The Black Circle - Tome of Chaos Story
General Sloan abandoned hopes of a quick victory in Ulundin when it became apparent that word of the fall of Canhurst had reached Ulundin well before her army had arrived. The Ulundi had erected a massive talisman from the tower at the city's center, the great runed totem acting as an anti-magic shield. General Sloan’s portal spinners couldn’t project her artillery any further than the city's walls. That meant conventional siege warfare. That meant time. Time she did not have. If she did not break the city today, her life would be forfeit. Her master and that black witch, Portia, had made that abundantly clear.
General Sloan stepped from her tent and the gloom of Portia's company. She took a deep breath of the cool morning air and handed her page boy an ivory cylinder which contained the command to begin the final assault. He dashed away to the rear of the war camp, to the site of the great stones heaped in mounds. They were man sized shots for the greatest siege weapon ever built. She wished she could be on the hill to see the barrage, but it was her place to lead the charge into the city when the wall finally fell. She turned, gripped the horn of the leather seat, and threw a leg over the saddle of her war boar. Her mount chuffed and shook its ironclad tusks anxiously. General Sloan dug her heels into its haunches, and the beast leapt forward, galloping down the hill through a legion of waiting infantry.
From the high tower within the vast walls of Ulundin the great shofar sounded, a deep trumpet's bellow from the heart of the besieged city. It was dawn.
General Sloan regarded the great iron portcullis before her across the shattered remains of the bridge that once spanned the moat, then, raising her mailed fist high above her head, she turned and looked to the hill behind her. Ten thousand armored legionnaires and a tenth as many cavalry turned in unison to the hill, and waited. Somewhere nearby a horse whinnied and pawed the earth.
There was a distant thunk. Suddenly, noiselessly, an enormous boulder appeared, sailing through the air toward the waiting wall of Ulundin. Thousands of mailed heads turned to watch it complete its deadly arc. The stone struck its mark and 200 tons of ancient granite tumbled to the ground. She could feel the earth tremble through her mount's saddle even from there. She took a second deep breath and, pointing her gauntlet toward the ruined wall, roared, "Forward!” Like a single living flood, an army of thousands surged forward toward the breach in the wall and her victory beyond.
Like a wall of doom they rode, the General and her companions. Captains and champions fell or fled before them. Neither Ulundi nor man withstood them. Their backs were to the swords and spears of the riders, and their faces to the heart of the city. The citizens of the city cried and wailed, for fear and death had come upon them with the rising of the day.
By noon all but one member of the merchant council was disemboweled, beheaded or in chains. As General Sloan's company cornered the last, her lieutenants forced the Ulundi to his knees. As she approached, her captain pulled the councilor's head up to meet her gaze. A look of recognition flashed across his face and he spoke. "You? You are the Hammer of the Ulundi? Little Reega?"
Shocked, she paused. That voice. That face. It was Solumon Bardos, her most generous patron while she was still a young healer in the city a lifetime ago, before Portia opened the way for the dark lord and her fortunes… changed.
It had been her intent to sack the city, to levy a tax of blood and gold, but she halted the slaughter and for several hours held council with her old friend. He was an Ulund of reason. She could make him understand, and with his cooperation the city offered unconditional surrender. She was a tyrant and could be cruel, but she could also be compassionate. For his understanding and cooperation she paid him handsomely in silver.
By nightfall, with her orders to hold the city firmly in place, she turned on her reed mat inside her tent and pulled the warm fur up over her shoulder. The city was defeated, but it need not be crushed. Closing her eyes, she was pleased with her unexpected benevolence today, Portia's warnings be damned.
She felt a sharp pain in her temple and, for a moment, fell out of time.
When she woke, it was dark. Her wrists were bound behind her with coarse rope to a thick timber sunk into the ground where her war tent once stood. Her body ached. She could taste blood. It was not fresh. How long had she been out?
Glancing about, she could see the war camp was all but gone, dead horses, gutted boar and scattered goatskins from burned tents being all that remained. To her left, several battle worn Ulundi soldiers bearing the city's crest stood a few meters away, regarding her with murder in their eyes. To her right was a small fire over which an iron crucible, red hot, hung from a spit, some tin colored metal bubbling within. From behind her a familiar voice whispered into her ear.
"Where are your masters? Where is the black witch? Where is your gray god now, Little Reega?" It was Solumon. He stepped into view on her right, his hot breath on her cheek, rage dripping from every word. "They are gone," he jeered.
"When the wall fell it killed all seven of my daughters," he spat. "…my little calves. All dead." He paused to give her time to absorb the enormity of his hate. "Those of us not cowed by your victory today snuck out as night fell. We covered pigs in pitch and set them alight. They set fire to half your camp and the half that didnt burn scattered in terror at the ill omen. …and imagine our delight when we found you alone in your tent. Even your personal guard abandoned you." He smiled darkly.
