Dann returned to find that the Ardaithe had put up a tent. He carefully entered, not wishing to disturb the discussion their leader had with Cullean. They looked at him as he entered and Cullean nodded.
“Sir, the raiders are aware of our presence. They have shut the gate and manned the walls,” he reported to Cullean and knight-commander Niéllac.
“Naturally,” Niéllac commented. “What is your estimation of their numbers?”
“Based on the ambush and my observations of their keep, it would be about forty, including roughly fifteen wounded men.”
“Excellent work, Danneal,” Niéllac complimented. “You’ve earned yourself a meal and some rest.”
Dann raised an eyebrow in surprise. Few people even knew his full name. “Thank you, sir,” he said and saluted before leaving the tent.
He eagerly went looking for a meal. Noon had long since passed, and he spent a good time observing the keep. He was practically starving. The camp was organized with perfect discipline, command tent in the middle, surrounded by a few other tents and fires. One of them looked like a cook’s fire and he headed over with a rumbling stomach.
In the tent, Niéllac peered over the old parchment of the keep’s construction drawing. He had taken it with him, when he left Ardú, having long suspected the keep to have fallen into the hands of raiders. Many of the lines had faded, but it was still legible. “Here,” he pressed his finger on a faded spot. “This is the keep’s secret entrance.”
Cullean bowed over the drawing for a closer look. “I’ll take your word for it, Sir,” he replied. “Do you propose that we sneak into the castle by night?”
“No,” Niéllac said decisively. “It would have been a valid plan, if we could wait until nightfall. But it allows us a two-pronged assault. You and your men will enter through the tunnel, while we shall break through the main gate.”
“We’ll need to prepare siege weapons, then,” the old veteran replied.
“Leave that to us,” Niéllac told him. “I want you and your men to find this secret entrance. It’s been out of use for almost hundred and fifty years, so it may not be easy to find, or even intact. Find it, and scout it, but wait for my signal before you attack.”
“Of course, my lord,” Cullean saluted and left.
“Wouldn’t it be better to keep them out of this fight entirely?” A silver-eyed knight asked. “I mean, if you really suspect a demon in there…”
“I’ve kept them out of the main fight. However, I cannot deny them their involvement. Let the Angels watch over them,” Niéllac told the knight and walked out of the tent.
The silver knight saluted. “I shall gather the men, then.”
Niéllac gave a miniscule nod, his eyes fixated on the highest of the keep’s four towers. His gaze pierced through the canopy, seeing clearly the dark man standing on the tower. The golden light of his eyes met the darkness of the demon.
The demon looked down on him and smiled. “You really think it’s going to be that simple, don’t you?” he taunted. “You have sand in your eyes.” The wind carried his mocking voice to Niéllac’s ears.
As if on queue, a slight tremor shook the ground. The tower trembled. Dust and small pieces of weathered stone fell from the walls.
“Catch me if you can,” he laughed as he descended back down into the keep.
Niéllac watched the demon disappear from the tower. If that black-eyed fool really thought that a few taunts would shake his resolve, he clearly had not dealt with an Ardaithe before.
He turned to the twenty knights that had lined up behind him: “A powerful demon hides in this keep. He has abducted an ambassador and her knight, not realizing the swiftness of our retaliation. The short-sighted never see what they stumble into before it’s too late. He now hopes that a few old, crumbled walls and a ragtag band of raiders will protect him. It shows him twice a fool.”
In tight formation, they marched on to the closed gates. As they approached, bandits appeared on the walls and started to wildly fire their bows at them. Niéllac’s knights instantly formed a wall of shields, forming a complete cover from the arrows. They moved on under the shieldwall until they reached the doors.
The heavy doors were barred and reinforced. “I am a son of the heavens and the earth will bow to me,” Niéllac whispered. As the wood darkened, he took out his mighty hammer and struck the door. It rattled in its hinges. He struck again and splinters fell off. At his third strike, the doors swung open and burst into flames. “Devilry!” He shielded his eyes from the fire as he jumped into the keep to escape the heat.
