February 15, TA 3019/AD 1200
Kulin of Bosnia was an unhappy man. He led his army north for a cause not his own, and one that his support of was half-hearted at best. His nominal overlord, the younger son of Bela III, said man having largely blackmailed him into marching to his aid, a fact that did not fill the Ban with zeal to support his so-called ‘ally’. The man, barely more than a boy, that sat on the throne of Hungary was no great man worth dying for: the crown had fallen to him only by default, not out of any loyalty or desire of his people. He was haughty and proud, his ego far larger than any skill that he possessed. The Self-Proclaimed King, in all his arrogance, probably liked to believe that Kulin had come to his aid because the latter was actually afraid of what the former might to do him. The Ban could almost laugh at such thoughts. As if Andrew’s veiled threats were his main concern.
In truth, it was a certain kind of fear that motivated him, but it was not fear of the immature child that claimed to rule Hungary. Kulin marched far more out of fear of the Serbs, and especially fear of the Bulgars, then out of any sort of loyalty to his nominal overlord. Tsar Kaloyan, ambitious, strong-willed and openly expansionsist, was more frightening to the Ban of Bosnia than brother of King Emeric could ever be. The Bulgar made no illusions about his aims for total domination of the Balkans. Other Orthodox nations he might have tolerated: Bosnia, no doubt, would not receive such a mercy.
And so Kulin had led his army out, to aid a man that he could barely stand against one that he outright despised. Larger threats, it seemed, made such allies as Andrew of Hungary seem much more appealing. For all of his failings, though, the Self-Proclaimed King had at least put together a half-decent plan. It was a simple thing: the Hungarians had turned northwards, drawing in the larger, but slower, Bulgar and Serbian forces, buying time for the Bosnians to arrive in the field. Andrew would hold a partially fortified hill against Kaloyan and Stefan’s combined assault, trying to hold out until Kulin’s arrived to turn the tide. Ideally, the two armies would act like a hammer and an anvil, smashing the Orthodox between them, crushing Kaloyan’s invasion before it could fully develop.
The battle, then, would be well underway by the time that Kulin arrived, and he was well prepared for such a sight to meet him. Despite the relative peacefulness of his reign, the Ban was no stranger to war. He knew well what men could do to each other when properly motivated. This, he suspected, would be no different. The men of the Balkans would act as men had done throughout all of history, but no more than that. He had no idea how very wrong he was.
The first sign that something had gone wrong were the stragglers. These were lone men or small groups, fleeing southwards, most in some way wounded, their eyes wide in terror as they stumbled into Kulin’s path. Such a thing was not terribly rare thing near a battlefield, to be sure: the sight of those trying to escape death or capture was a typical sight whenever battle was joined. But these were neither deserters or the remnants of a routing army: The former would have been in far better shape, such men usually abandoning the battle long before receiving such grievous wounds, and the latter would have all been under the same colors. These men instead were Hungarians, Serbs and Bulgars alike, most of them babbling almost incoherently, tears flowing freely down their cheeks as the muttered about demons and monsters and the End of the World, clutching at terrible wounds and moaning in agony.
His already sour mood worsening with every one of these men that he encountered, the Ban of Bosnia pressed on northwards, the whole army becoming more and more wary as they did so. Kulin thought, perhaps, that it was some kind of trick, a diversion to stop him from coming to Andrew’s aid, a distraction by the Bulgars to keep him at bay. He desperately hoped that it was such a thing, the alternative options being too horrible for him to even contemplate. He tried, without success, to stop such dark thoughts from entering his mind, his hand tightening around the hilt of his blade and his frown deepening with every mile.
Either way, however, he would have to see the truth himself. He did not trust the ramblings of these men who seemed to have gone almost mad due to whatever waited for him in the north, and did not dare believe that they spoke the truth. Whatever had happened, he would have to lay his own eyes upon it before doing anything else. At least he would not have to wait much longer: they were drawing close now. The sounds of battle, of clanging metal and screaming and dying men echoed out from the north, carried far on the winter winds, still somewhat distant but clear across the frozen plains. But the familiar noises of a war were joined by others, sounds that were alien to Kulin’s ears, great cries and roars and bellows that no man he knew of could have made. The column slowed, every step forwards now made in trepidation, as the men of Bosnia steeled themselves for whatever was to come. Their Ban led them on, mentally preparing for the worst. In times such as these, ignorance could be deadlier than any blade. He had to know. He had to see.
