"VENGEANCE! VENGEANCE FOR KEENBLADE MILL!" shouted Kaspar Massi as his raiding party fell upon the Guardian caravan.
The sixty handpicked fighters charged with weapons held high, Kelari and Bahmi copying the ululating cry of their nomadic Eth cohorts. Massi himself came from nomad stock and howled long and loud as his scimitar ended a caravan guard's attempt to call a rally.
Beside him, a Bahmi swung his warhammer from the back of a tartagon, pulping heads as his beast's twin mouths gnashed at flesh. Behind them, a row of archers turned the caravan's carts and beasts into writhing cacti.
The Defiant herded the survivors into a tight circle, and Massi had just drawn breath to call for surrender when he heard the winding horn.
The sound was deep and grim, as if the ancient granitewoods themselves roared their displeasure at the Defiant, and followed by the tromping of steel-clad feet. Thirty men crested the hill, gleaming in green plates, their banner reading "XII." But Massi had eyes only for the man beside the standard-bearer.
This commander glared down at the Defiant mustering to meet him as if wishing he could wash them all away by spitting. Eerily silent, he led the charge, his men keeping pace beside him. As he ran, he held aloft a black battleaxe. Frederic Kain did not swing the weapon like a berserker, but brandished it before him, his grim eyes saying "this is all I have for you."
The moment before impact, the Guardians gave a single enraged scream. They swung their weapons in unison, sweeping away the first rank of Defiant. Massi was pleased to see his forces hold, bolstered by pride and superior numbers. Their archers were even good enough to whittle down the Guardians' rearmost ranks. Shouldering through the press, Massi came to blows with Frederic Kain.
Massi howled as he fought, and his forces followed suit. But Kain did not care. The gray eyes were still as granite in the square-jawed face, and his only sign of exertion was a thick vein that stood out against his graying blond crew cut. He beat down Massi's guard twice, seemingly uninterested as to which Defiant he was killing, but Kaspar's agility (deceptive for a man with one leg) saved his life-and dealt the big Mathosian a cut across the brow.
It was then Massi noticed that the archers had not joined the melee. Kain took a step back to clear the blood from his eye, and Massi used that moment to disengage and look over their position.
The 12th had overrun his archers, and the last of them screamed as a knight's maul fell toward his face like a meteor. Massi looked back at Kain and found the Guardian commander smiling amid the fray, the wide, toothy grin a lion gives an injured hyena. Already, Massi knew the ambushing Guardsmen were advancing to close the textbook pincer.
"Full retreat!" he cried. "Ascended only, hold them!" Only when he was safely over the hill with his remaining mortal soldiers did Massi hear the booming war-cry of the victorious 12th.
"DEATH!" roared Kain. "DEATH ANSWERS DEFIANCE!"
"Do you have it?" said Frederic Kain to the fatherly caravan master.
He sat across from the Paladin in one of the caravan's covered wagons, tears in his eyes. "Again, Commander, I must thank you and your Guardsmen. Without you, we would all be-"
"We enjoy our work. Now. Do you have it?"
The older man nodded nervously and opened the chest that stood on the table between them. Something awful screeched from the darkness of the box. Kain pulled back from the noise, his face a mask of utter despair that slowly hardened to determination. He reached in and seized whatever was in the box, crushing it in his fist until the shrieking died.
"Please, Commander," said the merchant. "Why did you want it? Such an evil thing, whatever it was. By the Vigil, you appear paler than you did a moment ago."
"This is my burden alone," said Kain, iron in his voice and spine. "If I will not bear it, someone weaker will."
Kain rose and walked to the head of the caravan, where his men broke away with the prisoners and the catapult.
"Sir," said Captain Ledisko. "The catapult is within bombardment range of Perspice. But we can't sack the settlement with just one."
Kain looked down at his captain. "I don't plan to sack anything, Captain. Not with this ammunition."
Ledisko looked perplexed. "Ammunition? Sir, you didn't have us bring any hurling stones-" and then he followed his Commander's gaze to the Defiant prisoners, chained in a row, their faces grim and distant. "I see."
"Death rewards defiance," said Kain, unslinging his axe as his men grabbed the first prisoner under the arms.