She opened her mouth to speak but felt ropes tight around her snout. She managed only angry muffled grunts. "She wishes to speak?" he asked angrily. Then, gesturing to his captain, barked an order. "Open her mouth."
A pair of thick-armed Ulundi moved to either side of her, cutting the rope from her head and, before she could speak, forced a second rope in. Jerking it back in one swift motion, they pulled her upper jaw nearly flat against the timber behind her. The pain was overwhelming, her mouth now pulled impossibly wide.
"And as for my payment. You may have it back." The same pair that forced her mouth open moved to the fire, lifting the red hot crucible free with a pair of iron tongs.
The silver, she thought, and began to scream.
Threads of shadow wove between two figures and the kneeling General Sloan. Her thick wool cloak was draped about her as she knelt, still as a statue. Silus and his doomsayer, a dark Anachron time mage, loomed over her imperiously, while another figure stood quietly at the edge of the tent lantern's light. Silus released his grip on General Sloan's thick ceremonial robes, his hand hovering above her shoulder. Her eyes glittered like smooth black stones as she gazed mutely into the future the Anachron's scepter had cast into her mind. The great ring at the end of the time mage's iron scepter pulled free from the dark lord's other hand as he took a step back. The inky ropes of power dissolved in the air between the three of them as the void bond was broken.
General Sloan suddenly clawed with panicked hands at her throat until the sensation faded. Momentarily ashamed, she cleared her throat and stood slowly, the whites of her eyes returning like a swirl of milk in filth. "Is this certain?" she asked anxiously. "In how many futures am I slain?"
Silus and the Anachron exchanged a wordless glance. The doomsayer nodded, his face a mask of expressionless certainty. "Countless, General," the mage hissed between pursed lips. "Your compassion is a poison and in each where you indulge your 'better' nature you are flayed or gutted or burned." The mage tilted his head back, looking down his nose at her.
"Do you understand?" tittered the dark lord, the vapor from his scarlet eyes flaring. He sneered, his lips parting to reveal a loathsome smile. Death seeped from him like a poison. She could taste it in the air, feel it on her skin. Frustrated, she glanced nervously at her pale skinned lord, then back to the mage. This was not the triumph she was promised or expected.
"In how many do I take the city?" she demanded.
"In… one… alone," the gaunt Anachron replied slowly, forming his words with care as if catching himself wanting to concede more than the dark lord wished.
She met her master's gaze, defeated, and pried just as slowly, "What must I do, my Lord?"
Bringing his palms together under his chin he touched the tips of his thumbs to his throat. His gaze wandered upward, the gilded sleeves of his dark robes falling below his forearms. Licking his lips, he spoke; his eyes wild.
"Years ago they mocked your charity and you have returned with righteous judgment. Your cruelty must be complete; their punishment absolute." His eyes lolled in their sockets, the madness rising in his voice. "Of the heads of the elders, make a minaret. Of their soldiers' bones, build a trophy at the city gates and heap every tenth child upon a pyre that will burn for seven days and nights." Silus thundered, spittle visible on the corners of his mouth. "Our conquest turns on this day! Sorcery or no, their fear will be our final victory. Embrace your rage and no other city will dare resist us."
He was suddenly aware of himself and swallowed, lowering his arms. Running the flat of his palms down his collar to the sash at his waist, he composed himself. She held back a gasp. Her stomach turned as she considered the gravity of the command and then remembered her own death. Her hands tightened into fists.
Quietly he spoke again, "They must be… punished."
She nodded and turned to face the coming dawn creeping through the folds of the war tent's vestibule. Behind her, satisfied, Silus turned to the Anachron. In the growing light, Archmage Portia stepped from the shadows of the rear of the tent. The time mage nodded and gestured to the space between them with his black scepter. The weave and weft of the air warped inward as a pearl of onyx appeared at the warp's heart, erupting as it grew into a view of the Wizards' Council chambers, the light curving at the portal's rim like water on polished quartz. Portia stepped through first, then Silus. The time mage followed last, the sphere of light collapsing noiselessly behind them. The tent was silent. They were gone.
With his words fresh in her mind stoking the anguish of her death's vision, she let the cruelty of the image empty her of mercy, swelling her to bursting with hate. They would pay. The great shofar sounded again for the first time, sudden and horrible. With grim resolve she stepped from the tent and into the light of dawn.
Collect special Limited NFTs related to this story at https://www.splintertalk.io/nfts/
Story: Jeremy Stanton
Editor: Sean Ryan
Narrative Lead: Joey Shimerdla
Character Art (cover): Candycal
Illustrations: Ricardo Caria
Voice Acting: David Dahdah
Graphic Design: Tamer "Defolt" Oukour
Ending credits song: AfterSound
Creative Director: Nate Aguila