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Soo didn't know how many people each ship could hold, so she asked someone. She then counted the ships, multiplied, and suddenly wanted to be back home with her parents. There were cries of "All is lost!" and "Gassenti will fall!" and a few obligatory "We're doomed!" thrown into the mix.

"What are they doing here?" one of the guards yelled out near Perah-Perah.

"They knew..." Perah-Perah said, half to him, half to herself, "They knew we were going to fight each other. They counted on us softening ourselves up for them, to be out in the open without proper defenses..." her voice trailed off as the events in Merrick began to make more sense. They might never know the full strategy behind the plot, but it began there, she knew it.

But what could she do now? She could sink some of the ships with some well placed fireballs, but not nearly enough. Taggart was slumped against the parapet wall, most of his strength vanished. He looked paler and thinner than ever. Less real. Even Asyra couldn't help enough to make much of a difference. The ships were now in firing range of the castle, and were firing arrows and ballistas into it.

Then she remembered the north-east tower.

"An wha' will ya do foor me if I help you?" said Baron Hardbottom.

Lord Dassenti was flabbergasted, "Do for you? DO FOR YOU? An invasion is on our doorstep and you want to know what I will do for you?"

"Aye, or me and mine will march back to Rechmond and defend it ourselves."

Captain Ithilith sadly lowered his head, "I'm afraid the Baron has a point. I think my elves should return to Dreet to prepare for the Darkness."

Most of the mages had already left, presumably to find a better strategic location, preferably under a bed. Padamath Izon and Vego Cantris, however, stayed behind. Izon for loyalty, Cantris for opportunity.

Dassenti mustered the best of his leadership ability, "If they land they will destroy Dogford!"

"We were dooing ah pretty good job of that ourselves," the Baron pointed out.

Dassenti rolled his eyes, "Well that was different, WE were doing it!" he tried again, "If they destroy Dogford they will turn it into a base, and more black ships will come. They will keep coming and coming and holing up in your cities will do you no good."

Captain Ithilith pointed to the vastness of the armada, "They have ten times our number. Staying here will do us no good either."

Dassenti sighed. Ithilith was right, but it was just wrong to let them land unchallenged. Land...

"But they still have to land! They're vulnerable until they reach the shore," he turned to his men, "Break out the siege weapons! Sink those ships and drown the orcs in a rain of arrows!" he looked back at the other representatives, "Flee or stay, it's your choice. Just remember what the people of Scry did for you this day, so that our deaths hold some meaning!" It was a good speech, but unfortunately he just didn't have the charisma to back it up.

"Yoo had to play the coward card, didn't yoo?" muttered Hardbottom, "Well it won't work. We'll defend our own, thank yoo very much."

Captain Ithilith bowed his head, "The elves will remember your actions this day, Lord Dassenti, but I fear without us Dreet is vulnerable. I am sorry."

"Fine, then you can all just go to-"

But the dragon cut off the rest of his sentence.

Perah-Perah smiled to herself as the dragon, extremely annoyed at having been disturbed from his deep slumber, broke out of the tower and flew away, but not before turning a dozen ships into floating funeral pyres. It had been a gamble. After all it could have turned its anger on the people of Gassenti, but she had heard of this breed of dragon before, with its copper skin, and was told it did not have an evil heart, just a slightly indifferent one.

Which is why she told him the black ships outside were the reason for his lack of sleep, and pretended she had no idea what a magic missile was, or where a dragon's rump could be.

As the rubble in the tower cleared, she took the two tied up thieves who had been locked in there, still petrified with fear, and set them free.

"Grab a bow and make yourselves useful, there's bigger and uglier fish to fry."

This moment was forever burned into the memories of the soldiers who stood tall at Dogford. When all seemed lost, they said to whatever children would listen, a great dragon rose from the castle and set fire to a dozen ships.

When the more clever (or nitpicky) children asked why the dragon didn't stay to finish the job, the storytellers would often make something up. It was wounded and had to flee, or it had been summoned and returned to its own plane, or it was killed in a fury of arrows from the orcs. Some of the more honest folk would quickly mumble something about the dragon demanding "peace and quiet" and flying off, then move on with the story. The truth didn't really add to the myth.

