steal hope from the hearts of men,
and shake the very Heavens.
No good thing will the world know,
Until the unpure Blood wakes and walks
bearing the Godslayer
in the Heart of the world
-Fragment of a prophecy, predating The Awakening
The great caldera of some long, violently dead mountain burned once more.
Lines of fire swept in a gentle curve aroudn the steep sides of the crater, lining the great road that led in from the Great Gate. To the south, over the five-peaked ridge that ran aroudn the great crater, the dark sky glowed fitful crimson. The fire spread from the Great Gate, and through the sole pass into Heart. Out onto the fertile valley floor, burning, burning. Things moved between the patches of carefully tended woodland, between the small town that housed and served the Council. To the shores of the Deep. The sounds of screaming, of fighting, and dying. And through it all, the rythmic pulse in the aether as sorcerers touched the Aether.
For her part, the slight Sidhe woman stood in the open balcony of a once fine villa, her face a set mask. She had done her crying earlier, when that....man....had razed the Council, destroying the head of the Sidhe people as effectively as a headsman with his axe. Karnek left in burning ruins. Karnek, the Seat of the Council and one of the most beautiful cities in the whole world, a place of learning and high Arts. And now it was gone, the Council gone, the Alliance gone. No, she had cried all her tears, all the tears she ever could. The world was changed, and everythign was lost. She watched as a tempest grew over the Deep, lightning stabbing down into the rock of the True Heart. To her aether-enhanced eyes, those bolts glowed with the representative elements that made them. Sorcery, the Art that the Sidhe had mastered over the ten thousand years of written history. A battle played out on the True Heart, near the Tower. That place...she had been in there, could feel the absolute power of the aether only a breath away. Within the True Heart, underneath the shining Aetherial Tower, lay the Source.
The Lord, as he had called himself, had promised the Council just before he had vaporized them and most of the city with them. Here was the most collassal, impossible source of Aether in the whole world. She knew what the legends had to say about what lay beneath the island in the middle of the Deep. She didn't know if she believed all of them, but there was still good reason why none ever were allowed there, not even the Council. The Gaurdians were strange but amicable people. They had denied enterance for thousands of years, and none had yet been able to force their way in.
She shivered. Slight, barely five feet, she had a childish face, youthful with a startling head of silver hair tied at the nape of the neck that fell to her waist. A small mouth, and big, liquid eyes of a strange amythest, pale and with a faint inner glow. She turned, and left the balcony, entering the burned ruin with her staff tapping at every other step.
"We should go." She said, in a voice that was high and fair, not quite child-like but close. "He has the True Heart. We could not fight him before....we should go." She loathed the hint of fear in her voice, but could not help it. They had tried to stand in the Lord's way, them and many others. It had been like trying to fight a Dragon. She had been lucky. So had Vic.
"Heh. I'd rather hunt a gram barehanded than face that thing again." He said disgustedly. A tall man by Sidhe standard, short cut hair in the style of soldiers with a body that had only a small portion of the fat from a sedentary life left on him. His hand rested casually on the hilt of a longsword at his waist. "His...pets...are nearly as bad." He sweated at the thought.
The ground rocked slightly under their feet, and both cast worried glances towards the Tower and what lay beneath it. The feeling....had changed from below. Enormous power was being wielded out of their sight, strong enough that they could feel it clearly with their aether infused blood. A rhythmic pulsing, a beat like that of a human heart. She turned away first, fumbling briefly in her haste to reach out, and touch the Aether directly with her mind. At once she felt the thrill of power flooding into her, spreading from her mind into every fibre of her being. She was the Aether. The Aether was her. The heightened sesnes that came with touching the Power brought the dying screams ofo hundreds across the valley, nearly deafened her with the crashes of thunder that followed sorcery-wrought lightning. And still that betam thump thump....thump thump.....thump thump...
Without a second backwards glance, she spun and hurried to the crumbling lip of the second floor of the building they had chosen as a refuge. She leapt, feeling the flare of the aether, of the Power, as she drew the power of wind from the air aroudn her. Dust billowed as she landed on the first floor, spreading out from her in a wave of choking soot, charred timber and shattered stone. A second later, Vic landed next to her in an equally suffocating cloud of Wind created dust. She looked into his eyes, deep and with their faint glow, then took off.
She ran through twisted and tortured streets paved with brick that had been cracked and buckled, leaping across fissures in the ground almost as wide as she was tall, and fathomlessly deep. The whole valley seemed to groan as if it was a living thing; o her sorceress' ears, the valley did groan in mortal agony. The ground shuddered, dust falling from half collapsed walls and buildings, but she ignored them. She flashed around a corne, gaining speed in her flight, in her Flight, as she used the latent power i nthe very air to create a slight but useful tailwind. Behind her, Vic puffed and wheezed as he ran to keep up. Being small had its distinct advantages.
Her ears caught a sound, faintly at first. The full-throated shrieks of a woman, screaming as if her body were being torn apart, limb from limb. She slowed, stopped, the wind she had gathered scattering and vanishing as she stod, breathing heavily, smelling the scent of death in this place. Vic came to a stop beside her, looking perplexed.
The shrieks continued coming from their left, from a mostly intact building. She turned, and followed the sounds, stepped up to cracked stone stairs that led to massive, gilt doors that hung on their hinges at ackward angles.
The screaming ceased.
She stood in the door, flecks of dust dancing in the failing light. On the floor in the central foyer, a woman lay in a pool of her own blood, her legs spread wide as though she had been raped or...
A faint mewling arose fro mthe woman. The sidhe approached cautiously. he blood-soaked woman was silent, not stirring a muscle, her chest still. The Sidhe came to stand over her, and looked with horror at the infant that lay on the rubble covered floor between the dead womans legs.
"Pl....ease.....save ... my daugh....ter...." Faint words, no strength left in them. The siodhe woman noticed at last that the woman had still been alive, her chest rising and falling faintly. Now, however, her eyes stared upwards toward a ceiling covered with colorful murals. Sightless eyes, filming over already with death. The Sidhe woman sood there, Vic peeking in tentatively from the doorway as she bent over and, taking the shawl the dead woman had been wearing, picked up the child. The babe had gone to sleep, its previous cries - those that had been drowned by the womans final, agonized moment - silent.
Without another word, she turned and left that hallway of death, returning to the nearly palatable air outside, air that did not have quite such a strong stink of blood and death to it.
"We leave....now." Suiting her own words, she drew hard on the aetherial power of wind, and darted away, her form blurring slightly fro mthe speed of passage. Vic, of course, followed.
They quickly left the small village, once home to the greatest scholars and rulers of the lands, darting across flat fields dotted with sparse thickets. The wind howled with her passage as she made a direct line towards the towering wall of the Heart, the rim that held the world out, and the People in. As she ran, she could hear the feral growls of...things...that the Lord had brought with him to conquor this palce of power, could hear their frenzied cries as they tried to catch what they themselves could not catch. The wall loomed higher, closer. More cries of pursuit sounded behind her.
And then, suddenly, something....changed. The rhythmic thumping from the True Heart ceased. The ground rumbled ominously, then began to shfit uncertainly beneath her running feet. Began to shiver so hard that it was difficult to keep running, even as she reached the base of the great caldera's cliff, even as she made that first leap fro mthe floor of the valley to a narrow ledge some ffifteen feet up, the Power howling as it roared through her mind and blood. And then it changed.
She leapt from one outcrop to the next, never looking back, never even caring if Vic had managed to keep up. One outcrop to another. Ten feet at a time, she scaled that half mile of rock, but as she neared the top, the power that roared through her changed subtly.
As she crested the steep climb, she finally stumbled, having only just the presence of mind to curl up protectively around the infant she carried as she crashed to the ground in a spray of gravel and dirt. Then she was on hands and knees, babe laying on the roadbed beneath her, vomiting, retching, throwing up everything she had ever eatten, everything she would ever eat. The foulness she felt now, coursing through her, staining her bones black with evil and horror....it made her so sick. So sick.
rembling, she tried to gain her feet and instead fell on her backside, dizzy, reeling. Vic did not crest the ridge. She didn't care. Wiping her mouth with her arm, she turned to look back into the valley numbly. That....rancid strangeness still pulsed within her, seemed a part of the aether she drew. It was revolting, and inexplicable. She dry heaved a few times, trying to get to her feet, looking into the valley that was now cloaked in a shadow that had...substance.
And then, the wrld was filled with terrific sound. Light, like fire so hot it burned white and brighter, lanced up into the clouds from the Tower. That white flame was not pure, flecking with ugly purple and black. The ground didn't shiver or tremble, it bucked violently, moving many feet from side to side, up and down. The cliff face she had scaled cracked, and slid away leaving her on the edge of an immense precipice that dropepd from the road bed to the valley floor, some two thousand feet below.
And then a faint image arose in her mind. A faint....Him.
It was Him, and he was in her mind. Her belly felt full of ice, terror thumping in her mind, in her heart.
Something violent happened,
As darkness closed in on the sidhe woman, the world changed.
The world changed.
A Broken World
"The pure Holyland turned foul. No longer will it be called Meca, the Divine Heart. The fires have been restoked, and I believe that in the place where once Life and Death stood, balanced, now Death stands unrivaled.
They call this place Koriasai, where dreams die."
-From "The Heart of the World"
By Seain Mattin, Scholar 1371 AA
The sun shone weakly through clud cover that rarely broke, at least in this part of the world.
The winter had been hard, harder than the oldest men and women who still lived could remember. It had started early, and even though the year had waxed its way into May, winter still held a tenuous grip on the land. Here, in the northern country - as far north, at least, as civilized men dared live - snow yet hung on in patches beneath tree's that were either bare or held everlasting needles of green. The mountains seemed to bow under the weight of snow and ice upon their flanks, and here in the heart of the Northern Wilds, they were great beasts, teeth that rose from the ground in sharp, jagged spires that climbed miles above the flat plains further to the south. Here ridges of rock, thinly covered with firs and stands of willow and ash, jutted from steep sided valleys. Here and there an icy lake glimmered in the distance, a jewel in relatively untuched wilderness.
The heavy sound of a steel axe head cleaving through firewood, turning thick sections of cut logs into tinder, kindling, and more manageable if still larg4e pieces. Again and a gain, and until a at last a grunt, and the sound of an axe being set aside.
With the fine vista spread out before her, the woman who had been handling that axe knuckled the small of her back. She stood a little over five feet tall, a lean and perhaps lovely face set with a hard expression as she looked over the small field that she tended. Her hair was wasit length, bound at the nape of her neck with a piece of rawhide, and gleamed liek aged ivory in the sunlight that winked in and out as high clouds, were they in different parts of the world, scudded on by. She was a hard woman, and well into her middle years by appearance, sweaty from her labors, well muscled and portioned. In her younger days, she had been stunning.
That beauty had not quite faded, but it had changed. Thirty years was a long hard life here on the edge of the civilized world. She and her husband Jared had lived here since they were married that long thirty plus years ago. When they had come, it was nothing but a small meadow and forest, a secluded spot that was at one and the same the bottom of a valley and on the edge of a bare shoulder of a ridge. It had taken years to turn the soil enough to grow what they ate, and longer still to raise the small herd of cattle and sheep that now grazed in the pasture where the meadow - and a small section of forest - had once been. A familiar place, a place where, on some hopefuly not to near date, she would die. They would bury her here, in sight of what the Southerners' called Worlds' End.
The prospect wasn't unsettling.
Grimacing at the aches in her joints, she bent and picked up the wood she had split, piling it until she staggered under the load and was in serious danger of dropping the whole mess. She looked once more over the field, towards the unspoken boundry between wild and cultivated land. A flicker of movement, nothing more. It had been such for the better part of a year. Her husband had went to look for her little ghost, but had turned up nothing but some faint tracks. A stranger who stood in the woods, and watched their little homestead with some intensity, but who always avoided being caught, or found. It had been unsettling at first but, then, this was Worlds' End after all. Many strange things happened here.
She staggered under her load to the side of the cabin that the two of them had built with their own two hands. Stacking the wood under the eaves, where the wet wouldn't get to it, she turned and walked to the door, opening it and entering her home.
The space inside was cozy enough, furnished with things that her Jared had made. A table made from split logs, benches to either side and a tall backed chair at one end. The cast iron stove with its blackened pip extendign through the ceiling, cold now since breakfast. A couple of rocking chairs, a rug made from a bears cured hide, an open fireplace with a low fire burning on it. A small book case, half filled with books. Small tables, set between the two chairs. A weapons rack near the door, in which a pair of qell maintained blades and a pike stood against future need. The wooden counter with its cabenits, the sink with its hand-operated pump. Now THAT had been a feat - digging a well was one thing, especially since a small stream ran thrugh their homestead, and a stone cistern had been hollowed out to hold water for the dry months. The pipes were the novel item; Very far to the south, the machines of a forgotten time still managed to work, though all that could be created these days were textiles like the iron pipes and various other contrivances. The pipes here had been crafted by the blacksmith in Pibes, the local village, and had been very dear.
There was little light in her home. The windows were shuttered to keep the heat in, and candles and even lantersn cost the earth this far north. It had been many years since they had enough money, since after her first born son, Elan, had left. After their daughter, Kiele had gone, too. Those were bad days, after that. Now the house was filled with that same feeling, as back then, when she had lost Eric, her handsome child. He'd almost lived to be fourteen. Her heart shivered in its cage of bone, stabbed through and through by sorrow and guilt. Closing the door hehind her, so as to prevent a chill from entering her home, she walked across the open front room, back into the dark, hot confines of their bedrom.
She stood in the doorway, sillhoetted against the weak light that penetrated this far into her home. This is how it was then, too... She thought, as she stared inward, looking at the man she had given her life to. He lay on their bed, blankets pulled to his chin. The skin on his face seemed to shine, dripping and running with set, his short, dakr hair unkempt. His sharp features were drawn, haggard, and pallid in the pale light coming through the door.
Its this world we live in... She thought to herself, moving into the room quietly, with a lithe grace that belied her age. A world dying for thousands of years. A world that refuses to let go. There was so much of this - sickness, death, and other things that were less explicable. The legends told of days when things were not so. Itwould probably have hurt even more, knowing that she took the oddities of this broken world for normal.
Jared stirred weakly, his brown eyes opening slightly. "aeyliea..." A faint whisper, almost too weak to hear. Her heart broke inside of her chest as she came to her side of the bed, resting a hand on her Jareds' head as she sat on the edge. And then, she took her hand back suddenly, a smile on her lips. Finally.
"Your fever....its broken!" She exclaimed quietly. Jared attempted tosit up, but though the fever that had nearly burned the light of his life away had not left enough strength. But it was enough, enough for Aeyliea. She had almost given up hope; now it flared strongly again. The world may be broken, but she still had her own light. "I'll have to head into the village later and see the Healer. A few chores to do stilll..." She whispered. The depression that had settled on her shoulders over the last few weeks loosed its grip on her soul. She leaned over and kissed his forehead tenderly, then stood. "Rest. I will be back soon enough."
Stepping out of their cabin, she felt her step lighten as she picked up a wooden bucket, and headed for the stream. She frowned a little in irritation as her steps seemed to take her nowhere, and then suddenly she was beside the creek. Kneeling, she fileld the bucket, than began back to the dooryard, clicking her teeth in irritation. The return trip took less time. It was another reason Worlds End was seldom populated.
