The Elves did little for the first two turns, holding their position and catching their breath from the chase as the Blackblood negotiated the rocky crags. The Lotus-Eater moved among the men. He seemed to grow taller as his body became suffused with the essence of Lotus he had ingested. His skin took on a eerie translucent quality. As he chanted, a bluish mist seemed to wrap itself around the nearest militia like the coils of a great serpent the Ethereal Dragon, called to shield the men from attack.
A waiting Elven archer suddenly gave a great shout and drew his bow, loosing at an assault warrior as he darted between the rocks. It was a difficult shot at a moving target in cover of the rough shrubs, but the Orc went down, with the arrow through his neck. A cheer went up from the Elven host.
Opposite the Princeīs position, the Trolls and Ripper Beast lancers had crested the low rise. The alchemist followed in the shadow of the burly Trolls, his scimitar still sheathed on his back. The Elven spears on the right flank moved slightly to interpose themselves between the Prince and the Trolls.
On turn three, the assault warriors broke from their position between the rocks. The Elves were ready. More arrows sped towards the Blackblood elite, but skipped off their armour or buried themselves in the turf. The first shot had been lucky. With a deep guttural roar, the Orcs let their own arrows fly, slashing into the spearmen. Five went down. Then Alaric began his chant again. His robes began to flutter, buffeted by an unseen wind. He drew a deep breath. And exhaled.
Suddenly a great gust of wind sprang up. The Goblin spearmen staggered back against the gale. One Troll kept his feet, leaning into the wind and grunting with the strain, but his battle-brother was blown backwards into one of the standing rocks. Suddenly the Blackblood flank was bereft of its Goblin screen and wide open for the archers. Blue-green fletched shafts brought down the Troll who still struggled, cursing, against the wind. The Alchemist was by his side in an instant and forced a phial between his lips. The golden liquid trickled down his throat, and the Troll opened his eyes. Shakily he got to his feet, black blood still dripping down his muscular chest. A second potion, and his gaze grew steady. The blood flow stopped. The Troll fixed his eyes on the Elven line and bellowed his rage, but kept his position as his brother staggered back to his side. To have charged the hedge of spears alone would have meant his death.
Meanwhile, the assault warriors had let their arrows fly. The green line of militiamen grew thinner as the front rank was mown down.
Suddenly, there was motion in the shadows of the rock. Ape-like, clad in soot-black armour, the squat forms of Dwarves issued from the cave. Suddenly the air was full of crossbow bolts. Before anyone could react, a third of the Princeīs guard of axemen was down, and the Prince himself dropped with a shaft through his shoulder. Just as one of the Vulture marksmen took aim at the wounded Elf, the Lotus-Eater waved his arms and shouted something. He was completely under the sway of the Lotus seed now, his form blurred and translucent, and once more, he conjured up the Ethereal Dragon. The blue coils wove themselves out of the air around the embattled axemen and their Prince, shielding them from the deadly ambush.
In frustration, the Dwarf marksman whipped his crossbow around and sent three bolts slashing into the spearmen. They found the gaps between shields, the vulnerable joints. The last spearmen on the left flank went down, their frost-rimmed banner sinking to the ground.
The Ripper Beast lancers spurred their mounts, and the Trolls broke into a run. Together, they charged the spearmen. The leader hissed a command, and eight spear-points formed a barbed hedge bristling with steel. When the Goblins crashed into the line with their lances, they were killed instantly. One Troll was run through the side with a spear, but he leaned over the Spearmanīs shield and punched his gauntlet scythe through his head. His brother smashed his falchion into the line of shields, then slashed left and right with his scythes. Elves were sent flying as he carved a gap through the warband.
Behind the Elven lines, the Lotus guard double-paced towards the battle lines. One unit scaled the hill to the left too far away to reach the Prince! The second warband appeared far on the right, between the rocky outcroppings. But suddenly the air seemed to get colder, and like a silvery star rising on the horizon, the Knight came up right behind the axemen. Lord Phristan was a tall Elf, clad in the bulky plate mail of a Crystal Knight, his purple robes stiff with frost. Ice crystals had formed on his armour and weapon. With a detached glance, he assessed the situation, and strode towards the Princeīs left flank, where the spearmenīs standard had fallen. Reverently, he took up the banner from the dead Elfīs cold fingers and planted it upright in the frozen earth.