But when they crested the last hill and looked out across the field of battle, that the men of Bosnia saw was worse than anything that they could have imagined. Andrew, was there, certainly, along with Kaloyan and Stefan of Serbia and all their armies, but the battle being waged was unlike any that Kulin could have possibly expected. Rather than facing each other, the men of Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria had joined together into a singular force, and besieging them from all sides was monsters that had come out of the Book of Revelation: twisted demons, monstrous wolves, scarred giants and above them all a screaming demon atop a terrible flying beast, screaming in a foul tongue that made Kulin’s blood freeze in his veins. Blood covered the ground, the whole landscape turned red, and it was joined by the corpses of thousands upon thousands of men and monsters alike.
To a man, the men of Bosnia stood frozen in a stupor, dumbly taking in the unimaginable sight before them. What they saw before them confirmed their worst and darkest fears: All the whispers that they had heard, of monsters and demons storming the earth, of the Legions of Hell taking up arms against world of men, of the End of Times, were, unless they disbelieved their own eyes, completely true. In truth, the hushed tales and whispers that had made their way to Bosnia did little justice to what they saw now: this was all their nightmares come to life, every fear and buried dread they had ever had given passage into the material world. What they saw before them was horror incarnate.
The whole army wavered, slowly taking steps backwards. Kulin couldn’t blame them: his own first instinct was to turn around and start moving back southwards as quickly as possible. What could he possibly hope to do in the face of such evil? His own force was relatively small, and it seemed far more likely that joining battle would result in the death of most of his men then in winning victory against the Devil’s horde, who far outweighed the remnants of the other armies of men. He could see the remaining forces of Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria beginning to flag and fail, their lines slowly giving way despite the manic ferocity of those trying to hold them. Their defeat was all but inevitable by this point. The reasonable thing to do would be to retreat, using what was left of the the other armies to cover his escape. It was in his best interest to withdraw. To live.
And then what? The question entered his mind largely unbidden, almost as if it was not his own thought, but rather that of some other, invisible interrogator, whispering into his soul. No matter where the query came from, Kulin quickly realized that he did not have a good answer to give it. As he turned the question over in his mind, weighing his options, several realizations struck him, epiphanies that he could not escape.
Even if he escaped any sort of pursuit from the Legions of Hell, by no means a given thing, what would be, what could be, the Ban of Bosnia’s next step? He could return to Bosnia, prepare its defenses and summon help from...where, exactly? Before him stood what were probably the three strongest armies in the Balkans, battling as one against the dark. If they were to fall this day, who would be left? The Byzantines, who had gutted their military and could barely keep their own hinterlands under control? Bulgaria and Serbia, who had likely already called out their best men for this battle, leaving reserves of both lower quality and lesser quantity? Hungary, already missing its King and God only knew how many of its people? The Poles, on the far side of Hell itself? Distant Italy? The ever-feuding Holy Roman Empire? If this day was lost...then what hope could there be for tomorrow? From what nation could help possibly come from? Bosnia could not possibly stand by itself against this storm. If the armies before him fell, who would be left to ally with?
As such thoughts made their way through Kulin’s mind, the Ban of Bosnia looked out over the battlefield, watching as the monsters and demons did their manic best to tear apart the combined armies of men. Looking closer, looking beyond his initial beliefs of inevitable doom, Kulin realized that, somehow, the battle was not yet truly lost. Yes, the lines of the men were buckling and wavering under the constant assaults of Devil’s spawn, but they had yet to break. Black blood, presumably that of the monsters, caked the earth just as much as the red blood of men, the soldiers of the Balkans paying back with interest every drop that the devils extracted from them. They were like cornered wolves, flurries of blades and teeth and death, striking down all that they could. The term ‘they fought like demons’ would be inaccurate: in comparison to the monsters all around them, they seemed to be fighting somewhat better.
But still, they wouldn’t last much longer, for all their courage and desperation. The black waves that broke against them threatened ever more to drag them under, sheer weight of numbers burying the men with flesh and blood and iron. Eventually, inevitably, the dam would burst, and the tide of shadow would sweep away the last vestiges of resistance. From there, the black wave would roar southwards, through what was left of Hungary, through Bosnia, Serbia, into Bulgaria and beyond, consuming all in its path, drowning everything in darkness. They would become utterly unstoppable, shattering whatever small resistance could hope to be raised against them. The whole of the Balkans and beyond would be lost. Unless, of course, someone shored up the dam…
Kulin took a deep breath, turning back to look over his men. He could see the fear within them, the abject terror. They quaked in their boots, eyes wide and faces pale. He could feel it in his own veins, his blood running cold, threatening to freeze him solid. He feared the Legions of Hell. He knew well that this battle could well already be lost. He knew that if he committed his men, he could well be sending them to their deaths. He knew how much the scale had been weighted against him.