Maybe a couple weeks and then we can get to the fence in the south. The simple life that her children had abhored would resume as it had before Jared's illness. Watering the livestock and putting feed out, she hummed a happy little tune to herself as she went about her work.
Things would be all right, after all.
Birds twittered cheerfully in the branches of trres, the wind sighing through pines and bare branched ashe. With all that was wrong with the world of the day, there was still much beauty and peace to be found. Even here, near the Northern Dominance, where the Lords' power was strongest. Even here, in this forgotten patch of mountainous terrain, known simply as the Heights by those in surrounding areas - all surrounding areas that were, of course, under His rule. At any given time over the past three thousand years and more, the Lord could have sent his minions into this place, and claimed it as his own. True, He still sent patrols through often enough, but thankfully they were mortal men, and not His things.
Still, it paid to be cautious. Aeyliea wended her way along a track that was barely visible, intentionally ignoring the passage of time and distance. Such things were often enough reliable - a mile was a mile, after all - but sometimes, they could be frighteningly deceptive. Rumors and whispers of a time when everythign was right with the world had faded thousands of years before. This was simply how the world was.
The deer track led through a steep sided, twisting valley. A stream flowed through its heart, only at most twenty aces from the narrow game trail she followed. She had left at dawn to make the best possible use of her time, as Pines could be as much as a couple hours of walking away, and at best a good hour. This close to the Lord's main dominance, though, made being out after nightfall dangerous at best. Only the foolhardy went out-of-dors after the sun set at night. Only the lucky managed to make it to their beds in the morning.
Her spirits were high this fine spring morning. There was a spring to her step that had been absent for far too long, a jovial air that even during the best of times was not present. She was a hard woman by necessity. The End of the World was a hard place to live in. Memories and haunting visions of her past had long since etched their mark in her eyes, and in her heart and mind. Forty seven years on this world had left her scarred in some ways, even if the scars themselves were not visible to the naked eye.
Rounding a bend, she turned her thoughts away from the past, looking instead to the future. Pines was not that much further along, Pines and its handful of people. Most importantly, its Healer. Aeyliea knew of Sorn only in passing. A woman born and raised in one ofthe broken southern kingdoms, she had come to Pines purportedly to bring her touch too the 'wayward, forgotten back country folk'. Her words, not Aeyliea's. Sorn wasn't an Occuli, thankfully - the sect, cloistered away from the rest of the world on a remote land in the middle of the Pacifica far to the west - was not noted for sendings its disciples out into the world. That was fine by Aeyliea, really. Having an Occuli in Pines, a practioner of the occult , would have been unnerving.
It was said that the Occuli had the power to destroy the world thrice over in their hands, and that the only reason they hadn't yet done so was that the Lord prevented them from doing it somehow. Not that the Lord was really interested in protecting anything other than His own iholdings, of course/
But, she generally listened to the other rumors. A powerful Occuli could destroy a city in the blink of an eye. They could fly through the air at terrific speed . It was said no wall or door could stop an Occuli, for they could walk through them and still kill you. Or worse. Or much worse. All that was known were the widely believed, wild rumors. The Occuli themselves said nothing, and were generaly nowhere to be found in any case. Sometimes, one would wonder if they really existed, anyway.
The Occuli. The Lord. Users of magick, a force unknown and terrible in its power.
The trail petered out into trailess woods, sparsely populated with creepers and fern. Not enough sunlight broke the thick canopy of pine above, and the needles made the soil acidic and harsh to many other plants. She made forward, climbing a slightly less steep sided ridge. At its crest, she stopped, looking down into the shallow valley beyond.
Framed by breath-taking, jagged and snow frosted peaks on all sides, nestled in a network of ridges carved by the ancient flows of ice tens of thousands of years gone, Pine sat amid trailers of woodsmoke. The woods had been cleared away for a good mile around the wooden pallisade that enclosed the village. Thatch-roofed homes filled the pallisde thickly, though the town itself barley enclosed a quarter of a mile square within its wooden walls.. The cleared land beyond had been ahrrowed recently, in preperation for the upcoming planting. No one was outside the walls this day save a couple of local farmers - at this distance, she couldn't recognize faces and names, but she had a feeling it would be the Farings inspecting their fields, if not already planting.
She started down the hill, passing out from under the trees swiftly. The click of her quarterstaff against stoney soil was rythmic, set at a ground eatting pace that would not tire her but wasted no time, either.
It was indeed the Farings, Jameson and his sons, working up and down rows planting seeds. She waved and smiled as she past, and Jameson stood, knuckling his back and waved back, then returned to his work. Like all small communities out in the Heights, many of the folk knew each other well. Even an outsider like herself, though she was married to a local man.
The wooden gates were open for the day, and inside the muddy streets were mostly empty, save for children running through waving sticks at each other and earning themselves bruised knuckles as they played at swords. On some of the houses, goodwives beat rugs or swept dust and detritus from their homes and into the street. The ringing blows of a blacksmith at his work rang out through the peaceful quiet of the town. In the slanting, golden light of morning few were about. She made her way through the streets - a whole four of them for this sprawling, wilderness 'city'. She chuckled drily at that thought.
She passed by the single story inn, The Inn. Joe Alrick was about as uncreative a man as she had ever met, thin and pale with a pox marked face and lank dark hair. The man himself sat under the overhanging roof on the front porch of his inn, smoking a pipe and blowing lazy smoke rings into the still morning air. He nodded to her as she passed. She scowled at the man. Of all those who felt that she was an outlander always and firever, he was the worst. In fact, her scowl brought a disgustingly happy grin and gleam to his eye. She stalked off, bristling but saying nothing.
Lorn's house was three down from The Inn, next to the smithy. The loud ringing of steel on steel was quite clear here. Why the Healer had chosen to live here when in all likelihood she could have taken the Mayor's very own house for hers was a mystery, but then Lorn was a very strange woman.
She stepped off the strret, stepping up to a covered sitting area much like all the rest throughout Pines, the boards underfoot greay and cracked, warped with age and exposure to sun. The house itself was whitewashed, and built from milled wood. She could hear the mill itself, somewhere on the western edge of town, using the not considerable stream to power its saws and the like.
She lifted her hands to knock on the sturdy door, but as she made the motion, the door opened before she could make contact. Lorn, the Healer, stood in her nightgown, giving Aeyliea that long, calm gaze that unsettled most who had to bear it. Perhaps in her seventies, the woman was a sight older than anyone Aeyliea knew. Even here, i nthe quiet back country where little violence ever occured and where the Lords' watch was somewhat slack, people did not live to such ages. Lorn was different though. No one could put a finger on why, exactly, but it was Gods' own truth.
She was a hands' width taller than Aey, and that made her a tall woman indeed. Her face was creased and marred by liverspots, as were her arms and any other flesh that showed. It seemed that Lorn had every spare ounce of flesh boiled off of her, yet despite her scrawny appearance, her old bones and dessicated muscles held a surprising amount of strength. Her hair was a whisy gray, somewhat thin. Her eyes were cold obsidian, harder than the heart of winter and twice as cold. "Aeyliea," She said, nodding to her. There was no frost in her voice; the woman couldn't help that she looked liek a stern taskmistress. Perhaps, somewhere along the line, she'd been every bit as hard as those eyes implied. She stepped aside from the door, with her head peeking around the corner, and gestured for Aeyliea to enter.
"Your husband has recovered, I take it." She said, as she closed the door behind them and led Aeyliea to the kitchen, setting herself down on a bench at the hardwod table with the exaggerated care of the elderly. The table's surface was scrubbed clean. It was still stained and old, and sometimes it was best not to think too much on what some of those stains might have been. A steaming cup of tea sat in front of the aged Healer, and another sat at an empty seat, cxlearly intended for Aeyliea to seat herself at, and the tea clearly hers.
"You knew I was coming?" Aeyliea asked, suppressing an involuntary shudder. She looked around the kitchen breifly, noting the clean surfaces, the cold stove, the empty sink with the morning's cleaned dishes set beside it to dry. "His fever only broke yesterday..." She said, trailing off at the amused glint in the old womans eyes.
"I have my ways, Mistress Ashford. Needless to say I expected you half an hour gone, but with the way things are....well, thats of no consequence." She reached across the table top, and opened a sealed jar, withdrawing a paper package that was sealed with pine resin. A smell wafted from that jar as she closed it, and it brought to mind many of the more...unpleasant tasting concoctions that the aged Healer had doled out over the years. She offered the envelope with an outstretched hand, and Aeyliea took it, gratefull. "A couple pinchs of that in biling water every morning and night for the next ten days. It will help him recover his strength faster than he would otherwise. I know you have your planting to do, soon." She said in a voice that brooked no nonsense. It quavered slightly as the elderly will, but regardless it was a strong, used to command. Aeyliea had plenty of experience with those who had used that kind of voice to good measure, though why one such would be here, so far from everything, was beyond her.
She picked up her cup of tea, nodding appreciatively to Lorn as she took a sip. It was bitter, insweetened. That was fine by her.
Setting her cup back down, she frowned at the table top. "Hard winter this year. Harder down south, if what I hear is true." Aeyliea said, then looked up into those cold, hard eyes again.
"Indeed a hard winter. Harder for some than others, I understand. Eckes is in full rebellion, now."
Aeyliea turned thoughtful. Eckes, one of the larger kingdoms in the south, had been harboring rebels against the Lords' Empire for several centuries. The Lord had sent his creatures to quell it multiple times, but each time the Fists withdrew, the rebels turned up again. Five years before, Eckes had enlisted the aid of a small kingdom further south than itself, Ashara, and the Asharad had sent a small force of perhaps five thousand and perhaps fifty thousand - the rumors could never be fully depended upon - to oust the Lords' Peacekeepers from Eckes. They had liberated Foreckes within a short three month campaign, taking the capital city of Eckes and making it a stronghold against the Fists.
What rumors had managed to make their way up here following that said that the Eckacians had suffered a harrowing defeat against the Mah'riel. Foreckes had been burned to the ground and half its hundred thousand occupants slaughtered as a warning to the rest of the world what defiance to the Lord bought.
"Didn't they learn their lesson last time?" Aeyliea said absently, as she took another sip of the too-bitter tea, lost in thought.
"Five years ago they had the aid of Asharad and the rebllion, but Eckes itself did not commit to the fight. They were as much occupied by the rebllion and through it, by the Asharad, as they were by the Lord himself. No, there were perhaps twenty thousand men to stand against the Lord, with the citizens of Foreckes holed up in their homes and cellars. This time the kingdom itself is in full revolt, and whats left of AShara. Also, the Fara have joined in." Those implacable eyes never changed, and her voice didn't either. She may have been discussing the weather, for all the concern she showed. Aeyliea frowned.
"But why? Why even bother? He hasn't even been annoyed by a rebellion in three thousand years, perhaps more. The Lord has always been there..." She stopped, then sighed. "You of course would have to mention these things to me. I'm not involved in their foolishness anymore. He can't be defeated, any more than one could defeat the sun."
Lorn chuckled to herself, an odd sound that sounded more like wheezing than laughter. "Yes well, your lovely King did a fairly poor job of it as well. I understand that He sent two tribes of the Mah'riel to deal with you." Her gaze seemed more intent.
Aeyliea found herself glad that the old woman couldn't read minds, even if some of the more foolish inhabitants of Pines seemed tothink otherwise. She could remember those days long gone, and had to struggle with her emotions and her face to keep both from revealing more than she wanted.
She could indeed remember the King Asyian, and his proud people. She could also remember the fields of battle, and the aftermath, and the utter horror that both painted to her minds eye.
Fields under ash darkened skies, nearly blotting the sun out. Ravens and crows, and carrion eatters flying in great clouds of black, scurrying across the blood-red earth. The bits of flesh, missing limbs, the smell of corruption and putrification that hung in the air, so sickeningly sweet. But the smell wasn't as horrible as seening the mangled remains of her countrymen. Worse yet were those that weren't quite dead, with their entrails ripped from their bodies and left trailed upon the ground.
She shook her head, trying to shake free those images and not caring that Lorn saw. "Madness..." She muttered under her breath.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Time will tell, will it not? None of our concern up here, though. Too much time to spend tending cattle and sheep, and of course your fields. And of course, who knows what other strange things to deal with, here at Worlds' End."
Aeyliea almost looked up. Strange occurences... That stranger, in the woods. The one that never came out of the woods, always watching from a distance. Aeyliea forced herself to take another sip of tea. It had gone cold, of course, but she managed to keep a straight face. Why had Lorn shifted topics?
"They say that there are indeed some strange things going on 'round here. Some stranger out in the woods that no one ever sees. People say they catch it out of the corner of their eye, though."
Aeyliea looked up, her eyes troubled. "And who has seen thsi ghost?"
"Oh, quite a few of the locals." She said the word 'locals' with a slight disdain. Yes, she had been something else long ago. "No one has seen it more than twice though, and it hasn't been seen for a couple weks now I'll wager." Again, that seeming....knowing.
Should I tell her? But no. Lorn was one of those in town that she dealt with more than most, except maybe Alan Fairweather, the blacksmith. Regardless, though many of the people that lived here really were simpel country folk, Aeyliea was not. Neither was the woman seated before her. In the world she'd left behind, it was wise to keep what you knew to yourself, unless there was reason to tell. Who knew wether what she said may get her killed, or others killed? Of all the people living in Pines, Lorn was the one person she wouldn't give such information to blindly. So she kept her piece, smiling at Lorn behidn her own cold, iron blue eyes. "I would expect such wives' tales from a younger and less experienced woman than yourself, Lorn. You should no by now I have little time for silliness like that. Probably nothing more than someones' drunken hallucinations."
She didn't have to add that people up here near Worlds' End were a mroe than supersticious lot, living so close to the Lords' domain as they did. Still, it didn't stop Lorn from scowling. Perhaps she was just fishing for some new gossip. Perhaps. Aeyleia set her cup of tea, now cold as ice, on the table, and stood. "I would like to get going before it gets much later. I have some business to tend to next door with Alan." She reached into the front pocket of her spants - another oddity that many of the villagers questioned - and withdrew a silver mark, bearing the impressed Tower on one side, and an carved throne on the other. An imperial silver piece. Lorn rose slowly with exaggerated slowness, her muscles and bones creaking and popping in a sickening fashion. She walked with Aeyliea to the front door, but remained insde as Aeyliea stepped out.
"Remember, morning and night for ten days. If you should run out of that before the full course, come back and I'll get him some more." Her voice was as hard as ever, and there was a weighing, measuring quality to her stare. Aeyliea smalled, grabbed her quarterstaff from the rocking chair on the prch, and then etnered the street, heading next door.
She didn't look back as she entered the smithy's yard. Alan, the village blacksmith, was bent over his word. Someones plow glowed a faint red as he stood up, wiping sweat from his forehead, and pushing his dark hair out of his eyes. "Mistress Ashford, here about them horse shoes and that cracked pipe, I'll wager?" He knuckled his back, then steped away from the forges, coming into his dooryard with a big grin on his handsome face.
