Ongoing Games (In-Character)Play-by-post games are going on in this forum as we speak (well, read). All threads on this board are actual games, so please, only post on a thread if you are a player of that game.
Okay, in the following posts below, you will see some introductory information, and then the start of the actual DMs. Before moving on to those, I would recommend at least briefly skimming the Rules post below this one, just to get a grasp on how I run my particularly flavor of freeform roleplaying.
The Meanwhiles are just short stories involving other characters, off doing their own thing somewhere else (hence the "Meanwhile") portion. Generally they merely offer some information on what's going on elsewhere, and everyone is certainly welcomed and encouraged to read them. I tend to post them about every 100 posts or so, which means somewhere in the 100s another set will come out, and then another when we get in the 200s, etc.
You are also welcome to read any and all DMs beyond just your own character, although for time and IC/OOC knowledge separation if you'd prefer to read just your own, you can do that too. Your character's specific DM will be located underneath your player name - and generally speaking, your character's current location will be listed somewhere above that (although generally since that doesn't change very often between DM to DM, it's not particularly important).
Generally speaking, PM me if you have any other questions.
The Ironheart Wiki is also located HERE for all your character/lore/plot point questions.
Introduction (as originally posted in the Recruitment thread)
Nearly a month has passed since the disastrous Battle of Narle. Although the villainous Demetrius Gast met his end during the battle, this has merely caused the kingdom of Narle to fall further into chaos. The land between what once was the capital and the fallen prison of Ironheart has been reduced to scorched wasteland. Warbands of elven invaders roam freely throughout the kingdom, and the city of Amaranth has been under continual siege since the Battle. A triumvirate of nobles who survived is struggling to organize a resistance, but many of the newly-arisen nobles are frightened and wish only to protect their own lands.
The Church of Light is struggling to remain intact after its own losses and a sharp increase in the amount of heresy and fiend worship. Despite the Church’s best efforts, the rumor that Miriam the Valkyrie Herself came down from the Heavens to destroy mankind has persisted and spread. As a result many have lost faith in Miriam and Athelion’s ability to protect them, and so have chosen to throw themselves upon the fiends’ non-existent mercy. In some parts of the kingdom other, stranger beings have also started being worshipped by the desperate.
Elves and Fiends are not the only source of danger, however. Unknown to any but a horrified few, spirits and elementals strain against the boundary between their world and the mortal plane. Once, they could travel between both worlds freely, and they have been promised the opportunity to do so again. Titania, queen of Phaedra, has sworn it provided they help her reclaim humanity’s throne after millennia in exile.
The heroes who have stood firm against the darkness until now are all dead or indisposed. But what meaning does Death have when the conflict threatens to spill over into the Hereafter?
Even the Afterlife is now not without misery and strife. Since the battle Miriam has secluded Herself once again. But unlike previous bouts of isolation, there are precious few angels now to manage the Heavens’ affairs - nor do any new angels seem to be forthcoming. Within their dark halls in the Hells, the recently freed Fiend Lords plot their revenge, amassing their forces to once again burst out upon the beleaguered world.
The world stands on the brink of the final apocalypse, and a plan that has existed since the dawn of time is about to at last reach its conclusion.
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
Here be a few simple ground rules that will hopefully answer any lingering questions about how this thread will be run.
1) Post Format
I don’t particularly care how you format your posts, provided they are legible. However, I would strongly encourage you to use the standard set up on these boards: normal text being actions, italics being thoughts, “quotations and color being used for speech”, etc. Obviously with so many players it will be difficult for each character to have their own unique color, so I will leave you to sort that out amongst yourselves in the OOC thread. However, I personally would not mind if two characters had the same/similar color text for speech, nor would I mind if you don’t use a color at all – just be sure to use quotation marks in that case so I know you’re talking instead of doing something.
This is a common freeform issue, so I thought I should briefly address the matter. While I want to encourage creativity as much as possible, obviously I need to set limits on what is possible. My only real limits on what your characters can do is this: be reasonable.
We have a wide range of character types and abilities, and as such what might be a reasonable action for one might not be for another. As an example, a commoner with no prior training and shackled at the feet being able to run along the wall for several feet before jumping down onto a guard and snapping his neck is probably not reasonable. However, a ninja that is not encumbered by shackles probably would be able to run along the wall and land on the guard.
I understand that this makes for a fairly grey area, so I will try to nudge everyone along in the right direction towards my ideal as necessary. Sometimes this nudging will take the form of outright failure (with usually an explanation as to why your idea failed), sometimes success but with a price (like being injured), and sometimes you’ll just get away with it because your idea is so darn cool and original. :smallgrin:
If anyone still has any concerns about this, please feel free to PM me with additional questions or post in the OOC thread.
3) The DM is Final Adjudicator
This should go without saying, but for completeness I’ll list it here. I, as DM, have the final say regarding the outcome and consequences of your characters’ actions. If you feel that I’m being unfair towards your character, feel free to send me a PM so we can discuss it – I would rather that the OOC thread is not clogged up with disputes. That being said, I don’t think there should be many disputes if everyone is reasonable with their actions, and there should be no player vs. player incidents so any “yeah, he did that, but I did this” arguments should not occur.
4) Post Regularly, But Don’t Worry About It
I am going to try to DM this thing roughly twice a week. When I DM I will write up outcomes for everyone who posted since my last DM – I will not wait for everyone to post (unless of course someone sends me a PM saying, “hey, I’m just about done with my post could you please wait?”). Other than the fact that you missed the DMing there are no penalties for posting late or not posting at all.
However, if you suddenly fall off the face of the earth and stop regularly posting in Ironheart without telling me ahead of time, I am going to assume that you have quit the thread. About a week or two after not posting anything, I will remove any characters that have quit the thread in a permanent and probably gruesome fashion unless they’re somehow important to the plot in which case I’ll NPC them until the plot reaches I point where I can kill said character in a permanent and probably gruesome fashion. Obviously, telling me you’re about to go on vacation or something is different and I’ll NPC/temporally-displace your character as needed.
Note that because some players might wind up on teams together, I will DM those players on a team as one unit. Only one player on a team needs to post for a fresh DM to be made, but obviously those other people on said team who didn’t post will end up NPC’d and do relatively nothing unless absolutely required. Of course, repeated incidents of this in a row with the same character will cause me to assume said character has quit the thread, and thus vulnerable to dying in a permanent and gruesome fashion.
5) No Player vs. Player
In the previous thread, I had a strict no-no on Player vs. Player. Now that you are all out of the prison, it makes more sense that you would be willing to fight each other should it prove necessary. Adjudicating who wins in a fight between players is extremely obnoxious however, especially in freeform. So I’m not going to do it (). Feel free to argue, hate each other, avoid each other, refuse to cooperate, and/or go your separate ways once you’re free, but actually coming to blows is still going to be frowned upon. That being said, some of you people are currently on different sides, or just don’t plain like each other. Screwing the other guy over in a more indirect way, depending on the situation may be acceptable (particularly if it gets an evil laugh from me ).
6) What You *Can* Do
Like my definition of god-modding, I suspect that this concept might take a bit of work for everyone to get used to and enjoy. As the DM, my job is to determine the final outcome and consequences of player actions. However, I am going to divide those player actions into two categories: combat and non-combat situations.
In non-combat situations, the players are trying to solve some sort of problem that generally does not involve something trying to directly kill them. This could be solving some sort of puzzle, escaping from their restraints, or even choosing which hallway at an intersection to go down. Here, because the player obviously doesn’t know what I’m intending the solution to be, I would prefer if the player just posts whatever their character is doing to solve the problem. I’ll then come in and post the outcome, whether the player’s actions succeed or fail, the consequences of this, and what is going to happen next. In combat situations, the players have a bit more leeway if they so choose.
Example: John Doe has just been DM’d saying that he’s come to a locked door.
John Doe: “I pound loudly on the door, shouting at anyone inside to open up, while disguising my voice to sound like a gruff guard.”
Me: “Sure enough, after a minute the door opens, and two guards are standing in the small room beyond the door. Unfortunately, though you may sound like a guard, you certainly don’t look like it, and they draw their weapons upon seeing you.
In combat situations, the players are fighting against or directly opposing one or more NPC denizens of Ironheart. Because the solution to direct combat against an NPC should be obvious (kill the duder, or run away if he’s too powerful), I will allow players to post a bit more. Instead of just post their actions, players can also post the desired outcomes of their actions as well. Of course, I will still have the final say whether players are ultimately successful, but this addition will hopefully allow players a wider range of creativity in combat and speed such things up. Note that some opponents will require more effort/more than one post to kill.
Also note that regeneration from wounds, either through healing magic or outright regeneration, is dependant on the source of the injury. Wounds that I give are permanent until I say so, but feel free to add to your list of actions that you’re drinking a healing potion, attempting to regenerate, whatever it is your character can do to recover from an injury. I will post whether such attempts are successful or not. For wounds that are self-inflicted, like the player posting as part of their combat outcome that they take a scratch along one arm, they can post recovering from said wound without having to wait for my approval, assuming of course that they have some reasonable method for recovery.
Example: John Doe has just encountered two guards in the room beyond a previously locked door.
John Doe: “As the guards draw their weapons, I draw my own: a crossbow that I had taken from a previously defeated guard. Raising the weapon to my shoulder, I take careful aim and fire at the guard nearest to me. The bolt flies true, striking the guard in the chest and sending him crashing to the floor, dead. As the second guard steps toward me I suddenly leap at him, bringing the butt of the crossbow up into his chin. The guard staggers back and drops to the floor, dazed. Before he can recover I step in close and deliver a hard kick to his jaw, knocking him out cold.”
Me: “Your surprise attack with the crossbow works, as the bolt hits the guard square in the chest and he falls to the ground, dead. The second guard is a bit more skillful a combatant, however, and he rolls with the blow as the butt of the crossbow impacts against his chin. He staggers back a step, then leaps forward, slashing at you with his sword. Luckily, the blow actually strikes the shaft of your appropriated crossbow, shattering it and ruining the weapon but otherwise leaving you unharmed.”
I hope that everyone can see what my intention with this is. If not, feel free to send me questions via PM or in the OOC thread. Go nuts, have fun with this, and don’t worry: if you get too crazy I’ll reel you back in.
7) Life Sucks, Then You Die
It is possible that various player characters will die. If this is for some bizarre plot situation or the character has been backed into an inescapable corner due to reasons not entirely self-inflicted, I will contact the player of that character and we will work something out (a new character, visitations from beyond the grave, resurrection later by an outside force, whatever).
If, however, the character dies from a severe lack of regular posting or because their most recent course of action was just plain stupid (such as charging into a room full of elite guards armed only with a rusty spoon), chances are good that the character is going to stay dead. If that character’s player is still interested in playing, then they are free to make a brand new character with which to escape with. Hopefully, this new character will have a better sense of judgment and/or more regular posting. :smallgrin: Players whose characters die for plot reasons also have this option if desired.
I think that about covers it.
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
Since Her return to the Heavens, Miriam had isolated Herself from the rest of the Heavens. This as it turned out was a good thing, for no one should have to see one of the gods like this.
“This is unacceptable!!”
Miriam raged while pacing back and forth in front of the two thrones of the Heavens. As always, Athelion merely sat on His throne, patiently watching.
“I am the Valkyrie, Queen of the Heavens and Lady of the Angels! And yet even with all this power, I can do NOTHING! The world slides deeper into Chaos, my daughters suffer unavenged, and the humans turn further away! My efforts have only made things WORSE!”
Miriam pauses in the middle of the throne room, struggling to fight back the tears that are starting to form in Her eyes.
“I cannot make amends to those who have suffered loss. I cannot save those who were damned in My defense! I cannot even reward one brave girl for her sacrifice, and now she is as lost to Me as all the others! What good is a goddess with the power to change none of these things!?”
Finally, Athelion chooses this moment to speak.
“You were warned of the consequences long ago. If you had not wanted this outcome, then you should have never associated with the humans. But it is too late now to undo what has passed. The Chains have been forged, and upon its funeral pyre the world shall burn until the Certain King comes forth. Nothing can be averted.”
Miriam cried, whirling towards the other half of the Divine Couple. With a single leap, She crossed the distance from the floor up to the thrones. As She pulled back a fist, Athelion quietly melted away, leaving Miriam’s blow to hit nothing but the throne. The ornate adamantine and orichulum back of the throne shattered beneath the blow, leaving the once mighty seat broken and sundered. From all around Her came the voice of Athelion.
“All has been foreseen. Nothing can be averted.”
The Lightbringer repeated, and Miriam collapsed onto the steps of the dais surrounding the thrones as if She had been struck.
Miriam repeated, and then surrendering to Her emotions, buried Her face into Her hands, and wept openly, alone.
Caught up in reminiscence, Angelo stares down at the dagger cradled in his hand. So intense is his focus, he fails to notice his traveling companion’s attempts to get his attention until said companion backhands him across the face.
“You with me now? Or are you still contemplating the idea of putting that dagger to use?”
Angelo’s new friend asks, prompting the Baron’s son to give him a confused expression for a moment before shaking his head.
“No. I was just reminiscing. This was a gift from . . . a friend. Although I suppose it shouldn’t be called a gift, given that I had to take it from her. But then, that was just how our relationship worked. And I only took as much as she was willing to give, so don’t start thinking otherwise.”
“You do realize that she hated you, right? Everything she did was an effort to gain your affections so that she could destroy you!”
“So she told me herself. And I’m not some starry-eyed village idiot either – I knew she was only interested in me for the opportunities it gave her. But . . . it’s not quite so easy to feel what you think. I was careless, and as much I would like to deny it, I fell in love with her. And even though I suspected her feelings for me in return were false, I deluded myself into thinking that I could change how she saw me. Well, that is all over now. Now, all I need to do is learn how to forget her.”
“You could embark on a course to rescue her instead. I imagine saving someone from eternal damnation would do a lot to elevate her opinion of you.”
Angelo sputters, staring at his companion while the cloaked newcomer continues nonchalantly.
“Your father was willing to tear the world apart to drag the Valkyrie down from Her throne. Are you saying that despite being his son, you are incapable of tearing the Hells apart to save one mortal soul?”
“You’re crazier than you’ve let on! Have I failed to mention to you yet that other than myself and one seriously creepy assassin, and I guess you who is even creepier, I have no resources!? My father expended everything he had for his plans, and he held nothing back in reserve should he fail! Operation Revenant was an afterthought to him, a last-ditch method to claw his way back! But I don’t think he counted on how thoroughly everything he had built would come crashing down after he failed to kill the Valkyrie! So if I can’t even figure out a way to get him out of the Hells, how can I possibly consider pulling out the soul of some woman who hated me with every fiber of her being!? No, it is over and I will waste no more time pining for a woman who is dead and damned!”
Angelo pulls his arm back as if to hurl the dagger, but then freezes. With a sigh, he lowers his arm and sheaths the dagger instead. His companion likewise sighs and shrugs.
“Well. I tried – now we do things my way.”
The newcomer reaches out and grabs hold of Angelo, ignoring his surprised protests. With his other hand, he tears open a portal in the air before them, and then hurls Angelo through before stepping in after him. A moment later, and with a new urge to throw up, Angelo finds himself kneeling on rocky ground far from where he was a moment ago. And jutting up from the horizon like an iron claw was the metal battlements and spires of Ironheart.
“There. That’s your goal. I’m sure it’s crawling with elves and all sorts of other unpleasant beasties in the tunnels below, but nothing you and a creepy assassin can’t handle. Your job is to get to the bottom, to the Great Seal . . . and figure out how to open it.”
“What!? I –“
Before Angelo can continue to protest, his companion grabs him by the collar and shakes him.
“Now then, do you want to surpass your father or don’t you!? Do you want to carry on his work to spread chaos throughout the world or not!? Are you going to continue to wallow in self-pity and despair, or are you going to pick yourself back up and do something!?”
Releasing Angelo, his newfound “ally” slides an arm around his shoulders like an old friend, while using his other hand to point towards Ironheart.
“There’s your chance – your only chance, by the way – to do any of those things. Dacian’s done all the hard work for you, all you have to do now is figure out how to remove the last seal. You won’t have to worry about a thing if you succeed – Azguloth isn’t exactly nice but He’s not enough of an ingrate that He won’t give whoever releases Him whatever they want. You are worried about acquiring resources? Align yourself with the forces of the Hells openly, and the Fiend Lords will give you whatever you need to succeed. Even a few human souls who recently came into their clutches . . . I really do hope you see where I’m going with this, my friend.”
“I don’t think unleashing another god upon this world is exactly what Father had in mind, and I know he would never condone indebting oneself too much to the fiends. He wanted humanity to stand free of all influence at the end, not trade one divine overlord for another!”
“Well, I’m afraid you don’t know your father very well after all, then. Because he already indebted himself to a Fiend Lord by claiming to represent that Fiend Lord in an effort to manipulate the lesser filth of the Hells into doing his bidding. And it worked, but now the time has come to pay the piper. Or did you think that Lord Nihilus would remain a ghost forever?”
As if an electric shock had been sent coursing through him, Angelo ducked out from beneath his companion’s arm and leapt back.
The figure’s concealed head nodded.
“In the flesh! Now, we all have our role to play.”
Stepping towards Angelo, Nihilus lays a hand on his back, giving him a firm shove towards Ironheart as he explains.
“Yours is to release Azguloth from His imprisonment. And mine – mine is to make sure that everyone is too busy with their own precious little corners of the world to smell the smoke. Together, we’ll burn it all to ash in record time! Won’t that be fun?”
Deep in the Hells, there is a special tower containing a special chamber – the Meeting Chamber of the Fiend Lords. Unwilling to trust each other enough to meet in the flesh, the Meeting Chamber had been constructed to allow the Fiend Lords to hold conferences from the safety of their own estates via a vast network of communication crystals.
Now all but one of the twenty-one communication crystals set into alcoves throughout the chamber stand active. For the first time in thousands of years, all of the Fiend Lords are free and present – and as usual, they spend their freedom bickering.
“Whoever called this meeting better get on with it! I have angels to break!”
Mammon growled, underlining his point by backhanding the angel chained to the foot of his massive throne. This demonstration only earned a derisive chuckle from one of the other communication crystals.
“All this time and you haven’t changed a bit. Always in a hurry, never able to take the time for life’s . . . little pleasures.”
Videle, Lady of Lust, purred through her communication crystal as she tucked a lock of platinum blonde hair behind her horns. The softly delivered taunt found its mark, and the demon lord gathered himself up to his full impressive height. Before he could vent his fury on the unfortunate angel, which was the only thing within his reach, another Fiend Lord interjected.
“You waste your time and fury on targets beneath you Mammon. I know not whether it is cowardice or dumb luck that has spared you thus far, but if you continue squandering the freedom I have given you, then I will come and end you personally!”
The Black General rumbled, prompting Mammon’s ire to switch to mirth.
“That *you* have given *me*!? I seem to recall that I was the last to fall, and that I was the only one of us not to become ensnared in the mortals’ precious Reliquary!”
Now it was the Black General’s turn to be amused.
“Yes, that is very true. Rather than being tucked safely away in the cell they had prepared for you, to remain there for all time, you were sent to Ironheart instead, weren’t you? Who do you think arranged for that fortuitous outcome? I had high hopes you would actually take advantage of your situation, but I suppose that was too much to hope for. A blunt instrument, after all, cannot be expected to cut a rope.”
Before the demon lord could manage a reply, another crystal rasped out a question.
“Brother, do you mean to claim credit for our escape from the mortals’ clutches? It is a worthy lie, I will give you that much, but I was given to understand you had sworn an oath not to escape from the Reliquary. Unless you finally chose to cast aside that last pathetic vestige of your humanity, I cannot see how you could be responsible for this!”
Slevir hissed from behind the veils concealing him from sight. The Black General shrugged in reply.
“After my defeat, I gave my word that I would not leave my cell, nor attempt to do so until such time as the Speaker released me from that oath. I never said that I would not attempt to turn the situation to my advantage. Eventually, inevitably, I was able to turn one of my jailors into the instrument of our joint liberation – you are welcome.”
“Did you call this meeting just to gloat!?”
Quietus howled from his crystal, the fact that he was always howling making it difficult to tell whether he was angry or merely pointing out the obvious. After a long pause, however, everyone was surprised when the Black General shook his head.
“I did not. I had thought one of you demon lords had come seeking direction – you always need a target to be pointed at!”
As the ten demon members of the assembled group jointly bristled, the chamber fell silent for a moment as they all prepared to roar, howl, chitter, and hiss their responses. In that moment, a new voice rang out – from within the chamber itself.
“I called this meeting, actually. I figured it was as good a time as any to clear the air, and then chart a new course.”
From behind a pillar, a human-sized cloaked figure emerged. The Fiend Lords were less than impressed.
“You will suffer for this trespass, mortal!”
Zareth growled menacingly, his grating voice proving to be the most intelligible from the chorus of furious howls. The interloper merely shrugged and motioned for silence.
“Mortal!? I suppose it’s only natural for you fools to think that, but no. I’m one of you, in fact. I’ve heard that a number of individuals have claimed to be me over the years, but I can assure you that I am the real Nihilus.”
That rendered the group silent for a moment, at least until Mammon sullenly growled.
“You look tiny and frail, like a mortal.”
“Yes, I do indeed. Perhaps it’s because I understand, unlike you, that size doesn’t really matter. And for all their frailty, it was the mortals who smashed apart all of your fortresses, and placed you all in bondage.”
“Mmm . . . it wasn’t all bad.”
Videle quipped, but Nihilus ignored the Succubus Queen and pressed on.
“Only I escaped, and while I was content to watch you all fail spectacularly until now, I refuse to allow it to happen a second time.”
“You refuse . . . to allow it?”
Anguish groaned from inside his new angelic shell.
“What are you going to do . . . hurt us?”
“No. If I am unsuccessful I will merely sigh and step back into the shadows. And then I will watch as you all do what you have always done, bicker and squabble like mortal children, accomplishing nothing and willfully squandering the priceless opportunity that has fallen into your laps. And then at last when the mortals come back and destroy you again, one by one, I will laugh as I stand atop the mountain of your broken corpses, and do my best to pick up the pieces.”
“The mortals? What are the mortals going to do? Their Church is falling into ruin, their armies are in tatters, and then continue to fight amongst themselves no less than we do!”
Slevir laughed, and Nihilus sighed with growing irritation.
“It seems you all have forgotten, although I suppose it is merely natural to block traumatic experiences from memory. It was the mortals who made up the backbone of Miriam’s army during the Apocalypse. It was the mortals who threw you all out of their realm after you had grinded them under heel for millennia! And it was the mortals who came down here into your own homes and butchered you! And for nearly half of you, it was one mortal in particular!”
Daz’kick shrieked, and seven other Fiend Lords reflexively tensed at the mention of that name.
“Pah. Ander doesn’t scare me. What’s he going to do, come down here alone to fight us all!? If he does, I will CRUSH HIM!”
Mammon growls, prompting many of the assembled to roll what amounted to their eyes.
“You’ve lost to him how many times now, Mammon? Four?”
Nihilus said, and Mammon was hasty to argue that point.
“He had a dragon with him the third time! That one doesn’t count!”
“Fine. Three then – more than enough to underline the point that alone, you can’t beat him. None of you can.”
“Not all of us have fought him yet. How can you be so sure?”
Yvonne said, tapping her countless fingers against the hilts of her nearly countless weapons thoughtfully.
“And that only underlines my point. Ander is bad enough, but the countless mortals before him weren’t exactly helpless either – the Crusades did imprison twelve of you before he was even born, after all. If he falls, another will take his place. Even if you grind humanity down into the dust, it will rise again. There is no possible way you can win this in the end.”
“What do you propose instead, then?”
The Black General asked, and Nihilus spread his gloved hands wide.
“Simply this – that we work together as The Master intended, and that together, we take advantage of the opportunity we have before us. Humanity is scattered, the Valkyrie’s handmaidens are our prisoners, and Dacian has managed to remove all but one seal from the Master’s prison. The time for His Return shall never be riper!”
For a moment, anarchy again reigned in the chamber as all twenty Fiend Lords demanded to be heard. When Nihilus motioned for silence, however, this time he was promptly obeyed by all of them.
“All we have to do is figure out how to remove the last seal. But at the same time we need to keep the humans and the gods off-balance, lest they learn of our intentions. Which is why it is so fortuitous that we have a great many living angel and human prisoners. They will be an important part of this plan.”
“*Your* plan. I take it that you now see yourself as our de facto leader?”
Slevir asked, and Nihilus responded with a shrug.
“Not really. I look at this as a partnership. If any of you wish to take your chances alone, so be it. But my part in this is to manage the details, not lead. You can all do . . . whatever it is that you do best. I merely ask that you work together this time, and keep any would-be heroes off my back while I arrange the last pieces of the key to the Master’s prison. You really aren’t going to get much better of a deal than that.”
“I am willing to see where this goes.”
The Black General rumbled thoughtfully, and many of the shapes within their crystals bobbed what passed for heads in agreement.
“Fine. But I get to be the one to break Ander.”
“I’ll let you have whatever’s left when I’m done.”
Daz’kick shrieks in agreement.
And as the twenty Fiend Lords begin to actually converse and make plans for once, Nihilus smiles behind his mask and steps back out of the chamber. That’s one domino ready, but there were so many more left to be set up.
It was a beautiful ceremony. Set on a quiet hillside overlooking the gently rolling plains stretching out from Ashargrin County, the chapel was small but serviceable. Despite its simplicity, it had been decorated to a degree that made it more breathtaking than the cathedral in the capital. Brilliant red streamers ran down the length of the chapel’s interior, and from those hung silver bells, tinkling softly at every gentle breeze.
Stepping inside, Amelia smiled as she saw that everyone was waiting for her. A boyish looking girl with short-cropped black hair and a perpetual sneer was seated in front of the organ at the front. Seeing Amelia, the girl cracked her knuckles and then began to play. Taking this as her cue, Amelia lifted up the front of her pearl-covered dress and advanced down the aisle.
