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Now it was the Emperor's forces who were caught in the middle. Lord Valious led the charge of men and orcs against the darkness, and soon the other armies of Gassenti had the upper hand.

Lord Dassenti rallied his men, and with his sword held high, lead a powerful charge to break through the wall of Murhnian soldiers. Then he fell back, and let his soldiers do the rest.

It was clear the day would be won by Gassenti. With nowhere to run to, the forces of Murhn tried to take the castle, defend from there. The Lance of Light, who had held off the first wave, could not contain the second, and the desperate army of Murhn broke through. Arrows and bolts rained down on them from the castle walls, cauldrons of boiling oil and rocks were dropped, but there were too many. A few had brought ladders, and they began to scale the walls. Others bashed at the barricaded door with a quickly chopped down tree. Ogres with the strength of ten men hammered at it until it crumbled and the battle spilled inside. Oool's anti-personnel ballista slowed them down, but only for a moment.

With their defenses breeched, many took up pole arms and swords and rushed the invaders. Others protected the young and elderly. The rest continued to fire on those who hadn't yet entered.

Soo drew her blade and headed for the stairs. Sephilith fired four final shots, grabbed a halberd, and joined her. Rosileen stood by those under her care, staff at the ready, while Victoria helped hold the enemy back with her crossbow.

The orcs tried to take the castle walls from the inside, but Soo was waiting for them. She fought her way down the stairs, then alongside Sephilith joined the main battle near the gate. There Sephilith saw why the orcs feared Rangers so much. This was but a child, and already could handle a sword and keep her wits in battle better than any she had worked with. Almost as good as herself. She didn't so much fight as dance, flitting around the clumsy orcish blows and slicing through them as part of a fluid elegant movement. It was most impressive.

Sephilith, on the other hand, fought as if she was playing chess, with precise and solid moves. She chose her targets quickly and struck hard and fast, then moved onto the next one. Like one of Oool's toy automatons.

A group orcs who breeched the inner defenses headed for the infirmary, but found the infuriated halfling there a most lethal obstacle. Mistaking her for a child, the over-confident orcs soon met a painful crushing end.

"Salias forgives you," she said dobbing her head in a quick prayer, and readied herself for the next wave.

Victoria shot a huge advancing ogre between the eyes before it could reach the gate, which actually managed to block the entrance somewhat. There was a scream from below. She looked down and saw Sir Nose-Runs-A-Lot, backed into the corner of a hastily built stable by five orcs, whimpering and holding his little stick, hoping it would somehow save him.

She ran down the stairs and attacked the orcs from behind, cutting down two of them before they could react, and a third just as he raised his club. The fourth attacked, missed, and stuck his axe in the stable's wooden beam. She ran him through and then blocked a blow from the last orc, who wielded a mighty two handed sword.

Victoria's sword snapped off at the hilt.

She had no time for a curse or even a gasp of horror as the orc followed through with another vicious attack. Victoria rolled out of the way, and grabbed the only other thing she had on her. Her lute. Holding it like a club, she bashed the orc in the head, dazing him, then hit him again, knocking him unconscious with a distinct "Twang!" sound.

Victoria smiled, she always knew music was a weapon. She held out her hand to the child, "Come on, kid, let's get you somewhere safe," but the child only pulled back further, looking past her.

Victoria spun around, lute at the ready, as more orcs advanced on her.

Though Perah-Perah was all but drained of magic, she was not yet out of the fight. From her position on the northern wall, she protected her sister from those who climbed over the castle wall until her last arrow was spent.

There were too many orcs and not enough soldiers left standing to fight them off. It was only a matter of time before they were completely overrun. Fortunately, the forces of Gassenti had rallied at the bottom of the hill, and fought their way up from all sides. The enemy panicked and tried to flee, only to be cut down in retreat before they could escape. Most of those who made it to the woods, however, met a quick and silent fate.

Only a hundred survivors of Murhn managed to escape that day, and as they did a tremendous cheer rose up from the forces of Gassenti. Cries of "Victory!", "The day is won!", and perhaps most importantly, "Long live the Queen!" rang out over the battlefield.

However, a second war began almost as soon as this one ended, as Paladins and Halffarthing orcs extracted revenge on ancient grudges. Even Valious and Dassenti had trouble pulling them back, and before they could be separated there were a few new scores to settle. Still, it was a minor event compared to the overwhelming sense of comradery and friendship shared by most of the people this day.

Inside the castle walls, Asyra woke up to the sound of "Long live the Queen!" The withered and nearly skeletal body of Taggart looked weakly at her.

"That is for you."

Asyra still felt as weak as Taggart looked, "But why? They don't even know me."

"They will, in time. For now they don't need to. They only need to know you exist."

Perah-Perah knelt down by her sister, "We should get the heck out of here. I still think Dassenti is going to try to get you, regardless of what we did."

Taggart nodded, "She's right. You must flee. But Dassenti will be waiting for you."

