“I am not pleased,” declared Vathek quietly.
Gregory stared the Ghoul, flanked by his retinue of followers. As happened so often at times like this, the self-proclaimed Prince and Prophet sounded more like a boy sulking than the awe-inspiring figure he imagined himself as. But he was a sulking boy who would kill you if you annoyed him enough, a fact which colored Gregory’s response.
Gregory took a deep breath. “Neither are we, sir.” He stood as straight as he could. “But you will allow, sir, that we were under the impression that the Cthoniques would be distracted…”
Vathek’s hand darted to a necklace of bronze links, and fingered it somewhat nervously. Gregory almost found himself reaching for the miniature that wasn’t there anymore in response. “I have been… unable to contact my allies, of late. Which makes me suspect that things have--not gone well for them.” He shook his head. “And yet all of this is… beside the point.” He leaned forward. “We would most certainly have found the Skull by now if you had been more--aggressive in your search…”
Gregory gritted his teeth. “The Captain does not feel so, sir.” His hand was going to his sword. For the hundredth time he cursed his father for having him take fencing lessons. It’d been a typical action for those successful merchants trying to make sure their sons stood a little taller than them, but if it hadn’t happened, Gregory wouldn’t be in the situation he was in today.
Of course, he’d probably be dead, but he wasn’t always sure that would be such an awful thing.
Vathek had crossed his arms, and was staring at Gregory balefully, dark blue eyes filled with distaste. “And did your captain hire me? Or did I hire your captain?”
Ancient Evreux rushed by rescuing Gregory from having to tell his client to go screw himself. “The Master of Horse needs you at the battlements!” Gregory bowed to Vathek, and hurried to Ancient’s side.
Inwardly he cursed. The Shrikes had prepared so carefully--studying the layout of the town--arriving in Tolometto in all those separate caravans to escape notice--and it had all been wasted. Somehow the townfolk had gotten a message out, one that the Cthoniques had responded to with far, far more speed than had been expected, and now--they were facing this debacle. And now Vathek was getting--ideas. There were few things more dangerous than employers with ideas. Employers with ideas got people killed, then got you killed, and sometimes, if the Seven and the Black Bitch were all feeling suitably just, got themselves killed as well. He glanced at Ancient. “Have you ever been in a worse situation?” he asked.
“A few times,” said Ancient. “I lived through ‘em. Barely. But I did.” The old soldier shook his head. “Never should have took this mission. Though the way I hear it, Asterot practically twisted the Captain’s arm…”
The conversation stopped as they reached the barricades. Braddock was staring out over them. “Glad to see you, Gentleman,” he noted softly. He gestured over the barricade, where several small clusters of Cthonique Guards were gathering. “I think they’re going to try and rush us…”
Gregory nodded. “Vathek is making suggestions.” He frowned. “‘Kill and torture people’ suggestions.”
“Because that worked so well for him when he had his little rebellion,” snapped Braddock, who followed the outburst by spitting in contempt. He shook his head. “Doesn’t the fool realize that folk who are cornered either fold or fight when you put up the pressure?” Bald Ben glanced over at the gathering troops. “And these folk don’t look like the ‘folding’ sort.”
“The Lieutenant’s been making… similar suggestions,” noted Gregory quietly.
“He’s not the Captain,” replied Braddock forcibly.
Gregory nodded. “And if he were?”
Braddock glanced at the younger man. “He wouldn’t be long.” He glanced down. “The plan seems to be hit us in several places at once. I want you to keep the line here. I’m going to keep it elsewhere. Understood?” Gregory nodded. Braddock smiled, and placed a heavy hand on the young soldier’s shoulder. “Good lad.” And then he walked further down the line, Ancient Evreux by his side.
Gregory took a deep breath, and glanced at the men with him. Most of them stared at him dully, except for Mosca, who was smiling cynically. “All right, men,” he began. “You heard what the Master of Horse said. We have to…”
“Attention, mortal fools!” shouted out a voice that was both shrill and bellowing. Gregory glanced over the barricades, wanting to see who had just cut short any hopes of making a speech of his own. The speaker was a diminutive female Erl, clad in dark armor. As Gregory watched, she spread her arms wide. “You have angered Morgaine Sans Coeur, Supreme Mistress of the Netherworld! I grant you this chance to surrender! But if you continue to anger me, then I recommend praying for a swift death, for that is the greatest mercy you can hope for!”
Gregory winced. He’d heard about Morgaine Cthonique. The stories said she was powerful, temperamental, and ever-so-slightly mad--simply put, if you were going to run into a Cthonique in this situation, you didn’t want it to be her.
The Dark Lord stood there, with her hands on her hips. “I see no one is taking me up on my generous offer. Very well!” And with that, she began to dance around. For a moment, Gregory was wondering what he was looking at--and then the Dark Lord gestured at the barricade.
The world exploded into chaos, as the barricade exploded into splinters. Gregory only just managed to avoid landing on his head. Mosca didn’t, and was lying dazed on the ground when Gregory rose. And then the first members of the Cthonique Guard were through the breach--a masked Ghoul who leapt over the wreckage and took down two soldiers coming down, and a tall Marsh Erl who threw a spear at Byron that took him straight in the chest. Gregory watched the man go down, and then the Marsh Erl was on him, sword drawn. They exchanged a few blows when suddenly the Ghoul ran off. “Quiet!” shouted the Marsh Erl, who then beat down Gregory’s sword, and stepped back a ways, and then rushed after the Ghoul.
Gregory took a deep breath, and turned to what remained of his men. “Close the breach! Keep the line! Hurry!” Men scurried to push boards into place, and hold back the stream of Guards and Muster men that were pressing through. Gregory readied his sword for the next attack.
It occurred to him that Ancient Evreux was right. War really was one of the Hells.