Aeyliea opened her mouth to say that she had, indeed, come to check on the progress. She was cut off by an abrupt shriek from somewhere towards one of the northern gates. She stopped, startled, but by the time the third and fourth were added rto the first, she was already turning from the Smiths' dooryard and heading towards the commotion, her quarterstaff in hand and held ready.
She closed the door to her house, and threw the bolt and locking bar in place. That done, Lorn went through her living room to the back of the parlor, and pushed open her curtains, watching the retreating back of that woman. Such cold arrogance she had, but that wouldn't matter soon.
He wanted her, for some reason. Her, and any others like her. He did not, of course, explain why, but when the Lord, his Majesty the Emperor of the Frogotten Empire wanted something, he got what he asked for.
She closed the drapes, and headed to the cellar. Maybe there wouldn't be any need for her services anyway.
"When He came to the onec sacred place and touched what was there, His Awakening came full circle. Once, he had been a mere man amongst others. Now, however, he was a god.
May heaven have mercy on us all, for his is a cruel power."
Journal entry dating 55 AA
She came around a street corner, nearly sprawling in the slick mud, just in time to see the wooden gate get ripped off the pallisade, its hinges squealing shrilly as the metal was torn from from wood. Around the open gate were several bodies, men that she knew somewhat less well than the actual locals. Sell swords, hired by the mayor to patrol the streets and act as an unecessary police force for this small town.
Well, now they were quite dead. Aeyliea grimaced at a mans head, his eyes glazed with death and wide in horror, with a piece of his spine still attatched to the bloody ruin of his neck. Her eyes followed the trail of blood in them mud, finding his decapitated body, then gradually came to find what had killed him. The beast had an iron grip on another sell swords' weapon, cutting itself in the process but forcing the weapon inexorably away. With a snap of its wrists, the thing tore the sword from the mercenary's hand, then lunged, landing full on top of the man. Teeth and claws began their gorey work, the dying mans shrieks echoing through the once quiet calm of morning.
Aeyliea shuddered, stepping back around the corner quickly, lest the thing see her. Werewolf....a bloody, bloody werewolf! Her mind shrieked in the quiet confiens of her head. She leaned against the building, back to the wall and face the color of ash. She had only seen them once, long ago, but that was enough. More human than beast, Werewolves started their lives as humans. Until they were captured, of course, and drug north to the Northern Dominance. Something happened to those poor men and women, oce they were there. Whatever humanity they'd had before was cleanly, surgically removed. In the place of sentient life, the Lord made his dread weapons into insane, blood frenzied killing machines. They weren't smart enough anymore to use weapons, but with inhuman strength and speed and an endurance no living things could match, they didn't need them.
It was difficult to remain calm. It was difficult to recall lessons learned so many years ago, lessons learned and then forgotten in exchange for a simple life of a farmwife. There had been no swords, no staves or bows. No bloodshed, and no horror of theb attlefield, and hadn't been in over thirty years. Her mind kept going back to that bloodied field, plains and woods filled with rotting, vulture hautned corpses laying in a red, setting sun.
Sheh ad to get away. Fear, an unwelcome friend of the past, coursed through her veins, freezing her muscles. It took a supreme effort of will to move again, and when she did, she darted down the street, flying as fast as her legs could take her, ignoring the ache of age. She ran from the screams, though those were dying off now. She ran from the feral roar of death.
Doors opened along the street, confused and worried faces showing through the cracks or from open windows. "Get back inside! Lock your doors!' She screamed as she ran, puffing words between labored, gasping breaths. She ran towards The Inn, not caring that old Joe was a bastard that needed a dagger through is liver. Not caring about anythign except escaping.
She ran up on the porch, passing by the innkeeper. "Inside!" She wheezed, grabbing the man by an arm and yanking him hard through the door to his own inn. She slammed the door behind her, dropping her staff and grabbing the wooden lockbar even as her weapon clattered to the floor.
"By the Lords' stinking breath, woman!" Joe yelled, indignantly. Whatever worry or fear had been on his face when he was outside was gone, replaced by anger at his rugh treatment. "You can't go around yanking people around!'
Wordlessly, Aeyliea grabbed a handful of the mans hair, clasped a hand over his mouth as he tried to cry out and protest, then yanked him across his common room to a window. She let go of his hair, and then gestured to the street outside. Her hand muffling his mouth wasn't necessary any longer as he actually saw what stalked through the streets outside. Three Wolves, their faces smeared with blood, their wildly inhuman eyes darting this way and that. A fourth was at a house across the street, beating furiously at a door. Each blow shoow the door in its frame. After a few blows, the wood began to splinter.
"What....what are they doing here?" The innkeeper asked faintly. He had broken out in a cold sweat as soon as he had seen them stalking in the streets. Aeyliea didn't reply. What answer could she possibly give? Instead, she turned and went through the common room, into the back. The kitchen was hot and humid, the mornigns meal already eatten and cleaned. The cook - Joe's wife - was nowhere to be found. Probably upstairs.
She hurriedly went over to the scrubbed counter, cleached white from years of repeated scouring and cleaning, and picked up a large carving knife. It seemed an almost comical weapon, all things considered. She returned to the common room with the knife, and picked her staff up just as something beat against the door viciously. Again and again, each successive blow sending splinters of wood flying. The hinges on the door squealed in protest, then ails holding the lock bar in place moved fractionally with each hammering blow. Aeyliea threw the knife in her hand into the table in front of the innkeeper where it quivered point first in the wood. "Take it, man, and go. There a cellar he-"
With a shuddering crash, the door burst inward, the wooden bar shattering and hinges tearing free of their mountings. A slavering thing, human in appearance and filthy, reeking of its own stale sweat and filth stalked in, focusing immediately on Aeyliea. Joe dropped the knife, turned and fled and the movement caught the things attention. Swathed in half rotten furs, the thing lunged past the woman with the quarterstaff, and tackled Joe. His shriek as claws bit into his back, shredding flesh and scoring his spine rang in her ears as she moved forward, swinging the staff with poor grace, ill practiced in recent years. Blood flew in the air as the thing gored the man, his cries and pleas lost in its guttural cursing and howls. Aeyliea struck it in the back of the head, and it remained unphased. With a sickening crunch, the beast closed mishapen jaws around Joe's neck, and the man stopped struggling ,going limp and lifeless on the floor.
In desperation, Aeyleia swung the staff with all her strength like a bat. It smacked with a meaty thud agains the Wolves head, cracking the skull and sending a river of blood that was a sickly dark red down its back. Stunned, it took a long moment before getting up on shakey feet, but to its feet it did get. And then it was on Aeyliea.
Haven't done this in too long... She thought to herself grimly, the length of wood in her hands a blur as she inexpertly parried disemboweling claws. A shot to the ribs, one to the face, a sweeping movement that should have taken its feet from under it. It seemed almost disdainful of her feeble attacks, taking hits that would have at least brought a normal man to his knees without even flinching. Instead, it grabbed her staff in midswing, and slung her to the side, staff and all, like a rag doll.
Pain bloomed in her side as she crashed into a table and chairs, splintering the chairs and crackign the table in two. Her breath was pained, each lungfull of air like a knife in the ribs. She scrambled to her feet sluggishly, recieving a backhand from the wolf before she even was well and truely up. She sprawled across the floor, landing within reach of the knife. Her head spun, black and white flecks floatin in her eyes as she reached feebly for the knife that the innkeeper had dropped before he died. She closed her hand around the hilt, rolling painfully to her back.
It was just as well. As she reached up to try and defend herself with the knife, as pathetic a weapon as ever there was, the thing landed on top of her. A flood of warm liquid spileld down her hands and arm, splattered on her woolen shirt. Blood. But not hers. For a few moments she had to fend its claws and teeth from her face and throat, had to lay beneath that thrashing, violently mad creature. It tore into her forearms viciously, but after a minute began to weaken, and then finally, slump lifelessly o top of her.
Aeyliea lay there beneath its crushing weight, fire burning in her side with each breath, her own blood making a small pool where her lacerated arm had fallen. She trembled, her eyes wide open and yet unseeing.
Looking into the glazing eyes of madness, set in a twisted and filthy face, she shivered and shook with absolute terror. Slowly, she came to her senses, hearing the screaming outside continue. Slowly, agonizingly, she slithered out from under the dead Werewolf, both their blood smearing across her body and legs and face as she worked her way out.
On hands and knees, gasping for breath, she stared at the floor, eyes still wide, remembering scenes from long, long ago.
Like then, she was still alive.
Should have been back by now...
The thought ran through his head time and again. Even given the state of the world, even given everything about this place so close to the dread power behind the Forgotten Empire, Jared never thought to really question his wifes' absence. It was a long hike between Pines and their secluded homestead. Aeyliea wasn't exactly helpless - not that, never that. A stronger woman he had never met, and that in part was why he loved her so very much.
They had built their life together from scratch, moving from the ashes of a forgotten, broken people. They had come north, seeking fresh lands, seclusion fro mthe troubles of the world. There was no such thing as complete isolation from the sickness the very world itself seemed to suffer, but there were places where its touch was far less noticable.
He tapped the iron ladel against their small cast iron cauldron, breathing in the aroma of cooking meat and simmering vegatables, accepting the warmth from the cookfire that burned in a stone hearth graciously, then shuffled back to one of the few chairs ithe spartan common area of their house. Settling back with cre - his knees wobled, legs trembled with the weakness of sickness just past. Leaning back, pulling a blanket up over his lap, he closed his eyes, and thought of other days, struggling with concerns for his wifes absence.
Excaping the troublees of the world. Well, they had certainly done that. They had left behind a city raped and pillaged by the Lords' Legion. She had been a sergeant in the Powysian army, climbing her way through the ranks when the king of POwys had forged a deal with the rebels even further south. Powys had provided a stronghold for the rebllion, a waypint for its suplies ad VIPs. He had known of it then, of course - he had been a mmeber of that very rebellion, a young man with high ideals and a brash, insolent sense ofo invicibility.
His youthful naievite had been dashed, along with the rest of that county, in a few short days of fire and blood. Betrayal at the core of the rebellion had brought the iron fist of the Lord down upon Asa'sion and the rest of Powys as well. Veldric had seen the hammer of an army coming long before it was supposed to arrive, had gathered every force he could muster to oppose it - in fact, procaliming his opposition to the Lord Emperor of the Forgotten Empire himself.
Three days of fighting. In the end, the whole of Powys had burned, every village assaulted and slaughtered, every city and stronghold broken and torn by the dread magick of the Lord and his hosts. The death toll had been mind numbing - King Veldric's entire army of seventy five thousand men and women, and the massed force of the rebellion, another twenty five, lay dead in the field before the broken gates of Asa'sion while the city burned, its occupants fleeing and dying in the streets. A whole army, killed nearly to the last man, and entire city shattered.
But before that had happened, he had met her. In her younger days she was spry and strong. It had been mere chance - a duel between her and another woman of the Powysian army, the challenger claiming that Aeyliea had been messing with her man. Jared had been one of those that had to pull the wildcat off the challenger. She hadn't beaten the other woman, she had anhillated her, eventually slitting her throat for her troubles. Later, they had been posted on the same detail, gaurding the gates.
Much later, they had fought side by side, back to back, against the dread legion sent to destroy them. Amid such blood and death. their lives in each others hands, they had fought grimly. What had started out as simply two young people with the need for companionship, the desire to find solace and comfort i nthe arms of another human being who had marched into hell and come out the other side scarred, scared, and alone .... well, it had turned into something much, much more.
They had married three years after the Feast of Ravens, then fled north.
He stood suddenly if slowly, the blanket dropping back to the floor. Walking with deliberate care, lest he fall, he went to the front door and stepped outside into the goldne light of afternoon. He cast his gaze south, up over the rop of knife-edged ridges and deep, forested valeys, looking for his wife among the trees. He wouldn't be able to see, of course, but still he tried.
Aeyliea. A fascinating woman, for all that she was his wife. Sometimes, he found himself wondering how he had ever caught her eye. A dark haired main, it now was mroe than a little flecked with silver and thinner than it once had been. A narrow mouth, a blade of a nose and a prominent chin, he was tall and strong. Though age had seemingly melted some of the flesh from his bones, he still possessed a wiry strength that age had only enhanced. She, however, was a desert rose in full bloom, and even late in life the character of her beauty had not dimmed. If anything, it had been greatly enhanced by her years.
And yet, for all he knew of her....there was still her past. Even she was uncertain about it. Orphaned early in her life, raised by an Aunt and an Uncles who were kindly folk, yetr who dissapproved of her spirit. Her uncle especially, whom had a rather dim view of woman rising too far from their kitchens and laundry. Both long dead now, but sheh ad often remarked at her uncles rage at her joining the army at the age of seventeen, a young woman whom he said would simply beg an enemy to rape and kill. She had proven far stronger than that though.
Sighing, he turned and went back inside. The faint chill of spring still hung in the air even now, and a shiver had begun. Far from well yet, he thought, closing the door and heading back to his chair.
He was just settling himself in before the fire, when the door to the cabin crashed inwards, slamming against the wall. A short figure in a gray cloak, with the hood drawn up and over its face to leave said face swathed in shadows, stood in the doorway. It cast its head left and right, before focusing on him with an implaccable, unseen gaze.
"If you wish to live," It said, in a voice that was crysaline in quality, clearly fememine, "then I suggest you get dressed now, and grab that sword over there." She gestured to the weapons rack next to the door, then turned and snatched a pale wooden staff that was - and he blinked and did a double take - standing by itself just outside the door. The wood was carved with climbing vines encircling all of its length. At the top, a wooden knob like a massive wooden knot gleamed in the golden light. It looked like a jewel, but was clearly made of hte same wood as the rest. She turned her back, and walked ut into the dooryard.
He was about to question her about her command - it had clearly been such, not a request - when the animals in the pasture went mad.
To the sound of cattle gone berserk, sheep bleating in terror, and the rest of the farm livestock gone insane, he got to his somehow less shakey feet, heading into the bedroom to chainge into something suitable. Coming out after a few minutes wearing simple woolen breeches and sweater, he grabbed the smaller of the two swords on the rack, strapping its scabbard at his waist. He loosened the weapon in its sheath, then followed the strange woman outside.
The air was heavy with the smell of smoke and the coppery scent of blood. The screams and howls of terror had long since ceased, but Aeyliea remained where she was, locked in the cellar of The Inn. The proprieter drew flies upstairs. Aeyliea herself sat in a corner, huddled in on herself, shivering.
She had not picked a weapon up in quite a number of years. The last time had been against a bandit that had sought to hole up in her home, with the express intent of slitting her and her childrens' throats while Jared worked the fields of a day. Heh ad made a very bad mistake then, of course - she was a practiced swordswomen, deadly in the dance of the forms. He had lasted all of thirty seconds when he had barged in waving his short sword around.
That had been twenty years ago. By then, the memory of blood thumping in her ears, the feel of terror so overwheming that it became something else, something that turned into a kind of numbness and accepting of whatever would come, had been long distant. She hadn't picked up a sword in years, let alone practiced with one. The thrill of adrenaline was a thing that belonged to the young. Her old bones did not appreciate it, and nothing she did could quiet the flutter of fear in her heart.
In the cool darkness of the cellar, she fought with herself. A very large part of her wished to remain hidden, to wait until danger left. Another part yearned for escape.
