Chapter 92 The Hanged Man

There was the briefest moment of surreal quiet as two opposing herds of mammals charged across a grassy plain. The short bit of time before their sticks of belching fire were in range of each other so that one herd could deal death to the other. It was not a true silence, the moving parts and heavy breathing and clanging metal and stomping boots provided noise enough. The quiet came from a more curious place, one that was outside of time and reason.

There was a sort of shared out of body experience, that gripping unreality of disbelief from being in such an improbable and stressful situation. The larger herd boasted a staggering fifteen million bodies and the smaller herd a mere five million.

Fronting the charge of the smaller herd was their king, by the name of Eberon and his fiery steed Oborion.

Standing opposite was a host of powerful warriors, prepared to verse the dauntless king.

A voice broke the not-silence, an augmented shout by the Chorus Aspect, to ring across the vast fields so that the order may be carried out by all.

A single word. 

“Fire!” 

Volleys of lead and brass followed by smoke followed by more lead and brass interrupted the charging herd of Bast soldiers.

The lines buckled.

Thousands of rifles had aimed for the king himself so that he was completely concealed by bullets and steam and dust.

Eberon waited for the smoke screen to clear before revealing he and his steed unharmed in their pristine shape.

Oborion snorted fire and scraped at the ground.

Eberon raised his sword and gave his men their courage, that he was truly undying and impervious to the enemy’s weapons. In truth, it was the fifth king’s artifact, the royal body armor imbued with the Bulwark Aspect, preventing any damage that came from afar.

Oborion was untouched by bullets as well for he and Eberon were one.

The charge renewed and the center of the battle was where the most intense fighting would occur. Eberon and his Specters met Garghent’s.

Eberon needed his flanks to hold only long enough for him to dispatch the lot of Garghent’s Generals and Specters.

Master Klyle leapt to Eberon with a furious lion’s growl and came straight for Eberon’s throat.

Eberon leaned back as Oborion changed directions. Eberon’s sword cleaved into the sailing chest of Klyle, igniting the Lion Aspect in flames as he continued to charge.

Klyle landed and pivoted around, his wounds healing and his fur changing color. The flames died out and Klyle pounced from behind Eberon.

Eberon encountered General Garald’s Babel mallet as it shook the ground when he pounded it down. Where Oborion was galloping into, a solid tower of soil and rock erupted at a sharp angle meant to dehorse Eberon.

Oborion skidded to a halt and turned to its side, the tower emerging just over the saddle and acting as a wedge to keep the horse upright and stopping its momentum with a thud. Eberon had slid into a side saddle position as the tower jutted right where he had been.

In the side saddle, Eberon deflected Klyle who had reached him. The sword of Fherril, the first king of Bast, imbued with his Aspect Fidelity, the ability to increase an object’s worth as it was used. Twelve generations of kings made for a very sharp edge. A thousand years versus Klyle’s eighty.

Klyle swiped with vicious claws and lost his hand to Eberon’s blade.

Oborion kicked into a gallop again and Eberon righted himself on the saddle. Klyle lagged behind, allowing for his hand to heal. Garald swung Babel again, this time aimed as a direct hit against the galloping Eberon.

Eberon’s eyes darted to the side, seeing the advancing Garald and his mallet. Eberon flicked his sword wrist and sent a lick of flames to Garald’s face, forcing the brutish General to block the flames with his mallet instead of attacking.

Eberon stayed ahead of Klyle and Garald and engaged the next enemy in his way. It was General Prion’s Aspect, the Gemini, a twin of Prion possessing otherworldly qualities.

The Gemini flickered and appeared in mid-air in front of Eberon. The king slashed his sword but the Gemini already disappeared and reappeared above Eberon.

A spectral lance materialized in the Gemini’s hand and he thrust it down, passing through Eberon and his horse and sticking in the ground.

Spectral weapons worked by restricting physical objects to a spot. They rarely inflicted pain or did anything aside from acting like restraints. 

Eberon was confined to where the Gemini had lanced him.

Master Klyle, General Garald, the Gemini, General Anteran, General Yivel and a hundred soldiers swiftly surrounded the horseback king. Further behind Garghent’s defense lines was the old wizard General Draje acting as lead commander for the battle. Eberon’s primary target.

Klyle stood directly in front of Eberon.

“You’ll not so much as unsaddle me.” boasted the gruff voice of king Eberon.

Klyle roared his deafening response.