Waiting at the end of the empty aisles was a fiery-red haired priestess, and a rugged looking man who seemed uncomfortable in his well-tailored suit. Still, after a shave and a bit of soap, the man was surprisingly handsome in his own way. Risking a sideways glance at Korram as she moved to stand beside him, Amelia smiled demurely as the priestess clapped her hands together.
“Alright. So . . . I’ve never done this before. In fact, my only experience with priests is them yelling at me about my life style choices. Ahem, anyway, I think I know how the most important bit of this goes. Amelia, do you take Korram to be your lawfully wedded husband, until death do you part?”
Amelia answered without hesitation, prompting an eye roll from Pyrene.
“Yes, of course. Don’t know why I bothered asking. What about you, Korram? Do you take Amelia to be your lawfully wedded wife, until death do you part?”
Silence was the only answer. After a few moments, Amelia glanced back over at her would-be husband in sudden concern, only to find that his back was suddenly to her.
She asked, a tremor entering her voice as she suddenly recognized what was about to happen, a fragment of memory bubbling up to offer insight. Right on cue, Korram started to laugh, only his voice was higher in pitch than she remembered – sharper. Crueler.
“Heh heh heh. Until death do us part? With Death out of the picture, we’ll be together forever and ever.”
Her husband said as he turned back to face her, examining her up and down for a moment with demonic glowing eyes.
“Yes, you really do looking fetching in crimson.”
Cheran said, and then he brought his hand up and slapped her across the face. At his touch, Amelia’s veil burst into flame and that side of her face was nothing but a mass of searing pain. Screaming, she turned to flee, but as she tried to take a step away her legs betrayed her, going limp and throwing her to the floor. From that point on, they refused to respond to her commands entirely, although Amelia still attempted to crawl away, dragging herself across the floor hand over hand. Hearing Cheran’s approaching footsteps behind her, Amelia looked up at her friends and cried out in terror.
Pyrene’s only response was to spread her arms wide before bursting into flame, a burning wickerman that promptly dissolved away into flicks of flame that danced to the far corners of the chapel before igniting it. In another instant, the previously peaceful chapel was a hellish blaze, the fire consuming everything to a charred cinder but continuing to burn nonetheless.
Turning away from the organ, Katrina reached into her jacket, pulling out a spoon. With practiced movement, she spun the implement around her fingers, then firmly grasped the head and saluted Amelia with the handle before plunging it into her own right eye. Without a sound, Katrina’s lifeless body fell backward off the stool, out of sight behind the organ. Behind her, Cheran laughed.
“All alone now, no one to come save you. Maybe now you see that the only one who has ever cared about you – is me. My lovely bride, my queen – you can rule with me down in the Hells!”
Although she couldn’t feel it, Amelia knew Cheran had grabbed hold of her ankles by the way her slow but steady momentum across the floor came to a sudden halt, bouncing her chin off the floor. Then she was going backward, dragged back into the middle of the room. This time, she wouldn’t be able to crawl away, as her arms were suddenly bound down to her side, held there by the twisted folds of her own dress. Unable to escape and with no one to rescue her, Amelia looked up in helpless terror as Cheran loomed over her.
“But before we go on our honeymoon, wifey, we have one important detail to take care of. We need to consummate our marriage!”
Reaching down, Cheran grabbed hold of the hem of Amelia’s dress and pulled, starting to tear it apart. Unable to do anything else, Amelia simply closed her eyes and started desperately praying. Laughing, Cheran continued on.
“Now, I know you won’t be able to feel this, due to your little, uh, “condition”. Don’t worry, I’ll try to enjoy it for the both of us!”
Unable to hold back any longer, Amelia threw her head back and screamed. And suddenly, she was falling, coming to a rough stop a moment later as her back impacted with the floor. Thankfully, this was enough to finally wake her from her recurring nightmare, although it would be several minutes before her heart rate subsided back to a normal pace.
In one corner of the room, a squat fire place sat, its contents reduced to glowing embers which were still sufficient to set shadows dancing across the walls of the otherwise dark room. They did nothing to calm Amelia’s nerves, still burdened by the lingering remnants of that dream. Amelia did her best to banish those by reminding herself that Cheran was dead – Korram and Katrina too, by all accounts. Slowly, she worked her arms free of the bed sheets they had become tangled in, not bound in any way after all. Unfortunately, her legs still did not respond, and one side of her face still ached whenever she made a facial expression that pulled on the scar tissue there – those parts were all too real.
Once she got free, Amelia would have to drag herself across the floor until she could reach the large bell she had specifically set there for just these circumstances. Then she would just have to wait until one of her servants heard it and came up to lift her back into bed. After that, she would do her best to go back to sleep and get some rest before daybreak, and pray to the gods that it wasn’t one of those nights where Cheran came to visit her more than once.
But first, she was just going to lie here and allow herself a good cry, tears of relief that it had still only been a dream mingling with ones of grief and regret that the first part would never be real either. And although Amelia hated to admit it, the dreams were getting worse. No doubt this was due to the incredible stress she was currently under, trying to manage a kingdom that continued to disintegrate daily.
She had formed a Triumvirate of nobles from the survivors of the Battle of Narle in an effort to manage a kingdom without its king – herself, Rose, and Elsa. But just because they claimed to be in charge didn’t mean anyone had to recognize their authority. Many of the nobles who were in charge now were heirs, successors who had been safe in their homes throughout the kingdom rather than at Narle. And the few nobles who were not spoiled brats relishing their newfound power hadn’t been present at the Battle. They hadn’t seen what the three of them had seen, and none of them seemed to think anything beyond their own lands mattered anymore.
Viscount Damont, once Demetrius’s most vehement enemy, was now the most vocal opponent of the Triumvirate as well. Amelia could now only assume that the little twerp was merely an obstructionist who just loved to hear himself talk. Unfortunately, like the others, there was nothing Amelia could do to make them cooperate.
Ashargrin County had a sizable treasury, built by Amelia’s father, but minimal military – confirmed by Demetrius’s servants breaking into her manor with impunity one dark night, slaughtering her entire household staff, and dragging her off to Ironheart. She also knew that the other nobles did not respect her – aside from the fiasco of her wedding to Cheran, she knew they had a nickname for her. The Crippled Countess was not a name they would use in front of her, but it was their name for her nonetheless.
Elsa was the last surviving member of the Gast family, as far as anyone knew, but she had inherited a Barony that had been almost entirely burned to the ground. And after the disastrous Battle of Narle, no one wanted to be led by a Gast. Which left Rose as the only member of their Triumvirate that the others would even consider listening to.
Rose, who was hardly ever around, and when she was she always appeared exhausted. Insomnia was certainly an expected reaction to what she had been through (as Amelia herself knew first-hand). The bruises and cuts that she occasionally sported, however, came from a different source. Rose’s new vice, which Amelia knew about despite the new Duchess’s best attempts to keep it a secret. In all likelihood it would kill her, if Amelia didn’t do it herself out of frustration at the Triumvirate’s best hope expending herself for an adrenaline rush!
So that was it then – a Triumvirate of screw-ups and cripples, trying to save their broken kingdom, and being ignored and secretly laughed at for their troubles. For not the first time Amelia idly wondered what the most peaceful way to kill herself was. It was at that point that the dim embers in the fireplace suddenly crackled back to life, allowing a spitting, hissing voice to enter the room.
Amelia . . . Amelia Ashargrin . . . I sense your pain . . .
Her nerves already raw from the nightmare, Amelia’s heart hammered back into a gallop as the flickering shadows regained their sinister quality.
Amelia whispered, cursing in her own mind at the tremor in her own voice. She wasn’t sure acknowledging this strange newcomer was the best idea, but the fire continued to hiss sparks.
I have sensed your pain . . . I know you are afraid. But . . . it is not me you fear. So much fear . . . of everything around you . . . I can help. I can make . . . you strong. And then . . . you will never have to fear . . . anything . . . ever again!
Amelia had heard enough stories at her father’s knee to know that any sort of deal with a creature of shadow and flame ended poorly. And yet . . .
“Y-you just want m-my s-s-soul.”
Amelia managed to choke out, again cursing that she wasn’t able to control her fear. The presence didn’t seem to notice, nor did it seem troubled by the accusation.
No . . . I have no interest . . . in such things. All . . . I want . . . is to help you . . . together we can do . . . great things . . . together we can save . . . your kingdom. You need . . . to trust me . . . to do that. Alone . . . you will fail . . . as you already know. If . . . you wish me . . . to go . . . then I will leave . . . but . . . you will be dismissing your only . . . hope. Do you truly . . . wish to live . . . the rest of your life . . . crippled and afraid?
Amelia knew what she should say, but the words caught in her throat. There was no denying the risk involved, but – everyone she had ever cared about was dead. She hadn’t been able to protect any of them, and she wouldn’t be able to protect anyone at all as she was now. The Crippled Countess was just a scared and scarred young woman, but she was the only one who could save her kingdom. In the end, there was no choice. She had to succeed!
“What do you need me to do?”
Amelia said, her voice calm and clear.
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
Closing in on their prey, the three thugs cackled amongst themselves as the young boy pushed his even younger sister back behind him. The children’s father lied in the mouth of the alleyway, beaten into unconsciousness and unable to protect them.
“William, I’m scared.”
The girl whimpered, prompting the three thugs to share a mutual grin. The girl’s brother only pushed her further behind him, struggling to keep the fear out of his voice as he addressed the three men.
“What do you people want? We’re refugees – we have nothing except the clothes on our backs!”
“Yeah, well it’s refugee filth like you that’s polluting our fine city!”
One of the ruffians argued, and his friend cackled and nodded in agreement as he advanced towards the two children.
“That’s right! It’s about time someone taught you rats that city life is dangerous! And this is gonna be a lesson that you two baby rats will never forget!”
Before the man could carry out his threat, a shadow detached itself from the darkness of the roof overhead. Swinging down on a thin rope, the shadow crashed down into the man behind, kicking him face first into the nearby alley wall. The shadow whirled to face the other two ruffians, who were scrambling to deal with this interloper.
The nearest thug leapt forward, swinging his club around in a high arc. The shadowy newcomer parried the blow with the rope, and then wrapped the line around the thug’s arm, and then back around his neck, before smoothly kicking his legs out from under him and leaving him hanging, entangled by the rope.
Focusing on the last thug who was even now starting to back away, the newcomer extended one gloved hand, pitching a small dart into the side of his neck. The man gasped in horror a moment, and then simply reached up and removed the dart with a faint grunt. He looked down at the dart in amusement, and then concern as it slipped from his suddenly clumsy fingers. Within another moment the knockout drug took full effect, and the man collapsed into a graceless heap.
In that instant while the newcomer was still watching the man collapse, the first man who had been kicked into a wall recovered. Scrambling back up to his feet, he grasped his club in a two-handed grip and swung wildly as his opponent’s head. It was a powerful but slow swing, easily dodged by the children’s nimble rescuer. And yet the newcomer did not dodge the blow, instead taking it directly across the head. The thug laughed victoriously as the shade went down onto hands and knees, and circled around for a finishing blow. As the thug did so, the newcomer twisted around and flung out another hand, dispersing a cloud of powder into the air. The thug walked right into it, and as he stood there gasping and sputtering, the cloaked figured recovered and got back up. And then with a single hard punch, the last thug went down.
Staggering a bit, the newcomer went over to the unconscious father, pressing a gloved hand up against the man’s throat while the two children worked up enough courage to approach.
“Thank you for saving us! Are you an angel?”
The little girl asked, ducking back behind her brother as the cloaked figure regained its feet and looked back at the two children.
A gruff voice answered with a hint of mirth a moment later. The figure dropped a small pouch of coins onto the father’s chest, and then walked back into the alleyway.
“Get your father to a healer. He should be fine with a little care. Use the rest to find a place to stay in a nicer part of town. It’s not safe here.”
Going back to the thug still tangled up in the rope, the figure slammed the man’s head into the wall, and then untangled the rope from his limp form. And then without another word, the childrens’ rescuer scurried up the rope back into the shadows of the roof. Once out of sight, the figure groaned and pulled her cowl back, gingerly touching her bleeding temple where the thug’s heavy blow had nearly ended the short fight in a very different fashion.
“That was sloppy.”
A voice called from the shadows, and a moment later Albert, the woman’s faithful butler and mentor appeared.
“I thought it went rather well for a first attempt. There’s bound to be issues that will need to be worked out.”
Rose Volesin replied, grimacing as her fingers continued their exploration of her spreading bruise.
“That issue nearly got you killed, and it’s not something you’re going to be able to just fix! You are blind on that side, and if you are not perfectly aware of your surroundings at all times, it will get you killed!”
“I suppose you would have me give up now, then.”
The new Duchess of Volesin commented sullenly, earning a scowl of disapproval from Albert.
“Yes! There are other ways you can help your people – you don’t have to endanger the last of the Volesin line getting into fistfights with petty thugs! You have a Duchy to run!”
“My husband died fighting for what he believed in, as did my father and brothers! How can I be expected to do any less . . . or is it because I am a woman?”
“This is not about them, or your gender! This is about you, and your apparent need to martyr yourself! You were always the most level-headed member of the Volesin family – whatever happened to that quiet, insightful girl I remember?”
“She got sent to Ironheart!”
Rose growled, and then sighed, flopping down onto the edge of the roof and letting her legs dangle over.
“I need this right now. The whole kingdom’s going to the Hells, and I can’t save it. I just . . . can’t be that person. It’s too big a problem for me to solve. But out here on the streets at least, I can save one small corner of it, one person at a time.”
Rose watched as the two children helped their father up, and smiled as the small family trotted off down the street.
“I can be a hero to somebody.”
“So you can save them, as you failed to save the rest of your family?”
The question hurt, but the pain had become just far enough removed that Rose was able to nod.
“I suppose that’s true. The adrenaline rush of getting into a fist fight is a plus as well.”
“This is not a game! I patched your father up on a number of occasions when he grew too bold in playing the odds. And in the end, he lost. I will not allow the same thing to happen to his last remaining offspring!”
Slowly, Rose nodded and then pushed herself back up onto her feet, fixing her cowl back into place.
“Fair enough. I will be more careful in the future. But if the worst does happen, there’s always Ariella.”
“Teaching two Volesins was quite enough, thank you very much. Now, let us see if you can find someone else in mortal danger before the dawn breaks. I imagine you will also want me to inform the other members of the Triumvirate that you will be arriving late to the meeting tomorrow – as usual.”
“Yes indeed. You’ve been a tremendous help to me, Albert. I won’t forget it.”
“So your father kept saying. Perhaps that should become the new Volesin family creed – “Whatever would we do without Albert?””
Within the unlit study, a pair of communication crystals suddenly sprang to life, faintly illuminating the room and its sole occupant with a sickly green light.
“Uhhh . . . is this thing on? How exactly am I supposed to know?”
The youthful face captured in one of the crystals asked, only to be answered by the occupant of the other crystal.
“Can you hear me, you dumbass? If so, then it’s working!”
“Don’t call me a dumbass, dumbass! I’m now a Marquis, and I own enough money to buy your little pig farm Barony ten times over!”
“Yeah? Well good luck with that when I send my elite private army over to kick your ass!”
“Silence, both of you! I hereby call this first meeting of the Shadow Triumvirate to order!”
The study’s occupant demanded, but both of the other members simply greeted him with derision.
“The Shadow Triumvirate? Seriously Damont? You’re still going with that cheesy name? Why couldn’t we just call ourselves the Triumvirate, or something cool like the Shadow Legion?”
“Because the Triumvirate is already being used by those three crazy hags who are trying to do what we’re doing now – take over the entire kingdom, dumbass!”
Both the Marquis and the Viscount shouted at once, and while the young Baron’s face curled up in anger, he did obey. Smoothing back his hair, Viscount Damont regained his composure, and explained.
“First off, never use our real names during one of our meetings again – we never know when someone else might be listening. Second, The Fist is right – there are only three of us so Triumvirate fits, but until those three are done away with calling ourselves that will only cause confusion. And since we’re going to be manipulating events from the shadows, putting Shadow at the front of it fits while at the same time differentiating us from our rivals. Clear enough?”
Within the crystal, the Marquis raised his hand.
“So, we’re all getting nicknames then? I’m supposed to refer to him as The Fist, and not –“
“Yes! That’s exactly right! He’s The Fist, you’re The Money, and I’m The Brains, is that simple enough for you!?”
“Yeah. Yeah sure. Whatever you say Da – Brains.”
“Good. Now then – while I keep the three witches at bay by endlessly opposing every single effort they try to make by getting the other nobles organized, I want the two of you to do the following. Money, you start buying up every wagon train of supplies you can that’s headed for Amaranth. Without the trickle of supplies it’s able to get now, things will become desperate inside the city in a hurry. When that happens, Fist, I want you to take your elite army and break through the elf lines with all of the supplies we bought. We’ll be hailed as heroes, and will have made our first move towards becoming known as this knigdom’s saviors. And from there, it ought to be easy to be selected as it’s rulers. Is that simple enough for the two of you?”
Both of the other young men nod, and Damont silently breathes a sigh of relief.
“Okay, good. We all have work to do, so let’s get to it. Meeting adjourned.”
Damont deactivates the two crystals, slipping them into the concealed drawer built into his desk before reaching over to light a candle. As the candle’s light washes across the room, a masked face suddenly appears from the darkness on the other side of the desk! Damont gasps in shock, and is about to scream for his guards when the intruder holds up a finger and makes a shushing noise.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Now then kid – how would you like some lessons on how to be truly devious?”
Frightened and angry, the assembled crowd greets the militia-escorted wagon with shouts and catcalls. With practiced ease, the militia captain held his hand up for silence.
“The people of Narle appreciate you sacrifices in this dark time. However, there is still great need for food, supplies, and able-bodied men! You have given much, but regrettably we still need more. After this is over, you will be justly compensated!”
More angry shouts went out as the militia men fanned out from the wagon, looking over the remaining merchant wares laid out in the street. From the crowd, angry voices shout out their futile protests.
“This is exactly what you said two days ago!”
“You bastards took my son, and I haven’t seen him with you since! Where is he!?”
Suddenly, the crowd falls silent as a broad-shouldered man muscled his way to the front and loudly clapped his hands together. The lower half of the man’s face was obscured by a scarlet-colored scarf, but his icy blue eyes were still visible, and they burned with purpose.
“Yes . . .”
The masked man began, his voice muffled but still quite understandable.
“You have taken much from these people. But what have you done for them in return other than continue to take? You do not maintain Order, save the orders of your masters. You do not offer them protection, because your masters would gladly abandon them to preserve themselves. What then, makes you any different than thieves, save that you come in broad daylight?”
Unable to allow this challenge to go unopposed, the militia captain steps up to stand directly in front of the masked man, his eyes just barely level with the top of the man’s chest.
“And you are spouting out challenges from behind a mask. Who do you think you are, that you dare oppose the will of your lord?”
“I am merely a concerned citizen, who for too long as seen the parasites that rule over these people suck the very life out of them. With taxes, with denied opportunities, and with men like you, these self-styled lords have ensured themselves a very . . . comfortable existence. And now that the kingdom stands on the brink of ruin, they will throw the very people who made that existence possible to the wolves so that they can go on being . . . comfortable. This, I will not permit. And if you choose to stand with them, then you too shall face Justice!”
“Alright, that’s it. I don’t care who you are – you’re coming with us. And we’ll just see if you can talk your way out of the Gallows.”
The militia captain gestures, and two of his men move away from looting and back towards him and their newly-dubbed prisoner. The masked man simply hisses in irritation.
“I did give you a choice, and you have made it. The consequences are therefore yours.”
In a blur of motion, the man suddenly reached into his jacket and pulled out a mining pick. The head of the makeshift weapon then flashed up, and then down as its tip buried itself in the militia captain’s chest. Poorly equipped for battle, the man’s leather jerkin was no match for something that could punch through stone. He fell gurgling, and the masked man let him, releasing his hand on the pick and gesturing. At his command, more masked figures appeared out of the crowd, firing crossbows into the unprepared militia men. Within a moment, it was over, and as his followers moved about the downed militia, finishing them, the masked man turns back to the crowd.
“There will be consequences for this action in turn. You will be the ones held accountable for the deaths of these men. It is unfair, but then your oppressors have never been about fairness. At this point you all have a choice before you – you can either continue to accept the yoke, and it will grow ever heavier, or you can cast it off and join the revolution. Either path will be difficult, but only one will leave you free to enjoy the prosperity that you have sweat and bled for. The choice is yours.”
And with that the man turned away and walked to join his fellows, now loading the wagon with equipment from the militia-men, and distributing half of the wagon’s former contents out to the people. Well over half the crowd moved to follow him as he left town, on his way to spread word of the peasant revolution.
Brother Timothy looked out at those gathered for his sermon and sighed. Although his congregation had shrunk from its regular size, it remained the largest in the area. Despite all the horrors of war and the rumors surrounding the Battle of Narle, many people remained faithful.
Their faith humbled Timothy, for he had lost his along the way through these dark days. It shamed him that he now lacked the faith he had once shared with them in countless fiery sermons. Dimly, he could recall the old fire that had burned within him, and that had led him to the priesthood.
But try as he might, he could not rekindle that fire from the embers that were left – it was gone. And so as he stood before his congregation now, who looked to him for guidance, he nervously licked his lips.
“My dear friends, these are truly dark days before us.”
Aware that his followers deserved someone who could preach as he no longer could, Timothy had written this sermon last night with the intention of announcing that he would be stepping down.
“In times such as these, we have turned to the Divine Couple for support. We have asked Athelion for His mercy, and Miriam for Her protection.”
He had intended to step down, but last night Timothy had found a pamphlet on his desk, placed there by an unseen hand.
“But I say that this time, to do so would be the move of a fool! It should now be plain as day, the true nature of the Valkyrie!”
That pamphlet had spoken truths that reverberated with Timothy’s very soul. And he felt the fire within him burst into new life.
“Miriam the Valkyrie is our enemy! She has hidden Her true motives from us since the dawn of time, but now she has cast that veil of lies aside! Her true intention, nay Her very purpose, is the complete and utter annihilation of all Mankind!”
Now there are gasps from the crowd, and a few angry cries, but Timothy ignores them as he pressed onward.
“Her actions thus far are only a prelude to the horrors She shall unleash upon us next! Against Her will, we have no hope of survival!”
Now everyone present was involved, arguing with their neighbors, shouting for him to step down, or crying softly. It was time for the meat of his argument.
“But there is One who can oppose the Valkyrie on our behalf! Nay, who has opposed the Valkyrie countless times before and forced Her hand to be stayed. Otherwise, we would not be here today, and Mankind would long have been wiped out! I speak not of the Forger of Oblivion, but Miriam’s own husband, Athelion the Lightbringer! It is He who we must place our trust in now!”
And here was the brilliance of Timothy’s argument. Had he supported Azguloth, the crowd would have surged forward as one to seize him and burn him as a heretic – and deservedly so. But the crowd knew of Athelion, and trusted that He had humanity’s best interests in mind. They were therefore willing to consider his argument with an open mind.
“We must throw ourselves wholly upon the Lightbringer’s mercy! Through our faith, and purity of devotion, we shall convince Him that humanity is still worth sparing! But we must also make Him understand that His consort must be brought to heel! And at the same time, we shall show Miriam that we have seen Her true nature, and we reject Her utterly!”
It was time for Timothy to deliver his masterstroke. As he descended from the podium to stand by the statues of Miriam and Athelion, his voice cresendoed.
“No longer shall we worship the Divine Couple together! I say that we devote ourselves entirely to Athelion, and turn away from Miriam as She has turned against us! There are some who say that Athelion is an indifferent and uncaring god, but let me ask you this! Which god would you rather devote yourself too? One who wishes to pervert you into a monster, one who wishes to destroy you utterly, or one which wants nothing to do with you at all!? There is only one logical choice here, and that is to support Athelion and Athelion alone! I have made my choice, and I will oppose the Valkyrie with every fiber of my being!”
With that, Timothy gave the statue of Miriam a hard shove. Early this morning, he had prepared for this moment by striking the back of the statue repeatedly with a hammer. The cracked stone was out of the crowd’s sight, and so they were all shocked as the stone creaked, groaned, and then gave way. The image of Miriam toppled from its base, and smashed down onto the floor, the head snapping off completely from the impact.
“Let us call ourselves what we truly are! Not sons and daughters of Miriam and Azguloth, but Children of Athelion!”
There is a moment of shocked silence from the crowd, but then someone in the back shouts.
“I am a Child of Athelion!”
And then another, and another parroted that response, until the walls of the chapel shook with the repeated refrain.
“WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF ATHELION!”
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
You stand on a seemingly infinite, empty black plane, although you are not alone. Standing in front of you is the Baron of Gast, grinning that damnable smile of his.
“So Korram, how’s retirement treating you? I’m having a great time in my own little corner of the Hells . . . with your family.”
You lunge forward to plant a fist in that smug face of his, but he melts away into black smoke at your very touch. He reforms a few feet further back, although his features are different. In the back of his throat, a blazing flame now burns, shooting sparks and gouts of smoke out of his mouth as he speaks.
“You could have joined us all down here, but you chose to be a hero instead. You always were a sucker!”
From behind the Baron steps your wife, her dead eyes fixating on you a moment before she turns away to face the Baron. The two of them share a passionate kiss, and then the Baron’s jaw detaches like a snake and he swallows your wife whole. Again you lunge at him, and again the Baron melts away into smoke, this time flowing around you and reforming somewhere behind you. As you whirl about to face him again, this time he has company. Forming an aisle of bodies between you and him stand Seraphan, Amelia, Kurt, and Joanna. At the end of the aisle stands the Baron, now with slate-colored wings jutting from his back. In his arms is Katrina, although she is considerably less of a willing participant than your wife. As the two of them struggle, the four of your friends move to block your path, intoning as they do so.
