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RE: When Heroes Fail

 
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12/13/2016 21:59:24   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


Strasna tried, but failed to keep the smile from her face at Hendrik’s words. Part of her knew that she was acting like a fool, but the rest of her did not care. It had been a long, long time since anyone had treated the exile as a person. Before her fall she had been the Paladin, and that had required… a certain distance between herself and those around her. After… Well, after her fall she had been a pariah, and it was hardly likely that anyone in the regions around Palora would treat her as aught else due to her Blight, to say nothing of the fact she had been charged with Palora’s protection.


The pirate called her captain, called her comrade, and it felt... good. Good enough for her to ignore that little voice in the back of her mind that warned her she should be wary of trusting the elf. He was Blighted, the same as she was. He did not get that way due to being in possession of a pure and trustworthy nature. Perhaps she was lying to herself, but Strasna quieted that voice, pushed it away, telling herself that they were both Blighted, and that was reason enough for them to stick together.


Shaking her head slightly, the outlaw tried to pull her wandering thoughts back to the task at hand. Coloring a little when she realized that she had simply been staring at Hendrik, Strasna brushed a flustered hand through her hair, smearing her glove with oil and ash, the swiping hand revealing another band of copper fire. Grimacing in distaste, she wiped her hand on her cloak, wishing vainly for some way to wash the accursed dye from her hair. At this point, it hardly mattered if she appeared recognizable. It was not as though there was anyone here to recognize her.


Gathering her wits, the slender swordswoman looked back at the pirate. “We should be close now.” In honesty, Strasna had no idea if that was the case or not. The Spear could be in the next chamber, or there might be half a dozen more, for all she knew. This was as far, farther really, into the complex as she had ever been, loath though she was to admit it to the others. “Let’s get moving.” The exile stepped carefully through the piled carcasses and discarded weapons, moving around Beauty’s throne and towards the door set into the back wall of the sepulchre.


Thankfully, the hall beyond was nowhere near so long and arduous as the descent to reach the chamber they had just exited. The passage continued its downward slope as the light from the ossuary receded, leaving them with but the light of their torch as the cavern peeled open once more.


This chamber was about as large as Beauty’s charnel house has been, though its details were only seen dimly in the flickering torch’s glow. Before them the floor dropped away, lost in darkness below and leaving the Blighted standing on a semi-circular promontory thrust out over the abyss. From the platform a stone bridge just wide enough for two people arched gracefully to another island of stone, a circular platform at the center of the chamber. Three more identical bridges arched out at right angles from the central island, reaching semi-circular landings set against the walls of the chamber.


Frowning, Strasna ventured forward carefully, unconcerned by the fact there was no rail to guard against what would surely be a fatal fall from any of the bridges. The central island was larger than the others, and for some reason had a trio of levers in its center, made of some old and corroded metal that the exile could not immediately identify. There was a lever just at the end of the bridge she had crossed from the entrance of the chamber, along with another to her left, and one to her right. Ignoring the mysterious devices for a moment, the slender swordswoman continued towards the bridge towards the back of the chamber, only to stop suddenly.


After a moment of paralysis the fallen Paladin darted forward. “It’s here. It’s here!” She fairly flew over the slender bridge, darting to the platform at the back of the room. There, against the back wall of the chamber, was a disturbingly familiar display case. In fact, it appeared to be an exact duplicate of the case in the Temple of Baan. Though perhaps it was better to say the case in the Temple was a copy of this case. The thought was disturbing.


But not so disturbing as the sight of what was in the case itself. The outlaw’s hands curled into fists, coming down hard on the unyielding case’s edge. “It… It’s broken.” And so it was, for within the case, resting on a red silk pillow, were the fragments of Agemon’s shattered Spear.




“Who am I?” The strange figure chuckled, one hand rising, splaying across his chest in what could be taken for outrageous disbelief. “Who am I?” He laughed, roaring with mirth as though Raelin’s question was the funniest thing he had ever heard.


The mirth vanished as soon as it arrived, the man’s voice lowering to a threatening snarl. “I am one to deny you your passage. I am one grind your corpse into the dust. I am one feared across your sorry, diminished city, and I will not be disrespected by one such as you.


And then the menace was gone, a smile returning to the disturbing blue eyes as the man’s posture relaxed. “But come now, there is no reason for us to be… unreasonable.” His disturbing giggle echoed through the small space again. “Take heart, your prey is close at hand! Why, the Quisling skulks and sulks but two rooms from this very place.” Lambent orbs darted from Raelin to her companions. “But not alone,” he chuckled, “so it is good you have your own companions, yes? It should be so sad for one so noble to meet so ignoble end in a moment of… fatal surprise. Mm, but here I am, all a-ramble. And surely what you need is terms. Terms… Yes, yes, terms.” The man stroked a hand along his chin, baring his teeth in a smile. “I will let you pass on one condition. You see, within the next room is a throne, and in the back of the throne is a gem. I require but a simple service. Remove stone from throne, and leave it upon the seat before you leave. What could be simpler? Surely it is an easy price to meet.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 126
1/12/2017 0:04:50   
Ryu Viranesh
Member

There had been little time to think. The beast was bearing down on her cousin, had nearly torn open her throat before a scrap of luck - Illyra’s favor, no doubt - bought her a few precious seconds. Hardly enough time to formulate a plan, but enough to rush the creature and draw its attention away from Strasna until her cousin was able to gather herself.

As the young woman closed the distance and brought her cudgel to bear, she felt a familiar sensation wash over her. That rapt anticipation of bloodshed, a faint yet undeniably pleasurable tingle rushing down her spine... and something else underneath. Something that she hadn’t felt in years. Somehow, amid all of this absurdity and gloom, she almost felt… normal again.

“Get away from her!”

Jana heard her battle cry echo back at her from the depths of the sepulchre, the girl’s grip on her club tightening at exactly the instant it crashed into the creature’s neck. The impact split the air with an audible crack, and then the former Saint shoved the monster forward with a grunt of effort, sending it sprawling to the ground. Rather than rush or retreat, she chose instead to cautiously circle around its fallen form while sliding her cudgel into a defensive position. Jana’s patience was rewarded mere moments later when the monstrosity lurched to its feet, turning its claws on her as a high pitched shriek emerged from its throat. She couldn’t help it this time: she grinned. Bring it on, Birdface.

The warrior woman waited until it was nearly upon her before she struck, bringing her cudgel sweeping across to knock the rightmost claw off its mark. The remaining strike she caught on her arm, the beast’s talons shredding through the steel-plated leather as though it were mere parchment, though they were slowed to a crawl on the blackened ridges of the scales dotting her limb. Jana winced nonetheless, as no amount of reinforcement would be able to totally block out the pain, but followed through with a swing of her forearm that brought her club smashing into the monster’s beak.

The creature let out another screech as it stumbled away from her, head hanging low to the ground as the amazon advanced. Follow through, don’t let it get away. As though in response to that very thought, Strasna suddenly slipped past her, bringing an axe around for a slice at its hindquarters. That strike seemed to drive the beast wild, one of its claws lashing out at its latest attacker. Jana took advantage of that momentary distraction and rushed the creature, sparing a momentary glance for her cousin’s safety before she drove her club hard into the monster’s lower back... knocking it right into Strasna’s riposte. Caught between them, the creature could do nothing but retreat, whereupon it suddenly collapsed to the floor, gouts of fire flowing freely from its maw. It tried desperately to rise, but was denied that right by the pirate, his projectile hobbling the horror for good.

She turned away as her cousin moved to finish off the monstrosity, the beast’s pathetic state sapping the last of the will to fight from her. Is that how Palora sees us? The young woman’s brow furrowed before she shook her head to banish the notion; this wasn’t the time. Instead, Jana gave the room its first proper once over, taking noting of both the second corpse on the floor, probably the pirate’s opponent, and the throne across the way. She cast a look back over her shoulder, frowning slightly at the spectacle before she sighed and made to approach the throne.

There was little remarkable about the seat at first glance; it seemed to have been carved straight from a larger block of stone, its edges later sanded down to make it more ‘comfortable’ for its occupants. Still, why put a throne in these catacombs at all? It wasn’t as though the place was the seat of some kind of royalty. The girl reached out and brushed a hand against one of the arms, leaning forward and peering at the back of the chair. The back… Jana’s gaze flicked to the shadows behind the throne, rising and starting to skirt around the seat. She was brought up short by the sound of departing footsteps, a quick glance confirming that both her cousin and the pirate were moving on. The girl seemed torn for a moment, but ultimately turned and set off after the pair; they couldn’t be left alone. Besides, she’d have time to sate her curiosity on the way back, so for now she’d just have to be patient.

*****

The sound of boots on stone jolted him awake, his eyes blinking rapidly as he struggled to clear them of the last remnants of unconsciousness. He froze when he heard a key rattling inside the lock, a dull creak all the warning he had before his world was suffused with light. The footsteps approached him, stopping what he judged to a hand's length away; too close to run, even if he could, and too far to attack. Though he couldn’t see them, he could somehow tell that the visitor was observing him, sizing him up like a pig ready to be sent to the slaughterhouse. He gulped. Then from out of the darkness came a voice, its normally sharp tone laced with a sardonic amusement.

“You must have had quite the night, eh Private?”

Relief rushed through Akro’s form, replaced thereafter by a jittery uneasiness as he struggled to manage a salute with one of his unsteady hands. “A-ah no, I mean yes, Lieutenant Sykes, sir.” He was hoarse, his throat burning for water or some other kind of liquid relief.

It took a few more seconds before the Lieutenant’s face resolved itself, the man peering down at him with a grim smile. “At ease, soldier,” he began, his eyes snapping briefly to the Private’s legs. “Can you stand?”

The young man grimaced, but made an effort to move his legs, some feeling returning after the effort. “I think so, sir. Though I might have some trouble, err, actually getting up.” The Lieutenant rolled his eyes and leaned down to grasp one of Akro’s hands, pulling the Private to his feet and steadying him as he regained his balance. “That’s it. Now, what happened here, Private? Last I left you two you were guarding the prisoner.”

A rush of images assaulted Akro’s mind: the claw reaching through the bars; Corporal Graham tumbling forward as they rushed in to help; a shadowy figure with a hand clenched around his throat, squeezing harder and harder until… The Private nearly jumped out of his skin as he felt a hand settle on his shoulder, eyes darting frantically in Sykes’ direction.

“It’s all right. Calm down, Akro. Let’s just grab Graham and get you two to the infirmary - we’ll talk later.” The Lieutenant gently took him by the hand - were his hands always so sweaty? - and led him over to where the Corporal lay on the ground. It was a struggle, but Sykes managed to haul the half-naked man off of the floor, and with Akro’s help, started to drag him toward the infirmary.

Graham regained consciousness when they were about halfway there, casting a series of unfocused glances around the hall before he started muttering feverishly about demons and witches. Though much of the trip blended together, Akro did recall the Lieutenant attempting to engage the disoriented Corporal, feeding into his madness and asking him questions about the things he was saying. It wasn’t until they were nearly there that a light flickered on in the Private’s head, glancing over at Sykes with new appreciation. He thinks Graham has a concussion; he’s trying to keep him awake.

As they arrived at the medical wing they were swarmed by attendants, a small cluster of bodies surrounding Akro and pulling him away from Graham, who no longer needed his support. Though his consciousness had started to fade once again, he was convinced that he saw the Lieutenant slip out of the room, a satisfied smile gracing his face.

*

Sykes strode swiftly through the halls of the barracks, the stern look in his eyes dissuading any of their other occupants from approaching him. I should have known better. Though he was certainly no slouch with a blade, he hadn’t been promoted to Captain Magro’s second because of his combat ability. No, he’d been selected because of his intuition. Sykes was gifted with a preternaturally savvy set of instincts; the little, niggling feelings that frequently invaded his head were rarely ever wrong and had saved their company from disaster numerous times in the past. But not tonight, of course.

The Lieutenant practically threw open the door to the common room, stalking over to where he’d left his gear.

“What’s got your tabard tied in a bow, sir?”

Sykes froze, forestalling the curse that was on the tip of his tongue and instead taking a deep breath before he turned to face her. “Soldiers that seem to need some re-education on why, exactly, it’s important to follow proper procedures. You’d be familiar with that, wouldn’t you Ensign Lynch?”

The girl grinned, flicking a stray lock of her blonde hair away from her face. “You know there’s no need to use titles with me, Noah.” The amusement vanished from her face, replaced by a glare as steady as a statue. “So, what’s actually going on?” Alice Lynch was… an annoyance, but a useful one. Third in command of Magro’s company, she served as their primary scout, capable of slipping behind and back over enemy lines as though they were just a city street. She stood at a diminutive 5’1”, though was worth every bit of a 6’2” brawler in a fight; her skill with a scimitar was renowned throughout the guard.

“Prisoner escaped - tricked her guards into opening her cell and then she overpowered them.”

Alice let out a low whistle, pushing herself to her feet and flipping up the hood of her cloak. “She was the one with the broken arm, right? Must be strong as an ox to have managed that. I’m assuming you want me to track her down?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, yes that would be lovely.” Sykes paused to belt an arming sword to his hip. “Girl’s tall, just shy of 6 feet, and built like a suit of plate armor. Bright red head of hair that’s usually tied up, probably walked out of here wearing a Corporal’s uniform, and… this is just a hunch, but probably had a large polearm strapped to her back.”

The Ensign snorted. “I’ll take it as a definite then. If she’s still in this city, I’ll have her location for you by dawn. You want me to engage or…” She trailed off, eyeing the mantle he was throwing over his shoulders. “You going somewhere?”

“To join Magro’s hunt. Someone has to warn him that there’s a dangerous escapee out there that might want revenge, and since you’re busy, it’ll have to be me. And just find her; will probably be easier to subdue her with some backup, not that I don’t trust your cutting arm.”

“As well you should.” The girl paused at the door, casting a look back over her shoulder, her face obscured by the hood. “Be careful out there, Lieutenant.”

Sykes spared her a glance, his expression softening before he muttered back. “You too, Ensign.” As the door clicked shut behind her, he couldn’t help but hope that the excess caution would be unnecessary.

*****

The trek to the bottom of the crypt was time-consuming, but nowhere near as physically demanding as Jana would have expected. The most difficult obstacle to contend with had been the absence of light, and truth be told, she’d been far more comfortable in the dark over the past decade. In the darkness, there was no one that could point out the Blight on her arm; no one who could judge her for what she was or what she’d done. Of course, it was only recently that she’d realized it also meant people couldn’t discern anything about her at all. To forget about the bad, she had to likewise wash away any of the good she’d done. Without either of those, could she even be called a person anymore?

The young woman was shaken from her reverie by her cousin’s sudden exclamation, dashing forward behind her as a grin worked its way onto her face. This was it - what they’d traveled all this way to acquire. The Spear of-

“It… It’s broken.”

Strasna’s words cut into her like a knife, a fiery surge of anger rising only to be swallowed by an ice cold calm. The rage was still there, buried beneath the surface, but rather than rant and rave, Jana chose to express herself more eloquently.

“That lying, Blight-ridden cur.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 127
1/21/2017 0:18:51   
Apocalypse
Member

In the silence, Hendrik stole a glance at Cendra. He bit his bottom lip to hide the surprise at her reaction. She was...smiling. Not the enticing sparkle of a street strumpet but an honest one. The sunrise a waiting maiden gifts to her groom-to-be upon his entry to the room. His brow furrowed for a heartbeat as he tried to reconcile the sight. This fickle creature with such…raw emotions was the once-Paladin scorned by all of Palora?

As the swordswoman smiled and brushed away another streak of dye from her hair, Hendrik felt the corners of his own mouth twitch. Perhaps Cendra was the hardened warrior he had been expecting, but even the toughest armor was shed when danger was not afoot. Cendra and Hendrik had both carried their Blights for about a decade now; a decade filled with hatred, degradation, and isolation. The elf had managed to be within certain unsavory circles, but only as either a liar or a weapon. These were roles he had played as a scourge and had now taken as his life. For someone who had no experience with either to be driven into becoming a lie...Hendrik could only imagine. The pirate closed his eyes and let out a soft exhale.

She would be...entertaining.

Cendra set off, forcing the elf to tear away from his thoughts. Twice he had to disentangle himself from the remnants of previous trespassers. This was rather a good omen; every failed thief was an increase to the value of the treasure stowed away. Kicking a bit of bone from his foot, the pirate whistled a jolly tune as he sauntered with the captain into the next chamber.

It was quite the change of pace. After the room filled with dead, it was like passing into the eye of the storm. A bridge passed to a center platform with three more arches branching off to other areas of the room. Below them was an abyss from which return was unlikely. Hendrik strolled towards the middle platform after his two comrades. Cendra’s jubilation soured into despair, her cry being joined by the warrior woman’s resentment. The elf clicked his tongue as he stepped up to the levers.

“Not much of thieves, are you?” the scourge called out as a hand caressed the lever to his left. Old, corrosive...a bit like himself in a way. “We’ve already seen one fake tonight. Why not another?” Fingers tightened, and the lever was wrenched down.

***

Ullr flicked his eyes back from the Magister to his captain. Backing down was not a viable option with the death of Gron Tahir and the Spear of Agemon at stake. Removing the gem would be a trifling task, but...this was at the behest of the Magister, a puppeteer with strings strewn all across the city. Bound by no rules or law, his plan were known to none.

Ullr glanced a quick look at Sylvana with one message in mind: tread carefully.

*
Aendi stood, blades at the ready. The unsheathing had been an almost involuntary reaction to the stranger’s display of power. Magister or not, this man was dangerous. The once-assassin sized up the stranger, eyes lingering on those sapphire blots piercing out from under his hood. Magic seemed to be his forte, but a hidden blade was often the end to a careless assailant. If Aendi was quick enough, then he would be felled before being able to act. Her thumbs traced small ovals over the pommels. If called upon, she would strike swiftly and without mercy. Her teeth grit in her mouth. If called upon, the Saint would strike.

She just had no delusions of killing this one.

*

“So all you ask...is for a gem to be moved onto a chair?” The redundant question bought her a few moments to consider, though Sylvana was afraid she already knew her answer. Sylvana swallowed, praying to Baan that the Magister could not hear her heartbeat.

When in doubt, match the adversary.

Sylvana hefted her halberd across her shoulders. Her stance slacked as she drummed a couple fingers across the pole. If the Magister wanted a fight, he would have already had one. If the captain displayed weakness, he would pounce upon it. What better way to show no fear than to get comfortable?

Iron in face if not heart.