The eighth king’s artifact, an emerald imbued with the Aspect of Virtue inlaid into the crown, prevented false things from harming Eberon. The jewel flashed and the Spectral lance dispersed into particles and faded.

Oborion shuffled its flaming hooves backwards twice in a canter, giving Eberon space from Klyle and preparing its footwork.

For such a massive horse, it had impressive dexterity and agility. 

Klyle charged and Garald launched towers by pounding his hammer while Yivel snapped his seven pronged chain whip. The Gemini shimmered to different positions and Anteran moved to the flank, saber and pistol in hand.

Oborion kept sidestepping and shuffling in always the correct position for Eberon to dodge, block and counter every attack sent his way.

His sword cut through several tails of Yivel’s whip and blocked each of Klyle’s strikes. Garald’s Babel towers never hit their mark either. 

Prion’s Spectral lances never held Eberon more than a second.

Eberon knew their weaknesses and saw through their strikes as the sixth king of Bast had given his ring the Aspect of Eminence, the ability to have superiority over those who fear him, to see weakness and vulnerability.

They all feared him, even if their lifetime of war and attunement to their Aspect should have suggested otherwise. And why should they not fear the immortal king? He was a threat to Garghent over a decade ago and now alive again, he was a threat once more. The Specters fighting him knew he was a force to be feared, even if that fear was a deep and primal one, something the enlightenment of awakening an Aspect could never erase.

The Generals were losing fast. Cuts, burns, fatigue. Eberon had them on their toes and his blade could cut anything.

Garald gathered his strength and prepared for a heavy tower. He brought Babel as high as his arms could stretch and crashed all his weight down. If the smaller targeted towers could not hit Eberon, Garald would use the whole ground around as a tower.

The way Garald’s Babel towers formed were multi-tiered towers. The top of the tower and the first to erupt from the ground, was the smallest in circumference while each proceeding tier was exponentially larger.

The tower began to emerge and Oborion kicked off from the tip of the tower as it arose from the ground. The horse’s momentum carried it to the second tier as the whole tower continued to climb up. By the third tierEberon was already over twenty meters off the ground. It was not long before the tower reaches its peak, a ten tiered Babel tower of clay and sod, two hundred meters up.

Garald created another one for himself and stood face to face with Eberon, a long chasm separating them.

Klyle jumped up to Garald’s tower already and the Gemini flickered up to it as well.

The Gemini put his hands out and a green bubble enveloped Eberon.

The king of Bast gave a hearty laugh. “Nothing false can affect me. Your spectral abilities are as tricks to me, nothing more.”

The Gemini replied in a voice that sounded overtly human, to the point of sounding artificial, like something’s imitation of an ideal human speech. “This is no trick.” The Gemini tilted its head to touch shoulder.

The green bubble solidified into crystal amber, trapping Eberon inside.

“How long will it hold?” Garald asked.

The flame of Eberon’s sword and Oborion’s hooves were undying and already they began to melt through the green crystal bubble with inclusions webbing out from the stress of pressure.

“Less than a minute.” The Gemini replied.

“No chance of suffocating then.” Garald commented.

“It’d be unlikely to kill him.” Klyle said what they all knew.

“How do you want to handle this?” Garald was tapping on his hammer.

Klyle ran a hand through his mane. “I’ll throw him to you, you knock him up as high as possible. We’ll see if the fall does anything.” 

“Ready when you are.” Garald squared his legs and poised Babel up and behind his back, twisting to add rotation to the swing.

Klyle jumped to the other tower where Eberon had nearly broken through the bubble. Klyle dug his claws into the heated crystal, his strength easily providing holds. Without even a heave, Klyle raised the whole bubble over his head. He looked to Garald who nodded.

With bunched muscles, Klyle snapped forward launching the bubble to Garald.

The Babel Aspect swung his mallet in an upward arc and launched Eberon and Oborion straight up, the green crystal shattering on impact.

Eberon was up several hundred meters higher and still ascending.

“Klyle!” Garald leapt over the chasm between the towers. Garald landed on Klyle’s outstretched hands which were cupped together. Klyle sent Garald into the air, though it would not be high enough to reach Eberon.

Klyle squatted down and jumped, soaring to Garald in a moment and yanking the large man the rest of the way to Eberon.

The Gemini flickered above Eberon and pierced him with spectral lances faster than his emerald could destroy them. It gave Klyle a chance to pin Eberon’s arms back. The king struggled but couldn’t break the grip.

Eberon reached the apex of his ascent, a thousand meters in the air. Garald reached his as well, just slightly above Eberon.