“Let the innocent be damned as the wicked. Let divine injustice be done. Feast upon her soul as you ravage her body.”
Finally, unable to struggle anymore, Katrina looks helplessly back towards you and whispers, “Go get him Dad.”
The Baron then consumes her in the same manner as he did your wife, and grins at you as the shades step aside. As the Baron beckons you forward, you again lunge for the Baron, but this time he proves solid as he catches you and holds you immobile in his iron grip.
“Come join us, Korram.”
He hisses in your ear.
“You know you want to.”
And then the Baron spreads his jaws wide, and you are tumbling down into a fiery, screaming abyss. A moment later, Miriam the Valkyrie appears before you and says “No.” And with that, you awake from your recurring nightmare.
You awaken to find yourself lying in bed, soft sunlight streaming in through the window. It had taken a little getting used to the idea of going to sleep while it was still “day” outside, but then so did a lot of things up here. Apparently, you wouldn’t have to worry about it for much longer – as Kurt and Joanna explained it to you, your new body was no longer mortal.
This meant that it no longer needed such things as food or sleep, but your mind still thought that it did. So you still felt tired, and hungry, even up in the Heavens, at least for a little while. Eventually, your mind would adjust and then you would only ever need to do those things if you felt like doing them. Given the fact that your dreams were plagued by guilt-driven nightmares from your subconscious, you probably wouldn’t miss needing to sleep overly much.
Your new body also felt good – no more aches and pains from old injuries, and the simple wear and tear of old age. You felt as you had when you were twenty, and the only concern you had in life was whether or not the crops would be good this year.
But you had no concerns now, save for the nagging guilt your subconscious kept trying to shove at you in dreams. There was nothing to worry about up here in the Heavens. You could do whatever you wanted, for as long as you wanted to do it, so long as it didn’t involve hurting anyone. You could go and see all of your old friends and family, not just Kurt and Joanna but your long since passed siblings and parents, or even all the way back to the progenitor of the Alstans.
And it would go on this way forever, one unending day blending into the next without cessation. No one, not even the damn Baron of Gast, could take this away from you now. You had made it, you were safe, and now you had an endless existence in paradise stretching out before you. Which was not to say that you had been taking it easy.
Still enjoying the fact that your body responded to your commands without protest, you sprinted down the stairway leading from your upstairs bedroom down into your kitchen. This whole place had been created by you from memories of your simple farmstead back in Callaway, although you had taken the liberty of designing a few improvements and expansions.
Apparently, everyone had their own little plot of . . . well, you couldn’t really call it land, but their own little space outside of the Shining City to live in however they saw fit. More specifically, it was theirs to design as they saw fit, the blank space shaping itself to what that person willed it to be. Kurt and Joanna had mentioned visiting some people with quite intricate, mind-bending homes, but had confirmed that most people started with simple constructs – like a recreation of their home.
You are just contemplating what you wanted for breakfast when a soft knock came at your door. You were expecting Kurt and Joanna at some point in the ever-nebulous “today”, as they had proposed taking you on a tour of the upper-levels of the Shining City, including a walk past the Palace of the Sun. Apparently mortals weren’t usually allowed inside the Palace, particularly after the gates had been barred from all entry recently. Evidentially Miriam and Athelion weren’t taking any visitors at the moment.
Which was okay – you were still considering your options on how to solve the problem of your family. While the Heavens were extremely pleasant, there would always be something missing until Sarah and Katrina were here with you. There had to be some sort of cosmic loophole you could exploit – the damn Baron had certainly pulled a bunch of them off, and with enough preparation you ought to be able to manage at least one yourself.
In any event, when you pulled open the door, you discovered that it was not Kurt and Joanna after all, but a new friend you had made while up here – Marius, a former paladin. Marius was interesting in that he seemed to prefer himself as an old man – although he still had a youthful spring in his step. Speaking of alternative options, you had made friends with Marius in the hopes he could be a source of information on the natures of the afterlives. So far he had been happy to inform you, and although you don’t think he was suspicious yet he had cautioned you that he would like a favor in return. It seemed he had now come to collect.
“Hello Korram. Allow me to compliment you again on a lovely home. Not everyone is able to create something beautiful so soon after coming here, too stuck on the ugliness of their former life to escape it. Hrm, perhaps sticking to something so familiar to them is their way of coping with eternity.”
Marius says, his initial disarming smile fading as he grew more serious.
“So, I trust you remember that I said in return for some tutoring in the nature of the universe, I would request a favor from you in return. Well, I was hoping that I would be able to call in that favor now.”
The old paladin sighed as he turned back to look towards the Shining City, just barely visible on the horizon of your constructed home.
“I am helping a group of paladins adapt to their new existence. They were all present at a terrible battle that recently occurred on the mortal realm – the same one you were involved in, I believe. I was hoping that perhaps you would be willing to talk with them, maybe teach them how you let go of your old mortal concerns so quickly.”
Marius’s lips slip back up into a smile.
“Listen to me talk like one of the angels – mortal this and mortal that. Heh. Well, if you are interested, we are having a gathering shortly in a secluded spot in the Shining City. That’s where we’re keeping these unfortunate souls until they’re better adjusted – they might dream up something truly unpleasant for themselves out here if left alone. Funny how that is – we live in a realm of endless light, and yet our minds can still create the shadow. So anyway . . . will you do it?”
The Gast Family Monument
(Rather than use a lyrical video for Hondshioh’s theme, I decided to use a trailer video that used the same song. I figured it was a good demonstration of how I envisioned the following fight going, albeit with less acrobatics and more just shrugging off blows on Hondshioh’s part.)
The devils called, as if that alone was enough to convince you to give up. But you are a paladin, and it was time to show them why you are to be feared! Noticing a rusted blade buried in the sandy soil in front of you, you kick the hilt, tearing the blade out of the ground. As the weapon sails up into the air you catch it with your good hand, and while not an ideal weapon it would have to do. As the lead devils approach you, you harden your skin as much as you dared with several broken ribs and beckon them forward.
The first devil lashes out at you with a whip, the weapon’s length curling around your bad arm and pulling on it painfully. Twisting your torso rather than trying to use your bad arm, you pull the unprepared devil forward, sending it stumbling toward you. With a single swing you cleave off the creature’s head, leaving it collapsing into a pile of ash and mismatched armor at your feet. Two more devils are right behind him, and these two have actual weapons, a halberd and an axe.
Using the tip of your blade, you cut yourself free of the whip, allowing both ends of the severed weapon to fall off of you. Then you pull your arm back and throw the rusted blade into the throat of the halberd-carrying devil as he rushes towards you. The beast gurgles in surprise and collapses a few feet away from you, twitching as its blood pours out onto the crimson sands.
The remaining axe-wielding demon charges in, bringing its weapon down towards your head. You block the strike with your arm, wincing as the impact sends shivers running down your arm through your armor and stony skin. Moving your arm to continue to obey your commands, you push the devil’s axe back and to the side. Then breaking contact with the weapon, you bring your arm up and back around, delivering a punch to the devil’s jaw that shatters it. In shock, the creature falls to its knees, and you finish it with a swift kick to the face.
No sooner than you have finished these three before a javelin comes sailing in from behind you, slashing across the back of your right leg. Evidentially the fiends still wanted you alive, and although your armor manages to protect your flesh, the glancing impact does leave your leg tingling. Time to get out of here – fighting a running battle should hopefully draw this out a little longer.
Snatching up the fallen devil’s axe as you limp past, you duck around a rocky outcropping as several more javelins stab into the sand around you. From around the other side of the outcropping comes another halberd-wielding devil, who swings his weapon around in a wide arc. You manage to stop short just in time, leaving the weapon to slam into the rocks instead of your chest (apparently not *all* of the devils were interested in keeping you alive). Before the devil can recover, you bring the axe down on his outstretched arms, severing one of his hands at the wrist. Unable to control the heavy weapon with only one hand, the devil drops the weapon as it screams in pain. You kick the devil solidly in the chest, sending it flying away from you. With the way now clear, you keep running past the downed devil and duck around another outcropping.
As with last time, a devil was waiting for you, only this one was more patient. Pressed up against the rocks, it waited until you were almost past it before striking, swinging a two-handed maul down into your legs. You went down hard, agonizing pain shooting through your left leg, which was likely broken as well, or at least fractured. You end up stretched out on the ground, while the devil laughs triumphantly as he lifts his maul up for another blow.
With your remaining strength, you tighten your grip on your appropriated axe, and then swing upwards blindly, managing to strike the devil precisely at the point where its legs meet. The creature grunts in pain, and then collapses on top of you, pinning you down. Despite his injury the devil refuses to give up, grappling with you, its clawed fingers seeking your eyes. You manage to get your good arm up and around its head, and then twist, sentencing the fiend to ashes like his companions.
You manage to drag yourself part of the way up back onto your feet before more fiends arrive, battering you back down onto the ground. A group of them then clusters around you, stomping and pounding you into submission. Finally, you are battered into unconsciousness, and from now on your soul will belong to the Hells.
You awaken to find yourself in incredible pain. Your entire body aches, feeling like one contiguous bruise – and given the beating you had received, that might not be entirely unreasonable. The dull pain spikes to a sharp agony on the side with your broken ribs, you broken arm, and broken leg. One of your eyes has been swollen shut, and your vision swims whenever you try to turn your head. Dimly, you are aware that you are in motion, being carried on a stretcher somewhere. A short time after you crawl your way back to consciousness, you and your porters come to a stop. Into your limited field of vision, you see the withered face of the Black General appear.
“Ahhh . . . Hondshioh, was it not? We meet again, and now it seems that our positions have been reversed. I imagine you think that I will be a considerably less gracious host, but let me assure you that I intend to return the favor.”
The Black General turned his attention to someone outside of your field of vision.
“Repair this slave as best as you are able. I want him intact and mobile.”
A minute later, and your previous pool of pain becomes an ocean, blotting out all thought as your bones are savagely reset and your other injuries are treated, but not gently. You awake into a half-conscious daze several more times throughout this period, sometimes back on what passes for a fiend’s healing table, sometimes in an iron cell. Screams hang heavy in the air each time, and you cannot remember if they belong to others or are your own.
Finally, you have a period of lucidity again, and find yourself being carried into an ornate room, if one decorated in a rather macabre fashion. Waiting for you is the withered form of the Black General, sitting behind a desk of polished bone, into which have been carved profane writings. The two devils carrying you unload you from the stretcher, dumping you out into a chair that seems to have been upholstered with human skin. The two devils snap a heavy iron collar around your neck, which is attached to the floor nearby with a heavy chain, and then leave you alone in the room with their master. Not that you were much of a threat anyway at present, given your arm is still in some sort of metal brace that seems more like a torture device than a split, and your leg still sends shooting pains up and down its length whenever you try to put weight on it.
“Ah, I am glad to see that you survived after all. I am afraid that medicine is not a very advanced topic of study amongst the fiends – rare is it that we suffer any sort of injury that a quick death and reformation can’t fix. Much similar with the neutralization of pain – we are most effective in inflicting it, but preventing it . . .”
The Black General shrugs and then takes a sip from the iron goblet sitting on his desk.
“Would you like a drink? Time flows a bit differently here, but I still imagine you are starting to grow hungry and thirsty. I rather doubt that you would like what I’m currently drinking – blood of sinners and all that – but I do believe I have a bottle of Donovale wine that one of my servants appropriated during the latest invasion of the mortal realm. You and I have much to discuss, and I feel like celebrating.”
The Black General pushes himself up out of his massive chair, and then walks around the desk to stand in front of you.
“To cut to the heart of the matter, I was hoping to extend to you a job offer. You’re still alive in your mortal body, and that makes you quite useful to me. I could just trade you to one of the other fiend lords to serve as entertainment, but that would be a waste. From our brief conversation in the Reliquary, you seemed to me a man that was willing to be practical in his efforts, and not someone prone to blind zealotry. Are you willing to at least consider my offer with an open mind, or are you going to start spouting scripture at me like your men?”
Your time down here in the Hells had been informative, but a bit draining. “Your” servants are proven to be loyal and obedient thus far, but it was clear they didn’t always understand your orders. Which was only to be expected, for you were not a Fiend Lord, and there were some things you simply didn’t understand. Like the fiendish obsession with pain, both delivering it and receiving it. You were certainly not against inflicting pain when it was necessary, but more than one underling was confused as to why you did not delight in torturing them at every opportunity. They had been especially shocked when you had simply turned over torturing the handful of human prisoners to them. Fortunately, you were able to play that incident off as being too busy to spend time on the simpler pleasures, and that had the advantage of being true.
You had made a study of the Hells as best you could while still seeming knowledgeable. What you had learned was both good and bad. It seemed that the real “you” had been an incredible recluse, essentially the Boogeyman of the Hells. Naturally, this left you with only a small estate and a small collection of followers, most of them zealots who followed the ideal of Lord Nihilus rather than you directly. Likewise, they are naturally pleased that you have returned to them, and there’s no real record of your behavior with them, so your behavior has been simply dismissed thus far.
Unfortunately, you were not alone among the pantheon of the Hells – and all twenty of the Fiend Lords had likewise recently returned to the Hells. Given the expectation that the various Fiend Lords tended to bicker and fight amongst themselves, you imagined that you would have visitors at some point. And most likely, those visitors would be considerably less friendly than your own followers. You were going to need to come up with a plan to deal with that soon, assuming you weren’t able to find a way out of here before that.
One effort to delay that day of conflict from arriving was attending the council of the Fiend Lords that you had heard was announced. One of the rooms in your modest estate containing an ancient communication crystal, which evidentially was connected to a network that allowed all of the Fiend Lords to hold joint conferences from their own homes. Unfortunately, when you attempted to activate the crystal to participate in the meeting, it swirled to life, and then immediately deactivated itself. Something was wrong with the connection, blocking the magical signal from getting through.
You are just starting to work out what was causing this problem when a commotion comes from outside. Expecting this to be a surprise assault upon your adopted home, you scry outside to find that it is not an attack after all, but a group of your servants leading a triumphant parade. They were pushing . . . well, something ahead of them, the figure too wrapped up in chains to really make out clearly. You did catch the sight of bound, dark wings jutting out from the figure’s back, however. So an angel of some sort – perhaps it was the same dark-winged angel who saved Miriam after the Baron dispelled your flight magic on Her.
Figuring that these idiots would drag the divine creature all the way up here if you didn’t go meet them, you leave the communication chamber and end up catching up to them in the lobby. Upon seeing you, the group of servant devils shove their prize towards you, allowing you to get a good look at the filthy, battered thing. Now up close, you recognize the individual, although from the bloody mess that was now his face that was a difficult feat. It was Seraph, clearly only just barely clinging to life, with a catalog of bleeding injuries and broken bones. The barest flicker of recognition flashes in his eyes as they briefly focus on you, before fading into dazed consciousness.
“Master, we came across a couple of Mammon’s demons dragging this thing out across the Wastes!”
“Yeah, we have no idea what they were doing out there, but we knew we could take them!”
“We knew you didn’t have an angel yet, especially something as unusual as a male angel, and thought that a being of your stature should have at least one such toy!”
“So we took it from them!”
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
Idiots. Apparently they hadn’t thought through the idea that when those demons reformed, they would go tell Mammon, and assuming he knew who was responsible, he would come here with a whole lot more demons and reclaim his “toy”. Then again, you were the powerful and mysterious Lord Nihilus, and they probably figured you could handle it.
It was almost comical, like a bunch of children trying to please their father, were it not for the fact that this was going to be another distraction from your efforts. And given the way they were all eagerly watching you to see what you would do with your gift, you weren’t going to be able to just feign indifference.
You awaken slowly, first aware only of the sensation of movement and the screeching hiss of metal on stone. Finally, you manage to open your eyes, and predictably, wish you hadn’t. You are locked in some kind of iron bell, with only your head and neck visible out of it. And judging from the unpleasant sensation of a razor blade resting against your throat, there was some sort of guillotine device set up to deal with you should you become unruly. Not that they had much to worry about there, as you could feel that the interior of the bell was lined with spikes. Thrashing around inside the bell was therefore sure to be unpleasant and rather painful.
Meanwhile, the bell that you were locked inside was being dragged along through the hallways of the Screaming Dark estate by several burly devils. They didn’t seem particularly happy to be doing this, but given the looks they periodically gave you, they understood the need for the bell. Evidentially word about your little stunt while trying to rescue Karami got out, and now they were taking no chances with you.
Fortunately, this slow and boring trip came to an end shortly after you regained consciousness. Grinning in anticipation at you, the devils put their backs into it one last time, and haul you into an expansive office on the top floor of the estate. In one corner of the room an angel hung from the ceiling, looking more like a piece of butchered meat than a sentient being. But instead of the angel, your attention is firmly drawn to the large desk and chair at the back of the office. The chair’s occupant is concealed by the back of the chair, as they sit facing the massive window that takes up much of the back of the room. You expect to see Vylethar’s grinning face a moment later as the chair starts to turn, but you are in for a surprise.
Instead of the grandmaster of gross, a gorgeous older woman with platinum-blond hair is sitting behind the desk. She tucks a strand of the near-white hair beneath her delicate horns, and then smiles at you.
“Ah, so this is the infamous man who slew an entire platoon of my finest soldiers – or at least, what’s left of him.”
The devil-woman smirked, and then turned her attention to the devils who had dragged you in here.
“Leave us. I can handle him should he . . . misbehave.”
Clearly disappointed that they would not be privy to whatever followed, the devils nonetheless obeyed. As the door shut behind them, the devil-woman stood up from behind the desk, revealing that she was clad in some sort of ridiculous and non-functional suit of armor – essentially nothing more than a metal brassiere, thong, and set of heels. Coming around the desk, the devil woman perched herself on the edge of it, cocking her head as she examined you.
“So, I understand that you have been here before, and during your last visit you met my dear, sweet Vyly. He was taking care of this place in my . . . absence, shall we say. The Screaming Dark Estate, like you, belong to me. I’m Videle, Lady of Lust. Nice to meet you.”
You suspect, given the way she was flattering you with a dazzling smile, that she expected you to be drooling all over yourself at this point. Considering the fact that Vylethar had that sort of effect of women, and given Videle’s title, she was probably a succubus. Which meant that you should be drooling all over yourself at this point . . . except that you are not. Instead, the very sight of her makes you feel angry and embarrassed.
“Now that introductions are over, I would like you to tell me how exactly you escaped from my home the first time. Most mortals aren’t capable of such an impressive feat.”
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
Up on your perch in the chapel’s bell tower, you watch as the three cloaked figures flee through the city streets below. Chasing after them is another set of cloaked figures, or perhaps more accurately, herding them towards you. Your followers were doing that part of their job well, although it was clear that the fiend worshippers they were chasing knew the city streets much better. You doubted that they would be able to catch them without your help – typical. Well, you certainly weren’t going to let them get away.
You had spent the first week after your return searching for Maurice. You didn’t find absolute proof that she had been dragged off into the Hells with the rest of the other angels, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary it seemed like the best assumption you could make. Which meant that now, you had to figure out how to retrieve her. Unfortunately, neither you nor any of your acolytes were very knowledgeable about the Hells, beyond it was full of fiends and that’s where human souls went when they died.
Which meant that you had to find someone that did know what they were talking about, and make them talk. Someone had suggested that the paladins, who had waged a war against the fiends for millennia, might know more about your new destination. Unfortunately, there seemed to be only slightly more paladins than angels now, and most of them had retreated off to their home city. You had considered going there to kidnap one, and then coerce or intimidate the human into helping you, but then one of your acolytes suggested a different idea.
Instead of interrogating one of the fiend’s human enemies, you could interrogate one of their allies. Evidentially the man was once part of a small cult of demon worshippers in a nearby town. He didn’t know exactly where they were, but he could find out on your behalf. And so you had spent another torturous week involved in clandestine investigations, bringing back memories of hunting for the angel seller in the human capital (although at least those had a few pleasant memories of your budding relationship with Maurice).
This time, rather than handle these obnoxious details yourself, and risk inadvertently tipping them off after you finally lost your patience and killed someone, you had let your followers do the odious work. Apparently, they had managed to bungle the job anyway, although at least it was merely the effort to go and collect the worshippers at their next meeting. And now that you knew who they were, it would be a simple matter for you to swoop down there and scoop them up.
You are just contemplating doing just that when an obnoxiously familiar voice clears its throat behind you. Turning, you see the withered form of the “man” known as Quadramus stepping out of the shadows. The “human” extends its hands up in what you believe was meant to be a peaceful gesture – among humans at least.
“Excuse me for interrupting, but I thought we might have another chat. I believe we have gotten off on the wrong foot – you dismissing me and trying to tear me apart, me with blowing up that corpse right on top of your town. I would like us to start over – I assure you that we can be most useful to each other. In fact, that’s why I’m here. I know what you’re looking for, and I can help you find it.”
(As a note, despite starting the game in a sort of in media res, you are welcome to pursue whatever angles to the Spirit’s investigation to find Maurice that you wish. So if you want to negotiate with Quadramus, go beat some cultist ass instead, or decide to scrap the whole thing above and instead go and try to have a nice chat with Ander, you’re welcome to do so.)
Your dreams, as they have been for a while now, are far from peaceful. They are a rush of vibrant colors, sensations, and noises that you can barely process while in the dream itself, and after you wake it all fades into an indecipherable mess. But they are nonetheless important, memories from a person who you were once, and instinctually wanted to be again. Genevieve the Champion, the greatest of the angels, now lives on in you. Or perhaps, you are Genevieve, and Lukina is merely an assumed identity, forged by your shattered mind to cope with your diminished station. You do not know the answers yet, but you intend to discover them – must discover them.
Which was another reason why your dreams had been troubled as of late – there was a war going on, not just the eternal one between the Heavens and the Hells but one between humanity and the elves. Even in the peaceful village which had been all you had known in your life until now, the people were now fearful and restless. Mercifully, the village was on the far side of the kingdom from the elves, which meant that it was as safe as anywhere.
You were not meant for a peaceful life in safety, however, and although your family didn’t understand the change that had come over you, they supported you. Your father had arranged to purchase a suit of armor to protect you from a merchant passing through. The set of lightweight halberdier armor had been salvaged from the Battle of Narle, and thus was damaged and didn’t fit you very well at first. Burke, the local blacksmith, had taken a look at it though, and managed to mend it and adjust it until it fitted you almost like a second skin.
Your family weren’t the only ones who had parting gifts to give, however. The local farmers had pulled together from their limited stores to ensure that you would have two weeks of food. Brother Adam’s gifts, however, were the most precious. He gave you a tome of holy writings, claiming that it would offer you the guidance he would no longer be present to give.
*And* he had given you a sword, not just a weapon salvaged from some battle somewhere, but an heirloom sword. He claimed that it had belonged to the paladin who had retired here to establish the village’s modest but well-built chapel. Since the paladin’s peaceful death from old age, the sword had remained in the chapel’s care, maintained but unused.
“Be careful in the outside world. There are men out there who possess neither honor nor decency. They will attempt to take advantage of you, and if they are able, they will destroy you. Do not hesitate to use that sword to defend yourself.”
Before leaving, you were given some rudimentary training in how to use the blade by the local constable. Upon touching the hilt of the blade, your mind had been filled with memories of how to use it. Unfortunately, your body had not developed the muscle memory to support the techniques that your mind was sifting through in rapid succession. As such, a bit of practice with the blade was a good thing, and you resolved to practice with it an hour after making camp each night.
Your departure from your home had been nearly a week and a half ago. Thankfully in that time, you had encountered neither wild men looking for an inexperienced girl to destroy, nor elves. For the most part, you had stuck to the roads, following the signs that marked the occasional crossroads, always heading towards Luxien. You sensed that there, the next phase of your journey would begin.
This night, you had stopped in the small village of Woodhall, which reminded you of your own hometown. Unlike your village, however, Woodhall supported itself with lumber rather than crops. Although you had only a little bit of money, after a week of sleeping on the hard ground you had decided to take advantage of the opportunity to sleep in a soft bed. A room at the local inn had been thankfully cheap, and you had fallen asleep almost immediately after gratefully crawling into the bed.
You awoke later that night to the sound of panicked screams and barked orders. Apparently the village had fallen under attack! Thankfully, the village militia must have been prepared for such a thing, because it sounded like there was an actual battle going on outside rather than a surprise slaughter. There was no question that you were going out there to help – the only question was whether or not you would be going out in your armor.
Although comfortable enough while traveling, the steel greaves, gauntlets, and breastplate were terribly uncomfortable while lying down. In order to get any kind of real sleep, you needed to remove the armor. Out on the road, that had been a dangerous proposition if those dangerous men were roaming around at night, but you had felt rather safe behind a locked door in the middle of a town. Fortunately, you had practiced putting the armor on quickly – it would only take a minute to strap on the gauntlets and greaves. Without someone to help you it would take another few minutes to strap the breastplate into place, although that was naturally the most important piece of armor. Those couple minutes could be crucial to saving the town, let alone someone’s life. But you would also be taking a serious risk with your own life as well. What would you do?
It had been a long journey to get to Silverstream, but assuming the occasional crossroad signs you had passed were not lying to you, that journey was nearing an end. Your trip had thankfully been an uneventful one, although neither you nor Val’tosh could stop wandering what had happened to Master Vork. For that matter, the two of you hadn’t stopped wandering how Master Vork showed up at the tournament – or survived when both of you had quite clearly seen his body.
“Hey Mal, I got it! Maybe he’s one of those, uh . . . things, whatchamacallit . . . those people with the big bird wings. Bangles? Bagels? Mmmm . . . bagels – one of those would taste good right now. Hey Mal, I’m pretty hungry. Do you think they’ll have enough food for us in Silverstream? All this traveling we’ve been doing has worked up an appetite!”
You weren’t an expert theologian, but you believe that the being Val’Tosh had referred to was an angel. Which, as far as you knew, were all female, which ruled that out as a possible origin for Master Vork unless that beard of his was hiding something!