His knights instantly followed. They leapt through the flames and charged the raiders. The enemy was quickly routed. Some fled into the tower, while others jumped off the wall.
For a moment, Niéllac contemplated the option of giving chase but quickly dismissed the thought as a second tremor shook the earth, slightly more so than the previous one. Unmistakably the work of that demon. “Silence,” he told the earth, and it was silent. “I will not tolerate anymore of this Devilry.”
With but one gesture, Niéllac commanded his knights to return to him. The raiders were irrelevant while the real threat remained inside. He commanded five of his knights to stay out and keep watch, taking the others inside. Ten of his knights would quickly search the keep for the two captives and the remaining five followed him to the main hall, where the demon would undoubtedly make his last stand.
He found the doors to the main hall encased in a wall of ice, with a strange symbol written on the doors. The ice was brittle and full of holes. With one good kick, he shattered the ice and the doors slowly swung open. As he stepped forth, the demon came up from his makeshift throne on the other side of the room. “Welcome to my humble abode, oh golden one,” he said friendly, though with a hint of malice, as he spread his arms and bowed.
A third tremor shook up the room. Dust and crumbling rock came down from the walls. “I’m afraid I’m a bit behind on maintenance. Almost two hundred years, I guess,” the demon said playfully.
“This keep was built to last, demon. Your plan to bring it down upon us through foul devilry is as futile as it is transparent,” Niéllac said as he advanced, sword pointing at the demon.
“You say that with such certainty. A thin veil of words to shroud the fragility of your hopes,” the demon grinned as he drew a sword of his own. The knight attacked and he deftly parried the first strike. The other knights started to surround him.
“Tell me where the captives are, and I’ll grant you the mercy of a painless death,” Niéllac offered.
The demon laughed, as if Niéllac just told a joke. “You won’t find him in this keep. Or anywhere near it,”
“Don’t try to lie to me. We tracked them here,” Niéllac struck again but still met the demon’s blade.
The demon simply smirked. “I thought a Golden one would know when he’s being lied to. He’s not here.”
“My men will find them soon enough,” Niéllac said. “Do you want to wait for them to be found and proven incorrect, or shall I put you out of your misery now?”
“Just try,” the demon taunted. He evaded from the encircling knights but it was futile. They were driving him into a corner. Soon, there would be no evading anymore.
Just as victory was ensured, a volley of arrows came from a balustrade. Niéllac sent his knights to deal width the raiders while he circled around the demonbto keep the archers in his sight.
His attacks drove the monster back to the centre of the hall. The dark man simply kept parrying and evading, never attempting a counterattack. It was clear that he was stalling, even though he was out of tricks and traps.
Despite the earlier tremors, the earthquake came sudden and unexpected. It violently shook up the keep. The sound of walls crumbling in the distance echoed through the keep. Barely an instant later, one of the hall’s pillars collapsed and the ceiling came crashing down. The knight used his shield to ward of the debris.
With the ceiling came also the keep’s arsenal, which had been stored right above the main hall. Spears, swords and more surged towards him. He quickly leapt aside, but his left shoulder was caught by a falling stone and he lost his balance.
As he tried to regain his footing, the demon had picked up a javelin, which now flew straight at him and lodged itself in his raised shield. It was immediately followed by an axe. Niéllac discarded the now heavy and unwieldy shield. Well before he had steadied himself, the demon launched himself with outstretched sword-arm. He barely managed to turn his body away and heard the sword whistle past his neck. The demon instantly turned the blade to lock with Niéllac’s before he had a chance to retaliate and his left hand swung a heavy, spiked mace upwards into the knight’s gut.
The spikes penetrated his armour and the crushing force left him breathless. As he buckled over, the demon backhanded the pommel of his sword into the back of his skull. His vision blurred and blackened. With his last strength, Niéllac thrust his sword into his opponent’s unarmoured chest before passing out.