The army of Meer rose above the Jukan city like a second dawn. Over the crest of the mountains they came in mighty numbers, silent and sure on the jagged terrain, resplendent in a halo of magical light. From the ridgeline they surveyed the valley below, where a field of grey rooftops surrounded an immense fortress. The buildings seemed small in the radiance of the gathering Meer. The wind itself shrank from the luminous invaders, turning the valley somber and still.
But a darker force collected at the base of the mountain range. In troops the Juka outnumbered their enemies six to one, massing in the fields between the city and the slopes, swarming the passes through the steep, towering cliffs. Countless shields and spears stood ready. Catapults squatted amid a legion of archers. Standards flashed proudly in the morning sun, in testament to the Jukan hunger for battle.
The stillness of the valley faded as the Jukan army murmured, then rumbled, then roared its impatience at the cowardly Meer who hesitated before attacking.
From a high peak Dasha smirked at their exuberance. The Juka had not risen far above their savage roots. Their zeal was endearing in a childlike way. But like children, they did not comprehend the enemy they had wakened. The Meer would beset them like a brilliant storm. Revenge would be satisfying, and mournful as well. She would lament the death of Jukan innocence. Yet they had robbed her people of something more precious. They had summoned the storm upon themselves.
She prayed it would not mean the end of their race, for they were pawns of a genuine evil. Exodus was the true enemy of the Meer. Today she meant to prove it in the fires of combat.
When she was satisfied that the Jukan army had arrayed itself for battle, she lifted her hand and cast a spell. A golden beam shot into the sky. At the signal the Meer called upon the first of their allies.
For untold centuries had the mountains numbered among the Meers' closest friends. The exalted ancestors had shared in crystalline secrets that were hidden from the rest of the world. When the Juka destroyed Dasha's forest home, her people had taken refuge under the welcoming earth. Now they called upon that ancient alliance once more. The mountains answered with a rocky growl.
The Juka silenced when the cliffs began to shake. Then great slabs cracked loose high above the mountain passes. The Juka fled like a receding tide as boulders and rubble smashed atop them. Giant stone pillars split from the mountainsides and fell like thundering hammers. A cloud of dust engulfed the Juka, then the attack vanished into echoes.
The Meer watched silently as the dust rolled away. The Jukan forces assembled at the edge of the landslides. Their numbers were cut by a quarter.
With a peal of rage they challenged their enemy to face them once again.
The second attack was louder than the first. Where the cliffs had grumbled, the earth bellowed as it rose under the Jukas' feet. In a flash did the earthquake race across the valley floor like ripples on a giant pond. Great rifts sheared the ground and swallowed men and buildings. Segments of the city disappeared into swirls of dust and debris. What remained of the Jukan troop formations scattered into chaos and death.
Then from the ragged fissures in the earth flew many dark clouds that poured across the valley. From her high vantage, Dasha flinched at the sight. This was the most nightmarish attack of all. The elders had summoned a host of stinging insects. Their venom struck like poison arrows. They were refugees from the forest, as well, and so their wrath was doubly terrible. Dasha knew no Juka would escape their fury.
She closed her eyes when screams and smoke arose from the ruined city.
But she took a deep breath and steeled herself. The time had come to march on the Juka and finish the morning's work. The city and its fortifications would fall quickly. When she looked out at the great fortress, she saw only spare damage to its walls. There was no doubt that sorcery had saved it from the earthquake. With narrowed eyes she thought, I trust that means you're at home, Exodus.
Around her the ranks of the Meer quietly descended the mountainside. So gentle was their step that the treacherous footing posed no danger. The landslides had left behind high slopes of rubble, creating an easy path to the bleak battlefield. The glow of the warriors' enchantments bathed the valley in magical light. The army of insects drew back from the oncoming glare.
The Jukan soldiers, bloodied, disarrayed, poisoned and devastated, greeted the invaders with dauntless ferocity. The two sides clashed in a chorus of war cries. The earth would drink much more blood before the day had ended.
But Dasha did not join the advance Meer companies. Their purpose was to secure a path to the center of the city. Once this was accomplished, the Lore Masters and Matriarchs would enter the valley and cast the final stroke. Master Adranath had prepared an ancient ritual to seal the defeat of the Juka. Once it was performed, the old sorcerer promised, the threat to the Meer would cease.
Dasha thought better of the Juka than Adranath did. She would not see them destroyed forever. One last time she brought her case before the wizard, as he watched the battle from a high-flung ledge. With a bow she murmured, "Venerable Master, I beg you. Please delay your spell until I have reached Exodus. If we remove his influence, I am confident the Juka will return to their proper role."