Unfortunately, while your trip had been largely peaceful, that did not mean it had been pleasant, either. You had passed through the burnt-out remains of two villages on the way here. You had found no one but corpses in the villages, branded and impaled on spears in a macabre display. Whoever had destroyed the two villages had been thorough, although after you buried the bodies you and Val’Tosh had found enough supplies to keep you going until now. You would be getting into Silverstream with very little but the clothes on your backs, however – much farther and you would have needed to forage for a few days.
Evidentially Silverstream was located at the base of a mountain, as you had been ascending into foothills for a few days now. Since yesterday you had seen traces of smoke flowing up into the sky ahead, which suggested that there was some form of civilization ahead. In between you and the source of smoke, however, had been a dense forest. You had been traveling in near darkness for most of the day, and as the trees start thinning again you see that it is growing close to nightfall.
Furthermore, the thin plumes of smoke just ahead over the horizon have become a thick pillar of black smoke. That doesn’t seem reassuring, and as you crest the top of the hill you find the village of Silverstream nestled in the valley below. Most of the village is burning, which is undoubtedly the source of the black smoke. Dimly through the smoke, you can see figures moving about the buildings that are still standing – and some of those figures don’t seem too friendly with the other ants.
“Hey Mal, what are you – oh! Oh NO! Our resting place! Somebody is burning down our resting place Mal! WE GOTTA STOP THEM!”
As could be expected from an ogre, Val’Tosh starts making his way down the path leading down into the valley at a run. You could call out to him, with debatable chances of convincing him to stop, but something catches your senses. Although you don’t see anything, you can feel just the faintest amount of movement coming to you through the earth, off into the tree line to the right. It wasn’t an animal, the movements were too controlled and brief. Ambush!
You could wait and see what happens after Val’Tosh continues charging down the road – certainly if they were in their right minds, whoever was hiding in the forest wasn’t going to try to stop a charging ogre. You could also shout out a warning to him instead, and hopefully instead of stopping to puzzle out what you were trying to say your new friend would just smash into the forest. Or you could stay silent and slip into the forest to see if you can ambush the ambushers.
You have poured over these hand-drawn maps of the Hells a hundred times before, but you had learned long ago that it was often the smallest detail which decided the battle. And now every single detail on these maps pointed to one immutable fact – you could not win. The Crusade was over.
Perhaps in several decades, with aggressive recruitment and training, you could amass an army capable of breaching into the first level again. That would be far too late for the captured angels, and the paladins and civilians who had fallen into the Hells while still alive. Many of them would likely be the very fiends you would come to fight.
You had wanted to take another look for Ysora’s sake, in the vain hope that you could pull one more impossible victory out of your backside. But this simply could not be done – although you had been widely the most successful Lord General ever, your path had been paved with the bloody work of millennia. To support the Crusade, the Church had forged an efficient war machine, with supply lines, weapon caches, and reserve units all standing at the ready.
You had none of that now, a decade of peace allowing the machinery that enabled the Crusade to rust away. The fiends had reclaimed and reinforced all the beachheads, and there was no guarantee that your old maps were even still accurate. And worst of all, the Fiend Lords were all out there now, waiting and reorganizing their forces for a renewed conflict. The work of dozens upon dozens of generations of sacrifice, undone in a single act of mad betrayal. You wished you could take comfort in the fact that Crane was likely burning down there now in some pit, but the bastard was probably enjoying it.
Finally, your weary body would permit no more. Your eyes were burning from hours spent examining every last sketched detail, and your back was periodically threatening to lock up. Even your divine body still had its mortal limits, apparently. You had a few hours until dawn, perhaps, enough time to get some sleep before breaking the news to everyone. No one would be surprised, but it would be the death knell for the hope of salvaging anything from the Battle of Narle. This time, you all could only be grateful to the Valkyrie for mere survival, and that would have to be enough. The Church would continue, and at this point you could ill-afford to fight a multi-front war anyway.
The elves continued to hammer at Narle with war-mad fury, burning everything and everyone they could get their hands on. You had already been forced to dispatch most of your remaining paladins to help reinforce endangered towns, lest the elves succeed in killing everyone. Thus far, Luxien had been spared, but it seemed to be only a matter of time before some war band of elves tried its luck.
Most likely, once Amaranth fell the elves would turn their full attention to the other hardened cities that refugees had been fleeing into since the invasion started – which included Luxien. But the elves were a problem for tomorrow – right now, you needed to grapple with the shades that haunted you in your dreams.
You had just collapsed into bed and closed your eyes when a sharp knock came at your door. There was only one person who knocked like that, and you groaned inwardly at the thought of having to deal with her just now.
“Ander, I need to speak with you immediately!”
Hephestia demanded from the other side of the office door. After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “Please.” Now *that* was new, the former archangel still adjusting to the idea that she could no longer command anyone to do anything. To be fair, she had come a long way from the deranged killing spree she went on during the Battle of Narle, but you did not look forward to answering her endless series of impertinent questions right now.
Awakening from your deep slumber to find yourself somewhere else, you begin the by-now second nature process of taking stock of your situation.
You are lying in an opulent four-poster bed, the outside world partially concealed by diaphanous curtains.
Like the crystalline forest, the room is illuminated by a pair of light globes floating placidly in mid-air.
Your previous exhaustion is gone – indeed, you feel invigorated, nearly bursting at the seams with new life and energy begging to be released!
You are still fully clothed (good).
You are not restrained in any way (doubly good)!
You appear to be alone, although the light globes leave enough shadows that someone or something could be lurking in the darkness.
The air is very chill here – enough that it stings your lungs with every breath.
The air isn’t the only thing frozen within the room – indeed, the whole room appears to be made out of solid ice, including the frame of your bed!
Surprisingly, other than the nip of the cold air you don’t feel cold. Given the nature of the room and the thinness of your bedsheets – barely more substantial than the bed curtains – you should have frozen to death by now.
The source of your mysterious immunity to the cold turns out to be quite simple – your hair is on fire.
Your hair is on fire! Wait, no – it would be more accurate to say that your hair is now made of fire!
Although pure flame, your own hair does not burn you or even your surroundings. Instead it seems to merely render you comfortable despite the extreme cold.
Your hair does, however, move with a disturbing life of its own, locks of it flexing and curling slowly in mesmerizing patterns.
Having learned all that you can from the safety of the bed, and feeling like you would explode if you remain still a moment longer, you resolve to get out of bed and explore further. At your touch the bed curtain on th right side of the bed disintegrates, melting away at your touch to form a small pool of water on the floor that rapidly refreezes.
A moment after you get up out of the bed, the light globes come to life. Both of them begin to bob energetically in place, before one of them swoops down to hover directly in front of you. It rapidly sweeps around your head in a clockwise pattern once, twice, three times, and then bobs energetically in front of you. Up close to it now, you can see that it seems to be a swirling patch of glowing mist, contained within a thin shell of transparent ice similar to your bed curtains. At one point, you could almost swear that you see a face within the mist before the pattern shifts into chaos once more.
Apparently satisfied that it has acquired your attention, the bottled will-o-wisp floats to a nearby archway set into a wall across the room from the bed. The light spends another moment bobbing in mid-air, backtracks a short distance towards you, and then sweeps out into the darkness beyond the archway. Peering out through the archway, you see that the light globe is proceeding down a long hallway, also essentially a tunnel through a solid block of ice. If there is anything else out there in the hallway, it keeps to the darkness outside of the will-o-wisp’s constrained nimbus.
As the will-o-wisp moves down the hallway, it briefly illuminates what appears to be a transparent section of ice set at eye-level (a window?) as well as another archway, the room beyond dark and unseen. Briefly, the “window” holds your attention, for a pale light spills from beyond it, causing your mind to connect it to moonlight shining into your childhood bedroom. From the darkness beyond that archway, you hear intense whispering, one voice blending unintelligibly into the next. Like a sailor hearing a siren, your attention is attracted by these whispers, their presence calling out to you. And you do make out a few soft words with your sharp hearing, even with the whispers flowing so closely together – and that only piques your interest more.
“Pyria’s mate . . . Titania . . . belong here.”
Before you can move to investigate, however, the whispers’ spell is broken by a bloodcurdling scream. Like the whispers, it is faint, but your sharp ears are able to hear it very clearly. It is followed by another and then another, a stream of voice agony that goes on for nearly a minute. The screams are coming from down the hallway, in the direction that the will-o-wisp had been leading you. Just where exactly are you now!?
As he had done before in Ironheart, Julian took you by the hand and lead you onward. But this was not really Julian, and instead of being led towards freedom you were being dragged back into misery and torture. You knew now that you hadn’t deserved all the pain that you had suffered in the past – that you were not a wicked, evil girl in need of firm correction. What you didn’t know was how long it would take for you to be broken and twisted into thinking that way again.
After stepping through the portal, you and “Julian” had found yourselves in a crystalline forest, your surroundings pitch-blank except for the small islands of light created by floating globes of light. No sooner have you observed your surroundings before the portal closes behind you both, and the air is filled with a menacing whisper.
“Mortals are not welcome here! Why have you come here!? Have you come to . . . play?”
The cacophony of different voices ask, and you can dimly see the shadows beyond the light globes moving, shifting, like a pack of predators edging in on all sides. Istomilo is unimpressed by the implied threat in the voices’ questioning – although given he has spent quite some time in the Hells, it is unlikely that he is frightened by much.
“Did not your queen inform you to expect her consort’s return? Well, return I have, and Istomilo wishes to speak with Titania! Now.”
At these words, the shadows grew more agitated, causing the light globes to alternatively hem closer in to the air immediately overhead, spotlighting you, or drift further away, leaving you surrounded by a sea of empty darkness.
“Traitor! Liar! Your bodies shall serve as our playthings, and your minds our clay!”
“I don’t have time for this nonsense.”
Istomilo sneered, and then threw back his head and screamed. The sound of it forced you to your knees, cradling your ears as they bled. Nearby, one of the crystalline trees shattered and toppled, a series of discordant crashes as each part of it struck the ground. Even the shadow creatures were repulsed by this sudden shout, cowering back and adding their own shrieks of anguish to the cacophony.
As everything falls silent again, you find yourself unable to hear much over the ringing that is suddenly in your ears. Nonchalantly, Istomilo reaches down and touches your ears, one at a time, sending spikes of burning pain into your mind. But as the pain fades, so too does the ringing, and the blood inside of them was gone, although traces of it were still on your hands. A moment after your ears recover, a bitterly cold wind blows through the trees. And on it is carried a hateful, familiar voice.
“I am pleased that you have returned to me. Allow him and his guest entry into the castle. Or you will face *my* wrath.”
That seemed to be more than enough, and the creatures that accosted you faded back into the shadows. Overhead, the globes of light begin to move again, steadily moving through the forest ahead. Istomilo grins as he reaches a hand down to you, grabbing you by one wrist again to pull you back up onto your feet.
He says with a predatory grin, and then the two of you are off again. As he leads you through the forest, it begins to thin out, and up ahead you can begin to make out a patch of . . . well, faint light, standing out against everything else. As you grow closer still, you can begin to see a structure of some sort, standing tall in the middle of a clearing, and that it is this structure which is the source of the light. And cold, for as you grow closer to this location the temperature begins to drop steadily until you are shivering. Istomilo pauses at one point to cast some sort of spell on himself, clearly easing the discomfort he feels as a result of the cold – he does not extend this courtesy to you.
Finally, you are able to make out that this structure is an immense castle, carved entirely out of solid ice. And your memory tells you that while it is not an exact match, it strongly resembles the citadel where Titania made her final stand against the gods. Rather than being lit from within, a massive pale globe of light, the Mother of All light globes, hangs in the air above the citadel, bathing it in its pale light.
Of their own accord, the thick sheets of ice that serve as the castle’s gates swing open, blasting you both with a cold wind that chills to the bone. Still ignoring your shivers, Istomilo drags you onward, into the castle. You come into a courtyard, the layout resembling the garden where the party to celebrate Titania’s coronation was celebrated – and where you had first met Istomilo. Now, the garden stands empty, choked with thorn bushes that, like everything else, are coated in a thick layer of rime.
“Brings back memories, doesn’t it?”
Istomilo asked while pulling you close to him, wrapping an arm around you and guiding you now rather than dragging you along by one hand. In truth, the closeness is not entirely unwelcome, as Istomilo’s warded body provides some minor warmth and shelter from the cold that continues to seep into you. You aren’t sure how much longer you are going to last like this, your entire body beginning to grow numb and your muscles starting to cease up. Even so, Istomilo drags you onward, pointing out things with his free arm as he goes.
“See, I believe it was over there that we first met. Whatever did you do with that silly crystal flower I gave you, anyway? And right there is where you landed when you returned ten years later to deliver the Valkyrie’s decrees. Barely even a few moments wasted on pleasantries – my, but you were an efficient servant of the Valkyrie weren’t you? Where has She been all these years, I wonder, while you were asleep – while you were suffering in Ironheart? Well, I wouldn’t worry about it for much longer – the Baron probably merrily tearing Her apart right now. Soon She’s going to be just like you and me – trapped in a soul crystal with no chance of release. Like mother like daughter, I suppose – that is what She calls you isn’t it – Her daughter?”
Again, the harsh, biting wind kicks up, blowing out from a nearby archway.
Ushering you onward, Istomilo leads you down several hallways, the dark interior of the castle illuminated by the pale “moonlight” streaming in through frosted windows or lit by more floating light globes. Whenever you seemed to go in the wrong direction, another blast of icy wind kicked up, herding you upward and deeper into the castle. Finally, you come to another familiar chamber – Titania’s throne room. At the far end of the room sits a replica of Titania’s throne, formed from ice – the original destroyed as it was used to beat both you and Ysora senseless during the final battle. This new throne, in addition to being made of ice, is encased by another solid block that is only semi-transparent, only just allowing you to dimly make out the contents within. As you feared, you can just barely make out a feminine form sitting on the throne, clad in the tattered remains of the queen’s royal robes.
Mercilessly, Istomilo shoves you out towards the middle of the room. As one might expect, here is where the cold is deepest, and even through the numbness you can feel your feet starting to crack apart and bleed as you stumble out across the chilled stone floor.
“Well go on, Marisiel the Protector! Re-acquaint yourself with Her Majesty!”
Through the ice, you can see the figure’s eyelids snap open. A blast of chill wind races out from the direction of the throne, buffeting you and driving you to your knees.
The Resonant Memory
(Although I had planned on Poets of the Fall being daelrog’s theme band, when I heard this song I thought it was a fantastic fit for the Lords of Blood. Perhaps a little too sentimental, but considering what just happened at the end of Flight, I imagine everyone is in a little bit of a reflective mood. )
Funny thing about death. You all spent so much time worrying about it, making it out to be the absolute worst thing that could happen. And now that you are actually dead, it turns out to be a complete non-event. No Heavens, no Hells, not even some two-bit parade to welcome you to the far side of the veil. If anything, the place that you found yourself again was similar to the Limbo you had become so intimately acquainted with during your time in Ironheart. Only this time, you are not alone.
For a brief moment, you feel an uncharacteristic swell of panic – you *had* just died, a bit of confusion was only to be expected – as the thought occurs to you that the old gods are real. Though you had stomped more than a few of them down into the muck like everyone else who stood in your rise, they had flown to the far side of the Veil to await your inevitable arrival to claim their opportunity for revenge. But no, after the momentary panic subsides you realize that the auras of your current company are familiar.
Once again in death, the Lords of Blood are reunited, although diminished in number. In one dark corner of this space, you can sense Zariel and Shiakti entwined, perhaps aware that they are finally together again and perhaps not. You can also feel Kartul and Gilgaem, those miserable traitors. Despite the fact that you are all nothing more than concepts, floating consciousnesses adrift in the inky darkness, you are tempted to discover if they are still capable of feeling pain. Before you can embark on that course of study, a sixth presence enters your awareness – Marialta. Of Fianna, there is no sign – which might somehow be a good thing, implying that she still lived, or a bad thing, implying that her soul had been utterly destroyed.
A moment after her arrival, a dark wind begins to howl throughout Limbo. Marialtia’s voice is carried on it, and you can feel the terror beginning to return as the other presences quail at the sound. Ah, so this fear you were feeling was nothing more than a magical effect – you knew it all along.
“Now the Lords of Blood are all dead, and there shall be no return! The journey inward is revealed by a tide of Blood, washing away the present and future, leaving only the past!”
The wind picks up, starting to form a roaring vortex that hurls all of your essences about in a circular pattern, growing more and more violent. Untouched by the storm, Marialta’s essence begins to advance towards the Eye. Even above the howling din, you can still hear her ranting ritual – a pity, that.
“The way backward is opened, as we plunge into the abyss of forgotten memory! Dammed by these damned souls, the flow of History is diverted, and the tapestry of Fate is unwoven!”
At the center of the darkness, a light begins to form. Bright, searing, blinding light, stabbing into the darkness, into each of your minds like carving knives. To say that this experience was painful was . . . downplaying it considerably. It felt as if *you* were being unwoven, your very essence being erased, melted away into the raw magic necessary for whatever foul ritual Marialta’s ghost was conducting. Over the roar of the wind, a high-pitched keening came from each of you, crescendoing and then beginning to fade as each of you did from existence.
“We return to the point of origin! The crossroads is once again at our feet, as our footprints from past journeys erode away in front of us!”
Struggling to maintain coherency, you feel the old anger returning. Not the anger of all these betrayals, nor the rage inspired by Fianna’s death. No, the original spark that drove you up from your knees, down with all the other chattel ruled over by the fiends that would call themselves God. The cold implacable fury that drove you onward, through fear, inexperience, and pain, all the way up to the pinnacle. That anger had been your constant companion until one day you looked around and realized that you no longer had anything to be angry about. You had won, and with that victory came the opportunity to abandon your anger and find other pursuits. Or perhaps just one, the clever enchantress who had, while technically cheating with drugged lips, managed to beat you.
You were Umber, damnit! Lord of Blood, the Certain King, and Unstoppable Fool! You were no one’s spell components! Gathering all that was left of yourself, you abandon trying to shield yourself from the merciless buffets of the spell storm, and fling yourself into the maelstrom. Shoving you way deeper into the storm, you allow the wind to throw you apart, cutting into your essence cruelly. You had only one objective in your mind, and that was the Eye where Marialta was finishing her work.
Noticing your attempts to reach you, the second-rate traitor’s shrill laughter rips along through the wind. With but a thought, the Hand of Fate sends a surge through the storm, a massive wave that crashes over you, tears through you, and momentarily renders you insensate.
But then another lingering spirit enters the maelstrom and comes to support you, handing over its remaining strength to you before melting away into nothingness. And then another, and another, the Lords of Blood rallying around you as they had in life. What they gave you was not much compared to the force you were now arrayed against, but that didn’t matter. They had said you were a fool to challenge the Fiend Lords for the world. And a fool to seek out eternal life – well, perhaps they had been not quite as wrong on that one.
Knowing you had only a few moments left, the light pouring into the darkness now all but wiping out everything else, you gather yourself up for one final charge. You shove your way through the layers of the maelstrom, feeling your strength likewise stripped away as you progressed deeper. By the time you reached Marialta at the epicenter, you were barely more than a whispered thought. But you were there with her at the end, when everything faded to white.
With a start and a screaming headache, you awake to find yourself once again whole. You are once again in a body too, judging from the rush of sensations filtering into your mind – hunger, thirst, pain, and a sensitivity to light that gradually fades. You are somewhere hot and dry, like the barren fields of your youth. Sand pours through your fingers as you raise a hand to block out the pounding sun and give your face an insignificant amount of shade.
Looking around, you find only more sand awaiting you – an entire desert’s worth in fact. However, there is some hope as you can see in the distance the sight of a squat but sprawling city. You can only hope that this site of civilization is not a mirage.
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
(Why is this Bramble’s opening theme? Eh, I dunno – it seemed appropriate for some reason. ) Bramble’s Opening Theme
Y’know, life could be a real bitch sometimes. There you were with your comrades-in-arms, Catbox, Turbine, and all the other worthless louts that made up your unit. You had been gifted with an unexpected and wondrous opportunity – it had been just another day down in the Hells, when suddenly orders came down. A rift had been torn open between the planes, and your unit was to secure the other side. Well, it turned out that the other side led onto the mortal realm, right smack dab in the middle of a human city! With people still in it!
So after you reported back in, the whole army went out, to hurriedly collect as much spoils of war as possible before the rift closed again. To cover as much ground as possible, you all split up into your typical squadrons, and then just fanned out. There was some sort of great battle going on, humans fighting and killing other humans, and elemental spirits, and undead, and yadda yadda yadda. None of that mattered to any of you, as the intent here was just to smash and grab – grab anyone of value, and smash whatever you wanted just for laughs.
This was the opportunity of a lifetime, because a chance to take actual human captives virtually never happened. You had never been really clear why that was – and whether it was because getting into the mortal realm was actually impossible, or if everyone was just too busy punching the other nearby social climbers in the nuts to bother with humans. But whatever the reason, coming back with a slave train of humans was a good way to guarantee a promotion, and maybe even one of the smaller ones to play with – you think the humans called them children?
Anyway, all of *that* was forgotten as soon as she stumbled out of the alleyway, desperately trying to limp away from a pair of Grafnir demons. The angel, aka your ticket straight to the top. Worth probably more than a thousand living humans, or more to the right fiend, if your unit brought her back you wouldn’t just be heroes, but legends. Well, a couple smoke bombs from you and Catbox, and the two grafnirs turned around and ran away – stupid demons were absolute cowards if they couldn’t take down already helpless prey from ambush. Which, as it turned out, was basically exactly what the angel was despite all the scary stories about them.
Unstoppable killing machines your ass, you had already seen unarmed humans put up a better fight today than this angel. Still, she did have spunk at least, not once giving up on struggling even after it swiftly proved futile. Mouse and Fringe tackled her to the ground, holding her down while Malarkey pried her sword out of her hands and Turbine worked on restraining her.
Taking no chances, he put the entire collection of shackles and fetters your unit had brought along, enough for a slave chain of over a dozen humans. Then Squib and Hammock stepped in, Squib conjuring up strands of shadowy darkness to reinforce and connect all of the chains while Hammock painted runes on her with his own blood to ensure she remained powerless and couldn’t just change her mind to kill you all. Even Blocky and Ship-shape got in on the action, handing over their command whips for the cause. Turbine used one to bind the angel’s wings so she couldn’t fly off (although again, why she hadn’t just done that at the start you have no idea), and made a noose out of the other one. You and Catbox debated on shoving some explosives in her mouth to keep her quiet, but ultimately decided against that plan due to the risk that they might go off, thus ruining your big payday into a fountain of blood and brains (did angels even have brains? Judging from this battered excuse, they did have blood).
So instead, you and Catbox worked on making sure that the way was clear back to the rift while the four big burly infantry half-dragged, half-carried your still squirming prize. You were also there – less than a dozen feet away from your unit having their own pet angel! – when *he* showed up. A male angel, wings dazzling white and looking like Death personified as he swooped down on you, screaming admonishments. You had heard something about angels being only female, being made in the Valkyrie’s image and all that, but here was clear proof to refute that claim! You don’t know if you had been about to steal this guy-angel’s mate or what, but he looked pretty pissed, and ready to give you the fight that your original prize had not.
For a moment, all of you simply stared up at this howling “angel” as he dived towards you, and then Blocky finally managed to recover his senses and start screaming “Kill it! KILL IT!” At the top of his lungs. For all the good it did – Squib conjured up a blast of eldritch energy which the mangel(?) dodged, and you got one of your biggest grenades out, ready to throw. Then, he was down amongst you, and all Heavens broken loose.
The mangel didn’t seem any stronger than a normal human, but he was freakishly fast. He dropped down on top of Malarkey, smashing him into the cobblestone street with his legs. In a blur, he stabbed downward with his sword, driving the tip into the slot between the side of your comrade’s helmet and the noseguard. Malarkey burst into ashes, sent home early as the mangel brought his sword back up to block a reflexive swing from Turbine and then kicked out at Mouse, sending him tumbling to the ground clutching at his knee after it bent back the wrong way.
You weren’t sure throwing this grenade at him was the right idea, considering he was standing right over the bound angel as if to protect her – the explosion might take her out as well. That concern faded after he blocked another strike from Turbine, twirled his sword around to block a swing from the rear by Fringe, ducked under another blast from Squib, kicked Mouse in the face, thereby breaking his nose, and then twirled aside as Blocky charged in, leaving his mace to smash down onto Turbine’s shoulder. *Then* he pirouetted again, slashing Fringe’s head off his shoulders in passing. Yeah, two members of the squad already sent back – this guy had to die, right now. Even if you took out the rest of the unit, and fatally wounded the angel, none of it mattered if you could drag her into the rift before she died. Well, her soul would be in the wind then, reforming somewhere in the Hells, but probably not on top of you. Still, your unit could then boast that you had killed an angel, if nothing else!
You wait until Hammock makes his move, ripping open one of his veins with a foul magical curse and spraying the group of combatants with his own blood. You seemed to remember that this particular spell was supposed to make Hammock’s blood into an immensely profane liquid. Contact with it wouldn’t do anything to you, but theoretically against divine creatures like angels contact with it would be similar to what contact with holy water would do to you – burn and dissolve your flesh like acid. As the enchanted blood rained down the mangel turned his back to you, fiercely parrying blows from Turbine, Ship-Shape and Blocky all at once. You threw the grenade, and out of the corner of your eye you saw Catbox do the same.
Unfortunately, the bloody cursed rain had almost no effect on the mangel, perhaps giving him a bad rash or an unpleasant greasiness of the skin, but certainly not the face-melting that Hammock had promised. Then the stranger weaved his way through the blows, taking only one minor scratch across the side as Ship-Shape’s spear nicked the flesh there. He threw his sword, sending it flying true right into Hammock’s neck and cutting off the spell. Then he whirled, caught your explosive, threw it at Catbox, and caught Catbox’s and thrown it at you!