"What do you suggest? We're too weak to fly and our friends can't. We can't leave them behind, Dassenti might take them for information."

Taggart smiled, but it showed more bone than flesh. "I can help. Bring your friends here. I have one last trick up my sleeve." Perah-Perah nodded, and ran to find her friends.

She found Sephilith trying to tie a bandage to Soo's arm, "Hold still, Ranger Child. You'll re-open the wound."

"Thanks, Seph. Can I call you Seph yet?"


"Excuse me," said Perah-Perah, "but anyone who doesn't want to be here when Dassenti and his men arrive should meet at the top of the North wall right now. Sephilith, I doubt it's safe for you here, you should come with us just in case."

Sephilith nodded, "Got it."

"Do you know where Rosileen and Victoria are?"

Soo shook her head, "I thought Rosileen was at the healing place, but I don't see her there now."

"Damn. Well, hurry up there, tell Taggart I'll be there shortly."

Perah-Perah found Rosileen in the makeshift stable, struggling to treat a wounded civilian. It was clear from the blood on the ground that it was a lost cause, but she couldn't see who the person was.

Then she saw the handle of a broken lute clutched in one hand.

Rosileen was crying, trying in vain to use her power to heal her friend, but she was drained. She had used all her power to heal the sick and wounded before the orcs broke inside.

Her hands were clasped in prayer, "Goddess Salias, Mother of All, hear my prayer and heal my friend..." then laid her hands upon Victoria. Only the faintest glow appeared around her hands.

She prayed again, "Goddess Salias, Mother of All, hear my prayer and heal my friend..." she repeated her actions. Still nothing, just a faint glow.

"Goddess Salias, Mother of All, hear my-"

Perah-Perah put her hand on Rosileen's shoulder, "She's gone, Rosileen. I'm sorry. We have to go. Dassenti is coming."

"NO! What's the point of having the power to heal if it doesn't help when you need it most? This isn't fair!"

Perah-Perah couldn't argue with her there, "No, it isn't. But we have to go. Dassenti's men will be here soon, and I have a feeling that despite everything we did he still won't be happy."

Rosileen choked back the tears. She looked once more at her old friend, closed her eyes, and nodded.

"Where are we going?"

"The north wall, Taggart is going to help us somehow."

"I'll be there in a couple minutes."

On her way back, Perah-Perah saw Baron Kell organizing the relief effort. He waved her over, "I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to get to know each other, even during the construction. I'm a bit of a workaholic that way."

"That's okay, Baron Kell, we were all busy."

"Will you let me make it up to you and buy you and your friends an ale in whatever is left of Thunderhammer's Tavern?" Perah-Perah smiled, "Thank you, but I'm afraid we have to go. Lord Dassenti is bound to be coming here for the Crown, and I'm not letting my sister fall into his hands."

Baron Kell nodded, and scratched his chin. "Well... I suppose I'll just have to stall him as long as I can then. After all, this is my land he is trespassing on."

Perah-Perah bowed her head, "I would be most grateful for that."

"Pah! You've done far more for us this day, I wager. You'll have to come back and tell me about it someday."

"That I will."

Perah-Perah saw Rosileen had actually beat her to the gathering. She was clutching Victoria's journal under one arm.

"Is everyone here?" said Taggart. Perah-Perah nodded, "Then everyone hold hands."

"And sing koombayah?" said Soo, but nobody paid attention.

Taggart closed his eyes, but it was clear there weren't eyes there anymore. In fact, it was unclear what was actually there, if anything.

"Who are you, really? What are you going to do?" asked Perah-Perah.

"I'm afraid you don't have time for that. Asyra knows, she will tell you. Now, prepare yourself..." there was a pause in the air, and Taggart began to glow. Parts of him faded, other parts seemed to disintegrate, but it was clear whatever was left of him was being destroyed in the process.

"Perhaps now I can rest... and the world can know... the truth about... Thadamat."

Lord Dassenti rode triumphantly up to the castle with his honor guard and chief advisor. Padamath Izon rode with him as well, as did the leaders of the other armies.

"You see, it was the right thing to do, standing up to the invasion. Had we retreated, Gassenti would eventually of fallen."

Captain Ithilith cocked an eyebrow, "Indeed, but what of this woman, the one who wears the crown? It seems she was mostly responsible for our victory."

"Aye," said Baron Hardbottom, "Yoo were very keen on stopping her before, now she's saved yoor bacon. What do yoo plan to do aboot that?"

They were almost at the main gates. Lord Valious spoke up, "I WON'T allow her to be harmed, Dassenti, and you owe my people as much a debt as you owe her."

"And us as well," added Baron Kell, "There is also an issue surrounding property damage you inflicted before the invasion we need to discuss. And as long as she is on my land she is under my protection."

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please! I never had any intention of doing any harm to her. She is our savior, the savior of this land, and it is only fitting that she becomes my wife!"