Her head swayed left and right as if debating it, her eyes glossing over the ceiling. Had not the Magister been there, Sylvana would have laughed at how casual she was before her Saints. Now she was trying to will sweat not to seep across her brow.

One last deep breath before it was over. Only time would prove if this were to be the single greatest mistake of her life. “I, Captain Sylvana Raelin, accept your condition.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 128
1/22/2017 19:36:30   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


The Magister’s grin might have been at home on the face of a fiend, and his lambent eyes sparkled at Raelin’s answer. “Then we have an accord. And is there anything sweeter in all the world?” Pivoting to one side, the cowled figure bowed with over-elaborate courtesy, waving the trio of Saints down the passage towards the charnel house beyond.



Strasna stared down at the shattered spear, trying to wrap her mind around what she was seeing.

It was the Spear.

It had to be the Spear. Else why these protections, these traps, this whole horrible subterranean nightmare? The fallen Paladin closed her eyes, shaking her head minutely as her cousin’s voice reached her. Strasna could appreciate the sentiment. Were the Magister here, she was more than certain it would be a great pleasure to drive her rapier through his guts, feel hot blood flow over her hand, watch the freakish light drain from his disturbing eyes… The exile gripped the edge of the case surreptitiously, knuckles white from the strength of her grasp as she fought down the black surge of rage.

Breathe. The slender swordswoman drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a long, slow exhalation as she tried to let the anger go.

Never in anger. Never in hate. You swore, girl. A second breath flowed through her, lips forming an old familiar prayer, a supplication for Ilyra’s mercy. The outlaw pushed aside the smug, icy voice that asked what mercy she deserved. Had there been mercy for any she had encountered this night? The Saints, the acolyte in the temple, Tahir. What mercy could be awarded to the merciless?

She shook her head again slowly. Think. The Magister may have been a cur, and as treacherous as the Blighted were said to be, but Strasna had known the Spear was down here. Or at least, that the “Spear” in the Temple of Baan was a fake, and the true Spear was supposed to be down here. Her eyes opened slowly, and she drew in another breath, sharper this time as she whispered. “The Book of the Wyrm.”

Strasna glanced down at the Spear, nestled on its silken bed, shattered into so many useless fragments. Turning away, the fallen Paladin’s blue eyes moved to Jana and, perhaps to her cousin’s surprise, Strasna smiled as she repeated herself, louder than her previous whisper. “The Book of the Wyrm.”

Her gaze moved to Hendrick, the smirk growing as certainty took root. “No, we are not much as thieves. But you were not there. The Magister holds The Book of the Wyrm. The wyrm cultists have always said The Book of Agemon was filled with lies. He read a passage from the book, an alternative telling of the Battle of the Acolyte and Wyrm. It said that Agemon’s Spear was broken in the combat. This must-”

The elven pirate interrupted her next words by jerking the left-hand lever down. For a moment the rusted lever stubbornly refused to move, and then gave with a screech of tortured metal. Nothing seemed to happen, until the chamber echoed with the sound of grinding gears and a metal cover slid hissed over the Spear-case’s glass, hiding it from view.

Strasna frowned, glancing around. There was no further action from the now shrouded case. The exile crossed the narrow span to the central island, where Hendrik stood near the levers. Reaching out, she closed her hand around the center lever, and with a grunt tugged it back. A resounding crash echoed through the chamber as a heavy slab of metal fell from the ceiling, slamming down over the entry to the room and sealing the Blighted trio inside.

Taking a slow breath, Strasna glanced at the pirate, and then her cousin. “A trap.” The statement was obvious, perhaps unnecessary. “But I see no choice but to spring it.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 129
2/8/2017 21:26:23   
Ryu Viranesh
Member

There was a strong temptation to say more. To launch into a tirade that would strip the Magister of whatever courtesy she still afforded him and reduce that freak to little more than mud in her eyes. Instead, her lips stilled, the girl’s fists clenched tightly shut as she forcibly swallowed her remaining rancor like the bitter pill that it was. None of this makes any sense. Jana sharply sucked in a breath, her eyes drifting closed as she turned her attention inward. No, it really didn’t. Why would the Magister bother to go through the trouble of getting her here if he intended this venture to fail?

The easy answer was that the magus was truly as insane as he seemed; a man so caught up in his own delusions that he was treating all of this as a game. Meaning that all of the pieces were expendable. Jana frowned and shook her head. Chances were that he probably did view them in such a manner, but he didn’t seem the type to discard things that he could still wring some use out of. The staff. It all comes back to the staff. The Magister could have sent her to Strasna without imposing that request on her, but he’d even spent the time to describe exactly what the artifact looked like. He intended her to find it, which meant that he couldn’t have intentionally led them to a dead end. Yet for all the sense that made, the Spear was still broken.

Things just weren’t adding up.

Jana huffed as she opened her eyes, just in time to catch the look that her cousin was shooting her. The manic glare was one thing, but the smile set her back on her heels; the amazon’s left hand shifted in the direction of her cudgel, images of decade old, but never forgotten spars flashing through her mind. Jana’s shoulders slackened only after the woman started to speak, an eyebrow rising up in their stead. The Book? What about the… oh! It came to her just as Strasna brought Hendrik up to speed, the intuition managing to weld the disparate pieces of her theory together. The Magister hadn’t betrayed them. He had led them to exactly what they were meant to find. That left just one question: what were they supposed to do with a broken spear?

The sudden mechanical clamor tabled that thought for later. She’d seen the pirate tugging at one of the levers back on the main island, so it wasn’t difficult to make the connection between those two events. Fortunately, the only discernable change seemed to be that the Spear was now sealed inside its case. Unfortunately, it’s what we came here for. Jana thought drily, leaning forward to take a closer look at the cover. Looks pretty solid, but maybe if I- The girl winced as the second boom reached her ears, her expression more than a little cross as she turned to face her companions, eyeing the slab that now blocked their escape. A trap. Of course. Jana held out for another moment and sighed, stalking back towards the central island.

“When in Palora…” she muttered, reaching over to grasp the rightmost lever and give it a nice firm yank. The mechanism fought her at first, but quickly gave way beneath the strength of her arm, mechanics screeching as the bar depressed into place.

The effect was immediate: the sound of unspooling chains, accompanied by an almost deafening scrape, began to emanate from somewhere in the shadows above. A series of gigantic stones seemed to cascade out of the darkness, plunging into the abyss that separated the leftmost islands. Moments later, the sight was mirrored to their right, another clutch of boulders vanishing into the ether as the chains that hung down on the left began to retract. Weights, her mind belatedly interjected. These stones were a set of enormous weights. Unlike most weights, however, they never seemed to come into balance; the leftmost grouping soared out of the pit and into the ceiling before beginning their descent once more, their right-leaning counterparts now on the rise.

Jana settled her left hand on her cudgel, swallowing audibly as the slabs continued their unusual dance. Silence, broken only by the alternating crashes and a faint mechanical hum. The girl tightened her grasp on her weapon, eyes scanning the area quadrant by quadrant. They’d definitely triggered the trap, so where was it?

*****

“That was almost too easy.” Alice remarked, the only response a faint whistle from the nighttime breeze as she descended the barracks steps. It had become obvious fairly quickly that her target probably hadn’t been expecting anyone to come after her; no less than five Saints had been able to provide detailed descriptions of the woman, down to the color of her eyes and the shape of her nose. They’d all agreed she was wounded, and one had even seen her heading off to north as she departed the barracks. No, whoever the woman was, she was not used to dealing with the ranging corps. All the better for me.

The girl pulled her cloak more tightly around her as she stalked off into the night, as concerned with being seen as much as she was with the chill. It was something of a game amongst the stealth units, to see if they could remain discreet even in the midst of official business. Even though she was no longer a member of her old cell, Alice still availed herself of the game whenever she could. It kept her in touch with old friends; got her useful information that she probably wasn’t supposed to have; and, to be totally honest, she just found it to be downright fun.

Her trip to the northern district proceeded smoothly enough; there were no signs that she had been seen and, perhaps more fortunately, she hadn’t run across any of the hunting parties that were roving around tonight. Alice pursed her lips, turning off of the main thoroughfare and onto a nearby sidestreet. Had Noah tracked down Captain Magro yet? Their company wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the trade quarter, which meant that they probably didn’t have to worry about running into the prisoner. If they found the Quisling though… she shook her head, the envisaged images of Paladin Tahir’s death fleeing to the back of her mind. No, both of them could take care of themselves, even if they did run across the Quisling.

The girl paused, gaze roaming across the street. After a few moments she nodded to herself and crossed back onto the main road; it was possible that her target had taken that side path for a time, but if her goal was to get out of the city then she’d have to merge back onto the main drag somewhere. What the tracker needed now was information, or rather an informant. Someone who’d be out at this hour of the morning - and had been for a while. Weren’t there usually some stands that set up before the sun came out, so that they could catch the- there! Alice grinned and made a beeline for the food vendor, his cart set just far enough off the road that it wasn’t easily visible in the predawn light.

A flash of her badge, and a couple of coins pressed into his palm, was all that it took to get the man talking, and soon enough she knew precisely what alley her little runaway had slipped into. She gave the narrow passageway a thorough search, going so far as to root through the trash that littered its edges, but couldn’t turn up a single clue to where the woman had gone from here. And yet, something stopped her from leaving. She wasn’t certain at first, but the longer she remained the more Alice became convinced: magic had been used here. Her keen senses were the primary reason she’d been enrolled in the ranging program in the first place, but she had an extra advantage over many of her peers. An extra sense.

She gave a quick glance to either side and then slowly reached inside her cloak, withdrawing a small, tightly sealed sack. Alice took her time as she loosened the drawstring, simultaneously working to pinpoint the location where the outpouring of power felt the strongest. Once she stood over the spot, the girl carefully turned the pouch on its side over her remaining hand, a startlingly white, sand-like substance starting to pool in her palm. After returning the sack to its proper place, she held out her hand and then abruptly overturned it, the dust seeming to scatter on the breeze. That is, until its central contingent froze in place.

The sand flared a bright blue, the color staining the grains as they began their slow descent to the ground below. They settled in a rough oval, wide enough for two people to stand in, a faint cloud of azure air rising from the dust. Alice remained still, eyeing the spot until the color bled out of it, a ring of ash all that remained. She couldn’t be sure, but it was likely that her target had met with a mage - since she certainly hadn’t been one - and then been teleported elsewhere. After another few moments she turned on her heel and strode away, the wind picking up in her wake. That meant that this trail had run cold, but she wasn’t off the hunt just yet. Whenever magic was involved, it was often helpful to track things back to their source. And the source of this mess was the burned-out shell of the Third Burning.

A figure bumped into her as she exited the alley, the force of the impact spinning her to the side. Alice started to protest, then froze, taking a good long look at what she was now facing. It was a large, many-paned window, one plane of which happened to be facing the vendor she’d spoken to earlier. It had probably given whoever was watching a pretty good look at her badge as well. The girl clicked her tongue and shook her head, thrusting her hands into her pockets and creeping down the street, trying her best to look normal. The most important thing to know about the game was that it never really ended. A loss was fleeting, but a win you could brag about for weeks.
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 130
2/23/2017 22:19:07   
Apocalypse
Member

Trapped.

Sealed off from their treasure.

And swimming in a myriad of lies and heresy that may hold the truth.

The warrior woman wrenched the final lever, and the screech of metal resounded throughout the chamber. Hendrik dropped to a crouch, hand flying to the pommel of his cutlass as shadows descended from the ceiling. Stormy eyes scrutinized the surroundings as the elf pivoted a fully circle in his stance. Gargantuan chunks of stone attached to chains fell into the the abyss only to be hurled skyward once more. Their counterparts on the other side of the platform mirrored the inverse of their motion. "Don't suppose that wyrm book said anything about giant chained rocks?" His gaze followed one of the sets as it rose up to a slow, almost hypnotic standstill before plunging back down into the darkness below. A bead of sweat dripped down his brow as the scourge racked his brain for the meaning behind it. If the trap had meant to kill them, it would have just dropped the rocks upon them; with little maneuverability on the platforms and the element of surprise, the trio would have been crushed. The air hummed as the boulders rushed past on either side. His heart ticked faster with each plunge and rise. The display was too elaborate to be a distraction. The wind from the next rapid descent rippled his vest and sent cool air across his bare chest. Hendrik took a sharp inhale at the sudden chill. He shook his head as he lost his thought. Did that damn humming have to get louder?

Wait.

"The rocks aren't the trap!" The elf's shout echoed throughout the chamber. "They're powering it!" Metal and stone hurtled past again, reaching new heights and depths with each swing. Eyes darted back and forth across the chamber's contents. "We need to find what..." His gaze fell upon the sealed case. A chill ran down Hendrik's spine. He put an arm out, catching Cendra by the midriff to push her back and place himself between the captain and the trap. "Stay aw-"

The next words were lost as light burst forth from the case's edges. Heat and illumination washed over Hendrik, his hand rising too slow to stop it. As quick as it had appeared, the flare vanished. He turned his neck to glance at his companions as the boulders rocketed past. Before he could speak, the blast emanated from the case once more in sync with the stones. His arm warded off the blow from his face, but the metal cuffs were hot against his skin. He could feel the beginnings of blisters beneath the iron.

The scourge scowled and ripped one of the strips of cloth from his arm and spoke the elven incantation. Cooling the case to crack it had been his intent, but Hendrik watched with wide eyes as a stream of slick, black, and highly flammable oil jetted from his palm and the heat's source.

***


Chnnk. Chnnk.

Pommel to pommel, the Owl struck one of Aendi’s daggers against the other. The blade scraped against the gemstone with each blow, slowly but surely working it from the back of the throne. Each tick of the monotonous beat pushed her heart further into her throat.

“Captain, Sylvana, please,” Ullr said, approaching the throne. He untangled his foot from the banner of some long fallen soldier. A new whiff of death filled her nostrils. “The weight thrust upon you is immeasurable. I cannot begin nor will pretend to understand the magnitude upon your shoulders.” Raelin did not look up, instead allowing the steady sound of bladework to answer for her. “But think - this is a command from the Magister. You must know that this is no fleeting fancy of his.”

“Of course, but we have been gifted passage to chase the Quisling. Renege on our promise, and we risk losing her.” Sylvana’s tongue felt heavy and unnatural in her mouth. She swallowed hard. “There is no other option.”

She could see Ullr open his mouth to say something as the bright topaz popped out and landed in her palm. Instead, the veteran sighed as his captain circled the throne with the fist-sized gem. “So be it.”

The throne sat in front of her, her arm raised above. Such an easy thing, to let something fall. But today, her hand seemed to resist as her fingers opened one by one to release the gemstone.

May Baan forgive me.

Sylvana closed her eyes and glass shattered. She opened them to see her Saints - her Flock - glanced about the chamber for the source. The Owl did not partake as she strode over and handed Aendi back her knives. “Come, we have not the time to dwell in this place.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 131
3/2/2017 22:42:17   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


He stood, waiting.

Each quiet impact of metal to stone sent a shudder through the cowled figure, as though the noise was an inexpressible ecstasy or an unendurable agony. Perhaps it was some queer mix of both.

Amid the stench of carrion rot a new scent arose, though only one of the truly initiated might have smelt that aroma. It was the effervescent smell of magic. Old magic, deep magic, the sort of magic that was rare these days. This was a spell from the Before, and each clinking blow, blade biting grooves into yielding stone, was like slivers driven beneath his nails.

By all the gods, he had never felt more alive. And then he felt the spell shatter, snapping like rotten ice, and the Magister threw back his head and howled, the noise all feral hunger and need. The sound faded away into the creature’s strangely disturbing titter. “Thank you, my darlings. Thank you.



Sylvana’s flock moved down the hall, the light fading away as they moved step by step deeper into the shadows. Their torch became a globe of light about them, pushing back the dark that swallowed them as they moved deeper into the earth. A great crash echoed up the throat of the tunnel, strangely reminiscent of a gate slamming closed. It must have been some impact, for the group walked on and did not find the barrier for another minute more.

When they did, they found a great pitted slab of metal wedged across the cavern mouth. Strange and muffled noises were coming through the entryway, a great clattering and clashing, and a deep rumbling whose vibrations could be felt even through the tunnel walls around them. There was also a strange, atonal humming, a steadily rising and dying off drone just at the edge of hearing, it was enough to make one’s hair stand on end. Whatever was happening in the sealed chamber, it must have been tremendously loud in there.



Strasna twitched as Jana jerked the final lever down, massive weights falling from the ceiling; a seemingly endless chain followed, cascading into the depths as the stones fell further and further. A second set of weights rattled down, descending into the other abyss. But the first set of stone and chain constructs rose, winching back to the ceiling and slamming into some manner of stop with enough force to rattle the exile’s bones. What on… The weights were falling again. It was… It was some sort of system, a machine. There was a growing electric hum in the air, a staticky feeling of building pressure. The second set of weights roared back up towards the roof of the cavern, crashing home before descending once more. “No,” the outlaw replied distractedly, “nothing about falling rocks.”

The interplay of the weights was interesting, but that humming drone was maddening and-

She gasped as she was grabbed from behind, a hand going for her sword reflexively. Hendrik wrenched her backwards, thrusting himself between the slender swordswoman and the Spearcase as the weights rammed into the stops on the ceiling. This time, however, the grinding rumble of stone meeting leather and metal was lost beneath the fury of a furnace’s roar. Light radiated from the Spearcase, shining from every chink and crevice. The midnight darkness of the chamber turned momentarily into a dazzling dawn, flooding out the feeble illumination of the Blighted’s torch. With the light came heat, a blast of searing wind that rippled through Strasna’s short locks like the breath of some massive beast. After a moment the light faded and the subterranean chill struggled back against the hot wind. “What… What just…”

Strasna’s question was swallowed by the next blast as the second set of weights reached the roof of the cavern and there was another burst of dazzling light and heat. What manner of machine was this infernal contraption? What was it doing?

The elven pirate turned his wrist, aiming a hand in the direction of the Spearcase, and then it clicked. They call it the Spearforge. The Spear’s Forge. “Hendrik, no!” But it was too late. A torrent of oil-slick water was flying over the slender bridge, coating the Spearcase just as the weights reached the ceiling. Water sizzled instantly into steam, but the oil took flame with the basso scream of an inferno being born.

-Brightlight. Warmsight.-

Whirling, the exile drew her blade, looking around. There had been a… It could not have been a voice. The cacophony within the chamber was simply too loud for her to have heard it. The voice, her mind insisted it was a voice, for all that it sent a shiver of revulsion down her spine, seemed to come from… everywhere.