Catbox exclaimed, a moment before your explosive ripped through the alleyway, catching both her and Squib in the blast. That one was one of your deadliest, shavings of iron packed in tight with high-yield explosive. Not even their ashes remained behind, and while a few pieces of shrapnel tore through everyone else present, including the mangel, it wasn’t enough to do much. Catbox’s explosive was a bit more conservative, a modest charge packed with a paralytic poison. Apparently she had been thinking you could drag two angels down, instead of just one – hahaha. Well, the joke’s on you, because even though you manage to throw yourself to one side, more than one splinter of envenomed metal bit into your backside. And that swiftly left you lying down, drooling on the cobblestones, and watching while this whirlwind of destruction finished off the rest of your squad with his bare hands.
He didn’t even bother freeing the angel, or finishing you and Mouse off. He just went over, scooped his mate or his buddy or whatever the Heavens she was to him, and then flew off with her in his arms. At least someone got to have a happy ending - but it really sucked that it came at your expense! The afterlife really just wasn’t fair.
“Molerat gonna be pissed.”
Mouse wheezed through his broken nose. After this fiasco, you would have to agree with him as the city begin to collapse around you, finishing the work of sending you and Mouse home.
That had been gods knew how long ago. Time really didn’t have much meaning down in the Hells, given there wasn’t really a sun, or clouds, or much of anything else to count out time by. Even so, time had an odd way of stretching out even more when you are in agonizing pain. The type of pain caused by, oh I dunno, hanging from a hook somewhere like a side of meat and being slowly carved up over and over again.
As Mouse had promised, Molerat *had* been upset at your failure. The other units had sustained similarly high casualties, but at least most of them came back with some human slaves to show for it. Your unit had nothing, and worse you could have had an angel if you hadn’t failed at the last moment. So Molerat felt he had to make an example, which meant he made arrangements for your entire unit to have an all-expenses paid visit to The Cleaver after you reformed.
You hadn’t heard of the guy before, but he must not have come cheaply because he was quite good at inflicting pain. Your entire unit had all been bound and led down into a blood-stained room, impaled on hooks and hung from the ceiling, and then left for The Cleaver. Words couldn’t really describe what followed, save that the rest of you had to watch and listen while The Cleaver went to work on someone, and inevitably your turn came around again. No one died from his attentions either, which was pretty impressive considering what was left after he was done cutting, flaying, and severing. Apparently he was as good at sewing back up as he was at hacking apart.
Finally, mercifully, the door to the world outside this horrible room swung open again, and Skullcruncher came in. That could be good or bad, but it did at least delay your turn, as you were next as soon as The Cleaver was done piecing Fringe back together again. The massive multi-armed demon ignored your brigade commander as he walked around the outskirts of the room, examining each of you in turn and sneering in disgust. Finally, he stopped in front of you.
“Molerat is really upset at your failure, as you might have guessed. How upset I’ll leave up to your imagination, along with just how much longer he planned on keeping you here. I say planned, because the situation has changed. Molerat has discovered an opportunity, an opportunity which requires someone knowledgeable with explosives . . . and that is expendable.”
At that, Catbox tries to say something, but only manages to sputter and drool blood, a hook directly through the chest not exactly conductive to talking. Skullcruncher frowns in irritation and then motions to you and Catbox.
“Hey, you. I need to be able to understand these two – cut them down and do whatever you need to do to make them talk.”
For a moment, The Cleaver looked as if he was considering putting Skullcruncher up on one of the empty hooks and going to town, but after a moment he obeyed. He was not exactly gentle in putting the two of you down, nor was having a big meat hook torn out of you a pleasant experience. But then he patched you up so that you could effectively suck air into your lungs again for speech (you didn’t really need it for anything else at this point). Skullcruncher waited impatiently, and then continued.
“So, here’s the deal. The two of you are going to be putting together a very sophisticated explosive for Molerat. Succeed, and he might forget you ever failed him. Mess up again, and you’re coming back here to stay. Forever!”
That was probably a bit of hyperbole, but likely not by much. The Cleaver’s services might be expensive, but he clearly enjoyed his work, and probably wouldn’t mind having his own special permanent set of ceiling ornaments. Skullcruncher grinned as he continued to explain.
“I’ll give you the rest of the details later, but that’s the gist of it. To minimize the chance of failure, you’re being assigned to a different squad, hand-picked by me. They’ll make sure you don’t manage to screw it all up again.”
Skullcruncher grins and speaks louder for this next part, making sure everyone here can hear him, no matter how much pain they happen to be in at the moment.
“But, just in case you feel any sentiment for some of the rest of this pathetic lot of maggots, and would work better with them, I’m going to allow *you* to handpick two members. So, is there anybody here you two ladies have a special attachment to? Because the rest are staying right here until this is done!”
Immediately, all remaining eyes in the room turn towards you and Catbox. And, of course, all of them are alternatively pleading or demanding that you select them to escape from this Hells among Hells. It doesn’t help that all of them seem to be staring at you, as Catbox seems to be completely out of it, her eyes just focused up on the ceiling – apparently The Cleaver had dropped her on her head while cutting her down, leaving her more addled-brained than usual. Either that, or she was playing dumb so you had to make the decision. Wonderful, you get to be the savior of two, and the bitch of whoever you leave behind after all this is over.
It had taken you some time to get to this particular stretch of forest, following the summons sent by the local archdruid. Although the creatures of the forest left you alone, and most men didn’t stray far beyond their cities, currently a fair number of elves were prowling about. Generally speaking, the druids liked the elves – they were respectful of nature, kept to themselves for the most part, and didn’t tend to get involved in any of the petty squabbles that led to war and large-scale destruction. The only really troubling thing about elves was that they worshipped the spirits instead of the human gods.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly as it meant they didn’t get involved in this war between “Good” and “Evil” that everyone else seemed obsessed with. And some spirits were worthy of respect at least, if not worship. But what the elves’ spirit worship did mean was that they didn’t see a problem with spirits being on the mortal realm. For short periods of time and in small groups, having spirits in the mortal realm wasn’t a bad thing either, and could even be beneficial. The spirits were, after all, little more than manifestations of the planet’s life energy, the essence of all the animals and plants, and even mortals if you didn’t believe the whole “mortals are special and they have souls which go to the afterlife” belief system. Plus, some elemental and more esoteric concepts thrown in for good measure.
However, even the Druid’s Circle recognized that spirits, whether animal, elemental, or weird thing, didn’t belong on the mortal realm and didn’t seem to understand that it had different rules than their home plane of existence. Worse, most spirits if left to their own devices tended to try and stay to make a new home rather than leave if not dismissed by their summoner. Which in turn meant the spirit in question would try to force the mortal realm to conform to whatever resonance made the spirit feel most comfortable – plants would create a patch of heavy overgrowth, fire elementals would burn everything, etc. Left alone too long, this section could become so similar to the spirit realm that the barrier between them eroded away, leaving a hole – a Nexus. And that was real trouble, because it meant spirits could pour through.
It didn’t help that the elves had recently developed an interest in war, still sore over all the defeats they had suffered at the hands of humanity for time immemorial. In turn they had developed an interest in serving more hostile spirit gods, and the whole thing was a downward spiral. Presumably this had led to the elves finally snapping, because now here they were, swarming about the human lands and looking to kill anyone that didn’t also have pointy ears. For the most part you had been able to avoid their warbands entirely, but occasionally you had to flee from a group of them, receiving a couple arrows in your back for the trouble. Such things weren’t lethal to one as such you, but that didn’t mean pulling them out of your own flesh afterwards was pleasant either.
It didn’t take a genius to guess that the elves were the reason that Jarod, the local archdruid, had called you here. You were, however, a little surprised by what he had to tell you when you finally arrived at his home beneath the rotted trunk of a massive but dead oak tree.
“We have serious problems, my old friend. I don’t know if the elves are responsible or merely stumbled onto it, but there’s a Fire Nexus not far from here. I’ve sent out a call to every druid that I know was nearby but you’re the first to get here successfully.”
This was indeed serious. Left unchecked, the fire elementals would spread out of control and burn the whole forest down to the ground.
“I had hoped to handle the situation myself, but one of the Lords of the Inferno has made the area his own personal domain. He’s been making it very difficult to make any progress at turning the land back to how it should be, but I think I could have handled him alone. Unfortunately, that was when the elves showed up. They’ve been worshipping the damn thing, offering it human sacrifices and aid in destroying the forest. They’ve got patrols set up all over this forest now, elves and fire elementals both. I think several of the younger druids in the area were also captured – as I said, no one but you has gotten here yet, and I know there were several druids closer.”
Jarod shrugs helplessly.
“I don’t know if the two of us can handle a small army, but I’m both concerned that if we wait, we will do so in vain, and that the Nexus will grow more established in the meantime. It was already pretty stable when the elves showed up, and their assistance has only allowed the Lord of the Inferno to strengthen it. Given the possibility that several of our members were also captured, I have no idea how long before the location of my home is compromised. You know that members of our order are sworn to secrecy and would rather die than reveal any secrets, but the savagery that the elves bestow upon their prisoners is well known to me.”
As a demonstration, Jarod pulls up the bottom of his tunic, allowing you to see the network of scars stitched across his back – old injuries from a time when he was a young man, and had foolishly wandered over the mountains into the elves’ homeland.
“So – what do you think we should do? There’s a human city not too far from here that the elves have put under constant assault. They may be aiding the Lord of the Inferno in exchange for disposable troops. Assuming we could figure out a way to get the humans out through the siege, they may be interested in dealing with the elves for us, leaving the Nexus open. We could also try rescuing any of our captured brethren, assuming they haven’t already been sacrificed. Perhaps they will have seen a weakness in the defenses from the inside that we could exploit further.”
With relentless precision, you unleash a string of arrows into the approaching orcs, striking each of them with one arrow, right in between the eyes. You reach back to grab your next arrow, only to find that you no longer have any – blades it is then. The orcs are each massive and burly, but slow and clumsy, giving you the advantage in agility and speed. With an efficiency only capable in a dream, you slaughter them all, over two dozen of them, by yourself – cutting, stabbing, and stomping their heads open.
As the last falls, you turn around to find Larent lying against a nearby rock, impaled all the way through by the thick blade of a falchion – a favored weapon of the orcs. Despite her injury, she is still alive as you rush over to her side.
She chokes out, blood dribbling out her lips. Somehow, despite the seriousness of the injury, you know that you can fix it. You can bind her wounds, and she will live – now that you are here, she will live. As you lean down to remove the falchion, Larent tilts her head over to whisper into your ear.
“Dance with me.”
With the bizarre swiftness of a dream, you are suddenly back in combat, fighting off more orcs with Larent by your side. In life, you had never been granted that opportunity, the two of you always off with different units, purposely arranged so that you rarely saw each other even while not out in the field. Now your subconscious was rectifying that, and together the two of you are Death Incarnate as you react instinctively to each other’s movements, fighting back to back and killing a horde of orcs. Finally, the last one falls, and again you hear Larent call out your name.
As you turn to face her, this time your love is no longer a lovely woman, but instead a corpse. Rather than being impaled, this time she has been beheaded, cradling her rotten, worm-eaten head in one hand. Both of her eyes are merely empty sockets, but you can still feel her gaze on you.
“Do you see, Alons? Do you understand!?”
She presses, and then just like that, you awaken.
To be fair, you do not awaken naturally, but instead are jarred awake by a boot being jammed into your side. You snap out of the dream, and find reality is much more sour than you effortlessly butchering orcs like the hero in one of your stories. You are instead a captive, like a number of other people, bound and guarded by creatures that are not human. These creatures are almost the opposite of the orcs, lithe and nimble, with pointy ears and sharp eyes. The other prisoners call them elves, and seem to be gravely afraid of them. Having dealt with inhuman monsters before, you are not terribly impressed by these “elves”, but admit that your situation is not good either.
After you series of stories at the inn, you had gone to bed. You had awakened later that night to find the inn under attack. Rather than charge in like orcs, these elves had hung back, sniping from the cover of darkness, always moving. You had engaged a few of them in an archery battle, perhaps even managing to hit one of them in the darkness. But then they had set in the building on fire, and the only alternative was to leave or stay and die. Once outside with the other patrons, you had heard a voice clumsily demand in the local dialect to surrender or die. One man who didn’t drop his weapons immediately was shot by a dozen arrows an instant later. The lesson was clear, and reluctantly you had joined the others in surrendering yourself.
Since then, the elves had bound your hands, and tied you all together into a long line, but left your feet free. Then they all led you deep into the forest, to some destination unknown. You had traveled for several days now, only occasionally paused to sleep for a few hours before being kicked awake again. Had you not been tied together with a number of old and disgustingly fat men, you think you might have been able to get away. The elves are very good in the forest, but they are not the only woodsmen!
The elves hadn’t taken only the men, of course. The few women who had also been at the inn were also taken, bound into the same long line of prisoners and treated exactly the same as the men – that is, like sheep being led to slaughter. After waking you all up, the elves gave you breakfast – a single waterskin and a big plate of grubs to share.
“W-what are they going to do to us when we get there?”
Willow, the comely but very young barmaid that all such establishments seemed to have on-staff, whispered desperately. The elves didn’t seem to like it when you all talked, and they weren’t above enforcing that rule with their fists. That being said, none of them were nearby at the moment, packing up camp instead, and evidentially confident in their ability to run your group down should you all attempt to escape.
“Kill us. Torture us if we’re unlucky.”
Greg, the old heckler of your stories from that night, grunted. You hadn’t seen the miserable old bastard smile yet. Then the old grump turned his attention on you.
“So, storyteller. You got a way to get us out of this situation, or were all those stories you told nothing but talk?”
Mags the barkeep grunted in agreement.
The Besieged City of Amaranth
(Okay, let’s be honest here. Your character does have a lot of resemblance to the guy whose theme song I just stole here. Let’s just get the elephant out in the room now, and punch it in the face. )
You had come so close to achieving your goals – and so close to succumbing to madness entirely. The spires of Ironheart, your former home, had been tantalizingly within view. Dacian was dead, but even from your great distance away you could feel that his death had not been in vain. The seals around Azguloth’s prison had been weakened. Perhaps that was the reason, then, why you had felt the corruption so strongly. You had to do something to undo the damage that had been done, and yet to go closer would ensure that Dacian was replaced by a new servant.
So you had turned away from your goal, to plot and reconsider how to fulfill your duty without risking everything in the process. Perhaps it was fortuitous, perhaps it was not then that shortly after you returned to the human lands the city you sought shelter in fell under attack. The elves, a race that had not existed in your time, had come from their homeland in the forests south of the human kingdom. They had launched an endless series of harrying raids against the city of Amaranth since, growing steadily stronger as the city weakened.
Still, there was some cause of hope – the Baron of Gast was killed in another great battle a few weeks ago at the kingdom’s capital of Narle (why the humans named their kingdom after a city, you have no idea, but it was very confusing). The elves, apparently, now guarded Ironheart’s walls, unaware of its true purpose but keenly aware of its effectiveness as a fortress and base of operations. That too, could be both a blessing and a curse, these elves either becoming the Great Seal’s newest protectors – or eventually corrupted into Azguloth’s liberators.
Several times you had been tempted to scatter the elves attacking the city, transforming into your full glory and unleashing your terrible breath from above as you had done so many times before. But you dared not, for you suspected that if you transformed again right now, not within sight of the dread prison but close enough, you would not be able to stop yourself. You would fly all the way there, plow your way through the miserable gnat elves, and go down to the Great Seal, there to kneel in supplication to the monstrous force you had sworn to oppose.
There was a part of you that suspected this struggle for control was futile. Dacian was the former avatar of a god, and yet he happily succumbed to the corruption within. What hope did you have in managing to control it? But you were the last guardian, and the task that you had accepted all those millennia ago could not be abandoned. Someone had to maintain the vigil, and by default the only one left was you. You. Could. Not. Fail!
And so you would not. If you could not go yourself, you would need to send others. Which meant that you had to rebuild the Order. You weren’t sure how to do that, either, but being trapped in a war-torn city with a bunch of other warriors seemed like a good place to find new recruits! You weren’t sure how to brooch the subject, however, as there were countless details that you would have to explain, all of which had to be gotten out before the potential recruit ran away from you screaming.
Evidentially, dragons had gone extinct during your slumber. So not only were you the last steward of Ironheart, but the last of your species as well. It was a truly heavy burden sometimes, particularly since this detail meant that you could not reveal your true nature. Fortunately, when covered up in armor and a heavy cowl, you merely looked like a particularly beefy human.
And again, being in a war-torn city, most people didn’t tend to look too closely. The battlements were full of odd-looking “people”, mercenaries and adventurers attracted from all corners of the kingdom to help defend it against the “vile elves”. War, at least, hadn’t changed in all these years.
Another unfortunate thing that hadn’t changed was the human tendency to resort to paranoia and hatred when threatened. And if left unchecked, that in turn devolved into outright xenophobia, which in turn led to the humans hurting everyone around them, even those trying to help. Case in point – you are walking by an alleyway when you hear angry voices – they are quiet, but intense in their feeling.
Peeking around the corner, you see three men and a woman in the uniforms of the city’s militia. The woman is bound and gagged, while one of the men leans against the wall watching the other two berate the woman and working a coil of rope into a noose respectively.
“To think that I trusted you, ate beside you, never suspecting the truth! You lying bitch!”
The woman grunted a reply, and the accusing man stepped forward with an angry sneer. Instead of hitting her, however, he merely removed her helmet, pointing at her pointed ears.
“The ears don’t lie! You’re one of them! What, were they getting tired of trying to break the walls, so they decided to send you in instead to spy on us? Sow dissension among the ranks!? Tell us and we’ll make it quick!”
The woman merely shrugged, prompting the man to grimace again in anger and step forward, holding her helmet menacingly. He no doubt would have hit her this time, had the man leaning against the wall not suddenly stepped forward.
“Take it easy. We’re not here to learn anything. We’re here to make an example of it, so all the others like it know that we know about them.”
While the two are distracted, the woman suddenly struggles up to her feet and tries to run back down the alleyway. Beaten and off-balance with her hands behind her back, she doesn’t make it very far before they catch up to her.
The one grunts, driving his fist into the she-elf’s stomach while the other one holds her up. She crumbles from the blow, and the two men drag her back over to the third, where he has now finished hanging his noose from an overhanging beam jutting out from a building’s roof. Given their familiarity with the alleyway, this wasn’t the first time that the men had done this.
Most men at this point, likely feeling similar to the three vigilantes in regards to any and all things elven, would simply walk away and call it justice done. But then, you were not human, despite being caged in a body that vaguely resembled one. On the other hand, the men could be inadvertently right, and the elf woman was a spy. In which case, you would be depriving the city of three of its defenders in return for saving one of the enemy. Of course, with the speed that the woman’s “trial” was going at, if you stood around debating the finer points, she’d be hung and dead long before you reasoned out the most likely possibility.
You had come to this city seeking answers, following one of the last threads you had left available to you. The Demetrius was dead. Those who had cut you from Mother Metal were dead. And many of those who had fled from the place that the humans called Ironheart and you called home were now dead as well. You knew because you had hunted them, just as the other humans had.
You knew who they all were, having taken that knowledge from one of the men hunting them. And one by one, you had found that they were all dead and gone, beyond your ability to ask them for answers now. All except one – Ander Windrivver, the Lord General of the Church of Light who had come back from the afterlife to destroy the Church. That was what they said, branding him as a heretic. But you knew that he had been an innocent man – you knew because you could hear the voice.
The voice that used to whisper every night inside his cell. “Father. Mother. Ander. Save me, free me from this terrible place with the truth that I only ever served the Valkyrie as you did.”
He had been a member of this Church too, you knew, sentenced because he had known Ander was innocent. What you don’t understand was how he knew that to be true. He had never met this Ander, you don’t think. Maybe they met in Ironheart at some point? No, that hadn’t happened either. So now you trusted this man, but you didn’t know why. You would have to ask Ander when you saw him.
Unfortunately, standing outside the gates to the city, you pondered how to get to him. Ander had evidentially gone on to be a very influential man after his escape, from what you had overheard from other humans. Getting to talk to him would not be easy.
You could fight your way to him, crushing those who stood in your way, but such a hostile action would likely have equally hostile repercussions. Despite previous attempts, you had learned that you could not easily scale high walls as you had remembered, your heavy body unsuitable for most handholds. So you could not fight your way in, nor climb in.
That left talking and sneaking into the city, unless you remembered suddenly how to fly. Fortunately, many people moved in and out of the city during the day. Unfortunately, many of those same people were questioned by the guards standing at those same gates during the day. Though you could hide your body beneath heavy cloth, you are not sure you could disguise the rumbling tones of your voice.
Perhaps you could convince some group of travelers to allow you to join them – the guards rarely seemed to question everyone if they were clearly in the same group together. You could also try to hide in one of the wagons going into the city, although again due to your weight that may become noticeable as well.
But clearly, however you accomplished it, you would need to get into the city first before continuing your search for Ander.
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
Once more, Umber fell. And one more time, he stood right back up.
He let the grains of sand fall through his finger, whispering like dead lovers. He looked around - and despite all that had happened to him, he tipped back his head and laughed. Death and treachery had done their worst, and yet here he stood! In the flesh or something like it, he persisted, his existence prolonged once again - and whatever had happened, whatever that traitorous bitch had tried to do to unweave him, here he stood.
And so Umber, the Lord of Blood - and perhaps the last of them - laughed. He laughed for the sun on his face, for the sand that ran through his fingers. He laughed because he had spat in the face of Fate once again. And he laughed because for all the pain and woe and sorrow, life was sweet, and he'd stolen a few more grains of sand from the hourglass. One more time.
And speaking of... this place did look awfully familiar. Had Marialta actually done it? Had she reversed the flow of history and lead them back into the past? He had always thought such a thing insane and impossible at once... but Marialta was nothing now if not insane, and who knew what a Hand of Fate could accomplish? Perhaps she intended not only to kill the Lords of Blood, but to unmake them - to erase them from the tapestry of creation and make sure they'd never been born in the first place. Umber shivered at the thought - well, no time for lollygagging in any case. He put one foot in front of the other, noting that he was arrayed in a manner not dissimilar to that which he'd worn in his half-remembered youth - a long white robe and coverings over his head. Desert-wear.
Well, perhaps the city would hold answers. No matter where or when he was, one thing held true - knowledge was power.
As he walked, Umber began to mutter a simple spell - this was the key... and another test. He needed to know if his powers still resided within the wellspring of his soul - and how much he could draw upon. He began working a simple invocation - a spell to call the sand to him and make a veil above his head to block out the sun, beckoning it with slow, languid gestures, even as he made for the squat and distant outline of the city.
The man before Jarod stood tall. He was hooded, but the scythe by his side made him look like a messenger of death. Rather ironic for events happening beyond the forest borders, and because of what these two Druids would have to do. The scythe's bladeless end touched the ground; when it was first firmly planted there, the scythe's power drained the life of where it touched. Then, accompanied by a bed of thorns bloomed roses, deep and dark like blood. Of course, by now the Druid had been standing there for several moments, and the first few roses was growing into a large bush. Rosenberg made no move to stop its growth, nor to spread it any further than its point of origin.
Eyes loomed beneath that olive-green hood, eyes that held within themselves shades of amber, painted by an inner wildness which was not to be found with his friend. As he spoke, explaining the reason that he had summoned him, Rosenberg's chest rose, his nostrils taking in the fresh, crisp forest air.
It was seasoned by hints of smoke and flame.
When Jarod had finished, Rosenberg unveiled the hood whence he hid his face beneath. Under it was a mess of long curly hair, offset by a short-trimmed beard latched onto his jaw. He parted hair from his eyes, then laid his scythe down, his legs crossing together beneath his robes as he sat upon the earth. Consequently, the rose-bush would turn into a rose-hedge by the time he picked it up again.
He lightly stroked his fingers along the sides of his chin, as he thought and contemplated. Finally, the man spoke.
"Fire elementals... hm..."
A hand reached into a side pouch, pulling out pieces of a naturally-grown longpipe. They snapped together until the entirety of the puzzle was finished. He reached into another pouch, pulling a small tuft of tobacco out, packing it inside the pipe's basin. He held the pipe in hlis left, its mouthpiece held closely to his lips; his right hand was opened in the air, clenched slightly as natural magics beckoned to his call, where soon a small flicker of flame was dancing, floating just above his palm. He moved it to the basin, and gave a few good puffs until little embers grew inside, shaking his hand free of the flame afterwards, like putting out a match.
He gave one long draw, puffed out a bit of swirling smoke, and let his eyes rest on the little bits of flame coming from his pipe.
"I would say fighting fire with fire wouldn't be too bad of an idea; water elementals after all are rather opposed to those of the inferno. However... both are chaotic, and only reliable to a fault."
Rosenberg chuckled slightly.
"I doubt we could convert the elves and teach them why worshiping it isn't the wisest of decisions... although I wish I could. The more Druids we can get, the better."
"No... I think we will have to fight to get to that Fire Lord, which in and of itself will be a fight to be had."
Rosenberg's gaze turned to a seemingly random direction of forest, when actually it was the path towards the elf-sieged town.
"Speaking of likely converting opportunities, that human settlement looks promising. The easiest way to go through the elves is with them. If we can break their siege and aid them, they should feel entitled to give their aid to us, especially if it involves fighting against the elves. Then we can deal with the Fire Lord as we see fit."
Rosenberg's mouth curled slightly to one side, giving a sly wolfish grin.
The large frame of Lucifuge stood at the corner, silently observing the scene in the dark alleyway before him. He had heard every word and seen every movement of the scuffle, or ganging up, to be precise, so he had quite the gist of the situation - three men finding out one of their comrades in the militia was an elf.