A very, very small part yearned for blood. They had attacked her, they had shattered her peaceful life. Sheh ad sought long and hard to leave the worries of the world behind, and instead the worries had come looking for her. A thin flame of anger burned beside the overwhelming mountain of fear, but as she sat huddled in the dark, that spark grew.
Her thoughts were now on home. On the safety that could be found within the walls of her place, with the protection of her husband. Of her husband himself. And the greater part of her fear was for his safety.
Perhaps it was the fear for the life of the keeper of her heart, or perhaps it was the anger at being penned like a cattle awaiting slaughter. Either way, after hours spent cowering in the dark, she finally got to her feet, struggling with the acid of terror until she quashed it. Her stomache was a ball of ice in her middle, but she no longer rtembled at the thought of meeting another of the Wolves. What would be, would be, but she would do no one - herself least of all - any good by cowering in the dark basement of an inn.
She climbed the stair, opening the cellar door into a now cold kitchen. Silence greeted her, the silecne of a battlefield lost. The only faint sound was of flies buzzing and crows and ravens' harsh cries outside and distant. Of the Wolves, there was no sign. Taking a deep breath, she entered the kitchen fully, leaving behind the protective darkness of the celler.
Wolves were, she thought to herself, fearsome things. But they were inanely stupid, incapable of anything without direction. Incapable of anything, at least, except mindless killing and wanton destruction.
She moved as silently as a ghost through the kitchen and back into the common room. Her heart thudded in her chest as her wdie eyes took in the shattered door laying in a pile of splintered wood on the floor, the innkeepers slowly bloating corpse that crawled with flies and reeked of shit, piss, and blood. The pool of blood around his ravaged body had long since coagulated, leaving a sticky, sickening stain on the floor. She swallowed hard, and crossed the common room, picking up her discarded quarterstaff as she went. Swallowing again, she went outside, every muscle tense, every instanct crying to flee and hide, but her rational mind insiting that she instead escape from Pines as quickly impossible. The WOlves could still be out there, though it was far more likely that they had long since moved on.
Shet stepped off the orch into the dirt street, limping on her lft leg slightly and a hand clutching her side. The injury had long since stiffened, but every breath was still like fire. Her shredded arm was bound in torn strips of tablecloth. A torn arm and a broken rib or two, likely - she'd had worse, but oh, how it hurt! Fearful eyes cast up and down the street, and saw no movement. A woman lay in the street, her body sprawled in odd angles, her legs dress torn and legs spread wide. She wasn't so far away that Aeyliea could see she had been raped and horribly, her face clawed to an unrecognizable ruin, a pool of blood spread from between her legs, from her face, from her ruined body. Flies swarmed over it, and ravens pecked at the flesh, tearing strips off and gobbling them down. The pale golden light of late afternoon gleamed on oily black feathers, and the birds eyed her suspiciously, then resumed their gorey feast. Aeyleia turned her eyes away, thankful that she couldn't tell wether she had known the woman or not. She moved on down the street warily, keeping her eyes fixd forward and ignoring the occasional corpse lying in the dirt.
The way forward was taken with painful slowness. Eventually, she moved of the street proper and crept along against the walls of buildigns, peering fearfully around each corner, expecting a snarl of rage, expecting teeth and claws and violent, horrifying death at every second.
Perhaps seven houses down fro mthe northern gate leading out of Pines, just as she was begining to be comvinved that nothing remained inside the walls, a faint sound behind her caught her attention. Eyes wide, heart quickening, she spun staff a blur of motion.
"Ah. A survivor." Lorn, the village healer, stood behind her. Her scrawny arms crossed under her sagging breasts, she frowned as the swing went wide. Aeyleia recovered quickly enough to avoid striking the ground, grimacing in pain as her arm and ribs protested the sudden movement. "I suppose I should not be surprised that you survived that fiasco."
Frownign herself, the fear quickly replaced by anger, Aeyliea studied the woman a long moment. "And how does a Healer survive such a thing as that?" She queried suspicously. Her grip on the staff was white-knuckled. Her gaze never left the other womans eyes, even though her stomach still rolled slowy in her middle.
"I am no simple townswoman," she replied in a dry tone, "and this close to Worlds' End it pays to have certain precautions laying about. Like a cellar with an iron reinforced door." She took a deep breath, then continued. "In any case, it appears that they have lost interest some time ago. The villagers ought be back in a day or so, once they finish cowering in the woods. The ones that they didn't find anyway."
Aeyliea found herself re-appraising this woman. She had been in Pines for many years, always there for the sick and injured. She had stuck her nose in the Council's business rarely, lived quietly in her home. But, the woman was not a native of Pines. She had started life elsewhere, and only came here much later in her life.
And she was a Healer. The Lord watched that guild of practioners carefully. He didn't want people with...special abilities....to slip through his grasp. Such as they were rare enough, but it was common knowlege that when they were born, eventually the Lord would find them. What happened after was a mystery that no one truely wanted an answer for.
But....the Guild of Healers is like any other organization. They are human, as much as anyone else. What is it that they desire? Her face remained blank of the thoughts that spun through her half-addled mind. Suspicious of this woman? Perhaps this ordeal had frazzled her mind.
Bu tthe worm of suspicion would not leave. The woman had survived when so many had not. You survived too, didn't you? She couldn't shake the feeling that the woman had been perhaps a bit too knowing.
"I think, perhaps, that we should keep moving." The woman suited her own words, stepping around Aeyliea and continuing towards the northern gate. Aeyliea stared after her for a moment, then limped along behind, gritting her teeth in pain as she went. She had dallied long enough. She had to get home to see what she could see. Quickening her pace at the cost of new pains, she came up alongside Lorn.
"And where are you going to go?" She asked breathlessly. Lorn looked at her, eyes cold and distant.
"I've done what can be done here. Perhaps I shall accompany you to your homestead. Its a better idea than staying here with the ravens."
Aeyliea said nothing, concentrating on each step. Passing the ineffectual wooden pallisade, they started across a field as the sun began to sink in the west. To the north, clouds were gathering, dark and brooding. The scent of rain lay heavy upon a freshening breeze....and amid that, the smell of smoke. She quickened her pace again, ignoring her body and its protests. Home was what mattered.
"Magick is a strange force. It bends the laws of nature, allowing the user to do things that no mortal could dream of....but the cost is so terrible. Perhaps that cost is something of the disease that afflicts this world.
Once, long ago - back in the time before the Awakening, it was a much more common thing. Then, there were many different peoples in this land. Now all that remains is us, stubborn humanity, and those that the Lord, our feared God, saw fit to keep.
But magick still exists. And the merciful God of the past save the poor souls who feel its curse."
-Paran Dissen, "The Forgotten Art."
Thunder rolled overhead, the deep throated growl of an angry mountain lion echoing off the foothills the the greater mountsins northward. The ran came down in sheets, falling straight, heavy, and cold. The branches of the supposedly sheltering evergreens dripped fatter, icy drops of water down on the two of them as they huddled down in the woods.
Jared shivered with the cold. He leaned against the bole of a pine tree, his wifes weapon straped to his back, and his own at his waist. The metal seemed to weight down heavily on him, the burden of what the things represented. Years of blodoshed, long left behind.
And now, come again.
The nameless stranger that had barged in on him hours earlier lay in a similar position against a tree in front of him. The tattered shreds of her hood lay down her back, exposing pale, pretty features that had an ageless quality to them. A narrow face, a small full lipped mouth, and bid dark eyes regarded him in silence, eyes framed by hair that was silver. In the brief, flickering light of lightning overhead, those features were more stark. Full lips drawn thin, a face much too pale, hair dulled. A sick woman, if ever he had seen one, and yet he had seen with his own eyes what she was capable of.
And so they sat shivering in the cold rain, her occasional, racking cough muffled by hands and thunder. Not far away, through the woods, the low glow of dying embers - once his home - gave faint illumination to the wretched creature that stood vigil. Despite the harshness of the robed womans coughing, that lone figure standing in the firelight never looked up from whatever contemplations it c pondered.
He looked at the woman in front of him, and frowned. Her rude entry to his home had perhaps saved his life. Another five minutes in there, and that....thing....would have been on me. With its pets. An unpleasant thought. Jared shivered slightly, and out of something more than just the cold.
He wondered at the strange woman before him, turning his thoughts away from his wife forcefully. She was out there somewhere. She would survive, as she had been wont to do in the old days. Those things couldn't have got her.
"I suppose I should be thanking you." He said suddenly, his voice hoarse and barey audible. The woman turned her eyes back on him. It was a measuring stare, calculating and implacable. His wife had used the same stare on him for years. It was, he thought, a thing of woman. He bore that stare, watching her eyes that were a strange color. A deep blue that seemed to glow with an inner light all their own, though that was surely a trick of the light. Such as there was of it, anyway.
"Thanks?" She said finally, low and weak. "It was me that thing has been searching for weeks to find." She regarded him with cool eyes.
he sat back in silence, closing his eyes, his mind wandering.
In his minds eye, he could see them both. They had not quite reached the woods when those....things....had come after them. Wolves, he knew them for - there was nothing else quite as lunatic, quite as bloodthirsty as one of them, and there had been three. During the war, the Lord had sent some of them along with a clan of the Mah'riel. They were more rare than the dark shamans of the Lord, but much more dangerous in their own way.
IN a moment of panic, he had thought to have lost all his old training. When the sword was in hand, a short thing perhaps two and a half feet in length and slightly curved, it had all come back to him. Even so, it was no mean feat to survive. Just to survive.
He had danced with death often before, but this dance, this day, had been the worst. If it hadn't been for the woman and her skilled use of her staff, they would have both been dead. No, he owed her more than just for coming un announced and warning him of danger.
In the same token, she owed him her life as well.
"Why are they after you?" He kept his voice low, strggling not to have his teeth chatter as he spoke. She stirred faintly, loking back towards the swiftly vanished flames.
"How should I know?" She replied, tartly. "She has been most assidious in racking me down, for whatever reason."
Jared didn't comment. He didn't have the strength to argue that she knew damn well what they were after. Quite aside fro mthe fact that they were a hundred miles further south than any of the clans ventured except at the behest of the Lord himself, only something important could drive anything - be they human or humanoid - to such effort to capture someone.
That led to his own speculation on the matter. He wouldn't have sent such creatures to hunt down murderers or thieves anymore than He would deal with subjugating cities by Himself. The Lord was as nysterious as they came, but even -he- didn't do things without a purpose. He ageless rule made him somewhat difficult to read, but He wasn't into random kidnappings and torture, even if some of his servants were.
What could be so valuable or dangerus that the Lord would even notice? What would be so dangerous, in fact, that he would send even one Mah'reil, let alone any of his prized Wolves, to find and capture.
Jared regarded the woman quietly. Time passed, the rain pouring down, the chill in the air as the very last light of day bled from the sky making their breath puff in front of them.
"You have a name?" He asked, finally. The Mah'riel hadn't moved a muscle as near as he could see from this distance. It still stood over the sodden remains of his home, eyes intent on charred wood.
The woman opened her eyes, their fever glazed surface liquid in the faint light that managed, somehow, to pierce the clouds and rain. A deep breath, the rattle of sickness in her throat, her words thick and weak. "You may call me Hope." She spoke the words, her eyes closing, her ragged breath going on. "And you are Jared. The people of Pines spoke of you and your wife." As she finished, she broke into another fit of coughing, spitting thick phlegm onto the leafmould and dead needles that carpeted the ground. She settled back, heaving for breath for a time. After a long time, her breathing eased, and she drew her cloak closer, as if the sodden fabric would help hold off the chill.
He stared hard at Hope in the dim light, seeing nothing more than outlines, faint movement. He himself had just recovered from great illness, and unless he missed his mark, the stranger before him was on her way out of this world. Unless they could find a place that was warm and dry. A warm and dry place that was safe, and away from that brooding hands of the Lord himself, perched over the ruins of his lifes' work like a vulture waiting for its next meal to move enough for her to find it. A vulture indeed, since the both of them would not survive a night out in this.
There was nowhere to run, of course. They could try to sneak off and head toward town if either could trust their legs to move with stealth. The Mah'riel had no more Wolves with her, at least for the moment, but the woman was deadly enough without help. They couldn't fight their way past, and they couldn't sneak by. So instead, they waited. Waited for it to leave, or for the icy hand of winter that refused to let go to kill him slowly, or for Hope to perish the same way. Or worse, for her to start raving from her obvious fever, and draw the attention of the woman, and a less certain, if certainly more painful, death.
He linked. She was gone. She could see the Mah'riel stalking slowly southward, away from the fields, off toward town. Sitting up straight, ignoring muscles that were cold and wet and stiff from disuse, he ouched Hopes knee. The girl snatched his arm with a surprisingly strong grip, the flesh of her hands burning hot against teh clammy cold of his arm. Her eyes were like dark ice.
She was silent a moment, obviously gathering her strength. She stood slowly on unsteady legs, leaning most of her weight on that carved staff of hers, casting her eyes towards the cold ruins of the cabin.
"Perhaps....iperhaps its as good a time to be moving as ever there was." She suited her own words, moving without helping him up onto his stiff legs, setting off in jarringly loud progress towards the cleared dooryard,
"We could have taken some horses from the stables, you know."
Aeyliea grunted in response. Her arm throbbed where she had been raked by a Wolves claws despite Lorn's tending to them. Her cracked rib had stopped burning long ago, but now there was a brief stab of pan with each panting, short breath - deeper breathing hurt like sin. Her blood stained woolens were sodden from the torrential downpour. Icy water trickled down her back, already gooseflesh from the wet. Thunder crashed overhead at intervals. At intervals, lightning stabbed down from a black, angry sky, casting the world in sharp contrasting shadows.
"A horse would have....broken its bloody legs....in....in THIS!" She finished, crying out as a wayward root snagged her weary feet, almost making fall. She caught her balance, wincing at the pain in her side, then continued seeking her way forward in the dark. They carried no light, and the sun had long since set. "We're taking too long." She couldn't hide the urgency in her voice.
She was anxious, nearly frantic, to get home. Her Jerald wasn't precisely defensless, but he had been ill for so long. They had come south looking for something, those Wolves. She knew of Wolves, and had seen them before, in her nightmares of the past. She knew as much as anyone did, really - fearsome, hard to kill, and practically rabid in their violence and bloodlust. Their wild nature didn't include organized raids and house by house searches. Something was directing them, and thta was her firm belief.
But what could be so terrile that even Wolves would heed them?
They crested the ridge they had been climbing in the past hour, and halted. The clearing lay visible in the faint light that managed to break the clouds. A warm, red glow arose from where her home should have been. Aeylieas guts froze.
"Too late, alas." Aeyliea cast a glance at the woman, searching her face again. Her unease towards the woman had grown remarkably in their long trek through the woods. A healer of the Guild. She was so dispassionate about the whole experience thusfar, as if it seemed mundane, ordinary to her. She didn't raise an eyebrow at the dead they had found. She didn't show the surprise or bewliderment she had felt at the crow-picked bodies, and certainly felt nothing at seeing her home in flames.
It had been so long since she had dealt with outsiders to their quiet life. But she trusted her deep down instinct on this. Lorn was not someone to trust entirely. She had to dig down further and find out why, exactly.