-Ripbite. Clawlight.- Strasna winced, the not-voice scraping over her consciousness like nails grating on glass.

The left-hand set of weights sailed up and something tumbled off it. “That… that’s not possible.” The fallen Paladin whispered, staring in shock. The creature uncurled, silver-orb eyes scrunched up against the light of the pyre burning on the Spearcase. It was a stunted thing; its head came up to Strasna’s waist, though a leathery crest over its long-snouted face gave the illusion it was slightly taller. That snout was filled with fangs beneath eyes of solid silver, devoid of pupil or iris. The thing had a gangling appearance despite its short stature, featuring long limbs tipped by wicked claws. The nightmare was completed by a mottled, scaly hide. “A kobold.” No one had seen a kobold in Palora since the time of the Wyrm.

Opening its fanged maw the creature hissed, lunging at the outlaw. Even in her state of shock Strasna reacted swiftly, sidestepping and spearing the growling monster through the back with her blade. -Clawclash. Broodslash.- The exile kicked the dead kobold over the edge and into the pit as the second set of weights rose. A half-dozen kobolds leapt from the weights and landed on the bridge between the central island and the metal-sealed exit.

With a chill, Strasna remembered an old Paloran riddle. What do you call a pack of kobolds?

A devastation.
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 132
3/23/2017 1:17:41   
Apocalypse
Member

With the case aflame, light flickered throughout the chamber and the boulders continued their rhythmic motion. As one of the stones flew past, a short yet lanky figure fell onto their platform. Silver eyes gleamed above reptilian fangs. Before Hendrik could scrutinize more of its form, Cendra skewered it and sent it toppling down into the abyss. The elf brandished his cutlass in one hand and hefted his boarding axe in the other. Right, Hendrik thought as he lowered his center of balance. Captain kills 'em, I kill 'em. Good enough for now. The scourge readied his blade to make short work of the next lizard that reared its ugly head...

...and had to pivot towards the bridge where no less than six had scrambled upon. Eyes of pure silver shimmering in the dark, Hendrik did one of the few things he knew how to do.

He acted.

The first had coiled back to pounce. It cried out in a hideous howl as the cutlass ripped scales from its shoulder and sundered the flesh beneath. The second lurched forward with surprising speed. It caught an axe to the chest as the pirate spun on his feet, using the momentum of the initial swung to fuel the second. The blow sent it careening off the edge and back to the depths from whence it came. A third scrambled past its injured packmate, its jowls hanging open and saliva dripping from its fangs. The elf retreated back a pace, just enough to give the creature enough confidence to dart forward. In that same instant, Hendrik bounded forward, twisting his body in the air with his arms outstretched. The cutlass cut a gash across its snout. The axe ripped a hole in the side of its throat. It clutched and clawed at its own wound as its life flowed forth. Light on his feet, Hendrik flitted back until he stood on the edge of the platform connected to the bridge. The scourge raised his blades and waited for the remaining lizards to make their approach. His heart pounded in his chest, pumping the familiar warmth through him. The elf failed to hide a smile.

Though that smile faded as two of the creatures turned on one of their own.

The dying one was set upon by the pair behind it. Claws and fangs ripped it apart, peeling back scales to expose the flesh and blood. The one Hendrik had injured first approached with some hesitation. Hesitation well-founded as the two snapped at it with bits of bleeding tissue dangling from their jaws. The injured one hissed back before approaching the center platform. The fourth creature followed suit. Hendrik darted his eyes to the passing stone weight, watching for more of these cruel abominations to join the fray.
No loyalty, no sense of kin. Only a desperation fueled by hunger or hate.

Or, gods help them, fueled by both.


***

Steel. A hulking wall of steel now blocked the Saints’ path. Sylvana halted, gripping her halberd tight as she gazed over the construct. There was no discernable door, nor any lever or hatch she could perceive. But it was no dead end, not with the dull screeching emanating from behind the other side. The captain let out a breath, not realizing she had been holding it. This was it. Just beyond that door was…

“Ullr,” the Owl said, the iron call of command filling her voice. “The wall. Find out what’s on the other side.” What we will be up against . “Aendi. Locate our entrance. If there is one.

As the two set forward, Ullr with only a nod and Aendi not even that, Sylvana turned back to the way they had come. If they caught the Quisling here, now, then whatever price she had paid the Magister would be worth it.

Wouldn’t it?
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 133
4/5/2017 23:01:14   
Ryu Viranesh
Member

The fun came to an end long before she saw the Third Burning, all of the signs visible from blocks away. Citizens roused from their slumber stood in the streets, heads craned toward the rising pillar of smoke while their noses wrinkled at the acrid odor. A handful, mostly men, broke away from these gaggling groupings, rushing off in the direction of the danger. Alice nimbly fell into step behind them, ignoring the glances thrown her way as she allowed the samaritans to cut her a path through the crowd. Those were nothing new; when you were barely bigger than a child but knew how to make a grown man cry, you got used to getting weird looks. It was part and parcel of the deal.

Their pace picked up dramatically once they were free of the spectators; Alice held her position at the back of the disjointed formation as it moved toward the smog with an undaunted determination. None of her companions seemed to take notice of the knots of writhing shadows illuminated against the sides of nearby buildings. In their haste, they didn’t even seem to recognize the doleful baying of the fire brigade’s horn. If they had, they might have been more prepared for the devastation that awaited them around the next corner.

The Third Burning had become a pyre fitting of its name; the entire building was engulfed in a blaze which threatened to turn the street into a warzone. The brigade seemed to be doing an admirable job at containing the fire, quickly quashing any sparks that leapt off of the burning building. Alice turned her attention skyward, taking a moment to watch the eddies of smoke drift off into the heavens. The inn was a lost cause, but the rest of the block could be saved.

Not without cost, though. The Saint thought grimly, her gaze falling to the two rows of bodies which lay in state beneath a nearby tarpaulin. She wasn’t certain whether the guards had met their end in the fire or in the fight that had surely preceded it, but they deserved to be honored either way. Any Saint who fell in the line of duty deserved at least that. First, though, there was business that needed to be attended to.

Alice spared a glance for the men that had accompanied her and, content that they weren’t about to do anything stupid, weaved her way through the steadily growing crowd to the perimeter. The thug they’d put on guard-duty shot her an irritated look, midway through opening his mouth to dismiss her when she shoved her badge in his face. He blinked, eyes slowly shifting between the emblem and her diminutive form as his brow furrowed; Alice glared right back, her look daring him to deny her passage. The tough broke first, grunting as he waved her through, his beady gaze still on her back as she strode confidently over the boundary.

After that confrontation, none of the fire brigade seemed particularly eager to ask what she was doing there. Alice ignored the eyes that followed her as she walked up to the burning building, pacing the structure until she was able to slip into the alley to its right. The flames were practically close enough to touch, the heat causing beads of sweat to slither down her skin. Still, this was what she’d come here to see: the scene of the initial conflict with the Quisling’s group of Blighted.

The alleyway certainly looked the part. There were jagged holes torn into the earth paralleled by a scorch mark so dark that the ash had to be mixed with blood. Even without her sixth sense, it would be obvious that a significant amount of power had been let loose here. Either way, let’s see what else I can learn. Alice withdrew the sack of ‘sand’, pouring a healthy handful of the substance into her palm before she cinched the bag shut. Unlike last time, she spread her bounty around, shrouding the alley in a white-tinged haze before she stepped back to watch it do its work.

The air practically exploded with color, bright sea-green enmeshed with dark, woody brown and a sickly yellow run through with black. No, on second thought the green seemed off as well; an oily stain was hidden beneath its glittering surface. Must be the Blight. Never seen what it does to magic before. Fascinating though that may be, none of the auras here matched the one she’d found back in the trade district. Alice bit her lower lip and frowned, eyes roaming over the space for any sign of the distinctive blue hue. What caught her attention was not the dust, however, but the flames above it, the fire steadily consuming more and more of the inn. The girl inhaled sharply, incredulity plain on her face as she shook her head and walked straight through the multi-colored mist. She stopped just before reaching the Third Burning’s outer wall, her eyes flicking over to one of the nearby broken windows.

Maybe…

Alice poured out another pile of sand, casting a cautious glance back at the alley’s mouth before she pulled her arm back and winged the grains into the fire. A couple of moments passed, during which she began to feel more than a little stupid for even attempting this. Then the window flared blue, the same otherworldly azure that had lit up the night to the north. The girl let out a sigh of relief, unable to resist a little chuckle as she turned to depart, the colors fading in her wake.

*****

Mason leaned back against the stone wall of the tomb, his spear held gingerly between his arms as he fumbled for his canteen. He must have done something to tick off Captain Magro, because here he was searching a sodding graveyard, in the middle of the night. The Saint grumbled and took a deep gulp of the ale, both wishing that it was wine and that he was back home, not prowling through a spookyard in the wee hours of the morning.

“Least I can get away with taking it easy,” he muttered, sparing a quick glance to his left and right to ensure that Magro’s watchful eyes were not upon him. The soldier let out a little laugh, raising his flask back to his lips. Magro might be many things, but omnipresent he was not.

“I’m sure the Captain would appreciate that, Trooper Lee.”

Mason spit the alcohol onto the cobblestones below, spear tumbling from his grasp as he stumbled away from the tomb. Only when he caught sight of the intruder did his antics cease, a foul expression on his face as he forced a salute. “I’m sure he would, Lieutenant Sykes, sir.”

The Lieutenant had a small smile on his face as he stepped away from the tomb’s leftmost wall, returning the salute with an almost irritating degree of flippancy. “You might want to pick up your spear, Trooper,” he gestured at the fallen weapon, “since I have a feeling you’ll need it tonight.”

“Dealing with skeletons and ghosts, sir?” Mason bent down and retrieved the pike, lazily flipping it into a defensive position.

“If only.” The amusement drained from the man’s face, his stony expression sobering the young soldier enough that he stood a little straighter. “I need you to take me to Captain Magro. I’ve got some information that I’m certain he’ll want to hear.”

Mason froze, weighing the risk of disobeying the Lieutenant’s orders against the tongue lashing he’d receive from Magro if this wasn’t worth his time. Ultimately, he nodded and motioned for Sykes to follow him. “Right this way, Lieutenant.” He spun on his heel and started to retrace his steps, trying to work out where in the night’s planned route the Captain might be. It would be almost maddening to find him, but at the very least it would get him out of this damn graveyard.

*****

Jana jumped as the chamber flared with sudden illumination, the glare retreating to an earthy luminescence as the pirate’s surge of water set the Spearcase ablaze. She could hear the heavy breaths she was taking, blinking the spots from her eyes as she struggled to regain control. Everything was okay; she was a Saint, and she could handle so much more than a little light-show. She’d slain bandits, tracked bears back to their den, and even engaged in battle with that thing in the previous cavern. Not even Sykes or the Magister had been able to break her. None of those things, however, were kobolds.

Like most children that had grown up in Palora, she’d been told tales of the grubby little mongrels. How they were the harbingers of Vermonox’s coming, and that even in the wake of the wyrm’s fall, a few of the creatures were still out there. Waiting for a child to wander off alone so that they could steal them away and devour them whole. Jana had long ago dismissed those stories for what she thought they were. Legends, fairy tales. Scary stories meant to frighten little kids so that they wouldn’t step out of line. Seeing living, breathing examples of the monsters brought all of those tales rushing back, slowing her approach as she observed the gremlins with wide eyes.

The former Saint saw her cousin and the pirate engage the creatures, the seaman easily taking the upper hand against his grouping of kobolds. So much so that they decided to switch sides and devour their own.

-Longnight. Goresight-

The words echoed inside her mind, a sibilant whisper born from the deepest corners of her psyche. Jana withdrew her cudgel from its holster, her pace quickening to a near run.

-Fillbite. Gnawright-

Her weapon collided with the head of the nearest kobold, collapsing its skull and sending its wiry body flying off of the platform. No more words skittered around in her head, and the creature let out no scream as it plunged to its doom. The other monster that had been feeding let out a fricative hiss, using the body of its fallen comrade to launch itself at her face. Jana was ready, batting the strike aside with her cudgel and spinning to kick the little lizard in the ribs. Then there was a sudden weight on her arm, overbalancing her and forcing the weapon from her grasp.

When she twisted back around, the former Saint found one of the other kobolds attempting to devour her cudgel, teeth over an inch deep in the reinforced club. At that moment, the leftmost weights shot past, and ten more of the monsters landed on the opposite side of the rostrum. Jana glanced between the two groupings, shrugging her uninjured shoulder before she turned and strode toward the new arrivals.

“Strasna,” she said over the clamor, “you and your boyfriend can handle this side. I’ve got that one.”

Jana grinned at the creatures, flexing the fingers of her free hand. She felt the weight start to drain from her legs as her left arm began to engorge; the scales along her forearm hardened and spread, her fingertips thinning to a fell-looking set of claws. Let’s do this.

-Bloodright. Allmight-

One instant there was space between them, the next Jana was thrusting her nails into the throat of the leading kobold, blood spurting across her armor. The young woman casually tossed the corpse off to the side as the rest of the devastation closed on her.

-Farsmite. Deadfight-
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 134
4/23/2017 19:16:06   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


Merkia stared at the bodies. Two rows of corpses laying in the street, cloak-covered and waiting for the cart that would haul them off to the undertaker and their final journey. Illyra’s Supplicant stared at the bodies. Blood seeped from wounds hidden beneath sodden cloth, ran in slow courses between the cobbles to form incarnadine canals. She stared at the bodies and tried to convince herself that she had done the right thing. But she was failing.

My wayward daughter… Strasna had always been swift. In thought and word and deed she had moved fast, struck hard, and shown no hesitation. Merkia had done all that she could to slow Strasna’s swiftness, to make the woman think before she acted. But everything had been undone in a moment of that flashing fury for which her erstwhile pupil had become so infamous.

This was Strasna’s work. Hers and her companions. And mine as well. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers, daughters, mothers, sons. These men and women had left their barracks this morning, little suspecting that the shadow of Death was looming across their lives, closing with each heartbeat. That spectral hand had reached out and gathered them in, and it was her fault.

She felt old, looking down at the bodies. Their neat double line was a silent testament to her hubris. The Supplicant had thought that she could contain this, set Raelin and her hunters onto the trail of her banished daughter and thereby spare them both more heartache.

Perhaps she had spared herself the pain; she had saved herself the anguish of hearing the bells ring. She would not have to listen to the criers on the street corners calling the Saints to arms. There would be no need to witness the streets being searched house by house, to watch families roused in the gloaming light and questioned, to witness Strasna run down in the street like a dog. Quick and clean, the way she would have done it herself. Merkia bowed her head. The hands that had held the blades, the mouths that had chanted the spells, those had belonged to Strasna and her Blighted. But the Supplicant knew those deaths were upon her head.

***

Alice had almost stepped out of the alley when it caught her eye; though the smoldering embers attracted her attention, it was the charred fingers extending skyward that impelled her to approach. The mudhole had seemed pretty nasty from afar, but up close it was obvious that the pit was a deathtrap. The snared Saint had been desperate to escape, the fire pushing him to strive for a freedom that the ensorcelled earth would never allow him to reach. There were still a few brush blazes burning even now, crawling over his skin and staining it like ink on parchment.

The diminutive Saint spared a glance for what remained of the ‘mud’. Once tacky and viscous, the sludge had hardened into a spider’s web of different strands, all of which pooled together in the semisolid muck at its victim’s feet. Disgusting, but probably no longer able to trap her as it had this poor sod. Alice released the clasp on her cloak, taking the garment in hand as she started down the side of the pit.

The heavy cloth used to weave the guard’s uniforms proved to be excellent for smothering fires, at least when they were this small. Soon there were none left to fight, only a smattering of scorch marks revealing that they had ever existed at all. Alice wiped the sweat from her forehead and approached the body, settling the singed mantle around her shoulders as she fell to a crouch. No time to go and grab a rescue crew. Looks like I’ll have to pull him loose. She grunted and looped her arms around his legs, ensuring that her grasp was nice and tight before she shoved upward with all her might. At first nothing happened, but after a few seconds of solid effort, the ooze’s hold started to loosen. One moment the corpse was suspended in place, the next Alice was tossing him over her shoulder as the fingers of hardened soil snapped beneath the strain.

Breath rushed from between her lips, followed swiftly by a growl as she forced her way back up and out of the mire. This one was going to be put to rest with his brothers and sisters, and that was that.

***

“The flames are under control, Supplicant.” Merkia looked up, drawn out of her dreary reverie by the voice of a sooty Saint who had come to a halt just behind her. She half turned towards the man, taking in the sergeant’s emblem worked into his stained tunic and tiredly noting several holes singed into the woolen garment by cinders from the blaze. “Ma’am,” the sergeant inquired after the Supplicant made no reply to his report, “is something wrong?”

Too many things to count. But Merkia held those words inside, turning her gaze from the Saint to the charred husk of the tavern. “See that the proprietor is sent to the exchequer at the temple of Illyra.”

“Ma’am?” The sergeant was young, perhaps newly raised to his post. He asked the not-question with all the curiosity of youth, and then colored furiously when he realized just who it was he was questioning.

The Supplicant managed a wan smile, though it was not so reassuring as it might have been. “Illyra’s temple will see to restitution for the damages to the inn.” She lifted a hand and shook her head gently, forestalling another question. “See to it, sergeant. Illyra’s blessings on you.”

Thankfully the dismissal sent the man scurrying off to do his duty, leaving Merkia alone with the dead. She took one last look at the wreckage of the inn, and then turned back to the double row of corpses. The Supplicant folded her hands before herself, and then opened them in a slow and spreading gesture, holding her hands open as in offering as she began to pray.

***

Surprisingly, the trek grew easier as time went on. Once she left the sloping walls of the mudhole behind, Alice’s pace picked up dramatically, back straightening as she allowed her arms to support more of the corpse’s weight. Pretty heavy guy. He was probably the butt of some jokes when he was a kid. The Saint grinned through the strain, each step more sure than the last. She could do this. The rows of bodies were visible from the mouth of the alleyway; just a little bit further.

The Ensign’s expression fell when she caught sight of Merkia, her countenance shifting to a long-practiced grimace. It wouldn’t do to be seen smiling in such a dismal situation, particularly in front of the Supplicant. Alice wasn’t particularly happy anyway, so why not look the part? As she drew closer to the woman, it became increasingly obvious that the Supplicant was lost in her own world. Probably praying for the fallen. Something that she should do herself, come to think of it.