He wanted to run, and many parts of his mind were still screaming at him to do so. He wanted to turn away before the demons set their eyes on him and his men, eager to devour them. He wanted to flee back to Bosnia, hole up inside his castle and wait for help. He wanted to cower from the Devil, wanted to curl up into a ball and beg God to save him. He did not want to face this threat.
But If every lord of every nation hid themselves away, who would be left to fight against the dark? If not he, if not his men, if not here and now, while there was still hope for the light to claim victory, then who would stand, and when? Who could possibly save the men before him, so courageous and valiant in their defiance of the shadow? Who could possibly live with the guilt of abandoning them to die?
With a deeply troubled sigh, his stomach turning over in dread, the Ban of Bosnia realized what he had to do. Kulin considered himself a devout man, despite the accusations of heresy that the Serbs had levelled against him. In the seemingly ever-changing political landscape of the Balkans, it had been one of the few things that he had been able to reach for for stability and strength. Regardless of what claims others made about the legitimacy of his faith, the Lord had seen fit to bless him with a long, prosperous and relatively peaceful reign, a good sign that the Father, at least, saw him as a faithful servant. Now, it seemed that said servant was being called upon. The men before them, surely, must be praying to the Lord for their salvation.
And despite all his fears, all his outright terror at the prospect before him, Kulin realized that God had made him and his army the instrument that would save them.
Khamul threw the Fell Beast into a steep dive, evading yet another volley of arrows. The damned Gondorians were living up to their reputations as expert marksman, shot after shot rising up towards the Nazgul and his mount, forcing the Second of the Nine to keep their distance. Even after hours of fighting, they managed to skill scrounge up enough arrows to keep up the fire, salvaging the black shafts of Khamul’s own orcs from the bodies of the dead and dying among their allies and enemies alike, firing the weapons of Mordor back at the servants of Sauron.
Their newfound allies fought on as well, the lesser men of this new world through skill and valor and sheer, utter desperation managing to hold their own against the Host of Mordor. With tooth and nail and elbow and fist they met the orcs again and again and again, refusing to yield or break, their lines still steadfast against the endless onslaught. They had paid a monstrous price to do so: their broken bodies covered the ground like a blanket of torn flesh, blood staining the snow red, those that remained alive and fighting nearly to a man mauled in some way by the days fighting, with crooked limbs or torn skin or open wounds or some combination of the three.
The same was true of the orcs: heaping piles of corpses had been erected by the fighting, a practical sea of black blood had soaked the ground. Thousands of Sauron’s slaves lay unmoving, thousands more mauled and bloodied. It was a higher price than the Ringwraith had intended to pay, but unfortunately for the men of the Balkans, it was one that they were perfectly willing to pay. The Host of Mordor remained vast, plenty of fresh flesh ready to be thrown into the grinder, while the army of men had slowly but surely withered away, dissolving in the sea of blood at their feet. It was clear that exhaustion was taking its toll: the movements of the men were slowing, becoming ever more sluggish and weak. Simple number had begun to show, and the black noose had once more closed around the neck of those that had opposed the will of Sauron.
But just as it had seemed that the day would be surely be won, that the strength of the men would finally fail and the Nazgul could finally claim victory, yet another army of reinforcements had arrived in the field, renewing the flagging courage of the men, who now found within themselves one last gasp to give. The newcomers charged in with with reckless abandon, cutting through the orcs and joining with the rest of the men, their desperately needed strength giving new life to the struggle. The newly-bolstered ranks, so shortly before sagging and about to break under the weight of the orcs’ assault, now hardened, beating back the continued attacks with refilled vigor, the few cracks that had been opened up in the defenses quickly filled with fresh, if not eager, men.
The Nine were said to have had more of an undeath than a life. They were said to be shadows, pale imitations of the living, once mighty kings reduced to meager echoes of themselves. They were shades, their Rings of Power leaving them as spectres who could be seen only by those who could see into the wraith world, enslaved utterly to Sauron’s will. Their unliving flesh could not feel the warmth of the sun or the cold of the winter wind, the bite of a blade or the embrace of a lover. The mangled remains of their souls could hold no joy within them. One thing, and one thing alone, could the Nazgul feel: wrath.