Aeyliea began the descent into her homestead, traveling far more carefully than before. She was experience in stalking in the woods - she and Jared often hunted together. It was not easy to sneak up on deer, who had centuries of experience with humans to learn to be wary around their habitations. Lorn followed like a ghost, staying close by.
After a time, she stopped, peering about in the deep twilight, aprehensive. Something felt wrong, and she couldn't put her finger on it.
"Hold." Aeyliea's heart leapt into her throat. The voice was most definately not Lorns. It was harsh, beautiful in the same way an uncut diamond is.
It was coming from a shadowy shape perhaps fifty paces further on into the woods, not far much mroe than twenty yards into the woods from her fields. Cloaked in darkness as it was, it was indistinct, a bulky shape. She could make our a slim arm, a hand ending in talons extending from that bulky mass, and had to assume whatever it was wore a robe. The talons gestured sharply for her to come. Aeyliea remained where she was, though.
"I said come here." The woman before her formed her words ackwardly, the accent thick and slow. Harsh. "When I command, you humans obey."
She mad no move, her breath still in her throat as she thoguth furiously. Lorn remained silent behind her, unmoving.
The woman grunted in irritation, then began to stride forward. She said nothing as she came, the shapeless mass around her head falling back to reveal her head, shadowed hair wild . Some flowed into the shadows of her robe. She was sharp featured,, and probably beautiful if she ever lost that look of feral rage displayed on the shadowed features of her face.
Aeyliea hesitated a moment. Then she acted. As the woman sloed within range, Aeyliea attacked. Grunting in pain, she frust the staff like a spear at the woman. She was quite surprised when it flowed around her attack effortlessly, siezing the staff as it sailed by where her midriff would have been a moment before. The wood cracked in her iron grip. Aeyliea paled visibly as the staff was ripped out of her hand almost casually. The rain stopped suddenly, though water dripped down from branches to extend the downpour further.
"Humans...." The thing growled, then snaked a hand out and gripped her unwounded arm. The bones creaked in the strength of that grip, and Aeyliea had swallow a startled cry of pain. The grip broke suddenly, and Aeyliea felt something warm splash her arm. The woman shape threw back its head and shrieked in feral rage. "You bitch!" It howled, then began raving in a guttural language tat Aeyliea had never heard before. Before she - it - turned its attention back on her, something hit it again, flashing silver and white in the faint, but lessning gloom.
A shape darted past Aeyliea. She realized with a start that it was Lorn, hellbent to leave. With a second start she took off herself. She ran through underbrush that snatched at her cloths and legs and arms, heart hammering in her chest. Her aches and pains wanned to nothing.
Lorn had stopped. Aeyliea barreled into the woman full bore, bringing them both to the ground with Lorn cursing loudly. After skidding a few feet in the mulch on the forest floor, Lorn pushed Aeyliea off of her, heedless of her groans of pain as she rolled onto her hurt side. "If you were more observant," she spoke, coldly, "then you would have noticed our two refugees here."
Sitting up and wincing at the motion, she saw where Lorn, brushing herself off, was pointing. Two sets of eyes regarded them. One pair watched cold as ice. The others....
She let out a breath she hadn;t known she'd been holding all this while. "Jared...."
He raised a hand and waved jauntily, though it was missing most of its flair.
"We can make our greetings later. In case you were wondering, there is a Mah'riel fullblood with some...agression...coming this way." Lorns voice was cold and commanding. Is she made of ice? Aeyliea wondered as she got to her feet, and approached the two amid the trees. She cast a questioning glance at the stranger sitting opposite him. The cold, deep suspicion in the other woman's eyes was disoncerting.
Jared raised a hand his chest as he undid the clasp holding the sheath harness for her weapon, shrugging out of it stiffly and tossing it to her with both hands. She didn't even try to catch it, waiting and picking it up off the forest floor.
"You're late." He said, relief clear on his face. His concerns were now for the thing that stalked behind them not far behind.
Sliding the great curving blade from its sheath, she griped the hilt in both hands, falling into a gaurd stance. "You should see the bargain I brought back home, my husband." She said through gritted teeth. Her false bravado sounded fake to her. She had to stand and fight, in her own mind....the thing was relentless in its tracking. Running would serve no point. "I think you'll agree, its to die for." That didn't faiurly drip sarcasm. Not at all.
It is clear that the Mah'riel are unnatural. The first generation, born a thousand years ago and more are remarkably strong and resilient, and they do not seem to age. The Bloodborn, of course, cannot reproduce with their own kind - the males are weaons, not lovers nor fathers. It fell the the chieftainess of each clan to find human surrogate fathers, and each generation born is weaker than the last.
The Bloodborn are not numerous, but they are frightening in their power. It is believed that they can tap the Lords' own well of power indiscriminately..
-Clans of Blood and Fire
-Tiona the Heretic, 1350 AA
Thunder growled ominously to the south and east, the brooding clouds scooting across the sky above. Patches of star-fileld night sky appeared and disapeared as the storm moved on, and the air grew more chill than it had before. Their breath steamed in front f their faces, quick and shallow with fear.
The Mah'riel appeared in the woods, following their path with an arrogant disdain that made Aeyliea's blood seeth. Its just playing around with us... She thought. It certainly didn't look like it cared that it was outnumbered. Pale moonlight washed down briefly, and she could see that the bulky shape was indeed a robe, draped loosely and open in the front over a lithe, deadly beauty.
As it stalked closer, she could see its fanged face, the tips of its teeth gleaming in the fitful moonlight. Eyes the color of fresh blood regarded her with open fury as it approached. Shockingly, it wore nothing but a lloincloth and a bit of farice tied over its breasts, and the exposed skin gleamed bronze in the passing moonlight. It still carried the staff it had wrested from her hands, idly passing it from one hand to the next.
Aeyliea gripped her blade more tightly. It wasn't exactly light, but neither was it heavy. It had been forged for her when she was still with the Army, imade from a metal lighter and stronger than steel. She could wield a heavier blade, true, but this was less unwieldy, and allowed her to flow through the stances and forms of swordplay much better.
"Why do you resist?" Came the creatures voice, harsh and unforgiving. It stepped into the little sace beneath the trees, a sickening curve to its l ips. It gripped the quarterstaff with both hands now. Still grinning, it leapt forward to meet Aeyliea toe-to-toe.
The staff blurred through the air with its speed, the powerful stroke only just blocked by Aeylieas blade. The shock of impact ran up the blade into her hands and arms, numbing them. She felll back, and then the dance began.
Aeyliea was vaguely aware of Jared bring his shortword into play, aware of the casual ease that the thing knocked his atack aside with before cracking him in the ribs and sweeping his feet out from underneath him. She parried the blow that would have smashed his skull, and as repayment got the butt end of the staff in her gut. She fell back, doubled over, and then was in a fight for her own life, that bit of wood speeding at her, trying to pierce the defensive wall of metal she threw up, parrying attacks, knocking the staff aside, ducking and dodging. It was so fast, so strong, that the thread of fear - all that was left of the spine-freezing terror minutes ago - grew.
Knocking the staff aside agaun, she moved in for her own attack. Going low, she advanced, knocking away another attack but instead of closing her gaurd, she held the weapon back with her blade, coming into the the woman's reach. Closer, she brought the hilt of her weapon up sharply, cracking the Mah'riel bloodborn under the jaw.
The thing grunted, bitting its upper lip and sendign a thread of blood coursing down its face. Absently, it swatted away another skilled if ineffectual attack by Jared, doing so one handed. With the other taloned hand, she backhanded Aeyliea.
Aeyliea fell to the forest floor, her head ringing, points of light dancing before her eyes. She noticed vaguely through the haze that filled her head Lorn go in, daggers flashing in another wash of moonlight. The Healer dodged the creatures attacks maladroitly, but succeeded in scoring a line of bright red blood across its midriff. Her dull eyes watched with bemusement as the stranger, the woman with the silver hair, watched onward, her haggard face intent on the Mah'riel though she did nothing else.
She shook her head, damp hair the color of moonlught slapping her in the face as she did so. It was a supreme battle of will to rise again; her side ached like fury, her arm bled openly again. A thread of blood ran from her nose, and her cheek murned where she had been struck. Steeling herself, she gripped the hilt of the greatsword, once more entering the increasingly chaotic fray.
Quarterstaff a blur, sweat begining to mix with blood on its fox-like face, the Mah'riel gave ground. It wouldn't let them surround her, of course - each time Lorn or Jared mvoed to block her escape, she spun in lightning fast attack, forcing them back. Though the wood in its hands met flesh often enough - Jared gripped his blade with one hand, his left arm hanging usless from the socket it had been diislocated, Lorn remained well out of range for that staff, and the strange, silver haired woman had done nothing, watching with an intensiy that Aeyliea found disturbing. Of all of them, she had the best chance.
Time to toss the dice... She thought, launching into a new attack.
Years of not practicing haunted her now. She flowed forward in the First Stance, hilt held level with her head, the blade in a curving arc that shielded her body as she moved forward. The Mah'riel woman spun around, and attacked. Aeyliea swept the thrust aside with some trouble, and felt the speed of her movements lacking. She cursed age, she cursed lack of practice, but she was fully commited.
She moved from stance to stance, halting attacks by inches, turning that deadly piece of wood away. Ocassionally, one of the others would make an attack, but the creature merely laughed at the weak attempts. It was quite clear she was playing with them.
It was as it spun to ward off another assault from Jared that she moved. It turned, bringing up the stolen staff to block the overhand blow Aeyleia brought to bear. Alloyed steel and wood met with a brief, uncertain moment of resistance.
Then the blade clove clear through the wood, scoring the Mah'riel deeply ithrough its left arm. Blood immediatly came in a flood, pattering to the ground as the beaststared at the broken weapon in its hand in surprise. The expression - odd on those features, didn't last long.
The creatures' eyes grew sharp, the muscles on its arms and legs growing visbly taut. A look of supreme bliss flashed across its face, the exctasy of an orgasm, then the nearly sexual tension was replaced by a look of cold, haughty disdain.
The air changed. It felt charged, greasy. It tasted foul, smelled vile in the extreme. As Aeyliea retched she felt something alien slam into her, an unseen force that lifted her off her feet, and slammed her into the ground with terrifying force. The world faded to a hazy gray, and as something closed down on her throat, choking her, blackness followed.
Hope leaned heavily on her staff, feeling the incredible strain her body had already been put throug. She felt as if she were dying, her breath gurgling in her lungs, eyes fever-bright. She swayed slightly as she stood, but desite the mstiness that made it difficult to grab her own thoughts, she watched with an eagles' intensity as the nightmare played out in front of her.
Sheh ad been trained in the arts of war, of course, during thosoe fleeting days before the fall of the Empire. She had nearly as much skill as the combatants before her, alll but the strnge Mah'riel. With the accursed sickness in her, she doubted sheh ad the strength to keep up with the lightning fast attacks. As it was, she had a hard time following the fighting. She winced inwardly at the sound of the mans' arm being pulled free of the join after a particularly vicious parry.
The thing bled, but it wouldn't go down. When Aeyleia finally disarmed it...
....the overpowering aura hit Hope like a halfbrick to the head. She staggered where she stood, awash in the unfamilal waves of power the creature suddenly threw off. The vile taint borne on those waves made her stomache curdle.
She had never encountered such before. But the foul, oily 'taste' of it spoke of a hauntingly familiarpresence. With immediate understanding, she knew that the three would be powerless before this. This was proved as threads of jetblack, so dark that the dimly lit night seemed like staring into the sun, wound out of the Mah'riel, snatching Aeyliea off of her feet and slammign her ruthlessly to the forest floor. Cords of black lifted from the main body, and wrapped themselves around the womans throat. She didn't need to hear the strangled, choking sounds the woman made to know she was doomed to death. Unless...
Threads of that dark power peeled off to her eyes. The split, finer and finer, as they traveled lightning fast through the night. Jared weapon was flung aside with contemptuous ease, the man himself flung backwards by a torrent of nameless power unti la tree broke his flight. The thick bole shook with the force of impact.
Other threads whipped around the last standign fighter. Daggers were taken without much fuss, the woman tossed to the forest floor, her dark linen blouse ripping down the middle as her terrified shrieks - the only sound Hope had heard her make - filled the ight. Blood spurted from the downed womans chest as she drummed her feet helplessly in the dead pine needles.
Another set of threads broke away, and came after Hope herself.
Instinct took over. A doorway in her mind opened, and she reached through it with her mind. Beyond it was....well, was the world. As she felt the connectio with the aethers beyond, she felt power pour into her. It was lquite like what the Mah'riel had visibly felt - bliss, peace, ennervation. Carried n that torrent of power, however, was a worrying.....twisting. It was small, hardly worth noticing. Except the wrongness of it twisted her stomache in a way the foil aura of power the Mah'riel wielded never could. She felt like throwing up for true, even while her mind and body rode the intoxicating hgi hof power.
The threads of black stood out stark, now. The world had ceased to be a place of dark shadows, becoming instead a dimly lit place of colour. It was as if a thin film of colour was placed over her vision of the world. The colour - faint blues, greens, violets - swirled slowly in unseen currents and tides, unknowable flows. The aether, visible to her eyes because that part of her midn that allowed her to touch it was now channeling a fraction of its ower through her mind and body.
She gestured sharply, and threads of brilliant white flashed into existance, slicing through the black easily. The severed flows snappedinto motes of darkness, fading. Hope gestured sharply, and similar occured all around, purest white meteing out death of a kind to flowing, sinuous black. The woman laying on the forest floor stopped thrashing, heaving sobbing breaths and whimpering with pain. The flesh of her chest had been cut through and pulled back, revealing the ribcage stained pink in a lack of blood - apparently, the creature was going to dig that ones heart out for true. Hope regarded the bloody wound with impasive eyes, watchign as the man fell to the ground unmoving. Lastly, she severed the flows holding and throttling the uncocious swrodswoman.
The Mah'riel drew a sharp, hissing breath, then shrieked in rage, uttering words in a harsh, guttural language. It was unlike anything Hope had ever heard...but the meaning was quite clear. She didn'n need to be a scholar to know of the rage and desire for her deat this creature showed. It turned, faced her, and threw its hand forward, fingers splayed.
A river of darkness flowed from the woman, a putrid flood of power. She didn't even try to dodge it, feeling the strength of it as she was lifted off her frail legs, squeezed so hard that bloody flecked green slime oozed from her mouth, forced from her lungs. Taking a shuddering breath, she lanced the tide of darkness with a hint of Light, carving through it with thin threads of brilliant light. She fell to the ground, sucking breath through her teeth as she hit the ground, landing on hands and knees. She calmly sat back, landing with her backside resting on the muddy soil with her legs spread before her. Through enhanced eyes, she sought wo elements out of the ocean of power surrounding her.
The smoldering embers of the Ashfords' home provided a source for Fire, the very air she raggedly breathed the source of Wind. Drawing deeply of those powers, she could feel the air around her body chill, see the faint glow to the north and east flare brightly.
The world flared white, filled with a horrific roar, filled with heat even as the blidning flash of light and crashing roar faded.
Hope felt an enormous swell of power, and then the world was once more peaceful, alien power gone.