Ignoring the looks many of the other Saints were giving her, Alice walked right past Merkia and set the body down at the end of the topmost line. After a moment’s thought, she whipped her cloak from her shoulders and drew it over the corpse, setting her hands in her lap as she closed her eyes and murmured a familiar litany. One which all Saints were taught before they became troopers: Illyra’s Prayer for the Fallen.

Merkia’s eyes opened at the sound of someone approaching; it was a woman in the uniform of a Saint, burdened down by the weight of another corpse. The Supplicant’s hands fell to her sides and the whispered words slipped out before she could stop them. “Another body for the pile…” She looked at the Saint as the woman draped her own cloak over the fallen man and knelt beside him, murmuring familiar words. “Did you know him?”

Though the words reached her ears, Alice remained quiet after she completed her prayer, staring down at the mantle-shrouded body for another couple of moments. “No. I’d never met him before.” She started slowly. “He was one of us though. Couldn’t let him turn to ash in that hell- pit. The mud-filled ditch that one of the Quisling’s allies carved into the alley. So I pulled him out.”

She had pulled him out. And I all but pushed him in. Merkia’s gaze went to the covered body. Her voice was weary. “I knew them all. Each and every one. They were my children.” Children she had sent to their unknowing graves. “I make a poor mother.” The Supplicant glanced towards the Saint. “I thank you for this service. May I ask your name?”

Alice frowned, but rose to her feet, only to turn and bow to the Supplicant. “I am Alice, milady. Alice Lynch. A Sergeant in the Saints and Third-in-Command of Captain Magro’s squad.” She paused, grimacing once again. “And, excuse my insolence, but you don’t need to thank me for standing by my brothers in arms.”

“Captain Magro…” Merkia frowned slightly, her mind turning the name over until she found an association to attach to it. “Then it is duty well performed. But why are you here, Sergeant Lynch? Your squadron is not on the patrol rotation.”

The Saint smiled ruefully, gently shaking her head. “We weren’t, but given the current state of emergency, we were turned out hours ago to search for the traitor. I was left back at the barracks to coordinate things, but I’ve since received orders to recapture an escaped prisoner: One of the Quisling’s conspirators who might just have it out for my commander.”

“The traitor, you say.” The Supplicant looked down at the bodies. “This is the second time you have mentioned the Quisling.” Merkia’s eyes flicked back up to Alice, shrewd and piercing. “We know a group of Blighted are loose in the city, plotting some manner of evil. But what makes you so certain the Quisling has returned?” She had to ask the question, but in her heart of hearts, Merkia knew it was true. Strasna was back. There had been no word from Raelin, and it was past time when she might have reported that all was well at the Temple of Baan. Perhaps Merkia simply needed to hear it from another’s lips.

“Saints intelligence.” Alice said simply. “And assuming that I doubted that, one of my superiors is the person that interrogated the prisoner I’m after. She never outright admitted that she was working with the Quisling; in fact, she went out of her way to deny it. Far too strongly. Couple that with the presence of potent magic, which was used to teleport her somewhere in the city, and I don’t know who else we could be dealing with.” The girl set her hands against her back, meeting the woman’s steely gaze with one of her own. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, milady, but this is definitely the work of the Quisling. Treating it as anything less is a risk that I’m not willing to take.”

“As you say.” Merkia turned back towards the bodies. “It is as you say.” There could be no more hope of secrecy and deception. There had been too much death. She would do what she should have done from the start: tell the truth and do her duty to Palora. “The Owl and her Flock seek the Quisling at the Temple of Baan. If the Quisling has returned, her goal is the Spear. The Conclave must be convened. Return to your captain, Sergeant Lynch. Wake the Quartermaster, or find him. Let the Saints be roused. The Blighted skulk through the shadows. We will make these streets blaze with Baan’s light.”

Alice saluted the Supplicant, filing away everything that she’d learned; Magro and Noah would be interested in hearing a more complete brief of the situation. “Understood, milady. If I may, I suggest that you spread word that there is a powerful magic user supporting our foes. I’ve no idea who they are, but I found traces of their power in an alley to the north, where the prisoner fled, and here inside the inn. Their power isn’t Blighted, but they’re clearly supporting these dastards.” The Saint brought a hand to her mouth, flushing slightly. “If that is all, I will excuse myself, milady.”

A shiver ran through the Supplicant at Alice’s words. A powerful mage... The Saint’s warning raised the specter of a blue-eyed shadow, a sinister memory that whispered at the back of Merkia’s mind. “They will not go unwarned.” She replied, lifting a hand in benediction. “Go with the grace of Illyra, Alice Lynch. It may be that many futures turn upon this night.”

“May she also be with you, milady.” Alice whispered, bowing once more before she spun on her heel and departed. She carried with her a chill that had not been there when she arrived, a worry that she couldn’t quite shake. The Saint had seen the Supplicant’s reaction to her words, and that unnerved her more than anything. The woman whom had served as the steadiest of the city’s Archons, even in the wake of the Quisling’s betrayal, was afraid.



He walked, humming.

Each step was placed with poise, and the Magister almost seemed to skate over the cavern floor. He giggled like a schoolgirl, twirling as he danced into the sepulcher. The cowled figure leapt lightly, bounding agilely through the gristly piles of corpses and coming to a stop with a flourishing bow before Beauty’s throne.

Dropping to his knees, he turned and rested the side of his face against the stone seat, eyes glittering as bright as the quiescent topaz waiting so innocently there. “Hello again. Aloha, kaixo, hola, buna!” He cackled manically, spinning up to his feet and whirling in a frenetic circle. “Oh yes, hello and hello and hello again!” The Magister sobered a moment later, walking a slow counter-clockwise orbit about the throne. “So many years,” he croned. “Soooo long.”

He paused before the high seat, going down to one knee again as though to pledge fealty. “But you remember me, don’t you? Oooooh yes you do.” The Magister giggled again, rising and bowing formally. “This is the last turn, my lady. One way or another, yes, the last turn before the wheel is smashed. May I have this dance?”

There was a long and silent pause as lambent eyes watched the gemstone unblinkingly. No audible reply came to the robed man’s question, but he laughed all the same as he scooped up the stone. Turning once, twice, thrice, the Magister thrust the stone into the air and vanished in a clap of thunder that extinguished all the torches in that forsaken ossuary.



The weights thundered along their courses as Strasna turned towards the kobolds. But before she could act Hendrik slipped by her, charging into the cluster of scaled monstrosities. Axe and cutlass flashed in the dim light as the elven pirate ripped into the kobolds like a scythe through wheat. A fierce grin flashed across the exile’s face, but it faltered a moment later, and the joyous expression was replaced by one of revulsion as the hale beasts devoured their injured compatriots. Illyra might have mercy for the weak and injured, but the kobolds had none. In the space of a few moments the wounded were ripped apart and consumed, only a few bloody smears on the stone testament to the fact they had ever been in the first place.

Across the platform Jana waded in, delivering punishing blows from the bludgeon she favored and sending more of the fanged monsters back into the pit with shattered bones and crushed skulls. Her cousin’s voice rang out over the raucous clangor of the chains, and her kinswoman hurled herself towards a new pack of kobolds dropping onto the left-hand bridge.

Boyfriend? The fallen Paladin mentally shrugged off the jab. There would be more than enough time speak with Jana later, preferably when they were not about to be eaten. The weights on the right side roared up, carrying with them another load of hissing death. Kobolds leapt from the stone, landing on both the bridge to her left and the bridge directly before her. How are they so many?

“Hendrik, the left!” The outlaw did not pause to see if her directive was followed; she darted forward, bounded around the levers at the center of their island, and charged the quintet of beasts on the slender stone span linking the central platform to the island from which they had entered the Spearforge.

A stepping lunge carried her into the first kobold, arm and rapier in perfect harmony as razored steel rasped through scale and flesh. The monster spasmed; claws scrabbled at her extended arm, shredded through cloth, and gouged into leather. Strasna grimaced, twisting the blade and wrenching it back as her boot came up and delivered a solid kick that sent the mortally wounded beast bouncing into its companion. The second kobold snarled as it immediately tore into the first, oblivious to anything but its meal, even as the momentum imparted by the impact sent both creatures skidding off the span and into the chasm.

The slender swordswoman’s hand curled into a clawing gesture that enveloped the trio remaining on her bridge in a cloud of choking ash. Strasna’s blade twirled up into a ready position for another lunge, but the kobolds burst from the cloud in a growling, snarling mass. The exile cursed, bobbing left and slashing, scoring a line across one of the monster’s ribs. Sidling to her right she kicked again, clipping a kobold and sending it back down into the abyss with its fellows. The third skidded several feet down the bridge after missing its leap, pivoted, and then came slavering back at Strasna.

Her right hand snapped out like lightning, catching the leaping beast by the throat and tightening her grip. She kept up the pressure as the monstrosity thrashed, scouring bleeding furrows across her arm as it raked its way through her leather glove. Strasna snarled through the pain and clenched all the harder, feeding her fury into her grip until she felt cartilage crackle. The kobold’s silvery eyes bulged and its jaw worked in a soundless howl. The fallen Paladin lifted the flailing beast to eye level as its frenetic struggles began to slow. “Tell them,” she rasped, giving the kobold a savage shake, “tell them they will find naught but fire and death here.” The exiled turned and hurled the monster into the abyss.

She need not have bothered sending a messenger. The stones roared back up, weighted with another load of kobolds coming to receive word themselves. With a curse, the outlaw glanced back towards the Spearcase. Hendrik’s flames were guttering, but the structure itself seemed largely unharmed by the inferno. A lone kobold clawed its way onto the Spear platform. But its silvered eyes narrowed and it shied away from the dying flames with a hiss. They fear the flame.

“Hendrik!” Strasna cried out to the corsair. “More oil!”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 135
5/19/2017 19:51:47   
Apocalypse
Member

“Bridges. Four. All connecting to a central platform,” Ullr began, his hand grazing across the stone floor. His hand came to a pause as his brow furrowed. The veteran gave a slight shake of his head. “Two additional platforms, but they’re...in motion. Up and down. Cause unknown.” Ullr rose to his feet and brushed his hands off.

“The Quisling?”

“Several humanoids. And multiple...others. That was all I could gather, captain.”

Sylvana nodded. “Aendi?”

“Wedged slab. No triggers, no discernible mechanism.” She gave the bottom a kick. Light flashed through the crack to accompany the low hum. “Too slim to fit through.”

The Owl tightened the grip on her halberd before setting it aside. “Then force it is. To the stone.”

And the three pushed ‘til sweat dripped down their brows and their legs gave way beneath them. But the stone did not budge.

“Damn it,” Sylvana swore. Her heavy steps clanged against the floor. She had given chase to the Quisling through the city, nipping at her heels. She had plunged down into the catacombs unknown to all but the most revered members of the Saints. And here was where her journey would come to an end? The Quisling would escape her clutches thanks to the grace of a mere hunk of rock? She hefted her halberd and roared. Blow after blow fell against the wall as the captain freed her frustration. “Damn it damn it DAMN IT!”

The clanging of metal against stone came to an end with her strikes. Sylvana stood there, heavy breaths accenting the rise and fall of her chest when there was a screech on the opposite side of the slab. It was a light at first, but rose to a fierce discordance. Something was on the other side trying to make its way through. And it was succeeding. “Saints!” Sylvana called out. Her expression hardened. “To arms!”


***


It was a sickening sight, the reptiles ripping into the flesh of one of their own. Hendrik would have lost the contents of his stomach had he not been distracted by the pair of scaled brutes approaching him. Spittle freely dripped from their jowls as they peered at him with their haunting eyes. The elf leveled his cutlass at the approaching silver gazes. They crept closer and closer, but it was the the scourge who pounced first. Left, right, right again. Blade, axe, blade, blade. With impressive grace, Songblade bounded around his prey as the blows fell upon them. One slash carved a cruel groove across the creature’s eye. The second lopped off several of its claws. Blood trailed its fingerlike appendages as they spiraled down into the abyss. The cutlass darted like a snake on the third strike, piercing in and out of its torso as if without resistance. The creature’s form crumpled as its brethren lunged forward with snapping jaws. The scourge pirouetted out of its reach before plunging his blade down its gaping gullet. The beast gurgled before Hendrik ripped his blade free. The steel widened the monster’s grin on one side before it too fell lifeless into the pit.

With these foes vanquished, Hendrik braced himself for the next onslaught. The remaining two, however, did not advance on the pirate. Instead, they had turned tail after finishing their meal and began clawing at the wall. The elf paused as he wrestled with the idea of finishing off the vagrants versus fortifying their perimeter when Cendra called out the next wave.

Hendrik dashed over as more of the vile creatures leapt from the weight onto the bridge. He sheathed his cutlass before pulling free one of the wraps around his waist. Speaking the words of power, the elf unleashed a waterfall that crashed onto the oncoming horde. The pungent, stagnant smell wafted over him as several of the creatures were washed over the edge from the pounding force. One still clinging to the bridgework was pulled down by his scrambling companion with a howl. The scourge pounced upon his remaining adversaries, battering the remnants off the sides with his blades. Savage cries were lost among the constant beat of the machinations about the room.

Despite the number, his companions were faring well for now. The warrior Jana tore through her victims with her demonic arm, a vicious image pleading true to the populace’s fear of the Blighted. Ash and blood swirled around Cendra as she devastated her foes through might and magic. Hendrik felt his heart catch in his throat for a second. If he could fall in love again, he supposed that now would have been the moment.

What reprieve he had was pulled out from underneath him. “Hendrik! More oil!” The scourge caught the flinching form of a reptile as it slipped away from the wavering flames of the forge. He cursed himself even as he made his way to towards his target. The Blight had tarnished his water acts and never returned control over it. The odds were one in three in that he would succeed. Nonetheless, the elven figure pulled the band of cloth free from his arm. There was a pause as inspiration struck. What if he could guide the act? The written incantation was already complete, but what if the oral was altered to match the desired outcome? A risk to be sure, but if it worked…

Whispering for favor from Lady Luck, Hendrik spoke. “Sri di veran koni peser levo finek vetal!” Through fate or fortune, the familiar slickness of black burst forth from his hand. With a roar, the sputtering flames erupted into another inferno, casting wicked shadows upon the walls. Hendrik gave devilish grin through the flames.

Stay here and be surrounded, or make a stand with the fearsome flames at their backs. The choice seemed obvious. “To the case! To the fire!”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 136
7/18/2017 21:13:15   
Ryu Viranesh
Member

Magro’s patrols found them long before they were able to find him. The Trooper at his side - Mason Lee, a veteran of nearly three years with the squad - seemed no more surprised than did Sykes himself when the soldiers surrounded them. One of the Saints stepped forward, peering at them both from beneath the brim of his mail cap, his eyes reduced to glimmering pinpricks in the predawn light.

“That you, Lieutenant? And Lee? I thought you were supposed to be searching the graveyard, Trooper?” A few of his company chuckled, their commander indulging their amusement for a few moments before quieting them with a look.

Lee opened his mouth to retort, but Sykes set a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder; the Trooper glared over at him, but remained quiet, swallowing his objections like a particularly bitter remedy. The Lieutenant nodded approvingly and returned his attention to the patrol’s leader, the ghost of a smile curving onto his lips as he considered the man. Sergeant Hart. A good soldier with a distinguished record of service that dated back to before the Roshon War. Better he found us than Carter; we’d have been here all morning.

“I commandeered the Trooper’s services to lead me back to the Captain, Sergeant. There have been some… issues back at the barracks which Magro needs to be appraised of as soon as possible.” Sykes crossed his arms. “There was no one else available, so I took it upon myself to track him down and pass on the message.”

Hart gave him an almost imperceptible nod, gesturing for his troops to stand at ease while they spoke. “Understood. The Captain’s currently at the border between the Eastern Quarter and the temple grounds. I can take you to him if you’d like, Lieutenant.”

It took only seconds to reply in the affirmative, but before the first word had even left Sykes’ lips Alice Lynch seemed to melt out of the shadows. She strode right between two of Hart’s Saints, giving the men the sweetest of smiles as she pulled down her hood. That blithe expression only soured when her eyes finally settled on him, the corners of her mouth turning abruptly downward, though the woman’s gaze told a different story. Her green eyes contained a confusing jumble of different emotions: worry, exhaustion, and a strong undercurrent of determination. Before he could even begin to make sense of what her expression conveyed, Alice looked away, her attention reorienting on Hart as she came to a halt.

“You’ll need to take me as well, Ryan. I’ve got new orders for our squad, straight from the Supplicant.”

Though most of his company seemed shocked, Hart himself regarded Alice with a bemused calm that came from years of casual association with the girl. “Yes, Miss Lynch. We’ll be happy to ferry you to the Captain, if you’ll please follow us.” She stuck out her tongue, but followed after the Sergeant’s lead, slowly drifting back until she was even with the Lieutenant. Lee seemed to take the hint and sped up his pace, slipping into friendly conversation with the rest of Hart’s patrol. Sykes allowed a moment of silence to pass before he shot her a glance, her eyes meeting his in nearly the same instant.

“Did you locate the target?” He whispered, hoping that his words wouldn’t travel any further than her ears.

Alice frowned and shook her head, though her response contained nothing of its usual petulance at her failure. “Managed to follow her as far as the Northern quarter. She met someone there who teleported her to another part of the city. I tracked their magic back to the inn where the Blighted met - the Third Burning. I don’t know who they are, but they’re definitely bad news, assuming they’re backing our intruders.”

The Lieutenant shut his eyes, blocking out the world around him as he worked to absorb the new information. A mage? Teleported? If there truly was some kind of powerful wizard supporting these Blighted, then… Sykes flicked open an eye. “You mentioned new orders? From the Supplicant, of all people?” The glare that Alice shot him was filled with true venom, a hostility more real than whatever play-acting they often engaged in. Ah, that’s right. Illyra is her patron of choice. Baan’s brightness, he was going to pay for that later.

He could still feel her eyes on him even after he averted his own, the girl’s rising irritation finally culminating in a hissed exhalation of breath. “Per her orders,” Alice began, “our squad is to either wake or locate the Quartermaster and instruct him to rouse the Saints.”

Sykes stumbled, barely managing to catch himself and still keep pace with his counterpart. His normally severe countenance had given way to a wide-eyed stare, regarding the Ensign as though she’d suddenly grown a second head. “Wait, we’re moving to full alert? They’re actually going to treat this seriously?” The unspoken ‘for once’ hung in the air, but Alice’s only reply was to flash an unreasonably smug smile, humming a cheery little tune as she trotted onward. Sykes shook his head and set his own lips in a thin line, muttering a few oaths beneath his breath. Come on, Noah. You can do this.