Khamul felt that wrath now, that black fire that had been all that they could truly call their own these long millennia. Fury burned within them, fury without direction or distinction. The Black Shadow of the East was furious at the armies of men, who continued to defy the might of Mordor, even as they paid an ever-growing price in blood for standing their ground. He was furious with the Rangers of Ithilien, whose precise shots with bow and arrow threatened to strike his mount, keeping the Black Rider at bay. He was furious at his own forces, bungling orcs and mindless trolls that had been so far unable to crush the men’s resistance. He was furious even at himself, for inadvertently helping forge the very alliance he had sought to prevent. His shrieks grew ever more outraged, becoming a near constant scream of raw, unbridled anger. Their rage seemed to leak out into the air around them, the winds gaining a dread chill as the Fell Beast pulled into a dive, their wings beating faster and faster, too fast for the archers below to take and accurate shot, their lone defense against the terrible creature rendered useless by the monster’s swiftness. The Nazgul charged into the fray, their terrible scream sounding out over the plains as they struck like a bolt of lightning into the melee below.
Their first pass was aimed at those accursed Rangers, even as they desperately tried to bring their bows up to drive him off once more. They tore through the damned Gondorians like a knife tearing through paper, the claws of the Fell Beast skewering those that hadn’t thrown themselves out of the way or to the ground fast enough, the jaws of the creature swallowing up several others into its gaping maw. The Second of the Nazgul quickly circled around for another pass, this one aimed at cluster of reserves being thrown towards the front lines. They scattered like rats before a lion, madly trying to stay out of the Ringwraith’s path, some throwing down their weapons in terror at the Nazgul’s cries.
Khamul came around for another pass, then another and another. They were like a wolf among a flock of lambs, gouging bloody swaths into the ranks of the men, wide gashes in their defenses through which the orcs poured like water through a cracked dam. The men scrambled to fill the breaches, fighting to hold back the raging tide with the mad strength of terror and desperation, hacking away with any weapon they could find or even their bare hands. They plugged the holes as best they could, with shields and blades and spears and their own flesh.
But every for every gap that was closed, the Black Shadow of the East opened a second, then a third and a fourth, far faster than the men could possibly hope to fill them. Soon, what few reserves that they had had left had been exhausted, and hole after hole after hole began to open in their defenses.
The line was breached, what was once a solid formation slowly becoming a group of isolated pockets, the army of men starting to collapse. This was it. Finally, he would have victory. Finally, the men would be broken, the fire of their resistance crushed beneath his heel. Oh, they still fought like the cornered rats that they were, working to either fight their way out to the south or simply to bring down as many orcs with them as they could, but now there would be no salvation, no other army coming to their rescue. Here, finally, was the end. Khamul roared in what was the closest thing to delight that a Wraith could achieve as they cut into what remained of the army of men, their victory all but assured. It would take an act of the Valar themselves, or perhaps even more than that, to defeat him now.
Having been sorely tempted, Fate decided to intervene: Not so much as a moment after such thoughts began to cross the dark place that could be called the Nazgul’s mind, the Lieutenant of the Ringwraiths began to feel...something, something within the Wraith World they inhabited. It was like a building storm just beyond the horizon, a buzzing in the air. It was a feeling that they had never felt before, inasmuch as a Ringwraith could feel anything at all. It was impossible to ignore: the storm grew and grew, moving in from the edge of Khamul’s awareness, slowly seeming to come closer and closer…
And then the Nazgul felt as if they were aflame, their whole essence burning as if it had been cast into the flames of the Orodruin. It was as if the whole dark realm in which their soul had been ensnared was burning, the whole of the Wraith World being torn apart and reformed and torn apart and reformed again. Agony, a feeling alien to Khamul for centuries, if not millennia, tore through the Black Rider, their spasms of pain pulling driving their mount into a frenzy, the Fell Beast straying all across the sky like a leaf caught in the wind.
Below, the whole host of Mordor seemed to have paused, like puppets who’s strings, while not outright cut, had gone slack. By and large it was the power of Sauron that drove them forwards, the hatred and fury of the Dark Lord like a whip at their backs, focused by the presence of his thrall the Ringwraith. But now the Nazgul, the lens through which the dark might of the Enemy was focused, was in disarray, unable to guide their dark master’s power effectively, and the driving force that was Sauron’s wrath was no longer placed upon this single spot. The whole assault, for the moment had attacked, the orcs no longer pressing their attack. Instead, they looked to the sky, confused and fearful, watching the Black Shadow of the East writhe in agony, unsure of what to make of the sight.
They simply stood there, waiting for something to happen.
Emeric of Hungary was like a dead man walking, a battered and ravaged corpse that should have long ago fallen into a grave. His cloak of mail was torn asunder, most of the links cut apart or having fallen away, the tunic beneath all but cut apart. His sword was nicked and chipped, covered in black blood from hilt to tip, clutched with white knuckles. Wounds of all kinds covered his body, his blood slowly dripping from many of them, his skin bruised and blackened in many places. His movements were slow and stiff, his breath heavy, his steps heavy. He looked as if he would tumble over dead at the slightest touch.