By then, Lucifuge could have simply walked away. He was a proud creature; he had no interest in wasting his time for some petty quarrels between lowly beings. He found this "war" they waged against each other a complete farce, that it was nothing but mere indulgence to their cravings for power and material possessions. That, or it was simply the instinctive tendencies of mortals for self-destruction. Of elves, he did not know how their nature worked, but the dragon would not be surprised had all of this started because of the humans. Long ago, they had already exhibited such tendencies, and in the few years he had been awake, he knew it held true still.
If only they know, he thought.
But then again, some humans did know, and they chose poorly. Though he could not really ascertain if choice was even a factor; the mightiest beings he had known were the first to fall into that darkness, after all. And slowly, so was he. But to give them credit, it was also the humans who thwarted the foolish attempt to free that which lied underneath Ironheart. And he has heard of the paladins, who constantly fought bravely against the fiends. With those shining examples, why the rest of humanity chose to bother themselves with this petty squabbles with the elves, and even among themselves, he could only hope to comprehend.
Still, he stood there, watching, waiting. For as proud as Lucifuge was, he was wiser. The situation had presented him an opportunity. An opportunity to gather information. And he would be a fool to let such precious commodities go to waste.
Looking over his shoulders to see if there was no one nearby, he began chanting the incantation of a spell he had used more than any other. After he finished, he pulled his hood lower over his face and waited. When it looked like the humans were about to impose their verdict, he calmly started down the alleyway towards the four.
Ander sweeps his arm across his desk, scattering his maps and books across the room with a frustrated yell. He collapses into his chair, head in hands.
There's got to be SOME way! I've got to be missing something!
But he knew deep down that there was no way to mount an assault on Hell with the Church in its current state. That war machinery which hadn't wasted away during peace time was destroyed at Narle and there would be no way to rebuild it for a generation. There could be no rescue effort. There could be no recapture of the Fiend Lords. As much as it pained him to admit, the Church would have to focus its attention and limited manpower to the matters of the mortal plane for now.
And what matters they were. The Baron's defeat at Narle had saved Miriam and probably the world...for now...but it had left behind an immense power vacuum. The elves continued their bloody campaign in the south and Ander had been forced to dispatch too many paladins to reinforce the border towns instead of allowing them to rebuild. There were too few paladins to turn the tide of any battle but they could build defenses, bolster militias, and buy enough time for refugees to escape before making a tactical retreat themselves. Oh, what Ander wouldn't have given for a company of commandos experienced in guerrilla warfare to really disrupt the elven war machine. This kind of thing would have been right up Korram's alley, but he was dead. Dead dead dead, like all the rest.
Perhaps more disturbing to Ander were the reports he'd been receiving of the various heresies that had been popping up in the wake of the Battle of Narle. Despite his and Ysora's best efforts, rumors about Miriam's appearance on the mortal plane had spread like wildfire, prompting too many people to turn to fiend worship or to reject Miriam and worship Athelion alone. Lucky for Ander, the Church's Inquisition had survived Narle in better shape than the Paladin Orders. While the paladins fended off the elves, the inquisitors had been ferreting out fiend worshiping cabals and trying to track down the origins of this new Athelion cult. It was too early to know if they would be able to turn the tide, but Ander had to cling to a hope no matter how slim.
Of course if that wasn't enough, there were also the reports of increased spiritual incursions on the mortal plane, especially in the wake of the elven advance. Maybe the elves were summoning them, maybe it was Titania taking advantage of a power vacuum, or maybe they were working in tandem. Unfortunately, Ander had no real way of knowing and no real resources to deal with the problem even if he did.
Maybe the druids...?
The druids hadn't often gotten along well with the Church but Ander had adventured alongside a few of them while he was walking the earth. He'd even given his life to cleanse one of their ancient temples of a demonic infestation. Perhaps they could be persuaded to lend aid and their greater experience with the spirit world would be invaluable. He filed the thought away for later.
Of course above all of these other matters loomed the specter of Ironheart, casting its dark shadow over everything. The elves occupied it currently and likely didn't know its secret, but for how long? How long until they were corrupted into opening the last seal, or until the Fiend Lords decided to put their heads together and free their boss? Ironheart was a time bomb and there was nothing Ander could do about it.
"How does victory taste, Ander?" The voice of Crane mocks from a corner of Ander's consciousness. "Like ashes?"
Ander shakes the ghosts out of his head and stumbles to the bedroom for a few hours' sleep. His head had barely hit the pillow when he heard Hephestia knocking at the door.
“Ander, I need to speak with you immediately!”
Hells! What does she want now?
With a heavy sigh, Ander hauls himself out of bed and walks over to crack open the door. Squinting in the lamplight from the hall, the veteran paladin is not a pretty sight. His eyes are bloodshot and underlined with dark circles, his hair and clothes are disheveled, and several days of stubble adorn his face.
Honshioh glowers as the Black General reintroduces himself.
I'll pass on the wine. I'd rather enter into any discussion with you sober.
After the Black General extends the offer of a job, Hondshioh scoffs a bit.
I haven't got a lot of choice in the matter, Black General. Last time we met, if I remember correctly, I only accepted your help under great duress. How is now any different? I'm in a situation I can't possible extricate myself from on my own, and you hold all the cards anyway. Even more so now that we're on your turf instead of mine. Go ahead and make your offer, though I make no promises of acceptance.
Korram snaps up into a sitting position on his bed as he awakens from his recurring, foul, and all-too-real nightmare. He gasps for air he no longer needs, shuddering breaths gradually slowing into a slower, smoother rhythm. He looks down at himself. Had he been mortal, he would be covered in sweat, but apparently that was something that he cannot even do unconsciously. Looking out the window, Korram squints out at the bright outside. Perpetual daylight was still taking a great deal of getting used to, but sleeping in it was proving easier than he expected; possibly due to the fact that he was only sleeping because he willed it. It was very unfortunate; sleep was one of the few aspects of his human existence that he has no desire to hold on to, although from what others had told him he will soon let go of the rest. He still isn't sure if he want to.
Regardless, it says much about Korram's adaptation to his new "life" that he now sees sleep as a hindrance rather than a necessity. As he pulls himself out of bed, the thoughts and emotions forced to his mind by his dreams subside once more as he revels in the joys of his reborn body. He attempts vainly to hold them close out of a sense of duty, but they slip stubbornly from his mind. As far as Korram can tell, something about Heaven rejects unhappiness and discontentment; it is nearly impossible to be unhappy here. Because of this, Korram has not been as dedicated to his efforts to save his family as he might have been otherwise, allowing himself to be diverted by the many distractions available, not the least of which was his dead loved ones.
When his youngest brother, Collin, had broken his leg and frozen to death on a hunting trip, Korram had been the one to find his disfigured corpse, a day burned into his memory. When Jeral had been murdered by an escaped convict sentenced to Ironheart, Korram had hunted the man down and killed him; the first time Korram had taken the life of another. It was the memory of the blaze that killed Amanda and her family that had inspired Korram to have Calcifer bound to him. Korram had been close to his siblings, and being able to see all of them again, along with his parents, was the one thing Korram never regretted about his entrance into Heaven.
Korram's ruminations on his next meal are interrupted by a knocking at the door. He is only partly surprised to find Marius there instead of Kurt and Joanna; the oddity of time and lack of nights meant that he had often misjudged the passing of time, which seemed to be something that most here had gotten used to. He had learned that his expectations were often contrary to reality. Korram steps back from the door to allow Marius in. The man's decision to keep his body old had always seemed odd to Korram, but Korram's keeping of his many scars would likely seem odd to most as well. Korram also hadn't regressed as much as most; his body was a few years younger than it had been at the time of his death, but it certainly wasn't the body of a young man.
Korram listens intently as Marius makes his request, then considers for moment. He is almost tempted to explain that he himself has hardly moved on from his life, and even now wants to leave to deal with mortal concerns; almost, but not quite. While he has always felt a bit bad about deceiving Marius, he is a good man and Korram does not want Marius to think ill of him, or worse, try to stop him. Even though they had only known each other for a few weeks, Marius had become a good friend. Instead, he merely nods, after an appropriate pause of consideration.
"Alright, I think I might be able to help."
The answer isn't dishonest; Korram is already coming up with ideas for how to ease the pain of the traumatized men and help them adjust. He stands and makes for the door.
As Marius and Korram leave Korram's "plot," Korram turns to the paladin.
"You know, I think they're important...the shadows, I mean. If perfection was all that was known, it would become ordinary. Meaningless. The fact that we can comprehend and experience suffering during our lives makes success and peace far...greater."
Truly awesome Ark Tamaeus avatar by Bryn. Full size version here.
Well damn, Bramble sighed inwardly while rubbing the recently patched hook hole in her chest. There’s no such thing as a choice that don’t screw ya. So I either takes the ones I know still have half a brain left in their mangled heads, or I take the ones what’re good at beating ‘piss down my leg so’s they don’t do it later. Or I take half and half and hope no one has allies.
At least Cat’ll be around. I’m looking forward to smacking her back into a daze once she shakes herself out of this one.
Great gaping hole of the Lady of Lust, Molerat wants explosives, does he? Maybe he’s hoping for something to blow some hair up out of his scalp. Bramble sniggered quietly, then felt something pointy dig into her back.
“Sapper, as much as I enjoy admiring The Cleaver’s handiwork, my art appreciation time is limited”, Skullcruncher breathed into her ear. “Make your choices now, or you’re going back up on a hook.”
“Just trying to choose from the best of the best Commander.” Bramble stifled a grin and quickly reexamined her squad mates.
Well, Block-head and Ship-shape are out, for sure. They’re more useless than tits on toast. Hammock’s alright, I guess, ‘cept that he don’t know what his spells do. I like Squib, but not so much as I’d trust him with anything important. The grunts….well….they’re grunts. Only one I like is Mouse, and that’s probably ‘cause he’s such fresh meat he ain’t started t’stink yet. Turbine would probably find a way to make friends with The Cleaver and trap me in here forever if I don’t take him, and Malarkey…well the less I think about that scary bastard the happier I’ll be. Don’t know why the guy isn’t deep in the nether with the rest of the demons. Guess he needs to let go of his arms and legs first. Maybe this here Cleaver guy can help him with that.
“Alright, there’s only one way to make such a big decision.” Bramble took a few steps back to get the rest of her hanging squadron in line, stretched her long red limbs, cleared her throat, and started pointing to them one by one while chanting:
“Omi, Kith, Eck’ra, Ruse
Hit someone and leave a bruise,
Laugh and punch him ‘til he spews,
Omi, Kith, Eck’ra, Ruse”
Her finger drooped as it landed on Malarkey. Well, thought Bramble, at least I can worry about him eating me sooner rather than later I guess.
“There’s your first one, Commander.”
“Really sapper? This is how you determine value?”
“If you’d ‘a had a better idea, you wouldn’t ‘a been asking me!”
An iron-sheathed fist rocked Bramble’s head forward. “Molerat will NOT stand for your insubordination scum. Don’t think I will either.”
Bramble mashed her lips together, silently taking out a multicolored silk rag and polishing her horns while lifting her finger to choose again.
“Omi, Kith, Eck’ra, Ruse
Hit someone and leave a bruise…”
“Oh by the holy hells, Mouse. Stop making those eyes at me. I’ll take you down, but you owe me one, if you know what I mean.” Bramble waggled her brow bones and blinked her lashless lids in a grotesque parody of seductiveness.
The Cleaver unhooked Mouse and as he regained his capacity for speech, the unfortunate infantryman turned his pleading eyes on his Commander. “You know, I think I’d rather be strung up again if it’s all the same to you.”
Skullcruncher’s maw gaped wide in a terrible grin while a laugh of genuine mirth rolled from his swollen belly.
Bramble spared her laughing Commander a glance then turned to the rest of her former squadron. “Sorry guys. I figured Omi Kith was the best way to be fair. Don’t worry; I’ll make a man outta Mouse to make up for leaving you all strung up.” The heat of six devils’ glares broke beads of sweat on her skin that hastened to form icy rivulets down her spine.
“These Elves of yours are not to my liking.” No, Alons Sift much preferred the monsters of his own homeland, something he never thought would cross his mind. Then again, it had more to do with familiarity than anything else. In his homeland, the Orcs rarely took prisoners. Even the children were taught to bite the green hands when all else failed making captives of his people an undesirable situation. Still, telling everyone to take as many of these Elves with them as they could did not seem something the people of this land would favor, and Alons’s life was no longer his to sacrifice so willingly. He had a quest to fulfill, but he knew not what it was, and he knew nothing of these pointy-eared marauders.
Alons stretched his leg out and began moving it in a circular motion, his heel digging into the dirt. Since these Elves appeared to be beasts of the forest, he hoped that the druidic symbols of his home, the kingdom of Fairlyle, would hold some sway over them as well. Unlike the elders, he could not will the trees to life, or cause storms to rage above, two things he wished he knew at the present, but he knew the old symbols well, and knew a few small tricks from calling certain animals, and sensing the life of another creature. Unfortunately he had not placed his hands on one of the Elves to see what exactly they were.
After two circles, one within the other, he made a rough humanoid figure, then swirls, squares, waves, and circles in the four quadrants split by the figure’s arms and legs, each representing an element. The drawing as a whole was a symbol of the sanctity of life. He swallowed a particularly large grub after only a few chews. He had learned that the people of this land did not favor bugs, which Alons found deeply amusing. He would have told them if the situation was not so grim. “You will all stay close mouthed, you are not to these Elves liking. They will not take kindly to your pleas.”
He said the words slightly louder than he should have. Then again, it mattered little for he let off three musical whistles, each a different tone, hoping to call upon some of the small birds in the area. His gambit was to prove he understood nature, and was at peace with it. He hoped that the Elves still felt some tie to the natural order of things, and would at the very least speak with him. Maybe even untie him...
Tare awoke to the sensation of a throbbing headache.
His thoughts took longer to collect than usual; the sensation of motion was the first thing to make it through the fog. His eyes opened, eventually, but did not focus at first. Memory clawed at his conscious mind, urging to be let back in, but for the moment it was staved off by sheer force of disorientation. Not unlike the sensation of suddenly being awoken from an unusually deep sleep, for many long seconds Tare was not convinced whether he was awake or still asleep.
Finally, the thought surfaced. He was neither. He was Dead.
His next thought connected the reason his headache was intensifying in bursts to the screeching sound of the enormous metal trap in which he was currently encased being dragged across the floor. Blinking painfully, Tare began probing the inside of the Iron Maiden and quickly discovered the extent of its fiendish design. With a bit of grim satisfaction, he noted that at least the devils were affording him a measure of respect by how carefully he was secured. They would not, it seemed, be making the same mistakes that Ironheart's prison guards had. More's the pity.
That finished, he started taking stock of his own condition. Well... I suppose I'm dead. His final memories of life, looking up into Melcara's battered, yet bravely smiling features, came back to his mind. They brought with them an unexpected wave of emotion. Yearning, mostly. Where was Melcara now? Was she ok? He did not know.
A horrible thirst clawed at his throat and tongue. Even breathing was unpleasant in this foul place. Tare noted the brutish demons hauling him along. Though they couldn't possibly be taking him anywhere good, at that point Tare could not even muster a sense of dread. If anything, his mood was one of passive curiosity.
Upon discovery that it was not, in fact, Vylethar waiting for him at the end of the hallway, Tare experienced a delicate mixture of relief and renewed apprehension. This she-devil spoke as though Vylethar had been a mere underling. This was not thoroughly surprising, as everyone in the Hells (it seemed) was only just evading the jaws of an even bigger monster right behind them. Still, it wasn't encouraging to have met one already.
When Videle moved around her desk, Tare noted something odd about the way she was behaving. Not at all like he'd expect a powerful fiend to approach a helpless prisoner... And then he remembered the ungodly effect Vylethar was able to exert on the targets of his "affections" (generally female), an effect that seemed horrifyingly potent even on one as generally level-headed as Adame' had seemed to be. With a bolt of cold fear, one born of a dreadful vulnerability, Tare pleaded inwardly that such an aura would not be turned against him.
...And then he realized that, apparently, it was not. He didn't feel anything laying hold on his mind or his emotions-- nothing, that is, that wasn't completely natural. It was more than a little shocking to see how little the succubus was wearing and how freely she flaunted it, and Tare's first instinct was to turn away (not that he could try, what with the blade in the Iron Maiden all-too-close to his unprotected neck). But why would the fiend be acting in such a way if she was not also trying to...?
...Oh. She was trying to breach his mind and enslave his will with netherworldly "charm." Wasn't she? Of course, that only made sense. This was perhaps even more encouraging than the realization that he wasn't being affected-- it was even better knowing that she was, in fact, trying... it just wasn't working.
And then Tare felt more than a tiny bit... indignant. How dare she, how dare anyone, even so much as attempt to invade and override another being's mind this way?! Tare gained an even clearer, and far more personal perspective of what Vylethar had really been doing with Black, Brown, and Red (not to mention Adame' herself) on his first trip through the Hells. It was sickening and horrifying merely in retrospect.
Some internal voice shouted just in time that he must handle this delicately, however. This Videle might be easier to reason with than Vylethar had been, Tare thought. This wasn't likely, he admitted to himself, but it was best not to assume. She might surprise him (more than she already had, of course). Either way, as far as positions of strength and weakness went, the balances could hardly have been tipped further against him.
“Now that introductions are over, I would like you to tell me how exactly you escaped from my home the first time. Most mortals aren’t capable of such an impressive feat.”
Tare swallowed slowly. His headache was not gone, and still the dryness grated at his throat. "...May I please have a drink of water?" He asked, his voice rasping as though it had never been used before.
Lukina woke up with a gasp for air. For a minute however, to lie and untangle her thoughts. She rubbed her eyes and looked at her hands with a shiver.
Genevieve, Lukina. The dull sound of voices of unhearable words. The dreams of color and light and noise. Somewhere in those thoughts, there was Genevieve. Or, there was Lukina. Or both. somewhere in those thoughts, there was memory and there was truth. For Lukina, this was how everything had become tangled been since that incident a month ago.
But it wasn't easier now. Each night was a trial. And recently too, now that the safety of a home, and a comfort of her family and life in her own town gone, the dreams had become more powerful and painful.
And maybe, she was just homesick too. Everyone had been very supportive when she had declared she was leaving. It was emotional, like any parting. But she had been moved by everyone's love and support. By Father Adam who had comforted her when she asked for advice. For her parents for loving her more than she had known. For the villagers who had supported her, even as she left. Lukina had vowed she wouldn't forget it in her journey.
But as she was awake in bed, the noise of dreams and memories hadn't disappeared. There was the sound of panicked screams and barked orders. Trouble.
Somehow, that was a nostalgic and familiar thought, but terrifying and exciting and new as well.
Adrenaline and energy high, Lukina was quickly up from bed, and throwing on her clothes.
Who was the town militia fighting? Was it beasts? Bandits? Elves? Something worse? Lukina didn't know. But she had to go. There wasn't a question that she needed to be there. And quickly.
She paused, to look at the armor and her things in the room. There wasn't time in a dark room to prepare the breastplate, but even though she could think of three different ways to cut arrows, or to avoid blows, she wasn't confident yet to do that.
The confidence she had originally had been reduced a little when the constable had practiced with her. It had been a battle of Lukina, not a battle of Genevieve, after all. Though she could think of the weaknesses in his stance, or of techniques to defeat him, Genevieve was Lukina. She couldn't follow at that speed yet. The sword she had received from the Church was a little heavy still, to use one hand.
I should have practiced more. She regretted with clenched teeth, tying the sheath and sword on. If she had to, she decided tonight Lukina would use her sword with both hands. She strapped on the gauntlets and greaves quickly.
Thanks, Burke. She thought silently. The armor cooperated, and she felt more ready now. The breastplate she put under the bed, hiding the holy tome Priest Adam had given to her. A sword and a holy tome. She could only bring the sword with her right now. But here at least, she hoped it would be safe for the night.
Taking a deep breath, Lukina opened the door into the inn. Without surprise, it was empty. Either the innkeeper and family was hiding or had run away. Both were probably good ideas, Lukina thought with a frown.
She ran through the lobby and opened the door outside into the cool and heavy night air. The sounds of battle were louder now. Steel and steel, cries and groans. But in the darkness, it was difficult to see at first.
She stepped out from the inn with a hand on her sword. Who is attacking? Where are they coming from? She wondered. Lukina looked quickly around for any militiaman she could find. She needed to know what was going on first. She called out to one man nearby.
"Excuse me! What's the situation? Who is attacking?" She asked, hoping her voice sounded confident.
She snorted, ignoring the proffered hand. Oh, she knew well what a handshake was, and was even willing to perform the ritual with certain humans. Not with this one, though- if he could even be called that.
Still watching the escaping cultists lazily, legs dangling off the side of the building, she speaks without giving "Quadramus" a glance.
"Oh? And what would that be, exactly?"
She shakes her head regardless of the response.
"I have no reason to trust you. Actually, I have no reason not to just try to kill you. In fact, if you hadn't earlier proven to me your remarkable evasive capabilities, that's exactly what I'd be doing right now."
She sighs, sparing him a glance.
"Even when you appeared to be trying to help, your motives seem... anathemic to my own. Even disregarding the exploding monster. Frankly, I'm skeptical you're not just here to taunt me."
She sighs again, turning her head back to the cultists. Overall, she doesn't seem angry so much as disappointed. She was too tired to be angry, to work up one of her classic furies. On top of that, she needed all the help she could get right now. It had been over a week of searching to bear no fruits whatsoever- a week for Maurice to endure all the torments of hell. She'd hoped Maurice managed to escape to some safe ground, or find some other means of eking out a bearable existence in the meantime- she was one tough angel (god, she was tough), but a strong will could only take one so far. So she would assume that Maurice was bearing the full brunt of hell's fury until proven otherwise. It was a grim thought- a terrible thought- but one that kept her moving forwards. And while these cultists might be her ticket to a swift rescue, it could just as easily be another dead end.
"Well, whatever. I'm willing to hear you out at least. But if you can wait a month to tell me what you wanted to say, you can bloody well wait another few minutes."
She continues to hawk the cultists, waiting for the opportune moment, then pulling herself together like a loaded spring leaps off the tower, sending shingles flying from the force. The leap turns into a soar, and the soar into a dive, her making fine movements and transformations all the while. She lands perfectly right before the first cultist, transforming her body into a rubbery composition right at the moment of impact, and then to a more rigid material as she holds out an arm and clotheslines the man, dropping him instantly. Still charging forwards with the momentum of her fall, she smashes the heads of the remaining two cultists together, dropping them as well.
She was reminded of the other time she battled cloaked figures. How times have changed- she was so clumsy then, so narrow minded, still growing used to her capabilities. Here, it was less than a second between touchdown and the last body striking the ground.
...Hardly perfect though. She winced at the forms of the cultists she'd smashed together. One had a steadily expanding pool of blood beneath her head, and the others' neck was twisted at an ugly angle. Both still, and hopefully only unconscious. She'd yet to learn the sweet spot of just enough force to incapacitate a human without killing them. She was also beginning to suspect it didn't exist. They were so frail.
At least the first one she'd brought down was still moving, huddled on his side, moaning. She scoffed.
With that, she turned on her heel, heading back to the bell tower at a leisurely pace, hopping from building to building and scaling walls swiftly, but without haste. She wasn't sure whether to hope Quadramus was still there, or whether he had disappeared again- the... whatever it was... was an enigma, and likely not a friendly one. Still, it couldn't hurt to talk, could it?
Marceline Abadeer by Gnomish Wanderer
Classic Cthulhu by RTGoodman
Critical Failures by Strawberries & Captain Happy, respectively.
Scizor by Mr. Saturn.
Last edited by Gorgondantess : 08-06-2012 at 04:49 AM.
His friend's sentimate was shared, Mal's own stomach twinging at the thought of fresh food. Warm meals had been few and far between, something that he was used to, but his body still complained at. His scalp was now a grey field of stubbly grass, no longer annoying, but still a fact he would rather have shaved back to a smooth stone. His face carried a matching set of steel hairs, forming a faint beard-line that tickled and itched as it always would when barbers hadn't been forthcoming during the journey. At least Val'Tosh's conversation distracted him from it all, the ogre's company having kept Mal in equally high spirits.
"Haha. If Master's a bagel, then I'm looking forward to what his next student is. Maybe we'll be running after a gingerbread man."
With Silverstream only over the next hill, Mal's energy had been revitalised at the thought of rest, food and, most importantly, answers. That he was going to finally know something about what was going on, it bouyed his heart for himself and for Val'Tosh.
"I'm sure they'll have enough food for us, I just hope its cheap, I'm having seconds after this walk."
As his vision took in the sight of the village, Mal felt the usual surge to act, nearly charging after Val'Tosh if his tremorsense hadn't made him take pause. He cupped his hands over his mouth, yelling towards his shrinking friend.
"Val'Tosh! Attack right instead!"
He waves his arm towards the forest, trying to gesture to his friend as he starts to run towards the ambushers himself. Knowing he likely had their attention now, the best he could do was hope they'd assume him insignificant compared to his bouldering buddy. He clenched his fists, readying himself as he passed through the tree line towards the unknown enemies.
Avatar of Mal, thanks to PseudoStraw, my sarcastic and much loved partner.
Back in the cells, there was always the feelings of adrenaline and rush. There were thieves in its mind, memories of drifting through the wildest of guarded places, and coming back out just as silently and unnoticed. But that wasn't like it was in Mother Metal. Bastion moved, and heard, and it took the words from people who prayed in silent chambers away from their gods. It heard so many, yet this one stuck out. The pseudo-blood in his non-existent veins disappeared and stopped pumping wildly, and all it heard was this man, who prayed to Anders. A human.
And this one moment in time is what carried Bastion to his last quarry. There was nowhere else to turn, not out of desperation or a sense of loss of time, but because there was nothing else in the world. It was doubtful that this Anders could help Bastion understand everything, but perhaps he could answer why a man would pray to the servant, and not the master.