“All right, I get it. I am glad that this is being handled properly, and I’m sorry that I insulted the Supplicant.” The Lieutenant paused, taking a deep breath. “What’s really wrong, Alice?” She seemed not to register his words, her steps quickening as she pushed their pace. “It isn’t like you to be so flippant in the face of trouble. If we’re actually being called to arms, then we need to treat this with all the severity it deserves. Anything less, and…” He cast his eyes downward, brow furrowing.

Alice held out for a moment more before she visibly deflated, her jaunty and confident outer shell giving way to the weary soldier that lay beneath. “I know, Noah. It’s just that the Supplicant…” The young woman trailed off, the sound of the company’s booted footsteps momentarily overtaking their conversation. “The Supplicant was scared.” The words were soft, barely audible over the din. “When I told her that a magus might be supporting that group of Blighted, I could see the fear in her eyes. It makes me think that there’s something very wrong in this city.”

Sykes’ silence spoke volumes. Neither spared the other a single glance, but both still knew that the same worry which had infected her was now just as deeply rooted in him.

The remainder of their journey passed by in flashes and spurts. Left with footsteps in place of Alice’s conversation, Sykes trudged along with scarcely a care for the outside world. He stared ahead without focus, troublesome thoughts turning his attention wholly inward. It was only as they crossed over Magro’s outer perimeter that he felt awareness return to him, his body straightening as duty banished both worry and exhaustion.

Alice extended her arms out behind her head. “You can give your report first. Otherwise he’ll be wondering why you came.” Sykes gave her a clipped nod before both fell into step behind Hart, the Sergeant guiding them the remainder of the way to Magro’s pavilion before finally stepping aside. All three of them saluted, though it was Hart who announced their arrival to the commander.

Captain Magro cut an imposing figure. Standing at perhaps an inch over six feet tall and with a frame that would be called ‘well-muscled’ on the worst of days, it was difficult not to. The man’s dirty blond hair was trimmed to an extreme, the closeness of the cut bringing out the harshness of the angles that composed his face. His uniform was simple, traditional; nothing that would distinguish him from the thousands of other Saints in the city. He needed no visual distinctiveness to stand out.

It wasn’t his body that intimidated most men, however, it was his eyes. Behind those rich amber irises lay a cunning that most would have trouble attributing to the jocular Captain of the third division’s eighth squad, and yet it was perhaps his most vital quality. That wily intelligence was what had put this squad on the map, made it different from all the others beside it.

Magro impressed the ideal of brotherhood upon his command, ensuring that his soldiers not only fought together, but also ate together, drank together, and relaxed together. The friendships that developed among this unit were tight, tighter than any other. When push had come to shove, those relationships had held firm, flourished even. That was how this squad survived. That was how they lived.

Magro regarded them now with a look of careful consideration, the map on the makeshift table before him all but forgotten.

“At ease, all of you.” He said at last, his low basso carrying clearly even amidst the bustle of activity. “I expect that there is a good reason both of you are here before me, given that I left you back at the barracks.”

Sykes couldn’t be sure, but he fancied that there was a touch of wry amusement to the Captain’s words, that thought bolstered by the ephemeral smile on his face. The Lieutenant resisted the urge to glance to his side and stepped forward, snapping off a quick secondary salute before he launched into his report. Once he was finished he fell back at the same time that Alice moved forward to give her own. Magro listened silently all the while, nodding every so often but otherwise betraying not a single hint of his feelings. He was quiet after Alice returned to her place, staring at the spot she’d occupied with an almost frightening intensity.

“So that’s it.” The Captain said at last, his attention flicking up to his two officers. “You two have done well to come to me with this. It looks like someone with sense has finally ordered what should have been done in the first place.” Magro nodded in Hart’s direction. “Recall all of our patrols, Sergeant. We’re to reform at the barracks, where I presume they’ll have further orders for us.” Hart presented a crisp salute, rushing off to see the Captain’s will done. “Now then... Lieutenant, Ensign.” They both stood at attention.

“I want you to gather a small team and search out the Quartermaster. If I’m right, the old gloryhound is probably still slumbering in his manse. Go knock on the door and rouse him, will you? Lastly,” the Captain’s voice rose, bolting both of them in place, “as regards the matter of the escaped prisoner.” Magro’s expression became cloudy, his eyes obviously elsewhere. “Should she turn up, I will deal with her myself. Consider the matter closed in the meanwhile. Go.”

Sykes and Alice exchanged a brief, but confused, glance before saluting and turning to depart. The conversation that followed turned not to Magro, but to which Saints should be taken on their mission to locate the Quartermaster. Palora stood on the edge of a crisis - they could consider the Captain’s peculiarities at a later date.

*****

For an indeterminable stretch, Jana’s world became a tacky mix of blood and sweat, most of the former the kobolds’ and much of the latter her own. Or so she earnestly hoped. In the midst of such a melee it was truly impossible to tell, and with every acrid scent or splash of viscera she had to wonder whether she would be the next one to crash to the ground. The only encouragement to keep going came from the kobolds’ near nonstop chatter; their ‘voices’ had collected into a strident drone, words rising to the top of this sea of sound as though they were castaways gasping for air.

-Toughbite… Closekite…-

They rushed forward again, as though they were guided by some puppeteer’s invisible hand. One leapt from the left, followed quickly by another from the right. The first is a feint. Jana slid her left leg back and to the side, shifting herself into the second kobold and shouldering it away while the first melted back into the mass.

Before they could come together for another attempt, her left arm shot forward, grabbing one of the gremlins by the neck and tossing it over the side. Don’t waste this. Then she reversed her momentum, bringing her arm back around so she could rake her claws along the front of their formation. The warrior grinned, a deep satisfaction filling her as her nails tore through hide.

The kobolds had no care for the demise of their own, the devastation surging forward again as though it hadn’t taken a single wound. They tried to overwhelm her this time, coming at her from three, four, five different angles, all teeth and claws and death. They’d made a critical mistake, however: Jana could be every bit the monster that they were.

-Nowsmite… Toomight…!

The former Saint met their charge head on - literally. Her forehead crashed into the creature in the lead, the vicious headbutt knocking it straight to the ground. The claw, meanwhile, found purchase in the chest of another of the brutes, practically tearing it in half as she pulled herself free. The remaining three kobolds were upon her before she could react, two fastening their teeth about her ankles and the third somehow managing to leap atop her back from behind.

Jana stumbled forward from the impact, the girl following through with the motion and whipping her right leg at the kobold that was stunned on the ground. Her little anklebiter collided with its sibling, the gremlin losing its grip as both were sent tumbling over the edge of the bridge.

“Aaaah…!” She gasped in pain as the remaining kobold’s teeth sank through her uniform pants and pricked skin, the beast on her back tearing through her clothing with abandon. In that moment, the soldier fell back on what years of training had beaten into her. Jana followed her instincts. She fell.

The clinging kobold was crushed beneath her back, a sickening crunch echoing through the cavern as its bones were reduced to paste. The remaining beast she smashed repeatedly into the bridge below, refusing to relent until it slid slack from the limb, dead perhaps several times over.

Jana let out a breath, then another, gingerly pulling herself up from the floor. She winced slightly as she put weight on her left leg; it ached, but it would hold her for now. Her eyes glanced around the room, attempting to take in the current situation. Just in time for yet another devastation to leap from a rising weight, the carnivores’ silvery eyes centering on her almost immediately.

She took a step back, then another. Reason had returned to her now, and she knew that there would be no overcoming another of these packs as she was. The kobolds advanced, teeth chattering as they practically fell over themselves to get at her. Then the room burst into light, the sudden glare receding to a more manageable level as the creatures shied away, eyes clenched shut.

-Toobright! Toobright…!-

Jana heard the pirate’s impassioned call to arms, and after sparing one last glance for the beleaguered kobolds, began a cautious retreat. She held her claw out before her to ward off any that might have dared to beset her, but reached the Spearcase without any trouble. Glancing briefly at the blaze burning atop it, the warrior then shot the seaman a smile as she settled into a comfortable defensive stance.

“So, ever come across anything like this out on the seas?”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 137
8/13/2017 15:10:11   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


The grating clangor of something, somethings scraping and colliding with the metal barrier grew, eclipsing the rhythmic booming that was leaking into the hall. There was a snarl cut short by a whimper and followed by a rending snap. A moment later the scratching and screeching resumed. Rock crumbled away beneath claws, and a scrawny form surged through the narrow gap between steel and stone.

A slender reptilian horror faced the trio of Saints, squinting at them with its silver orb eyes. For a long and silent moment the kobold stared at the three, scenting the air. And then it opened its fanged maw and hissed.

-Purebright. Clawlight.-

An answering hiss, like a nest of disturbed vipers, washed up the hall, and a veritable swarm of kobolds came boiling through the opening, tearing the gap wider with their passing.



More kobolds dropped from the weights, or scrabbled up the columns that supported the stone islands. It made no difference. Scale gave way to steel, and black blood stained the stone. Strasna withdrew, the wolf-smile returning as Hendrik doused the Spearcase again. The blaze of strengthening light drew a reflexive wince from her, but she approached, drawn in by the raging inferno.

The fire sang. There was no other way to explain it, no words the fallen Paladin could use to make others understand. Before the Blight, when everything had been… different, the slender swordswoman had heard that song, felt its warmth, whenever she manipulated the flame. The longer she languished beneath the corruption, the harder it became to hear the notes within that roaring blaze, to even remember them. But sometimes…

Sometimes she could hear it clearly.

Perhaps it was the Spear’s presence, perhaps a gift of mercy from Illyra, or perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the fire called her. Strasna walked slowly past her cousin, shrugging away the girl’s hand and moving closer to the roaring inferno. Jana was saying something, but the only noise the outlaw could hear was the siren song of the flame. Her rapier clattered to the stone as her arms rose as though to embrace the blaze. Heat seared across her face as the fire danced over the Spearforge.

And Strasna smiled.

-Purebright. Clawlight.- The mental chorus shrieked, a living carpet of kobolds surging up the rocky precipice. Swarming the far island and the metal slab sealing the chamber, the devastation hissed and writhed in a blood-mad frenzy. -Clawlight. Clawlight! CLAWLIGHT!-

“Jana, Hendrik, get down.” The former Paladin’s voice was tightly controlled as she turned, putting the fire at her back. Between her palms was a ball of flame that jittered and vibrated unsteadily.

There was no other warning. With a cry equal parts focus and ferocity, the outlaw thrust her hands forward, casting the fireball like a tiny meteor at the devastation. It was followed a second later by a raging torrent of flame, a crimson banner that trailed after the ball in a wave of consuming fire. The swordswoman’s cry became a wrenching scream of pain, as the moment of blessed clarity passed. But she bore down, feeding the pain back into her spell as her garments began to smolder. No more. Let the pain be mine. I accept it.

The kobolds burned, and so did Strasna.
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 138
10/20/2017 15:46:57   
Apocalypse
Member

Hendrik glanced about the thronging mass of putrid scales and gnashing teeth. Orbs of silver scuttled like crayfish in the darkness, hesitant to approach the light. He flipped his boarding axe in the air and caught it with a flourish before returning Jana’s grin and giving a shrug. “A few. More fins, less feet.”

The reptilian onslaught was brought to a temporary halt as the hellish flames burned in the dungeon. White knuckles tightened around leather grips as wave after wave rose from the abyss and joined their brethren on the platform. The flames would die down soon enough, and he had only so many acts left to keep it burning. Assuming he could even depend on his magics to produce the oil required. His thumb ran up and down one of the rings on his right hand. Was this one a fake or one of the few real ones left? It had been some time since he had to pawn off one of his trinkets. The scourge wet his lips. ‘Twas bad luck to whisper a prayer on a false piece of fortune. Shipwrecks and storms were brought by such heresy.

He whispered it all the same.

As if in answer, Cendra strode forth, approaching the flames like a sailor lured in by the siren’s song. There was neither fear nor urgency in her eyes as she drew toward the forge. Her closeness was unsettling, so much that Hendrik had half a mind to leap forward and drag her away. Yet...when the captain turned and ordered her soldiers down as the firelight danced between her hands...it erased all doubt in the pirate’s mind. Without a second thought, the elf hit the floor as the inferno was unleashed.

A maelstrom of flames fell upon the scaled creatures, their force transformed into a living pyre. Shrieks and cries echoed throughout the chamber as beast after beast burned. “Now I haven’t seen this at sea.”

His grin disappeared as a new scream joined the forsaken lamentations. Smoke billowed off of Cendra’s form as the fire threatened to consume, no, was consuming her. The flames did not waver as the torrent bore through scale and hide alike to leave naught but ash behind. Hendrik swore; this captain was too protective of her crew and would be burned alive if this continued.

The whispering of the words of power was followed by a curse as acidic liquid bound the elf’s blade to his cuff. He willed the act to end, and the fluid dropped with a splatter onto the stones. Spoken once more, the cuff rattling as acid again latched his weapon to his wrist. “By the gods-”, Hendrik spat as the wretched result fell to the floor. His hand grasped the metal encasing his wrist and clenched it fierce. Through tight teeth came the words. “Suresh ethne vatol!

Water - repugnant and stale and glorious - leapt from the runes on his cuff and twisted their way through the air to the the waiting hilt. Cracks split the metal at the edges of the mystic symbols, showcasing the wear that it had been dealt. Ignoring the damage, the pirate whipped the tendril of water in the air towards Cendra’s smoking form. Too little? Too late? No time to think, only instinct. The elf threw himself at the captain. The two fell to the ground in a tumble as Hendrik grasped for one of her hands to break her concentration over the spell. “We still need you!”

***

A twisted reptilian head broke through the rock. Silver eyes gleaned over the saints before it gave a hiss.

-Strongmight. Darknight.-

It’s cry came to a quick end as the halberd split its skull. With a tug, Sylvana pulled her weapon from the sheath of flesh and bone. “Kobolds!” She hardly said the word before some force pulled the wretch of a creature back through the opening and more came pouring in. They scrambled across rocks and each other in a mad frenzy.

A sweeping blow from the captain tore an arm free from one of the leaders. A second caught another kobold in the mouth, bringing its existence to a quick end. Sylvana propelled herself backwards as she swung, a translucent red aura engulfing her halberd and arm as blood and scales were ripped free with each strike. Some of the kobolds wasted no time in jumping upon their deceased companions. Many more descended upon the saints.

Her shield rose up to catch a leaping kobold, its teeth gnashing against the metal with a terrible screeching. Out of the corner of her eye, Sylvana saw Ullr leap back whilst piercing the abdomen of a foe with a well-aimed strike. The one on her shield fell still as Aendi freed her blade from its neck. The assassin’s movements were a dance, her feet seemingly never touching the floor as her steel flashed out in blurs of silver. The bodies were beginning to pile up, but despite their efforts…

-Hardlight. Fangbite.-

...the Saints were being pushed back.
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 139
5/5/2018 16:11:37   
Ryu Viranesh
Member

Fins, huh? Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised, but the pirate’s response still managed to tug a chuckle from between Jana’s lips. It was a feeble thing at first, a sound so atrophied from disuse that it probably sounded hollow, and yet soon the young woman’s whole body was shaking. Trembling, even. Every bit of stress that she’d accumulated over the last 24 hours - and the preceding decade before that - worked its way out of her system as she laughed in earnest. And it wasn’t even that funny. Jana had to force herself to hold the second bout of amusement in check, a few strangled snickers still managing to work their way through her fingers.

It had been too long.

Strasna’s warning brought it all crashing back, and it was as much the weight on her shoulders as her instincts that forced the former Saint to hit the deck. She looked on with something akin to awe as the blaze raked over the devastation, the kobolds’ high-pitched screams mingling with her cousin’s own as the conflagration consumed them. Consumed them both. It took Jana several moments to pull herself away from the carnage; to realize that the former Paladin’s war cry had devolved into little more than a pain-laced wail. And another moment after that to piece together that Strasna too was burning.

Instincts screaming for her to act; the girl started to rise, grimacing as the motion jarred her injured limb. Jana paused and grit her teeth. Come on - you’re tougher than this. Pushing the pain to the back of her mind, she took a deep breath and redoubled her efforts, gradually forcing herself upright.

The second she regained her footing, Jana’s eyes flashed back to her cousin, watching as the fire licked over her body and embraced her like a lover. What now? The thought seemed to take the wind out of her sails, the Saint frozen in place as Strasna continued to burn. She lacked the means to douse those flames, and even assuming she could… Jana turned her head to the side, staring out into the fire-choked expanse.

A gesture which, fortunately, allowed her to catch sight of the first kobolds to break free from the pyre, flames still clinging to the creatures as they charged Strasna’s position. The hum of their ‘voices’, once gentle and orotund, had grown shrill with rage, the chorus unified in a single overarching directive.

-Deathright. DEATHRIGHT!-

Jana’s eyes darted between the kobolds and her cousin, drawing in a rattling breath as her clawed hand tightened into a fist. This is why I’m here. Suddenly, she was moving, sweeping her left arm out before her and howling a war cry of her own. It couldn’t lift any of the weight from her heart, but it definitely made her feel lighter. That was enough.

“Like heck you monsters.”

Jana’s indecision vanished entirely as she closed with the creatures, drawing more mass from her injured limb into its scaled counterpart. The skin bubbled, its bulk almost seeming to flow forward at her bidding, joints popping as her body adjusted to its new state. It was painful, as though she’d ripped the limb from its socket, but in that moment the pain might as well have been pleasure. Pleasure which redoubled as Jana tore into the devastation’s vanguard, her newly elongated arm enabling her to gut the kobolds without letting their stubby limbs get any purchase on her.

The next grouping of reptiles didn’t give her that chance, leaping the distance before the former Saint could even mount something resembling a defense. One landed on a shoulder, while another took hold of her waist. The third - the unlucky one - she caught, crushing the life from the creature even as its wreath of fire singed her hand. No problem. Jana smirked, smashing the remains of the first kobold into the monster clinging to her hip. Her eyes took on a glint of their own when both creatures fell limp to the ground below. I’ll just have to put you out. The remaining reptile, its teeth already buried deep in the metal of her armor, she tore free like an unwanted tick and let fly, the kobold’s wail fading as it descended back into the depths.