Dassenti's smile was broad and confident. It looked like things were going to turn to his benefit after all. Matters were complicated now, especially where Dreet and Halffarthing were concerned, but with a new Queen of Gassenti, and him to "guide" her judgements and father an heir, his plans could yet work out.

They entered the castle just in time to see her and her friends disappear in a quiet flash.

Dassenti smile quickly faded.

Taggart vanished, and without any kind of special effects, the girls suddenly realized they weren't in the castle anymore. They were on the great Highway somewhere, though exactly where Perah-Perah had no idea. There was nothing but trees on either side of the road. There were birds singing, so they were probably a few miles away at least. They were certainly still in Dogford, but...

"We're in Halffarthing," said Soo

Perah-Perah looked at her disbelievingly, "Are you sure?"

"Definitely," she pointed to a bush of small green fruit, "These berries are generally only found south of the mountains dividing Dreet and Halffarthing. And those," she said pointing down the road, "are the mountains."

"Halffarthing? That's hundreds of miles away! How could he do that? Asyra?"

But Asyra was unconscious again. Nari nudged her with his nose to no effect.

"Great... Okay, everyone, I'm open to suggestions. What do you think we should do?"

It turned out they weren't that far from Merrick. Sephilith carried Asyra there over one shoulder. At first they had feared that only smoking ruins would be left from the last time they visited, but were pleased to find only a few buildings still showed any sign of damage.

The Mayor gladly gave them a place to stay in his small keep. He noticed the Crown on Asyra's head, though Soo had tried to muss up her hair to hide it, and was instantly curious.

"I'm afraid it will have to wait," said Perah-Perah, "we're exhausted."

"Of course," answered the Mayor, "it can wait until morning." That night they slept easy for the first time in weeks.

The next day, they told their tale, gathered around the Mayor's main hall. Nari napped in front of the fire and only occasionally raised his head. They began from the point where they left Merrick until the time they returned. Sephilith however, kept quiet, except to clarify events she knew to be inaccurate.

She had, in fact, not killed the assassins pre-emptively as Perah-Perah suspected, but only after they left her no choice. One had been a friend of sorts and she felt she had to give him a chance. Unfortunately the feeling hadn't been mutual. Also, as they now suspected, she had shot at the attacking lizardmen in the town outside of Salewood. The rest of her journey she kept to herself.

After they described the battle and their miraculous escape, the identity of Taggart came up once again. Was he in fact Thadamat?

Asyra looked for the right words, "Yes, in a way. He was once the wizard who lived in that castle three hundred years ago, and whom Faustus killed just before the last Murhnian invasion."

"Was he some kind of lich?" asked Rosileen, familiar with most kinds of undead.

"Not exactly. He had been using and experimenting with wild magic for most of his life, and when Faustus tricked him and Ethorod into dueling over a woman, he used all the wild magic he could get to defeat his brother. After Faustus killed him, his spirit did not die, it was so infused with magical energy and over time he found the more magic he stored, the more solid he could become. That's why he had all those power-stones-"

"DAMN!" Perah-Perah cried out, "I knew I forgot something!"

"-at the castle. He was, in a sense, a thinking magical battery. And he use the last of what was keeping him "alive" to send us here. I just hope he has found peace. There is much more to his story, so many lies we've been told, and because of the Crown I know much of it first hand, but I won't bore you with that today."

"You'll wait until we really need to be bored," said Sephilith. The others looked at her, not sure what to make of her comment.

"What? You're the only ones who are aloud to make jokes around here?"

The Mayor spoke up, "You know, this Crown affords you an amazing opportunity. It's a shame all the other Lords and Barons want to take it. What do you plan to do?"

Perah-Perah shrugged, "I'm open to suggestions. My father's training tells me it's a good idea to lay low until the heat blows over."

"Have you thought about asking Lord Valious for help? I'm sure he would."

"Yes, but he's still in Dogford as far as we know. It will take him close to a week to ride back with all his men."

"In that case, I propose a pre-emptive action. Up on the hill nearby we have an old castle. Before the Dark Years following King Faustus' death, it was where this region of Halffarthing was once governed from. It has never been damaged in war, but because it was so far away from the highway and too expensive to maintain, it's been abandoned and forgotten for nearly three centuries. I know of it only because I know the history of this region. You can have it."

Asyra was taken aback, "Why... thank you. Thank you very much."

"Oh, don't think this is a completely unselfish act. I suspect that this could do a lot for our economy in the near future. And I certain that even if Lord Valious decides not to support you, he won't act against you, either. You'll have a degree of safety here, I suspect, and I'm sure you've collected enough money to afford renovations to the place."

"Renovations your people would be happy to make for a reasonable price?" Perah-Perah said with a sly smile.

The Mayor smiled back, "I told you it would be good for our economy."

Perah-Perah whispered to her sister, "I think I'm going to have to dip into the treasury at home," the said confidently to the Mayor, "You have a deal."