Besides, it's an intelligence-gathering opportunity."
Stronglance nodded. "Aye, on both the Zerg and on the Khandurans."
"I've just come from Khanduras, and I can tell you right now that your troops are going to sustain heavy casualties," warned Bard Rhapsody.
"My men are the finest warriors in six kingdoms," retorted Stronglance. "They'll be able to rescue the hapless Khandurans and be home in time for dinner."
"Don't get your aura in a bunch," said Rhapsody. "Any of your elite troops is probably a match for any single Zerg creature that I've seen so far."
"That's better," said Stronglance.
"However," continued the Bard, "you've got ten or twenty regular troopers for every Paladin in your force. They're the ones who will suffer the most. Furthermore, the Zerg creatures rarely travel alone. They attack in swarms. Most of your Paladins have battled monsters and most of them have battled against armies, but no one's fought an army of monsters."
"Many of my Paladins have battled armies of demons in the Sin War," argued Stronglance.
"I know, but even demons fight more like men than the Zerg do. Demons will march forward and engage you in head-on melee. Plus, as creatures of Chaos, demonic armies tend to hold together poorly. They're easily divided and distracted. That won't be your experience with the Zerg." Rhapsody glanced up at the King. "Hmm, I already seem to be halfway into my report, your majesty."
"Please continue," said Tammar.
"When engaging Zerg forces, you won't have to worry protecting your flanks or rear. You won't have any. Their typical mode of operation is to surround their opponents and strike quickly from all six sides."
"Six?" asked the King.
"They fly and they burrow," explained the Bard. "In fact, flight is probably the biggest single advantage they have over us. Archers may be able to take down their smaller fliers. They have some wasp-like creatures and some screaming fliers that seem to be part acid hound. They've also got some big flying creatures that are able to carry troops and drop them anywhere they please. That's why it's so easy to get surrounded. Finally, I saw a couple of giant flying crab-like creatures able to rain acid down on ground-bound foes. The Khandurans had a couple of heavy ballistae and were able to pierce their shells, but they couldn't load them fast enough and fire enough bolts to harm the beasts before it was too late."
"Any more good news?" asked Tammar.
"Yes," said Rhapsody. "When Trellam Keep fell to the Zerg, I saw several dragon-sized creatures on the ground. They were able to charge through reinforced gates like they were made of twigs. Stone walls only lasted a little longer."
"Any idea what might work?" asked Tammar.
"Try fighting them on solid rock to keep them from burrowing under you," suggested Rhapsody.
"Windhowl Pass," said Stronglance. "It's been scoured to the bedrock by glaciers."
Rhapsody nodded. "And if you can position some of your men on the cliff faces, you might even be able to get one up on their fliers."
|"Magic, and lots of it. And not the little stuff either. It's going to take more than a few Fire Walls to stop the Zerg advance."|
"Also," added Rhapsody, "according to my sources, fire has been used with some effectiveness to slow the spread of creep and Zerg advances. Lord Zanbridge of Redhill Keep had his men start brush fires. Mostly it just served to buy them some time. Once the fires burned out, the creep resumed its spread. Redhill Keep has since fallen."
"Is there anything my men can use against these creatures?" asked Stronglance. He had the utmost confidence in the skill of the forces under his command, but he was enough of a realist to dislike his chances in this war.
Rhapsody nodded. "Magic, and lots of it. And not the little stuff either. It's going to take more than a few Fire Walls to stop the Zerg advance. We need the big spells; the Lost Spells." She looked pointedly at the only participant in the war council who hadn't spoken yet.
Brother Blakmayne of the Horadrim spoke slowly and deliberately. "Sadly, the Lost Spells are just that: Lost," he answered. "Would that they were not."
"They wouldn't be if not for the Horadrim's obsession with secrecy," accused Rhapsody. "And besides, not all the Lost Spells are really lost, are they?"
Blakmayne held out his hands and smiled disarmingly. "I assure you that the Lost Spells are truly lost. I know that many people cling to the odd belief that the Horadrim is a secret society of sorcerers bent on world domination. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Horadrim is simply an informal fellowship of magic practitioners and enthusiasts. My presence at this meeting is only at the King's..."
"Armageddon," interrupted Rhapsody.
"As everyone knows, the Armageddon spell has only been cast once. That was to end the Battle for the Temple of Baal," sighed Blakmayne. "The secret of that spell died with its caster and, I might add, everything within twenty miles of him."
"Mass Stone Curse," pushed Rhapsody.
Blakmayne looked startled for a split second. "There is no such spell."
"I have a witness who saw a Horadrim wizard Mass Stone Curse a field full of Zerg Venom Tails outside of Redhill," said Rhapsody.