Thunder still echoed through the ridges and mountains when her sight cleared, briefly, to show a smoking hole in the ground. She released the power, felt the exaustion and twisted sickness crash home like a hammer. She swayed as she sat, vageuly noting as her sight went dark that others were rising.
Her head bounced on stony soil, and she was still. Only the hitching, gasping breaths she drew told she yet lived.
"Magick corrupts its user as surely as political power corrupts kings. Throughout the ages, great deeds have been preformed with magick. Plagues have been snuffed out, lives made better through creative uses of the so-called Aethers to increase the productivty of aggriculture, in the construction of cities. Myriad are the benefits of magick.
The dark side is, many a good man has been slowly twisted and fouled by the use of sorcery. It does something to their minds, twisting them. Many go mad, and the destruction their madness leaves behind when they finally destroy themselves is the source of our most terrible histories.
A man that saved the world through sorcery could, in all likelihood, end up being the man to destroy the very thing he saved."
-"The Mark of Magic in History"
Written by an unknown author for King Roedric after a meeting with the Occuli
As dawn broke, the skies spotted with pale clouds painted in orange, red, and pink, they broke out of the woods.
It was a deraggled group indeed that came out from under the trees, their soaked clothing steaming i nthe cold morning air. Aeyliea and lorn walked arm in arm, staggering against each other with exhaustion. One clutched a hand between her breasts, the other her side with an arm torn and still dribbling blood. Jared followed behind, Hope cradled in his arms with her head lolling limp from side to side. He winced with every step as the jolting weight in his arms bore down on his injured arm. It had been set, despite his bellows of pain, so that he could cary the young Hope into town.
They plodded on, eyes straight ahead and heavy, feet plodding along one step at a time with the pace of their exhaustion. The crossed cleared fields, not yet plowed after the winters' snows. Ahead lay Pines, in a cloak of eerie silence. The only thig that told that anyone was alive down there was a row of corpses outside the pallisade, each covered with cloth, each buzzing with a swarm of black, biting flies. Some of the locals were hard at work dragging other cropses from within the walls - the coffinmaker would profit tidely from this days work.
The men at their work looked up, supsicion and fear plain to read. They said nothing, continuing about their grim business. They did not offer to help, they did not ask questions.
Jared followed as he was led down wide streets to a house nextdoor to the smithy. Lorn, the town Healer, unlocked the door with a key - locked doors were not common up here in the northern wilds. She led them in.
"There is spare room down the hall. Put her there." Lorn said in a weary voice, cntinuing into the kitchen with Aeyliea n her srm. He shrugged, heading down and opening trhe door onto a spartan room, nothing moreo than a bedside table and a bed. He tossed back the blanket and sheet and carefully set the young woman on the bed, grunting with pain as he did so. He pulled the blankets up to her chin, and stared down, frowing at what he saw. She radiated heat like an open fire, her face pale and drawn beneath the layer of grime they all wore.
He stoo, still looking down, and troubled. He wasn't entirely certain how he felt about this stranger that had dropped in on him suddenly. Nothing had gone quite right since she had entered his quiet life. She was strange, to be sure, in any case. Such old eyes, such a cmmanding presence, and yet she looked to be little more than sixteen or seventeen and short with it. Laying their, tossing weakly in whatever fevered nightmares, she looked harmless.
He shook his head. He left the room, closing the door behind him, and walked into the kitchen, and into a conversation. The room seemed chilled by the tone of his wife and the Healer.
"....they are doinghere." Ayeliea finished, displeased. His wife eyed Lorn with suspicion, and he had to wonder what he had missed.
"He's the almighty God Emperor. How would I know what one such as he thought?" Lorn replied, tired but calm. The fact that she presented such a calm face as she sewed her own torn flesh, merely wincing everytime she pricked herself with the needle made Jared wonder if the woman was even human.
Aeyliea looked at the other woman, uncertain and susicious. "And yet you show such a calm face that they would even be here. Let aloone tried to kill you."
Lorn sighed, looking up from her work for a moment. Her eyes were ice. "You know as well as I that....training of the Guild. It would not do to have someone let worldly concerns such as getting killed get in the way of duty."
Aeyliea frowned. That worm of suspicion kept right on gnawing at her. The womans words were truth, of course. Even the Lord eomployed Guild Healers in his armies, and it took a very strong stomache to be part of one of His campaigns. They were generally accepted as the uncorruptable, devoting their all to their skills. A king could rely on a Guild Healer not to, for instance, poison him or otherwise harm him simply because someone offered a large enough price.
That alone was where the wealth of he Guild itself had risen from. And that reputation was one they kept even if it meant employing assasins to deal with those members that even thought of disobeying their directives.
"Your Guild rules are precise, but..." She paused. "I don't trust you, and never have." She said bluntly. "Back.....then, I had dealings with people like you. Your Guild may make you into emotionally detached saviors, but you;ve always been more dispassionate than most."
Both women finally looked up, notcing Jared. "The girl?" Lorn asked quietly, as she finished her bloody needlework. Jared noted the depth of that wound, and wondered how she had got it, and why she wasn't dead.
"She's asleep. Sick." He leaned against the doorframe, and cursed quiely as he leaned against his bad shoulder, which was swollen and an ugly blue-black color now. "So. A girl who calls herself Hope, a....thing with a bad temper, dead townspeople, burned cabin.....did I miss anything?" He said with a sour look on his face.
"A Mah'riel bloodborn, and some Wolves." Lorn replied in an even voice. "Searching for something. They attacked the town some hours ago and killed quite a few people, and then of course the bloodborn at your home." She finished finished buttong up a new blouse, much to Jared relief. He wondered, idly, if Aeyliea would look like that when she was old.
"A bloody shit storm if ever there was one." Aeyliea muttered under her breath. Her cracked rib had become a somewhat less pressing issue over the hours, but it still hurt. She winced a little with each breath. "We don't know why they are here, or if they even remain." She looked at Jared, hard eyes softening. "Now....what do we do?"
She sounded lost. Their livelihood was gone, and all they had left were the weapons they wore and the clothes on their backs. Such as remained of them, anyway. His deep brown eyes regarded the two woman. "Perhaps....perhaps we move on."
"A wise decision, I think." The Healer regarded both with a calm, cold aire. "I don't know about your husband, Aeyliea, but that Mah'riel seemed interested in you. Why else would it have llain in wait at your home? Why else would it not give chase to Jared?"
Aeyliea paused, casting a sideways look at Lorn. "Are you suggesting it wants me?" She replied, a slight tremor in her voice. "Why?" She asked, trying to trace the days events in her midn to see where the old woman had come to that conclusion.
"The Wolves, here in town. The Bloodborn, at your homestead."
"Coincidence." Aeyliea said dismissively, waving a hand in a similar gesture of dismissal. "The Wolves were looking for something, but they found me. I'm still here, aren't I?"
"Without that creature in the woods' guidance, Wolves are as slow witted as rocks." Lorn pursed her ancient lips, her eyes glittering in the pale light coming through the window.
Aeyliea sniffed, rolling her eyes. "What would the Lord - the Lord - want with a simple country woman? What have I done in the last few decades to even catch the eye of the Ministry?" She leaned back, wincing in regret as her weight shifted to settle evenly on her back, putting pressure on her ribs/
"Did you ever think that maybe he hasn't forgotten the esteemed commander of Ashara? He may have wiped you out completely, but with losses. To his army, his wealth, and more importantly, his pride." A faint curl of her lips. "The last is liekly more damning than all the rest."
Aeyliea was silent. She looked at Jared, uncertainty shining in her eyes. "Then why not Jared?"
"What Gods' name would He want with him" Lorn grumbled acidly. "He was a flaming mudfoot. You, however, were something a bit more."
She glared at the old woman. "Maybe."
"You wish to risk these peoples lives on a maybe? If you think that Bloodborn is gone into hiding, you are wrong. She may be licking her wounds, but when she comes back she's going to be pissed." Lorn got to her feet. "I'm going to check on the girl. If you'll excuse me..."
Aeyliea and Jared both watched Lorn leave the kitchen, headed up the hallway to the spare room in which Hope lay. Husband and wife turned to look each other in the eye. Jared entered the room and took the seat Lorn had left, facing his wife with his hands clasped in front of him.
"We've a decision to make, my heart."
The world was dark, and so very cold. Hope could feel herself shiver beneath a sparse scattering of stars, the air cold and crystal clear. Her breath puffed before her. She took a step forward.
Her feet crunched on sand, sand that stretched away in every direction. It was broken by only an occasional dune to break the endless....sameness. And it was all black, black as the night sky. Individual grains gleamed in cold starlight.
She looked all about her, the scene unbroken. The only thing besides stars and sand, were distant mountains, blacker than the rest of the night and terribly tall.
She cast her eyes all around, surrounded by wilderness, alone in the night. "Hello?" She called out remulously.
The world shivered at her voice, like the surface of a disturbed pond. When it ended, the horizon was still a distant line of teeth stabbing at the heavens. The depressing, bleak sands still surrounded her.
Only, ahead of her, so far away, rose a single tower, stabbing higher than the heavens themselves, a spire reaching past the clouds. Two thirds of the way up, dark clouds rolled angrily, lightning dancing from seething clouds to arc in the air, or strike the spire itself.
She felt something. Something familiar, in the way of dreams. Something disturbing. Her shivers became something more than just for the cold.
"No!" She cried out. Her voice was swallowed by the black desert. The world rippled again. The sands, the mountains, remained.
Overhead, lightning flickered angerly high above, dark clouds of an angry thunderstorm rolling high above. The spire rose before her, massive as a mountain. She craned her neck looking up at it. The wrongness felt stronger here, twisting. Twisting the world.
Twisting her soul. She writhed inside from the agony of it, but she couldn't move her body. She couldn't move her mouth, only be held by this....this thing....
No....no......no......no no no no no.....
Lorn opened the dor to her sickroom quietly, moving a little stiffly from the long night. She was exhausted as the rest, but she showed it less.
She cast a critical eye on the girl. Her face was an ashen color, the skin gleaming with a sheen of sweat. She moved weakly under the covers, groaning in a fevered dream. For all the icy exterior, Lorn felt a momentary pang of sympathy. It was a dangerus feeling in her line of work. She hardened her resolve, and closed the door behind her, coming to the girls side.
She threw back the covers, pulled a chair up and sat down. Hope shivered with the chill of the room, yet radiated heat like a furnace. Lorn took no note of that, however. She had other tasks to preform.
She grabbed the grils' arm with muscles turned to old oak, small and hard but surpringlky strong. With her other hand, she took took one of her belt knives and, using the tip, pricked open a vein. A thin trickle of bright red blood trickled down the girls burning wrist, then dripped itno a vial held to catch it. After a few drops were collected, Lorn wiped away the rest of it it away with a bit of cloth, after stoppering the vial.
She leaned back, and picked it back up, staring intently at the bright red inside glass. She could almost swear it had a faint...luminescence all its own. Odd.
She ruffled through one of the sewn-in pockets of her skirt, and pulled a much smaller vial from the loose fabric. She unstoppered it with surprisingly dextrous fingers, and shook out some of its contents. All were grains of gray-white sand, almost like you would find on a beach. Thaumalbane.
It was technically classified as a poison, though one with subtle effects. In a world with the Occuli always perched like birds of prey, awaiting the opportunity to strike, having something to counteract magic was invaluable. A single grain would incapacitate someone for hours. Rather, it would sever their link to whatever power it was they drew on. The Lord had gifted it to the world, supposedly. It had many uses.
Primarily a tol for assasination, it was also the only way a mundane woman could test if someone were a wielder. Opening the vial of Hopes' blood, she dropped the drain in, and watched. Nothing happened, not at first. Then the blood began to fizz slightly, evaporating. At first there was a look of satisfaction, but was more and more blood vanished, it turned into a look of shock.
LOrn set the empty glass on the bedside table, and stared long and hard. She was indeed a strange child.
Perhaps even wonderful. Such a strange reaction to the thaumabane. She had never seen the like before, and she had found many over the years, even here in this remote wilderness. She wasn't sure what the reaction really signified - only that it proved the ability or rather the recent use of the ability.
Lorn shivered despite herself. The things perpetrated with it over the long bloody history of the Forgotten Empire made her blanche at the thought. She had a duty to the people, but a second duty to find these. And dispose of them.
She stood slowly, eyeing the girl with curiosity. She threw the covers back over her, Stood and left her behind. She closed the door on her quiet whimperings, her thoughts turning toward the future.
She didn't know what to think of the girl-child, in truth. Perhaps she was something special. The Brotherhood would indeed be please by this find, she thought.
"Mah'riel culture is somewhat foreign. The woman hold power, and are frighteningly intelligent and capable, even if they aren't exactly as strong as the males. The males are brutishly strong creatures, but not all that bright. They are also sterile, incapable of reproducing.
Mah'riel women have been considered the veritable succubus, stealing into mens' bedrooms, ravenous with their urges. Sadly, lust always gives way to blood lust.
The older they are, the more violent. "
-Life in the Tents
-Gerald Hawthins, 1701 AA
She woke slowly to someone gently shaking her shoulders. She opened heavy-lidded eyes, wincing in the full light of late afternoon puring thrugh the west window. Her head throbbed, a dull ache that turned her stomache. She felt terribly cold, and weak, which was not to be unexpected.
She turned her head lethargically, looking at the woman who had woken her from her troubled sleep. The woman - her face seemed familiar, but she couldn't sift the name out of the mollasses that were her thoguths - lifted her with an arm under her back, lifting her and placing a pillow behind her, propping her in a semi-sitting position. She blinked bearily. There were others here.
"Good morning!" A familiar voice, a mans. Jared? She vageuly remembered something of the night before. He cheerfully waved at her from his place leaning against the wall next to the window. "Sorry to wake you up."
She shrugged, or tried to. She cursed the weakness, her swimming head, aching body. She cursed the tainted power that had done this to her. She stared in silence, chest hitching in its rise and fall.
"Its lsomething like this." He frowned for a moment, then continued. "Seeing as how ugly will likely be back and looking for bood, at that - I understand she has an interest in my wife, Aeyliea - we are going tail and run. He who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. Or something."
Hope opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a croak. White hair gleaming in the golden light, Aeyliea handed her a glass of water from the bedisde table without comment. She took it gratefully, wet her throbbing throat. "And....you want me to go with you? Now?" She managed in a hoarse, scratchy voice.
"Yes, well. Not by choice, certainly. I do oh you my life, after a fashion." The man muttered. "It seemed inrested in Aey almost as much as it was interested in you."
The door opened, and Lorn entered, wearing woolen blouse and skirts divided for riding. Their nondescript brown hung in loose folds over the old woman's scrawny frame. "Ah, she's awake." Was all she sai as she stopped, standing in the doorway.
"Lorn will be accompanying us as well. For much the same reason." He scowled at his wife, then at the aged Healer. "Can't say as I approve of turning tail and running. But...."
...but staying and fighting that would be foolhardy. Hope completed the sentance easily, understanding completely. She broke into a fit of coughing. "...to weak....to travel..." Was all she culd manage between hacking coughs, head awash in a new wave of dizziness.
"You can decline, of course. Lorn will allow you to use her home until you are well enough to leave of your own accord. But the offer is open....we can figure out the how of it in the morning. We won't be setting a hard pace."