It was almost a miracle that he had even managed to reach the field of battle. Weeks of running and hiding from the beasts, of being hunted by them like some wild animal, of seeing his nation put to the torch, its people slaughtered like vermin, had left him nearly broken. He had marched south almost in a daze behind the mysterious company of men that had taken him in, completely unfeeling to all the horrors that he had passed, indifferent to all those that had fallen by the roadside, having seen so many that it no longer grieved him.
In the deepest, darkest place within his heart, where all his troubles accumulated and no light reached, he had almost wished to join them, to simply lay down and let all the horrors that he had seen go away, to go to sleep and simply never wake up. He was unsure of why he carried on. It simply seemed so...pointless. Defeat had already come. Death was all that he could look forwards to. His thoughts had entered that dark place and for some time had refused to return. He was almost dragged onwards, by the handful of his guard that remained or by other refugees or by those that seemed to have sworn themselves to their protection, his journey continuing only because others refused to let their King die. But his condition did not improve. He seemed barely aware of the march at times, stumbling on in a cold stupor.
And then they had come across the battlefield. Here, finally, some small spark seemed to have returned to him. Emeric watched as the armies of those that so recently he would have called his mortal foes, sworn enemies that he would have tried to cut down in an instant if given the chance, defied the dark, standing like a lantern in the black night. He watched as they had stood as one, disloyal vassals and plotting neighbors and traitorous kin, defying a far worse evil than all of their machinations put together, sworn enemies becoming like brothers. He had watched the as the demons, those that had slaughtered those that he had been charged to rule and protect, assailed them from all sides, those twisted creatures of Hell that had brought so much suffering down upon his people, and saw that yes, they were mortal after all, and bled just as readily as any man did. The tiny spark that the sight ignited within him warmed him, his heart and his soul, and finally his thoughts left the black pit in which they had become ensnared.
Feeling returned to him, the small spark that had been reignited within him grew and grew, taking on the form of a terrible, vengeful wrath that built hotter and hotter as he watched the battle rage. The men stood tall, the jaws of defeat not yet closed around them. If others would join them, they might not close at all. Here, finally, was a chance, a chance to pay back some small fraction of the terrors done to his people, a chance to defy the dark, a chance at some meaningful victory over the Legions of Hell. And without hesitation, Emeric leapt at the opportunity.
The remnants of his own men and and those that had guarded him in the wilderness joined the battle, adding whatever strength that they had left to that of the other armies, coming to the aid of those that they would have called traitors and heretics and invaders mere weeks before. As the battle had raged all around him, the King of Hungary was like an avenging Angel, reigning down death and judgement upon those that had laid his nation low, taking revenge for all that he had seen fall at their hands. Emeric fought like a madman, throwing himself with reckless abandon into the thickest parts of the melee, his eyes wild, roaring like a great lion as he fought to gain justice for the people of Hungary.
The other lords of the peoples of the Balkans were not to be outdone, each performing their own feats of strength and valor against the shadow: there was his brother Andrew, proving to all that saw him that he was just as dangerous with a blade as with his tongue, lashing out like a viper whenever an enemy approached, and there besides him Kaloyan the Bulgar, the man doing well to live up to his reputation as a great warrior, showing the strength that some claimed made him worthy of the title of Emperor; Stefan of Serbia stood tall as well, shouting encouragement to his men, keeping his banner held high like a beacon to all that fought against the dark, filling all that heard him with courage and hope; the leader of those that had found Emeric, the man who bore the symbol of seven stars above a white tree, was a true master of the craft of swordsmanship, his movements swift and almost graceful as he carved through demon after demon after demon; even Kulin of Bosnia, the latecomer to the fray, was making up for lost time, plunging his spear into demons and their monstrous wolves and even into the legs of giants. The men took heart as they watched their Kings and Princes and Bans and Tsars defy the shadows, encouraged by the actions of their lords, and they did all they could to live up to such examples, putting up a display that any army throughout history would have been proud to call their own.
But for all their righteous wrath, all their vengeful might, all their skill and courage and valor, the men of Hungary and Serbia and Bosnia and Bulgaria and Gondor, that ragtag army so suddenly formed, forged by fires of desperation and battle, was near defeat. For some time they had held back the raging tide, somehow holding their lines against the endless attacks. But then the Black Rider, that demon on high, had descended from the skies, too swift for any arrow to strike, and had torn through their defenses, gouging holes for the monsters to pour through. Faster than it takes to tell, the lines of the men were broken, the twisted creatures that assailed them running amok through their tattered formations.