The old man grunted. "Today shall witness the end of the Juka."
"They have already been punished. Surely they deserve to be freed from Exodus's control, to heal and reflect. The balance between the races --"
"We have been decimated! The old balance has ceased to exist. All that remains is revenge."
She lowered her tone. "I must respectfully disagree."
He opened a grimace that chilled her. "Your eyes betray your prejudice. You believe that my mind is addled, that old age has sapped my wisdom. But let me tell you the nature of age, Captain Dasha. Wisdom is an artifact of experience. Wisdom respects the inevitability of change. But the young know only established orders and customs, and so you are reluctant to accept change. This is why the young are trapped in the cycle of reincarnation. Your spirits are not yet confident enough to stand on their own." He regarded her with a disapproving sigh. "You must let go of the past. The Juka are not who they once were. Neither are we. Today the old order is finished."
She had no answer for the ancient wizard, yet her convictions remained. The Juka were not irredeemable. If she was simply being young and stubborn, the ancestors must judge her accordingly. She conjured the strength to match Adranath's gaze and said, "I shall try to reach Exodus unless you command me otherwise. If I have to do it before you cast your spell, then I respectfully ask to be on my way."
The grey-furred master twitched his ears. With a frown he muttered, "Do what you must, child. The passing of your soul will be sorrowful indeed. You might have been a great leader, in time."
"I shall yet be, Master."
Adranath ignored the boast with a grave expression. Dasha sprang down the mountainside with a prayer to the exalted ancestors: Take Master Adranath among you soon, for his earthbound soul is afflicted with gloom. Perhaps the crystal spires of the afterlife can restore his vigor.
A band of fifty warriors met her at the base of the slope. She led them into the clamorous horror that one hour before had been a city. The ground was ruffled and cracked, buildings lay toppled and burning, the victims of the stinging insects wailed in swollen pain. Yet the Jukan warriors fought on. Quick and brutal were the battles Dasha met. Before she reached the fortress walls, two hundred Juka lay slain in her path. A dozen of her own company had fallen as well.
Before them loomed the mighty fortress, its stones barely marked by the day's terrible events. She gathered her warriors to scale the high wall. Their enchantments still shone in the smoke of war, repelling the arrows of the Juka who manned the parapets. As the Meer started to climb, another light appeared. Dasha did not recognize the spell. So, Exodus, she smiled, you are inside! But what trick do you have for us now? The light seemed to encompass the entire valley. She braced for some effect, when her spine suddenly tingled. The valley was not aglow. She was aglow. The spell was directed at her.
And a moment later she stood in a chamber she presumed was inside the fortress. A ring of Jukan warriors surrounded her, their spears penning her at the center of the floor. They looked unaffected by quakes and insects, save for the largest among them. Warlord Kabur must have returned here from the front lines. His armor was pale with dust from the landslides. His emerald skin cascaded with angry stings. Blood painted his massive form. Dasha knew that it was not Jukan blood.
"You are mad to come," snarled the giant warrior.
"I am here because of your own honor," she replied, "since you left me a weapon in the cave. You gave me life and I thank you for it. And yet you did not cast the spell that reeled me into this room. Where is your lord Exodus? It is he with whom I have business this morning."
"And I with you," boomed a deep voice. It emerged from the shadows of an alcove. Dasha could not see into the darkness, except for the sparkle of a few gemstones. "Forgive an improper welcome, Captain Dasha, but the day has been a busy one."
"Surely you know why I have come. You have corrupted the Juka. I mean to restore the old balance between our peoples."
"Yes, you must save the Juka, but I am not the target you want. There is greater treachery afoot at the hands of your Lore Master Adranath. He seeks to restore a balance, as well. The ritual he intends to perform will erase the Juka from Ilshenar. And Captain Dasha, the Meer shall fall with them. Adranath seeks the tranquility of oblivion for both races. Time runs short for us all."
And she knew that Exodus spoke the truth, for he had identified the nature of Adranath's despair. Now she understood the Lore Master's statement, All that remains is revenge. Her body shot through with icy panic. The ancient wizard had indeed gone mad. And she was the only Meer who would dare to stop him.
Her tone was sharp and low. "Damn you, sorcerer, for putting this on me! But I'll need help. Come, Warlord Kabur, if you have the courage to stand against a Meer elder."
The Juka seemed trapped between a frown and a laugh, but he answered by lifting his bloody spear in an abbreviated form of salute.
From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, December 21st, 2001.