"We will be leaving at dawn." The snow-haired woman said. "I don't know where we'll go, but south sounds a good idea. Some distance between Worlds' End and us would be healthy about now, I think."
Hope could only nod. She lay her head back against the pillow, staring at the ceiling, panting.
"Garrison is only a couple days ride south at a slow pace." Lorn spoke, voice as emotionless and monotonous as ever. "From there, we can follow one of the High Roads south. Perhaps we can discover what it is, exactly, that the Mah'riel and her brood are after. If not, we can slip into anonymity easily, in lands where His touch is somewhat less."
"Somehow I doubt that..." Hope whispered, fainly. She turned her head, eyes falling on Lorn. "from what....little I remember, our huntress will not rest until she finds us. If she wants us, then He wants us."
Everyone fell silent, not looking at one another. The girl could not hear their thoughts, but knew they would echo her own. The Bloodborn had fled. Next time, it wouldn't be as careless - they were cunning creatures, the older ones even more so. Her eyes - dull, pale violet, fell on Aeyliea. Among them, only two had a chance to standing up to the Mah'riel.
With the taint twisting her body, slowly killing her every time she touched that unseen well of power that surrounded her and everything, it effectively made it only one.
"I will come." She said tiredly, slowly working her way underneath the covers again, weakly pushing the extra pillow aside. "Need sleep." She whispered, and suited her own words almost immedialtey. She groaned quietly as sleep tok her.
Aeyliea stared hard at the girl. So many questions to ask, so many unanswered questions. Who was this girl, with her odd eyes? What was she doing out at Worlds' End, alone?
Why was the Lord apparently interested in her? Or for that matter, in Aeyliea herself?
Standing slowly, she strecthed stiff muscles, wincing at the stabbing pain in her ribs. She brushed past Lorn, the old woman sill staring at the sleeing girl, and Jared followed shortly after. "We need to go back out to the homestead, Jared." She said as they both entered tha hallways. "We should grab what we've been saving if its still there. We'll need it, traveling."
Jared nodded, and they both walked ut into the streets, heading to the town stables.
Lorn closed the door to the sickroom, but instead of returning to the parlor, she went instead into the cellar. The heavy wooden door creaked as she opened it. She took a lantern off its peg on the wall, striking a thick match against the wall to light it. In a bubble of flickering lantern light, she descended into darkness.
At the back of the brick-walled cellar, she set the lantern on a shelf that was mostly empty of jars of canned vegetables and the like, oushing against a section of wall. It swung inwardly on well greased hinges, and she stepped into the small space within.
This was, after a fashion, her workshop. While a good many of the herbs and unguents she used in her art were stored upstairs in plain sight, the more interesting ones were kept here. The space was perhaps no bigger than a closet, with just enough room to accept the hinged brick door while leaving standign room and space for more shelves, these filled with stoppered jars and vials in racks. Dark liquids gleamed in the fitful light of the lantern, jars filled with powders, roots, leaves, and other things.
She looked among the jars, finding the one she wanted. A small caning jar, filled halfway full with what apeared to be sand. Thaumalbane, and a very large quantity of it. She plucked it from its shelf, then took an empty vial made of thick glass from the small worktable. Unstoppering it, she opened the jar and took several large pinches into the vial, sealing both and putting the vial into a sewn in pocket in her skirts. She turned, then paused for a moment in contemplation. Reaching a decision, she went back to the shelves and browsed all of them, selecting a large open jar of some roots. An envelope off the table filled with them, she replaced the jar, stuffing the slightly bulging envelope ino the folds of her dress with the thaumalbane. Then she left, taking the lantern and closing the hidden door, its stones thumping into place. To casual observation, the bricks lined up and there wasn't even a faint line to suggest its presence.
Humming tunelessly to herself, she left the cellar, went to make some tea. The Ashfrds would return, in due time. She wanted to enjoy a little more of the peaceful life, some of its comforts, before she had to drag her ancient bones into a saddle.
Maybe for quite a long time. At least she was as prepared as she could be, in case someone went wild-mad.
Each step jarred her, made her bandaged arm throb, her chest ache. Aeyliea simply bore it, a look of grim resolve on her face. Between the two of them was not a sound, only the creak of saddles, the clopping of hooves and the sound of steel rattling in scabbards.
Aeyliea wore a loose woolen shirt, gray and hanging on her shoulders. It was her husbands, one of the few things they'd managed to recover from the charred ruins of their home. The woolen trousers and the ancient leather jerkin she wore over the shirt was her own, though. The leathers - jerkin, wristlets - had been crafted for her many years before, in a different world it sometimes seemed. If they didn't fit quite as well as they once had, well, it had been many years ago. Years of disuse made the shoulder harness for her scabbard heavy and ackward, especially with the unaccustomed weight of the greatsword in it.
Jared looked much more comfortable in what he had salvaged. He wore the same plain gray trousers and shirt, both of which fit him much better than her own. He had also salvaged - from the same place as Aeyliea's leathers - his old hauberk and greaves. He wore the hauberk, steal chains and mesh covering his torso, overlapping plates of steel covering his shoulders and leather protecting his arms. The greaves lay in the tied bundle on his horses rump. The horse, a pale gray that the stabler and accursed seller of horseflesh in Pines, had been sold to him for a half-throne in silver. The placid mare his wife rode, mottled tan on white, had cost him much less; it was a little older and as such had only cost him eight silverpieces. To many of the farmers around here, it was a fortune.
They had not come to Pines, to this rural land, without some small amount of money, though. They were leaving behind much more than they were taking away.
"I still think this is folish." His wife said peevishly. Age hadn't taken her more...immature qualities. He chuckled to himself, scanning the woods with his eyes as the horses plodded on. Dusk was, theoretically, only about na hour away. That didn't mean anything in this broken world, though.
"Yes, dear. We should just rebuild from the ashes, maybe get the Crofts' kid over to help with the planting, and go on as we always have before."
She scowled at his sarcastically cheerful voice.
"I don't agree with Lorn, either. I don't really like the woman, and the prospect of weeks spent in her company is...." He trailed off, face sour.
"So why not stay?"
"Because I don't want to end up with a ... a...I don't know what. With somethings teeth around my throat. Came here for the quiet life, but apparently thats done with now."
They rode on in silence for a time. The sun sank slowly toward the horizon, painting angry looking cluds to the north and east with orange fire.
"I don't trust the Healer." Aey said quietly, after having listened to the creaking of saddles long enough. The woods remained eerily quiet. "She speaks logic. Not unexpected for a Guild woman, but..." She couldn't come up with a solid reason for staying, no mater how she tried. Her instincts, those that she trusted so often in the past couple days, were on edge. The whole think stank like last weeks manure. But....stank of what?
"Where will we go?" She asked, watching with weary eyes, slightly hunched over in the saddle. "We'll have to ride through Ashara...or whats left of it."
They both shuddered at that thought. The narrow track they rode down opened into the clearing surrounding ines, the wooden pallisades manned as they had likely not been in years.
"We'll cross that bridge," he said, "when we get there." They rode into town, the sun setting behind the hills as they rode through its gates.
"How can one stand against God? You are all fools to question His will. I do you a favor, by serving His wishes. Soon, the world will be free from suffering.
With the Heart in His Hand, the world will know true peace and rest. Forever."
Jerakul, founder of the Ministry
-Also called the Betrayer.
"Zerk, you bastard, wake up!"
A small stone clanged against Zerks' plate mail. His eyes sprang open, and he got to his feet with a curse. "Can't a man get some bleeding shut eye around here?" He ignored than mans muffled curse as he walked away, shaking his head. Zerk shot him an annoyed look, then settled back down, leaning against a crenel, pulling the visor back down on his helm. It was styled to look like a dragons' head, the visor being the upper jaw. It was a very expensive piece, but that hadn't presented much of a problem to Zerk.
His born name was actually Jhar. He had spent most of his life as a petty criminal, stealing and swindling to make his money. Somehow, amidst all the fun, he had managed to get his sorry ass in the army. And if that wasn't bad enough, it was the army currently opposing the Lord.
Zerk wasn't exactly a revolutionary. Well, at least not like that. He knew he was an arrogant bastard. He would swagger his way through the gates of hell when someone finally did for him as he had done for others.
No, Zerk was here because the rebellio nwas stupid. There would be plenty of money to be made off of it, and from within it, and the risk to his pretty neck was relatively slim. Imperial soldiers took a dim view on thieving and highway robbery, among other things. He could make quite a bit more money doing this than that, and the risk was equal.
After all, if they caught him at either he'd be hanged for sure. Or maybe, worse. It was the maybe worse that bothered him.
Someone kicked him. He cursed, rising to his feet with angry, hazel eyes.
"You know Zerk," said a familiar voice, "That one of these days they'll hang you for shirking your duty." The tall man before him was Bors, a hulking giant at a good six feet. The man would have been a demon on the battlefield, but had instead chosen the profession of an archer. They called him Eageleye, and with good reason.
"Yeah, well." Zerk replied, a grin spreading on his face behind the mask. He reached up with both hands and lifted the heavy helmet from his head.
"You really are going to keep that ghastly thing." Bors shook his head. "One of these days, someone is going to slit that handsome head of yours in two. I only hope I am there to see it happen." Zerk sat on the wall, resting the helm on the ground at his feet.
He looked out over the open plains spreading away to the south and west. Featureless land, mountains only just visible far far to the south. The tent cities of the encamped army of Foureckes sprouted all across the plains surrounding the city. Thousands of men moved in formations, sparred, went about camp life beneath his eyes, sitting high upon the cities thick walls. Zerk shaded his eyes against the full light of a midday sun. It burned down on them with the first real warm,th of the year. The sky was deep blue, cloudless. And the air was clear as crystal.
Casting his eyes northwestward, he could see the cookfires of another army altogether. They were encamped at the edge of the foothills, some ten or fifteen miles distant, and as of yet they had not moved since their arrival months ago. It made Zerk uneasy.
Ordo de Draconis. The army of the Ministry that preached the words of their God, in his lofty home in the far north. It was, at least, only an army of humans and perhaps a few halfbreeds. They might even have casters among them. The Occuli certainly didn't find all of those, and the Ministry was, by and large, more powerful and influential. Over the whole of the Empire, they probably emplyed some million soldiers, most tied up in policing the streets of its subjects. This garrison, a full twenty thousand strong, was simply overmatched at the current moment. If the balacne ever swung the opposite direction, Zerk would quietly make his way out of this mess.
Or, if by some miracle, he disvoered where it was the rebellion kept its gold. Supporting forty thousand men and keeping a city running was expensive work. If he could find it, perhaps he could manage to bribe his way into gaurd duty for it. Then it would be a simple matter of picking the locks and getting gone with the goods. After all, they wouldn't likely be interested in hunting him down, not after the Lord smashed their hopeless army.
"Oh, I'm sure you would. I'm sorry your jealous of me." He stood, theatrically brushing his armor off, then turned and threw a lazy salute at the archer. "Keep up the good work, Eageleye." He said, cheerfully, then turned and headed for the gayrdhouse. He went through the stone room, ignoring the froosty look of the sergeant at his desk, then descended down the stairs at the back.
Stepping out into a narrow alley, he breathed deep, inhaling the vapors of life. The smell of refuse in the alley, rotting in the spring sunshine that shone down from above, the beggars and street urchins that looked up, curious, before going back to their preoccupations. Just old Zerk, nothing to worry about. Zerk chuckled, made his way along the litter strewn street, came out into a wider one.
The roar of hundreds of people pressed on him like a force, the conversations, the howling of hawkers seeking trade, shopkeepers arguing with customers...all of it melded into a formless noise. It would be quite impossible to pick out any conversation short of one with someone standign right in front of you.
The city was especially crowded now. With the dclaration of open rebellion, its walls practically burst with the press of people coming in from the countryside, and from many corners of the Empire. Here, soldiers wearing various styles of armor, representing a large portion of every nation under the sun, walked side by side with common citizens, merchants, nobles. Mostly it was foreigners on the streets - the locals tok to their homes during the usiest part of the day, not liking all the outlanders about. Even in a large city liek Forecks, there had not likely been such a gathering of outalnders in centuries.
Zerk followed the passing nobles in particular, hawking and spitting the street as he followed them. There, now, was the cash cows. Men and women to wrapped up in their petty burocratic nonsense, their pointless politiking and manuevering for power. He loved their money, but dispised their attitudes. Better by simple birth? Please.
Her turned and worked his way through the crowd, lifting his helm over his head, settling it down and making it comfortable. Most of the passers-by didn't even notice. What was another soldier? Most would think him nobility in any case, by his fine armor and arms. The longsword on his hip hadn't even seen recent use; it was there as more of encouragement to find someoen else to accost. Though ,if it came to it, he could use it just fine.
He worked through the crowds, heading down busy streets that crisscrossed throughout the city. Getting anywhere these days was difficult in the extreme. He rounded a street corner, heading onto a narrower, dirtier street. There were fewer people here, but not by much. He didn't care though...his destination was in sight.
He stood across the street from it, regarding the three story building that had, by appearance, seen much better times. The front of the inn was whitewashed....or had been, at some point. The cheap timber it had been built out of was warped and cracked in many places, open windows like gaping holes into the relative dimness inside. Zark sighed, crossed the street and mounted the steps, pushing through the swinging doors of The Empty Keg. He stood in the doorway for a moment, his eyes adjusting to the dim inside, the crowded tables, the smell of sour beer and wine.
Well. Home was where the heart was, after all. Regulars turned back to their meals, their beer, and for the most part, their hopeless lives as he wandered in, searching for an empty table, removing his ornate helm as he went.
He caught a passing wench by one firm butt cheek, getting both a good feel and a dark scowl from the woman. "Ah, Sara. Is my table open?" She sniffed at him, turning indignintly and deftly weaving her way through the unusually large crowd towards the kitchen. Smiling to himself, he made his way to the far back of the common room, to a table that had two men sitting at it. He approached with a scowl, helm on his hip.
"Excuse me, gentlemen..."
"The Lord is merely the Hand of God, the lesser part of Gods' greatness Through Him can God work his miracles on this world of ours. With the Lord, God shall fix what is wrong with the world.
It is prophecy that one day will walk the world one that would cast down God, and destroy it That day is not long in coming. Watch, for 'the one with the fires of retribution in their eyes'. Watch for the destroyer, the impure."
The pair of men looked up from their wine. They were an ugly lot, especially when they had to stand so close to Zerk as to make the contrast...disturbing. On was a short man that stood barely level with Zerk's neck. His head was shaven clean, and to his eyes, polished brightly enough to serve as a mirror. The face that went with the head was scarred, a bulbous nose over unloveley lips and round, pudgy face. The mans' name was Core, an he was a tough for a local noble. He wore a leather vest without a shit on under it, and shorts that had seen better, cleaner days.
His companion, a good deal cleaner and much better dressed, regarded him through sectacles. Lord Van was a distinguished man, if also unblessed by looks. His features would perhaps have been handsome, a narrow chiseled face, pretty gray eyes. If he didn't have that sour expression all the time, and the pallid color - gained sitting indoors all day, Zerk wagered - he would probably have been a ladies man. Women all seemed to like power and money, and a nobleman certainly had that.