At this time, however, the soldiers only stared in wonder at the copper dragon, torching black ships left and right before complaining and flying off to the south somewhere. It was a sign. They knew it.

But it was nothing compared to the one about to follow.

Perah-Perah ran back up to the battlements, where archers shot volley after volley towards the ships. Their single ballista was redirected and launched salvos of arrows, then large iron tipped beams to try and sink the advancing ships.

Asyra was by Taggart's side, holding his hand, the Crown still on her head. They had been talking since Perah-Perah left to annoy the dragon.

"I understand now..." she said softly, and Taggart smiled.

"Quickly now," he said, "Perah-Perah, the scroll I gave you. Do you have it?"

Perah-Perah almost slapped herself on her forehead, but that wasn't her style, "Of course!"

"Give it to your sister."

"Huh? No offence, but I am stronger than she is at magic. I should use it."

Taggart nodded, and spoke, but his mouth didn't quite move as he did so, "You're right, you are stronger, which is why you will have to protect her while she uses it. Besides, do you remember what I said about the spell?"

"That it reflects who the caster is?"

"Well, if your sister believes, really believes that she is Queen, then we should see some serious sorcery when she uses it," he then looked to Asyra but his head sort of faded from one position to the other rather than actually moved, "Do you honestly think all of this could have happened by accident? How far you've come, how things have come to a head now? The Gods and Demons of this world like to play games, to outwit each other in subtle ways... or what they consider subtle. Salias, or whoever is pulling the strings on this, is setting you up for the history books, and letting me finally rest. Trust me, if the Crown tells you you're Queen, then that's good enough for everyone on Gassenti. It should damn well be good enough for you."

Perah-Perah handed her the scroll, clasped her on the shoulder, and nodded her head in approval.

"Do it, sis."

The armies of Gassenti decided to stand and fight, at least on a "wait and see" approach to see if the Gods really did favor them this day. Dassenti mounted his siege weapons as close to the shore as he could and archers readied themselves to hurl volley after volley at any who tried to swim to shore. All attention was turned to the sea.

Which meant an attack from the rear by the renegade Halffarthing army, carrying the banner of Dralg high alongside their own, couldn't happen at a worse possible time.

Which is exactly why it did.

Soo looked at Sephilith's impassive face, as they both watched the army attack from the south. The castle was too far away for them to do anything. Sephilith pulled out a metal tube with glass on either end, and held it to her eye.

"They're trying to flank Dassenti's men," she said, scanning the battlefield.

"What is that?" asked Soo innocently.

"Oool made it for me. It makes things far away seem closer. He calls it a telescope."

"Neat! Can I try it?"




Soo tried to change the subject, "Um... are you still on our side?"

Sephilith glared at her, something bitter was deep inside her, "Why would it be otherwise? Because orcs are attacking on both sides? I don't seem to recall questioning your loyalty when men and elves were surrounding us, Ranger Child."

"I'm sorry, it's just that... you said you were trying to save your people..." a howling orcish battle cry rang in the air, "and it looks like they have their own ideas about that."

Sephilith scowled at the approaching army, closely examining their standard, "They aren't my people."

Soo nodded, "I understand. They are betraying your people best interests by attacking."

"No, they're the Eye Gougers clan. I was from the Leg Breakers."


"But the Eye Gougers are from Murhn. They aren't part of the Halffarthing Tribes, so how did so many of them get behind us?"

Soo was confused, "How can you tell they're Eye Gougers and not Leg Breakers?"

Sephilith pointed to the battle that raged on all sides, "The standards they are carrying."

"What's a standard?"

Sephilith put the tube to Soo's eye and aimed it at the battle, Soo almost fell over at first, "It's the big flag like thing with the bloody eye on it."

"Oh, that. Cool.... But couldn't just anyone pick one of those up?" Sephilith almost smashed the telescope, "Of course! They don't all have to be Eye Gougers, just recruited to join them..." she realized what this meant, and sighed, "Far too many of my people would be happy to join them. Even myself at one time. Damn. Maybe there isn't any hope for us after all."