That’s more like it. The Saint raised her scaled arm high and grinned - just as her left leg buckled. Jana screamed, her mind flashing white as she toppled onto her side, flailing wildly in a desperate attempt to keep the next wave of kobolds away from her. She heard a series of chittering growls; felt overwhelming heat, the familiar thud of impact; could practically taste the spilled blood before all went silent. Sight returned to her then, the hurt receding enough for Jana to make out the little corpses that surrounded her. And the tide of silver-eyed fire that would soon swallow her whole.

-Deathright…!-

“Come and get it then,” Jana muttered grimly, her fell claws still held at the ready. At the very least, she would go down fighting. That was better than she deserved.

*****

“So we’re just going to waltz up and knock on Teretex’s door?” Alice arched an eyebrow, crossing her arms as she glanced down the street. The man’s estate lay at the end of the lane, every bit the extravagant abode that the average citizen imagined every prodigal noble possessed. Even a second-string son like Terry.

Noah shot her a glance over his shoulder, eyes narrowing as she winked in return. “Captain Magro ordered us to ensure that the Quartermaster rouses the Saints. Teretex is insufferable enough when he’s in a good mood, and he’s already going to be pissed that we’re dragging him out of bed.” A faint smile touched the Lieutenant’s lips. “So no need to rub salt in the wound. Don’t you agree, Ensign?”

“Alice.” The young woman corrected, casually striding closer as she fiddled with the hilt of her scimitar. “And what if,” she began, tilting her head in the direction of the manor, “Terry’s guards are unwilling to let us see him?” What if we have to fight? Even at this hour, the complex was bustling with activity; she could see Saints on patrol passing by every few moments.

Sykes sighed, reaching up to massage the bridge of his nose. “You can’t possibly be thinking of-” Alice set a hand on his shoulder, giving the man a level look before she finally shook her head.

“I’m not, Noah. Just… humor me. What if they choose to be difficult?”

The Lieutenant was silent, head turned to the side as his eyes roamed over the small squad they’d managed to assemble. Ten Saints, including the two of them, all of whom had served with Magro’s squad for at least a season. It was all they’d been able to scrounge up in the shuffle, but it should be enough for a straightforward mission like this.

“Orders are orders.” Noah said softly, glancing over to look her in the eyes. His were a dark grey-green that contrasted sharply with the stark black shade of his hair, and still further with the pale cast of his skin. “Especially Magro’s orders. If anything happens, we’ll be there to make sure everything turns out okay. Understand?”

The girl nodded, tension vanishing from her expression as she smiled softly. “Yeah. Thanks, Noah.” For an instant, Sykes almost seemed like he’d smile back, but then he averted his gaze, returning his attention to the Archon’s estate.

“Just don’t call the Quartermaster ‘Terry.’ This is going to be difficult enough without your antics, Alice.”

Alice unconsciously clenched the hand atop his shoulder. You don’t need to… The scout swallowed a sigh and forced a smile onto her face. “No promises,” she joked. “Should we get this show on the road then? Not like letting him sleep any longer is going to make him any happier with us.”

“Might as well,” the Lieutenant muttered, turning toward the rest of their makeshift squad. “Alright, look alive you lot. We’re going to go light a fire under the Quartermaster’s hindquarters. Form up behind us and let’s get this over with.”

*

Quentus started awake, groaning softly as he levered his body up from the sheets. What in the world..? The familiar contours of his room gradually faded into existence, and the majordomo frowned as he considered the darkness which surrounded him. The noise sounded again, louder this time.

“At this hour?” The man grumbled, reaching up to rub the last of the sleep from his eyes. “I swear, if they think that Lord Teretex is paying them for their drunken revelries, they have another thing-”

The crash echoed a third time, and the sound of raised voices spilled into the quiet of the house. Unintelligible, yet clearly agitated voices. Quentus sighed and reached over to light his bedside candle; it was evident that there would be no more rest this night.

His sleeping clothes quickly discarded, the majordomo donned his vestments and took the candle in hand, a stony expression on his face as he ventured out into the hall. Captain Gorman had best have this under control by the time I arrive. The fact that he had to ‘arrive’ at all was galling; he was the lead steward for the Archon of Vos, not a babysitter. Though it seemed circumstance had conspired to make him one.

The sounds of commotion grew louder as he approached the foyer, Quentus’ frown only deepening further. It was fortunate that Lord Teretex slept like the dead, for if he didn’t… The majordomo shivered. Still, he held fast to his rage as he turned the last corner before his destination, more than prepared to rebuke the guards for this unwarranted nonsense. The words died in his throat.

The door had been forced open, a small cadre of soldiers positioned to protect the portal from any outside incursions. Just beyond the embattled entryway, there stood a trio of figures: Captain Gorman, another young man of similar age, and the blond-haired girl holding a sword to the Captain’s throat.

“W-what is the meaning of this!?” Quentus sputtered, his eyes darting swiftly between each of the assembled individuals. “You are… Saints, are you not? Why have you defaced Lord Teretex’s home?”

The young woman almost seemed to shrug, glancing over at the thin man beside her. Obviously her accomplice in this torrid affair. The black-haired Saint fixed him with a stare, and the majordomo took a hesitant step backward.

“I do apologize for the disturbance, sir,” the man began, crossing his arms over his chest. “But orders are orders. And ours come direct from the Supplicant: we’re to wake the Quartermaster and rouse the Saints.” He paused, sparing a glance for the captured guard captain, and something resembling contempt briefly flashed across his face. “Your guards were unwilling to allow us entry, given the current state of emergency. Understandable, but we had our instructions.”

A smile split the Saint’s face then, and Quentus could practically feel his stomach twist. “So, if you wouldn’t mind waking the Archon so we can put this affair to bed,” a few of his men chuckled, “that would be lovely.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 140
5/10/2018 0:09:46   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


Teretex was not happy at having been woken. Of course, the Quartermaster very rarely was happy, despite his lavish home, despite the power of the office he wielded, despite the praise and adulation of his adherents. No, Teretex was not happy, because there were nobles in the Western Quarter with homes more opulent, because his will was diluted and subverted by petty Counsellors and bureaucratic boot-lickers, because the rabble sang the praises of Tahir when he had truly saved the city!

Only a second son… The thought carved its way across his memory in his father’s dusty voice, evoking a sour scowl as the Quartermaster shrugged into a Vos red house robe. He glared at Quentus and ran a hand over the close-cropped grey hair slowly receding from deep-set brown eyes. “Explain. Again.”

Quentus surreptitiously clasped his hands behind his back as he gave his liege lord a hesitant look, forcing himself to stand straighter beneath the man’s regard. “It’s as I’ve said, my lord. I was awoken by a loud noise and…” The majordomo trailed off, withering beneath the Quartermaster’s glare.

“The captain of your guard has been taken hostage by hostile Saints.” He continued in a clipped tone. “They claim to be here under the auspices of Merkia the Supplicant, who bid them rouse you so that you would rouse the Saints. Your guards refused them entry; they decided their orders were more important, and so took matters into their own hands. That is how things stand, sir.” Quentus gave a simple salute as he finished, silently willing the tremor in his hand to cease.

“Gorman,” Teretex scoffed, pacing the length of the room and shaking his head. The Archon’s steps led him to an ornate end table bearing an equally well-appointed case of dark wood. Staring at the rectangular case, the Quartermaster grit his teeth in an unconscious snarl. “Merkia, that hag. Who does she think she is, giving me orders?” A hand reached out, caressing the wooden lid almost lovingly. “I should have put that bint in her place when her little rat scurried home.”

Shaking his head, Teretex drummed his fingers on the dark wood, and then looked back at Quentus. “How many?”

Hag, indeed. Quentus groused, pleased that Teretex’s ire had been drawn to another target. It’s her fault we’re even in this situation. Not only had the woman sent this squad of misfits into his abode, but this was all due to that unholy witch Illyra’s Archon had propped up. Blight take the Quisling and the Supplicant both.

“Ah, no more than 10, my lord.” The steward hurriedly supplied. “It seemed to be a rather small squad, though I’m unsure from which unit they originate. Their commander is in for a rude awakening once word of this nonsense gets back to him.” Quentus shook his head, quashing his temper, for now. “The only two that especially matter are their leaders: the thin man that seems to be in charge of their little operation, and the waif of a girl holding her blade to Gorman’s gullet.”

“These two have names?” Teretex asked, his attention on the case, one finger lightly tracing the designs inlaid into the lid in gold.

Quentus frowned, tilting his head to one side. “The thin one introduced himself as ‘Lieutenant Sykes,’ and I think the girl was ‘Alice’ something-or-other.”

The Quartermaster considered this for a moment, and then lifted the lid of the case. Inside, laying upon a dark velvet cushion, was a Roshon war crossbow. Teretex withdrew the weapon from its resting place, fitted the crank, and began to wind the device with swift, practiced motions. “Tell them that I will be with them shortly.”

Quentus swallowed and carefully drew his gaze away from the crossbow. “A-as you command, my lord. Is there anything else you wish of me in the meanwhile?”

“Couriers. Whatever this is about, I’ll have messages to send afterward.”

“Understood. I will have them prepared immediately, my lord.” The majordomo bowed and turned to depart, eager to have something else to focus on. His job, at least, he could handle.

***


There was a certain art to making an entrance, a matter of personal bearing, of dress, of opening salvo. When Teretex arrived he was garbed for war. Never a tall man, the Quartermaster’s leather boots added a generous inch and a half to his height. Thick quilted pants of dun brown were tucked into the boots, reinforced with metal studs and a set of faulds dyed Vos red. A similarly red tunic could be seen beneath a hammered breastplate bearing the sword of Vos in gold. From his shoulders flowed a black cape whose hem brushed the floor behind him. The crossbow, cocked and loaded, was held negligently in the crook of the Archon’s arm, pointing low and away at the floor. His head was bare, but his gaze was cutting as he took in the tableau in the entryway of his home. “There had best be a good explanation for all of this.”

Sykes was almost relaxed by the time the Quartermaster saw fit to grace them with his presence, though the feeling swiftly vanished as soon as he took in the man’s regalia. He can’t possibly be serious. The Lieutenant shot a meaningful glance in Alice’s direction, but it seemed the girl intended to follow his lead in the matter; she’d straightened up, her scimitar just shy of brushing skin as she stared stone-faced up the hall, awaiting Teretex’s first overture. Probably wants to laugh as badly as I do though.

Burying the amusement down deep, Sykes eyed the Archon from head-to-toe before returning his attention to the man’s eyes. It seemed like the man was sporting for a fight. Question is, do I want to give it to him?

Before he could respond to the Quartermaster’s words, his hostage took the matter into his own hands.

“L-lord Teretex, sir! I’d like to apologize for my conduct tonIGH-” Alice cuffed him, giving a gentle shake of her head before she rolled her eyes in Sykes’ direction.

“My apologies for the interruption, Quartermaster.” Sykes paused to give the man the proper salute, his free hand never roaming far from the hilt of his rapier. “We come here under orders from both the Supplicant and my own commander. The Quisling roams the streets of Palora tonight, leaving naught but blood and death in her wake. As such, they would request that you rouse the Saints, my lord.”

Teretex’s eyes were flat, emotionless, as he gazed at Gorman. The brown orbs flicked to Alice, narrowing fractionally at the action before moving on to Sykes. For several long moments the Quartermaster ruminated on the Saint’s message. So, Merkia did think she could give him orders.

The crossbow snapped up, snugging against Teretex’s shoulder in a motion that spoke of both familiarity and practice. There was a deep snap-thruuuum as the mechanism released, the bolt whistling across the hall too fast for the eye to follow, shattering Gorman’s knee in a spray of blood and bone. “Apology accepted, Captain Gorman.” Setting the business end of the crossbow against the floor, the Archon slipped the crank from a loop on his built and set about winding the mechanism with supreme indifference. “So, the rat is back.”

Sykes’ eyes narrowed as the crossbow bolt slammed into Gorman’s leg, ignoring the man’s agonized screams as he kept his eyes rooted to the Quartermaster. Better the Archon thought he was unamused rather than disgusted; there would be time to vent about the latter later. He spared a quick look for Alice, however, though he shouldn’t have worried. She’d shifted out of the way the second the crossbow had moved into position, allowing her captive to fall to the floor as she casually shook some of the blood from her hair.

Still as scary as ever. The Lieutenant finally dropped his salute, allowing the arm to fall easily to his side as he nodded up at his counterpart. “Yes, my lord. Both the Quisling and a band of Blighted traitors have been sighted within city walls. We’ve captured or killed several of their number, but the crown jewel is still out there. If the Saints are roused, we can box her in and finally end this farce for good.”

Teretex finished winding the crossbow, drawing a bolt from a quiver attached to his belt and slipping the crank though its loop. Straightening up, the Quartermaster settled the weapon comfortably again in the crook of his elbow. “What unit do you report to, Lieutenant Sykes?”

“Third Division, Eighth Squad.” Sykes rattled off, his annunciation kept carefully even. “I report to Captain Ernest Magro, sir.”

“Magro…” Teretex’s gaze slanted to Alice for a moment before returning to Sykes. “Ah, the poacher.” He looked away, glancing at the other soldiers standing in varying states of unease as Gorman’s shrieks died away to whimpers of pain. “You two,” he said, pointing at a pair of guards, “clean up this mess. And you,” the Archon continued, turning his eyes back to Sykes, “find the Headmistress and the Patron. The Conclave will convene.” Dismissing the Saints with a wave of his free hand, Teretex strode back towards the manse’s innards, roaring out orders. “Quentus, where are those couriers? I’ve messages for the Lords Commander.”

Sykes gave the appropriate salute and a brief “Yes, sir” before he spun on his heel, Alice already at his side as he gestured for the rest of their squad to fall in behind them. “You heard the Quartermaster. We have a couple more Archons to track down and rouse before dawn. Let’s get to it.” Before I get any more tempted to stab the dastard in the eye. He gave Alice a sideways look, grinning as she pulled her bloodstained hair behind her ears. Poacher, my rear end.



I accept.

Tears were streaming down her face, but surely they were from the pain and not the words that echoed through her memories. Phantom flames chewed across her nerves, danced over her skin, and still she held on, feeding the shame and agony back into the spell. She would hold. She had to hold, as her hair crisped into ash and her clothing kindled into flame. There was no other way. The devastation was too large. So she embraced the fire, accepted the pain, the payment.

It was only right.

I accept.

She wished that she could have seen Merkia one last time.

But would it really have made a difference? The Supplicant had been more a mother to her than the woman who had given Strasna birth, but could even she truly understand?

The thought was drowned, not in pain, but in water. Quenching liquid doused her, the cool fluid hissing into steam around her. The shock of sensation was enough to jar her deathgrip on the flame, though if that were not enough, Hendrik slammed into her from behind, driving her to the stone in a whuff of expelled air. The pirate’s hand clamped around hers, and the last threads of her weaving slipped from her grasp, leaving her panting and smoking beneath the elf.

The fallen Paladin’s voice emerged as a dry croak, her chest heaving as she panted for breath, feeling like every piece of her was parched as old, cracked leather left too long in the sun. “Had… Had to… only chance… Too many.”

Far above, the rhythmic crash of the great weights resounded, but they were overpowered a moment later by an ear-grating screech of metal giving way. The massive stone blocks began to fall, untethered by their restraining chains. Those chains, now unbound by their previous burdens, whip-cracked through the air in lethal arcs, scything through the devastation in a rain of shattered bodies. One of the heavy chains crashed down on the slender stone span connecting the central island to the blocked doorway the Blighted had entered through, sending a spiderweb of cracks racing through the rock as the metal chain clattered over the side and down into the fathomless depths.

Strasna craned her neck back, peering towards the Spearforge as the echoing sound of falling rock and metal were swallowed by the black pit. There was a moment of stillness, the sort of reprieve that seemed to settle across battlefields as warriors regained their breath, or in the case of the kobolds, as the survivors feasted on their wounded brethren. That moment was followed by a shiver, and the slender swordswoman felt an electric thrill race across her dry skin. Gasping reflexively, the outlaw pushed up and rolled, dragging Hendrik with her, winding up on top of the elven pirate and shielding him. “Jana, down!”

Deep in the pit a light had kindled, a dull red glow like the heart of a banked forge. There was a low rumble that shook dust and grit from the distant ceiling, and a pillar of pulsing light flashed up the supporting column of the island containing the Spearcase. Light met case with a titanic detonation, swallowing the very idea of sound in a basso crash so powerful it flattened Strasna down against Hendrik as the flaming shards of the case rained down around and on them.

The kobolds screamed, there was no better word for it, a gibbering cry of grating psychic fear as the ravenous swarm shattered and fled, skittering down the rocky walls and repeating the same phrase again and again. -Spearflight! Spearflight!-

Raising her head carefully, the exile glanced over her shoulder and sucked in a breath. “Illyra’s mercy,” Strasna exhaled, her tone awed as she stared. Agemon’s Spear, the Wyrm’s Bane.

It floated, resting on the air itself. In form it was perhaps eight feet in length, from its partisan blade to its weighted butt cap. A metal collar was fitted just behind the weapon’s head, featuring a winged guard about a foot behind the tip. But it was the shaft that drew the eye. Once the weapon’s haft had been some manner of wood, ash or oak, and so it still was, but whoever had recovered the Spear had not been able to collect all the fragments. What was missing had been replaced by the Spearforge, and those wood shards were suspended in a matrix of a strangely translucent, white material that looked as if light itself had been folded into metal.

She rose unsteadily, staring in fascination at the Spear, her heart pounding in her chest. Strasna was crying again, tears tracking through the ash and grime on her face as she witnessed a miracle. “It was true. It was all true…”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 141
6/16/2018 8:54:50   
Apocalypse
Member

They lay for a moment, human and elf more entangled than entwined upon the ground. The cadence of her heavy breaths were on Hendrik’s sensitive ears, and a different kind of warmth spread along his arm as her chest pushed against his arm with each inhale. The thunderous roars of the colossal weights deafened in that moment. Cendra’s lips moved but were not heard as the seafarer felt the urge to close the distance between them, to dive in after those eyes that were familiar and all too alluring. Eyes that betrayed the person she was. Beautiful. Powerful. Dangerous.

Bold.

A cacophony of steel grating on steel spoiled the moment. In a heartbeat, Cendra had rolled him onto his back and pressed her still smoldering self against him. Before Hendrik could have any saucy thoughts, a pillar of light - brilliant and blinding - erupted from the pits of the abyss. Sheer radiance engulfed the platform in a deadly crescendo. His hearing and sight were lost to him amidst the luminance and thunder. The raw force expelled by the union forced Cendra down upon him and drove the breath from his chest. All around the pair clattered the charred remnants of what had once been on the island.