Garald grunted with the effort of bringing his mallet to rear. When the momentum of Eberon and his own movement paused as it shifted to falling, Garald let down his mallet hitting Eberon’s chest.

The king of Bast plummeted to the ground forcefully enough to shake most of the battlefield. It gave pause to the fighting, a momentary lapse in combat near the center so that soldiers of Bast and Garghent alike could see what happened to Eberon.

The Gemini flickered back to the ground and Klyle landed on his feet as deftly as any cat should. Garald had to throw his mallet down first in order to create a tower that he could land on.

It took a minute for Eberon to emerge from a deep crater in the ground. Eberon’s sword was first to come into view. His crown and head next. Chest then legs, legs still strapped to the stirrups of Oborion.

Eberon had not been dehorsed. Oborion neighed and stood on its hind legs, kicking defiantly at the sky.

With a cheer the soldiers of Bast renewed their assault on a bewildered Garghent army who had heard the rumors of the king of Bast being immortal. If Klyle and General Garald could not kill him, then how could they hope to win?

“Klyle!” Eberon shouted. 

“Right here!” Klyle punched Eberon in the jaw, whipping his head to the side with a cringing snap.

Eberon snapped his head back. He didn’t try to retaliate, instead he just relaxed in his saddle. “Amenais is going to receive a visitor soon. If you hurry back home, you might just make it in time.”

Klyle’s eyes narrowed. A predator’s eyes that could read behind any lie or deceit. Nothing in Eberon’s expression suggested that he was trying anything of the sort. 

Klyle grew still, a furious, snarling still.

“Run along now, boy, and don’t trip on your tail.”

Klyle roared at Eberon with so much force that even Oborion had to back up a few steps. 

“Draje!” Klyle shouted. “Kill the bastard.”

“Be swift!” Draje called back. “I’ll handle the dead king.”

A part formed in the battleline, allowing for General Draje to meet Eberon head on. The other Generals, Anteran, Yivel, Garald, even the Gemini needed a break.

“Ah, exactly who I’ve been just dying to see.” Eberon emphasized the word with a smile. Draje, along with Klyle were long time rivals.

“You’ve crawled out of some pit, I’ll send you screaming back.”

Eberon laughed, an odd thing to hear in a heated battle. 

There was another lull in the central fighting. A common occurrence when two opposing leaders face off.

Draje activated his Aspect. “Sortilege.”

“You’re memory is failing, admit it! You could never best me. Not then, not now!” Oborion was getting eager and brayed twice, spitting out fire.

“Your father was a failure and he sired a weak king heir. Look how you rely on whatever machinations keep you on that foul beast of yours, whatever brought you to life. You’re a false king.” Draje knew how to rile Eberon, knew what made him tick.

“You’ll not dehorse me.” Eberon replied, as serious as the grave.

Draje cackled and coughed, sputtering phlegm into his hand. He wiped it and brought forth his Aspect.

Twenty-two cards appeared in the space in front of Draje. They began to shuffle on their own. When they were finished, Draje stuck a bony hand out and selected a random card.

He looked at the card and reveleaed it. “The Hanged Man. Fitting, for your execution is fated.”

There was a flash of light and Draje was transformed.

The form that rose after that light flash couldn’t stand straight but was tall and slender, stretched unnaturally beyond average height. The spine was not strong enough to support the weight of holding the torso and head upright so he rolled from leaning left to leaning right. It was the stretched out quality that made the spine so weak.

The feet were chained by thick iron links that connected to a heavy wrought iron ball. Around the neck was a rope noose with spare rope hanging down his front. The face was covered by an executioner’s cowl and other than a loincloth, he was bare and revealing scars, whip marks, and all manner of a tortuous existence.

The arms hung lazily and the entire posture was hunched and uncomfortable.

The Hanged Man made the first move, the legs going before the torso with the arms flailing behind. 

Eberon kicked his horse into a canter and angled his sword straight out.

The Hanged Man went into a handstand and shot one leg out, bringing the iron ball and chain up and over, directly to Eberon.

Oborion swiveled to dodge the ball and chain attack. Eberon hacked at the iron chains as they sailed by his head but the Hanged Man was thrown with his own kick and flew behind the ball and chain.

The Hanged Man shoved Eberon’s sword out of the way with his foot and the two passed each other by.

Eberon turned his mount and made for another pass. The Hanged Man started juggling the iron ball between his feet as easily as a hacky sack. 