"Um... not to repeat my question but..."

Sephilith gave her smile, but it was tinged with a deep and silent sadness, "Don't worry. I still believe. Even if I'm the only one left who does."

The rain of arrows from the black ships had injured many people inside the castle's walls before they could take proper cover. Rosileen did what she could to help, but her power was drained and had to rely on bandages and Oool's ointments to help. Victoria lent a hand, treating the children and singing songs to help cheer them up.

One runny nosed boy, who had suffered only a minor cut and was still feeling brave, waved a stick menacingly, "If those stoopid orcs come in here, I'm gonna cut them up!"

The other children, most of them at one point having a far bigger dose of reality lodged in them somewhere, began to whimper.

"They're not going to come in here, are they?" said one scared little girl.

Victoria smiled, "Don't worry, we'll keep them away, I promise. If they do come in here, then hide, and don't make a sound," she took the stick away from the boy and wiped his face, "That includes you too, Sir Nose-Runs-A lot"

From across the makeshift hospital, Rosileen called out to Victoria, "I need more bandages, do you have any?"

Victoria shook her head, "I'll start tearing up clean bed sheets," she grabbed the nearest one and began tearing, when something caught her eye.

"What in the world?" she said aloud.

"What is it?" asked Rosileen.

"Oh, nothing. Just Asyra and Perah-Perah flying out of the castle."

Rosileen looked up and saw the sisters doing just that, "Wow, I didn't know they could do that."

"Neither did I."

Vego saw two specks flying out towards the water. He enhanced his vision and saw it was the two meddling girls.

"Why can't amateurs know their place?" he muttered, as one of them started hurling fireballs at the ships. Well trained amateurs, he had to admit. Strange that her sister wasn't doing anything. He looked closer. She was still wearing the crown.

Deep inside, Vego seethed. These two stood for everything he was against. No discipline, no pedigree, no respect for authority. Now they were going to get shot and the Crown would be dashed on the rocks, or worse, fall into the hands of the Emperor's minions.

No. He wouldn't let that happen.

Vego floated up, and with murderous intent, decided that now, for the sake of Gassenti, if not the Gassenti of today then for that of a Gassenti yet to come, he was going to kill Perah-Perah, and drag the whelp of a sister to Lord Dassenti.

Vego smirked to himself, but before he'd hand her over, he'd have Dassenti get rid of Padamath Izon and make him head of the Mage's Guild.

Vego Cantris didn't play petty politics. But this wasn't petty, it was for the whole kit and caboodle.

Perah-Perah had no idea how she had survived without this spell that protected her from arrows. They seemed to bend out of her way rather than even think about hitting her. Just the way she liked it.

She darted around the sky, launching fireballs, sinking ships, and flying in front of her sister to provide a little extra protection. Even so, one arrow managed to nick her, the electric hum of a magic arrow trailing behind it.

"Hurry up and cast the spell!" she yelled to Asyra, gripping the cut on her arm. She didn't realize Asyra already was. From the moment she started ascending Asyra had been in a kind of trance, the power of the scroll taking her over and making her say the words. Even if she changed her mind, there was no way to stop it now.

She wanted to launch more fireballs, but held back. The power-stone around her neck was drained, and she couldn't risk becoming too weak. Instead she ran cover for Asyra, as ancient words tumbled out of her mouth like so much gibberish.

Perah-Perah saw Vego coming. It wasn't hard, there weren't many people flying about today. She could also tell that he wasn't here to help. It was in the eyes.

"Turn over the Crown or face my wrath!" demanded Vego, implying that wrath was coming either way.

"Vego, you idiot! This is not the time for this. Now make yourself useful and sink a few of these ships! Asyra is-" "FINE!" Vego said, cutting her off, the warning had just been a formality, anyway. He charged at Perah-Perah, and without a moment's hesitation, she charged back. A mid-air joust ensued.

Perah-Perah didn't want it to come to this, but Vego left her no choice. And if you want to do something, you never do it halfway. Perah-Perah powered up her magic missiles, the fastest spell she could sling. Vego did the same, and when they were almost on top of one another, they stuck, and zipped by one another.