With the poise and alertness derived from years of experience, Cendra raised her head and lifted herself from their involuntary embrace. Not that Hendrik had any complaints, of course. He shifted his weight onto his elbows and lifted his aching back off the stone floor. The mass of kobold were fleeing. They scrambled down the rocky face and into the darkness below. He turned his attention back to Cendra and gave a sly smile. “I knew you liked it rough.” His words, however, fell on deaf ears as the swordswoman rose to her feet. The mischievous grin fell from his face as he bobbed his head. Pillage first, plunder later. Bringing his feet back, Hendrik sprung himself off the ground and landed with the grace of a traveling acrobat. The scourge took a moment to sweep the dust from his limbs. “So, captain. What is the next ste-”

He trailed off as his gaze caught sight of the luminosity before him. Suspended in the air was not a weapon but a masterpiece: eight feet of steel, wood, and starlight forged into reality. Such beauty and terror sung to be held, to be taken, to be wielded. Like a forlorn sailor to the siren’s call, Hendrik was drawn to the awe-inspiring magnificence that was the spear. The slow patter of footsteps resounded in the back of his mind, not realizing they were his own until he was an arm’s length away. Wyrm’s Bane, a soft voice spoke in the back of his mind. His fingers twitched at his side. Hendrik had seen weapons more ornate and decorated but never had one held such sheer majesty. His hand raised to claim it…


***


Scale and fang, bone and claw, flesh and blood: this was the storm descending upon the Saints. Sylvana slashed with her halberd once, twice - the vibrant energies flowing through her strong arm as she cut through the wall of kobolds. But with each one that fell, three took its place. Sylvana lashed out, catching a leaping predator at the base of its neck. A horrific scream filled the air as the captain followed through with the motion, pivoting on her heel as another kobold descended upon her. She caught the vile creature on her shield. Her arm buckled under the weight and forced the shield against her shoulder. She could feel as well as hear the monstrosity’s claws scrape against the steel. Gritting her teeth, Sylvana continued her turn, catching one unsuspecting kobold in the jaw with the base of her halberd. The impact knocked the squirming reptile to the ground. With a grunt, Sylvana channeled her power and folded her strength over her shield arm once and once more over. Crimson light streaked across her limb as she gave a mighty push that launched the kobold into the air. It landed on its back with its body writhing before the halberd was embedded in its abdomen. Before Sylvana could wrench the blade free, yet another slammed into her while its compatriot grasped at her shield. The trio stumbled back, leaving her halberd in its bloody sheath.

As Sylvana grappled with her assailants, she caught sight of her Saints. Ullr fell backwards with his sword wedged between the gnashing teeth of a bulky kobold. Held at bay, but just for the moment. A second abomination tried to take advantage of the distracted veteran, but Aendi swooped in with all the grace and fury of a falcon in flight. Her silver blade flashed in the darkness even as she slipped out of the precarious position and danced through the horde. Her swords struck with precision but her movements were becoming stinted and erratic by the once-assassin’s standards. There were too many. She was being caged.

A third kobold joined the fray, leaping onto the captain’s back. Pain flared as her neck became slick with blood. Her knee buckled under the weight and crashed to the floor. She grit her teeth and clenched her eyes shut. Images of the Supplicant, her mother, father, and siblings flashed before her. They dissipated as a lone figure of ashy smoke approached her, reaching out with her hand. A hand of obsidian.

No.

With a roar, Sylvana dug deep into the pits of her power. Strength was folded over her leg once. Twice. Thrice. Her foot slammed on the ground with enough force to crack the underlying stone. Crimson sparked all along her form. Energy pulsated in waves as it was spent and renewed. She rammed her shield to the ground to crush the kobold clinging to it. A sickening crunch accompanied the impact as the creature expired. Her arm threatened to sag, but the captain folded more of her strength over it. She whipped her shield around with enough force to drive the corner several inches into the other monstrosity’s chest. The kobold went still even as Sylvana wrenched her shield free. With her now free hand, the Saint reached back and grabbed the one on her back by its skull. It resisted, but her enhanced strength plucked it off with ease. She bashed its head twice against the ground. Brain matter splattered across the floor with each strike. The glow faded, exhaustion pouring in during this moment of reprieve. Every muscle in her body screamed for rest, but Sylvana drew her sword. The flaming rose on the guard crossed her line of sight. She took a deep breath…


...and charged into the horde. Scarlet power and scarlet blood sprayed across the battleground with every swing. The kobolds that met her blade were torn asunder and cleaved in twain. Those that met her empty fist did not fare much better. A blow from it shattered one abomination’s jaw. It howled in agony as a second strike caved in its skull. Another was left with the indentation of her fist in its chest. It fell to the ground and clawed at the imprint, gurgling. Her eyesight began to blur. Just one more. A head was separated from its neck. Just one more. The blade sunk into a kobold stomach but was ripped up and out of its shoulder. Just one more. Just one more . Wet blood splattered against her face as she struck again. Just...one…

“Sylvana!”

The Saint opened her eyes. Dark strands tickled her cheeks. Aendi was above her, eyebrows raised ever so slightly and the corners of her mouth turned down. The barest of changes from her usual stoic expression, but a change that showed all the worry in the world. Sylvana grunted and cleared her throat. “What happened?”

“A quake, or some other phenomenon.” Ullr stepped into view. A gash above his eye trickled blood and part of his beard was stained red. The captain raised herself into a sitting position. “It dispersed the horde. Fortunate...or unfortunate if it was the heralding for something far worse. Captain, a strategic retreat should be considered-”

“A retreat is unthinkable.” The Owl rose to her feet. She stumbled and Aendi moved to catch her. If she could not see her, Sylvana would not have believed that the once-assassin was holding her up. It was difficult to believe such tender hands had killed so many. The captain placed a hand on her Saint’s shoulder. With reluctance, Aendi stepped away from her. “We are right on the Quisling’s tail. Start to remove that rubble. We have justice to administer.”
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 142
7/4/2018 21:34:10   
Ryu Viranesh
Member

The morning hadn’t quite come yet, but Palora was already starting to stir from her slumber, a smattering of early risers out and about on the streets. Yawning, exchanging pleasantries, making purchases from the few vendors dedicated enough to be open at this hour. This was normal for all of them; just another part of their daily routine. Until they saw the girl covered in blood tromping past, a quartet of Saints not far behind.

Still cold out. Alice grumbled to herself, giving one of the rubberneckers an irritated glare as she reached up to fasten her cloak. Even more reason to make this quick. All she needed to do was find the Patron.

“Derek, you’re sure Edrios’ forge is in this part of the Quarter?” The Saint asked over her shoulder, the nearest of her company responding with a firm nod.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve a cousin that was apprenticed to the Patron a few years back; visited a couple times, when he wanted to show off.” There was a pause. “Uh, ma’am…? You sure you don’t want to wash the blood off first?”

Alice shook her head. “Negative. It’ll help drive home the point.” The girl clenched her right hand into a fist. That we’re not playing games. “Now come on, pick up the pace. We have to meet Noah and the Captain at the barracks within the hour.”

“Ma’am!” Derek led the way, forging a path deeper into the Eastern Quarter, hesitating every now and then at a turning; his face flooding crimson with embarrassment once as he led Alice and the others into a dead-end street and had to double back. Still, the sun was only starting to rise as the Saint led his compatriots down a narrow lane and they began to hear the faint clangor of metal on metal that could only be a battle or a blacksmith’s shop. Smoke billowed from the chimney of a low stone edifice, the building roofed with what looked like freshly painted tiles. Even without the sound of hammer, tongs, and bellows, it was clear this was a forge; it was well-built, with considerate lines in traditional Paloran style. There was something modest about the structure, almost homely. It was far from palatial, to be certain. Perhaps it was a retreat from the temples and mansions of the city, a place where the Patron could come to spend time with his art.

Alice slowed her approach as they neared the forge, pausing to enjoy the almost soothing sound of steel on steel. Nearly a minute passed before, a sigh escaping her lips, the young woman moved to ascend the steps, her escort not far behind. Alright, let’s do this. She raised a hand to rap on the open door, eyes squinting as she peered through the smoke and into the smithy beyond.

A tall man within pumped the bellows, staring into the raging inferno of the open furnace. Each rhythmic hiss of air was answered by a burst of sparks and a hungry roar of flame from within. Edrios was a old man, but still hale, stripped to the waist in the heat shimmering in waves through the simple forge. Aged he may have been, but the Patron’s physique was anything but diminished. Cords of muscle and sinew stood out on his spare frame as he withdrew a red-hot blade from the forge’s depths. Lifting the hammer nearby, the ancient smith swung with the same easy pace he had used moments ago on the bellows. Metal rang, singing beneath each measured blow as Edrios directed the malleable steel, thinning and stretching, working down along each edge in turn. If the Patron was aware of his audience he gave no sign of it, shaping the metal for several minutes before lifting his tongs and plunging the still-hot brand into the quenching trough. Steam hissed and billowed from the water, forming a haze that glistened in the creases of his weathered skin. At length the artisan set aside hammer and tongs, lifting an oily scrap of cloth from a nearby bench and rubbing it over his hands, though if he meant to clean them with that filthy rag it seemed a futile effort. “A blade is a dance of elements. Earth and air, fire and water, all in their proper measures, bound together by sweat and toil.”

This wasn’t the first time that Alice had seen the Patron at work; there had been a demonstration in the Western Quarter, nearly five years prior. Back then, she’d been able to admire the skill that went into the work — the blood, sweat, and tears that it took to operate a forge day in and day out for the better part of one’s life. Yet she hadn’t been able to truly appreciate the craftsmanship. The splendor that each product possessed in its moment of birth, the result of hours — sometimes days — of careful adjustments all compressed into a single instant. She’d been too young to know better, but more than that, she’d been too sure of herself. Too certain that beauty was meant to last forever. “I… regret not knowing the steps, but I can appreciate the result.” Alice drew her scimitar from its scabbard, almost presenting it to the blacksmith. “You forged this. Probably almost a decade ago now.”

Edrios ran a hand over his bald pate, peering at the blade with eyes gone watery from years of staring into the forge. After a moment he held out a hand for the weapon. “Many blades have passed through these hands.”

Alice inclined her head, properly proffering the sword to the man. “I hope that all of their recipients are as pleased with your work… as thankful for it as I am. It’s saved my life more times than I can count.”

The Patron accepted the blade, taking a half-step back to give himself room and sweeping the blade through an easy set of looping arcs. At length he grunted, offering the scimitar back to Alice. “What brings the Saints to my forge this early?”

The young woman smoothly returned the blade to its place, standing straight as she met the Patron’s rheumy blue eyes. “We come bearing a message. The Conclave is to meet this morning, to address the matter of the Quisling running free in the streets. My compatriots and I were bid to rouse you,” Alice gave him a grim smile, “though it seems that will be unnecessary.”

“The Quisling.” Edrios frowned slightly, reaching out and touching the haft of his hammer in what seemed a reflexive gesture. “Some blades were flawed from the forge. A fault in the metal from poor purification.”

“Couldn’t agree more.” Alice murmured, one of her hands rising to cover her shoulder - the Divine Shield, a gesture common among those who followed Illyra’s creed. “She’s been sighted tonight — or yesterday night now, I suppose — roaming Palora with a band of Blighted scum at her back. The Saints have been out since before midnight searching for her.”

“‘The Night may belong to the Wyrm, but the Day is ours.’” The old man replied, quoting a passage from The Book of Agemon. “Your compatriots have need of you,” continued the Patron, making the sign of Phastos’ Hammer in benediction over Alice, “go, and may Baan watch over us all in this dark hour.”

“May all the gods watch over us.” The Saint replied in kind, bowing once more before she turned to depart, motioning for her squad to follow her lead. Next stop, the barracks. Alice allowed her free hand to fall to the hilt of her scimitar. And whatever fresh heck awaits us there.

*****

Sykes gazed up at the Palora Civic Library, the imposing, if slightly drab edifice regarding him as a bear regarded a fly. Or a wyrm regards a man. The Saint crossed his arms, glancing back at his men. “Wait here. I’ll find the Headmistress and deliver the message.”

The soldiers gave him a salute, and Sykes turned and strode into the building, his hands falling back to his sides. Let’s get on with this.

Palora’s library sprawled. There was really no other way to describe it. Within, the entryway had once yawned as a great and cavernous welcoming hall of marble; now it was packed with towering shelves filled with rank upon rank of books and bin after bin of scrolls. The city’s Headmasters had valued the collection of knowledge over the aesthetics of the once opulent interior. And this was simply the first of dozens of chambers and reading rooms, strewn with a collection of antique tables and chairs, little nooks and student corrals. Lamps hung upon the wall, their glass enclosures made of two thick panes. The water between the glass served a double purpose: magnifying the light cast by the flame within, and serving as a defense against fire should one of the lamps fall. It might be early in Palora, but knowledge knew no rest, and even at this hour an attendant in the robes of Greva stood at the reference desk wedged in between a pair of sweeping marble stairs rising up towards the second floor.

Sykes cast a quick, appraising look around the room, taking note of a few familiar titles before he approached the counter, slowing to a stop as he drew close. “Good morning. I was wondering if you might be able to direct me to where the Headmistress is currently conducting her research?” He flashed a smile. “I have an urgent message for her regarding the Conclave.”

The woman behind the counter frowned slightly, though it was no doubt a reaction to Sykes’ message rather than any sort of disapproval at the intrusion of a Saint into her domain. Her eyes flicked up and to the left, towards some distant upper chamber no doubt, before returning to the man before her. “Do you have an appointment, sir? The Headmistress left orders that she was not to be disturbed.”

“And I have orders from both the Quartermaster and the Supplicant which require me to do just that.” Sykes sighed, mirroring the attendant’s glance. “If you’d like, I can make clear just how important the message is, but I’d prefer to do so in private. The information is… sensitive right now, and might cause a panic if I were to mention it out in the open.”

Biting her lip as her eyes darted up towards that distant chamber again, the woman behind the counter hesitated and then shook her head. “You’ll find her in the transposition room, on the third floor.” After another moment of hesitation the woman opened a nearby drawer, drawing out an old brass key. “Just… don’t knock, please? She hates being interrupted by knocking.”

The Saint gave a shallow bow, nodding as he accepted the key. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you for your assistance.” He crossed the short distance to the stairs, taking care to be quiet as he made his way up to the third floor. There was no need to disturb the other seekers of knowledge that had risen this early. After a bit of searching, he managed to locate the door to the transposition room, sliding the brass key smoothly into the lock and pushing gently inward.

Tajea was small for her age, a delicate form dwarfed by the massive oaken table running the length of the room. She was seated on a stool, apparently eschewing the high-backed chairs running down one side of the table. Then again, the Headmistress was bent low over the scarred and battered surface anyway, peering intently at an old and dusty scroll rolled out before her. Lifting her quill with a deft, long-fingered hand, Tajea copied down several lines from the scroll into the book next to her in a neat, precise script before depositing the implement once more into the nearby inkpot. Now freed of their burden, her ink-stained fingers hooked a tendril of long black hair that had worked its way free of her hasty braid up over an ear, leaving behind a sooty mark on her forehead.

Fiery green eyes narrowed slightly in contemplation of the scroll before her, nearly a match for the emerald shawl folded about her slender shoulders, bare beneath the thin cloth. In fact, so far as Sykes could see from the entryway, the Headmistress was unshod, bare feet curled beneath herself. It looked as though she was wearing her bedclothes, a light dressing gown topped with the bright shawl as some concession to the slight chill in the room, as though Tajea had come here directly from her bed chamber. There was nothing coquettish about the girl though, merely the implication that her mind was occupied with other matters than her somewhat disheveled appearance.

Sykes wavered for a moment before he passed into the room, the heady scent of freshly applied ink and age old parchment crashing into him like a wave. Days spent bowed over a desk like this one — smaller and shabbier certainly, but no less fit for purpose — came rushing back. Long days where he scarcely moved a muscle, his nose mere millimeters from the vellum as he scrutinized one glyph set after another. Dietrich’s Gems and Scales was far from the foremost text on Palora’s economy, but it provided the historical context for its observations that many similar works lacked. That was what had drawn him to it; the promise that it might be able to answer the question burning in his mind. If he could explain how the imposition of the wyrm had given rise to the city’s self-sufficient agricultural operation then--

The Saint raised a hand to his head, grimacing as his eyes squinted shut. No. That was a long time ago. He swallowed the bile that had risen into his throat and forced himself to look at the Headmistress, the girl still so absorbed in her work that she hadn’t even noticed his entrance. It was… admirable, in a way. Before he could stop himself, Sykes continued forward, craning his neck so he could steal a look over the scholar’s shoulder.

It was an old scroll; its ink faded and edges crumbling from age. Tajea peered at it closely for several long moments before lifting her quill again. With a careful movement she tapped the tip of the quill against the rim of the inkpot, scraping off the excess liquid before copying down another line of precise figures in a language the Saint did not recognize. “A copy of the Book of Agemon, translated to Kieli approximately three centuries ago.” The Headmistress’ voice was surprisingly melodious, a soft soprano that seemed somehow just right for her. “You can tell by the finials, as well as the line spacing. Kieli scholars would often leave additional spaces between lines, a practice that was thought to allow space for the truth of the text to come through.” She considered the scroll for a moment before continuing. “An interesting idea, but a waste of valuable paper. Kielan was a small island, and had no lumber to spare for pulping. As a result, their scholars made do with hide scrolls, and the few remaining examples of Kieli books fetch exorbitant prices among collectors. One must admit that the content is… problematic. The translation is poor, frankly. Daranion’s retelling was never officially sanctioned by the Will of Baan, and in several instances skirts heretically close to agreement with passages from the Book of the Wyrm.”

The Saint was silent as the young woman spoke, his eyes carefully perusing the paper as he took note of the features she brought to light. There was something comfortable about the way her words flowed; a soothing regularity that might have been self-confidence, or some similar emotion. “Religious history isn’t my area of expertise, though I’d like to think most every Paloran scholar,” he averted his gaze, “has touched on it in some form in the course of their research. It is… difficult to avoid. Still, it strikes me that the practice of leaving such spaces might have its roots in arithmetic. The idea of space producing some greater truth - it mirrors the format you would come across in any number of merchant logs from the period, where excess space would be left between the component factors and the ultimate result. The Kieli might well have thought that they could apply the same concept to more scholarly pursuits. At least as a form of presentation.”