"I'm sure there is a mundane explanation for what your witness thought she saw," said Blakmayne instinctively falling back to the Horadrim's official position on such matters. "Perhaps the light of the Morning Star refracting through a body of swamp gas made it appear as if several creatures were turned to stone at once."
Rhapsody turned to the King in exasperation. "Your majesty, that is a load of flaming dragon dung!"
Tammar sighed. He didn't have the patience or the time for another conflict in the Horadrim - Scribe Guilds War. The two factions had been at cross-purposes for centuries, and they weren't likely to come to an understanding here.
The first Scribes Guilds had been founded centuries ago, partly as a response to the Horadrim's policies of secrecy and not extending memberships to women. The early Scribes Guilds included sorceresses, bards and ordinary mothers who shared knowledge and stories with one another and passed it on to their children. As the years passed, the Guilds built great libraries and traveling Bards made it possible for the guilds and their libraries to share information.
Meanwhile, the Horadrim had made contact with the angelic forces of Order and gotten drawn into the Sin War. The arch-angels and their minions were happy to share their knowledge with their new allies, but, regrettably, their strict sense of Order extended to a belief in very specific roles for men and women in the grand scheme of things. This did not win them any friends in the Scribes Guilds who stayed out of the Sin War.
Even when the tides of war turned against the Horadrim, its leaders did not seek the aid of the Scribes Guilds. Some said that the Horadrim Sorcerers resented the fact that women tended to be more adept at handling magic than men, others merely shrugged and chalked it up to arrogance and short-sightedness. The Forces of Chaos broke the Horadrim's power and, in the process, many Horadrim secrets were lost forever.
Eventually, the Horadrim was able to rally and strike a devastating blow of its own in the Sin War by defeating and imprisoning Mephisto, Baal and Diablo. Despite this, the Horadrim was never able to recover entirely from the damage to its organization and the deaths of so many key Sorcerers.
"We don't have time for this," said the King. "Blakmayne, I need your assurance that Westmarch can depend on your people in this time of crisis."
Blakmayne bowed. "Of course, you have it your majesty."
Tammar was about to clarify his position further when a messenger burst into the throne room. "Forgive the intrusion, your majesty," he panted, "but the Zerg have broken through at Wildomar! The keep is under siege!"
"That's only a half-day's ride from here!" gasped Stronglance. "How did they get so far within our borders?"
"It doesn't matter," replied Rhapsody. "The Scribes Guild currently has twenty Bards and Mages in town skilled in combat sorcery. We are at your disposal."
"Thank you," replied General Stronglance.
|"I doubt any of them could stand up to, hypothetically speaking, a Supernova spell."|
"You also have the gratitude of all of Westmarch," added Tammar. "Now go forth and..." He wanted to say something inspirational that would immortalize the day in song and legend. He came up blank. "...and just go!"
Rhapsody, Stronglance and the messenger all bowed and hurried out.
"All right," Tammar said to Blakmayne as the doors swung shut. "How many Lost Spells can your people cast and will those spells help us?"
"A few, and I believe they will," replied the Sorcerer. "Though I've not encountered the Zerg myself, I doubt any of them could stand up to, hypothetically speaking, a Supernova spell. These are very powerful spells and, with the Sin War still ongoing, you can understand why the Horadrim is concerned that they not fall into the wrong talons. If people -- or other entities -- don't know the spells exist, they won't seek them. That is why we are hesitant to use them, even against the Zerg."
Tammar sighed. "There really isn't time for all this. If we're going to survive this invasion, we need all the resources of the Horadrim at our disposal. I could order you to cooperate."
Blakmayne nodded. "You could even have me put to death. The number of Horadrim brothers who have died rather than let their spells be stolen is beyond counting."
The King and the Sorcerer were silent. Tammar could almost hear the distant alien cries of the Zerg invaders drifting through the throne room window.
"There is an alternative," offered Blakmayne. "We would be much more comfortable offering our services if we could be assured that your security concerns and our security concerns were the same."
"Look," snapped Tammar. "What do you want? The throne?"
Blakmayne shook his head. "We have learned our lesson. It is much safer to be a king-maker than a king. All we require are a few minor positions within your government. We've drawn up a plan." He handed the king a thick scroll.
Tammar read the scroll, his lips set in a tight grim line.
"Upon implementation of this agreement," said Blakmayne as the king read, "the Westmarch Horadrim will publicly disband except for the individuals in your service."
"In my service," repeated Tammar sarcastically.
"You'll hardly know we're here," Blakmayne reassured him.
"That is what I fear."
There was another long pause, and this time they both heard the battle cry of the mighty Guardian-Familiar hybrids.
Tammar signed the agreement. "I feel as though I'm selling my soul."
"Rest assured, your soul and those of the people of Westmarch are now safe under the protection of the Horadrim." Blakmayne tucked the agreement into his robe, bowed, and exited.
King Tammar sat back in this throne and did not move for a long time.