Whatever hope that they had had left left them now. Simple numbers now would be their doom. At best, perhaps two out of every five of their combined number remained even alive, fewer still in any condition to fight; the enemy could call upon nearly twice their number. Despair ate away at what little remained of their courage, even the hardiest among them beginning to believe that doom was certain. Though they fought on even as the relentless attack continued, it was not out of hope in victory, or even escape. No, they fought out of utter desperation, or simply to drag as many of the demons as they could down with them.
It was at this time that Emeric found himself besides his brother, both men having stumbled back towards what they at least thought was the center of the army, trying their best to rally those around them back together, to gather them together to either break out or mount a final stand. The King of Hungary looked at the man who had tried to usurp him: his mail had been cut open in a dozen places, and several wounds were visible beneath what remained. A deep gash cut across his face, his left eye obscured by blood. Andrew looked back, a grimace on his face, his breath heavy. Even as the battle continued all around them, silence seemed to fall between the two men.
“I always suspected that one of us would end up dying besides the other,” the younger son of Bela III remarked, panting to catch his breath.
“As did I. But I do not think I am alone in believing that it would be at the other’s hand” Emeric replied, a bitter smile on his lips.
Andrew gave a half-smirk in reply, no mirth in his eyes. “Just another thing that you were wrong about, brother.”
Emeric grunted, shaking his head. Here they were, with the world ending around them, and his fool brother was still insulting him. Some people never changed, did they? Taking a deep breath to try and steady himself, the King of Hungary turned back towards the battle, looking for any hope that there might be left. He found none: the men still fought like wild beasts, but they were slowly being cut off from each other, forced into isolated pockets to be destroyed at leisure. Everywhere he looked were the dead and the dying and the endless sea of monsters that had produced them. As he breathed, he felt his wounds calling out to him, each one screaming for his attention. He watched as the demons began to close in on where he stood. He shook his head again, his fists clenching, before he almost burst out in mad laughter. Of all the people that he might have died besides, it would have to be Andrew. Given the past month of his life, it didn’t fully surprise him.
Emeric closed his eyes, waiting to feel the blade or bite of one of the demons that approached him. The fire that had burned within him for the last few hours, fueled by his anger and spite, began to flicker and die as the weight of the moment began to fall upon his shoulders, all the grief and pain of the past few weeks returning to him in this instant. His mind returned once more to dark thoughts: Here he was, a broken shell of a man. Everything that he had ever worked for, in a matter of days, had been utterly destroyed. The realm entrusted by God to his rule all but shattered at his feet. Demons and monsters walking the earth, surrounding and hunting him, the only ones left that he could call allies either heretics that would have tried to kill him days before or his traitor brother or strange men that he didn’t even know the name of. He was cold, tired and hungry, his whole body burning with pain, begging for relief. The King of Hungary breathed slowly, feeling as what little of his fury remained left him, every part of him simply...hollow. He dropped to his knees, no longer able to muster the strength or will to stand, uncaring about what happened next.Then he waited. He waited for it all to end. Slowly, all around him, silence fell, and Emeric almost smiled as the world seemed to finally melt away. There was only peace now. Only silence.
Complete and total silence.
Then, his brother, almost in a whisper: “What in God’s name is this?”
Emeric opened his eyes, a flicker of annoyance at the interruption of his oblivion. What he saw before him, though, could not have been any kind of afterlife. It looked nearly the exact same as the scene he had just left. In fact, his body still radiated pain, and he could feel the cold wind upon his exposed skin. Despite everything, it seemed that he was still alive. Growling, Emeric moved to stand, using his sword like a crutch. He wondered, idly, why he wasn’t dead. Or maybe he was, and this was hell. It seemed that Andrew was here: if there was a perfect, eternal punishment for the King of Hungary, that would probably be it.
If this was not hell, then there was something very strange going on. The battlefield looked unchanged, but yet something was different, totally and completely. It took him a moment to place what it was: silence. The screams of men and monster, the hacking of swords, the tearing of flesh...for some reason, it had all stopped. The King of Hungary looked around at the battlefield. The demons, God only knew why, had ceased their assault. They stood still, seeming unsure of themselves, many looking warily towards the sky.