Tajea looked up from her work, blinking several times slowly. Her smile was tentative, almost endearing really, and the angle of her face disclosed the smear of ink across her young brow. “I’m afraid I don’t know you, Saint.”

Sykes sheepishly allowed his attention to wander along the shelves which adorned the room’s walls. “Lieutenant Noah Sykes, Headmistress. I was instructed to deliver you a message, but it felt rude to interrupt your work while providing nothing but grief in return. So,” he shrugged, “I can only hope what knowledge I possess will suffice.”

“No knowledge is without value, Lieutenant Sykes.” Uncurling gracefully from her perch, Tajea shifted up to her feet and shyly shrugged the shawl a little tighter around her shoulders, looking a touch self-conscious. The young woman was a few inches shorter than Sykes, and favored him with another smile that was edged with embarrassment. “Please excuse my… condition. I get restless some nights and the work is soothing.”

The Lieutenant coughed politely into a hand and favored her with a look. “I’m an insomniac myself, so I can empathize. Doing anything is often better than doing nothing at all.” He glanced back down at her work, a little grin touching his lips. “However, I fear that my own remedies are a touch less involved. I normally just take walks and… think.”

“There are worse things, Lieutenant.” Tajea straightened, curling her hand around the folds of the shawl and clearing her throat. “You said that you had a message?”

“Ah, yes.” The man settled comfortably into parade stance, throwing the young woman a salute. “Courtesy of both the Quartermaster and the Supplicant. They’ve asked me to inform you that they intend to convene the Conclave this morning to discuss the matter of the Quisling. She’s been spotted in Palora, and is believed to have caused no end of trouble.” Sykes bit his lower lip, eyeing Tajea for a few seconds before he continued. “Paladin Tahir is dead. Seemingly at her hand.”

“Teretex,” the Headmistress’ tone was dismissive, “does not give me orders.” Something in those emerald eyes hardened for a second, though she sighed a moment later. “But for Merkia…” Tajea trailed off, her expression taking on a troubled cast. “I never cared for Paladin Tahir, but then, I never knew Paladin Bhayan.” She turned, glancing back at her scrolls and books. “I wonder if she would consent to an interview if she is captured…”

This one’s feisty. Sykes lightly drummed the fingers of his free hand against their corresponding leg. “Speaking as a soldier, Paladin Tahir was competent. Never extraordinary, but capable enough. Paladin Bhayan, however… I only served under her command while in basic training, so my own knowledge is limited. She had a spark though - something that made her stand out from the crowd. Still does, if all of this is any indication.” He frowned briefly, hand clenching into a fist. “I was able to interrogate one of her brood earlier this morning; if the Quisling is anything like her underlings, she should at least be interesting to speak with.”

“There has never been an extensive study done of the long-term effects of the Blight on subcutaneous tissues. The Temple of Baan always claims the bodies of the Blighted.” Tajea paused for a long moment. “Do you think Bhayan would be willing to donate her remains for examination?”

“I…” There was a brief stretch of silence, the Saint’s expression a microcosm of his thought process. “I suppose. Knowing what little I do about her, I think she’d find a sort of perverse amusement in doing so, just to spite the Temple and the rest of the top brass. I’m unsure that her motivations would especially matter given your intent, so it’s all the same in the end.”

“Think of all the things we could learn if we…” Tajea broke off, blushing. “I… forgive me, please. Sometimes I let my eagerness get the better of me. I had best prepare for the meeting. Thank you for bringing me this message.”

“It was my pleasure, ma’am.” Sykes gave her a bow before he straightened and turned to depart. “My apologies if I distracted you from--” The ground beneath them gave a sudden lurch, the shelves shuddering as a few tomes were sent crashing to the floor. The Lieutenant just as abruptly spun on his heel, moving to the Headmistress’ side to steady her as the quake’s reverberations slowly faded away. “Are you alright?” He asked, glancing down at her.

Tajea gripped Sykes’ arm tightly as the room began to rattle and shake, leaning against the Saint for support with wide eyes. “Earth tremor? But there hasn’t been an earth tremor in Palora since…” The young woman frowned, perhaps unable to place the last occurance of that particular phenomenon, or perhaps disturbed by remembering when it had been. “You should… return. I need to get dressed.”

Sykes felt his cheeks flush, turning his head aside once more as he murmured an agreement before parting from her, moving swiftly for the door. He slowed before passing through the entryway, however, sending her one final glance. “I enjoyed the conversation. So you’ve no need to apologize for that.” With that, he was gone, the sound of the man’s footsteps echoing softly as he padded down the hall.

*****

This wasn’t the first time that Jana had stared down her demise. In fact, it could hardly be called her first brush with death today. Yet, there was something different — something more inevitable about the devastation of kobolds bearing down on her, flames seeking to devour them just as they made the same promise to her. There was no mercy in the creatures’ inhuman silver eyes, no chance that they could be convinced to stop and turn aside. Their lives had only one purpose, and not even death would dissuade them from their next meal.

Hope they choke on me. The former Saint lifted her head, ignoring the pain that shot through her neck as she glared wordless hate at the reptiles. Inevitable or not, it didn’t mean that she had to like it.

Then the entire world went to heck.

There was a deep, resounding crash, and suddenly the kobolds were scattered on the winds. The sound was almost deafening, swallowing even the creatures’ psionic cries as they fell, terrified, to their deaths. What…? Jana distantly heard her cousin’s voice calling out another warning — one which she was powerless to heed. The gale had already claimed her for its own. She was sent tumbling along the ground, all of her hurts igniting anew until she finally rolled to a stop, flat on her back now as she stared up at the shadowed ceiling.

“... A-ahhh…!” Jana barely recognized the sound of her own voice; it had never sounded so soft and weak to her ears. Or so high… Her leg was bleeding again — she could feel its slickness on the stones — and her injured arm was bent at an awkward angle. Everything felt so faint though, as though her whole body had been wreathed in cotton. And what about Strasna and Hendrik? Were they okay? She’d never really gotten to know Hendrik, now that she thought about it, and if he was going to marry her cousin then… Jana blinked, a muted sigh spilling forth from her lips.

Focus. You need to… Needed to what? Jana didn’t really feel up to much right now, but if it was important… Survive. That was it. She had to survive. That bleeding had to be staunched then, and some stitches applied soon after. Where was her first aid kit? Captain Edgerton had always made sure that they were all carrying one before they set out on a ranging. Had she lost it somehow during the fight?

The Saint tried to push herself upright, but found that she could barely move. That’s strange. Jana thought, a lazy smile on her lips as she stared up into the blooming light. I thought I was underground.

“What’s wrong, birdie? Had your wings clipped?” The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. “Going to surrender now, when you’re so very close?”

Jana’s brow furrowed, and she tried to form words with her mouth. Of course she wasn’t going to give up; there was still so much that she wanted to do. If she was lucky, maybe she’d even be Paladin one day — just like her cousin.

“Get those delusions out of your head already!” This voice was higher, reedier, and yet suffused with authority. “Strasna-- No, the Quisling closed those doors for us. Slammed them shut! If we’re going to survive in this city, then we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves. You’re a vital part of that process, Jana, and it’s about time you acted like it.” She flinched, turning away from the rebuke. “... I’m sorry, sis. But I can’t do this alone. You’re a Bhayan too, and you’re in a position to be what the Quisling wasn’t. Honorable. You can save us, arrest our fall.”

No. No, I’m not. I can’t. Jana shook her head, tears falling freely from her eyes as her vision blurred. I’m sorry, Lena, but I’m dirty. Unclean. An oathbreaker. She was unfit to be the family savior, just like she was unfit to be part of the family. Any family.

“I’m to marry the Lady Rhodes — Ashlyn, I suppose I’m to call her now — when I return from this deployment. With that authority, I’ll be able to form my own squad. I’d like you to join as my second, Jana.”

All she’d done was try to be what everyone wanted of her. The perfect daughter. The fierce warrior. The dutiful subordinate. Every one of those had come to naught in the end, and so she’d run. Jana had never been able to forget though, could never put the possibilities from her mind. What if…

What if I’d been better?

“What if, indeed.” The light had become darkness now, the voice which issued forth from it low and clear. “What if I told you that there was still a path open to you? A way for you to find your own place, without all of those bothersome expectations getting in the way?”

Jana watched the blackness, waiting for whatever had spoken to step forth, yet it seemed content to remain hidden for now. The former Saint sighed and tried to force words through her lips again, forming the shapes slowly, one by one. ‘I don’t believe you.’

A laugh followed, ending in what Jana somehow knew was a grin. “Of course you don’t. Trust doesn’t come easily to you, does it? You don’t even trust yourself.” It paused, allowing the silence to stretch. “That’s okay. You don’t need to trust yet. Be honest though, don’t you wish you had a way out of this?”

Yes, badly. So badly you can’t even imagine it. Jana tried to move her head enough to nod in response, but found that she couldn’t even manage that anymore. A stray thought entered her head, and a shiver shot down the injured woman’s spine. I’m dying.

“You are. But you don’t need to. There’s still time, you know. Plenty in your current state, but fading fast.” A sound echoed through the darkness surrounding her, easily recognizable in the absence of all other noise. A footstep. “Just let me help you.”

“... Al-right.” Jana croaked, closing her eyes as she heard the unknown entity resume its approach. She had nothing else left to lose, so why not? Maybe whatever her addled mind had dreamed up would give her some peace in the end.

It chuckled, far closer now, and the former Saint thought she felt the air around her shift. Then something grabbed her leg, and Jana hissed in pain.

“Shh.” The voice whispered, the tips of its nail-like fingers gently caressing her broken arm. “The pain will be over soon. You’ll see.” You’ll see what you can be. The sound slithered its way into her head, soothing away the agony and the aches as the world behind her eyelids started to brighten. Just remember, next time you need help…

*

Jana’s eyes shot open, her body bolting upright as she frantically searched for the kobold she’d felt on top of her. It’s… gone? The former Saint forced herself to slow down, dragging an arm up to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Wherever the creature had gone, it was no longer here. Jana let out a relieved sigh, the sound morphing into laughter as she pushed herself off the stones. I’m getting way too paranoid these--

The young woman froze. The pain in her leg was gone. My arm too. Jana thought as she considered the limb, unable to find any evidence that it had ever been broken in the first place. It looked good as new. Except, of course, for the new patch of Blighted skin on the underside of the limb. She inhaled, then took a hesitant glance down at her leg. The skin around her lower calf had suffered the same fate, now as black and dead as that of her left arm.

How…? She’d never heard of the Blight spreading beyond its appointed place, much less to two additional body parts. Jana paled. What if… A sudden stab of pain erupted in her skull, practically doubling the woman over again.

The fit passed just as quickly as it had come, the sound of armored footsteps audible through the lingering haze. Swearing softly as she glanced back at the others, the warrior woman retrieved her lucerne, taking the hammer in hand for the first time since her escape. Protect them now, worry later. Jana thought grimly, moving to interpose herself between her allies and the entrance. There’d be no point in worrying if they didn’t survive.
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 143
7/10/2018 18:57:47   
Kellehendros
Eternal Wanderer


“And by this Spear was Agemon exalted, and the people hailed him Paladin…” Strasna quoted to herself quietly, taking a step towards the floating weapon. She halted a moment later, blinking in shock as Hendrik moved forward as well, moving beyond her and reaching out for the Spear.

Something dark and ugly snarled inside the fallen Paladin’s chest, and her hand clenched around the hilt of her rapier as she started to draw it from its sheath. The Spear was hers. Had she not suffered for this moment? Her injuries and burns from the battle with the Beast and the devastation were just the tip of the iceberg. A decade of exile, the mountain of scorn and disdain from her city, the Magister’s mocking comments, Merkia’s pitying doubt. No, the outlaw thought savagely, it should be her hand upon the Spear, her claiming the reward of all that she had endured for this moment. That this… this upjumped sea rat had the temerity to claim the weapon that was her right, her destiny to wield…

The exile thought that she had been angry before. She thought that she had known rage. Anger, hate? No, Strasna had not had the least conception of those emotions. The nigh unbridled fury that flooded through her was mindless, absolute, as though every inch of her brain was pulsing with a sensation too primal, too raw to be simple hate. Wrath, supplied a soft, sibilant voice from that cold and sterile place inside her, the one calm point in a maelstrom of utter outrage within, this is the truth, the blaze at the heart of rage itself.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. And Strasna had lost far too much in life to simply let some knife-eared bandit take away her chance to reclaim all that was supposed to be hers. No, everything that will be yours again, the voice assured her. The wolf-smile crossed the swordswoman’s face as her blade slid free inch by inch. “No more,” the exile exhaled softly. “You will not take anything more from me.” The scoundrel gave no sign he heard the whispered words, so intent was he on stealing the Blighted Paladin’s prize.

What about what he gave you? That quiet thought doused the exile’s rage as surely as Hendrik’s water had quenched the flames that had engulfed her. She blinked, staring down at the rapier in her hand, its tip pointed now at the scourge’s back. Her arm was leveled, her feet set, body prepared to lunge and drive the weapon’s point through cloth and flesh, a heart-seeking strike that would put an end to this thief’s ambitions. No, no, he’s not a thief. He, he’s… Strasna was not sure what Hendrik was. Follower, companion, something more? He trusted you. He trusted you when no one else would. Even Jana, her own cousin, had held back. But Hendrik… somehow the pirate had accepted what she was, who she was.

Could she live with that? Live with another’s hand on the Spear? The outlaw hesitated, and then slowly lowered her blade. She did not know the answer to that question, but for Hendrik… she was willing to try.

Turning slowly, Strasna walked away from the oblivious elf, coming to a stop by her cousin’s side. “Jana, are you alright?”



Hendrik’s fingers closed around the Spear, and for a moment nothing happened; the lack of response was just long enough for the elven scoundrel to wonder if this was simply another elaborate hoax. He was disabused of that notion a moment later as a sharp electric thrill surged up his arm, involuntarily clamping his hand about the starlight haft of the legendary weapon. Faintly, as though just at the edge of aural perception, there was a sound like someone rising, stretching, and letting out a gentle sigh as if coming awake after a long sleep. It was followed a second later by a thrumming barely felt along the skin, a goose-pimpling certainty that something was now watching him.

The Spear was heavy, and it was not. It was the oddest sensation. To the touch, hefted in Hendrik’s grip, the Spear felt little different from any other weapon of its size that the scourge had handled - perhaps it was even a hair lighter. And yet, there was a weight, a gravity, to the Spear, a sort of… absoluteness. It was, in some way, as if the weapon was more Real than its surroundings; as if, should Hendrik to fumble the Spear, it might fall tip-down and simply punch its way through earth and stone, cutting through the fabric of reality itself.

Slowly, the tingling abated, or perhaps it was more accurate to say it concentrated. The Blighted flesh of the pirate’s arm buzzed, not quite in pain but not far from it, and in the elf’s mind came a distant impression not unlike the kobold’s psychic tones. But this felt different, somehow more... civilized.

--By this Brand my successor is known. But the choice still lays before you. Steel your heart and find your balance.--
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 144
11/7/2018 18:24:36   
Apocalypse
Member

Hendrik reached out to claim the spear. Instead, it made to claim him.

The static of the approaching storm coursed through his veins. The sensation of seafoam ever so gently kissing his skin washed up his arms. As sweet as the caress of any lover and more pleasurable a dozen times over. Yet this tenderness turned into a mockery of his vulnerability. Eyes, unseen and unwanted, laid bare his intimacy. The scourge retreated into himself, throwing up what veils he could but all for naught - the gaze was all-seeing and all-knowing. Victories and defeats, labors and sins were strewn in equal measure. He had never felt more naked...an impressive feat considering his preferred pastimes.

It was in this heartbeat that a voice reached out to him. Not the deep rumbles of a primordial entity, nor the high and angelic whimsies of some celestial being. Something less, something more. Something that beckoned the elf to stare into the abyss and plunge into its depths. With its aid, he would reap riches unbound. Power. Wealth. Status. All Hendrik had to do was fall, and he would rise again as Paladin. The name of Hendrik Songblade was whispered in hushed tones throughout the underworld with trepidation and fear. But Paladin...that was a title hailed on every street corner from the lowliest slum to the highest precipice within the city’s Heart. Why spend a life running from the law when he could become it? Even The Conclave, the highest authority in the land, made no demands the Paladin, only requests. No commands, no more orders - Captain above all.

Hendrik snickered. A good jest.

Turning on heel, Hendrik’s footsteps echoed throughout the chamber as he approached Cendra. Her hair was a strewn mess, but the elf preferred it this way; it was lived in, not maintained through superficial nonsense. The spear lay across his palms as if the slightest misstep would shatter the ancient relic. An absurd notion as the pirate wagered that it could pierce steel as easily as he could woo a summer lass. Tempting to be sure, but a weapon such as this was far too cumbersone for his liking. Below deck, it would be more of a hindrance than anythings else. No, steel like the cutlass and boarding axe were the right fit for the likes of he - a free man of the seas not bound by the stiff discipline of trained troops.

“Seems to not be trapped or cursed, captain,” Hendrik said, offering the spear up to his taller comrade. He’d let Cendra discover the voice for herself; make her think that she had been chosen. Leaders needed that sort of assurance. “Terribly balanced, I might add.”




A single ray of light filtered through the fallen stone. Sylvana raised a hand, her saints halting in response. Any progress further and whoever lay beyond would know of their approach. Entering the chamber required acting without hesitation, without fear. They must strike as swift as lightning and twice as hard.

“If the Quisling is alone, Ullr, you’re with me. Aendi, slip around her back” the Owl whispered to her Flock. The halberd shifted in her tightened grip. “Two, Ullr and I engage, Aendi wait for the opportunity.” It was the same ploy played dozens of times over by the team - they knew this by heart and steel. Still, the words carried reassurance. A captain’s resolve had to be absolute, her will without question. Faltering meant death.

Her saints nodded to her instructions, preparing themselves for the trial ahead. “Three, and we square off, but within easy reach of one another. Four or more, and we pray that Baan is with us this night.” The Owl hefted her halberd, pinning it on the stone heap before her. An empowered pull and she would rip open a passageway. “Size up the enemy and choose your target wisely. But remember - the Quisling is my charge.”

Sylvanus closed her eyes. A faint breath escaped her lips, and with it a fleeting prayer.

Her eyes opened. Power surged through her arm, and rock burst forth as the Owl tore away the last obstacle between her and her quarry.
AQ DF MQ  Post #: 145
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