The militia and archers had moved up to intercept the assault warriors who loosed arrows from their bows as they strode forward towards Corianīs position. Red-fletched arrows sped toward Lord Phristan, who calmly batted them aside with the Lotus-shaped head of his spear.
The Dwarves knew they had been foiled by the Lotus-Eaterīs magic. In frustration, they slung their crossbows and drew their bastard swords, marching towards the axemen. The Goblins ran forward and tried to form a shaky line, to protect the Vulture mercenaries until they could do their work.
Peeking behind the Trollīs broad back, the Alchemist threw a copper phial at the spearmenīs line. It landed on an oval shield and burst into flames, killing one Elf and singing another. The spearmen reeled, stabbing at the trolls and bringing one of the hulking forms down. His brother went into a killing frenzy, stabbing and slashing in bloody arcs, then he swept up the standard bearer into a terrible bear hug. Bones snapped, and with a victorious roar, he flung the maimed Elf down. The few spearmen that had survived his rage turned and fled.
In the center, Lord Phristan strode forward. His spear reached out, slashing one Vulture marksmanīs gut like a cold scythe. Frost began to rim the Dwarvesī armour as the temperature dropped sharply. The other marksman, with frozen fingers, fumbled a bolt into his crossbow and pulled the trigger. But the bowstring, brittle with the unnatural cold, snapped with a short pang. More arrows from the assault warriors pinged off the Knightīs armour, and then one of the Orcs found his mark. Suddenly, a red-painted shaft jutted out from between the icy plates. Blood seeped sluggishly from the wound.
The Lotus Guard converged on the battle, still too far away. The militia caught up with the second assault warband who had turned and readied their spears. There was a quick exchange of stabs and slashes at long range. Two Orcs and two militiamen died. The archers pulled fresh arrows from their quivers and sent them diagonally across the field, dropping more Orcs.
The situation looked grim. Two Vulture warbands, one Troll and the Alchemist were converging on the embattled axemen who desperately tried to protect the Prince. Already the Ethereal Dragon was dissipating into the cold air. On their left, the wounded Crystal Knight was impassively facing down two warbands of assault warriors. Alaric knew with sudden clarity that this was a cusp: one of those moments where fate hung in the balance, waiting only for the slightest tip to swing either way. And he was ready.
Blazing with Lotos energy, the Elf began to dance. Intricate steps traced invisible lines in a complex pattern. And the Princeīs axemen responded. They, too, seemed to shimmer, fading out of existence like phantoms. And suddenly, they were gone. There was a rush of air, as if an invisible chariot had passed, and their hazy forms reappeared near the Lotus Guard between the rocks on the right far from the battle that was going on in the center. If the Guardsmen were surprised, their faces betrayed no sign of it. They calmly drew their swords, ready to defend their charge with their lives.
The Vultures saw their success snatched away just at the moment that their prey had been helpless before them. For a moment, they simply stood and looked with hate-filled eyes at the Elven line. Then as one, as if on an invisible cue, they unslung their crossbows and started shooting.
Alaric had known what was coming. With the axemen out of harmīs way, he stood alone on the plain. His last thought, as the bolts thudded into him, was on the clearness and beauty of the day. His gaze, all senses heightened by the Lotus state, followed the beautiful patterns that his blood made on the frozen ground. Then he was solid and real, all of a sudden, and fell over.
The Crystal Knight turned his face towards the second marksman. The Vulture Dwarf suddenly seemed to shrink. There was something in the unfocused, detached gaze of the Elf that could even give a stolid Dwarven veteran pause. He felt the unnatural cold seeping into his bones. His hands were numb with frost.
He did not feel it when the spear sliced upwards, taking his head off. He did not hear the shouts of his brothers, did not see the Knight go down in a shower of bolts.
On the left, the archers mauled the assault warriors. The Orcs shouldered their wounded and broke off, pursued by the militia. The Troll on the right bellowed with rage, but he knew better than to charge the Lotus Guard and Axemen alone. He was almost choking with the indignity. A quick glance at the Alchemist, who was tending to his fallen brother: the Orc shook his head. With a last mournful howl, the Troll set out back towards the cover of the rocks.