"It isn't every day you see an army arrayed before you," the man murmured, his arms folded beneath the heavy black cloak he wore, hood up to shade his eyes from the glare of the sun, casting his features in shadow.
"It isn't every day that someone challenges the combined might of the Three Kingdoms, either," said the second, a note of amusement in his voice. He wore the same black cloak, though his was somewhat more ornamented, boasting a silver clasp across the breast and a fine, silver border along the edge, and he wore it with the hood down, revealing a genial face tanned by the sun, the black hair streaked with copper in the light. "I suppose we should be honored that they brought so many to face off against the four of us."
"Oh, aye, I'm honored alright," said a third, a young woman's voice; she stood off to one side of the pair, looking not at the army arrayed on the far side of the field but back and up, at the foreboding bulk of the mountain behind them. She wore the same cloak as the other two, though instead of a silver clasp at the throat she wore a plain leather-and-wood toggle, and the silver edge bore a distinct scarlet stain where it brushed the ground. "They came here to kill us and put our heads on pikes for daring to claim that we're greater than the kings. You boys killing the knights the kings sent certainly didn't improve matters for us, either."
"In my defense," laughed the man with his hood down, turning to look back at her, "They were trying to put my head on a pike then, too. They just happened to be the first to discover they couldn't take our lives."
"They're sending a runner," said the first man, interrupting the woman as she opened her mouth to respond. All three turned so they could watch the lone horseman approach.
"I expected them to attack," the woman said, reaching up to tug her concealing hood a little lower, her frown just visible in the shadows the hood cast. "Why send a runner when they've an entire army against four?"
"They must know we are magi by now," Came a growl of a voice. All three shifted, instinctively turning their eyes to the slight man stepping out of the small tent they'd erected, hardly big enough to house the four of them. Unlike the other three, he wore only a pair of black pants and a shirt made of an odd black material. Were it not for the fact that it simply seemed to drink in the light rather than reflect it, they might have thought it silk. "Even those of a middling talent can slay a group of knights. Considering the magi accompanying the force that came after me, they know we are not of middling talents."
"So they bring an army, with at least a squad of magi in support?" Asked the woman, folding her arms. "That will make things much more difficult."
The man in the shirt chuckled dryly, running a hand through hair black as pitch, his green eyes almost sparkling in the light. "No, that will make things far more entertaining. This will be our opportunity to test the limits of our powers. You cannot tell me that you're not looking forward to stretching your wings, are you, Mel?"
The woman scoffed, folding her arms beneath the cloak. "Stretch my wings nothing, Alex. This will be a test; the forces of an entire kingdom, arrayed before us on an open field. We may well die here, and then what will come of our blood? Spilled to soak into these grounds, never to find continuation through the generations! We should have prepared further. Markos should have finished our swords! With only two of us armed-"
"It is fine, Melisandra," the man with his hood up said, waving away her concerns. "You and I will support Alexander and Markos. While they wield their blades, we shall wield our magics. It is unfortunate we've no combat foci, but it is hardly suicide, and it leaves us quite balanced between attack and defense."
"Listen to Tristan, Meli," the man with his hood down, Markos, said with a chuckle. "As soon as this battle is finished, we shall bring forth some more iron from the mountain, and I'll not only forge a blade worthy of each of you, but with the animals Tristan hunts down I shall make for us armor worthy of our titles!"
"Don't call me Meli," Melisandra hissed, before reaching up to fling the hood off her head, revealing a cascade of brown hair and sharp, thoughtful hazel eyes. "Only Alex is allowed to shorten my name. Need I remind you that he is the only one who hasn't attempted to kill me of the three of you?"
"Don't be that way, my dear," Markos said, touching his chest and doing his best to appear insulted. "It was-"
"The rider is almost here," Alex interrupted, ducking back into the tent and emerging a moment later with a black cloak much like Markos's, with a silver clasp at the neck and white along the edges. However, unlike the others', his cloak's hood bore a lining of white fur, and black leather clearly covered the shoulders. "Save your bickering for after the battle. In this battle, we are as family; we do not bear grudges for past wrongs."