So now Bastion looked at this gate from a distance, running through its mind a way to enter. Up the road, another caravan of... people... were entering. If he was to enter, this would be as opportune as anything. He picked out a man, one already wearing dulled metal. As the group walked past Bastion's spot, a rock, to which it was sitting curled up to, it moved. It moved on tip-toes, its metallic boot feet causing small dents in the ground. He came up behind the man, and folded out.
Keeping the same pace as the man, it first moved onto his back and onto his legs, giving the man a bit of strength so as not to notice the extra weight. It opened onto his arms next, expanding to accommodate the elbows. It moved with him, doing its best to bolster the man's strength with the magic inherent, and trying not to restrict his movement.
Overall, the man was an average size, but Bastion did his best not to envelop him in the front, for appearances.
Avatar drawn by LostOne, many praises and prayers be to he.
Sohssal truly did not want his “followers” to be giving him these kinds of gifts, but he also did not want to alienate them so soon by never acting like a fiend. On the bright side, he would appreciate having some non-fiend company. His time here had given him ample reminder why he extracted the secrets of demonic immortality by force rather than by diplomacy.
”This will be an interesting 'toy', indeed! But it looks like I'll have to put him back together before I can have my fun. I will take him to my private chambers. However, Mammon's goons may be foolish enough to want him back, so stay alert!” he said. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he levitated Seraph, chains and all, and took him back to his chambers. As soon as he could spare a few moments, Sohssal patched up Seraph a little – enough to talk, but not to break free or become a threat.
Regardless, he was not overly worried about Mammon's forces coming back for him. Gathering energy wasn't hard here in the Hells with all his subordinates, and obviously he knew plenty of magic that targeted or manipulated demons. The spectacle of him repelling an attack could go a long way towards convincing everyone he really was Lord Nihilus, or at least too powerful to be openly questioned. He suspected the latter was what being a Fiend Lord was all about, anyway.
Order of the Pstick Avatar by Sneak
“Perhaps that is the answer to why the Valkyrie permits humanity to suffer, then. So that it can learn to appreciate the Heavens, or embrace it and be pulled down into the Hells. Either way, I suppose, leads to happiness – of a sort. Having seen the Hells myself, however, I can say that I vastly prefer the Heavens.”
Marius smiles and leads the way down the path away from your home and towards the Shining City in the distance. As might be expected from a place that is made just as much from your imagination as actual existence, the two of you find yourselves standing in front of the gates to the city a few moments later. The gates stand unguarded, and Marius sighs as he walks underneath the soaring marble and gold arches into the city proper.
“I had heard that angels once outnumbered the humans within the city. I have been here for – well, I’ve lost track now, but I have only seen one angel in my time here. And that was at a distance, and she seemed to be in a hurry. That, more than anything, is the one shadow that *does* exist in the Heavens, I think.”
Despite Marius’s comment about the angels, the streets of the Shining City are still bustling, full of smiling people moving about conducting their business as they wish. A juggler dances on a street corner, not a care in the world as he entertains a group of children who undoubtedly know his routine by heart, and yet are still somehow enraptured by it. A young couple passes you going in the opposite direction, holding hands and staring briefly at you and Marius, old men in a city full of youth – and for all you know, the two of them had been here since the dawn of time!
“Now, I had been guiding all of them in speaking about their deaths. Sometimes, admitting that it happened is the first step to accepting it. With this group, admitting it only seems to remind them that their death was a failure, that they should feel guilty for what happened to them. In any case, you don’t have to feel the need to dance around the issue with them – you can speak as plainly as you wish. Perhaps even a bit of bluntness is necessary to break them out of this.”
Marius smirks a little at this, continuing to lead you down wide marble avenues and gilded promenades. Finally, he pushes open a small but intricately decorated gate of silver, holding it for you. Beyond is a shaded courtyard, not really much darker than the road outside but it feels noticeable to you. Perhaps it is not so much an effect of the buildings as it is what is inside the courtyard.
A number of open-backed chairs sits in a rough circle in the middle of the courtyard, perhaps two dozen in all. Every single one of them except one, at the “head” of the circle, is currently occupied by a slump-shouldered figure. Most are still wearing armor and filthy, blood-spattered tabards – although you note that none of them are armed, all of their scabbards empty. You also note that all of them are dead, or should be given the variety of horrific and invariably fatal wounds that each of them bears.
At the soft whispers of the gate, most of them jump as if an explosion has just gone off, while others remain starring at the ground as if they lives depended on not averting their eyes from the spot between their feet. As you and Marius enter, all of them eventually raise their heads and look at you. All eyes focus on you as Marius moves to take his seat, and gestures for you to take a spot in the middle of the circle.
“Good day to you, everyone. Today, I thought we could begin by introducing you to a friend of mine who has also recently come here. Everyone, this is Korram.”
Came a number of muttered greetings. One woman, the right side of her face clawed off, simply stares at you. A moment after catching your attention, she asks a rather blunt question.
“Were you there?”
There was, of course, no question as to what exactly that meant. Were you present at the Battle of Narle. Heh, well you certainly had a story that you could tell them, assuming any of them would believe it! The Hells
The Gast Family Monument
At your refusal, the Black General gives a shrug.
“Fair enough. Though I warn you that in time, after Thirst has claimed you, you will be willing to drink even the blood of the innocent. Much as I’m doing right now.”
At your analysis of your situation, the Black General nods, his withered face splitting into a grin.
“So, you are a pragmatist after all! Good, good . . . that is very good. You are quite right that your situation is not much different now, although I believe you are underestimating the direness of it by a good margin. But I am most pleased that you are willing to accept the truth, rather than blindly cling to faith and zealotry. Some down here take great pleasure in . . . debating such things, but I find the whole thing tiresome.”
The Black General waves his hand magnanimously, and takes another sip from his goblet before setting it aside.
“Well then, to business. Allow me to be blunt here – I don’t need your body, as I have plenty of warriors, and I don’t need your mind, because I can get most of the information contained there-in from the other paladins. What I do have need of, however, is your influence over them. You are their leader, and they naturally will look to you for guidance.”
The Black General drums his long withered fingers on the desk for a moment, choosing his next words carefully. Then, he shrugs and continues.
“I want you to convince them to stand down. Most of them will hate you for it, and some will forevermore denounce you as a traitor. Which will be true, from a narrow point of view. Allow me to finish before you answer! The natural tendency for you paladins when in the clutches of us fiends is to resist with all of your might! I understand that – I too, was once one of you.”
The Black General smirks.
“Does that surprise you? You are welcome to call me a liar – trying to draw parallels between you and your opponent in an argument is a common tactic, after all. But it will not change the truth, just as resistance against us will not change the fact that it is futile! Although I was imprisoned for the majority of it, I understand that countless thousands of paladins lost their lives during the Crusade, their souls damned for eternity. Do you know what happened to all of them? They became fiends, one and all, inevitably no different than the worst sort of depraved murderer. By that point, they don’t even remember what they once were, filled with nothing more than rage and hatred!”
The Black General shakes his head.
“As it will inevitably happen to all of you, even the ones who have not died – yet. Ah – of course! There is always the hope of escape, that through your sacrifice at least one of you will somehow stagger back into the warm light of your mortal plane. Or, perhaps, that if you can hold out just long enough, they will come to rescue you! Ander and the angels and Miriam Herself, perhaps! No. You are mistaken. The Crusade have long since ended, and your remaining comrades will not rally sufficient numbers to renew the Crusade until long after you have died of old age. Miriam Herself is too afraid to come here, and wise enough to know that She is powerless in the realm of our Master. Her handmaidens are our playthings now, and they are even more helpless here than you are. Without the Crusade to maintain a portal into the Hells, there is no way to leave, and mortal summoning magic will only work on fiends, not humans. So there is no rescue and no escape, only an endless black pit of suffering ahead for all of you.”
The Black General clasps his hands together and smiles, more predator than pleasant.
“What if I told you it didn’t have to be that way? Things are changing around here, and as such I have an opportunity to grant you and all of your followers who submit . . . Mercy. For your cooperation – and I assure you, we won’t be asking you to kill babies or any stupid nonsense like that – I am willing to let you all live in as much peace as can be found in this wretched place. You will be left alone – not free to do as you wish, but not imprisoned either. Isolated, and permitted to exist even after your natural deaths undisturbed. I give you my word – and considering I remained imprisoned for millennia only by my word, you should know that I take my oaths very seriously. So . . . what’s it going to be? Compromise your oaths now, or compromise them later after you have been subjected to a mind-crushing amount of pain?”
The Estate of Lord Nihilus
Your lackeys cackled in amusement at the thought of all the horrible things you would subject Seraph to, although they were clearly disappointed that they would not get to watch. As they turned to leave and resume watch, one of them bobbed his head eagerly.
“We hope that you enjoy the gift that we procured for you, Lord Nihilus!”
The fiend fawned, patently obvious in an attempt to curry favor, and remind you that they had done something worthy of reward. Idiots – these were the creatures that all mankind lived in fear of? That had been another reason for using force to take what you needed – let other mages without spines whimper and plead with the “all-powerful” fiends for favors!
Once alone in your chambers again with Seraph, you treat his injuries. Not enough to get him back in fighting shape, but enough that he won’t die immediately. The Baron’s son grunts his thanks, and shifts awkwardly in his restraints. For a moment you wonder if he is trying to escape them, but it seems that he is merely trying to get comfortable – a difficult task it would seem. You also note that his remaining injuries do not seem to be healing on their own – clearly the Hells is suppressing that as it did to the angels. Perhaps that meant it also sapped his previously impressive strength, and other angelic traits as well. Oh well, it could be worse for him – at least his skin wasn’t melting, slowly burning away from the Hells’ very presence.
Seraph finally manage to croak out, his voice slowly finding strength.
“I saw you fighting with my father . . . however long that was ago now. Is he dead? Although, I suppose down here, that may be an academic distinction.”
The Screaming Dark Estate
Videle purred, her lips tightening into a frown that more strongly resembled a pout. After a moment, she shrugged and forced a smile back onto her face. But there was an angry question in her eyes – there was no doubt now that she was *trying* to subvert your affections and leave you a drooling idiot that would do anything for a moment of her affection. The confirmation of what she was trying to do only made you more offended.
“I suppose that’s not an impossible request. Although I’m afraid we don’t really have a lot of water around here.”
As if just thinking of something, Videle clapped her hands together and turned back to her desk – giving you a good view of her delicate leather wings folded up between her shoulders blades and an even more delicate barbed tail stretching down from the base of her spine. Not surprisingly, both of these are also decorated and bejeweled, no doubt in a style that Videle thought was attractive. You thought all the decorations just made her look cheap, although you manage not to voice that observation as she turns back, a golden goblet cradled in her hands.
“Here. Because I want nothing but the best for you, I’ll let you have a little sip.”
Without waiting for you to accept or refuse, Videle strides over to the iron maiden you are imprisoned in and carefully raises the lip of the goblet to your lips. She pours something thick and burning into your throat. It is warm and salty and burning, all the way down. And yet you manage to choke it down, and Videle giggles delightedly as she raises the goblet to her own lips. As she lowers the goblet, the area around her lips is stained a bright red, at least until her darting tongue slips out to lick up the remains.
“Ah! Isn’t it just delightful? That sweet mixture of pleasure and pain, in liquid form! And so very fresh.”
Videle exclaims, shooting a glance over at the angel hanging limply in the corner. You wonder what she’s making of all this when Videle slams the goblet down onto the desk, bringing your full attention back to her.
“Now then. I want to know how you escaped my estate. Right now.”
Videle pressed, her voice dropping to a husky murmur. But there was also a dangerous note there, a suggestion that she was running out of patience. And why not? A creature like this thrived on sensation and in-the-moment thinking. You had her full attention for the moment, but at any point she might become fascinated with something or someone else, forgetting about you entirely. And yet, in another part of your mind, that was still capable of something resembling rational thought rather than hateful contempt, this creature had evidentially risen to the highest echelon of power within the Hells. Underestimating her would be an extremely stupid mistake, one that you would likely come to regret rather quickly.
[u]The Mortal Realm
Yet Another Worthless Speck of a Town
At your explanation of how you saw your relationship, “Quadramus” shrugs.
“I would imagine what you are looking for is your favored pet – the angel known as Maurice. Or perhaps she’s not your favored pet, but that human is? You could have killed him at any time, but you did not. Even arranged for him to take control of the Dusk Wardens after Augustus’s death. Saved his sister. Spared him from the consequences of his actions rather than allowing him and the others to perish ironically from the beast they thought would kill you. That’s certainly a lot of trouble to go to on behalf of one . . . fragile . . . gnat. But please, take your time – I can wait.”
That last comment sounding more like a dismissal rather than a peace offering, you envision different ways of tearing Quadramus apart as you leap down from the chapel – surely some way of killing him would have to take! You render the one cultist unconsciousness in a single blow, and render the other two to a state of even less – damn fragile humans! Well, you still have one cultist alive, and that should be enough as your followers run up. Ignoring the man’s cries of pain, they swiftly bind and gag him, before dropping a bag over his head and dragging him back up to his feet. Hopefully, they *should* be able to handle him from here.
Getting back up to the top of the chapel, you find Quadramus still waiting for you. He is playing with the broken half of a sword – you recognize it immediately.
“Recognize this? I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. I found it after the so-called Battle of Narle. I figured you would like it back.”
With a disdainful underhanded toss, Quadramus pitches the hilt and snapped off blade of Maurice’s sword to the floor at your feet.
“Hopefully that should be all the confirmation you need that she’s down there, suffering in agony. You have no idea where she is, and by the time you find her it’ll be far, far too late. I offer you . . . a solution.”
Reaching into his robes, Quadramus pulls out . . . an hourglass? You had seen one in the curiosity shop of a village, a rather odd and ungainly way of telling time. Why did the humans even care what time it was beyond whether it was day or night, anyway? This one seemed to be a bit different, however, filled with a red liquid instead of sand. As you watched, the viscous liquid slowly dripped down through the narrow middle and into the lower half, one drop at a time.
“This will tell you how much time you have left in which to find her before . . . well, you’ll wish that you hadn’t. And as you get closer, the liquid inside will slowly change from blood into tears. By the time it’s completely clear, well – she should be right in front of you.”
Quadramus waves the hourglass at you, balancing it precariously on his palm as if he could flip it off his hand and down onto the floor with a single lift of his fingers.
“So . . . interested?”
The Village of Woodhall Kasanip
(Don’t worry about the breastplate since it’s not part of your image for Lukina’s gear. I’ll just keep in mind to describe you as dodging or blocking blows, rather than them glancing off your armor.)
Predictably, the outside world is still dark, it being still a few hours until dawn. There is light available, however, both from a series of torches scattered throughout the small village as well as the awful sight of one building completely engulfed in flames. No one is moving to try to put the blaze out, although you do note a few figures furtively moving about with buckets to douse the nearby buildings in an attempt to prevent the flames from spreading.
You hear shouts coming from several directions, the battle a chaotic mess that no one seems able to make sense of. You remember this, all battles a chaotic blend of fear, anger, and a steadfast determination not to be the one to die. In the end, battle was a wasteful, confusion mess, even at the level of Genevieve. But, you are also Lukina, and the thrill of adrenaline starting to pump through your body in preparation of your first real fight is not entirely unpleasant.
Fortunately, through the haze of smoke, you see a number of militiamen nearby, struggling to organize themselves. As you watch, a trio of arrows come hissing out of the darkness beyond the town, two of them thudding harmlessly into the side of a building but the third catching one of the men in the stomach. He goes down immediately, screaming as he clutches at the feathered shaft now protruding from his torso.
You instinctually rush over to join two other militiamen that come running over to their fallen comrade. As you approach them, you realize you don’t have any particular skill with the healing arts, and so can only watch helplessly as the two men struggle with the man’s wound. You do, however, help them to drag him out of the street and prop him up against the side of a building as several more arrows hiss over all of your heads. As you do so, you ask the two men still standing what the situation was, glad that you managed to keep all but the faintest adrenaline-fueled tremor out of your voice.
“Haven’t you heard? It’s the damn elves! Has to be!”
One of the men grunts, carefully breaking off the shaft of the arrow protruding from the wounded man’s stomach, but leaving the rest of it still inside him for the moment. As he pulls out a roll of shredded cloth and starts wrapping it around the man’s wound, the other one nods in agreement.
“Aye, and the knife-ears would be slitting all our throats right now was it not for Commander Welkin. Don’t know how we rated a detachment of honest-to-gods paladins, but praise the gods they’re here! Now we just have to – ugh!”
From the corner of your eye, you see movement as a shadow shifts out from around the corner of the building you had all taken shelter behind. A slender figure, still half-obscured by the flickering shadows of the alleyway it had emerged from. Even as you are turning towards it and the militiamen are just noticing it for the first time, the shadow moves in a blur. Its hands come up, revealing the bow clenched there. In a blur, it nocks three arrows and releases them, spraying your group at close range. Then the figure is retreating back into the alleyway from where it had appeared, and the safety of the shadows.
One arrow hisses past your cheek, just narrowly missing you – had you not turned immediately upon noticing the movement, it would have most assuredly gone clean through your head! The second arrow strikes the one still-standing guard in the throat, cutting him off in mid-word. The third arrow would have likewise struck the remaining militiaman, but he managed to get his shield up in time to deflect it.
The remaining man roared, and then stepped around you and started moving towards the alleyway. You recognize this as a mistake – the elf was not retreating out of fear after it lost the advantage of surprise. No, it was retreating to lure the survivors of its surprise attack into a trap – there would be more waiting in the darkness of the alleyway, you were sure of it. Aware of such a thing, you might be able to turn it around to your advantage, and surprise the ones waiting in ambush by anticipating their attack. But darkness was clearly the friend of the elves, and they knew how to use it well. Although you would also be risking turning your back on an enemy, running away to a more defensive location and forcing them to come to you would be a tactic more likely to keep you and the militiaman alive (assuming you could convince him to come instead of charging off into the darkness alone). Certainly, there was also a slightly better chance of survival with the two of you going in together rather than alone.
Here was the next important decision of your new life as a warrior. Do you chase after an enemy and support a would-be ally’s potentially foolhardy plan, or do you attempt to fall back and convince him to do the same?
You shout out a warning to Val’Tosh, who lets out an intimidating roar as he twists his body around in mid-stride to point towards the treeline. With the ogre charging into the woods from the side, you dive directly in, hoping you can circle around quickly enough to hit the ambushers from the far side of Val’Tosh.
Unfortunately, as soon as you are in amongst the trees, you lose sight of your massive friend. The undergrowth here is particularly dense, and it’s only through your contact with the ground that you have any sense of what’s going on. You can feel the steady pounding of Val’Tosh’s feet against the ground some distance from you, which suddenly slows to a halt just after reaching the treeline.
“WE GOT TROUBLE, MAL! MORE EARTH GUYS!!”
Val’Tosh roars, and suddenly you feel a series of tremors from the direction of Val’Tosh as he engages . . . something. It’s difficult to sense what exactly they are, but they do seem to be made of earth and rocks, similar to the constructs you had fought during your escape from the tournament grounds, but subtly different. You also sense that same quiet series of footfalls through the ground that had originally tipped you off to the ambush. Curiously, they were headed away from the fight, and not towards it. Well, not directly away from the fight, but circling around it and slightly spiraling outward, coming in your general direction.
With the thick vegetation but your ability to sense this ambusher through the ground, you have the advantage. Moving as carefully as you can, you head towards the disturbance, hoping that your friend can deal with the elementals while you handle the other potential threat. You are just slipping around a tree when the two of you come into sight of each other. Across a carpet of underbrush, sneaking around a tree was an elven woman, dressed in simple robes.
For a moment, both of you simply look at each other, both of you clearly surprised that the other had noticed you. Then she spits out an elven curse and gestures. At her command, a rock tears itself up out of the ground and hurls itself at you. You duck back behind the tree, and wince as you hear the tree crack and groan from the impact, the rock actually embedding itself into the tree near to where your head had been before you ducked back. Through your tremorsense, you detect the elven woman again trying to circle around, cutting through some trees to your right, trying to get around behind you.
Luxien, The Cathedral City
To your surprise, Hephestia doesn’t look much better than you probably did after several days spent secluded in your office. Her hair is an unruly mess, and she is still clad only in the chemise that she tended to wear while sleeping. Fortunately, this time she had remembered to bring along a blanket as a concession to modesty, clutching it around her like a cloak. Her eyes are bloodshot, likely as a result of yet again trying to resist the urge to sleep for longer than she should have. The skin around her eyes is also puffy – had she been crying?
She said, immediately pushing past you into the room. While you shut the door behind her, she goes over to your cot and plops down onto it. Clearly, you would not be getting any sleep for at least another hour. Wrapping the blanket more firmly around her, Hephestia hunches her shoulders and looks down at the floor, before glancing up at you. You think you had finally figured out the reason for the hunching – as an archangel, the gesture probably brought Hephestia’s wings around, wrapping them around herself. It was a reflexive self-comfort thing, and even though she was now human Hephestia apparently hadn’t forgotten it.
“I had a vision while comatose just now. What did you call them – gleams? Dreams? Something like that. Anyway I had one.”
Hephestia said flatly. You were about to congratulate her and force your tired brain to find a way to convince her to leave when she pressed on.
“In this vision, I was in the Hells – dead, or perhaps captured. It didn’t matter. I was dammed, and I was brought before Azguloth Himself. Apparently, I was to continue following in the footsteps of my . . . “sister” Melcara, and become Azguloth’s new Whore. It was unpleasant, but . . . I found myself coming to enjoy it. I . . . was this a portent of the future? Is that to be my ultimate fate?”
Hephestia glanced up at you again for confirmation, or some sort of denial. She looked like she was going to start crying again.
“I suppose it is no less than what I deserve for disappointing my Lady.”
The Resonant Memory
You gather yourself up, savoring the sensation of having a physical body again. Limbo was a necessary part of your former immortality, but that did not make it pleasant. Unfortunately, while anything was more pleasant than the formlessness of Limbo, that did not mean your current body was fantastic. Your muscles ached with the strain of pushing yourself up onto your feet, your legs barely able to support your weight. Here and there, pain flared as your paper-like skin cracked open, and your lungs and eyes burned with dehydration.
You begin to suspect that this was not a result of the spell – that your current state was not in fact a result of your near-destruction at the hands of Marialta’s ritual. Rather, you had appropriated a body, possibly one that had recently been vacated by its owner, so to speak. It was hard to tell given that your body was obscured by the thick robes of a desert wanderer. Still – life was life, no matter how you had to beg, borrow, or steal it (not that you would ever beg).
It did mean your first priority upon reaching the city was getting your body back in fighting shape. No doubt Marialta was back here as well – possibly other Lords of Blood as well, but you doubted it. You had felt their passing as they had imbued the last of themselves into you, which was just enough for you to break through to Marialta and end up here. If you ever saw any of them again, you suppose you would have to adjust the scales – slightly! – back towards even with them.
As a new test, you attempt to summon some magic to shield your withered body from the sun. And other than making a few ridiculous gestures to an untrained observer, you accomplished nothing. Hmmm . . . now that would be a problem. You aren’t sure if *that* part is a result from the ritual, or the fact that you were stuck in someone else’s body. Perhaps you were stuck with someone else’s soul as well, with just your consciousness present, a ghost in a shell (of meat).
So be it. You had survived in the desert without magic before. Despite your dire circumstances, you could do it again. As you dragged yourself closer to the city, its spires became unmistakable. Before you is the city you and the others had built in the wasteland, crying defiance against Nature as you had against the Fiend Lords previously. You could remember every squalid street, every dark alley of the place you had forged into a home, a chrysalis for your transformation.
Although it was hard to see through the glaring sun with your gritty eyes, you believe you could make out dark red banners hanging here and there, the sand already starting to stain them to a more rust color. This was an important detail – it meant that the day of your transformation was not far away – one or two weeks at most.
Was that Marialta plan then? Disrupt the transformation and prevent the Lords of Blood from ever becoming in the first place?
You would need to stop her – a bold statement given your current condition and the fact that she very well could be in anyone’s body, in a city of thousands (quite an impressive size for its time), or worse, in her own, fully capable of magic, body.
First thing was first though – once you got to the gates, you would have to get inside, and then find some water and some salve for your skin. Fortunately, at this time the gates were wide open, as with your transcendence approaching you had dared what few enemies you had remaining to come and see the magnitude of their error in opposing you. Oh, how arrogant that act seemed now – after Kartul’s rampage in front of practically the whole known world, word had spread quickly that you had all become monsters. Support for your empire had crumbled quickly from that piece of news, allowing the damnable Church of Light to sweep in and shatter the pieces before you could reorganize.
(This is your city – you are welcome to detail it as you please. And, while Umber might be in for a few surprises now that he’s essentially on the bottom instead of the top, he’s familiar enough with the place to get to where he needs to go.)
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
With so many eyes boring holes into you, or at least trying to, it was starting to feel uncomfortably hot in here. Given the way both Turbine and Blocky were looking at you, you had better take steps to never be alone after you got back together with the rest of the unit. Maybe you could put in a request for a permanent transfer to this new unit, although depending on Skullcruncher’s mood he may just send you straight back to them trussed up like a hog, with a big apple in your mouth and some carving knives for them to use with his compliments. Such was life in the Hells, and while you might not dare trying it on Skullcruncher, Turbine and Blocky might find some lit explosives slipped into places of their armor where they most definitely did not want lit explosives to be, should they try any half-witted attempts at “revenge” for this.
Given that you had chosen Malarky, fortuitously by accident, at least you could sleep easy knowing that you weren’t on his list. Of course, that meant he was also loose, and free to slip something unpleasant into your backside as well, should the idea suddenly occur to him. Such was life in the Hells – maybe some part of his diseased brain would actually make a note that he owed you one, and he would stop looking like he was debating whether or not he should tear your face off with his teeth all the time. Yeah – and Nadireth would go back to having *one* head!
