Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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"Fsst! Where is he?!" D'Zhin snarled, his eyes scanning the horizon to the south.

For two days, D'Zhin's army had waited. As per the plan, D'Zhin and the main body of his forces waited on the top of Mirawa Ridge, concealed from view by any near the river, below. D'Lith's infantry legions awaited at Mirawa pass, a thousand feet below, while his cavalry swept the plains nearby, hoping to lure R'Narr's forces into the trap. Yet, they had not arrived.

D'Zhin flicked an ebon ear tickled by an idle fly, his eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of D'Lith's cavalry. The plan was perfect. The river that created the pass below was wide and swift, flanked by walls of sheer rock it's passage had carved over the eons. D'Zhin knew his warriors on the cliffs above would be invisible to any enemy standing within the pass, below. Once R'Narr's troops were lured in by D'Lith, his own warriors would sweep down south, then around and into the pass, trapping and crushing R'Narr's army easily. "Mrr... But where are they? Where is D'Lith and his cavalry? Why has he not lured the rebel here yet?" D'Zhin muttered, his frustration growing.

"Miao... My lord, it is possible that something has happened to them," D'Zhin's aide-de-camp said, shifting in his saddle. "Mrr... I think-"

But what D'Zhin's aide-de-camp might have thought would forever remain unspoken, for at that moment, the air was split by the sound of a trumpet in the distance.

D'Zhin wheeled his bird about, and swore. R'Narr's entire army was before him, atop the plateau of Mirawa Ridge, and moving quickly to close the distance. "Fsst! They've moved up behind us! They've spent the last two days out-maneuvering us! Now they've pinned us against the cliff's edge!" D'Zhin turned to his musicians, and screamed at the top of his lungs. "Fsst! Sound 'Turn About' and 'Form Ranks'!"

There was nowhere to flee, and D'Zhin knew it. As the ranks of his army slowly shifted, the enemy drew nearer, and nearer still. D'Zhin screamed again to be heard over the din of his musicians. "Fsst! Sound 'Cavalry to the flanks'!" With luck, his riders might buy his infantry enough time to form ranks against the new threat.

D'Zhin spurred his mount forward, riding towards the battle front, and his band-leader signaled for the music to stop. In a moment, his musicians were riding after him.

D'Zhin drew his bird to a halt near the front lines just as his cavalry engaged the enemy's. There was a brief skirmish, then a short refrain sounded from R'Narr's musicians, and the rebel cavalry withdrew. "Fsst! Sound 'Cavalry Regroup' and 'Infantry Advance'!" he screamed, and his musicians hastened to comply. In a few moments, D'Zhin's cavalry wheeled and returned to the sides of D'Zhin's formation, just as the first ranks of rebel infantry came within range of his own.

D'Zhin screamed his orders, but his mind worked with the fierce intensity of an expert strategist. Over the rattling din of muskets, this hiss of volleys of arrows and the general roar of the battle, his musicians played on. The thundering music D'Zhin ordered echoed across the battlefield, and his troops followed the commands. At the same time, answering strains of music came from the rebel ranks, and the enemy's forces shifted in response.

Like a vast, macabre dance, the two armies struggled with each other, thousands of warriors fighting, screaming, bleeding and dying to the competing refrains of music. A feint to the left, countered. A shift to the right, followed. A massive push, and D'Zhin ordered his ranks to back up and re-form. In the back of his mind, the poet that lay in the heart of D'Zhin's warrior-soul heard the competing strains of music as the music of his own empire, struggling against the music of the rebel forces. And, somehow, the music of the rebels seemed to be carrying the day.

Slowly, steadily, the rebel forces pushed D'Zhin's troops back, then back again. D'Zhin redoubled his efforts, and for many long minutes, it seemed the tide of battle could go either way. After all, his warriors had no place to flee - their backs were to a cliff a thousand feet high. If they could not win the day, they would die. Yet, as the two armies grappled with each other, it became apparent to D'Zhin that R'Narr was winning.

D'Zhin could not admit, even if only to himself, that R'Narr was the more experienced general. He had, in his mind and with his voice, denounced R'Narr as a fool and a rebel, to be crushed. He could not admit to himself that it was, rather, D'Zhin himself who had been the fool, and had been caught in his own trap. D'Zhin cursed the day, his luck, the fates, and every demon and devil he could name from the nine hells - but it didn't help. Slowly, inexorably, his forces were gradually pushed back. After an hour, D'Zhin glanced over his shoulder - they were less than two hundred paces from the cliff's edge.

They were doomed.

First with a shudder, then with a ripple like a wave, the warriors on his left flank surrendered, tossing their weapons aside. D'Zhin screamed. "Fsst! No, damn you! Keep fighting!" There was a sudden surge, and the enemy before him, in the center, broke through his ranks. In an instant, the enemy was upon him.

D'Zhin drew his longsword, hacking about him furiously. D'Zhin was a skilled and able warrior, and though three enemies stabbed at him with their spears, he managed to hold them off, for the moment. Seeing his danger, D'Zhin's aide-de-camp rode up with half a dozen warriors, and other warriors of the cats who fought nearby backed up to defend the Shazad. For a moment, they held off the enemy. D'Zhin opened his muzzle to scream his next order, when his gaze caught upon a lone musketeer in the enemy ranks, his weapon pointed at him. There was a flash, and D'Zhin felt himself falling.

The next few moments were a confusing blur... A melange of sensations. Slowly, D'Zhin realized he'd been shot in the head. He could not see out of his left eye, and the left side of his face felt wet, and numb. He could hear the roar of the battle around him, and see the flashes of movement, but it made little sense.

Slowly, the din of battle quieted, then stilled. All that remained was the moaning of the wounded, and the silence of the dead. D'Zhin lay on the bloody battleground, his face turned up to the sky. For an interminably long moment, he could do nothing but gaze at the clouds. It suddenly struck him that he hadn't simply laid on his back and gazed at the sky since he was a kit, so long ago. Oddly, he remembered that clearly, now - gazing at the sky as a child and guessing the shapes of the clouds. 'How very strange...' D'Zhin thought to himself.

Suddenly, an orange-tabby tom's face appeared over his. He was a massive, muscular tom, and in many ways reminded D'Zhin of his father - save that his father had the same ebon coat D'Zhin had. The green-eyed tom's muzzle was graying, and somehow, he looked familiar... After a long moment, D'Zhin remembered. "Sss... I know you... You're General R'Narr... You wanted to take my throne from me... The throne of my father, and my father's father..." he whispered.

"Mrr... The same, D'Zhin."

"Sss... I think I'm dying, General."

R'Narr nodded, gazing down at his defeated enemy. "Mrr... Yes, you are, D'Zhin." The musket ball that had taken the Shazad's eye had left the side of his head a mass of blood and gore. It was obvious he was mortally wounded, and it was probably only the Shazad's powerful constitution that had kept him alive this long.

"Sss... I'll see you in the nine hells, R'Narr... I'll be waiting for you..." D'Zhin whispered, his right eye gleaming hatred. "Ssss... I'll be waiting for you..."

R'Narr nodded as D'Zhin's remaining eye closed, and his bloodied face relaxed. A moment later, D'Zhin's final breath escaped his lips with a shuddering hiss. "Mrr... You probably will, D'Zhin. But for now, my mate asks me to get something from you." he replied, his expression fierce as he drew his knife.

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