Emeric followed their gaze, and what he saw filled broke his soul once more from darkness and filled it to the brim with hope. A disbelieving look came upon his face as he gazed skywards, slowly shifting into one of utter elation. There, high in the sky, the flying monster that had torn apart the defenses, had single-handedly devastated the armies of men, had nearly alone destroyed any chance that there had been for victory, war careening out of control, almost falling out of the sky. Its rider, the terrible demon that’s voice froze men with fear, was making no effort to control their mount, looking for all the world as if they were in terrible, unrelenting pain. The Elder son of Bela III felt tears prick his eyes at the sight, a smile coming to his lips. Either madness had finally taken him, or he was witnessing a miracle. Somewhere close by, he heard the men beginning to cheer, Stefan’s voice carrying above them all:
“Thank you, God! Thank you, merciful Christ! Thank you, Jesus!”
The King of Hungary was inclined to agree. Who’s hand could have done this but the Lord’s? Finally, after all the suffering and pain, all the misery and desperation, God had taken pity upon his children, delivering them out of the Valley of Death. Emeric sent his own praises towards the heavens, his voice soon joined by all those left that could still send up their voices. A great cheer sounded out across the frozen plains of Hungary, the men’s hope rising like the sun, breaking through the fog and shadow of despair that had enveloped them. All around them, the demons started to take steps back, their posture becoming more and more defensive, their eyes warrier and warrier, too stunned to respond to the seeming crippling of their commander.
“This is our chance!” Kaloyan’s voice rose above the din, “We need to move, now! This moment will not last forever!”
A moment later, and Stefan could be heard: “Attack! Attack! The Father himself has given the order! Attack, before they can recover! Like the Midianites before Gideon he has made them! In His mighty name, attack!”
A great roar sounded out, cheering and praise for the Lord and the battlecries of five nations. The men were wounded and weary, stretched to their physical breaking point, but still they bellowed as they charged once more, plunging into the stunned and disoriented lines of the monsters all around them, hacking and stabbing at all they came across with renewed ferocity. All despair was forgotten, all fear cast aside. God himself had shown his hand: how could the followers of Christ possibly lose? They carved into the ranks of the demons as the Fell Beast had carved into them, hoping to cut down as many as they could before their foe could recover their wits. The threw themselves into the fray, the light giving its last, best effort to dispel the darkness all around them.
Stefan, at least partially, was right: the monsters were utterly confused at the turn of events that had transpired, disorientation running rampant through their ranks. Their cohesion was dissolving, their resolve failing. Their dark master, wracked with pain, could give them no orders, could not force the power of Sauron to drive them forwards, could not be the whip at their backs. The raging black tide, so recently unstoppable, began to recede.
Truly, if any battle could be called miraculous, this would be the one.
The pain had finally subsided, and now it was joined once more by simmering fury. Khamul watched from on high as his army wavered, threatening to rout in the face of a force of perhaps half their remaining number. Useless fodder: Remove the whips from their backs, and they withered like grass in the desert, unable to stand against so much as the breeze. The men below exhausted and bloodied, many barely able to so much as stand, much less fight, but still they forced their way through the hasty and shoddy formations of the orcs, smashing through line after line, putting the Host of Mordor to flight.
The Lieutenant of the Nazgul’s hand tightened around the hilt of their blade, so wishing to indulge their rage. They so wished to tear apart everything below them, slowly and painfully, foe and slave alike. The Ringwraith desired little more than to bring agonizing death to all of them, the incompetents on their own side and those that defied the might of Mordor alike, to make them all pay for this defeat. The shadowy thing that was their soul almost demanded it.
But no. There was but one other driving force within them, but it was the far stronger one: the will of their master. From the moment that Khamul had placed the Ring of Power upon his finger, all those centuries ago, he had been a total thrall to the will of Sauron. The Dark Lord Called: the Nazgul answered. There was no question that was asked, no protest that was lodged: whatever desires that the Black Easterling had had for themselves, they were no irrelevant.
And said master had a new mission for him. Sauron’s eye had long been drawn away from the burning of Hungary, almost from the moment that they had felt Durin’s Bane declare themselves the complete and unchallenged Master of the Black Pit. The Dark Lord had watched with interest as they had emerged from Moria and assailed themselves against the hated realm of Lorien, knowing full well that the coming clash had far more important implications than any other battle being waged at the time. Sauron had seen as they and the elf Galadriel had torn the still-fresh wounds in the fabric of the world open once more, had howled in rage as the Wraith World had been warped and bent as the Music of Creation had been twisted and contorted around it.
Any lesser spirit would have been annihilated as the shadowy plane in which Sauron had been forced to reside was distorted almost beyond recognition before snapping back into place, broken and reforged and broken again and reforged again. The Lieutenant of Morgoth was not a lesser spirit. They were like a great ship which the storm had battered itself against, unable to do the slightest amount of damage, weathering the waves and winds without so much as springing a leak. The One Ring was their anchor, containing so much of their malice and wrath and soul that the rest of the Dark Lord could be affected by nothing less than its destruction. The Rings of the Nine, too, had kept the Nazgul intact, Sauron’s power preventing any lasting harm from coming to his thralls.