When Eberon came within range, the Hanged Man pulled back on his noose, wrenching his body backwards which gave extra force to his kick of the iron ball. Eberon leaned in his saddle, ducking under the high speed ball. The Hanged Man was drawn in after the ball once more and Eberon cut the Hanged Man’s stomach as he flew over this time.

After landing, Eberon was surprised to see nothing come out from the Hanged Man’s stomach.

A muffled voice spoke without a tongue. “I’ve already been drawn, quartered and disemboweled.”

“Then you know how this ends.” Eberon replied.

The Hanged Man wrapped the ball and chain around both feet three times. He shuffled forward and went into a handstand again. The Hanged Man started walking in circles on his hands. 

When Eberon charged once more, the Hanged Man pulled his legs apart, causing the chain to unwind violently. He kept spinning in circles to maintain the velocity. Eberon closed in with Oborion stepping deftly in and out of range.

Eberon delivered another slash across the Hanged Man’s calf, and again there was no blood drawn. The Hanged Man reversed his direction, causing the chain to wind up again before spinning back out even faster.  The iron ball collided into Eberon’s shoulder and almost forced him off but Oborion moved in tandem and kept its rider on the saddle.

The Hanged Man reversed again but this time Eberon thrust his sword out to catch the chain links so that the ball would wrap around the blade instead. 

Oborion started stepping backwards as Eberon tugged on the chain. Between Eberon and Oborion they had much more strength and the Hanged Man was dragged off his hands but in a split second before being thrown completely, the Hanged Man tied the excess rope around one leg of Oborion. The distribution of tension canceled out and the Hanged Man was hardly moved.

Eberon turned his blade down and stabbed it into the ground. He kicked Oborion to a gallop and the Hanged Man was stretched between the noose around his neck tied to Oborion and the ball and chain wrapped around Eberon’s sword stuck in the ground. 

“As I said, you know how this ends.” 

The Hanged Man started to stretch like rubber, his torso becoming twice its already lanky proportion. Oborion was struggling to walk any further. The Hanged Man gripped the rope and started hauling, adding his own strength toward the direction Oborion was walking.

The sword was finally wrenched from the ground and was loosed from the ball and chain. Like a band, the Hanged Man returned to his normal length and all the tugging momentum sent the ball and chain whooshing through the air, moving beyond the Hanged Man and then pulling him with it.

Oborion tried to swerve but the rope was still tied to its leg. Eberon put his hands up to block but the iron ball smashed into his hands, through them and into Eberon’s chest.

Eberon fell hard on the ground and the Hanged Man landed on top.

The Hanged Man said nothing but leaned his face down, letting his actions say everything that needed to be said.

Eberon was dehorsed.

Oborion kicked with its hind legs and knocked the Hanged Man several meters.

Eberon grabbed the reins hanging from Oborion and stood, then threw himself on the mount. 

Oborion trotted to the sword and Eberon reclaimed it.

Eberon looked around the onlookers, his men and Garghent’s. 

“We fall back! The storm nears.” Eberon retreated at his own pace and bit by bit Bast disengaged from Garghent and returned to the trenches. 

The Hanged Man was gone and Draje was himself once more, on his shins, clutching at his chest and spitting up blood.

“Are you alright, General?” a nearby captain asked.

“I’ll live,” he coughed dryly.

“What are your orders for the army?” he pressed.

“Hold off the men. Let Eberon feel the cold for a while.”

“Yes sir!” The captain moved off to relay the orders.

Draje wiped his chin and stood. “Hurry back Klyle, the best we can do is delay him.” Draje muttered to himself. Garghent’s military was superior in number and equipment but much depended on Eberon’s target the next day, even though Bast would be the defenders. It would take Draje weeks to recover enough to fight in a duel of that caliber again. For this battle, that was all he could contribute. 

In all likelihood, the young Specters of Klyle’s training would have to step up against Eberon, for surely he would target the other Generals before moving down the ranks. 

“Garald, Yivel, Anteran, Gemini. ” Draje called to the other Generals. “Prepare the Specters. Let them begin strategizing on ways to fight king Eberon.”

“Aye.” The Generals answered.

Minutes later the blizzard hit from the east, behind Garghent’s battle lines and headed west to ravage over Bast.

Tomorrow’s fighting would be knee deep in the snowy cold of a raging weather system enhanced by General Uana’s Gale Aspect and the enemy turtled in the trenches, lead by an immortal king. Only bloody carnage could result, and the two herds of mammals huddled by their fires staying warm so they could die in the cold the next day.

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