To be fair to Catbox, she actually played the dazed part all the way up to the point when Skullcruncher shoved the same hook he had menaced you with under her nose.
“Get up now or I’m going to shove this through the roof of your mouth and you can learn to scream out of your useless arse.”
Skullcruncher growled, and just like that, Catbox blinked and leaped back up to her feet!
“Whew! Ugh, where am I? I blacked out there for a minute!”
Catbox declared, sneaking a look at you. Oh yeah, she was going to pay. You’d have to think of something suitably cruel for leaving you to face the wrath of Turbine and Blocky (and to be sure, all of the others to a greater or lesser extent), all by your lonesome. For now, that would have to wait, however, as Skullcruncher grunted, tossing the hook back to the Cleaver and turning away.
“Great. Now let’s get out of here and leave The Cleaver to his work.”
As you walk past Turbine, he strains against this bonds, and for a moment you think he actually might manage to leverage himself up off the hook jutting out of his stomach.
He manages to gurgle out, loud enough for all present to hear. If he was going to say anything more, he’s interrupted by The Cleaver backhanding him, hard enough to dislocate his jaw. Wordlessly, he continues to howl and thrash, at least for another moment until The Cleaver reaches up and plunges a hand through the stitches holding his gut together, beginning to slowly disembowel him as he pulls out Turbine’s guts one inch at a time. Thankfully, you don’t have to see any more – which is only inspiring flashbacks of The Cleaver strangling you with your own entrails – as a moment later you all step through the iron door and it swings shut behind you. Leading you up the dark stairs you had been dragged down to get to the room, Skullcruncher actually seems to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Now then. As I mentioned, Molerat wants some sophisticated explosives –“
“You got it, boss! Anything for Molerat!”
Catbox chirps, and Skullcruncher whirls on her.
“Open your mouth again and I will tear out your stitches, and use the thread to sew your mouth shut!”
Catbox nods, lips firmly pressed together.
“Now, as I was saying, Molerat needs sophisticated explosives. But not just the usual crap the two of you put out.”
Catbox shares a look with you and sniggers, coming dangerously close to pushing Skullcruncher to carry out his threat.
“No, he wants *human* explosives. He wants you to put together the biggest bomb you can devise that will still be light enough for a human to carry, and he wants you to do it with materials from the mortal plane. Nothing from the Hells, he was explicit about that. Now, as I’m sure you are aware, there isn’t exactly an abundance of such materials down here. Which is why we’ll be sending you back to the mortal realm.”
Catbox exclaimed, her outburst actually going unpunished by Skullcruncher, as he seemed to enjoy the shock that ripples through the four of you.
“Oh, Dirge’s withered nethers, no!”
Mouse exclaims, earning himself a hard thump in the back of the head from Malarky. Skullcruncher merely grins.
“Oh YES! Now come on, I need to introduce you to the rest of your team.”
Climbing up the last of the steps, you find yourself in the middle of a fortress – The Cleaver merely rented out space down in the basement. You don’t know who owned the fortress proper, although given it was merely an outpost on the first level of the Hells, it might well not be owned by anyone important. Nobody really wanted to be the first ones to greet the paladins when they restarted their insane Crusade.
You figured that Skullcruncher was going to lead you out of the fortress, or maybe lead you to join up with the rest of your squad on the battlements. Instead, he lead you over to a dark pool of brackish water, one which glowed with an eerie light from somewhere below the surface. Even from a distance, you can dimly make out the image of cloaked figures rippling in the water’s depth.
“Say hello to your new squadmates.”
Skullcruncher said with a grin, as the images of the cloaked figures in the water pulled off their cowls to reveal pudgy, soft, round faces. Human faces.
“Oh no, oh Heavens no!”
Mouse groaned, earning himself another punch from Malarky.
The Mortal Realm
A Stretch of Forest in the Barony of Gast
Jarod’s lips curl upwards into a smile to mirror your own.
“Indeed. I must say that were it not for the fact that the elves were willing to burn down the entire forest, I would not be concerned with their efforts to destroy the city. Indeed, I might even approve of it – even for the festering nests of filth that “civilized” humans like to create, that city is particularly foul. Nonetheless, I must agree with your suggestion – we need an army, and while the humans are cowering within their walls before the elves’ wrath, they do have an army.”
Jarod thinks a moment, and then nods slowly, his smile starting to fade.
“We should be able to convince them to lend us a detachment of troops, *if* we can talk to someone in authority that has a brain – a difficult person to find even in the best of times. We might also need to be careful while in the city. The place has been a home to an academy of those reality perverters – “mages”, as they call themselves – for a number of years now. And quite a few of them have wandered into these woods, drunk on what meager power they had learned to gather and looking for trouble. I was always happy to give it to them, the punishment in accordance with the crime. I understand that I’m a wanted man as a result – “The Mad Hermit” or some such nonsense.”
Jarod’s smile returns at that, although it is less than a pleasant expression. He thinks a moment more, and then shrugs, turning to walk back to his home.
“Well, I’ve ventured into the city now and again when necessary. As a result I’ve developed a bit of a flair for disguises. Given that I haven’t been into the city since this whole nonsense started, and a good while before that, I have no idea what your own status within the “civilized” world is, but I should be able to come up with someone for you as well should you need it. Now let’s see here . . .”
Jarod gestures with his hand, and the rotted tree responds, one massive root that made up the base parting in the middle to reveal a sizable hollow. Inside where all sorts of clothing and odds and ends – apparently Jarod’s version of a wardrobe. He sticks his head inside and rummages around for a bit, occasionally throwing bits and pieces over his shoulder. Finally, he cries out in triumph, producing the breastplate to a suit of plate mail.
“Aha, here it is! I got this off of a knight who blundered in here a few years ago, looking to put an end to “The Mad Hermit”. He didn’t seem a bad sort, actually, if rather misguided, so I just sent him back to town naked. I even gave him a few coins to purchase a new set of clothes when he got there! I must say though, this suit of armor has come in handy. Nobody ever seems to expect that the knight in shining armor is actually a mad hermit. Hah!”
Dropping the breastplate onto the ground, Jarod turns back and continues digging through his inventory for the rest.
“He had a squire with him, if I remember correctly. Poor boy was supposed to be his guide – at least he had the sense to be scared of angering me! Anyway, I took his gear as well, so we can pose as a knight and his squire arriving to join the battle. I’m sure no one will think twice of it, even if we lack the proper pomp and pageantry nonsense that seems to surround the real thing. Assuming how important such things are to them, but only when no one is actually trying to kill them! By the way, the suit of armor is fairly heavy, even if it is well made. I’d be happy with playing the squire and wearing the much lighter chain shirt if you’d prefer to play the part of the shining knight, clopping around like a metal crab!”
(As a note, this is not D&D. Contact with metal does not mysteriously cause your powers to go away. It’d look rather weird if druids were all running around in plate mail all the time, but there’s nothing particular holding you back from that unless you swore some sort of personal oath or have a phobia of worked metal.)
Jarod stops and turns back to you, his mildly giddy expression fading back to seriousness.
“Of course, I also know of a few loose sewer grates, which may or may not have been strengthened now that the city is actually in danger. Woe if the elves find those and the humans are unprepared for an unexpected attack! Still, that might also provide another way in, and one that will possibly attract less elven arrows than walking down the road in shining armor like an idiot.”
At your song-like whistles, you hear at least one songbird in the distance tweet out a reply. But you have attracted the attention of far more important animals, as one of the elves immediately storms over and backhands you. Angrily the elf glares at you, shoving a finger to his lips, then backhands Greg as well – evidentially the elves’ hearing was sharper than they let on. Either that, or they didn’t like the old coot any more than you did.
Drawing the elf over to you does, however, attract his attention in the way you had hoped, as a moment later he looks down and notices your crude drawing. Immediately he jumps back away from you and the drawing with a harsh cry, hand dropping to the hilt of his sword as if he expected an attack. Seeing one not coming, he looks over his shoulder and shouts something to his companions in the elves’ native tongue. You had been trying to figure out the basics of their language since being taken prisoner, although so far it eluded you – not that you had been given much to work with – the elves were an unusually taciturn and quiet lot. Yes, nothing at all like the orcs, who screamed oaths in their primitive language at every opportunity, while lumbering towards you, as if their bellowed challenges would convince you to fight them fairly.
For a moment, the elves hold a brief conference among themselves – at least, the three that you can see. The fact that you knew there had been more of them initially, and you weren’t quite sure that they were the same three that had been with you this whole time – damn slender cretins all looked the same to you – was the only thing that didn’t urge you to trust in the weight of your numbers to earn your freedom right now. After a moment, the nominal leader of the three comes over to you, addressing you in a high-pitched but slow rendition of the local human dialect.
“You make sign? Are you, droo-aid? You not go with these people if you are droo-aid. But you will have to convince us. And you fail, girl dies.”
In response, one of the elves nocks an arrow to his bow, angling the shot down towards Willow’s face. The young girl understandably raises her hands protectively in front of her and shrinks back, now that it matters any as the elf carefully tracks her every movement with the tip of his arrow.
The elf presses.
The Besieged City of Amaranth
There is no trial, or even a semblance of one. Either these men were smart enough not to waste time and risk getting caught, or their hatred overrode any sense of justice they might possess. As soon as the noose is around the she-elf’s neck, they pull it tight and then haul on the rope. The elf ascends struggling up into the sky, slowly choking to death. So these humans were sadistic as well – they could have brought along a stool to hang her properly, or even lifted her up onto their own shoulders before dropping her to break her neck. But no – it would be a slower death through strangulation instead.
You have just finished your spell and stepped into the alleyway when they tie the rope off to a post, stepping back to watch the she-elf struggle futilely for breath, twirling around in mid-air as she frantically pumps her legs. At the sound of your voice, all three of the men jump in surprise. The she-elf struggles more frantically, unable to speak between the noose and the gag, although her eyes are pleading. While one of the men stays behind to continue watching the elf’s death, the other two puff themselves up to look what they would think is intimidating, and then approach you warily, hands on their weapons.
“Back off, friend. Official militia business.”
As if the militia would conduct official business in this grimy alleyway. The lie is patently ridiculous, and even they know it, but that doesn’t stop the other one from joining in.
“Go back the way you came, sir. Forget you saw anything, and consider how hard the Amaranth militia is working to keep you safe from the elves.”
So, that was how they were going to play it. Well, it was not like they had any choice – even in desperate times such as these, you doubted grunt militia men had been authorized to enact summary justice. Your choice was the same – you could leave the militiamen in peace and the she-elf to die, or you could interfere. Humans never learned – this would only be settled with violence. Unless . . . you could try to trick them somehow, although the only thing they were likely interested in was an unpleasant end for the elf.
The City of Luxien
Seeing an opportunity in this group of humans, and one human in particular, already sheltered within a shell of metal, you crept up behind them. You are dimly aware that some might find the concept of a giant piece of living metal trying to creep up behind someone humorous. You however, do not.
As you move up behind the man, thankfully bringing up the rear of the group – perhaps precisely because he is bearing metal skin – you feel your mind filling with another memory. Thankfully the other residual memories associated with this individual are able to guide your steps, not making a sound despite your considerable weight as you approach the man from behind. Thankfully again, no one in the group ahead looks back . . . almost as if they were afraid to do so. Unfortunately, your borrowed memories also lead to a disturbing mantra reverberating in your mind as you sneaked forward, approaching the man from behind.
Approach victim from behind. Reach around with right hand, over victim’s right shoulder. Clamp hand over mouth, applying pressure to the upper lip. Force hand upwards, coming into contact with underside of nose. Pull backwards, lifting victim’s head to the side and back, exposing throat. Bring left hand up over victim’s left shoulder. Stab deeply into the side of the victim’s neck, two inches down from the bottom of the ear. Twist knife within injury before pulling it free. Release victim immediately and step back to avoid getting spray of blood onto self. Approach victim from behind . . .
Although you wanted to use this man to gain entry into the city, you had no desire to harm him. For that matter, you still didn’t understand why anyone would want to hurt another. Certainly not with the frequency that the humans did. And if the surge of emotions accompanying these memories was any indication, why anyone would feel an electrifying thrill at the thought of harming another.
Still, you manage to sneak up behind the man and attach yourself to him. Still uncertain that this will work, you subtly increase the man’s strength, allowing him to bear part of your weight without noticing the sudden increase in weight. Perhaps you are successful, or perhaps the man is simply too focused on the gates ahead to notice. Either way, you successfully manage to meld yourself over the man’s iron skin.
When the group comes to the gates, you listen as the guards speak with them. Apparently this group was a band of refugees from a village some distance away. The village had been attacked by elves, and they were all that was left of their hometown. The guards agree to let them in, although not unescorted to roam the city. This was evidentially not the first such group to come here, and the guards had a relaxed air as two of them moved up to join the group, leading the way into the city.
Inside the walls, there are a lot more people, in much tighter quarters. Nonetheless, you could slip off the man, and duck into a dark alleyway before anyone would notice. That would not prevent your discovery for long, as humans seemed to swarm about everywhere, all around you. But it might be long enough for you to devise the next step of your plan. There was at least one more wall separating you from your goal, assuming Ander was located in the innermost part of the city. And you would still need to locate him once you got inside.
Perhaps waiting until nightfall, assuming you could figure out a way to remain inconspicuous until then, would grant you an advantage. Humans did not seem able to see very well without a source of light, whether that was the sun or a piece of burning wood. “Looking” out around you, you also notice that the city seems to be in some disrepair – or perhaps a battle had occurred here as well. Certainly, not all of the buildings within the walls were still standing, and there was enough rubble lying about that if you could get to one of them, you could hide amongst the broken stone until nightfall.
I didn't actually intend to kill EVERYONE. It just sort of happened.
Worry stirred in Mal Harath's mind, at Val'Tosh's message. Could the mysterious organiser have managed to not only track the pair down with some sort of underling, but their pursuer had moved even faster than them?
Mal hadn't seen many elves before, aside from the odd fighter at the tournement, and perhaps some small childish part of him stood in curious wonder at the uncanny being, half-seconds before his common sense reasserted itself to make him duck.
He drew his hand low across the ground, carving the outline of his staff as his magic shaped it into fact, his feet following the elf as he worked. Much like the elvish woman had found, there was good rock here and after a few moments his staff was ready, as tall as himself and as thick one of his ogre friend's fingers. With a few practice swings, Mal was satisfied and readied himself against the largest tree closest to him, his back facing the elf's direction.
An idea struck him suddenly, as he felt the ambusher start to turn towards him. Moving the place the trunk between him and his opponent, he dug his staff into the ground and rubbed his palms. If the earth mage was distracted from Mal himself, he'd have a far better chance of getting close enough to hit her. And what is more distracting to an elf than a tree falling towards you.
Mal began to soften the earth around the roots, weakening its bindings loosely as he pressed his hands against the tree trunk and began to push the timber to fall towards the elf. As it tilted, he began to climb up along its bark, the tree starting to inch into a lower angle with slow building speed. As the roots began to show themselves, Mal was hugging the mid-point of the trunk, his feet flat against the bark. He may have looked a strange sight, but, he was poised to leap as soon as he saw the elf.
Avatar of Mal, thanks to PseudoStraw, my sarcastic and much loved partner.
"Yes, perhaps you should truly wish I had just forgotten what I saw," a deep voice came from under the hood. As Lucifuge came within a few paces, he pulled the hood over his head, revealing a face the militiamen should be more or less familiar with; he had initially thought of just using the usual human face he used as disguise, but decided to use the face of what seemed to be a higher up in the militia he saw a few days ago for good measure. Underneath his cloak, the distinct colors of the militia's uniform could be seen.
"What is this? An elf among our ranks? A spy, I see. Hanged for the beasts that they are, yes?" he spoke as he moved forward with confident strides, focusing on the strangling elf, ignoring the men and their stance. Then, he turned his gaze back towards them.
"I take it none of you had the insight that maybe the spy is not working alone? And none of you bothered to do with proper interrogation as per proper protocol? I suppose our defenses being breached because we failed to appropriate information that could have been obtained in the first place never crossed your feeble, revenge-clouded minds either?"
He looked at each of the three men in the eye, letting his words sink in before continuing.
"I thought so. Now, leave at once. Be prepared for the consequences of your thoughtless actions later."
As he said that, he turned around to cut the rope. Holding one end of the severed rope, he let the let the elf's dangling body go down slowly, catching her with his free hand and putting her down on the ground gently. He loosened the noose from her neck and slowly slid it over her head before checking her vitals, his movements unhurried and calm. Looking over his shoulder, he made sure the militiamen are gone before speaking.
(That's nice to know, on the Worked Metal not being a hindrance. I don't plan to have a set of full plate armor myself, but it makes sense why Druids shouldn't be inhibited by metal: it's an ore or series of ores found in nature, when worked makes something new, but still derived by natural means. It makes sense that metal doesn't inhibit a Druid's strength.)
The Druid's smile changed from one of cunning, to one of amusement.
"The Mad Hermit? Is that the most creative title they bothered to give you?"
An earthen, hearty chuckle resonated from Rosenberg. His laugh was genuine.
"Haa.. that's rich."
Returning to a more serious composure, Rosenberg stood up, dusting the dirt off of his robe.
"I don't believe I've come to acquire any city-wrought nickname as of yet, though if I did, I wouldn't doubt that it would be something wolf or rose related, perhaps even death themed for..."
Rosenberg's eyes gazed upon his scythe.
"...more obvious reasons."
He made his way besides his long time friend, inspecting the armor he'd hidden beneath the earth for so long. He took a look at the various articles of clothing he had, as well as the equipment of the two men.
"Hm... your plan to walk into to the town is a sound one, but wouldn't that Knight and Squire still be there? I doubt we could get far if they recognized their own clothing, or you for that matter. And like you said, walking through their front gates as a walking target for the elves doesn't settle well with me either."
His lips sucked more smoke from the long stem of his pipe, exhaling it slowly and calmly.
"The grates idea wouldn't work. I don't think entering the town through roguish means sends the right message..."
Rosenberg sat on the stump his friend was all too recently sitting on, sitting and smoking, letting his mind think and ponder upon a good course of action.
"...I think the best way to get inside the town is by first earning a slight measure of their trust, just to let them loosen up and be calm over our presence. I think we might have to defend the town from a wave of Elves first, drive them off, and then ask to see whoever is leading the city folk. We'd be walking up to their front gates and not be targets... initially."
"No. I will never compromise my oaths, not for you, not for anyone. My oaths were not to Miriam, or to Athelion, or to my brethren, but to the principles of honesty, justice, truth, charity and above all, hope. There's always a way, Black General. There's always a way for good to triumph over evil. You paint a picture of inevitability, that Azguloth will rise, that he will finish what the Baron started and kill the gods, and that the fiends you claim were our former brethren will swarm over the world. I say to you, no. It will not happen. As long as I have breath in my body it will not happen. You, like the Baron, are the weak one. You gave up hope and became the monster you were sworn to defend against. Those who would give up their souls for mercy deserve neither. So do your worst. I am as the stone at the roots of the mountains. I will not bend and will not break."
As opposed to his previous speeches, Hondshioh's voice is calm and even. Not the melodramatic shouting of the battlefield, but cold acceptance of what was happening and a resolute declaration to stand against it. Compromise was one thing. Betraying everything you stood for was something else.
Korram scratches his chin at Marius' hypothesis as to the causes of human suffering.
"Maybe. I wonder."
Korram looks around as they enter the Golden City, still far from used to the paradisiacal realm. On the one hand, he was attracted to it; the city was beautiful, and filled with a joy and contentment that Korram had rarely seen during his life. On the other, it contained a stagnation of horrifying magnitude. Anyone could be any age, from newly arrived to millenia old, and there was no way to tell by sight. Korram looked twice the age of most of the city, but was rarely even half. To exist unchanging for so long was inconceivable to him, but perhaps that would change with time as well. Korram is happy to be pulled from his unpleasant musings by Marius' explanation of the steps he had already taken. As they enter the courtyard, he begins to plan his strategy, taking in the states of the men and women all around him. He looks around at each, his gaze eventually settling on the woman, who is the first to truly address him. He pauses for a moment before answering.
"Does it matter? That battle was hardly unique. Oh, it isn't every day Miriam Herself descends from the Heavens to smite those who would stand against her, that much is true. But there have been other battles throughout history. To fight, and to fail, it is much the same no matter who you fight for and who you fight against. If it really makes that much of a difference to you, however, yes. I was."
He closes his eyes, and looks around at the circle. He gently clears his throat.
"Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Korram Alstan. And I am a failure."
He pauses once more, allowing the words to sink in a bit. A few of the paladins who had previously refused to look at him glance upwards, surprised by his words.
"I am not a very complex man, but I have been a few things in my life. A husband. A father. A rebel. A hero. At all of these, I have failed."
Korram shifts his stance a bit, allowing him to address a new part of the circle. He takes a deep breath before continuing.
"I was born and raised in Gast. I lived in a small, out of the way village, and for a long time, my life was not unusual. I grew, married, and had a child. Then, the False Baron stole my wife from me. There was no warning, no explanation, and nothing I could do. I couldn't save her. This is my failure as a husband."
Once again, he turns a bit.
"This enraged me. I fought back, started a covert rebellion, and began fighting back. I avoided capture, and movement grew stronger. It consumed my life. In this way, I began neglecting my daughter. I was present at home often enough, she was fed and sheltered, but I simply wasn't there for her. She was the entire world to me, but I took her for granted, and continued to do so until the moment she died. This is my failure as a father."
"Eventually, my rebellion grew strong enough that it was more than an irritation to the Baron, if only just. He had me found, captured, and thrown into Ironheart. All the time I thought he couldn't capture me, he simply hadn't considered me worth the effort. The moment the possibility of my making a difference existed, I was humbled, and every victory I gained was through the power of another. This is my failure as a revolutionary."
"When I was a rebel, many of the people of the barony began to look up to me. Some even joined me. They saw me as a hero. I saw myself as a hero, until Ironheart cured me of that. Even after I was captured, imitators claiming to be me made themselves known from time to time. My example inspired others to rise up, only to be crushed just as I was. This is my failure as a hero."
"I won't bore you with the details, but I was one of the prisoners to flee Ironheart a while back. I sought revenge against the Baron, and joined a group planning to kill him. We failed. Those left waited until the Battle of Narle. I was aboard the Ghastly Truth when Miriam fought the Herald. I was planning to assassinate the Baron, but...there was a critical moment when Miriam was left weakened. The Herald was about to kill Her. I died stopping the blow with my body. I think that's the one thing I can say that I truly succeeded in during my life."
One last turn puts Korram back where he started.
"I don't expect you to believe what I've said, at least about the battle. But it's true. I have told you all of this so that you know, when I say I understand the sting of failure, I mean it. And I have learned from it. I have learned that it is not the destination that matters; it is the journey. I failed many times in my life, but I also stood up, and fought for what I believed in. I have come to terms with may failures and acknowledged my virtues. I always did what I thought was right, and regardless of whether or not I was correct, or whether or not I won, I tried. So did each of you."
He pauses, gathering his thoughts.
"Think back over your lives. You were paladins. If you were worthy...no, if you were not unworthy of the name, then your lives were not wasted. You chose to risk your lives, and died warriors' deaths. That is something to be proud of."
There is another pause, as Korram begins to run out of steam.
"Many people...good people, were damned unjustly in the Battle of Narle. That is tragic, and there is nothing that can be done about it by us. But, by creating your own personal hell here, you dishonor those trapped in the real thing. Remember, you would not be here if you had not earned it."
Finally finished, Korram lets himself relax a bit from his erect stance. He has never been very confident in his speeches, but he hopes this one has touched home. He glances around, trying to gauge the circle's reaction.
Truly awesome Ark Tamaeus avatar by Bryn. Full size version here.
Ander slumps into a chair and listens wearily as Hephestia describes her dream.
Well I'm no diviner, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt. He says finally. But what your dream might have been of one possible future for you if you had not been stopped during the battle. The way you were going, you could very well have ended up at Azguloth's feet one way or another. It doesn't matter who you are or how powerful you were, once your soul is in Hell it's only a matter of time until you are twisted enough to do his bidding.
Melcara though...she fought to break free of that. She was just another tortured servant of Azguloth when I met her in Ironheart but I took pity on her. I tried to convince her that she could be redeemed and one day take her place at Miriam's side once again. Of course she was reluctant at first but eventually began taking small steps in the right direction. Miriam disagreed, however, and ordered me to kill Melcara.
So I did.
Ander stares blankly at the shadows in a corner of the room.
I regret that decision very much. When I saw Melcara again, she was a changed person who had found her own way but it was not because of me. I never got a chance to ask for her forgiveness and I don't know that I ever will.
Heh, look at me ramble on. Did you have anything else you wanted to talk about?
“I understand. Relax.” Alons’s heart raced, but he kept his voice even, and spoke slowly. He stood up, taking his time. “No need to kill Willow.” Give the girl a name, would they be so keen to kill her then? Names held great power in Fairlyle, once you knew someone’s name, you became closer.
He walked over to a nearby tree. He kicked it twice, hard, breaking chunks of bark off, exposing the wood underneath, the kind of exposure that could kill the tree well before its time. He bent over and picked up some of the bark, showing it to the elves. He then pressed the bark back onto the tree, muttering words in the old tongue. “Eloran. Eshrahas. Salathai.” A white glow emanated from his hands and the bark molded back onto the tree. It was clearly warped where he had performed his magic, but the tree was safe once again.
“Druid.” He nodded. “Now the girl will live, yes? You said she’d die if I was not a druid, but I am, therefore the elves will not kill her, yes?” He knew the elf had probably meant that Willow would not be immediately killed, her death saved for later. Alons wanted to catch the devil with his own words though, and see if she could be spared. One at a time, or at least to save as many as he could. Perhaps even save himself, this is what crossed the foreigner’s mind.