Melisandra sighed, slapping Markos on the back hard enough to push the bigger man a step forward. "You heard him, big guy. While we fight, we're one big, happy family."
"I wouldn't have it any other way, Meli," Markos chuckled, reaching up to pull his hood up, casting his face in shadow. Alex shifted, giving her a firm look as he pulled his own hood up. Sighing, she raised her own, shaking her head but saying nothing.
The rider pulled their horse to a halt about ten yards from the four, the silver armor on both horse and rider gleaming in the sun. Reflected light danced across their cloaks, but never managed to pierce the darkness within their hoods. "My liege sends me to issue your final warning. Submit and permit yourself to be arrested and tried for your crimes, or be slain here today upon these very fields!"
Alex stepped forward, demanding the man's attention. "Tell your king," he said, speaking loudly enough to be heard, every word carefully enunciated, "That he may surrender the throne to us now and preserve his life. Should he commit to this course of action, he will be signing his own death warrant."
"You refuse to surrender, then?" The rider asked, incredulous.
"We'll surrender," Markos said, his voice far more booming and loud than Alex's, "When your king stands before his people in the middle of his capital and fucks a goat!" The words echoed across the plain, amplified via magic so that despite the vast distance between the army and themselves, each word could be clearly heard by those at the front of the army.
"How dare-" the runner began, incredulity replaced with indignant outrage. His words, however, were cut off as cleanly as his head, which tumbled back and off of his shoulders, a fountain of arterial spray arching into the air. Before the body had a chance to slump and fall from its saddle, Tristan stepped forward, his cloak shifting with movement, and the horse's throat was cut along either artery along its neck, the seams carved through the steel of its protective armor.
"Was that necessary?" Alex asked, turning towards both Tristan and Melisandra.
"He raised his voice to us," Melisandra said with a shrug. "I do not permit my enemy such a privilege."
"And the horse?" Alex asked, glancing across the field as a massed roar rose to fill the air.
"I did not want them to recover it during their retreat," Tristan said, his tone neutral.
"They'll have more to worry about as they retreat," Markos said, turning to pass Alex and step into the tent, returning a moment later and passing a slender, black blade to him, clipping a second, broader weapon to his belt.
Taking the weapon, Alex sighed, turning the slender blade and watching the blade shift, drinking in the light just as his own shirt did. "Mercy is a virtue you both need to cultivate," he said scornfully, adjusting his grip on the slender weapon. "When will I get a scabbard, Markos?"
"When I finish it, of course! I was rather interrupted, if you'll remember!" The big man drew the broadsword with a flourish, a laugh escaping his lips. "But my, there's a number of them coming! Shall we meet them?"
"Of course," Alex said, a note of defeat in his voice as he shook his head. "Tristan, support Markos, ensure he survives the Magi's assault. Markos, ensure the knights cannot approach Tristan save by passing you. Mel, you're with me."
"A date upon the field of battle?" Mel asked, her tone growing light and playful, though the tension was obvious. "My, a woman's greatest desire!"
"The date comes when we've dethroned the kings," Alex said, the words startling the woman. Then he swept the blade to the side, rolling his shoulders. "Let us go. We've a king to slay here today."
Without another word, he strode forward, hopping off the little shelf that they'd placed their tent on and onto the broad, relatively flat plain that they'd chosen for their battle. Without a word, Markos followed after him, with Tristan and Melisandra bringing up the rear.
The rumble of hooves was immense, a tangible force that made the ground tremble beneath their feet. At rough count, there were almost two thousand knights, archers and footmen fighting for this particular king. Most of those knights, about three-hundred in all, had formed into several flying wedge formations, staggered so that no one formation would be caught in any single magical attack. Each bore a faintly shimmering barrier, a defense against magical attacks. Doubtless, the magi who cast those barriers expected an elemental attack, fire or lightning. Judging by the shimmer at the horses' feet, they'd even charmed them to protect the ground around them from earth-element attacks.
Had they been any other group of magi, they might well have died then and there.