For a moment both hung in mid air, facing away from each other. Vego winced, gripping his chest, blood seeping through his fingers, then fell to the raging ocean and jagged rocks below.

As he fell, he had enough time to see two things. The first was Perah-Perah, still aloft, and the mithril coat of armor gleaming underneath her now shredded cloak.

The last thing he saw was the Phoenix.

For a moment, the world became silent, then exploded into light. Where Asyra had been, fire erupted, a hundred feet high and two hundred feet wide, in the shape of a giant bird. In a single massive blast, it turned the ocean to a sea of fire, and destroyed a hundred ships. A single triumphant screech sounded, as the super heated air passed through its flaming throat. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished.

They called it the Phoenix, and with it everyone knew the monarchy had been reborn.

It also almost killed the monarch.

Despite all that had happened, not all the ships had been sunk. Of the two hundred black ships, twenty reached the shore undamaged, and another five managed to limp close enough for the troops to offload. Even with all the help they had receive, the forces of Gassenti were still outnumbered, and now flanked on both sides.

Orcs, ogres and even humans charged the beach, braving the hail of arrows that came at them.

The skies darkened as both sides clashed, but morale was on the side of Gassenti. What should have been a massacre had turned into a fighting chance. If ever there was a sense that the Gods were on their side, this was it.

Nevertheless, it was long, and horrible, and bloody. The forces of Murhn clawed their way onto the beach, driving Gassenti's forces back to what was left of Dogford Proper. The Halffarthing army pinched them in, keeping them trapped and unable to escape, but still they did not have enough troops to overwhelm them. A vicious and bloody stalemate ensued within the ruined city.

However, this left many of the Murhnian troops free to climb the hill and assault the castle, knowing it would be needed if the invasion were to succeed.

Soo, Rosileen, Victoria and Sephilith watched the advance from the battlements. The Lance of Light cried out and charged the oncoming enemy.

"Orcs coming!!!" yelled out a watchman.

"We know, already!" Victoria yelled back, annoyed. No need to repeat such bad news.

"No, ma'am, I mean from there!" the watchman pointed to horizon where the ancient highway crested over the gently sloping hill to the south.

Soo squinted her eyes, "He's right, there's more orcs."

Sephilith looked through he telescope, "At least a thousand of them!"

Rosileen almost collapsed. They had almost made it. Almost.

"I'd better write another ending to my ballad," muttered Victoria, "the one I just jotted down won't work."

Sephilith looked over the battle stoically, thinking of something sharp and defiant to say till the bitter end. Instead she sighed, and for the first time ever, looked beaten, "I suppose we are a doomed people after all," she said, then slumped against the stone wall.

Soo squinted again as they came closer, but couldn't make out anything. She took Sephilith's telescope, and got a much closer look, "They've got some kind of blue face paint on," she observed.

Sephilith's ears pricked up. That was unusual.

"I think there are some humans there as well."

She looked up at Soo.

"And that isn't the same standard the others are carrying."

Sephilith stood and yanked the telescope from Soo. Soo had better eyesight than she did, but she could soon make out the details of the army. It was true. There were humans and orcs marching side by side wearing the same blue face paint. And the banner was instantly recognized.


"What?" said the others.

Sephilith could hardly believe it herself, "And Lord Valious is leading them!"

So began the Battle of Six or Seven Armies. The reason for uncertain name is simple. Some historians insist on counting the renegade orcs from Halffarthing as a separate army, while others consider it just an extension of the Murhnian force. Bloody duels have been fought over this irrelevant subject, and as a result the number of armies that fought is almost universally accepted as "six or seven". Historians can be a touchy lot. Regardless, it was both the darkest and brightest moment of modern Gassenti history, the first triumph of the new monarchy.

The monarch, however, missed all of it. The spell had drained her completely, and she fell like a stone attached to a lead brick. Perah-Perah managed to catch her before she was dashed upon the rocks, and brought her back to the castle, laying her beside an almost skeletal looking Taggart.

As the battle raged on, Asyra slept.