But now there was a different problem that needed solving. The world had been changed again, and once again the Dark Lord had need of the eyes and ears of their servants. Lorien was somehow obscured form his sight, either by the change of the world or elven magic, but regardless it would have to be investigated. That place, not Hungary, was the key to staying ahead of all that would dare challenge the might of Mordor. Khamul was the closest at hand to the Golden Wood, and so he was to break off from the battle below and learn whatever their was to learn from realm of the elves.
Sauron willed it: the Ringwraith obeyed. There was no other option. Let the men here have their victory, paid for with far more blood than they could possibly hope to afford. They may win the field for a day, but their defeat was inevitable. Khamul would finish off these men in due time. Like the nations of Middle-earth before them, the Free Peoples of this world could have no hope in force of arms. But for now, there were far more pressing matters to attend to.
The Fell Beast turned northwest, away from the battle and towards a thing of far greater significance.
Unknown Date, Unknown Place
“I don’t suppose that any of us planned on this happening?”
“It shouldn’t have been possible. Not for them. They don’t have the power to do this.”
“Power didn’t matter. Not so near the origin of the first instance, not when the wounds were still so fresh, and especially not when one of them was among those that opened the tears in the first place. This wasn't them reshaping the world: they just widened the cracks that were already there.
“Hm. So we know why it happened. The more important question is this: Do we yet know how much damage was caused? Both worlds have already been warped. This new change cou-”
“We haven’t lost a continent this time, if that’s what you mean. More flotsam and jetsam,all of them smaller than what has already been shifted across the void. And the areas that they’ve displaced were either water or quite empty to begin with, so we were lucky there at least.”
“We’ve had luck in quality as well as in quantity. That which has been moved bears no loyalty to Sauron, either: most of it will readily stand against him, once they have managed to orient themselves in this new world. On that end, differences in speech should no longer be an issue: the old Tongues have been released anew.”
“And we know that dealing with the unexpected is not the enemy’s strength. Whenever his plans are thrown into disarray, he is slow to adjust them. When his sight is obscured, he will do near anything to restore it, even if it goes against his own interests. Already, he has made a mistake, pulling his thrall away from the battle in Hungary to reconteir Lorien. We may yet hope that he will make more.”
“Hm. I have the feeling that there isn’t much good news past that more past that.”
“I wish that I could say otherwise, but you’re largel correct. Little else has fallen in our favor. The primary concern is that the Music itself has been changed. It was already in dissonance after the first shift: it may very well become worse. Little has been joined to the Melody, but the entire Key of this world’s Music has been changed, and not for the better.”
“And by that you mean what?
“I mean that the rules of what may exist in this world have been changed. It was not built with the same Music as Arda was. When their Melodies were merged, the two didn’t flow cleanly together. They competed for control, may have completely drowned each other out if not for the corrections that were made. Arda’s tune remains stable, even with the chords that were lost in the merging: it will be much quieter from now on, certainly, but it will continue to exist. I fear that the same might not be said of Earth’s. With this new change in the Music, Arda’s strains are starting to become dominant. I fear that they have started a new Awakening in this world, bringing alive the dreams and nightmares of men. If I am correct, then we may have a whole new disaster to contend with.”
“Or a significant worsening of our current one. Most of what has been roused from slumber will be easily swayed to the Enemy’s side. Is there any chance that we can return them to their rest?”
“A few of them, perhaps, but many of them are already fully awake. And that is not all: There are new powers coming into the world, powers that those that live within it will barely be able to understand, much less control. A few of them may be helpful to us, but most…”
“I understand. I believe that we all know that some action must be taken. To stand idly by will invite this world’s destruction. I have already sent out servants, to hunt some of the worst threats, contain them before they destroy too much. I am preparing to send other”
“And I am raising up my guardians. It will take some time for them to be ready, though, so I would suggest that we explore other options. There are no armies for us to send, but there are several champions that could be summoned, either to lead the people of this world or to fight against the Captains of the Enemy. But whatever path, we must act, and quickly.”
“Yet we still cannot act directly. This land is barely being held together as things stand; we might shatter it entirely if we fight this war in person. As much as we wish it so, we must not ride ourselves. We can equip them, train them, inspire them, but this battle shall ultimately be fought by those that live within the world, not those beyond it.”
“Are we in consensus, then?”
“Them let us begin.”