Zerk scowled. Being forced into the roll of a statue for most of the day - even, he conceded, if he had been asleep through most of it had left him with a sour belly for the day.
"That damn job again? Really? Really." He grabbed a chair, turning it around the wrong way and sitting in it with his chin and arms hanging over the back. "Already tol' you this little army here pays better than that, and sneaking into that mans' pretty room isn't exactly like a stroll through the tulips."
The nobleman rolled his eyes, resting his elbows on the table, clasping them in front of his face. He peered over his steepled fingers. "Well, master Jhar, while I cannot say for certain how his Lordships security....precautions...are, I know very well how difficult mine would be to get through." He grinned nastily at the warrior.
Great, just what I need. Really, I wish he'd just have called the street gaurds. He sighed, stared dramitcally at the thug, and then grinned. "Right then, you got me. I think your knuckle-dragger is strong enough to carry it. Its in my room, and I trust I shall not have to tell you which that is."
The man in the coat gave him an oily smile. "Well, then. At least you are smarter than your fellows. I'll let you keep what you stole. Just get me my sword back."
Zerk stared at the nobleman with a critical eye. "I still don't see whats so special about a sharpened bit of metal."
"How would you feel if I took your sword, master Alex?"
"You'd have to pry it from my cold dead fingers." He replied, testily.
"That I believe," said the noble in a cheery voice, "is the point." He set his hands down on the table in front of him, drumming his fingers. "I'd say its a fair trade. Your life and a bit of gold in exchange for a mere sword."
"Seems to me that anything anyone calls 'merely' is anything but."
"It has value to me. If you really must know, its been handed down for ages. Since the begining of my family's status as nobles, in fact." He smiled. It wasn't very pleasant.
Zerk leaned forward. "The last I check, Gods' instrument on this earth granted you that nobility. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but there is a rebeliion around these parts. Why on earth would I want to go into that place to steal an old rusty sword some nobleman recieved from the Lord for? I'm not an assasin, I'm a thief and a sellsword. What, am I going to walk through the walls?"
"I don't care how you get it, just do."
"Well, at least answer a question.....why me, of all people."
"You're the one that went into my home and robbed my money. Why spend more money on a different hired thug when I can just blackmail the one I already know? After all, if you succeed, I get my family heirloom back, if you fail you die. I win either way."
And that, thought Zerk, is sound logic if he'd ever heard it. He didn't like it, of course, but what could he in fact do about it? Quite aside from the man with the broken knuckles and low criminal forehead, Van could just as easily have him before a magistrate with much the same result. Dying didn't seem like it would be very much fun, either by headsman or the gallows. He sighed again, and quite dramatically.
"So, you want me to sneak into the palace." He mutted. "Let me get this straight. You want me, that is yours truely, to sneak into the king of Eckes' palace, make my way into his strongroom, life a certain blade, sneak back out again, and do so by myself."
Lord Van nodded cheerfully.
"A royal palace that is, shall we say, crawling with guards that do know the sharp end of their sword from the handle?"
"And steal from, let me get this straight, the king I am supposedly serving at the moment?"
Another happy nod.
Lord Van rose, stepping away from the table. "Consider it the price of thievery, 'Zerk'. God day. We shall meet again soon, I trust." He gestured to the street tough, and they left the table, and the inn. Zerk stared at the door, not rising, for quite some time, then muttered a few choice cursewords under his breath.
He sighed again. He seemed to be doing that a lot of late.
"Wench! Wine. Strong wine. Now."
Rei scowled at the men that surrounded her firey red hair that vanished into her robes rustling in a hot wind blowing across the plains/. Their silly plate mail clanked loudly in the ebbing heat of the plains. They walked like an honor guard, her honor guard. They held themselves tall, unable to ride 'fore she would not herself get upon one of those hairy beasts, even if one would let her. They had their weapons put up for the time being.
Six men, she noted. The old Hand that led the garrison, camped not many miles away from yet another obscene rebellion, appeared to be worried. He thought she need a guard.
She sneered in disgust, flashing her unloveley snarl at the men around her. Their looks of unease reflected in her eyes, glassy with pupils of solid red the color of fresh blood. The only difference between her inhuman eyes and those of the guards around her, aside from color, was the absence of the little dark spot in the middle.
Rei swept along, her scant robes dragging in the dust and weeds behind her as she went. She was a tall creature, not much shy of six feet. Her face, narrow and soft, was made hard by her eyes, and the tips of her fangs poking over her top lip. She wore the robe, a long flowing thing with voluminous folds over her shoulders and arms but open, wide open at the front. Clear to the world, she wore a hide loincloth hung on narrow sash of rough fabric. Her breasts were hidden behind a similar cloth warpped arund her chest. A human skull dangled at her hip.
Her staff, as tall as she was, tapped a rhythm on the ground as she advanced, the distant image of a city dancing in the late afternoon heat mirage. Bugs buzzed in the tall grass. All else was silent.
"High One, should we send a couple of men ahead to scout the way?" One of the men asked in an admirably steady voice. He wore no helm - none of them did - but the heavy, interlocking plates of steel that covered him like the belly of a serpent would turn anything not aimed at his head. He was missing an eye, she noted, a scar striking up his cheek, through the empty socket, and climbing into the hairline of his forehead. He fixed her eyes, then looked away.
"Why?" Rei replied, thickly. Human speech was often difficult to speak. Her own language flowed much more easily off her tongue. Human speech was too flowery. In this world, there was no place for beauty or eloquence, merely cold hard facts. "Let them ambush us."
The scarfaced man made no reply, moving to a more respectful difference. His eyes darted about the featureless plain, searching for an ineffectual enemy that was likely not there.
Rei let her thoughts wander.
She really did not understand why the Father didn't simply allow them to anhillate humanity. The fact that the Mah'riel could not reproduce was, of course, a consideration. The younger generations were much more impure of blood, much shorter lived. Much easier to kill. So, that would be why the human population of this world had not been destroyed by the Lord. A fire spready in her belly, and her thighs rubbed together with a slickness that had not been there moments before.
For Mah'riel men, bloodborn or not, the urge to violence and destruction was only matched by their baser, insatiable lust. The children of such a coupling were often to to a very special use by the Father. Mah'riel women were only slightly less driven by such base instincts. At least, they were capable of cunning and deep thought, provided something didn't enflame their lusts much.
They crested a low raise, what would pass for a hill out in this flatness. To the west, foothills gathered into mountains, their high peaks hidden in clouds painted orange and purple. The city of Foreckes lay beneath this vista, surrounded in a near perpetual cloud of smoke and dust. The falling sun cast a hazy aurau around the great city, the light filtering through the dust and smoke to give it a glaring red tinge. Rei's lips curled in a fiendish grin.
"Standardbearer, raise the flag of parley." She muttered gutturally. She whispered something under her breath completel unintelligable to her escort. She started forward as the man with the puckered scar on his face raised a white flag affixed below a flag as dark as death, with a spiraling array of colors overlaying a spire like a needle of stone piercing an unseen sky. The emblem of the Forgotten Empire, the Empire reborn.
It differed little from the Ordo symbol, really, except that the tower was absent among the Ordo de Draconis' regalia. In its place, was a slayn dragon, its head half severed. It was the symbol that made the Ordo survive the first thousand years of the Lords imperfect rule of this world.
The high priesthood of the Lord himself, the Hand of God, the Savior. But in their beginings, tools of genocide used to wipe the inferior races off the face of the planet.
She stopped, and squinted against the glare. A small tail of dust sped out from the main mass of milling humans, the ragtag army the rebellion had managed to gather so far.
The Mah'riel grinned maliciously. It would start soon.
Behind her, hidden by the magick of her people, a flattened cloud of dust scudded low across the ground, dispersed by sorcery that their enemy scarcely knew. Aye, it would be a fine day after all. "Do not kill these humans. They will likely escort us through their rabble." She laughed, low and throaty. Despite her gorgeous human appearance, the sound was as ugly as sin.
Zerk looked at his hands. They were empty. His plate mail was on its stand in the corner of his small, musty smelling room. His helm lay art the feet of his armor. along with his sword. In the place of the glaring, brightly polished metal and obscene helm, he wore very simple clothing indeed, shirt and slacks of a dark, deep gray wool. It itched somewhat, but it would do for the nights task.
He had agonized over when the best time to preform this little deed of his. The fact was, he could only agree with himself. There was no good time to try this. Survival instincts that had been honed over a life of treachery, thievery, and generaly unpleasant danger screamed at him. The shadows belonged to assasins and thieves. He didn't see the contradiction in that. He was too stylish and handsome, after all, to be labeled as a common thief.
And, besides, a common thief would have already fled the city. A common thief, in fact, would never have joined a rebel army. Or, in his particular case, sold his swordarm for money and to get closer to other, more lucrative targets. A common thief would be more interested in picking pockets and petty burglary.
But not Zerk, oh no, not him. No, he had to go and pick the most conspicuous target he could. Unfortunately for him, the man had anticipated.
He cast his pale eyes to the window, and saw that the sun was well on its way to vanishing now. Only a sliver of it remained above the westerly mountains, casting the clouds in deep reds and oranges. Even as he watched, the sliver vanished and the world outside desended into twilight. He cursed, got to his feet, and threw the window to his room open. Then he settled back down, and waited.
The the room growing steadily darker, he finally gave some serious thought to his current predicament. He was in now way naive of the world and its workings. He had no illusions that the nobleman had any intention of letting him keep the money he had already stolen, anymore than he was likely to leave him alive. H was little more than a tol of passing interest. He would be used once, and discarded.
So instead, he turned his thoughts to the object of Van's desire. A sword that was wanted so badly was likely no common sword. If what Van had said was true, then it was possible it had been held by the Lord himself at one point or another. That wouldn't make it special, except that the rotten son of a bitch had held it...but there were stories.
Enchanted weapons from a time before that could make a man stronger simply by holding it, weapons that didn't break and never needed sharpening. And other such tales, only half of which even he would give passing thought to. Still.
An alternate plan formed in his mind. He liked the plan as ti fleshed itself out. He would give Van a surprise, make off with a potentially valuable weapon, and avoid continuing in the foolishness of this army, all in one shot.
He didn't have anything to lose. They could only kill him once, after all.
She grinned as they made their way, bare and taloned feet stirring little puffs of dust with each footfall. All around her, men in whatever armor they could find or had brought with them watched her warily, uncertain of this creature of the Lord that walked among their ranks, escorted by six of her own and by a dozen of the rebellion regulars. All of her escorts had their hands resting on hilts and hafts, eyeing each other distrustfully. But mostly, all watched her.
She was flattered by the attention. She could smell their fear, see it reflected in their eyes. Even though they outnumbered her thousands to one, they still feared her. Rightly so, in her eyes. Among the humans, they would know in their hearts that they could defeat her, but at terrible cost. Who would die, killing her? Could they kill her?
Her grin widened. Her staff added to the dust of her feet, as she moved in a ring of men who all kept their distance, friend or foe.
Rei had to admire them, though. Their resence angered her, for it angered her Father, but she could appreciate the amount of effort and willpower it had taken to gather such a host before a god. They knew their day of death was approaching, and still they fought on. There was something to be said about the human spirit, its unfailing, resillient ability to push men beyond the limit.
And in the end, it would all be for nothing. The legions of the Ordo de Draconis would smash them, either now or later. If humans couldn't mete out an end to this rebellion, then the Horde would do the job. She remembered the fall of Ashara, remembered the fields of piled corpses and torn flesh, the flocks of ravens and vultures in their thousands and tens of thousands. She could remember vividly standing before the shattered walls.
She could remember sweeping through the entire country, destroying towns and cities, villages and farms, killing indiscriminately all those loyal subjects of the now dead king of Ashara that they could find. It had once been a proud nation, but now it was a desolate wasteland, nearly depopulated by the wrath of the Lord.
They passed through the encampment, through the city walls. Gate guards watched warily as she passed, grips tightening on the hafts of their spears and pikes. She laughed softly as a young man - barely old enough to shave - dropped his weaon with her passing.
They made their way through streets packed with humans going about their daily lives, ignorant as to the fate of those who harbored this rebel army. She glanced at her escort - men who would love nothing more than to spill her, and her six companions blood. Even though they knew what she would say, even though they knew exactly what the words of the Lord would be, they would still honor the flag of truce.
She certainly wouldn't. They expected to hear words, calling down their efforts, requiring their disbanding of their army.
As they passed into the heart of the city, into the great central square surrunding the royal palace of Eckes, her grin turned from amusment to anticipation.
They walked beneath the walls of the palace, and were lst within the shadows beyond.
Today we dance
and sing and laugh
our hearts heavy in our hands
To pick a lass
still sing and dance
while fires burn o'er the mountains.
-"Fire over the Mountains"
-old folk song
Broken clouds, dark and heavy, scudded across the sky. The sun threw warmth on them, bathing the land in patches of brilliant spring sunshine. It could have been a beautiful morning, but the haggard travelers that plodded on would not have agreed with that sentiment.
Hope sat her saddle like a sack of potatoes, her head hung low. Hair hid her face and body, damp and dull threads of spun silver that gleamed in passing beams of sunlight. She steamed, as did the rest, her thick woolen dress hastily divided for riding seeming to smoke from the heat that still, after days of travel, held her. She didn't even complain about the drab brown wool any longer; all of her complaints had ceased three days ago.
Aeyliea frowned as she stared at the child. She held the girls' reins - the girl herself having little interest in anythign save holding the saddlehorn in a deathgrip. The horse was her anyway, but none of them were hard or callous enough to make her walk.
She glanced at the sky, and her scowl deepened. It already looked to be another day typical of spring. To suit her thoughts, a dark cloud rolled over the crest of the ridge they walked along, its underbelly pregnant with rain.
She looked to her husband and the scowl lightened a touch. Jared's armor gleamed despite the rust. His underclothes smoked faintly as well.
"Another day of this." Lorn grumbled, as the threatening cloud overhead delivered its promise. A cold shower hammered down, and soon they were all running wet and shivering. Lorn sate her saddle tall and straight, her eyes bird-bright set back in their sockets as they were.
"We don't have to skip all the towns." Aeyliea muttered. Jared merely chuckled. "Aye, and those thrones won't last forever, my dear." He replied, laughing now.
She smiled wanly at that. All the possessions of the world now rode with them. Their former life was as good as dead. There was no turning back, not now. Maybe never had been. She could feel it out there, in the shadows of the woods. Stalking. Following.
She didn't know how she knew. She knew it as an almost certainty, but couldn't put her finger on why. She had felt similarly in the woods outside their home, just before encountering the Bloodborns' fury. She had felt it while she spoke with Lorn the day of the faeful attack.
And she felt it now, had been feeling it for days. A nagging, gnawing suspicion that something bad lurked just around the corner.
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Like I said, I won an endgame shell so that takes a lot of my time these days....tonight is a event freenight, I will likely continue this story a bit more tonight :3 'specially now that I have an audience lol
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
I haven't played in forever, probably don't even remember how anymore, Congrats on the shell though! Always will be my fav. Mithra!...
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
They are frequent, especially when I get onna roll.
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
Honeybadger don't care.....Honeybadger don't give a shit!
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