Instead, the four's shadows roiled like living creatures, independent of those they were cast by. Like unleashed hounds, they abruptly leaped forward, swarming ahead of the four and creating a vast, inky-black pool towards which almost a hundred knights were rushing.
As the first stepped into the shadows, the roiling darkness flexed, distorted, and leaped, forming blades or spikes that pierced magic, steel and flesh alike. The screams of the dying were remarkable, for they accounted for only a fraction of those who died beneath that opening onslaught.
"Incoming," Melisandra announced, stepping up next to Alex. He didn't need to look up; he knew the archers had fired when they saw a third of their vanguard torn apart well short of their prey. Raising his left hand, Alex made a drawing-back motion, pulling a sizeable chunk of his shadows back from the bloody hellscape that was all that remained of almost a hundred knights. Together with Melisandra, they raised the shadows, wrapping them about the four like a vast cocoon. Through it, they watched the arrows, limned in silver to their sight through the darkness, as they arched high, then crashed down, sinking into the ground about them, as well as the shadows about them.
But as the rain of arrows ended and the second wave of knights surged forward, they found themselves pelted by hundreds of arrows, fired from the shadows themselves. As the last of the missiles left the shadows, the cocoon came apart, exposing the four unharmed. With a smile, Markos raised a hand to his lips and whistled.
As the second wave of knights cut aside, wary of whatever trap had sealed their fellows' fates, their senses were assaulted by evidence of a further threat. Their hearing warned them of wild animals on the hunt, the howl of wolves and the yowl of big cats. And their eyes showed them as the forests to the west began to seethe, birds erupting in a great cloud from the canopy...
The battle lasted hours, but by the time afternoon edged into dusk, the battlefield was silent but for cries of the carrion eaters, feasting upon the results of man's greatest folly, war. More than two-thousand men had come to the field, and hundreds had left it, but only four departed without haste.
"It won't be so easy next time," Alex said with a sigh, pulling the cloak from his shoulders and looking the blood-soaked article over almost sadly. "We pulled out most of our tricks today. If they plan for them next time, we could face serious problems. Particularly when the survivors join with the other two kingdoms."
"You think the two kingdoms will join against us?" Tristan asked, following several paces behind; he was by far the most physically weak of them, and that cost him much in his magical stamina. He was nearly falling over with exhaustion.
"We're the new threat, and we're the common enemy that they're going to begin to feel are a legitimate threat."
"There were twenty Magi with them today," Markos added, folding his arms; he'd lost his cloak during the fighting, and was now dressed in a blood-soaked green shirt. "That's a reasonably small group of magi to send with such an army, but hiring them from the College has always been prohibitively expensive. After today, however, I would expect at least four times that number for each king, or more if their treasury can handle it."
"That's not going to be easy," Melisandra agreed, leaning heavily against Alex's side; though she had a larger reserve of strength available to her than Tristan, she'd been one of the two to add her Shadow to the animals, and combined with her penchant for big, showy displays of her magic, the battle had taken more out of her. Were it not for Alex's support, she probably would have simply collapsed on the field already. "We very nearly bought it this time."
"Next time will be different," Alex assured them all, draping his bloody cloak over his arm before turning his gaze to the foreboding mass of the mountain. "Next time, we'll have proper armor. Next time, we'll all be armed, and we'll have gems to reinforce our own strength, courtesy of the Magi. And we'll have uncovered the Well."
Three pairs of eyes turned from him to the mountain, and three mouths spread into grins as the words sank in. "It's here, then?" Markos asked. "You're certain?"
"I am," Alex said softly. "The College has their Well, and that has made their walls unassailable for hundreds of years. With our Well, we shall carve our citadel from the very stones of this mountain. With its power, we shall reinforce our magic a thousand times over. With it, we can leave behind our stigma as the Forsaken Magi of Shadow."
"We will become the Lords and Ladies of Shadow," Melisandra murmured.
"The first Lords of Shadow," Alex agreed, wrapping his other arm around her shoulders. "But far from the last."